Friday, November 10, 2006

Dodging bullets

I had a reply on 26 Oct from the BBC, concerning my complaint about a broadcast on 12 Jun 2006. They refer me to the BBC's Editorial Guidelines which state: “our journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgments but not express personal opinions on matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy.” I have replied as follows:
You say that I 'hold a different view' (concerning the planning, or lack of, for the post-invasion period). Actually, I don't. I question, however, whether it is relevant, when talking about a situation in mid-2006, to focus on actions that were done, or not done, in April 2003, while virtually ignoring more proximate causes, like the terrorist attack of 24 Oct 2005. In some situations it is appropriate to talk about the lack of planning, as for example in John Simpson's comment on the departure of Donald Rumsfeld (6 o'clock News, Radio 4, 8 Nov 2006).

I do not intend to take this complaint further. It just saddens me. I thought the BBC was trying to be a world-class information provider. At least as far as Iraq goes, I shall continue to place more credence in coverage from the Financial Times and, via the wonders of the World Wide Web, the New York Times.

I suppose I cannot complain about the BBC being, well, just mediocre.
From time to time, I do sample perhaps a week or two of the New York Times coverage of Iraq. After a regular diet of the BBC, it is like walking from the company of whingeing children to that of adults. Here are a couple of highlights from the last week or so.
By many measures, the Iraqi snipers have showed unexceptional marksmanship, usually shooting from within 300 yards, far less than ranges preferred by the elite snipers in Western military units. But as the insurgent sniper teams have become more active, the marines here say, they have displayed greater skill, selecting their targets and their firing positions with care. They have also developed cunning methods of mobility and concealment, including firing from shooting platforms and hidden ports within cars.

They often use variants of the long-barreled Dragunov rifle, which shoots higher-powered ammunition than the much more common Kalashnikov assault rifles. Their marksmanship has improved to the point of being good enough. [...] The insurgents are recruiting snipers and centralizing their instruction, the captain [Glen Taylor, Company G, Second Battalion, Eighth Marines] said, meaning that the phenomenon is likely to grow.
[...]
Many marines, on operations, do an understated dance they call “cutting squares.” It is not really a square at all. They zig and zag as they walk, and when they stop they shift weight from foot to foot, bobbing their heads. They change the rhythm often, so that when a sniper who might be watching them thinks they are about to zig, they have zagged. Now and then they squat, shift weight to one leg and stand up beside the place where they had just been. ('Sniper Attacks Adding to Peril of U.S. Troops', November 4, 2006)
On Iraq’s 24-hour terrorism hot line.
In the past few weeks, the American military command, which has invested millions of dollars in publicizing the operation, has made some emergency modifications to try to rescue it. The changes appear to have had an effect, increasing the number of tips. But one of the biggest challenges remains: trying to change Iraqis’ opinion of a program they had all but written off.

The National Tips Hot Line, as it is known, was founded in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority, guaranteeing callers anonymity and collecting information about insurgent activity, bomb threats, kidnappings, killings and other major crimes. The hot line, which later became a joint coalition-Iraqi venture, was a foreign concept in a country that associated intelligence gathering by the state with brutal coercion.

The American military started a multimedia promotional campaign for the hot line, budgeting $9.9 million through March 2007 for billboard, print, radio and television advertisements, as well as market research. And month after month, officials hailed it as a growing success. [...] Yet too often, Iraqis were calling the number, 130, and not getting through. Some who did later complained that no response by security forces was evident.
[...]
[A]fter rising slowly yet steadily since the hot line’s inception, the number of tips suddenly started to dry up last summer. From a rate of about 62 usable tips a day in June, the number dropped to about 29 tips a day in mid-September, according to statistics provided by the American military. On Sept. 19, the operators recorded only one usable tip.

Officials at the highest levels of the American command, which had taken great pride in the tips line, saw the data in September and demanded to know what was going on. It turned out that while plenty of people were calling, they were mostly the wrong kind of callers. Almost all intended to harass the operators, presumably as part of an effort by the insurgency to tie up the lines. Callers berated and threatened the operators. [...] legitimate callers could not get through.

Furthermore, at any given time, there were at most five operators answering 15 lines at the headquarters, located in a pair of small, windowless buildings in the Green Zone. And some operators, out of fatigue, frustration or laziness, were simply taking their telephones off the hook.
[...]
No coalition money had been budgeted for the operation in 2006 except for advertising and to pay the salaries of several British contractors who trained the hot line operators, officials said. The telephone technology, the condition of the offices, supervision and morale were suffering.
[...]
Colonel Robles and an Iraqi counterpart, a police brigadier who requested anonymity, introduced a new work ethic, resolved some technical issues and improved the working conditions. By the second week of October, the number of usable tips had tripled, hitting about 89 per day. For the first time, the colonel said, the operators “recognized that someone was paying attention.” New operators and new lines will be added in the coming weeks, he said, and the center will soon shift to a new, undisclosed location where it will have better phone technology. Operators’ techniques are continuing to improve, officials said, drawing more information from the callers and enabling the security forces to act on more tips.

There is still no solution to the chronic problem of nuisance calls, an issue that was on full display during two visits to the call center last month, the first time the American command has granted access to the news media. It was a relatively slow day because it was a national holiday, but still the phones rang constantly, at least one call every two seconds. Nearly all the calls, however, were harassing ones.

The continual deluge of nuisance calls has worn on the operators. “It doesn’t bother me so much,” said one operator, an experienced police officer, who requested anonymity out of concern for his safety. “But sometimes it’s hard on the younger guys.” And then, as if on cue, another operator slammed down his receiver. Colonel Robles said coalition authorities were trying to develop technology that would help reduce nuisance calls, but he did not divulge any details, citing security concerns.

In spite of its limitations, the service has charted some successes. From Feb. 1 to Oct. 21, [William Scott, one of the British contractors] said, tips have led to the discovery of at least 19 car bombs, 175 bombs along the country’s roadways, 66 mortars, numerous munitions stockpiles and the arrest of 139 people suspected of being insurgents. “If we can save one person a day, then we’re doing a good job,” said the hot line operator. ('U.S. Backs Hot Line in Iraq to Solicit Tips About Trouble', November 5, 2006)
As for the FT, I meant to post this much earlier:
For over a year, particularly since the arrival in Baghdad of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, the Bush administration has been quietly shifting strategy in the management of Iraqi politics, reversing many earlier decisions in favour of actions that its critics had long urged.
('US doing right things in Iraq, two years too late', Roula Khalaf, October 27 2006, subscribers only)
PS: there was a story about the snipers on Channel 4 News, 9 Nov 2006.

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