Bombing the Grey Zone

At some point in the future it would be good to imagine that our descendants may look back on our dark and savage world with sadness and horror, and regard it as a bygone tragedy that has been overcome and superseded by a more enlightened era.  Perhaps  historians will look back and seek to draw  lessons from our collective descent into the abyss, the way we now look back at the 1930s and the rise of fascism,    because the careful study of history can always provide salutary lessons to those disposed to look for them.

They may wonder how it came to be that human beings came to believe that mass murder was a testament of religious faith; that it was acceptable to slaughter unarmed and defenseless civilians  in Brussels, Baghdad, Paris, Ankara and so many other cities with the casual disregard of a child stepping on an ants nest.  Our descendants may notice that these actions did not take place in a vacuum.

Looking for context and motivation, they will observe that the crimes and atrocities perpetrated by Salafist/takfiri terrorists took place in a world seething with war, militarism, religious fanaticism, racism, hatred and injustice, whose leaders responded with indifference, incompetence or narrow self-interest.   They may trace the more perverse forms of globalisation that connected even the most seemingly distant and disparate protagonists to the same continuum of violence, whether it was petty criminals turned into ‘martyrdom bombers’ in Brussels or drone operators in Nevada surveilling targets in Waziristan or Somalia.

Our happy descendants may wonder why men with kalishnikovs and suicide belts only talked about God and faith as a justification for war and killing; why wars fought in the name of humanitarianism carved a swathe of devastation across the Middle East and North Africa; why men, women and even children fleeing these wars were regarded as dangerous intruders; why a voracious media selectively transformed certain terror-spectacles into universal events and ignored others.

In seeking to find an ‘explanation’ for yesterday’s terror-event and so many others, they may have to consider the strategic template outlined in  an article published in ISIS’s English-language magazine Dabiq in November last year, which explained that it was necessary to destroy the ‘grey zone’ inhabited by Western Muslims and turn the societies where the lived against them:

“The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufrÄ« [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffār [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens… Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of ‘Islam’ before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.”

Our future scholars may notice that Daesh aren’t the only ones who want to destroy this ‘grey zone’.  They may notice that yesterday’s atrocities  provoked a Twitter hashtag #StopIslam;  that hatemongers across Europe blamed refugees for these attacks before any of them even had the slightest idea who actually carried them out; that Ted Cruz talked of policing Muslim communities in the United States; that Donald Trump wants a new license to waterboard and torture; that Marine le Pen called for France to shut its borders to refugees and immigrants.

Our descendants may well ask why so many people who claimed to despise Daesh/Islamic State seemed so willing to do its work for them.   They will hopefully be asking these questions about the past, not the present, because they will inhabit a very different world from ours; a world that has rediscovered true internationalism – not the truncated or fake versions propagated by humanitarian militarists and the ‘soldiers of the caliphate’; a world in which politics is no longer the degraded and horrific nightmare that it has currently become, but a common arena in which men and women of all faiths and beliefs can work towards the greater good in the interests of the many, not the few, and our best and most generous hopes, instincts and traditions as a species are reflected, rather than the worst.

In this world the murderers who we currently fear and despise would have no constituency.  Politically-convenient phantasms of national security would be replaced by notions of collective security and global justice that are truly borderless; useless and divisive counterterrorism programs and states of emergency will have been replaced by genuine outreach that embraces all communities, faiths and cultures, and sordid and destructive geopolitical resource wars will have been replaced by a common effort to protect and preserve the planet that we are fortunate to call our common home.

You might think that imagining such a future is an act of self-indulgence or a pointless distraction, especially after yesterday’s events, but  at the moment we are being herded with frightening speed towards a very different future by the murderers who carried out yesterday’s attackers – and also by so many who have used these attacks as a justification for hating and excluding people who had nothing to do with them.

In this future there will only be more wars and more atrocities, and more of the horrible dynamic in which each atrocity becomes another justification to intensify and extend the state of permanent pseudo-war that cannot coexist indefinitely with democratic governance;  more barbed-wire fences, more militarised borders, more dead refugees, and above all more hatred and persecution.

No one can say where this will lead us, but we know where some people want it to lead., and you would have to really complacent to dismiss the worst-case scenarios that are beginning to loom on the horizon.

So it’s precisely now,  at a time when all of us are diminished and sullied by yet another brutal injection of horror into our mournful, dysfunctional present, when our best hopes seem futile and pointless and we are assaulted by all kinds of sinister possibilities, that we need to hold onto what is good and even noble about our species, and imagine the future once again as a place worth living in, and figure out a way to work towards it.


The Sorrows of Mexico

There aren’t many countries where bodies are discovered in a mass grave believed to be the known victims of a known massacre,   only for it to turn out that the bodies were actually the unknown victims of an unknown massacre, but Mexico is one of them.     Three weeks ago 43 teaching students disappeared from the town of Iguala, in the southern state of Guererro after they were attacked by local police and unidentified gunmen during a protest.

Even by Mexican standards, Guererro is a rough place, outside its capital Acapulco anyway.     This was the state depicted by the Mexican director Francisco Vargas Quevedo in his bleak depiction of military violence, poverty and oppression El Violin – a must-see film for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Mexico.   In 2013 Guerrero was the most violent state in Mexico, with 2,087 homicides and 207 reported cases of kidnapping, and the US Embassy advises its citizens not to even travel by daylight on certain roads.

The state is a lot more dangerous for Mexicans.     The students are believed to have been attacked while returning home on buses by local police acting in collusion with the local drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, who are also believed to have been linked to the local mayor.

When a number of mass graves were discovered last week, the Mexican media originally reported that they contained the bodies of the missing students.     Now the Mexican attorney general has said that DNA tests on the first 28 bodies do not match the students after all, which leaves the question of who these new victims are, and also the still unanswered question of what happened to the students themselves.

The range of   victims and possible perpetrators will surprise no one with any familiarity with Meixco.       This is a country in which thousands of people simply vanish every year.   In 2012 Mexico suffered an estimated 105,682 kidnappings; only 1,317 of which were reported to the police.   In 2013 it was reported that 26,000 people had disappeared during President Felipe Calderon’s catastrophic ‘war on drugs’ between 2006 and 2012.     Today the number of missing people is estimated by the government at more than 34,000.

That figure doesn’t include the 100,000 murders that have taken place during the wars between Mexico’s savage drug cartels.  To put these figures in perspective, up to 30,000 people may have been ‘disappeared’ during the six-year dictatorship in Argentina – in a merciless slaughter that is rightly remembered as one of the great state crimes of the 20th century.

In Mexico people disappear so frequently and for so many reasons that the phenomenon has acquired a depressing   normality, both nationally and internationally.   They might be Mexican and Central American migrants, murdered, raped or enslaved during the dangerous journeys from Chiapas and across the US-Mexico border that Oscar Martínez described so brilliantly in his journalistic masterpiece The Beast; unacknowledged casualties of Mexico’s drug wars; trafficked women on slave workers; victims of extorsion…and students protesting the corruption of the local state authorities.

Some of them can be found on government and non-official websites, with photographs and brief biographies and descriptions, last whereabouts and sometimes grim messages of last conversations with unnamed kidnappers who didn’t call back.

Too often they disappear without any explanation and their disappearances remain unexplained,   because the police and state authorities have no interest in finding them, and may actually have colluded in their disapperance.  Writing of his research into 300 disappearances in 11 Mexican states, Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch noted that   ‘if these disappearances share anything in common, it is that the government has done almost nothing to try to find the missing.’

Back in the 1970s that the Latin American ‘national security states’ gave rise to a new semantic term los desaparacidos – the disappeared – to describe the people who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the security forces, whose disappearances the state refused to acknowledge.     The term was often accompanied by the transformation of the verb desaparacer – to disappear – into a sinister new transitive verb, as in ‘to disappear someone’ or ‘he/she was disappeared’.

The Latin Americans borrowed this strategy from the French army in Algeria and implemented it with such devastating effect that as many as 100,000 people may have been disappeared during the Cold War.     From the point of view of the security services, this strategy had various advantages;   It enabled them to terrorise their political opponents or critics with an image of implacable and omnipresent power, while avoiding any political or legal consequences for the murders they carried out.   No bodies, no paper trail, no trial.

The ‘ disappeared’ were therefore a key component in the concept of ‘impunity’ that so many human rights and civil society organizations struggled against in Brasil, Argentina, Guatemala and other dictatorships that used such methods.   The regimes that did this believed, or claimed to believe, that they were fighting a ‘dirty war’ against ‘international communism’ that required such methods – a defense that was rejected out of hand during some of the trials and investigations that followed the collapse of these regimes.

Mexico was also part of this tradition.   To this day it has never revealed the names of the students killed by security forces during the October 1968 Tlatelolco massacre.     With their range of motives and perpetrators, Mexico’s new desaparacidos do not even have the flimsy pseudo-justification of Cold War exceptionality, but they do share in common the wall of impunity that the ‘national security states’ of the Cold War attempted to build around themselves.

Not only are the disappeared not found, but the people who ‘disappeared’ them are not revealed or charged, and indifference has become the entrenched principle of a state that is corrupt from top to bottom, and which has shown staggering indifference to the welfare and safety of its own citizens.

In this context, the struggle against impunity has been fought by a handful of courageous civil society and local family groups and NGOs like Fundem (Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparacidos en Mexico – United Forces for Our Disappeared in Mexico) and H.I.J.O.S Mexico ( Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra el Olvido y el Silencio – Children for Identity and Justice, against Forgetting and Silence).

But they shouldn’t have to fight it alone.   The world ought to wake up to the horror that has been unfolding in Mexico’s narco-democracy and put some serious pressure on the government to act more like a democratic government and less like Pinochet. It’s become a truism of the new ‘humanitarian’ school of international relations that the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to act when governments are perpetrating serious human rights violations against their ‘own people’.

This is a principle of faux-solidarity and faux-human rights, which western governments like only when it can used as a justification for the latest war du jour.     Because the Mexican state may not be ‘killing its own people’, but the ‘missing’ students in Guerrero are one more reminder that it has very little interest in stopping them.

Too often the world has only shown any interest in   the sorrows of Mexico, when they can be translated into violent popular entertainment like No Country for Old Men or Breaking Bad.   But Mexico deserves better than that,   and the men and women who are beating against Mexico’s institutionalised corruption and impunity deserve our recognition and support.

They want to know where the disappeared have gone, and the world should help them find out.



Turkey’s False Flag

No matter how many countries are shattered, no matter how many times the consequences of ‘humanitarian interventions’ fail to live up to their expectations, nothing seems to shake the fairytale version of Western foreign policy that emanates from a broad spectrum of the mainstream media, from the centre-left to the right.

This week for example, the supposedly centre-left New Statesman has a horrendously militaristic front cover showing a slavering Russian bear embracing the world in its claws, with the headline ‘Time to Rearm?’     And The Observer has a hand-wringing article which seeks to discredit the ‘Blair doctrine’ of humanitarian intervention once again in Syria.

Both discussions reflect a fairytale narrative of Western foreign policy which includes the following essential components:

  •  The world is divided into good guys and bad guys.   The good guys consist of all Western governments and their allies, whether taken individually or collectively as members of the ‘international community’.   Like Don Quixote, these governments are out there in a perilous world,   perpetually slaying dragons, saving maidens in distress, and fighting injustice.
  • On the other side there are assorted dictatorships, authoritarian and undemocratic states, terrorists, jihadists, gangster states like Russia and ‘bad guys’ who are out there doing evil.
  • In this fairy tale world ‘we’ have no aggressive intentions. We do not engage in realpolitik.   We have no ulterior motives.     Our foreign policy is guided entirely by lofty moral principles.     We have no geostrategic or economic interests.   Energy resources and pipeline routes do not interest us.
  •  We do not and never would conspire to bring about ‘regime change’ or other political outcomes to suit our geopolitical interests, and nor do our allies, and anyone who says otherwise is guilty of ‘conspiracy theory.’   We do not engage in ‘terrorism’ and never ‘talk to terrorists’ or deal with states or organizations that do.   We are led by decent folk, who only want to do the decent thing.

From time to time evidence emerges to challenge these assumptions.   This week, for example, Turkey’s beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has been engaged in a futile and counterproductive attempt to prevent leaks about the corruption of his administration by banning Youtube and Twitter.

Despite these efforts, leaked Youtube posts have revealed what seems to be a recent conversation between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and a number of high-ranking officials earlier this year, discussing previous weapons shipments to Syrian rebels and the possibility of carrying out a faked an al-Qaeda attack on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, founder of the Ottoman Empire, in Syria, in order to just a military invasion with tanks and special forces.

The authenticity of the recording has not been verified, but nor have I heard any evidence to suggest that it is not authentic.     It is not clear when this conversation took place, but its participants included intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, army deputy chief of staff Yasar Guler, and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, and there is no doubt about their intentions.

Discussing the plan, Sinirlioglu says ‘We”re going to portray this is Al-Qaeda, there”s no distress there if it is a matter regarding Al-Qaeda. And if it comes to defending Suleiman Shah Tomb, that”s a matter of protecting our land.

To which Güler replies:

‘We don”t have any problems with that.’

And Prime Minister Erdogan also appears to be aware of the planning for this operation, according to this extract:

[stextbox id=”alert”]

Davetoglu:     Just between us, Prime Minister said that this (attacking the Tomb of Suleyman Sah) should also be considered as an opportunity in this conjuncture Hakan

Fidan: Sir, look, if the justification- we can- I can send four men to the other side, and make them fire 8 missiles to deserted territory. It is not a problem! Justification can be created.


Indeed it can, if the will is there, and with this lot it certainly is.   Faking such an incident is clearly so normal in their world that the morality of it doesn’t even emerge as an issue to be discussed.   The problem lies in its follow-up strategy and doability, according to Guler, who worries:

We cannot implement the decision, we are paralyzed for various reasons, this is our problem Mr. Minister. The apparatus of the state is not working’.

And then there are other protagonists to consider:

[stextbox id=”alert”]

Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu: Yes, we will pass on to that okay take it and I am coming. You cannot say to the US Secretary of State, “we need to take strong measures.”

Hakan Fidan: Well, sir, what I am saying is

Ahmet Davutoğlu: Then he will say, you did not even defend your own land. We had many friendly conversations, mostly with Kerry and he told me exactly this, did you decide to strike and …

Yaşar Güler: Sir, we did, we did a hundred times. With US…


Whether this means that Kerry was actually aware of these particular plans, or whether the US had more generally been pressuring Turkey to attack Syria is not made clear in the conversation.   In any case it suggests a very different way of conducting international relations to the one that appears in the mainstream   press.

You might expect the revelation that a key Nato member has been plotting to fake a terrorist attack to justify a war, with the possible collusion of the world’s greatest democracy to be at least worthy of further analysis and discussion.     But with the exception of Reuters, this leak has barely aroused any attention at all.

And why should it?     Because fairytales about knights and dragons may not be true, but as every child knows, they do leave you with a warm glowing feeling, don’t they?

Robert Greenwald’s ‘Unmanned’: Essential Public Service Journalism

After various attempts, the CIA appears to have finally killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in a drone strike in North Waziristan.   The United States has not confirmed the hit yet, though a White House spokeswoman has declared that if these reports are true, they would represent a ‘serious loss for the Taliban.’

Maybe.     But it might also be a serious loss for Pakistan, which was about to begin peace talks with the TTP, apparently with American support.     Now the Taliban has predictably vowed revenge, and warned that ‘Every drop of Hakimullah’s blood will turn into a suicide bomber’ – a threat that is more likely to be directed at Pakistani civilians, scores of whom have already been killed by the TTP.

Not surprisingly, the Pakistani government is furious at this humiliation, coming only a week after it asked the Obama administration to stop the drone attacks. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar has called the strike ‘the murder of all efforts at peace’ and the Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS) is meeting to review bilateral ties with the US.

All this might just be political theatre, or it may be that Pakistan has reached the limit of its tolerance.   Not only do drone attacks essentially negate its claims to territorial sovereignty, but they also represent a tool of American foreign policy that is blatantly at odds with Pakistan’s own domestic interests.

After all, there isn’t much point in entering into peace negotiations with your enemies if your erstwhile friends unilaterally decide to execute them without even telling you, and a government that allows such things to happen is not a government with much credibility.

The question is, why would the United States carry out such a high profile execution-by-drone, if it knew that peace negotiations were underway?   The most obvious answer is that it actively wanted to sabotage them, as the Pakistan government seems to be suggesting.   But that might imply more rationality than the drone program actually contains.

I’ve just watched Robert Greenwald’s excellent documentary Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, which is available for free for a limited period at this link.   Greenwald has done a superb job in analysing the destructive impact of America’s drone wars, focusing mainly on Waziristan.

He has interviewed numerous survivors and eyewitnesses of drone attacks, such as the family of Momina Bibi, the 67-year-old midwife blown up in a drone strike in her garden in October last year.   And survivors of the attack on the tribal jirga in 2011 that killed 40 of its participants.

Greenwald puts names and faces on a society that barely even registers in American consciousness or the consciousness of the West, except as a target.   He shows football players, primary school teachers, community leaders, lawyers, and schoolchildren, all of whom have been affected by the drone war, and exposes the lies and deceit from a US government that insists that civilians are not being killed.

In addition he has interviewed an array of journalists and legal experts from various countries who testify to the illegality of many drone strikes.   He speaks to military men like Lawrence Wilkerson, Andrew Bacevich and David Kilkullen, all of whom testify to the ineffectiveness of the drone program from the perspective of antiterrorism or conflict reduction.

Greenwald exposes a policy of killing that is strategically bankrupt,   which appears to have no coherent objectives beyond a smaller scale version of the disastrous Vietnam-era body count syndrome, and which appears entirely oblivious to the persistent claims from both Pakistani and sections of its own military that drone strikes are manufacturing more militants than they actually kill.

The killing of Mehsud belongs to the same trajectory.     The US government will undoubtedly present this strike as another step towards some kind of victory,   and a vindication of its drone program.

Greenwald’s   essential and groundbreaking public service journalism demonstrates that such actions are more likely to perpetuate the cycle of revenge that benefits no one,   except the arms manufacturers who are currently falling over themselves to produce new drones.