October 7, 2003
Al Jazeera, Hearing Hamid Karzai
by Alan Bock
war on the war, so to speak, is going rather well these days, with
numerous standard journalistic organizations fascinated with the
CIA-White House leak and showing signs of eventually getting it
right. In addition, the interim report from former UN weapons inspector
David Kay was reduced to noting plaintively that the absence of
(miscategorized) "weapons of mass destruction" found in Iraq does
not mean that there wasn't a potential threat that might have developed
on its heels came a report from a task force on the Iraqi oil industry
which concluded that reconstruction in Iraq is probably going to
have to be financed by American taxpayers if it to occur at all.
Even though Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress
during the war that "we are dealing with a country that can really
finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon," the more recent
assessments of the Iraqi oil industry is that it is unlikely to
generate revenues large enough to contribute much to reconstruction
for at least a couple of years.
turns out that the Bush administration, which had announced earlier
in the year that Iraq's oil revenues would be $20 billion to $30
billion a year, had taken the most outlandishly optimistic estimates
from a preliminary Pentagon task force that had a worst-case-to-best
case range and actually thought somewhere between worst and middle
was likely. But the Bushies took the best-case estimate (some would
call it exaggerated) and used it as part of the overall project
of selling the war to the American people. Hmmm. Using exaggeration
to get people to go along with your grandiose schemes. Does anybody
notice a pattern here?
have been doing a radio program out of New Orleans recently (WTIX,
AM 690, 8 p.m. Central Sunday evenings) in which (as you might expect)
I'm rather critical of the war. I still get calls from listeners
complaining that I just don't understand the true nature of the
threat we face and the importance of trusting the president and
his advisers. If my impressions are correct, however, they are diminishing,
and the number of calls from people who are disillusioned with the
war is increasing.
that this is a "scientific" random sample of the Gulf Coast population
of course. What I've really noticed, however, is that it's nice
to have facts on your side. It's marvelously disarming. And the
Bushies just keep providing us with facts that don't support what
the war on the war going so well, I wanted to write this week about
a couple of people I had the opportunity to interact with over the
last week or so who might be of interest you Antiwar.com readers
– and contributors, whom we thank very much for keeping us alive.
OUT AL JAZEERA
might surprise some people that the World Affairs Council in Orange
County, which has a reputation for being beyond conservative in
politics, would be interested in inviting somebody from the Arabic
television channel Al Jazeera as a speaker for one of its regular
meetings. But while most members of the organization are rather
conservative, most are genuinely interested in foreign affairs and
relatively open-minded. So they welcomed a speaker from the Washington
bureau of Al Jazeera last week and listened carefully to what he
had to say.
Americans had not heard of Al Jazeera television before 9/11, but
in the months following its logo seemed to show up everywhere, most
notably on video messages from al Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Is this Arabic satellite news service simply the mouthpiece for
radical Islamists and would-be terrorists, or is there more to it
speaker who visited Orange County last week was Hafez Al Mirazi,
Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Washington. The Egyptian-born Mr. Al
Mirazi, who has lived in this country since 1983 and is a U.S. citizen,
oversees Al Jazeera's coverage of the United States. Not surprisingly,
the coverage tends toward foreign policy issues, especially those
that pertain to the Middle East, as well as stories on the growing
Muslim-American communities in the United States. Not much in the
way of fluffy profiles on food, fashion or entertainment in this
country. I had a chance to talk with Mr. Al Mirazi one on one, as
well as taking pretty careful notes on his speech.
UNDER THE ARAB SUN?
Al Mirazi says Al Jazeera is something rather new in the Arab world,
a news service not run by one of the region's governments and broadcasting
only the government line. Although subsidized by the Emir of Qatar,
who assumed power in 1995, its charter is modeled on the BBC, which
means its editorial policy is independent of the government (ask
Tony Blair). Not being fluent in Arabic I can't judge how well it
fulfills its mission, but Mr. Al Mirazi says the Emir has not tried
to dictate editorial policy.
of Al Jazeera's staff came from a joint effort by the BBC and the
Saudi government to establish a BBC Arabic World Service in 1994-1995
that eventually failed. Mr. Al Mirazi claims that the channel tries
to cover all sides of disputes, and several Arab governments kicked
Al Jazeera correspondents out of various countries because it put
dissidents or critics of the government in question on the air.
While Arab countries could close offices or bureaus, however, they
couldn't stop satellite signals from crossing the borders.
Mirazi did say, however, that one Arab country arranged for a power
blackout when it knew Al Jazeera was going to air a program featuring
dissidents and critical of its human rights record. No problem.
Al Jazeera simply ran the same program two or three times the next
giving air time to Arab dissidents, Al Jazeera was the first Arab
TV service to give Israeli officials air time, because they considered
it important for Arab viewers to know that there were real people
in Israel rather than simply stick figures or stock figures. He
believes that this policy has gradually contributed to a small shift
in Arab public opinion of acknowledgment that Israel exists and
is likely to continue to exist for a while, regardless of brave
statements from Arab leaders.
tapes from bin Laden, then, is simply part of a policy of showing
all sides, says Mr. Al Mirazi, and the station tries to do so responsibly.
Every bin Laden tape has been followed immediately by a comment
or rebuttal from a U.S. official, and on one occasion the station
edited out six minutes that were a direct plea for al Qaida supporters
to attack specific U.S. targets in the Middle East. Within a few
days, Al Mirazi says, Al Jazeera reporters became aware of hundreds
of copies of the unedited tapes being circulated in the areas where
targets of interest were. "So bin Laden obviously didn't need Al
Jazeera to get his message out to those he really wanted to reach,"
Mr. Al Mirazi said.
U.S. officials initially preferred to ignore Al Jazeera or view
it almost as a propaganda arm of the enemy, eventually they came
to view it as one way to try to reach and perhaps to affect public
opinion in the Arab world. Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell and
others have gone on Al Jazeera.
word of caution. Although I've learned some words over the years,
I don't speak Arabic and Al Jazeera is not available on the cable
system we have at our house, so I can't vouch for what's on Al Jazeera
personally. I have talked to Arabic speakers who watch Al Jazeera
and say it does air several sides of issues. Hafez Al Mirazi makes
a persuasive case that Al Jazeera is exerting a positive influence
in the Arab world by giving viewers better access to information.
He says it is even contributing to loosening up government controlled
TV news in several Arab countries, because the broadcasters can
say to their government minders or censors: "You know Al Jazeera
is going to cover this story anyway, so you might as well let us
also had an opportunity to participate in one of those journalist
conference calls that have been fairly popular of late as a way
to reach journalists in the hinterlands, this one with Afghan president
Hamid Karzai. I want one of those cool capes he always wears and
I find the man impressive, but I hope I can listen with a certain
amount of detachment.
Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, just announced his candidacy
for president during elections scheduled for next year, but he may
be facing political revolt as he returns from an extended speaking
tour in the United States and Britain during which this phone call
was one of the events. Being the clear favorite of he United States
might turn out not to be such an asset as Afghanistan begins to
develop something resembling normal politics.
"nation" of Afghanistan is more an artifact of big-power geopolitical
maneuvering during the 19th century, of course, than a country that
is a logical unity in ethnic or geographic terms. Over the years
most of the efforts to unify it under a strong central government
in Kabul have been partial successes at best. Local rulers usually
hold sway in local areas, as the British, the imperial Russians
and later the Soviets discovered to their grief.
we all came to understand just a little bit during the attack that
ousted the militant Islamist Taliban government, the largest ethnic
group is the Pashtuns, to which Mr. Karzai was born. But the Northern
Alliance, which provided most of the guerrilla and military muscle
that pushed the Taliban out of power, consisted mostly of ethnic
Karzai has brought Tajiks into his government, which has alienated
some Pashtuns. It apparently hasn't done much for his standing among
Tajiks either. Now some Tajik leaders say they don't support Mr.
Karzai for president and seek an alternative candidate.
his talks in the United States, before the most recent political
maneuvering, Mr. Karzai not surprisingly accentuated the positive.
He noted that a drought of several years duration has ended and
Afghan farmers are expecting the best crops in 25 years. (He did
acknowledge that much of it was opium, and he considered the prevalence
of opium as an important cash crop was due more to farmers than
to tribal "war lords," He didn't offer the outright firm condemnation
of opium cultivation a questioners almost certainly really wanted,
saying that opium cultivation would probably begin to decline when
the rest of the economy improved.)
construction and reconstruction has begun and the government he
heads, says Mr. Karzai, is beginning to gain respect outside Kabul.
He was especially complimentary of the provincial reconstruction
teams, under the auspices of NATO and mostly from New Zealand and
Germany, who begun to provide security and some government services
in the countryside beyond Kabul.
did acknowledge, however, that political reconstruction has been
slower than hoped. A new constitution was supposed to be ready by
now, but has been delayed until December. The election scheduled
for June might be only for the national presidency is the machinery
is not yet in place to register voters and set up mechanisms for
local provincial elections.
American interest in Afghanistan, of course, is not so much that
it become a model democracy as that it doesn't harbor and encourage
active terrorists, as the old Taliban regime did. Ironically, a
long-term American presence might do more to undermine this goal
than a decision to let Afghans run Afghanistan, even if they do
it their way rather than our way.
decent person wishes Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan well. But as Hamid
Karzai told us, "a nation shouldn't depend on one individual. If
I'm not elected it might even be a sign of progress." That was before
he faced open opposition, of course. According to a story in yesterday's
Washington Post he is not at all pleased.
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