The glorious British retreat from the Basra Palace – “probably the worst palace in the world”
In the New Yorker last week, Sy Hersh, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, reported that Britain is ready to join the United States in an attack on Iran. Or at least the Americans think so. Quoth he:
The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the newly elected government of Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
Hersh is a distinguished and sometimes reliable journalist. He is to be commended for a robust approach even if his expertise evidently does not extend to the method by which Gordon Brown recently became prime minister. Unless I missed something, this did not include any kind of election.
Nevertheless, perhaps the British media might be expected to take an interest in this claim/revelation. And indeed, the story eventually made its way to page 35 of The Sunday Telegraph. Tim Shipman now quotes officials in Washington to support (up to a point) Hersh’s story:
Gordon Brown has agreed to support US air strikes against Iran if the Islamic republic orchestrates large-scale attacks by militants against British or American forces in Iraq, according to senior Pentagon officials.
But this is a somewhat different story to that of Hersh, as premier Brown’s support now seems contingent.
Whether Hersh had it right, or Shipman does, or neither, this was about the limit of British press interest in the story.
After all, there are new pictures of Princess Diana! Maddie is still missing! Plus free DVDs for every reader!
Happily, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, a serious fellow, finally asked the prime minister about this at his news conference on Monday. Here is the exchange:
Prime Minister, you have said that you want to listen to the British people. One of the things that the British people seem to be demonstrating is no appetite for any new war related to Iraq. Yet the war drums are banging in Washington for an attack on Iran. Are you prepared to follow previous Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in saying that such an attack is inconceivable. And indeed are you prepared to go further and say that you would neither support nor assist any American attack on Iran?
I will follow what I have said myself only recently that we take very seriously what the Iranians are trying to do in building up their nuclear capability for nuclear weapons. This cannot go unchallenged given that it is a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If they do not co-operate with the international authorities that are examining their nuclear installations, or potential nuclear installations, that is a very big breach of international rules as well. And we believe however that this matter can be resolved by diplomatic means, by the Resolutions that have been passed by the United Nations, by sanctions if necessary, but I am not prepared to go further than that. What I am prepared to say is we take very seriously what Iran is proposing and we are prepared to use the methods that we have used in diplomatic sanctions to deal with this problem and I do not rule out anything.
Looking at this, it is rather masterfully ambiguous (even after the Downing Street editors have corrected the prime minister’s repeated confusion of Iraq and Iran as he delivered this answer). Brown firmly rules out an attack on Iran when he says “we believe that this matter can be resolved by diplomatic means… by sanctions if necessary, but I am not prepared to go further than that.” Then he technically rules the possibility back in again with: “I do not rule out anything.”
So this is a master class in saying two completely contradictory things at the same time. But here’s what I think. Hersh is wrong. And not just about the British electoral system. With citation to Sam Goldwyn, as far as any adventures in Iran are concerned, you can include Britain out.I reckon Brown, who was never an enthusiast for this war and endorsed it purely as a matter of preserving his own career, is sick of Iraq, has no stomach for a conflict with Iran, and that what we’re already watching is Gordon leading the Brits on a cut and run.
Another fascinating exchange came when the prime minister answered a question from Robin Oakley of CNN, who very reasonably asked the following:
Prime Minister you have presented yourself so far as a national leader who looks above petty party-political advantage. Why did you go to Basra to announce a withdrawal of British troops by Christmas, do it at the time of the Conservative Party Conference to take headlines off your opponents, and use somewhat phoney figures, since a quarter of those you said would be coming home had come home already. Isn’t that just the kind of Blairite spinning that you are supposed to stand against?
I think you are wrong in every respect if I may say with some respect to you. I think the facts do not merit these accusations. First of all I had to go to Iraq, to Baghdad and Basra, before I made my Statement in the House of Commons. I think the criticism of me today might have been that I had not had the chance to hear from the troops on the ground, to hear from our military commanders, to meet Prime Minister Al Maliki, to meet the Vice-President, to meet the Ministers for Finance, for Trade and for the Economy to discuss not just troop movements, but also to discuss economic reconstruction in Iraq. As far as what I said, I think you will see when I announce it in the House of Commons this afternoon that my Statement is far more comprehensive about all these things than anything that was said in Basra, and I think you will also find the statement about numbers that I made in Iraq is absolutely accurate.
This seems rather insulting to Robin Oakley! Who is correct here? Both, obviously, The prime minister is a master at counting things once, twice, or as many times as necessary. He subsequently went on to confuse matters still further with talk in the House of Commons of further troop withdrawals accompanied by “briefings” that all the boys would be home by 2008. Whereas Oakley is right that the stunt in Basra was an exercise in tortured accounting, even if Brown is too slippery ever to make the charge stick.
What 2,500 British soliders left in the “Cob” at the airport are supposed to do is left rather vague. Some have driven up to the Iran border with TV crews. Others are filmed training Iraqi soldiers. It is an army now tasked to photo opportunity.
Brown is playing a slippery game, but the troops are indeed coming out of Iraq. Even if they are going to Afghanistan, which is another disaster in the making.
A giant, transparent spin offensive is underway to pretend we have won after all in Basra, with friendly hacks like Con Coughlin of the newly pro-government Daily Telegraph filing magnificently clairvoyant copy from the airport describing the improvements since our army’s triumphant
retreat advance from what the soldiers called the worst palace in the world.
In the British-controlled southern Iraqi city of Basra there is a palpable sense that, after four years of incessant bloodshed, a corner is being turned in the struggle to bring the city back to something approaching normality.
But there is no evidence from his copy that he was even there!
Image from Telegraph web site, two days after Coughlin ponounces peace in our time
Coughlin, who just happened to be at the Cob when Brown later dropped by to annouce the withdrawal of troops who had already left, later went on to warn that premature withdrawals could threaten the success achieved by the British. Delusional.
Insofar as the story of a British triumph is concerned, Coughlin at least reveals what he was briefed by officers following MoD-approved scripts. The line is that we have given the Iraqi people the chance to have a nice stable, rich democracy – it’s up to them. By inference, whatever goes wrong in the future is their fault, not ours. That we were responsible for launching an invasion that has seen the place smashed to bits, with probably 100,000 killed and millions displaced, is not mentioned.
Here, though, is the question for the future. We know this about Brown. He is a bit of a coward. He puts his own survival first. He’s not stupid. A man for whom cowardice, caution and prudence are core, does not and cannot like war, which is always highly unpredictable and frightening.
With Iraq off the table, is Brown really prepared to unleash the dogs of war in Afghanistan? This is a campaign that is going to see lots of people killed and a lot of money being spent as even Jock Stirrup’s ropey Eurofighters are sent into the fray to drop bombs on mud huts.
Does Brown have the stomach for this? Me – I’m not sure. And with the Tories as gung-ho on the Pathun adventure as ever, perhaps the PM has something else in mind. To win his deferred election as the man who brought all of this nonsense to an end. Methinks (hopes anyway) that this is the turning point. Think prudence.
Drink it and you’ll believe anything
The mission of David Petraeus is to give George Bush the “victory” he has demanded in Iraq. The surge may be working as advertised or may be a statistical mirage but the command genius of Petraeus is to realise that what is really important is to create an illusion of victory. Which is why he has so many of his brightest officers producing Power Point presentations proving that Bush is winning. Greater loyalty hath no soldier to his commander in chief.
In the information wars where spin is everything, it’s not whether you really win or lose a war that matters, but what people think happened.
The British are setting the standards for retreat having abandoned downtown Basra and preparing to quit the airport with a cock-and-bull story that this is what they had in mind all along. It was an ironic touch having the bugler blow the “advance” as the final convoy abandoned downtown Basra.
The Americans, too, are going to have to leave soon but are taking more care to build their narrative. They will not simply cut and run like us Brits. They will take care to declare victory first, then cut and run. Whatever subsequently happens in Iraq is now going to be blamed on the Iraqis themselves. What a glorious war!
“I can talk up a storm on the folly of George W. Bush or the evil that is Osama bin Laden” boasts Matthew Parris in his Saturday, July 7 column in The Times.
But Parris is volunteering for more hazardous columnising today. He is arguing that “the tide is turning against” Islamic terrorism. His evidence for this is “observation, hearsay and personal hunch.”
Parris declares: “We’re winning the battle – dare I utter the appalling cliché – of hearts and minds.”
Is it fair to describe this as delusional journalism? Are there metrics to substantiate this thesis? What sort of analysis are we dealing with here? A gnostic one contrasting the foolishness of George Bush with the evil of bin Laden. In which case, which “we” is winning? I propose the winner, insofar as Matthew is concerned, is foolishness.
Or I may misjudge him. Perhaps this is this one of these columns in which the gentle reader, guided by the observations and hunches of our fearless and cheekily revisionist columnist, finally sees through the falsity of received dogma. As the scoop of interpretation is revealed, the reader may rejoice that we are winning the war on terrorism after all. This perhaps is actually a redemptive column. The sort of thing to expect from an ernest vicar.
Yet Parris’s opinion is founded on nothing substantial at all. It exists detached completely from reality. Indeed it appears to have coincided with the most lethal car bombing so far, a siege to the death in Islamabad, the Glasgow doctors’ plot and no end whatsoever to the quotidian global horrors, albeit they have so far spared the Groucho club.
Compare Parris, purveyor of hunch, with some other journalism on offer. Because relative to the competition, Parris is writing tosh. Read the New Yorker on the poppy eradication program in Afghanistan, or Iraq Slogger, and in particular look at Le Monde Diplomatique, if you want a paradigm-shifting story about the changing nature of this thing called terror.
Reading Syed Saleem Shahzad in Le Monde Diplomatique, who has met many so-called terrorists, you are not likely to confuse his authority with that of Matthew Parris. It is in fact a contrast between two utterly different schools of journalism. One is revelatory, insightful, based on solid reporting. Parris is based on a hunch, a deadline and a fat check.
Syed’s article begins to describe the geography of a story rather than attempt to be the last word. But it is that rare thing in terrorism studies: an article with some intellectual coherence. Instead of triggering a bullshit detector, it has the smell of verissimilitude, as we say in the copy-tasting room, where we spit most of the stories out into a pot in the floor, and swallow only a few.
Syed writes of the struggles within islam itself and his story not only provides the outline of a sensible way of considering this problem, but additionally contains the uncomfortable reminder that this is not just about the comfort of Parris and his metropolitan friends. Almost all the victims of this war – or more properly, a series of armed conficts between state and non-state actors – are themselves muslims. I think this is much more interesting than Matthew’s wishful theories on hearts and minds. Compared to Parris’s theory that “we” are winning, Syed offers a different dimension of journalism, in which a complicated problem can be seen for what it is.
The on-line summary at Le Monde Diplo hardly does justice to Syed’s reporting.
Deux stratégies islamistes qui s’opposent – two opposing Islamist strategies
Al-Qaida contre les talibans – something genuinely fascinating – the old firm has broken up.
De la Somalie à l’Afghanistan, de l’Irak au Liban, en passant par la Palestine (lire « Comment le monde a enterré la Palestine »), se dessine un arc du chaos caractérisé par l’affaiblissement des Etats et le rôle croissant de groupes armés disposant d’un armement efficace (notamment roquettes et fusées) et échappant à tout contrôle centralisé. Pour les Etats-Unis, ces zones sont devenues le terrain principal de la « troisième guerre mondiale », de la « guerre contre le terrorisme ». Cette vision nourrit la stratégie de l’organisation Al-Qaida, engagée dans une lutte à mort contre « les croisés et les juifs ». Pourtant, sur le terrain, ces discours simplistes ne recouvrent pas une réalité bien plus contradictoire. En Irak, on assiste à une mobilisation d’une partie de la résistance sunnite contre les dérives d’Al-Qaida qui s’est lancée dans un sanglant combat contre les chiites, n’hésitant pas à s’en prendre à leurs lieux de culte. En Afghanistan, de violents incidents ont opposé les talibans aux combattants étrangers d’Al-Qaida, les premiers privilégiant une stratégie nationale (et la recherche d’un modus vivendi avec le pouvoir pakistanais) et les seconds appelant au renversement des régimes musulmans en place, dénoncés comme « impies ».
An arc of chaos is described by the map of Somalia to Afhagnistan, Iraq to the Lebanon, passing through Palestine. This is characterised by the weaknening of states and the growing role of armed groups outside of all effective centralised control and armed with effective weapons, notably rockets and explosives. For the United States these zones have become the principle battleground of the third world war or of the war against terrorism. This vision has in fact nourished, fed into the startegy of al-Qaida which is engaged in its own struggle to the death against christians and jews. Meanwhile on the ground, these simplistic discourses do not capture the reality which is much more conflicted. In Iraq one part of the sunni resistance is mobilising against Al-Qaida who have launched themselves in bloody fighting with the shiia… In Afghanistan there have been violent clashes between the taliban and the foreign fighters of al-Qaida, the Taliban primarily nationalists seeking a strategy including a modus vivendi with the Pakistani power next door; al-Qaida calling for the overthrow of Islamic regimes already in power which they denouce as impious.
Compared to this, Parris is not even starting to understand what he is writing about. One must mention in passing that more than 150 people were killed in one Iraqi city in terrorist attacks on the very day that Parris’s column appeared, although none of them will have been known to Parris.
In the campaign to purge delusion from the media on the subject of terrorism, one cannot help notice today’s Sunday Telegraph with its splash warning of a 15-year fight against terror. This is an intriguing new benchmark – one previously undisclosed, I believe. We have been warned that this is generational. But 15 years sound rather specific. A target!
Admiral Sir Alan West, a former first sea lord, now a war counsellor to Grodon Brown, choses a Tory paper to predict that the war on terror will take a decade and a half to win, and went on to make similar points on Sky News. So this was entirely manufactured news.
Interestingly, though, with the scoop that this is no more than three five-year plans. Fifteen years is in fact a dramatic improvement since the forecast of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, our man in Kabul, last month that it would take 30 years to win the instant struggle. (Apparently, the largest British embassy in the world is being built in Kabul so Cowper-Coles may just have been making the case for a longer mortgage. His embassy should be a long way out of town, in a defensible position, is my advice.)
So more happy news on the war on terror. Within a fortnight of the Brown administration taking over, the time to win has been reduced by decades, from those now obsolete estimates of Cowper-Coles, to the really rather encouraging estimate of Admiral West.
Oh, but we mustn’t call it a “war on terror”. West says of the phrase: “I hate that expression. When I first heard it – I think it came over from the states – I thought it was totally the wrong thing.”
He continues, oddly, that,”it’s not like a war in that sense at all. It demeans the value of a war and it demeans the value of a lot of things.” Demeans the nobility of war, perhaps? What does he mean? That terrorists fight dirty?
Reading Parris, West and Syed Saleem Shahzad I am not sure how we will know when we have won the war on terror – perhaps there will be no more terrorists. West is right, however, that a new approach is badly needed to tackle it. But what is this to be? Be nicer to muslims? More bombs? Poppy eradication? Information war?
The fundamental problem is one that nobody dares acknowledge. The versions of democracy and justice on offer on our side are actually pretty unconvincing. Our example is frankly not so persuasive in the battle for hearts and minds. Maybe if there were no secret prisons, no torturers, elections were decided by voters and not lawyers, seats were not for sale in parliament, corrupt arms dealers were not operating in collusion with governments, for example, the “west” could offer some rentable values to the world.
Until then, it does sound as if the answers to the problem of terror are less likely to be found in the west than within islam itself.
We are all capable of writing real nonsense from time to time. It is odd how the war on terrorism brings out the worst in many journalists as well as most politicians.
A useful Wikipedia discussion of the expression “war on terror” can be found here.
I have previously written of delusional media here, questioning Channel 4 News’s theories on muslim alienation.
George Bush has not commuted a single one of the 155 death sentences for which he has been responsible as governor of Texas and president of the United States. Not that he is without mercy. Scooter Libby, a political crony of the vice president convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to prison, will not spend a day in jail, thanks to Bush’s intervention.
Bush smirked as he sent Karla Tucker, the cutest of his victims, to the lethal injection chamber, accounting for nothing the horrendous circumstances of her life and what seemed subsequently to be genuine remorse for her actions. Crowds outside the prison cheered as Karla Tucker was killed. Karla Tucker was of course merely a former drug addict and prostitute who used to hang out with the Allman Brothers band, whereas Libby was a graduate of Andover Academy and Yale.
An excellent contribution here from Antigram.
Cars can drink it
Why not just buy all the poppy in Afghanistan? Apprently the drug companies need the stuff because of a shortage of clinical morphine. So we (taxpayers of the west) should buy it. All of it. This has to be cheaper than the alternative. In a pinch, we could send it to the EU for custody. With its experience of butter mountains and wine lakes, Brussels would be ideal guardian of the poppy silos. Or perhaps the opium could be turned into biofuel. Think how mellow our highways could be in the miasma of opiates.
Instead of spending a fortune sending soliders to Afghanistan we should be sending teams of failed contestants from the Apprentice to set up a poppy monopsony in Helmand province.
A Tesco could follow. And we could win those fabled hearts and minds. But nobody listens to me.
Bush & Blair of course understood nothing. Today, Afghanistan looks like another unwinnable project. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are at war with each other as well as us. (The wars within Islam are complicated. A handy guide (in French) is in the July issue of Le Monde diplomatique.) The world is flooded in heroin. The Americans bomb women and children and we are told by the British ambassador in Kabul that this is a struggle that will take 30 years to win!
It is of course much worse in Iraq, which Bush invaded for no good reason that can now be remembered. Here, breathtaking tactical incompetence has put the country in the grip of not one but many simultaneous civil wars, in which the coalition is increasingly embroiled. There are various military fantasies at play but the verdict of the British in the south that they are making things worse not better is at least as good a hypothesis as the theory that we must remain or there will be chaos. And what is there now?
Thanks to Bush and Blair, Iraq is an acute humanitarian disaster. The absolute number of persons engaged in terrorism has increased. Thousands of people are being killed every month, tens of thousands hurt, hundreds of thousands displaced. Does Brown have a project to address this? Does Cameron?
Iraq is not the only place where America and its allies are losing the war on terror. Forget fighting on the beaches. How does one “win” a war in terror in Britain?
With many innocent people already killed (in horrifying cicumstances) and more, one shudders to predict, almost certain to die or be maimed, all of our lives have become far more unpleasant, living as we do in a war zone. Civil liberties are being taken and demolished. We are told to be afraid and there is good reason.
As the butcher’s bill grows in the field, and politicians profess their ritual weekly regret, there are growing hundreds of families in Britain who have lost someone close, in this combat, and tens of thousands more who wince every time the TV or radio speaks of another British soldier being killed. Meanwhile, on the home front, the war is without end. You cannot hear a siren without wondering. Of course we are terrorised; by ministers if nobody else. We are told another attack is imminent. We have now had the first attempts at car bombing; how long will it be before the first roadside bomb is exploded in Britain?
As it has turned out, this hopeless war has brought us to a position far worse than even the most pessimistic critics could have imagined. Fuel has been thrown on the fire. Amerian moral authority has evaporated. No single war aim has been achieved. Neither dead or alive, Osama Bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind assigned responsibility for 9-11, has not been caught, or killed, as far as can be known. Although there is something frankly very odd about this particular side of the story.
The global theatre of the war on terror today encompasses Pakistan through Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Gaza and Glasgow and everywhere else. The US is weakened and even crippled. Who benefits? Cheney’s former employer has done well and the oil companies have had some good quarters, but the neocon project is really a failure in its own terms.
Setting out on a war on terror created a priori an impossible to achieve objective. The war has condemned its architects to failure. The legacy of Bush and Cheney will turn out the exact opposite of the intention. Muscular christian democracy has brought Bush and America to their knees.
The problem with Bush is that he loves being a “war president” but he picks the wrong wars. There are dozens of better things to declare war against. The war on poverty was declared by Lyndon Johnson and is still awaiting a conclusion. I also remember wars on cancer and wars on drugs. None of these seem to be won and now we have a war on terror that is equally likely to be unwon.
So even without dwelling on the complexities of this story – including the civil wars ranging with Islam itself, or that by far the majority of the victims of this war are in fact Muslim – we come to: so what the hell do we do now? Perhaps by becoming a beacon of justice the United States (with some help from the poodle British) could have more influence in the world – but of course this is a ridiculous thought.
An excellent article appears in the New Yorker – The Taliban’s Opium War – confirming the utter futility, corruption, and unintended consequences of the effort to destroy poppy in Afghanistan. Needless to say private military contractors are deeply implicated in this. This is a chilling story of the delusional nature of American and allied security operations in Helmand province.