Might as well face it we’re addicted to war

War is a serious business, or it would be if we took it seriously.   If war was treated with the seriousness it deserves then wars would not be begun lightly on false pretenses.   They would have clear and realistic strategic objectives and timescales.   They would be based on a very clear understanding of the kind of enemy that was being fought, and their planners would devise appropriate strategies and tactics to defeat the enemy and realise their longterm objectives.

If war was treated seriously, their planners would have contingency plans and be aware of their   risks and unintended consequences and weigh up carefully whether these risks were worth the cost in military and civilian lives.

In Britain this seriousness has been absent for some time.   Even during 2014’s year of remembrance we preferred to contemplate rivers of ceramic poppies that transform bloodshed, death and mutilation into an aesthetically-pleasing spectacle rather than remember the meatgrinding slaughter of industrialised warfare that might have been far more troubling and far less likely to produce a warm glowing feeling.

And as far as the wars of our own era are concerned, too many of us prefer not to remember anything at all.       We like campaigns like ‘Help for Heroes’ that take it for granted that anyone who wears a uniform must be a hero regardless of what they do or the reasons for the war they fought.

For the most part journalists and politicians bow to this cult of the hero and resist asking questions about the wars that bring our troops back in body bags or missing limbs.   Instead the contemplation of heroism and sacrifice brings awestruck and reverential silence, in which lying politicians talk empty blather about how they were killed or maimed in order to ‘keep us safe’ or ‘protect us over here by fighting terrorists over there’ when they weren’t doing anything of the kind.

The silence also extends to military failure.     Because war,   like ‘national security’ is an activity from which accountability is curiously absent at a senior level. Screw up a war or start one without knowing what you were doing or how to achieve whatever you thought you were doing, and very few people will ask you anything about it beyond the usual marginalised suspects, protesters and anti-war types.

If you are a politician who happens to be involved in such wars, like Tony Blair, or John Reid or John Hutton say, you will probably go on to make a lot of money or get a baronetcy regardless of the bad decisions that you took or even because of them, and you will find that most people have conveniently forgotten all about it or never remembered it in the first place.

In the last month of last year, two articles cast a less-than-flattering light on this quaintly British willingness to let auld military acquaintances be forgot and just generally look away when wars go wrong or never went right.     The first was James Meek’s devastating analysis of British military failure in the Afghan war in the London Review of Books, which concluded that

‘   the extent of the military and political catastrophe it represents is hard to overstate. It was doomed to fail before it began, and fail it did, at a terrible cost in lives and money. How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it.’

Not only would we rather not think about it, but the government had the temerity to presented the British withdrawal to the public last year as if it were the successful conclusion to a brilliant campaign.

On the last Sunday of the year, the Observer‘s Will Hutton referenced Meek’s piece in a column that depicted British failure in Afghanistan as a symptom of a ‘national malaise.’ Hutton found the reasons for this ‘malaise’   in ‘right-of-centre ideology’, even though the two wars that he refers to were begun by a supposedly left-of-centre Labour government (emphasis on ‘supposedly’ here folks).

Hutton, like Meek, described the Helmand campaign as ‘a humiliating defeat, the worst in more than half a century and, arguably, ranking with the worst in modern times.’   He excoriates ‘the political and military”s establishment”s catalogue of wholesale mis-statements, dishonesty, betrayal and refusal to acknowledge reality that characterised the whole affair’ and the fact that ‘tough questions were rarely asked it was the public”s growing horror at its self-evident futility that was the catalyst for the war”s end. The inability to agree to the publication date of the Chilcot inquiry into Iraq is emblematic of the toothlessness of our framework of accountability.’

Can’t disagree with that, though I personally don’t accept that ‘rightwing ideology’ is principally responsible for a failure that is rooted in the longterm imperial nostalgia of the British elite that prefers to shoot first and ask questions later (or send others to do the shooting), in order to demonstrate British ‘greatness’ to the world.         I think Meek is closer to the mark when he places the ‘delusional exaggeration of British military capabilities’ within a wider longterm context, arguing that

‘ what began at some point in the 20th century as an unsavoury means to an end trying to use American military might to leverage the waning British military, with the end of maximising British influence floated loose of its original aim. Preserving the means became an end in itself. The goal of the British military establishment became to ingratiate itself with its US counterpart not for the sake of British interests but for the sake of British military prestige.’

Harsh truths, but British society needs to drink them down like bitter medicine if we are ever to cure ourselves of an addiction to war that unlike the US, stems from the absence of power rather than the preponderance of the ‘military-industrial complex’.

Otherwise we might find ourselves involved in other ill-conceived wars with vague and unrealizable goals that are likely to produce other disasters.

Oh wait, I forgot.     We already are.



ISIS: Made in Washington?

As a result of its continuing offensives in Iraq, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) has become the latest Islamist threat to civilisation.   If the rightwing Internet website World Net Daily is to be believed however,   the US government may have inadvertently played a direct role in ISIS’s creation, through a military training program which began in the spring of 2012.

According to WND,   ‘dozens of ISIS members were trained at the time as part of covert aid to the insurgents targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The officials said the training was not meant to be used for any future campaign in Iraq.

Evidence to support this thesis comes from ‘ informed Jordanian officials’ and is rather thin on the details.   WND does not say, for example, how US military trainers knew that they were training ISIS, given that the group has only emerged as a military force in Syria in the last 12 months.   Its reporters also quote ‘a high official in the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’ who says that the US was aware of more recent training and support provided to ISIS by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

These are hardly reliable or conclusive sources, especially coming from a conservative   website which undoubtedly has more interest in advancing conspiracy theories involving the Obama administration than it might have done say, if George Bush had still been in power.

Nevertheless, it is not outlandish to suggest that Isis may be – in part – yet another of the unexpected consequences or ‘blowback’ of the clandestine backchannels through which US/ Western strategic interests are pursued.   From the earliest period of the rebellion against Assad, the Syrian opposition was receiving money, weapons and training from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States.

In March last year, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that some 200 US miltitary advisors in Jordan were training some 1, 200 Syrian rebels in Jordan as part of an eventual project to train 10,000 fighters ‘ to the exclusion of radical Salafists.’   That same month the Guardian reported that the British Foreign Office   was providing military training to rebels in Jordan.     According to William Hague this consisted of ‘ on co-ordination between civilian and military councils, on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them, and how to maintain security during a transition.’

The Guardian also revealed that the Pentagon had already begun a training programme at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre near Amman in the autumn of 2012, in which special forces operatives were training rebels to ‘   prepare for the possibility of Syrian use of chemical weapons and train selected rebel fighters.’

Naturally all the governments concerned insisted that any military training and weaponry reaching the Syrian rebels was only reaching the ‘good rebels’ who don’t go around crucifying the opposition, murdering Christians, suppressing women and killing prisoners etc.     By March 2012, John Kerry insisted that ‘There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them.’

Such claims cannot be taken seriously, even for a milisecond.   Firstly, the idea that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States asked prospective recipients of military aid for their views on parliamentary democracy or the rights of women is laughable.     Secondly, even democratic States that are interested in overthrowing governments generally provide military aid to the organizations that they believe are most militarily effective in achieving their aims, and they are not likely to be bothered too much whether these organizations are politically ‘moderate’,   even if they like the world to believe otherwise.

It has been thus, ever since the   Afghan war against the Soviets, when Western governments helped re-launch the international jihad in order to ‘make Russia bleed.’   In those halcyon, pre-al Qaeda days, neither the CIA nor the American government nor their allies worried themselves too much about distinctions between   ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ rebels, and generally ensured that weapons and money went to the most violent and the most militarily active anti-Soviet organizations.

If those groups skinned Russian prisoners alive or blew up girls schools, or were more concerned with establishing an Islamic state than a parliamentary democracy, that was all part of the game and certainly did not undermine their credentials as ‘freedom fighters’ as far as the White House or Downing Street were concerned.

As the world now knows only too well, with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US also encouraged and faciliated not only the indigenous mujahideen, but an international movement of Muslim volunteers who transformed Afghanistan into the Islamic equivalent of the Spanish Civil War.

Many of the on-the-ground details of the jihad were left to the Pakistani ISI or the Saudi secret services, so that the US could maintain the usual fiction of ‘plausible deniability’ that has always accompanied its covert op programmes, but the US government also played its part, for instance, by maintaining a visa waiver program in Riyadh which enabled selected Saudis to receive military training in the US.

It all worked very well, and made a lot of Russians – and Afghans – bleed,   so much so that the US also continued its relationship with some of the international jihadist groups after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, with a view to extending similar operations into Central Asia and the ‘stans’.

Of course these organizations were not merely puppets.   They had their own agendas, and sometimes the US was useful to them and sometimes not.   In the aftermath of the Afghan war it wasn’t, at least not to the ‘far enemy’ school of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, which declared war on the United States.

But even then there was still scope for collaboration between ‘jihadists’ and the ‘far enemy’ in areas of mutual interest, for example in Bosnia, where, according to the 2002 Dutch government inquiry into the 1995 Srebenica masacre, the US collaborated with Turkey and Iran in facilitating the transport of weapons and ‘Afghan-Arabs’ from proscribed ‘terrorist’ organizations to assist the Bosnian government.

More recently, in 2007, the Bush administration received congressional approval for an escalation of covert operations against Iran, that included support and assistance to the Baluchi/Sunni Jundallah, another violent ‘fundamentalist’ organization which has carried out numerous bombings and assassinations in Iran.   Then there was Libya, where Western governments relied heavily on armed jihadist groups with a radical Islamist agenda to knock off Gaddafi, including some of the same people it had only recently been torturing.

So if the US and ISIS did overlap and even collaborate for a period, there would be nothing surprising about it – except for those who like to see geopolitics as an ongoing struggle between the civilised world and terrorism, or between democracy and ‘Islamo-fascism.’

Such collaboration doesn’t mean that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are mere pawns of Washington.     It is difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States, but then governments that engage in short-term ‘games of thrones’ do not always see what is coming in the longer-term,   and sometimes they find that the pieces they bring to the chessboard have a curious and unwanted ability to move by themselves.



Why Has the Ministry of Defence Tried to Ban Its Own Book?

Attempts by democratic governments to ban books rarely work out well.   If the book is banned on grounds of public morality (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer), then the writer nearly always wins in the end and the government that tried to suppress their work is likely to end up looking puritanical, cloven-footed and often pig-ignorant.

If,   like Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, the book is banned on ‘political’ or national security grounds then it is immediately going to attract a great deal more media interest than it might otherwise have done, so that if one publisher drops it another is likely to pick it up.     When the Thatcher government tried to ban Spycatcher under the Official Secrets it ended up looking ridiculous and impotent when the book was published abroad – even in Scotland – for three years before the ban was lifted, so that anyone who wanted to know what was in it could find out.

Rather than silencing books, such efforts tend to generate more curiosity about them.  And attempts at censorship and prohibition are almost guaranteed to attract attention when a government tries to ban a book that it has commissioned itself, as was the case last week, when the Ministry of Defense attempted to block the publication of An Intimate War – An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict 1978-2013, on the grounds that it breached the Official Secrets Act.

What makes this effort so extraordinary was the fact that the book was written by Dr. Mike Martin, a former captain in the Territorial Army, who was commissioned three years ago by the army to write a study of British military operations in Helmand.     That study became a Phd dissertation, which the MoD has had in its possession for 14 months.   Yet it is only in February that it raised objections to its content, to the point when Martin resigned his ten-year commission in order to be able to publish the book.

To its credit, Martin’s publisher Hurst & Co has gone ahead with publication, even though it was reduced to handing out flyers instead of hardbacks at the presentation of his book at Kings College London last Thursday.       I should confess at this point that I have a dog in this hunt.     Hurst is also my publisher, and I am proud to be associated with a company that has refused to buckle in the face of such idiotic and ham-fisted official pressure,   which shames the army and the British government.

I was also curious as to why the MoD would feel the need to go to such lengths, and undertake an effort that was bound to backfire.       The news about Martin’s book broke the day after I appeared in a BBC documentary about the Sergeant Blackman/Marine A case.   One of the recurring themes in that program was the idea that the Marines in Helmand were in Afghanistan in order to protect the population against ‘the   Taliban’.

Martin effectively destroys these simplistic representations.   His meticulous study, based on 150 interviews conducted over four years and his own experience as a serving officer in Helmand, presents a view of the war that is radically different from the one the British public has been hearing ever since Tony Blair ordered British troops to deploy in Helmand in 2006.

At various times over the last eight years we have heard from politicians and army spokesmen that British troops were engaged in counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics, that they were building democracy, providing security to the local population, ensuring development and protecting women’s rights, or – most fatuously of all – that they were there ‘to keep us safe.’

This last trope rested on the assumption that our troops were fighting ‘Taliban insurgents’,     allied to al Qaeda, who needed to be defeated in order to ensure that Helmand did not become a ‘terrorist base’ or a ‘springboard’ for 9/11 attacks.     During those years it was rarely, if ever,   explained who the Taliban were or where they came from or why they were fighting.     We simply assumed, as so many soldiers did, that they were killable ‘terrorists’ and ‘bad guys’ motivated by fanaticism and evil.

It is therefore astonishing and even breathtaking to see these representations blown out of the water by one of the army’s own.     Like US Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis’s searing   2012 report Dereliction of Duty,   Martin shows the Afghan war as it is, rather than how our political and military leaders would like us to see it, and the picture that he paints is often jaw-dropping.

What Martin reveals, in painstaking – and from the military’s point of view – painful detail,   is that British politicians and army officers did not have the remotest idea what they were doing in Helmand, and that the war was conducted with staggering naivete and ignorance.

Martin shows again and again that neither Britain, the United States, nor the various international institutions involved in the Afghan war really understood Afghanistan’s complex local politics, and that this incomprehension resulted in a series of mistakes and misjudgements that made the conflict worse.

In Helmand, it meant that the British were often manipulated by local warlords and politicians, to the point when they did not actually know who they were fighting against and on whose behalf.     In some cases, British troops took part in opium eradication programs only to find that they had been steered by opium growers connected to the Afghan police towards the destruction of crops owned by their rivals.

At other times air strikes or raids were carried out on ‘Taliban’ villages on the basis of intelligence supplied by elements within the Afghan police who were using the ‘Angrez’ – as Helmandis call the British – as instruments of an inter-tribal feud or clan vendetta.

Rather than protecting the population, the British army effectively became allies of a predatory Afghan police that was despised and feared by the local population, and whose depredations were instrumental in driving Helmandis to seek support from the various ‘Talibans’ in the province.   Rather than making things better, providing security, or reducing violence, Martin argues, the presence of the British army actually increased the level of violence from the moment it was deployed.

It is a military truism that armies should understand the nature of the enemy they are fighting.     If Martin’s analysis is correct, then the   British army did not understand the enemy it was fighting in Afghanistan.   It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is the main ‘secret’   that the government is now clumsily attempting to conceal from the British public.

So Hurst should be congratulated and supported for holding firm and seeking to ensure that these efforts fail.     And anyone interested in the truth, rather than propaganda,   about the disastrous and misconceived campaign that has killed more than 400 British troops and thousands of Afghans,   should get hold of this compelling and absolutely essential account of the war, and drink its bitter but salutary antidote to the dangerous delusions of the last eight years.


Dan Hodges Wins the Afghan War

Proving once again that laziness, ignorance, and sloppy, half-baked analysis will never be an obstacle to churning 1,000-word copy, the Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges has offered his readers some spectacularly dumb thoughts about the British contribution to the Afghan war.

It would probably be more accurate to describe   Hodges’s column as a collection of words thrown together and arranged into sentences rather than thoughts, since there is little evidence of thinking at all in this crass piece of Britwar propaganda from the New Statesman’s former ‘Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest.’

The good news, from the point of view of those who sent British troops into Helmand province in 2006, and those who want to see more ‘adventures’ like this is that the withdrawal of British troops this year doesn’t mean that the Afghan War was a failure.   In fact,   Hodges happily informs his readers, it was a spectacular success!

The bad news is that there is certain to be a lot more of this kind of fact-free, parallel-world wishful thinking as the troops come home, by a British establishment that never admits that its wars have failed and cannot stop plotting new ones.     For these reasons it’s worth looking at Hodges’ reasoning, such as it is, in a little more detail.

Hodges rejects the suggestion that Afghanistan has ‘been now seen as a failure. Militarily. Morally. Politically’ and accompanies this assertion with the usual Cohen-ite/Aaronovichian dig at the ‘pacifist Left and isolationist Right‘ that supposedly share this view.   After dismissing the nation-building/democracy building/women’s rights justifications for the war, he reminds viewers that:

We were there because Afghanistan attacked us. Or at least, because Afghanistan was used as a staging base for an  attack on us. Three thousand dead in a single morning. The citizens of 60 countries; men, women and children. Murdered in cold blood. Crushed. Burnt. Stabbed. Suffocated. Forced to jump to their deaths while we watched them die live on television. They are why we went to Afghanistan.


They are why we went to Afghanistan. We went because, long before Fallujah and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Afghanistan had become a sanctuary for people who wanted to murder each and every one of us in our beds. And who under the benign eye of their Taliban protectors were acquiring the means and methods to do so.

As a result of the NATO invasion and occupation:

And now they can”t. Bin Laden is dead. His network has been smashed. The umbilical chord between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has been severed. Unfashionable though it may be to point it out,  these are also the products of our Afghanistan “failure”.

There is a lot wrong with this.     First of all, ‘ Afghanistan’ did not attack ‘us.’     19 hijackers carried out the 9/11 attacks, who were as connected to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as they were to Afghanistan.   Most of the hijackers were Saudis, some of whose origins have never been fully clarified or investigated, because the Bush administration refused to investigate them.

According to Hodges’ logic, ‘we’ should have attacked those countries too.   Secondly, there is no credible evidence that the Taliban were acting as the ‘protectors’ of the Bin Laden network, let alone that they were aware of the planning for the attacks – most of which was done in Europe and the United States anyway.

Alex Strick von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s An Enemy We Created: the Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghjanistan, 1970-2010, remorselessly and brilliantly examines the mutually problematic relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, and completely demolishes the fantasy that Hodges so uncritically subscribes to.

Had the US taken the trouble to analyse that relationship, and shown a little more patience, and a lot less arrogance, the US might conceivably have induced the Taliban to give up Bin Laden and close down the jihadist camps in Afghanistan – camps, it should not be forgotten, that were largely filled not with al-Qaeda members, but with members of an international jihadist movement that ‘we’ had once supported.

Had that happened, then some 20,000 Afghan civilians would not have died, and nor would the British, American, and multinational soldiers who invaded and occupied the country and helped install a warlord/puppet government that has so little credibility with the Afghan people that it is only in power through rigged elections.

Applying Hodges’ logic to other similar situations, then ‘we’ should have bombed Dublin and invaded Ireland when the IRA started carrying out attacks on the British mainland, and Spain should have attacked France because ETA used the French Basque Country as a refuge/rearguard weapons depot.

As far as the removal   of the Bin Laden network was concerned, that objective was already achieved by the spring of 2002 – even though it was undermined by the collusion of Pakistan – a nominal US ally – in   allowing Bin Laden and many key AQ members to escape Afghanistan.

The British deployment in Helmand in 2006 had very little to do with al Qaeda, and was essentially directed against the Taliban.   Supposedly intended to deliver reconstruction, governance and security, as part of Nato’s ‘nation-building’ program, it has been, according to a senior British intelligence officer in 2009, been a bloody failure, whose   ‘hearts and minds’ efforts have generated the ‘opposite effect’ and resulted in a massive boom in opium production in the province.

In 2012, the US army officer Colonel Daniel Davis made very similar observations in his searing indictment of the US military performance in Afghanistan Dereliction of Duty.   None of this stops Hodges from promoting a delusional happy ending to allow the public to leave the Afghan war movie with a warm glowing feeling, but it won’t wash, and not only in regard to Afghanistan itself.

Like others who have made similar arguments about al Qaeda’s ‘command posts’ in Afghanistan, Hodges entirely fails to appreciate that a network/movement like al Qaeda does not, and never has, needed Afghanistan to further its agenda.

It doesn’t even need Bin Laden – despite his undoubted skills as a propagandist.   Such movements draw their strength – and their ’cause’   from the overreaction and mistakes of their enemies, and the US has overreacted and made mistakes so often in the last thirteen years that it is really difficult not to conclude that it has needed al Qaeda just as much as al Qaeda needed it.

The war in Afghanistan was one example of such overkill,   shown by the US and its allies, which has helped AQ to grow and expand and find its way into countries where it previously had no presence.

As Patrick Cockburn argued in the Independent yesterday, ‘The US has spent billions of dollars on its “war on terror” to counter the threat and succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden three years ago. And yet al-Qa”ida-type groups are arguably stronger than ever now, especially in Syria and Iraq where they control an area the size of Britain, but also in Libya, Lebanon, Egypt and beyond.’

Cockburn, unlike Hodges, is a real journalist who actually goes to places and knows things.   It can only be hoped that his views, and not those of the ‘Blairite cuckoo’ are taken on board. Because it’s often been said that those who cannot learn from the mistake of history are doomed to repeat them, and on the strength of this outing, Hodges shows no evidence that he is capable of understanding them at all.