Freedom versus mutilation

The harsh reality of Afghan "democracy"

Reviewing the papers on Nick Ferrari's breakfast show on LBC radio this morning, I was stopped in my tracks by the front page of the Independent. Kim Sengupta's piece is headlined "Mutilatated - for voting in defiance of the Taliban", and the shocking image accompanying the story is the bandaged and bloodied face of an Afghan farmer, Lal Mohammed. Mohammed, a Hazara Shia from the southern province of Uruzgan, had his nose and ears slashed off by Taliban fighters while on his way to vote in the recent presidential elections.

Sengupta writes:

What happened to the 40-year-old farmer is the savage and hidden side of the election in a country experiencing a bloody war. This chilling account is the first from a victim of retribution taken by insurgents on someone who had defied their order to boycott the polls. And it helps to explain why so many people throughout the country were simply too afraid to vote.

The Independent listened to Mr Mohammed's terrifying tale in a house where he has taken refuge and is being guarded by friends. To add to the misery he has suffered, he has not received any serious medical treatment for three days because one of the main hospitals in the Afghan capital - where he had arrived after an arduous three-day journey - declared it had no room to keep him due to chronic overcrowding.

Is this what our troops are fighting and dying for? This story coincides with news of the 208th British military death in this war, killed in Helmand over the weekend. In recent days, it has also emerged that "just 150 Afghan voters dared to go to the ballot box in the area of Helmand province where British soldiers sacrificed their lives to secure a safe election day". This is depressing, and shameful.

Then there is the matter of fraud. I do find it ironic that our politicians and press reacted with fury to the Iranian presidential elections in June, rightly condemning the alleged vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing across the Islamic Republic, but have remained so silent on similar behaviour in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The Independent reports:

...allegations of major fraud at the polls have more than doubled in the past two days to stand at 550, and these may affect the final outcome.

Results so far, with votes counted from 35 per cent of polling stations, show President Hamid Karzai leading with 46.2 per cent, and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, with 31.4 per cent.

However videos showing possible fraud have been posted on the internet, and Mr Abdullah and other opposition candidates have lodged complaints about what they say was widespread cheating. These complaints, and the low turnout in the south because of Taliban threats of violence, have dealt severe blows to the credibility of the voting process.

Adding to the sense of disorganisation here have been large-scale discrepancies in the voting returns coming in from across the country. Helmand province, the centre of British operations, has returned just one ballot box so far.

Mr Karzai's chief rival, Mr Abdullah, has stated: "My concern is about massive fraud - state-crafted, state-engineered fraud - which has taken place throughout the country. This kind of thing isn't tolerated in other democratic elections, so why should it be tolerated in Afghanistan?"

Abdullah asks a good question. The simple answer is that the British and American governments are willing this presidential election to be a success no matter what. How else to explain to the voters the ever-growing numbers of coalition soldiers returning home in bodybags? How else to justify an increasingly unjustifable "mission"?

On a final note: the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, has said that he believes the presidential elections would offer more Afghans "a stake in their own emerging democracy". Here is Lal Mohammed's response in today's Independent:

"Poor people suffer in this country. I do not know whether the elections will change that. I do not think I will try to vote again, I am now very frightened."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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