Gordon Campbell on the latest asset sales handout, and some really bad news from Afghanistan

New Zealand has already spent $30 million as a gift to Rio Tinto over the Tiwau Point aluminium smelter – essentially, to buy the government the breathing space it needed to offload the partial privatization of Meridian Energy, for the benefit of a tiny minority of New Zealanders. No matter that Rio Tinto actually hadn’t been able to find a buyer for the four smelters that it had packaged up for sale, including Tiwai Point. The Key government chose to shovel money at them, anyway.

It gets better. There’s now another subsidy/giveaway coming down the pike. The tiny minority willing and able to buy into Meridian (on the evidence of the Mighty River selldown this will be merely 2-3% of the population at most) will be able to buy the Meridian shares on tick, in installments. Just like at Harvey Norman. In other words, the rest of us will be paying relatively wealthy investors a subsidy – in the shape of an interest free loan for oh, up to 18 months – to buy what we already own, and which we are being forced to sell them by this government. Plus, we’ll also get to pick up the tab if the shares happen to tank, and some investors decide to bail on paying their final installments. Nice to have the security of this speculative investment being guaranteed in this fashion by Bill English…just in case…. Rio Tinto should pull the plug on Tiwai Point a bit further down the track. If such dollops of taxpayer money – on RNZ this morning, Russel Norman of the Greens estimated the smelter handout and the Meridian interest free loan handout together add up to about $70 million – was being offered by a centre left government, it would be called socialism, and a market distortion, and would be being denounced from the rooftops. But that’s how things seem to go these days. As Gore Vidal once put it: “The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor, and socialism for the rich.”

And here come the warlords
One of the main arguments against New Zealand getting involved in the war in Afghanistan is the corrupt and brutal nature of the regime that we help to prop up there. Well, just when you thought the Afghan war couldn’t possibly get more futile, it does. Last week President Hamid Karzai – who cannot stand for re-election next year – nominated his favoured choice as his successor in next year’s election contest: the former academic and warlord Abu Sayyaf. If the White House was still feeling any reluctance about hightailing it out of Afghanistan come 2014, this should be all the excuse they need to exit ASAP. Did Americans – and New Zealanders, and hundreds of thousands of Afghans – really fight and die in order to hand the running of Afghanistan over to a monster like Abu Sayyaf?

Sayyaf is not just any old warlord. As the leader of one of the “Group of Seven” major mujahideen groups fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, Sayyaf was not only a close colleague of Osama Bin Laden, but also the mentor of World Trade Centre bomber Ramzi Youssef, who was one of the top graduates from a terrorist “university” that Sayyaf founded near Peshawar, and that trained some 20,000 Islamic fighters. Once the Soviets were defeated, these “graduates” dispersed to all points of the global compass to lead local uprisings against regimes seen to be insufficiently devout, or too heavily influenced by the West. Funding for Sayyaf’s Peshawar training camp was provided by the same conservative Saudi charities that funded Bin Laden, as a way of promoting Sayyaf’s own brand of militant Wahhabi extremism.

It gets worse. One of Sayyaf’s other top pupils was Ramzi’s uncle – the formidable Khalid Shaikh Mohammed aka KSM, who became al Qaeda’s operations manager and was the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, among a string of other major terrorist operations, including a mid 1990s plot to kill the Pope. Interestingly, the official US “Guantanamo Docket” has this to say on page two about KSM’s ideological evolution:

In 1982, the detainee heard a speech by Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, the leader of the mujahideen in Afghanistan, who preached jihad as a religious war between Muslims and non-Muslims. Shortly thereafter at the age of 16, detainee joined the Muslim Brotherhood.” Etc.

So…if you wanted to pick a grandfather of global Islamic terrorism, Abu Sayyaf would be a genuine contender for the title. With good reason, one of the most prominent kidnap-for-ransom terrorist groups in the Philippines is known to the authorities as the Abu Sayyaf Group. Ironic, no? Shortly, Sayyaf could well become New Zealand’s next best hope of creating a bulwark against the kind of Islamic extremism that has been Sayyaf’s entire life work to foster. That after so much blood spilled and so many billions of dollars spent, the West’s new standard bearer for democracy is very likely to be this past mentor of terrorism and proponent of Islamic theocracy is a truly bizarre twist of history.

Oh, and one more thing. Throughout his career, Sayyaf has always opposed the education of girls and the granting of equal rights under the law to women, to a degree indistinguishable from the Taliban. Of course, Sayyaf tries to present himself these days as a venerable elder statesman. One of the only prominent Pashtuns in the old Northern Alliance – he’s actually from the Ghilzai confederacy of Pashtuns that has had prominent players on all sides of the conflict, including Mullah Omar of the Taliban and many of his most trusted lieutenants, the murderous warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyr and the three most important pro-communist leaders of the 1980s – Sayyaf has reportedly been reaching out of late to the long suffering Hazara minority, as evidence of his newly found ability to be a leader for all (male) Afghans. (The Hazara dominated the Bamiyan province where New Zealand did its rural security and pacification work.)

Sayyaf is also supposed to still enjoy positive ties to the key Northern Alliance warlord and current Afghan vice-President, Marshal Fahim – this, despite the fact that it was Sayyaf who arranged the bogus media interview in 2001 that culminated in the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masood, the widely respected Northern Alliance general who was probably Afghanistan’s last credible candidate as a leader of national unity.

Karzai has been in Sayyaf’s corner before. In the mid 2000s, Karzai supported Sayyaf in his unsuccessful bid to become the Speaker of the Afghan Parliament. As a parliamentarian, Sayyaf is believed to have been the main driver of the notorious 2009 Family Law that (a) effectively legalised spousal rape in that it gave men the “right” to sex every four days, except in case of illness (b) custody over children (c) more authority than women in court proceedings and (d) the “right” to require their wives to seek permission from their husbands and male relatives before leaving the house. (Thankfully, Sayyaf’s objection to the Family Law’s criminalization of child marriages did not prevail.) Sayyaf’s hostility to women having any kind of public role in Afghan society goes back a very long way:

He was a member of the radical group Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) founded in 1969 by [current Taliban faction leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and [the recently assassinated] Dr. Syed Burhanuddin Rabbani. Based in Afghanistan, this faction had strong links to the better known Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This [Afghan] group was known to engage in radical Islamic practices, such as throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women.

As a crucial Karzai supporter in the 2000s, Sayyaf also got his own candidate elected as Chief Justice, and then stacked the legal system with conservative mullahs who revived the Taliban’s feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, now reborn as the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs. This department deploys goon squads to police any public displays of “un-Islamic” behavior among Afghan women.

Sayyaf’s candidacy is not yet a done deal. It could be that a lame duck like Karzai – who was handpicked by the Americans and still reliant on them – may not be able to wield decisive power in the picking of his successor. As the former Pakistan diplomat Munir Akram has argued in this fascinating article in the Pakistani media, Karzai will be pushed aside if he gets too out of step with his warlord pals:

Reportedly, Karzai has tipped Abdul Rasul Sayyaf…..to be his successor. Karzai’s endorsement may not ensure Sayyaf’s election. Anyway, Karzai is unlikely to retain influence over the next President unless he is from his own family or coterie. Karzai may also be marginalised by other dynamics. The real power brokers in Kabul — vice-president Mohammed Fahim and other warlords of the Northern Alliance — will not stay their hand if Karzai’s plans post-2014 impinge on their privileges. Unlike them, Karzai has no personal militias. And the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) unity and loyalties have yet to be tested.

The proximate American objective is a safe and orderly exit for the major portion of its troops and equipment from Afghanistan. This requires at least a modicum of understanding with the Afghan Taliban during the withdrawal, even if an agreement for a more permanent political solution is not possible. Although the Doha [peace talks with the Taliban] process has been scuttled, mainly due to Karzai’s fear of exclusion or marginalisation, the US is likely to use other channels, including the good offices of Pakistan’s agencies, to facilitate such an understanding with the Taliban.

In other words, the US is telling the Taliban via the Pakistanis: be patient, give us time to get out with a modicum of dignity, and it’s all yours. Seen in that cynical light, Abu Sayyaf would seem the ideal transitional candidate: a neo-Taliban trial run, for the Afghanistan of the future. Was it really worth New Zealand spending tens of millions of dollars and the lives of ten of its soldiers, to achieve this kind of outcome?