Friday, 9 April 2010

9 April 2010

I see it as my duty on this blog over the coming weeks to help you remember that there’s still a big wide world out there, UK election or no UK election. I somehow doubt that you’re feeling under-provided with election news or analysis.

(Having said which, there will be some election news at the end of this post, so do read to the bottom …)

In fact, there’s been no shortage of non-election news over the past few days: an uprising-cum-revolution in Kyrgyzstan – of which more in a moment; a major nuclear arms control deal signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev; and some most peculiar goings-on in Afghanistan.

Let’s start in Kabul, where President Karzai has been sounding off about Western powers having been responsible for a “vast fraud” in last year’s presidential election. (The Western powers, you’ll recall, are of the view that the fraud was perpetrated by Mr Karzai’s lot – and President Obama has not been backward in saying so publicly.)

Mr Karzai is also reported to have said that if he comes under any more pressure, he might think of joining the Taliban himself. The former UN diplomat Peter Galbraith calls him “unhinged” and suggests he may be on drugs.

It is not pretty, and it is potentially a serious problem. After all, how can the US, Britain and many other governments send their armed forces to Afghanistan to fight on behalf of a political leader whom they regard as seriously flaky?

On the other hand, Mr Karzai is presumably calculating that his supposed allies are so deeply committed to their current strategy that they can’t cut loose. He may be right – but I was struck by a suggestion the other day from a former US assistant defence secretary, Bing West, who served under President Reagan.

He wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Karzai should be treated as a symbolic president and given the organizational ‘mushroom treatment’ … [Mushroom treatment: kept in the dark and covered in … you get the idea.]

“President Ronald Reagan did something similar with another erratic ally, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. In February 1986, Reagan warned Marcos that if government troops attacked opposition forces holed up on the outskirts of Manila, it would cause “untold damage” to his relations with the United States — meaning the aid spigot would be turned off. When his countrymen saw that he was stripped of prestige and support, they forced Marcos into exile.”

Afghanistan is not the Philippines, but the signs are that President Obama is seriously displeased about Mr Karzai’s antics. So I suspect Washington may well now be looking for ways to isolate him and starve him of cash, much as Bing West suggested.

A quick word about Kyrgyzstan. Look at a map if you can and see where it is. Just to the west of China, south of Kazakhstan, and separated from Afghanistan only by Tajikistan. (Yes, I know, too many “…stans”. Sorry.) It’s a sensitive part of the world, with lots of strategic interests at stake.

The US has a substantial air base there, which it uses as a supply point for its troops in Afghanistan. Moscow isn’t thrilled, and there are some suggestions that the uprising/revolution/coup this week may have received a nod and a wink from Moscow on the understanding that the new government in Bishkek might once again put the squeeze on Washington.

Watch for some heavy-duty envoy-sending in the coming days, as both Washington and Moscow try to make their mark with the new government. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn of generous offers of aid coming from both capitals.

And so back to the UK election. Next Thursday, we’ll be mounting the first of three special programmes on Radio 4 to bring you live coverage of the Prime Ministerial debates. We’ll be on air from 8pm with commentary and analysis from experts and politicians – we’ll broadcast the debate in its entirety, and then once it’s over, Ritula will get live reaction from a panel of voters in a marginal constituency, and I’ll chew over who said what and why with our studio guests. The debates, of course, are the first such encounters ever to be staged in the UK, so they will be history in the making.

I can’t wait …

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