31 December 2009

Reflections on the myki debacle

The Victorian Government has finally performed a pseudo-launch of its dreadful “smart” public transport ticketing system. Pseudo-launch because, almost three years after it was scheduled to go into service on 1 March 2007, covering all transport modes, Public Transport Minister Lynne Kosky has launched it for use on trains only.

The project is $350 million (70%) over its initial budget estimate of $500 million. Even at $500 million the project sounds very expensive to me as the cost of reinventing something that has been done before and better many times in major cities all over the world.

As a former Secretary to the Department of Defence I cannot help comparing this performance to the Collins Class submarine project, which has received such a bad press over the years that it is often cited as an example of cost overruns in major Defence projects.  In fact, the total cost “overrun” (additional money that had to be spent to meet contractual requirements) was $143 million in a $5 billion project – not bad by any standard, certainly a lot better than a $350 million overrun on a project a tenth of the cost. And it would have to be said that developing a new generation submarine (rather like developing an underwater aeroplane) is more of a challenge than developing yet another public transport ticketing system.

On the subject of defence projects more generally, Defence Minister Senator Faulkner told the Australia and New Zealand School of Government on 13 August that 83% of the 200 defence projects closed out in the last decade were on or below budget, so Defence is not in fact the principal generator of failed public sector projects.

Another thing I cannot help noticing about myki, 45 years after first laying my hands to a computer, is that the developers (or writers of the specifications?) seem to have fallen for the classic error of computerising the old way of doing things rather than asking the fundamental question of how one would design the system from the bottom up given the capacity to access and process mountains of data in real time.

I refer in particular to the fact that the zone system (and the two-hour ticket system) seems to have been faithfully translated into this expensive white elephant. Given that the division of the city into zones is a proxy for pricing by distance in the absence of a satisfactory way of measuring distance, I would have hoped that after spending $850 million we could have a genuine user pays system in which people are charged by the kilometre on the basis of where we swipe our cards on and off. Rather, it seems that we will persist with a system in which I can travel seven stops to the city and ride around the city loop for two hours for a zone one ticket price, but if I want to make a single journey six stops in the opposite direction to pick up my car after a service, I have to pay a great deal more because I cross a zonal boundary. Why did we want to enshrine that idea in the new “smart” system? What is smart about that?

Minister Kosky says that we will all learn to love myki. I doubt it.

30 December 2009

Iran: A regime in trouble

The Iranian regime is a regime in trouble. The leading opposition figures will not be silenced, and the young dissidents in the streets just will not go away.

The leading opposition figures are not marginal or opportunistic operators – they are key figures in the Islamic Revolution. Consider who they are:

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died at his home in Qom on 19 December at the age of 87, was the architect of the novel constitutional principal of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent) which was introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini. Although he was central to the establishment of the velayat-e faqih, Montazeri’s position was that clerics should play an advisory role rather than rule directly, a point on which he seems to have fallen out with Khomeini.

Montazeri was nominated to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader, but became an increasingly controversial figure. He spoke out against the sudden execution of thousands of dissidents in 1988, and became an opponent of the export of the revolution. Of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie he said "People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people."

In 1997 he was placed under house arrest after calling for a sharp reduction in the powers of the Leader, saying that the occupant of this position should “supervise, not rule”, and that Khamene’i was not competent to issue religious rulings – telling commentary because Montazeri was so much more senior a cleric than Khamane’i, whose supporters were never able to get him elected to grand ayatollah level. He was released from house arrest in 1993.

He continued to be a thorn in the flesh of the regime right up to his death, speaking out about human rights including women’s rights, insisting that legitimacy flows from the people to the government and not the other way around, and always arguing from deep religious principles. After the June election he issued a statement that the Islamic republic is neither Islamic nor a republic.

In death he will probably be more of a problem for the regime than he was in life. Hundreds of thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral on 21 December, and the funeral became the occasion of both a mass protest against the regime and efforts on the part of Basiji militia to prevent reformist figures such as Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi from reaching Montazeri’s house .

Mir Hossein Moussavi, Prime Minister of Iran from 1981-89, a term which was almost completely coextensive with the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. He is well regarded for his management of Iran during that very difficult period.

Moussavi is the candidate from whom the June election was stolen. During the campaign he campaigned for a freer information environment, an end to discrimination against women, and for law enforcement agencies to be made responsible to the elected President rather than the unelected supreme leader. A reformist and member of the Islamic Left, he is nevertheless a rather conservative figure, and has been a member of the Expediency Council, which resolves disputes between the clerics and the legislature, since 1989.

Dr Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran from 1997-2005.  Dr Khatami is one of Iran’s leading reformists. He had been a member of Mir Hossein Moussavi’s cabinet, and stood in 1997 when Moussavi declined to do so.  He ran on a platform of liberalisation and reform, and won a landslide victory with 70 per cent of the vote. During his two terms as president, Khatami advocated freedom of expression, tolerance and civil society, constructive diplomatic relations with other states, and an economic policy that supported a free market and foreign investment.

Having completed two terms he was not eligible to stand again, and was succeeded by surprise victor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He indicated an intention to stand in the 2009 election, but in March when Moussavi announced his intention to run Dr Khatami withdrew in order not to split the reformist vote.

Mehdi Karroubi, Chairman of the National Trust Party, which he founded in 2005. He was speaker of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) from 1989-92 and from 2000-04. He is a supporter of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom he was an adviser and who appointed him to the Expediency Discernment Council, but is a critic of the Guardian Council, the most influential body in the Iranian political system.

In his first term as speaker Karroubi identified himself with the radical faction which pursued populist policies and favoured state control of the economy. In 1989 he headed an association of radical clerics but he left that group to found the National Trust Party. He continues to favour a strong role for the state in the planning of the economy, but has been a strong advocate for the human rights of Iranian citizens, including improvements in the rights of women and the rights of religious and tribal minorities.

In August Karroubi claimed that some of his supporters had been tortured to death while being held in detention following large scale post-election protests. He also called for an investigation into allegations that both male and female detainees were sexually assaulted and raped in prison.

Karroubi is in many ways the regime’s most problematic critic. A conservative cleric, like Montazeri he argues from religious principles and accordingly challenges the regime on its home ground. He refuses to be silenced, and as he was jailed nine times by the Shah he is clearly a difficult man to intimidate.

Although the regime initially denied Karroubi’s charges, on 19 December CNN reported (here) that three Iranian prison officials had been charged with premeditated murder and nine others indicted on unspecified charges relating to the abuse of detainees.

As for the street demonstrations, they simply refuse to die, and every public occasion connected with a reformist or dissident figure, such as Ayatollah Montazeri’s funeral, simply becomes another occasion for public protest.

In recent days things have only gone from bad to worse. On 26 December Government forces shut down a speech by Mohammad Khatami. About 50 vigilantes armed with chains, batons and pepper spray disrupted a speech by Mr. Khatami at Jamaran Mosque in Tehran, the home mosque of Ayatollah Khomeini. The mosque sits next door to the house of Ayatollah Khomeini, many of whose relatives have sided with the opposition in this conflict. This year, for the first time, the government canceled the Shiite mourning ceremonies at Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine, which were to have taken place in conjunction with the holidays on Saturday and Sunday.

After a day of protests and violent crack-down, the regime has arrested former Foreign Minister Mohammad Yazdi and three close aides of Mir Hossein Moussavi. His nephew, Ali Moussavi, was assassinated, reportedly by five men who first ran him down and then jumped out of their car and shot him. His body subsequently disappeared from the hospital to which he had been taken, in an apparent attempt to prevent his funeral from becoming the occasion for yet another protest.

The violent crackdown on Ashura, the holiest day of the Shiite calendar, brought yet another attack on the regime from Mehdi Karroubi. Noting that even the Shah had honoured the holiday’s ban on violence, he said in a statement:

What has happened to this religious system that it orders the killing of innocent people during the holy day of Ashura?

On Saturday this gentle 72 years old cleric was attacked by plain clothes security men, and other attackers smashed the windscreen of his car.

The recent actions of the regime and its supporters do not appear to be the actions of a regime that is confident, smart, or in control of its own supporters. A regime that is reduced to spiriting bodies away is in deep trouble. All the more reason for Western countries to stand back and let events take their course.

28 December 2009

More Palestinians killed by IDF

The news overnight is that six more Palestinians have been killed by soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force.

In Nablus on the West Bank three men said to have been long-standing members of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades were killed in a pre-dawn raid on their homes in the old city. They were said by the Israeli Army to have been involved in the roadside shooting of an Israeli settler on Thursday.  An Israeli Army spokesman said that all three had turned down a chance to surrender. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, he would say that wouldn’t he.

The relatives of two of the men said that they were killed without warning, and the Israeli Army spokesman acknowledged that none of the wanted men had returned fire.

I have no way of knowing whether or not the men were involved in the murder of the Israeli settler, but in any civilised country the appropriate response to an allegation of murder would be to arrest the perpetrators and try them in court, not send the army out to gun them down. The Israelis do not seem to have too much trouble arresting Palestinians when they want to.

The other incident involved three young men who were killed by shots from an Israeli helicopter.  The Israeli Army story is that they were approaching the southern border of Israel. If they were under surveillance from an Israeli Army helicopter, it is hard to know why they had to be shot dead in their tracks.

Hamas’s story is that the young men were gathering scrap metal. We will probably never know the truth of the matter, but I see no reason to prefer the Israeli version to the Hamas one (or vice versa).

The Israel Defence Force’s credibility problem is that in over forty years of brutal military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, it has been able to explain away to its own satisfaction the death of every single Palestinian civilian at the hands of an Israeli soldier, even shootings of young children on the balconies of their own homes. No Israeli soldier has ever been brought to account, but the IDF continues to bask in its self-description as “the most ethical defence force in the world”.

Roger Cohen on Iran

In an op-ed piece, The Inertia Option (read here), published in the 17 December edition of The New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen argues that everything about the current situation in Tehran screams to him that the best course is to do nothing.

Recalling the bloodied young women marching in protest after the stolen election in June, Cohen says that their cause would be best upheld by stopping the march toward “crippling” sanctions on Iran which, far from strengthening the Administration’s Iran policy, would undermine it. He continues:

When I’m asked where the “stick” is in Iran, my response is the stick is Iranian society — the bubbling reformist pressure now rising up from Iran’s highly educated youth and brave women.

It would be a tragedy were Obama to weaken them. Sanctions now would do just that. Nobody would welcome them more than a regime able once more to refer to the “arrogant power” trying to bring proud Iran to its knees. The Revolutionary Guards, who control the sophisticated channels for circumventing existing sanctions, would benefit.

Arguing that the United States is empowering the dissenters with its silence, he goes on:

Sanctions represent tired binary thinking on Iran, the old West-versus-barbarism paradigm prevalent since political Islam triumphed in the revolution of 1979 as a religious backlash against Western-imposed modernity. The Iranian reality, as I’ve argued since the start of this year, is more complex. A leading cry today of the protesters in Iran is “God is great” — hardly a secular call to arms. These reformists are looking in their great majority for some elusive middle way combining faith and democracy.

The West must not respond with the sledgehammer of sanctions whose message is “our way or the highway.” Rather it must understand at last the subtle politics of Iran by borrowing an Iranian lesson: inertia.


26 December 2009

Setting the East Ablaze

There is a seriously ill-considered op-ed piece in The New York Times, 23 December 2009, on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program and what to do about it, contributed by Alan J. Kuperman, Director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr Kuperman writes here that President Obama should sigh with relief that Iran has rejected his nuclear deal, “which was ill-conceived from the start”.

After explaining why he thinks the Obama approach to be ill-conceived, Dr Kuperman comes to the conclusion that peaceful sticks and carrots cannot work to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability, and an invasion would be foolhardy. That, in his view, leaves the United States with a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Notably, he never addresses the question of whether Iran is actually pursuing a nuclear weapons program, a question which is by no means settled.

The risks of acquiescence are said to include “too great” a risk that Iran “could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb”.  The latter risk flows, in Dr Kuperman’s view, from the fact that “Iran supplies Islamist terrorist groups in violation of international embargoes”.  In my view, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Iran would provide nuclear weapons to any terrorist group, and every reason to believe that it would not. The current Iranian regime is an unpleasant one, but it is not irrational, and like every rational regime its primary concern is its own survival, an objective unlikely to be met if it were to start handing out nuclear weapons to terrorist groups.

Apart from that, there is no precedent that I am aware of for a state to relinquish control of any of its nuclear weapons even to another state, let alone a non-state actor.

The desire of the regime to endure impacts also on the prospect of Iran becoming a “neighborhood bully”. There is abundant literature to the effect that nuclear weapons, effective as they might be as a final deterrent, are a very blunt weapon for any state to apply in pursuit of objectives short of mass destruction. The existence of a nuclear capability does not deter unless the antagonist believes there is a plausible possibility of it being used in the relevant circumstances, and everyone would perceive that any use of nuclear capability by Iran would lead with certainty to massive retaliation by the United States or Israel or both.

Having convinced himself that acquiescence in the acquisition by Iran of a nuclear capability is not a policy option, Dr Kuperman acknowledges the difficulty of bombing it to a standstill:

As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work. Some Iranian facilities are buried too deeply to destroy from the air. There may also be sites that American intelligence is unaware of. And military action could backfire in various ways, including by undermining Iran’s political opposition, accelerating the bomb program or provoking retaliation against American forces and allies in the region.

But history suggests that military strikes could work ... [although] Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

On the question of who should undertake the bombing campaign, Dr Kuperman is adamant that it should be the United States. He acknowledges that Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not see that as a material problem because “it does that anyway”. Indeed, “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to”.

To the proposition that Iran already intervenes in Iraq and Afghanistan I would reply, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”. Iran has a vital interest in the stability of both of its neighbours and accordingly there are important degrees of alignment of Iranian objectives with those of the United States (Iran was after all the main beneficiary of the invasion of Iraq, and it has no affection for the Sunni extremists of the Taliban). Accordingly, its interventions in them are currently limited and cautious. These rules of engagement would be transformed by a United States attack on Iran.

It is not too much of a caricature to summarise Dr Kuperman’s approach as, “Bombing the Iranian nuclear sites mightn’t work, but then again it might, so what the hell, let’s give it a go, and the sooner the better”.

Two ill-considered military adventures in a decade is not enough, apparently. To borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan’s 1960s classic, Blowin’ in the Wind, when will they ever learn?

25 December 2009

New York Times on Ayatollah Montazeri’s legacy

The New York Times for 24 December 2009 has a good editorial on the legacy of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the leading dissident Iranian cleric who died last weekend at his home in Qom, aged 87.

The key paragraphs of the editorial are:

When he died last weekend at the age of 87, Ayatollah Montazeri had spent most of the last two decades arguing that the clerical establishment in Tehran had abandoned the revolution’s core principles. He helped found the Islamic republic with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was expected to succeed him as supreme leader — until he fell out of favor for objecting to a wave of executions of political prisoners in 1988.

Ayatollah Montazeri continued to issue religious edicts that advocated reform and human rights and tried to reconcile Islam with democracy. After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent election last June, the cleric sided with the opposition and argued that even in a religious state, legitimacy comes from the people.

The regime is growing more desperate at its inability to silence this internal challenge.

The full editorial may be accessed here.

Nigel North plays John Dowland

Acquired a few days ago: a four CD set, issued by the budget label Naxos, of English lutenist Nigel North playing the complete lute music of John Dowland.

John Dowland was an almost exact contemporary of William Shakespeare, and was the pre-eminent lutenist of his day.

Nigel North studied guitar on a scholarship to the junior department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1964-70), taking up the lute in 1969 at the age of 15. From 1971-74 he studied classical guitar, viola da gamba and lute at the Royal College of Music, taking out a diploma in lute performance. He completed the postgraduate course in Early Music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1975 and undertook one month's study with baroque lutenist Michael Schäffer in 1976.

By this time he had already been appointed Professor of Lute at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. From 1993 to 1999 he was Professor of Historical Plucked Instruments at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. From January 1999 he has been Professor of Lute at the Early Music Institute, Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University and, from January 2005, has taught the lute at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, Holland. He is the author of the standard modern textbook on continuo playing on the lute and related instruments, and is preparing a performance practice handbook on the lute and early guitar.

This is superb music played by a superb musician.  It comes as a boxed set, the individual volumes being:

1. Fancyes, Dreams and Spirits
2. Dowland’s Tears (including his well known Lachrimae Pavan)
3. Pavans, Galliards and Allmains
4. The Queen’s Galliard

At $29.95 the set it is a steal.

The Naxos catalogue number of the set is 8.504016. The catalogue numbers of the individual CDs are 8.557586, 8.557862, 8.570449 and 8.570284.

Shadows of Christmases past

In Australia Christmas falls in the period when schools and universities are on their long summer holidays. Its arrival turns the mind back to the Christmases of youth, which in my case from the age of four to the age of 21 involved spending three glorious weeks from ten days before Christmas to a few days after New Year in Port Macquarie, specifically on Flynn’s Beach, which at that time of the year seemed to be packed with people from Armidale and Tamworth.

After the first couple of years we secured a permanent booking in the Beach Park Holiday Cabins, seen here from Tully’s Lookout and from within the grounds:

This collection of ten modest fibro cabins represented the asset and livelihood of a man named Leslie Holmes, who had been demobilised from the British Army in India on Indian independence in 1947 and who had chosen to emigrate to Australia, and invested his savings in this piece of real estate. Leslie was a hard-working, meticulous man who kept his cabins in tip top order and who was continually improving them by the labour of his own hand during the quiet winter season. He and his wife Nell had one son, of precisely my age, and having permanent company to surf with added a great deal to those holidays.  There were others of about my age who were regulars, and it was great fun.

All we had to do to get to the beach in the morning was cross the road, walk down the Tuppeny Road (so called because it had been paid for by means of a toll of that amount), which emerged from the beachfront right opposite the cabins, and we were on the beach, where we could body-surf from the back of the break, hoping for the occasional days when waves would be breaking over the bombora about 400 metres offshore (the clubhouse looked rather small and far away from out there), sunbake until our skin was chocolate brown (we were not particularly skin-cancer aware in those days, the blacker we were the better), and enjoy occasional distractions like practice rescues with the reel and line which was the standard equipment in those days, the real rescues which occurred occasionally, the pods of dolphins cavorting in the waves which were a fairly frequent occurrence, the occasional shark bell, and surf carnivals, the highlight of which was always the surf-boat races, especially when the surf was up.




The pictures are scans of fifty-year old 35 mm transparencies taken with my father’s Voigtländer Vito B camera, purchased in about 1955.

Ray Takeyh on containing Iran

I have just finished reading Ray Takeyh’s excellent book Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). Takeyh is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (Times Books, 2006).

Both books are well worth reading (and very readable). In today’s environment of an ongoing campaign for sanctions against Iran I am struck in particular by one paragraph in the  concluding chapter of Guardians of the Revolution (page 261):

Despite occasional calls for regime change and fanciful hopes that somehow it can provoke another revolution, the basic U.S. policy toward Iran remains one of containment. In a return to its glorious past, successive administrations have taken a page from the United States’ early cold-war struggle with the Soviet Union, when the Western powers successfully frustrated Moscow’s expansionist designs. By directly projecting its own power and conceiving a broad-based Arab alliance, the United States aims to check and if possible to reduce Iran’s influence. The only intriguing aspect of this strategy is that its persistent failure has yet to disabuse the Washington establishment of its utility.

Who could disagree with that assessment?

24 December 2009

AGL electricity customer service

This morning I had a series of conversations with my local electricity retailer, AGL, which left me wondering whether to find a stray cat to kick or a tall building to jump off.

The background is that yesterday I received an electricity bill for the three months ending 30 November which, nothwithstanding being for a smaller amount of electricity than the three months ended 31 August, was going to cost me more than twice as much. It was covered by a letter from AGL which advised me of a “rate structure adjustment”:

Previously you were charged two different rates, one rate for your peak consumption and one rate for your off-peak consumption. The off-peak rate is only applicable to dedicated off-peak appliances such as off-peak hot water or slab floor heating. As our records indicate that you do not have a dedicated off-peak appliance, you are not eligible for the off-peak rate, therefore we have removed this. The setup has now been amended so that all of your consumption is being billed at the single rate and this was reflected in your previous bill. If you think that you are eligible to receive the off-peak rate as you have a dedicated off-peak appliance, please call us and we will facilitate the change with your Distributor.

 The letter acknowledges that “unfortunately you were not notified before the change occurred”.

This letter led to the following five telephone conversations over the course of two hours, a great deal of which was spent on hold:

(1) I rang AGL customer service and told the customer service officer that I did indeed have a dedicated appliance (slab floor heating) and that if she consulted my previous bills she would see that most of my electricity usage was off-peak. She looked up my file and told me that the real problem was that our home did not have the right kind of meter to measure off-peak. I protested that it did and that they had been charging me an off-peak tariff ever since they became the supplier. She said that I had a “two peak meter”, not an off-peak meter, and accordingly AGL had really been undercharging me all this time. If I wanted to be eligible for an off-peak rate I would need to contact the distributor and have an additional meter fitted.

(2) I rang the distributor, United Energy, and was promptly assured by the person I spoke to that our home had the correct meter installed for off-peak pricing and that there was no need for an additional meter. He went on to say that United Energy provides bulk electricity to the retailers at a single price; the structure of their pricing and who is eligible for what is between them and the customer.

(3) I rang AGL customer service again and after several long consultations between the customer service officer and his supervisor, was told that I really did need to have a different kind of meter installed and accordingly he was going to switch me through to the connections department who could advise me on the next steps. I protested that I did not need to speak to the connections department because the distributor had assured me that I had the right equipment installed. He insisted that I really should speak to “Connections” and after a conversation with them, switched me through.

(4) I had a long conversation with a woman in the connections department, who consulted her supervisor and someone else, and finally came back to me to say that I could tear up that bill and they would be sending me a new bill based on the peak/off peak pricing that had applied previously. Problem solved.

(5) Well, not quite. About ten minutes later the woman rang me back to say that everything she had told me was completely wrong and the fact is that AGL is not giving anyone an off-peak rate pending roll-out of the new smart meters – everyone is being charged the peak rate for all electricity use.

Some observations and questions:

(1) Between the letter and the telephone conversations AGL gave me three different reasons for not giving me an off-peak rate: I did not have the right kind of dedicated appliance; I did not have the right kind of meter; well, actually, we don’t give anyone an off-peak rate.

(2) In public policy terms, why would we want to abandon the longstanding practice of encouraging households to shift their electricity demand to the period of lowest demand on the system. I actually asked one of the AGL people to confirm that it would be alright by them for me to reset the clock on my floor heating so that it comes on during the daily peak. “Yes”, she said brightly, “you can have it come on at any time you like”.

(3) There must be something offensive under the Trade Practices Act about changing the published price after the service has been provided. In the new environment of deregulated electricity prices I cannot do anything about the price of future services, but the retrospective hit is pretty rich.

(4) Clearly no-one at AGL customer services has any idea what they are talking about. So much for the wonderful new world of privatised utilities.

19 December 2009

First thoughts on the Copenhagen outcome

My preliminary reaction to the outcome of the Copenhagen climate change conference is to be totally unsurprised but seriously disappointed that the assembled leaders were unable to make worthwhile progress on a matter that in general terms has been on the global multilateral agenda since 1992, and in quite specific terms has been on the agenda since the negotiation of the Kyoto protocol in 1997.

I am also struck by the way in which the hothouse atmosphere of these grand multilateral circuses leads normally sensible people to say ridiculous things that should fool no-one. 

As reported on The Age’s website today (see here), President Obama has described the outcome as a “meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough”. Just two little problems, however: it doesn’t get us to where we need to go to avoid dangerous levels of temperature rise (which certainly makes the outcome “meaningful”), and it will not be legally binding. So what we will get is not what we need, but what the national leaders happen to feel comfortable with giving, provided they and their successors happen to feel like delivering on it, which on the track record since Kyoto does not inspire much confidence.

I also think our political leaders owe us all a better and more emphatic explanation of the gamble they are taking with our future. They omit from their language the probabilistic nature of the connection between a level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the resultant degree of global warming.  They speak of a commitment to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, when what they mean is they intend to limit the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent.

There is an important difference. We do not know exactly what concentration of greenhouse gases would lead to a 2 degree temperature rise; we can only establish a probability distribution around a central estimate. The central estimate is that limiting the concentration of greenhouse gases to 450 ppm will limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees. What this means is that there is a 50 per cent probability that the temperature rise will be 2 degrees or less. Equally, there is a 50 per cent probability that 450 ppm will result in a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, and accordingly a substantial probability of the temperature rise reaching 3 degrees, and a finite probability of reaching 4 degrees. Failure to communicate this risk to the public in words of one syllable is criminally negligent.

What this probability distribution means is that if we want to be reasonably sure of limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees we should at the very least be signing up to the aim of limiting the rise to 1.5 degrees as sought by the representatives of the low-lying states and dismissed in such a cavalier fashion by the rest including our own Prime Minister.

The sin is compounded by the fact that climate scientists whose opinions I respect tell me that there is increasing evidence that any temperature rise over 1 degree will be very problematic. This means that accepting as a target a concentration of emissions that gives only a 50 per cent chance of limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees would be the height of irresponsibility, even if the assembled world leaders (sic) had accepted emissions targets that would produce that result. And they failed to do even that.

18 December 2009

The destruction of Kabul

The pick of the reading in today’s newspapers is Kabul: A tale of two cities, by Afghan born Australian resident freelance journalist Frud Bezhan, published in today’s edition of The Age.

Bezhan’s article contrasts the Kabul he grew up in, and which his family fled in May 1992, with the wreck that is today’s Kabul.

Of the Kabul he grew up in, Bezhan says

Kabul, before the onset of war in 1978, was a liberal and progressive urban centre. Known for its cosmopolitan culture and its educated and open-minded population, it was regarded by many as the “Paris of Asia”. Thousands of hippies stopped over in Kabul every year, smoking hasish and listening to music in the sunshine, before going to makeshift nightclubs in the evening. During prayer times, you could hear the sound of the Rolling Stones playing during the muezzin’s call to prayer from the local mosque.

The local cinemas screened the latest films from Hollywood and Bollywood. Young girls and boys flocked outside the cinemas, eager to see their favourite stars.

Local men, clean shaven, walked to work dressed in suits and carrying briefcases. Women walked freely and without covering, their laughter and chatter filling the markets, parks and sidewalks.

It was compulsory for girls to go to school and women worked outside the home as teachers, doctors and engineers. They also made up the majority of students and teachers at Kabul University and had their own political group, the Women’s Democratic Organisation of Afghanistan, which defended and fought for women’s rights.

It was a time when people were happy with the little they had, when, even though they lived in what was then, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world, they did not beg. There was an unflinching dignity in them, born out of a hard but proud life, inherited from their ancestors in this harsh land.

Of today’s Kabul he writes:

...Thousands of beggars swarm the streets....

 Nowadays, women walk the dusty pavements of Kabul draped in burqas that cover them from head to toe. Always accompanied by a male relative, mostly a son, they float around the city like forgotten ghosts. Gender segregation, another visible characteristic of this new Kabul, has gone beyond that of the public sphere, where men and women are divided in schools, hospitals and restaurants. Even within families, men and women eat and socialise in different rooms.

According to UNICEF, more than 30 per cent of primary school-age children are working on the streets in Afghanistan and are often their family’s sole breadwinners. This means that more than 3 million children are not receiving an education.

What brought about this catastrophic transformation of Kabul? Ten years of Soviet occupation? Not really; regrettably the main villains of this particular piece are the Pakistanis, with substantial financial and other support (but nothing like the effective control that support might be expected to bring) from the United States.

With the collapse of Soviet power in Afghanistan and Central Asia, Pakistan began to develop regional ambitions, and decided that in order for those to be realised it needed to be the new dominant intervener in Afghan affairs. 

Since the mid-1980s the United States had been channelling weapons and money to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen through Pakistan, specifically through the military intelligence organisation ISI (the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence). Amin Saikal comments that no mechanism was put in place to check the credentials and future usefulness of the individuals who received this largesse. The question of how to distribute the arms was left entirely to ISI, allowing it to favour whomever it wanted. Of the consequences of this stunning negligence on the part of the United States, Saikal writes in his Modern Afghanistan (page 204):

It was in this context that one of the most destructive forces in the Afghan resistance was nurtured: the extremist Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. As a self-styled radical Islamist, Hekmatyar had been from the start an obedient client of ISI, which bolstered his Hezb-e Islami for no other purpose than to enable Pakistan to control the Afghan resistance and to be in a strong position to place its own clients in power in Kabul after a Soviet withdrawal. As a result, Hekmatyar emerged not only as the most single-minded and power-hungry strongman, but also the best armed and wealthiest, among the Mujahideen leaders. Because of his lack of popular support, this made him a destabilising factor in the resistance during the Soviet occupation and the most destructive force after the collapse of communist rule. Despite repeated warnings by serious analysts of Afghan politics, and by the British Government from 1986 on, Washington continuously turned a blind eye to the ISI’s transfer of the lion’s share of its arms to Hekmatyar.

In mid-April 1992 the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime collapsed and Kabul was taken over by the Mujahideen, led by Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Afghanistan was declared an Islamic state for the first time in its history, but the government led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani, with Massoud as its military commander, was a moderate one which expounded a largely progressive Islamist ideology which was conducive to modernism while avoiding certain western cultural values and influences.

Hekmatyar was not at all pleased with Ahmad Shah Massoud’s rise to a position of such prominence, and neither were his ISI paymasters, who had been grooming him to take power once Soviet rule collapsed.  ISI well understood that the new Islamic Government leaders, and especially Massoud, would never subordinate their nationalist ambitions to Pakistan’s regional aspirations, and set about undermining the fledgling regime.

Hekmatyar kept his forces to the south of Kabul, and steadfastly refused to enter the city or participate in the power sharing arrangements that had been hammered out by Pakistan-based Mujahideen leaders and enshrined in the 24 April 1992 Peshawar Agreement. Ahmad Shah Massoud made frantic attempts to reach a face-to-face agreement with Hekmatyar, and stepped down as Defence Minister in an effort to placate him. All this was to no avail; Hekmatyar remained outside the city and imposed a blockade.  In early August 1992 he launched a barrage of rockets against Kabul, killing 1800 civilians and destroying a great deal of the southern parts of the city over a period of three weeks.

In the period which followed Hekmatyar established a secret anti-government alliance with two other prominent Mujahideen commanders, the Iranian-backed Abdul Ali Mazari, and the Uzbek warlord and former Ahmad Shah Massoud ally Abdul Rashid Dostum. On 1 January 1994, at the instigation of the Pakistani and Iranian intelligence services, this trio launched a savage attack on Kabul. By the end of 1994 their indiscriminate bombardment of the city had destroyed half of the city and killed 25,000 of its citizens, with massive human rights violations being perpetrated on all sides.

This protracted inter-Mujahideen fighting meant that Hekmatyar had failed to achieve what ISI had expected of him, but ISI had another card to play. In the mid-1980s, with US consent and Saudi funding, a chain of madrasas or religious schools had been established in Pakistan, to serve as a “religious-political belt along the Afghan-Pakistan border in order to support the combat spirit of Mujahideen”. The curriculum of these madrasas focused on a strictly puritanical form of Islam and they inculcated a willingness for self-sacrifice in the name of liberating Muslim lands from infidels and their Islamic surrogates.

From these madrasas ISI was able to draw numbers of ultra-orthodox Sunni Pashtun students as their new surrogate force. In November 1994 the Taliban (Islamic students) launched a surprise attack on Kandahar and pressed on to Kabul, their ranks swollen in short order from an initial 800 to about 25,000 by an influx of Pashtuns from the frontier tribes who had done service in the border forces of Pakistan’s Ministry of the Interior.  From March 1995 they periodically bombarded Kabul, and by September 1995 the Taliban was in control of 27 of the country’s 32 provinces. Wherever they went they established a particularly brutal rule, often described as mediaevalist, but I think that term is an insult to the liberal traditions and respect for culture and learning that prevailed in much of the mediaeval Islamic world.

The final struggle for Kabul came in September 1996, with generous logistic and combat assistance from Pakistan, even including the provision of night-vision binoculars, which had never been provided to the Mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet occupation. In a subsequent Taliban attack on Massoud’s new stronghold of Mazar-e Sharif, as many as 1500 Pakistani military personnel took part in the attack.

The rest is pretty well known. The attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 led to the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and a range of its allies, and we are there to this day, fighting what some of our political leaders choose to describe as “the right war” (by contrast with the war in Iraq). This war in Afghanistan is supposed to make us safer somehow.

Nobody emerges from the tragic story of modern Afghanistan with much credit. In this “right war”, the one we “have to fight”, the one we “must win”, we are fighting monsters we helped to create, in the rubble of a country we helped to destroy.


Frud Bezhan, Kabul: a tale of two cities, The Age (Melbourne), 18-19 December 2009.

Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival, I.B. Taurus and Co Ltd, London, 2006.