Thursday, November 30, 2006

Truth and Iraq

Brian Logan, writing about David Hare, in The Times 2 on Monday:   
“My plays are very near the knuckle,” he told The Times last month. In another recent interview, discussing Stuff Happens, he claims that “my theory” that “the Iraq invasion was dreamt up by an opportunistic group in the White House who were simply exploiting 9/11 in the most cynical way” was at the time “a very controversial point of view”. Was it controversial? Wasn’t it, in the UK at least, the orthodoxy?
True. But Logan also says:
Stuff Happens was an unenlightening cuttings-job on the machinations leading to war [..], plus some made-up bits promoting Colin Powell as a man of integrity, and George W. Bush as the brains behind the operation. History, it need hardly be added, has since made a mockery of both characterisations.

Still, it never ceases to amaze me how, in their rush to condemn the Bush government and its Iraq policy, people are prepared to diesregard the truth. 'Iraq Uncovered', a rather dreary documentary film from 2004, shown recently on Five US in Britain, claimed that Richard Armitage, Powell's deputy at the State Department, was a neo-conservative! Well, I'd never heard that one before. There is a specific reason for doubting it.

When it emerged that it was Armitage who leaked the information that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, there was barely a mention, at least in the British media. If it had been more evidence to implicate Karl Rove or even Dick Cheney, we'd never have heard the end of it. As The Washington Post put it:
Armitage's involvement in the matter does not fit neatly into the assertions of Bush administration critics that Plame's employment was disclosed as part of a White House conspiracy to besmirch Wilson by suggesting his Niger trip stemmed from nepotism at the CIA. Wilson and Plame have sued top administration officials, alleging that the leak was meant as retaliation.

But Armitage, the source Novak had described obliquely as someone who is "not a political gunslinger," was by all accounts hardly a tool of White House political operatives. [..] Armitage was a prominent Republican appointee. But he also privately disagreed with the tone and style of White House policymaking on Iraq and other matters. ('Ex-Colleague Says Armitage Was Source of CIA Leak', August 29, 2006)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Allies of the al-Sauds

On that same thread I mentioned at the end of my last post about Pierre Gemayel, I noticed another comment by Charles Coutinho. He's right, the al-Saud family won the kingdom by conquest. The British initially backed the Hashemite family, but later came to terms with the al-Sauds. There may have been sheer incompetence on the part of the Hashemites, but also they were weakened because they were seen as having betrayed Islam by  fighting against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. 

As an example of the Saudi-British alliance, before the days of oil, the kingdom was heavily dependent on revenues from pilgrimages to Mecca. When these were reduced during World War II, it received subsidies from Britain and the US.

This was British 'sphere of interest' was later more or less taken over by the US (*). Roosevelt famously met on board ship with the Saudi king during the the war. Any idea, though, that the Americans went behind the back of the British to "steal" their ally is, in my view, way off the mark. The British continued to derive great benefit from their relationship with the Saudi Arabia. In 1985 they signed a large  contract for the supply of fighter aircraft and another deal was in the offing earlier this year.  The Saudis apparently find it a little less politically sensitive to be supplied by the British rather than the Americans (**).

* See William L.Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 1994 and the last two paragraphs of an earlier post of mine.

** Reports in the Financial Times.

Update: important new evidence has been released today that supports what I say above about the Saudi-British-American relationship. King Ibn Saud refused to agree to the meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, unless Churchill was also present. The British PM, however, wrote to the king saying, "I greatly desire that you meet him..."

Incidentally, the contrasting views of Roosevelt and Churchill about the question of Jewish resettlement are surprising, to say the least. ( The Today Programme, 24 Nov; listen)

The murder of Pierre Gemayel

A special programme on Europe 1 the following day (22 Nov).
Pro-Syrian forces, like Hezbollah, would like to bring down the Lebanese government (they only need to assassinate two more cabinet ministers to achieve this), so that they can prevent it voting to pursue Syria in the Hariri investigation.

But why would they have carried out the murder the day after Syria re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq? Is it not more likely that pro-Iranian forces are behind it, asked another commentator. Iran, after all, would look unfavourably (with a mauvais œil) on those very efforts to "engage" on Iraq, with the US, which would leave it isolated.

No, came back the reply, Syria's interest in Lebanon, blocking the Hariri investigation, takes precedence over everything.

Josh Landis at was not blogging when I looked. However, commenters have posted  Michael Young’s article in the Wall Street Journal and the article in the FT by Roula Khalaf  et al.

PSG 2, Hapoƫl Tel-Aviv 4

Update: you knew this post wasn't about football, didn't you? But if you're interested in the match, here it is (in English). I got a lot of hits from this site, though I couldn't actually see where they linked me. More:
TEL AVIV BEATS PARIS IN SOCCER; ONLY 1 KILLED The police officer, who was not identified, was trying to protect a Hapoel Tel Aviv fan set upon by some 150 PSG supporters, police said. The officer lobbed tear gas when the crowd went after the Hapoel supporter then fired two shots
The BBC eventually had something on it. Back to French:
PSG: des insultes racistes et antisémites à l'origine du drame [24/11/2006 12:44] (Nouvel Observateur)
PARIS (AP) -- Des insultes racistes et antisémites ont été proférées jeudi soir par les agresseurs d'un policier qui protégeait un supporter du club de Tel Aviv à l'issue de la rencontre entre le PSG et le club israélien, a indiqué vendredi le procureur de la République de Paris, Jean-Claude Marin.
The original post is below.

Following a defeat of Paris-Saint-Germain by the Israeli side in a football match...
Le fonctionnaire en civil, dépourvu de brassard «police», tentait apparemment de venir en aide à un supporteur israélien agressé par un groupe de supporteurs parisiens après le match...
Bilan : un supporteur du PSG d’une vingtaine d’années tué et un autre gravement blessé.
Il aurait alors fait usage d'une bombe lacrymogène afin de se dégager puis tiré deux coups de feu. Toujours selon les premiers éléments de l’enquête, le policier aurait ensuite été pourchassé par le groupe de supporteurs, puis se serait réfugié dans un Mac Donald's. (report in  Le Figaro)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Remembering "the 'stans"

Jeff Weintraub reflects on the assault on freedom of expression in much of the former Soviet Union.
The pattern is uneven. [...] varying degrees of authoritarian repression have long been pervasive in countries like Belarus and most of the Central Asian republics. ...
(The conception of this post began back in the summer, but other issues seemed more pressing then. It is still a little sketchy.)

Central Asia contains two of the very worst dictatorships in the world. Other states in the region though, while far from being perfect democracies, might be described as 'swing countries'. Take Kyrgyzstan for example. The BBC sometimes carries reports from there by their correspondent, Natalia Antelava. Here are a few things that can be found on their website:
Police in Kyrgyzstan have arrested six people on charges of religious extremism and their links to events in the Uzbek town of Andijan in 2005. The arrests came amid heightened security in the south after shoot-outs between police and alleged Islamists near the border with Uzbekistan.

Police say the six have confessed to roles in last year's events in Andijan, when Uzbek troops fired on protesters. Andijan is close to Kyrgyzstan, and many survivors fled across the border. Most of them live in hiding, afraid of the regular incursions by the Uzbek security services, and their numbers are not clear. Uzbekistan has put pressure on its smaller and more impoverished neighbour, Kyrgyzstan, to send those people back.    ('Kyrgyz police hold "Andijan six"',  2006/07/20)
A prominent and popular imam has been killed in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in the town of Korasuv in the Ferghana Valley near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. According to his family and local police, the imam - Rafik Kamalov - was shot dead by Kyrgyz special forces.  But security officials have not confirmed his death.
In an interview with the BBC, Kyrgyz security officials confirmed that they had killed three men during a special operation on Thursday night and that all of them were members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - a banned radical organisation. The officials neither confirmed nor denied that Rafik Kamalov, the Imam of the biggest mosque along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, was among them. But family members, who are preparing for the funeral, deny that he belonged to any Islamic group.

For the past month, Kyrgyz security services, often with the help of their Uzbek colleagues, have launched a massive operation aimed at eradicating what the government here calls the serious threat of Islamic fundamentalism. But human rights groups have voiced concern that this label is often used to silence political dissent.    ('Popular Kyrgyz imam shot dead ', 2006/08/07)
Russian prosecutors say they will extradite to Uzbekistan 13 people facing terrorism charges over the 13 May 2005 Andijan crackdown. The men are suspected of crimes including incitement of extremist acts and murder, a Russian official said. But rights groups say the cases against the men, who they describe as refugees, are fabricated.
The Russian authorities say they have received a guarantee from Uzbekistan that the 13 men, all ethnic Uzbeks, will not be tortured or sentenced to death.
('Russia to return Uzbek "suspects" ', 2006/08/04)
A later report indicated that Russia had suspended the extradition:
The 13 had earlier appealed to the European Court of Human Rights against their extradition. The Russian prosecutor general's office said it was acting in line with the Court's rules, which prohibit deportation while appeals are pending. (2006/08/15)
Just to note one other thing:
Since the uprising in Kyrgyzstan last year, the new president, Bakiyev, has been less of an ally for the US and has turned increasingly to Russia for support. But at least they are allowing the US to keep the military base at Manas, though at a cost of $150m instead of the previous $2m. (FT, 12 Aug 2006.)

There is another aspect: I remember seeing a documentary a year or two ago called something like "Meet the 'stans", where officials in Tajikistan were struggling with very few resources to control the drug traffic coming across the Amu Darya (Oxus) River. I fail to understand why, when we are prepared to put our soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, we are unable to give more help to countries like this (but see update below).

An invaluable book for background is Ahmed Rashid's Jihad: The rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, written in 2001. The general paradigm remains the same.
In a region beset with authoritarianism, Niyazov heads the most dictatorial regime in Central Asia, and his personality cult casts even that of Stalin in the shade. ... Already both the Taliban and the IMU have forged routes through Turkmenistan to help smuggle Afghan heroin to the West with the help of corrupt Turkmen officials.
 'Uzbekistan is leading a region wide crackdown on all forms of Islam that are not state-controlled - repression that is driving entire villages into opposition and forcing religion underground... If a Taliban style threat arises in central Asia, it will be because the dictatorships inadvertently helped to create it.' (New York Times, August 2001)
Update: a report on Channel 4 News this week states that only 15% of Afghanistan's opium production goes north. Most of the smuggling goes through Iran.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

No WMDs, no revelation

In the magazine included with the FT of November 11/12 2006, Stephen Graubard's Books essay 'Occupational hazards' (published on the website November 3 2006) states:
The most interesting revelations relate to Saddam Hussein, who in December 2002 informed his Revolutionary Command Council, Ba’ath party aides and top military commanders that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction - a surprise for many of them.
Hardly a revelation. This was substantially reported in the Final Report of the Iraq Survey Group (published 30 Sep 2004):
Saddam surprised his generals when he informed them he had no WMD in December 2002 because his boasting had led many to believe Iraq had some hidden capability...
See also David_Aaronovitch in March this year:
just last week The New York Times reported that Iraqi generals were “stunned” when they were told shortly before the invasion that the chemical and biological weapons upon which they were depending to fight the invaders did not exist.
True, it is something that is not often noted, since it runs contrary to the thesis that 'Bush is a liar'.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The PS candidates

Ségolène Royal, Monday; Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Tuesday; Laurent Fabius, Wednesday; rss_link - see note at the end of my previous post. François Hollande will sum up on Friday, after the party members have voted.

Ségolène was not asked about and did not say anything about international affairs.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A beacon of light...

... in France.

Remarks in the French media on the question of Iraq often have a formulaic predictability. For example, France Inter radio's two main commentators on international affairs (or at least those I get to hear, Bernard Guetta and Dominique Bromberger) always seem to go like this, when they get onto the subject: 'Bla bla bla ... bourbier (quaqmire) ... bla bla bla ... Bush ... bla bla bla ... désastre ... bla bla bla ... aventure Irakienne.'

But here is how Le Monde reported Ségolène Royal speaking in the last of the debates of those still in the running to be the Parti Socialiste candidate for President of the Republic:
Elle s'est également démarquée de manière inédite sur l'Irak, parlant en termes constructifs, après sa rencontre avec le président irakien Talabani, du "gouvernement démocratique en Irak" et évoquant des pistes concrètes pour aider le pays à se reconstruire. 'Ségolène Royal conteste le nucléaire civil iranien', 8 Nov 2006
This is how the BBC website reported the same debate:
Ms Royal criticised the Bush administration, saying: "We cannot accept the concept of preventive war nor succumb to the temptation of unilateralism." She avoided the question of a US withdrawal from Iraq but said the international community needed to help Iraqis build democracy, adding that any success would be solely due to their effort.
The other issue on which she marked herself out from the other two candidates was on Iran. Le Monde, again:
[Mme Royal] a persisté, forte d'une approche fondée moins sur les traités internationaux que sur la nature du régime iranien. Elle a surtout invoqué la possibilité proposée par Moscou que les Russes fournissent à Téhéran le combustible nucléaire civil nécessaire. "Cette solution est beaucoup plus prudente tant que le régime iranien n'aura pas évolué."
According to France Inter, Laurent Fabius said that she had 'dropped a clanger' (fait une bourde), by denying Iran the right to a civil nuclear programme. No, came back Ségolène's camp, it was Fabius who had dropped a clanger, since Iran had the right to a nuclear programme only if it accepted IAEA inspections.

PS: John Thornhill, in a long piece in the FT Magazine a few weeks ago, including coverage of an earlier debate, quotes Jacques Seguela, a former adviser to Mitterrand, who
suggests that Royal could prove formidably difficult to defeat. “Segolene’s strength is that she’s a woman of the left who embodies the values of the right. That is a paradox but it is her strength,” he says. “The French people want softness in form, but rigour in practice. There is something of Sarkozy in Segolene, but there is no Segolene in Sarkozy.
('Liberté, égalité, féminité', 20 Oct)
The three candidates are on France Inter next week, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings...

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.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

News from Lebanon

... (well, old news very old news really) - if you read French.

Le ministre israélien de la défense, Amir Péretz, avait annoncé que "le dernier soldat israélien aura quitté le Liban pour Yom Kippour", la fête juive qui commençait dimanche soir 1er octobre. Mais ce retrait des 800 derniers hommes encore présents a, jusqu'au dernier moment, suscité des réticences à l'état-major israélien.

Le 25 septembre, dans le New York Times, des responsables de la Finul II expliquaient qu'elle "ne pourra pas fouiller des voitures, des maisons". "S'ils voient un camion transportant des missiles, ils disent qu'ils ne peuvent pas l'arrêter", ajoutait l'article. Immédiatement, Israël indiquait que Tsahal n'achèverait pas son retrait du Liban tant que la force onusienne "ne prendrait pas son travail au sérieux".

Un "haut gradé" assurait que l'Etat juif exigeait que la Finul "adopte des règles d'engagement plus agressives. Sinon, nous sommes prêts à rester au Liban aussi longtemps que nécessaire", ajoutait-il. En votant la résolution 1701, le Conseil de sécurité n'a pas donné mandat à la Finul II de désarmer le Hezbollah. L'ONU ne pourrait réussir là où Israël a échoué, et une telle mission aurait dissuadé des pays contributeurs d'y participer. Le mandat consiste à "contrôler la cessation des hostilités" et "appuyer les forces armées libanaises" pour établir, entre le fleuve Litani et la "ligne bleue" (la frontière provisoire issue du précédent retrait israélien, en 2000), une zone démilitarisée. Pour ce faire, le Conseil de sécurité autorise la Finul II à "prendre toutes les mesures nécessaires" – donc, au besoin, la force – contre quiconque voudrait "l'empêcher par la force de s'acquitter de ses obligations".
A la demande de pays comme la France, la résolution a été militairement traduite par un "concept d'opération" robuste. Mais de fait, la Finul II se livre à un numéro d'équilibrisme entre désir de projeter une image de fermeté et risque de s'aliéner les populations. "Nous ne sommes pas là pour faire la guerre à l'une ou l'autre des parties", explique Hédi Annabi, son numéro deux. Le désarmement du Hezbollah interviendra au terme d'un processus politique, estime-t-il. "La force est là pour soutenir ce processus, pas pour s'y substituer."

Pour l'ONU, l'armée libanaise est en première ligne, la Finul II en appui. Mais, "devant des violations flagrantes, la force devra prendre ses responsabilités", poursuit M. Annabi. Exemple : si des soldats onusiens repèrent un camion rempli d'armes, l'armée libanaise devra l'intercepter. Sinon, ils le feront–si besoin par la force.
(Le Monde, 03.10.2006)
Snarksmith had a nice link to David Aaronovitch's programme, shown on Channel 5 on 26 Sept. In the programme, it was said that Hezbollah are "deeply anti-semitic". I don't doubt the veracity of the reports of some words from the mouth of Hassan Nasrallah. In general, though, Hezbollah people deny they are anti-Jewish (for example, Nawaf Moussawi, on The Interview, 15 Oct. - link valid until 20 Oct). What they do do, though, is consistently deny Israel's right to exist.

PS: I have been away for a few days, but the main reason for the lack of posts here is almost entirely pressure of work.