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Friday, 25 June 2010

25 June 2010

Just suppose President Obama hadn’t fired General Stanley McChrystal this week as his top commander in Afghanistan. What would have been the headlines from the warzone?

Perhaps that this month has seen the highest number of fatalities among foreign troops in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001?

Or that a report from the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that nine years on, “the overall security situation has not improved”?

(Just one line from the report: “The rise in incidents involving improvised explosive devices constitutes an alarming trend, with the first four months of 2010 recording a 94 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2009.”)

Or, as the New York Times reported, that criticism of the Afghanistan strategy is mounting on Capitol Hill, even among President Obama’s allies, and that public support for the war is crumbling?

The respected military analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in a sobering critique this week: “Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain.”

How many times have we been told that the key to success in Afghanistan is not military but political? Over and over again, we’ve read that bolstering the authority of the Afghan government is every bit as important as defeating the Taliban militarily.

As Fred Kaplan wrote on Slate.com: “Counter-insurgency wars, as has been said countless times, are fought by, with, through, and on behalf of the host country's national government. The idea is to provide security, so the government can bring its people basic services. If the government is incompetent, corrupt, or widely viewed by the people as illegitimate, then a counterinsurgency campaign — no matter how brilliantly planned or valiantly fought — is futile.”

Which means, I assume, that President Hamid Karzai holds the key. And who was the one senior US official who seemed to be able to get on with Mr Karzai? None other than the now departed General McChrystal.

So here’s where we are. General McChrystal has been fired, despite President Karzai’s public entreaties that he should be allowed to stay on. The US special envoy Richard Holbrooke stays on, despite President Karzai’s refusal to have any more dealings with him.

And President Karzai stays on too, despite the widespread belief that he rigged his election victory last year, and despite Washington’s impatience with his apparent inability to get a grip.

What’s more, the clock is ticking. In December, President Obama will be given a “strategic review” assessment of where things stand in Afghanistan. And, according to the current plan, in exactly 12 months from now, US troops will begin to withdraw.

The Canadians and the Dutch have already announced that their troops will be going home next year. The British prime minister David Cameron and his defence secretary Liam Fox have both been sounding less than convinced recently that Britain’s military contribution should continue for much longer.

After the death of the 300th British serviceman in Afghanistan earlier this week, Mr Cameron said: “We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place, and we should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there.”

That doesn’t mean that British troops are about to pull out. But it may be relevant that the new coalition UK government seems to feel much less of a need to cosy up to Washington than did its Labour predecessors (and, to be fair, I think the same could be said in the opposite direction of President Obama when compared to President Bush).

It may also be relevant that Pakistan is reported to view the enforced departure of General McChrystal as an opportunity to step into the gap he leaves behind. One report suggests that Islamabad is now presenting itself as a new “viable partner” for President Karzai, with its army chief General Kayani “personally offering to broker a deal with the Taliban leadership.”

The new US commander in Afghanistan is General David Petraeus, a man much admired for his perceived achievements in Iraq, and who virtually single-handed wrote the US military manual on how to conduct counter-insurgency operations.

So if anyone can win the war, it’s probably General Petraeus. Except, of course, that as his own doctrine acknowledges, counter-insurgency operations can’t be won militarily.

And that, I’m afraid, is where we came in.

Friday, 18 June 2010

18 June 2010

How about taking a break from the World Cup for a moment and considering these three little words?

Truth. Justice. Peace.

I imagine you’re in favour of all three. But are they sometimes incompatible? The question arises in the wake of the Saville report into Bloody Sunday. (Quick update for those of you who’ve been on Mars this week: 30 January 1972, 13 people killed by British troops during a civil rights march in Londonderry – the worst incident of British security forces killing British citizens since the Peterloo massacre of 1819.)

The report was the result of an inquiry that lasted an astonishing 12 years, at an equally astonishing cost of £190 million. But did it arrive at the truth about what happened on that terrible day?

For the families of those who died, this was the key paragraph in the report: “None of the casualties shot by soldiers ... was armed with a firearm or (with the probable exception of one victim) a bomb of any description. None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire.”

Why is that paragraph so important? Well, compare it with what the Widgery report said, in the immediate aftermath of the killings: “When the vehicles and soldiers … appeared in Rossville Street they came under fire … There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first … There is a strong suspicion that some [of those killed and wounded] had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon …”

None of that, says Saville, is true. And 38 years later, the relatives of those who died were able to shout one word in triumph and vindication after his report was published: “Innocent.”

So let’s accept that, at last, we know the truth about what happened. What about justice? Is it justice that so much effort should go into investigating these particular deaths, when thousands of others have gone uninvestigated?

The journalist and military historian Sir Max Hastings wrote in the Daily Mail: “The long catalogue of Republican atrocities against the British and Irish peoples goes unexplored. Of all those who perished in the Troubles, just 10 per cent were killed by the security forces; 30 per cent by Protestant militants; 60 per cent by the IRA.”

And Lord Tebbit, who with his wife was a victim of the IRA bomb attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, wrote: “The victims of Brighton are no less important than those of Londonderry. They should not be treated as second-class victims.”

Many former IRA bombers are now free men. Indeed, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, was a senior IRA commander in Londonderry at the time of Bloody Sunday, and, according to the Saville report, “was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, and though it is possible that he fired this weapon, there is insufficient evidence to make any finding on this …”

So no, there will probably be no justice for the families of the other 3,600 people who were killed during the 30 years of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”.

How about peace? The political commentator Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times this week: “To stop the killing (in Northern Ireland), we sacrificed principles that should stand above everything. We sacrificed the rule of law and the principle of one law for everybody. We sacrificed justice and accountability to the courts. We bought peace but there is a bill to pay. And today we must pay it.”

So is this the lesson of Saville? That to get at the truth, and to bring peace, you sometimes need to sacrifice justice? Was that also the lesson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, another country where decades of political injustice and oppression were finally brought to an end?

What are the lessons for other countries – Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Brazil, Chile – countries where thousands more people long for both peace and justice after suffering the most appalling atrocities?

And what are the lessons for the International Criminal Court, investigating allegations of terrible crimes in Sudan and Kenya, but where bringing the guilty to trial may make peace less likely?

Guilt is rarely to be found only on one side, yet there is often a tendency at the end of bitter conflicts to prosecute only the losers. In the case of Northern Ireland, the Financial Times commentator John Lloyd reached this verdict: “There is no question that the IRA initiated most of the bloodshed; that the Unionist community had allowed discrimination to flourish for the half-century of Northern Ireland's existence; that the British government had, until the troubles flared in 1968, simply ignored the issue. There is no question, finally, that trained killers in British uniform ran amok.”

So, if you’ve arrived at the truth, and peace has returned, is justice sometimes an unaffordable luxury?

Friday, 11 June 2010

11 June 2010

The words at the top of our programme blog say we “try to make sense of the world”. For me, though, the question today – given what is happening in South Africa – is can I make sense of the World Cup?

It comes round, regular as clockwork, every four years. So I ought, by now, to have been able to work out what it’s all about. But in the same way as some people just don’t get poetry, I don’t get sport.

Here’s what I wrote at the start of the World Cup tournament four years ago: “I admit I’m not the most devoted sports fan in the world: personally, my life would be none the poorer if no one kicked, threw or batted a ball ever again. But I’m not immune to what goes on all around me, so I do watch the big events, and yes, I’ll be watching if and when England get close to the final.

“Sport does something to people. It re-ignites tribal loyalties, hence the war paint on fans’ faces and the deafening honking of car horns after a win … So does sport bring people together? Or does it drive them apart? … If war is a continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz famously said, then perhaps sport really is a continuation of war by other means.”

Earlier this week, we held a small party to mark The World Tonight’s 40th anniversary, which we celebrated a couple of months ago. The controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer, said some nice things about us (thank you, Mark, they were much appreciated) – and mused aloud about what would be The World Tonight approach to an England victory in the final of the World Cup.

Fortunately, it’s not a problem that I need to worry about. If we do have to come up with something interesting to say, I know our production team will rise to the occasion. And, of course, I will, being the obedient professional that I am, do what is required of me.

There’s a lot, needless to say, that I don’t know about football – although for some reason, I think I do understand the offside rule. And I do understand, of course, why South Africa, which was football mad anyway, is now even football madder as it becomes the first nation in Africa to host the tournament.

But I didn’t know, until I read it in the New York Times, that “the first documented soccer games played on the African continent were staged in … Cape Town and Port Elizabeth in 1862. That was one year before the rules of association football were codified in England …”

I can’t help wondering, though: will everyone be obsessed in India? Or China? The world’s two most populous nations seem rather less smitten with the delights of soccer than just about everyone else.

But I do admit that when I travel, I’m often taken aback when people immediately start talking about football as soon as they discover where I’m from. Just the other day, in Arizona of all places, someone asked me out of the blue: “Will you be OK when we beat you?” It took me a few moments to work out that they were talking about the England-USA World Cup match this weekend.

So perhaps you can help me out here. Are you World Cup obsessed? If so, why? What exactly does it do for you? And if (sorry, when) England do win, how do you think we should deal with the story?

Friday, 4 June 2010

4 June 2010

There’s probably been more than enough written about Israel’s actions on the high seas last Monday morning, when it intercepted a flotilla carrying aid supplies on its way to Gaza. Nine people were killed in the operation, several of them from Turkey – and it is Turkey’s role that I think it may be worth focusing on.

Consider: a Muslim nation, a member of NATO, and a close US ally. Also, until recently, a close ally of Israel as well, with extensive military and diplomatic ties.

The words “until recently” are the key. Not so long ago, there were real hopes that, with behind-the-scenes help from Turkey, Israel and Syria were inching towards a peace deal that would have a profound impact on hopes for a broader Middle East settlement.

Not any more. The ruling AK party of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has its roots in Islamist tradition, and Turkey is now playing a much more assertive role in international affairs. (As an example, it got together just a couple of weeks ago with Brazil, another emerging global player, to broker a deal with Iran over uranium enrichment.)

There have been furious anti-Israel demonstrations in Turkey since the Gaza flotilla attack. The prime minister has attacked what he called Israel’s “irresponsible, heedless, unlawful attitude that defies any human virtue.”

And yet. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been quoted as saying that Turkey is still ready to “normalise” its relations with Israel, if it lifts its blockade of Gaza. And an unnamed government official is quoted as saying that “roughly 40 people on board [one of the ships] were jihadis who came for violence … They were preparing to attack, to kill and to be killed.”

Washington seems keen to encourage Turkey not to slam the door on Israel – and it could be that in the coming months, the US and Turkey will begin to work together to try to find a way out of the current Middle East impasse.

There’s going to have to be some serious fence-repairing. Eighteen months ago, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, clashed furiously with Mr Erdogan – and more recently, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, had to issue a formal apology to Turkey after humiliating Ankara’s ambassador in an Israeli television interview.

For now, Gaza is the key. Israel maintains the blockade because it regards Hamas, which controls the territory, as a terrorist group seeking to destroy the Jewish state. Opening up the borders, it says, would allow arms to flood in and pose a serious risk to Israeli security. (Egypt keeps its border closed most of the time as well, because Cairo regards Hamas as closely tied to the semi-outlawed opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood.)

As for the Obama administration, it has some very tricky footwork ahead of it. It desperately wants support at the UN security council for a new package of sanctions against Iran. Turkey is a current member of the security council – but Washington was not impressed by its joint Iran initiative with Brazil.

So on the one hand, the US wants to reassure Turkey that it still values its ties to Ankara. On the other, despite the current frigid state of relations between President Obama and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Washington cannot be seen to siding with those whom Israel regards as its enemies.

Western policy in recent years has tended to concentrate on building a path towards a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, with most attention on the future of the West Bank. The 1.5 million people living in Gaza often seem to have been ignored.

But the former British ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock wrote a couple of days ago:
“We are coming close to losing the chance of a two-state solution. US policy, based on a West-Bank-only approach, is locked in a cul-de-sac if Gaza is left out of the equation.”

It’s worth noting that some of the harshest criticisms of Israel’s policies have come from within Israel itself. The left-wing novelist David Grossman wrote: “The closure of Gaza has failed. It has failed for four years now. What this means is that it is not merely immoral, but also impractical … This insane operation shows how far Israel has declined. There is no need to overstate this claim. Anyone with eyes to see understands and feels it.”

By the way: I’ve been in Arizona for the past few days, talking to people about the deeply divisive political row over immigration laws. It’s a debate that has many parallels with our own debate at home, so I hope you’ll listen out for my report, to be broadcast on The World Tonight on Monday.