Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 30 September 2011

30 September 2011

I know you’ll have been glued to your TV to watch Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference in Liverpool this week. Ah, you weren’t?

Well, you’ll have followed every word of Nick Clegg’s in Birmingham last week, won’t you? Oh, you didn’t.

David Cameron, in Manchester next week? Maybe you’ll have better things to do. Maybe speeches to party conferences don’t matter any more.

Or, there again, maybe they do.

Six years ago, after the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, just as the Tories were about to choose their new leader, I wrote: “A less-than-fiery speech from one Tory leadership contender – and an absolute humdinger of a speech from another one – has changed everything in the leadership stakes.”

The humdinger, you may remember (no notes, striding across the stage as if he owned it), was delivered by a chap called David Cameron. Mind you, I can’t remember a word of what he said … but what lives on is the memory of how he said it.

And if we peer back further into political history, how about these?

Nye Bevan, 1957: voting for unilateral nuclear disarmament “would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber”.

Hugh Gaitskell, 1960, after losing a vote on the same issue, pledging to “fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love”.

Harold Wilson, 1963: talking of the need for “far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society” in order to create a “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution …”

Margaret Thatcher, 1980: “You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.”

David Steel, 1981: “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”

Neil Kinnock, 1985: attacking the Militant Tendency in Liverpool – “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.”

Tony Blair, 1996: “Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education.”

Iain Duncan Smith, 2002: “Do not under-estimate the determination of a quiet man.”

Iain Duncan Smith, 2003: “The quiet man is here to stay and he's turning up the volume.” (A month later, he was gone.)

I could go on, but I suspect you’d rather I didn’t. The point is simply this: every one of those quotes comes from a speech by a party leader to a party conference, and every one of them – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – helped to define who they were, and what they were about.

Which brings us to Ed Miliband. According to The Economist, what he delivered on Tuesday was “a strange speech, a defensive speech, a timid speech, a speech that hinted – just for a moment – at all sorts of ambitious and radical ideas, only to turn tail and run away to the comfort of empty, unthreatening phrase-making until it said very little that ordinary voters are likely to notice at all.”

Or, if you prefer, it was, according to Peter Oborne in today’s Daily Telegraph, “an intellectually ambitious and admirable contribution to public debate” in which Mr Miliband “sought to reshape the terms of political argument and so redefine the territory on which the general election will ultimately be fought.”

You pays your money and you takes your choice. What I don’t think you can do is argue that none of it matters. For good or ill, this week’s speech will almost certainly help define Mr Miliband’s place in national political life.

Friday, 23 September 2011

23 September 2011

I’d like you to meet Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin. They are, if American intelligence officials are to be believed, two of the most dangerous men in Afghanistan.

What’s more, they are – again, according to US officials – virtually run by Pakistani military intelligence. And they are at the centre of a blistering row between Washington and Islamabad which risks seriously derailing the US Afghan disengagement strategy.

The Haqqanis go back a long way. Jalaluddin first became an important figure during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, he was backed both by the US and by Pakistan – but he later made common cause with the Taliban and was appointed a minister in the Taliban government in the 1990s.

After the post-9/11 defeat of the Taliban by US-led forces, he took up arms against the Americans and has been fighting them ever since. He and his son are now thought to have anything between 4,000 and 10,000 fighters under their command, and they’ve been blamed for a series of audacious attacks against US targets. (Their network is also one of the suspects in the assassination this week of the former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, by a suicide bomber.)

But here’s where it gets really tricky. According to the outgoing chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking to a US Senate committee yesterday, the Haqqanis act as a “veritable arm” of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI.

Yes, that’s the same ISI that’s meant to be working hand-in-glove with the US to confront the continuing insurgency in Afghanistan. And yes, it’s the same ISI that was widely criticised for either not knowing where Osama bin Laden was while he lived quietly in his Pakistani villa, or, even worse, knowing but doing nothing – or, yet worse still, actively protecting him.

US officials have claimed for some time that there are close links between the ISI and the Haqqanis. But, in the words of the New York Times today, “Admiral Mullen went further than any other American official in blaming the ISI for undermining the American military effort in Afghanistan.”

Note those words: “undermining the American military effort.” That’s serious stuff – and President Obama’s top security advisors are due to meet on Monday to discuss what to do next.

The problem is this: the US accepts that the insurgency in Afghanistan will never be defeated unless the insurgents are denied their bases across the border in Pakistan. But the ISI insists that as long as the fighters operate only in Afghanistan, they’re not Islamabad’s problem.

When I spoke to a former head of the ISI, General Asad Durrani, on the programme last night, he went even further: Pakistan should be supporting the anti-US opposition in Afghanistan, he said. If the US insists on launching drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, sometimes killing innocent Pakistani civilians, then the US and Pakistan are in a state of what he called “low-intensity conflict”.

That’s not what Washington wants to hear after having pumped billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan over the past decade. So yesterday a US Senate committee voted to tie any further aid to greater cooperation in fighting the Haqqanis. And that’s not going down at all well in Islamabad.

It was only last week that the US embassy in Kabul came under attack – the assault lasted 20 hours and ended with about 25 people dead, including the attackers. Yesterday, Admiral Mullen blamed the Haqqanis.

Three days earlier, more than 75 US troops were injured and two Afghan civilians were killed by a suicide truck bomber at a military base south-west of Kabul. Yesterday, Admiral Mullen blamed the Haqqanis for that attack as well.

According to a report in today’s Guardian, US intelligence had got wind of the impending truck bomb attack, and the American commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, personally asked the Pakistani army chief of staff to intervene to stop it. The report quotes a Western official as saying that General Kayani promised “to make a phone call.”

We’ve known ever since the Americans killed Osama bin Laden last May without tipping off the Pakistanis that they don’t trust their supposed Pakistani allies. Now, courtesy of Admiral Mullen, we know that Washington suspects the ISI of actively backing – even controlling – the Americans’ most dangerous enemy in Afghanistan.

It doesn’t bode well for the future of the US’s counter-insurgency strategy.

Friday, 16 September 2011

16 September 2011

If you were an Egyptian, or a Moroccan, or a Jordanian, what would you think of the role Turkey is now playing in the Middle East?

Compared with Iran, for example, would you regard it as a positive or a negative influence in the region?

It’s not an idle question, especially not in the week when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been making a triumphant tour of the three Arab states where they’ve managed to overthrow their autocratic rulers: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Nor is it a question to which we have to guess the answer. According to an opinion poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute in Washington, and conducted in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, favourable views of Turkey range from an astounding 98 per cent in Saudi Arabia to a “low” of 45 per cent in Jordan.

Iran’s ratings, by comparison, range from a high of 63 per cent in Lebanon, to 6 per cent in Saudi Arabia. And if you’re interested in trends, over the past five years Turkey has been vastly improving its regional reputation, while Iran’s has been plummeting.

Why is this interesting? Because Turkey is rapidly emerging as a key player in the region, and Mr Erdogan seems determined to increase his country’s influence wherever he can. His message on his visits this week has been an attractive one to Arab audiences – look at us: Muslim, democratic and prosperous. Do as we did, and you can have all this too.

No wonder Turkey’s reputation at the moment is sky high. (There are exceptions, of course: you won’t find many Kurds or Armenians who share the general Arab view that a resurgent Turkey is a Good Thing.)

Ah, did I mention, Mr Erdogan is also a vociferous critic of Israel, whose ambassador he has just sent packing in the continuing row over the killing last year by Israeli forces of nine Turkish citizens on an aid flotilla heading for the Gaza Strip.

In a speech last Tuesday to the Arab League in Cairo, he accused Israel of behaving like a spoilt child, and said: “Israel will break away from solitude only when it acts as a reasonable, responsible, serious and normal state.”

That word “solitude” was carefully chosen. Turkey used to be on good terms with Israel – the two countries’ military forces worked closely together, and Ankara acted with some success as a mediator between Israel and Syria.

Those days are long gone. As Mr Erdogan well knows, Israel now has no friends in the region, and is watching anxiously as Egypt’s new rulers suggest that the Camp David peace agreement signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1979 “is not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion.”

The Turkish prime minister enjoys playing to the crowd, both at home and abroad. He has good Muslim credentials, with a background in Islamist politics. He, like most Muslims, but unlike the Iranians, is a Sunni, which means that on a religious level he is much closer to the vast majority of Arabs than to the ayatollahs of Tehran.

Until quite recently, Turkey harboured real hopes of being allowed to start a negotiation process that would end up with it joining the European Union. But deep hostility in France, Germany and elsewhere seems to have put an end to those hopes, at least for the forseeable future. In many western European eyes, there are three big objections to Turkey joining the euro-club: it’s too big, it’s too poor – and it's too Muslim.

So now Mr Erdogan seems to be shifting from his former foreign policy stance of being friends with everyone and enemies with no one. He hasn’t abandoned his dream of joining the EU one day, but in the meantime he is fostering much closer links with the Arab world’s new leaders.

What he has in mind is very different from the days of the Ottoman empire, when for the best part of 600 years, from the Atlantic coast of north Africa to the eastern seaboard of the Arabian peninsula, the Turks dominated the Arab world as colonial masters.

But his new brand of muscular diplomacy, coupled with enticing offers of economic and technical assistance and populist anti-Israel rhetoric, make him a man who has to be taken seriously.

For now, Washington, and his other NATO allies, are prepared to watch and wait to see how far he intends to go. But there will be tensions and disagreements (the vote next week at the UN on whether to recognise Palestine as a state will be the next one) as Turkey gets used to its new status as the most influential kid on the block.

Friday, 9 September 2011

9 September 2011

I can’t remember exactly when, on September 11, 2001, I first heard the words: “The world has changed for ever.” But it was very soon after the attacks in New York and Washington, and I remember feeling sceptical: I have a deeply engrained distrust of such sweeping generalisations.

On that occasion, though, I was probably wrong to be sceptical. For many millions of people – in the US, of course, but also in Europe, in the Middle East, and in Afghanistan – the world did change as a result of what happened that day.

So what have we learned over the past decade?

First, that we understand far less than we should about what is going on in faraway places – and that we ignore them at our peril. Before 9/11, had you heard of al-Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden? How much did you know of what was happening in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia?

Second, that military might – even US military might – does not solve problems as easily as we might like to imagine. The Gulf War of 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, was an anomaly: an easy victory that achieved its stated aim at relatively low cost.

Third, that “temporary” anti-terrorism measures have a funny habit of becoming permanent – as any air traveller has discovered.

Fourth, that we can learn to live with fear. Just as Londoners did during the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s, now New Yorkers, MadrileƱos, Parisians, residents of Mumbai and Delhi, Karachi and Islamabad, Kabul and Kandahar, have discovered that you can get on with your life even in the knowledge that a bomb may be about to explode at any moment.

It’s true that since 9/11 – with the exception of the attacks at the Fort Hood military base in Texas in 2009 when 13 people were shot dead, allegedly by a Muslim American serviceman – there have been no further attacks in the US. But there have been several unsuccessful attempts, including by the so-called “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit in December 2009, and the attempted bomb attack on Times Square in New York in May last year.

(Last night, US officials said they had received “specific, credible but unconfirmed threat information” relating to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this weekend. It was reported that at least three people – one believed to be a U.S. citizen – had flown to the U.S. last month, apparently from Afghanistan, planning to set off a car bomb.)

Ever since 9/11, Muslims living in non-Muslim countries have found themselves being regarded with suspicion and incomprehension. Islamophobia is just one of the new, and unlovely, words we have learnt, along with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, control orders, and assymetric warfare.

But perhaps there are dangers if we focus too much on 9/11: that we try to relate everything that has happened over the past decade to what happened on that terrible day – and that we fail to acknowledge the other profound changes that have been under way while we’ve been concentrating on potential suicide bombers.

As the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband pointed out in an article this week, over the past 10 years, the combined GDP of Brazil, Russia, India, and China more than doubled, from 8.4 per cent of the global economy to 18.3 per cent.

It was also the decade when, in his words, internet access went global – from a third of a billion people in 2000 to more than two billion people today. And the US started to realise that it is no longer the undisputed global super-power that it once was.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if historians, when they look back on this first decade of the 21st century, devote at least as much space to those developments as to the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers.

Terrorism is sometimes described as the weapon of choice for those who have no other weapons. And perhaps the best news in this grim 10th anniversary year is that tens of thousands of young Arabs who a decade ago may well have felt they had no other weapons with which to press their demands have now discovered the power of mass street protest.

Over the past eight months, in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain (Libya, where they quickly took up arms, is in a slightly different category), angry and ignored young people have turned their backs on the nihilism of al-Qaeda ideology and have decided instead to confront their own leaders on their own streets. Their demands for democracy, freedom and choice couldn’t be further from the vision of Osama bin Laden.

It doesn’t mean that the threat of more terrorist attacks has gone away, and we still don’t know whether their protests will eventually succeed – after all, overthrowing a hated dictator is not the same as building a better future – but at least they’re not blowing up themselves, or us. For that, surely, we can be thankful.

Friday, 2 September 2011

2 September 2011

You will have noticed, I hope, that there have been dramatic developments in Libya over the last couple of weeks. You may also have noticed that there have been continuing protests in Syria.

But how about Bahrain – and Yemen? Two more Arab nations which, earlier this year, were very much in the headlines as they too became engulfed in popular protests. Since then – well, what?

Bahrain first. Two days ago, according to a report by the Associated Press news agency, hundreds of protesters tried to reclaim control of a central square in the capital Manama, which had been the symbolic hub of the protest movement after it began in February. Riot police used buses to block roads and fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.

Yesterday, thousands of people – tens of thousands, according to one activist quoted in the New York Times – were out in the streets again, for the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who was said to have been killed during Wednesday’s protests.

Witnesses said he was hit in the head by a tear gas grenade fired at close range. (The interior ministry said a coroner’s report indicated that the boy’s injuries were not consistent with being hit with a tear gas canister or rubber bullet, and that there had been no clashes at the time he was said to have received his injuries.)

Also in Bahrain, a group of 14 doctors who are in jail awaiting trial on charges of having turned their hospital into a “terrorist base” when the protests first erupted last February have now gone on hunger strike in protest against their treatment. (There’ll be more about Bahrain on the programme tonight, Friday.)

So, what about Yemen? Two weeks ago, nearly 150 opposition leaders formed themselves into a “national council” to act as a sort of government-in-waiting, while the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was seriously injured in an apparent assassination attack last June, remains in Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, government forces backed by fighter planes killed 17 people in the south of the country in what officials said was continuing action against al Qaeda-linked militants. In the poorest, and most volatile, country in the Arab world, the dangerous stalemate continues.

Why do we hear so much about Libya and Syria, and so little about Bahrain and Yemen? True, Bahrain is tiny by comparison with its much bigger neighbours – its population is barely half a million – but it happens to be home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, and its position as an island in the Gulf, linked to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile long causeway, gives it a strategic importance that far outweighs its size.

As for Yemen, it too is of immense importance to the Saudis, with a long and ill-policed border and suspected jihadi bases which the Saudis regard as a permanent potential threat. For the past few years, President Saleh has been cooperating closely with the US in counter-terrorism operations, aimed principally against groups believed to be linked to al Qaeda.

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American jihadi of Yemeni origin and sometimes described as the world’s “number one terrorist”, is based in Yemen and is said to have been linked to a string of recent attempted terrorist attacks, including the so-called “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit in December 2009; the attempted Times Square bombing in May last year; and the dispatch of explosives-filled toner cartridges from Yemen last October.

In other words, Western security agencies have a lot invested in Yemen, and although no one pretends that President Saleh is the world’s number one democrat, there’s no great appetite – in either Washington or Riyadh – to see him replaced.

And if you were wondering why King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain is never spoken of in the same breath as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya or Bashar al-Assad of Syria, despite continued reports of serious human rights violations, well, he was an invited guest in Paris yesterday at the Libya conference hosted by President Sarkozy and David Cameron, where he joined them in celebrating the overthrow of a hated tyrant.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.