Worsening Afghan situation

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


IN a presidential decree issued on August 13, President Karzai changed the governors of the provinces of Kandahar, Wardak and Zabool, transferred the security chiefs of six provinces and fired six of the 14 security chiefs in the districts of Kabul. In the days that followed the decree has actually been implemented. Agha Gul Sherzai handed over his office to Yusuf Pashtoon and after initially maintaining that he would stay on in Kandahar has now indicated that he would, as desired by Karzai, move to Kabul and take over the ministerial portfolio vacated by his successor. Equally smooth changeovers appear to be under way in the other two provinces.

In a separate but related move President Karzai has also stripped Ismail Khan of the command of the military in Herat while allowing him to remain Governor of Herat. This change is said to be part of the administrative reform under which no official will be allowed to hold two assignments. This change has also apparently been accepted.

Clearly these moves have been made with the approval of the United States. In a statement issued on the August 14 the American state department said “The United States remains deeply committed to working with President Karzai as he rebuilds the institutions of government and seeks to bring the benefits of peace and stability to every region of Afghanistan. The United States endorses President Karzai’s reforms designed to assert the legitimate authority of the central government and to improve provincial governance. We share President Karzai’s view that improving security and governance in the provinces is essential to achieving our common goals of creating a moderate and stable Afghanistan”.

This ringing endorsement of the steps that President Karzai has taken may represent, one hopes, the first in a series of steps to cut the umbilical cord between the warlords and the US military and intelligence in Afghanistan. Perhaps even more hopefully, it will also be a message to the remaining warlords, (and they are numerous) that their past or present assistance against the Taliban will no longer be a licence for defying the writ of the central government in their areas of influence.

This is a hopeful step but is far from indicative of smooth transfers of power everywhere or of growing stability. In the remote district of Kajran in Uruzgan province, fighting between the supporters of the newly appointed district chief, Abdul Rahman Khan, and his predecessor claimed 25 lives on August 12. This incident was part of what Afghan officials termed the “bloodiest 24 hours of violence” in Afghanistan in more than a year. It included the explosion of a bomb in a bus in Helmand province in which 25 people including women and children were killed, and a clash in Khost province with Taliban, allegedly commanded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, in which 16 Taliban and five government soldiers are said to have died. The havoc wreaked prompted a call from the Afghan interior minister, Mr. Jalali, for more international help to combat the violence.

The question is whether such assistance will be forthcoming. On the American side efforts are being made to find perhaps from the Pentagon’s Iraq budget an additional $1 billion which could be spent in Afghanistan on highly visible projects that would yield jobs and immediate economic benefits to the general populace. A new director for USAID is being appointed and there is speculation that the defence department will try and play, since the money is coming from its budget, a more active role in developmental activity.

A new coordinator for Afghanistan has been appointed in the state department and he is apparently proposing the appointment of some 70-75 American advisers in the key Afghan ministries to hasten the pace of decision making and to ensure that local rivalries do not prevent activity. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, hitherto point-man for the White House for both Iraq and Afghanistan, is now being appointed ambassador to Afghanistan and will be given powers comparable to those enjoyed by Paul Bremer in Iraq.

There is talk of another international conference at Petersburg, the venue of the Bonn conference, to persuade the donors, who had pledged some $4.5 billion assistance at the Tokyo conference, but have so far provided only $1 billion to be more forthcoming on old pledges and to make new pledges. It is now estimated that Afghan reconstruction would require some $15-20 billion over the next 7-8 years and that currently Afghanistan’s gross national product is less than half of what is used to be in 1978. In all probability, however, there will be no special conference on Afghanistan and instead the Americans will try and get people together on the margins of the WTO in September and try to raise another $600 million in immediately disbursable assistance to supplement the $1 billion they intend putting in themselves.

But the key question of how such developmental activity can be undertaken in the absence of security has yet to be satisfactorily answered. NATO has taken over command of the ISAF forces. In the West the significance of this move lies in the fact that NATO is for the first time assuming responsibilities beyond Europe. For Afghanistan perhaps the more significant facet is that there will not now be every six months a search for a country to take command. Will NATO be prepared to extend its mandate beyond Kabul and try to provide security in the warlord dominated provinces so that development work can go forward? So far the answer seems to be a categorical “no”. Both the new commander and the commander of the Canadian contingent — now the largest contingent in ISAF — have said that NATO will need time to accustom itself to the currently mandated duties — providing security in Kabul — and it will be sometime before an expansion of the mandate can be considered.

Mr. Brahimi Lakdar, the UN secretary-general’s representative for Afghanistan, speaking to the Security Council made an impassioned plea for the expansion of the ISAF mandate to the provinces pointing out that he was not asking even for the 40,000 troops NATO had deployed in Kosovo but a much more modest 10 to 12 thousand. The UN secretary-general’s report presented earlier to the Security Council had pointed out that in Kosovo and Bosnia there had been one peacekeeper for 48 and 58 inhabitants respectively while in Afghanistan the ratio was one peacekeeper for 5,380 Afghans. Indications are that his plea fell on unresponsive ears.

The Afghan Army remains in its infancy. The prospects of it becoming a viable force in the next few years are remote even in the best of circumstances. Currently, however, the situation is made much worse by Marshal Fahim’s stranglehold on the defence ministry and his unwillingness to surrender positions in that ministry to Pushtuns or for that matter to any ethnic group other than the Panjsheri Tajiks. In these circumstances the warlords have the best possible pretext for refusing to disarm and the UN has, in fact, stated that it will not even attempt to start the Japanese financed disarmament project until there is an ethnic balance in the defence ministry.

So how will development work proceed? Apparently ISAF and the Americans both want to rely on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), comprising both construction and development experts and a contingent of soldiers to undertake developmental work in the provinces. A number of such teams have been formed and reports suggest that in addition to the teams already operating under British and American aegis there will be others formed by the New Zealanders, the Germans and the Canadians. It is unlikely however that these teams — the largest among them is the British and has 70 people — will be tough enough and equipped enough to venture into the provinces of South and East Afghanistan.

It is in these provinces that the deterioration in the security situation has been most marked. Aid work has been suspended by the UN in most of them. Aid agencies are withdrawing their personnel fearing with good reason that aid workers are being targeted perhaps as much as the clerics who support President Karzai. The perpetrators of the attacks are said to be the Taliban but there are suspicions that local influential leaders too may also be involved. Trouble will continue in these provinces and elements in the Afghan government will find it convenient to blame the Taliban hidden in the remote reaches but also those allegedly in Pakistan. This is something we can ill afford as we seek to build a relationship of trust and cooperation with Afghanistan.

Our foreign minister, during his forthcoming visit to Kabul must, of course discuss, with his counterpart and others in the Karzai government, the areas in which cooperation with Afghanistan can be expanded. But he must spend equal time with the commanders of ISAF and the American contingent to reinforce, from Pakistan perspective, the plea of the UN and President Karzai’s government for an expansion of the ISAF mandate.

Separately he should also press that a logical corollary to the new policy of unequivocally supporting Karzai’s efforts to control provincial officials must be support for his efforts to control his own government. The debt owed to the Northern Alliance and particularly to the Panjsheris, has long been paid. Stability in Afghanistan now requires that their share in political power and in the military be reduced to what Afghanistan’s demography dictates. This, more than any other military or political or economic measure, will contribute to the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.

On bumpy road to peace

By Zubeida Mustafa


THE bon-homie witnessed between visiting delegates from India and their counterparts from Pakistan generally gives one a good feeling. Last week was one such occasion when 34 Indian parliamentarians who were in Islamabad on the umpteenth round of Track-II diplomacy received a rousing welcome.

The star of the occasion was of course the inimitable Laloo Prasad Yadav, the former chief minister of Bihar, whose simple and rustic ways won the hearts of the people here — who according to The Economist of London are used to politicians being invariably patrician, bearded or in uniform. The fact that Laloo Prasad faces corruption charges in his own country made little difference to his image in a country where few politicians can boast of a clean bill as far as integrity is concerned.

The South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) conference in Islamabad produced the same outpourings of appeals for peace, dialogue and good neighbourliness as has been the wont of such meetings in recent years. It is a fact that when the two governments are locked in a stand-off, the greater is the desire for peace expressed by the people of the two countries. This is a clear indication that the policies of those in power on the two sides of the border have not really been reflecting the wishes of their people.

This is indeed regrettable. More so, because when they adopt a hard line on the disputes which divide them, the governments of India and Pakistan take shelter behind what they describe as the will of their people. Track-II diplomacy has proved beyond doubt that the people are now keen to explore new options for peace as political fatigue has set in. They no longer want to be stuck in the same rhetorical groove which reflects the official line adopted ad nauseam by the spokemen of the two sides. While India never tires of demanding an end to cross-border terrorism, Pakistan’s persistent demand has been for a settlement of the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir in accordance with the will of the people.

Some recent interviews and statements by key leaders in this context carry much weight and should be taken note of by the governments. The head of the unofficial Indian Kashmir Committee, Ram Jethmalani, who is a member of the Indian parliament and a highly respected figure, made some telling points in an interview he gave to a local newspaper in Islamabad.

First, he pointed out that India is now willing to discuss extra-constitutional options in Kashmir which are good for the people of that state. This is a major departure from the traditional Indian line that Kashmir is an integral part of India. But it would be unrealistic to expect India to hand over Kashmir to Pakistan. This is not to be expected even when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is making friendly overtures to Islamabad and inviting President Musharraf to walk the bumpy road to peace with him. Why?

Mr Jethmalani provided the answer in very rational terms. “If you cannot solve the issue through war or terrorism, then you must understand that you cannot get 100 per cent results in your favour on the negotiating table,” he explained while appealing to Pakistan to understand the realities.

This is such an obvious fact that one wonders why it has not been understood in Islamabad. The armed struggle in the Indian- held state is now proving to be counter productive. True the Indian army continues to be tied down in the Valley and in the process New Delhi gets a poor international image in terms of its human rights record as the authorities attempt to suppress the insurgency brutally. But the violence and the casualties that come in the wake of the Indian approach are alienating the people from not only the Indian army but also the militants. Recent internal developments in Kashmir provide enough evidence of this.

The government of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, which has sensed the mood of the people, is now working to restore normality in the state. Had it not been succeeding in its mission, it would not have been possible to revive tourism in the Valley which is described as a ‘paradise on earth’. According to prime minister Vajpayee 100,000 tourists have so far visited Kashmir this year and 6,000 students from all over India are studying in the educational institutions of the state.

More importantly, a dialogue is under way in the disputed state which could sideline Pakistan. Oddly these developments have not been taken note of in Islamabad. This policy of self- denial does not mean that nothing is happening in the Indian-held Kashmir. The All Parties Hurriyat Conference is now actively engaged in talking with various political elements in New Delhi and the message its chairman, Maulana Abbas Ansari, is sending to the world is that the APHC wants a peaceful resolution of the dispute. In fact, the Hurriyat is working for a ceasefire and has offered to persuade the militants to call a truce if New Delhi also agrees to hold fire.

But unlike the ceasefire in 2000, this time the truce should be monitored to ensure that it is really observed. With the political process receiving more attention and the indigenous leadership taking the initiative, Pakistan’s role will not remain the same as before. Small wonder Maulana Ansari said recently that he and his colleagues were in no hurry to visit Pakistan. He seems to be keen about resolving the differences between some of the constituent members of the Hurriyat. The Jama’at-i-Islami’s militancy is now becoming unacceptable to the others because the people are tired of violence.

Where does all this leave Pakistan? A confrontation between the Islamic militants and the politically oriented APHC, and the parties in the political mainstream in Kashmir is something which Pakistan would not find in its interest. On the one hand a split in the Valley would weaken Islamabad’s position on the matter. On the other hand, it would make a solution more difficult.

All this calls for a major shift in stance on both sides. Is this forthcoming? With India as the party actually holding a substantial part of the territory under dispute, it is under no compulsion to relinquish its control. As for Pakistan, being the smaller power it has more to gain from peace than from this no- war-no-peace state which teeters towards a war every few years. It is a positive and significant development that the people of the two countries have begun to understand the peace dividend and its implications. The SAFMA conference in Islamabad last week left one in no doubt about the direction in which the wind is blowing. But the two governments will have to move faster on the “bumpy road to peace”, to use Mr Vajpayee’s words, if they are to keep pace with their people’s aspirations.

From purdah to politics

THE official declaration of 2003 as the Year of the Madar-e-Millat puts the spotlight on what is nowadays called the empowerment of women. Miss Fatima Jinnah certainly embodies a role model — a sister who not only took it upon herself to look after her widowed brother but also became a companion in his political pursuits.

At the same time she continuously exhorted the Muslim women of India (and then of Pakistan) to come out and do their bit for society and the nation. The most significant step in the field of female encouragement in recent years has been the substantial increase in the number of women’s seats in the assemblies and the local bodies through the otherwise much-maligned Legal Framework Order. But the truth is that it is not government actions that prompt women to take to public life. They emerge from the four walls of the home when circumstances so demand, and the urge comes from within their hearts and minds.

This aspect comes out very well in a book called “Muslim Women of the British Punjab” by Dushka Saiyid of Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University. It was published some years ago, but just as Irfan Husain in his column on Saturday confessed to reading Dr Mubashir Hassan’s revealing book about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto three years after it came out, I too somehow took my time in going through it. The book chronicles the march of Punjabi women from seclusion to politics, accelerated as it was by changing social conditions and increasing awareness.

The Punjabi Muslim woman was far behind her Hindu, Sikh and Christian sisters, both in education and development as an independent and self-assured member of society. Seclusion behind the veil and the four walls of the home was the main reason for this. Dushka Saiyid points out a significant aspect of this handicap. The Muslim gentry, the shurafa, agreed that their concept of purdah was not strictly Islamic, but then (they said) how could they observe the Islamic version and let their women loose to imbibe heretical influences?

Many factors played their part in Muslim women’s backwardness in Punjab and their emergence from purdah in a bid to take their due place in society. Social taboos, restrictive laws, lack of education and confinement to the kitchen were responsible for the former, while enlightened education outside the home, release from the constraints of purdah and gradual participation in politics — mainly in the context of the Muslim identity — led to the latter. It was an uphill task, and it speaks volumes for the Muslim women’s good sense and strength of purpose that she brought about a complete metamorphosis in her personality in the fifty years before Pakistan. Since then of course it has been an easy journey.

A refreshing addition to my knowledge was the visit to Lahore by Sarojini Naidu, the “Nightingale of India” and great friend and admirer of Mr Jinnah’s, at the invitation of the Islamic Education Conference in December 1917, during which she called upon the Muslims of Punjab not to force their women to observe purdah. In this she was ahead of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who, despite being a great reformer, did not mind Muslim women remaining secluded, nor was he a keen votary of their education. His point was that if Muslim men acquired modern education some kind of liberation for women would automatically follow.

Keeping today’s conditions in mind, it’s a wonder no maulvi or newspaper stood up to abuse Miss Naidu for having the cheek to interfere in an Islamic matter and trying to lead Muslim women astray. I suppose we were more tolerant of non-Muslims when we lived in their midst than we are now when you can’t find a Hindu or Sikh to show to your children and the atmosphere in the country is completely and wholly Muslim.

There were legal hurdles too in the way of Muslim women. In complicity with their feudal Muslim friends, the British had, in 1872, foisted the customary law on Punjabi Muslims, thus preventing operation of the Shariat in respect of inherited property. The shurafa did not want their daughters to have a share in the property left by their elders. This un-Islamic law could not be undone till 1937. Even now, among many agricultural tribes in Punjab, daughters are deprived of their share.

Let me tell you a story about this. A few years ago I asked the head of one of the leading feudal Jat families why they did not follow the example of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) in this behalf. (His son-in-law was a very dear friend of mine and I was permitted this liberty). You may not believe it but the cynical reply was, “My life for the Prophet, but when this law was laid down what did the Arabs have? A few camels and some date trees? If they had canal-irrigated squares of land I would have liked to see how they gave them to their daughters!”

Dushka Saiyid pays a lot of tribute to Muslim writers, poets and newspaper-owners for their missionary zeal in favour of education, emancipation and advancement of Punjabi women. It had to be men, for none of the Muslim women were in a position to write and broadcast their views till just a few years before independence. These writers, she says, created an intellectual climate that made the liberation of Muslim women central to the contemporary debate and discussion of social issues.

The author cites two occasions in modern history when Muslim women came out of their homes to participate in political campaigns. The first was the Khilafat movement when the Ali Brothers’ mother toured Punjab, addressed public meetings and thus broke the taboo on politics as the exclusive preserve of men. The second was in the forties when the Quaid-i-Azam followed a deliberate policy of getting Muslim women to take part in politics in order to strengthen the demand for Pakistan.

The Quaid visited girls’ schools and colleges and addressed the students. This policy paid dividends, as school and college girls from Punjab played a major role in popularizing the movement and displayed a militancy unheard of among Punjabi Muslim women. They toured all over, even the conservative NWFP, took out processions, hoisted the Muslim League flag on the secretariat and withstood teargas shells, when many of them were still in burqa. They made the point that Muslim women were out of the confines of the home to shape the future of a new country as partners of Muslim men. More than women, Muslim men should read Dushka Saiyid’s book.

Sending more US troops

THE Defence Department spends more than $1 billion each day and finds its ground forces stretched thin. Sergeants, colonels and members of Congress wonder whether 40,000 or so troops should be added to the more than half a million soldiers now on active duty from the Balkans to Iraq, Fort Irwin to the Sinai.

Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that a reorganization of the U.S. military might be better than adding troops. He is right. But as the Pentagon studies whether to give some jobs to civilians, either as permanent federal employees or contract labour, it must beware of downgrading the role of reservists.

The U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force for a generation. The end of the draft meant that basic training, combat and the overall military culture became unknowns for most Americans. Ready Reserve and National Guard troops provide the armed forces’ closest connection to society and the political culture. When officials call those reservists to active duty, it causes gaps in police forces, accounting firms and factories. That drives the high stakes home to friends and co-workers, not just immediate families.

Last month, Rumsfeld suggested shifting a broad range of professional specialties from the reserves to men and women on active duty to create a force that could mobilize for war within 15 days. Readiness is vital, but the active-duty forces have demonstrated their ability to react quickly to trouble spots.

America doesn’t need hair-trigger responses to situations in which U.S. troops can be killed; dangerous missions shouldn’t be conducted solely by professionals who are out of sight and mind of the society in whose name they fight and whose support they need.

Reservists play especially important roles in military policing, intelligence and civil affairs. Spreading the burden among other nations is one way to lessen dependence on “weekend warriors” called to active duty.

Getting outside help also would lengthen the time between tours of duty abroad for units like the 3rd Infantry Division, which went to the Middle East well before the Iraq war, did much of the fighting and then faced an extension of duty when Iraqi guerrilla attacks flared. Long, repeated overseas deployments strain families and reduce the likelihood of reenlistments, forcing the military to spend more money on recruitment and training. At the end of the cold war, more than 2 million men and women were on active duty.

—Los Angeles Times

America in the dark

THERE was something decidedly symbolic about the darkness that descended last week across a broad swathe of the United States. Power outages on that scale and of a comparable duration are extremely rare even in Pakistan. In the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free such things are simply not supposed to happen. Not in the 21st century.

But they do. The long-term energy crisis in California — which qualifies as the world’s sixth-largest economy — testifies to the shortcomings of advanced capitalism. The Enron scandal served as a reminder of where fervent worship of the profit motive, to the exclusion of more or less everything else, can lead. It also shone a bit of light on the ties that bind the present White House clique to some of the nation’s unpleasantest corporations.

Fallout from the Enron collapse could have proved considerably more painful for the Bush administration had fate not intervened in the shape of the psychopaths who ploughed packed airliners into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. That’s when the darkness that had previously only been hinted at truly set in.

Since then, many of America’s worst tendencies — ignorance, aggression, paranoia, xenophobia and racism, among others — have constantly been on display. Once the initial shock at the enormity of September 11 had worn off, the opposite qualities also began to emerge, climaxing in the massive anti-war demonstrations that preceded the unprovoked and unwarranted attack on Iraq.

Although George W. Bush hasn’t been embroiled in the sort of controversy that threatens to sink his co-conspirator on the other side of the Atlantic, but the lies he told about the threat posed by Iraq haven’t gone unchallenged. The trouble is that when Dubya pleads ignorance, most people tend to believe him. His aides, on the other hand, know perfectly well what they are doing and why they are doing it. A truth pill or two down the throat of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell would yield the details of a conspiracy that would make the Watergate era seem like an age of innocence.

There is little danger, however, of Dubya facing impeachment — a prospect that Richard Nixon pre-empted by resigning, while Bill Clinton was confronted with the process for completely frivolous reasons. Although leading a nation into all-out war for patently absurd reasons may be not just an impeachable but a treasonable offence, the post-9/11 darkness makes it a charge impossible to pursue through Congress.

It is extremely unlikely that any of the darkness will be relieved in the event of Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor of California on October 7.

The action star’s candidacy has attracted a great deal of flak from both left and right in the couple of weeks since he ended months of speculation by announcing his decision to run.

Among other things, it is said that Schwarzenegger is inarticulate. That is perfectly true, and helps to explain why his starring roles involve a minimum of dialogue. As fellow Hollywood stalwart Robin Williams puts it, “Arnold Schwarzenegger has acted in plenty of movies but spoken less dialogue than any actor, except maybe Lassie.” Gubernatorial responsibilities would, obviously, saying something more than “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby”.

On the other hand, if the president of the US can be as poor a communicator as Dubya Bush, underdeveloped speech skills seem to be an unfair reason for denying Arnie his goal. It’s also worth remembering that although Ronald Reagan — another Hollywood leading man who served as governor of California before his successful tilt at the presidency — was dubbed the Great Communicator by his acolytes, he tended to spout nonsense whenever he wasn’t reading from a script.

His political inexperience, which led Schwarzenegger, in the first few days of his candidacy, to respond to awkward questions with “I don’t want to go into that right now” or by pretending his earphones weren’t working, simply suggests that his learning curve will have to be sharper than that of most other aspirants for high political office.

Nor should the fact that he is a filmstar with minimal acting prowess necessarily be a negative. It is perhaps inevitable that celebrities seeking public office attract above-average publicity and scrutiny. But actors — good, bad and indifferent — clearly have as much right as members of any other profession to contest elections. If anything, acting abilities should be considered a plus; after all, politicians are frequently called upon to memorize transcripts that belong in the realm of pure fiction.

Perhaps the problem is that it is invariably the relatively untalented actors who opt for this sort of change of career. Reagan was more or less at the end of his tether as a B-movie star when he switched to politics, banking on his reputation as a virulent anti-communist through the 1950s, particularly during his tenure as head of the actors’ union. Schwarzenegger, too, hasn’t lately been driving them crazy at the box office.

There may just be scope for one more sequel in the Terminator series, but beyond that it’s hard to envisage Arnie’s pulling power stretching to elderly roles. Then again, the reaction to poor talent seeking other avenues of guaranteeing a place in history may have something to do with the fact that skilled and ostensibly intelligent actors — Marlon Brando or Robert Redford, for example — almost never opt for politics.

It’s not because they’re apolitical or indifferent: Brando has over the years identified strongly with Native American and Afro-American causes, whereas Martin Sheen, who plays a liberal and erudite president of the US in the popular television series The West Wing, proved so effective as an anti-war activist earlier this year that the NBC was inundated with calls to sack him.

But when viewed in the context of a bunch of neo-fascists in Washington pretending to be neo-conservatives, the prospect of Schwarzenegger as the governor of California doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Besides, somewhat to his credit, Arnie has infuriated the extreme right through what they regard as an unacceptably liberal stance on matters such as abortion, gay rights and (despite his generally trigger-happy screen persona) gun control. He also considered Clinton’s impeachment an unnecessary embarrassment. And to top it all, he’s married to John F. Kennedy’s niece.

All this more than sufficed for the obnoxious but highly influential radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to dismiss Arnie as an unacceptable aspirant to Reagan’s mantle. The likes of Limbaugh and his print-media co-ideologist Anne Coulter are evidently less disturbed by Arnie’s reputation as something of a sexual predator.

Another skeleton in Schwarzenegger’s cupboard is the fact that his father, an Austrian policeman, was a card-holding Nazi. However, possibly because he had a political career in mind, the actor paid the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to investigate his father’s role during the Nazi era, and no evidence emerged linking Schwarzenegger Sr to atrocities. On the other hand, Arnie displayed few qualms about publicly embracing former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim even after it had emerged that the latter was a war criminal.

Schwarzenegger didn’t have to go through the usual process of primaries because the upcoming poll is a special election, based on a provision in Californian law that allows a certain proportion of voters to “recall” an elected official in the event of his or her failure to come up to expectations.

The unfortunate incumbent in this case happens to be a colourless Democrat called Gray Davis who is renowned for his fund-raising abilities but has little else to his credit. He is accused of being primarily responsible for California’s $38 billion deficit. That perception ought to have prevented his re-election last November, but his luck has evidently held. Until now.

There are upward of 500 candidates in the fray. They include pornographer Larry Flynt and several other minor celebrities, but no notable politicians — and no one comes close to Schwarzenegger in terms of image or name recognition. The person with the highest number of votes wins; there are no run-offs involved. If current opinion polls are anything to go by, the steroid-munching, iron-pumping former Mr Universe should barely need to move a muscle in order to be catapulted into the governor’s mansion.

But six weeks is, of course, a long time in politics, and a great deal could go wrong for Arnie before October 7. If elected, apart from being rigorously tested in the administrative realm, he’ll face an uphill struggle in getting other politicians and bureaucrats to take him seriously. More ominously, there are suspicions that the Terminator has something more than the governorship of California in mind (although he can’t run for the presidency by virtue of having been born Austrian). He once told Playboy magazine: “You have to create a need for yourself, build yourself up. While their empire goes on, slowly, without realising it, build your own little fortress. And all of a sudden it’s too late for them to do anything about it.”

That sounds like a B-movie plot. Whatever it might mean, and whether or not Schwarzenegger wins on October 7, he clearly can’t be expected to make Americans see the light. The question is: Who can? And if there’s anyone out there capable of reversing the darkness, will she or he be kind enough to stand up and make themselves known well ahead of November 2004?

mahir59ali@netscape.net

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