Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Brown preaches morals he doesn't have

Tuesday 21 October 2008
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin

The turmoil on the world's financial markets is getting serious. I bumped into a stock broker acquaintance the other day who complained he hadn't enjoyed a decent night's sleep in months. Feeling rather sorry for him, I asked how much money he had lost. "I haven't lost anything", he told me. "All my cash is stuffed under my mattress, has been for months. It's safer there but makes my bed a rather uncomfortable place to sleep."

Unfortunately his clients are not so fortunate, and so my acquaintance is probably one of the people British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had in mind last week when he criticized bankers, fund managers and other financiers for what he called a "lack of morals." As the world financial meltdown intensified, despite heavy government intervention across the globe, Brown insisted "financial markets need morals."

Brown is fond of pontificating about morals. Not so long ago he boastfully told us he had a "moral compass" that guided his decision making and underpinned his political principles. But frankly, far from lecturing people on morality, Brown could do with discovering a few morals himself.
The plight of Iraqi interpreters working for the British Army in Iraq offers a good example of the prime minister's duplicity when it comes to moral standards.

Twelve months ago Brown's government introduced the British Locally Engaged Staff Assistance Scheme. The scheme was supposed to help those Iraqis who had put their lives at risk working for Britain's armed forces in Basra - doing everything from interpreting to washing soldiers' uniforms - to settle in the UK.

Around 20,000 Iraqis have worked for the British armed forces since the invasion. Many of them, along with their families, have suffered intimidation, abduction, torture and murder at the hands of militias who see them as "enemy collaborators." Fearing for their lives many are now in hiding and want to leave Iraq.

However, instead of helping these people, the British Locally Engaged Staff Assistance Scheme actually erected a series of insurmountable hurdles which prevent Iraqi interpreters and others employed by the British in Iraq from ever getting into the UK.

Under the scheme there are 600 resettlement places for Iraqi staff and their dependants in the UK over the next two years. Up to September, there have been more than 1,100 applications for those 600 places. Official figures reveal that more than 500 of those applicants have been assessed as ineligible for resettlement in the UK.

The criteria for the scheme are very strict. Only those who have worked as interpreters or other similarly skilled or professional roles for a minimum of 12 consecutive months from the start of January 2005 are eligible to apply for resettlement. In fact, according to Leigh Day & Co., a law firm that is representing some of the Iraqi interpreters, only 158 former staff are actually being considered for resettlement in the UK. But it gets worse. When I spoke to the Foreign Office last week, a spokesperson told me that only 23 Iraqis have actually arrived in the UK under the scheme, which has now been running for a year.

In short, it would be easier to break into Fort Knox in broad daylight dressed as Osama bin Laden than get into the UK via this scheme. Meanwhile, dozens of Iraqis who have worked for the British Army are being murdered and threatened on a regular basis.

One interpreter had his application rejected because he had only worked for the British Army for 11 months and three weeks, just six days short of the required 12 months. Four interpreters he worked with during his time with the army have all been murdered. After escaping one attempt on his life he is currently in hiding outside Basra.

Another interpreter, who worked for British forces for six months, was forced to flee to Syria after his father was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The killers telephoned him to tell him he would be next and played a tape recording of his father's screams while being tortured. Despite being married to a UK citizen he has been refused a visa to come to the UK to join her.

Another Iraqi, who worked as a laundry assistant and whose original employment with the British Army was subcontracted out to a Western private contractor (KBR), fled to Syria after surviving two attempts on his life. His application to settle in the UK under the scheme was rejected because his employment had been transferred from the UK government to an independent contractor.

The Foreign Office told me that most Iraqis employed by the army have opted to take a one-off cash settlement from the government to remain in Iraq rather than apply for UK resettlement. But Leigh Day & Co. insists this is because most Iraqis believe there is little real chance they will ever be allowed to settle in the UK.

The UK scheme does not compare well with what Britain's coalition partners are doing. Poland for example, which has already resettled 25 of its former Iraqi workers and their families in Poland - more than the UK has managed over the same period - only requires evidence of six months of employment with its forces. America, Australia and Denmark also operate a much less restrictive system. Under one of the American schemes there is no minimum term of service requirement at all, while another scheme covers all workers employed by US subcontractors, something the UK scheme does not.

But you could be forgiven for wondering quite why the interpreters expected the government to behave in a moral and responsible way toward them.

The Gurkhas, legendary Nepalese soldiers who have fought as British soldiers in just about every war the UK has waged over the last 150 years, were forced to go to court this month after the government refused them permission to settle in the UK. In the First World War their service included battling the Ottomans during the Arab Revolt alongside the Arab armies of Faisal and Abdullah with Lawrence of Arabia. More recently they have fought in the Falklands, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite this Brown's government insisted the Gurkhas had "no strong ties" to the UK and refused a large number of Gurkha veterans the right to settle in Britain. The High Court thought otherwise, and ruled the UK government's policy toward the Gurkhas was unlawful.

Unfortunately a similar move on behalf of Iraqi workers was thrown out by the High Court last month. Leigh Day & Co. barrister Daniel Leader acknowledged the ruling means the legal route to get justice for the Iraqi interpreters and others is effectively closed but added: "We will be working to highlight the plight of our clients and it is hoped that the government will adopt a more humane approach to people who have risked their lives for the British Army."

Never mind the moral compass, someone should pass Gordon Brown a dictionary so he can look up what the word moral actually means. Brown may not be able to shore up the global financial system, but he can definitely act to save the lives of people who have served his cause in Iraq.
Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of Lebanese newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

Monday, 4 August 2008

An Irishman offers advice in Beirut

Monday, 4 August 2008.
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin

Beirut played host last week to Raymond McCartney, elected member of Northern Ireland's new devolved parliament. Although little known outside of his native Northern Ireland, McCartney's views on what social scientists call "conflict resolution" make him a much sought after speaker around the world. He arrived in Beirut two weekends ago to take part in a conference organized by the London-based Conflicts Forum, examining how political groupings on the margins of society can eventually move forward to occupy the center stage.

It's a journey he and his political party, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA,) have already made.

Not so long ago McCartney was deemed beyond the political pale. A member of the IRA, which opposed British rule in Northern Ireland, McCartney was convicted of two murders while a teenager in 1979 and spent 15 years in Northern Ireland's notorious Maze Prison.

During his incarceration he and other Republican inmates refused to wear prison uniforms, part of their insistence on being treated as political prisoners, not criminals, by the British government. He and others went naked, wrapping themselves in prison-issue blankets. McCartney was among those who refused to leave their cells to wash or use toilet facilities and instead daubed their excrement on the walls of their cells.

The conflict between the "blanket" protesters and the United Kingdom's government culminated in McCartney going on hunger strike for 53 days in 1980, the first wave of the hunger strikes that the following year culminated in 10 Republican prisoners starving themselves to death. A giant mural of a young, long haired and gaunt looking McCartney, wrapped in his prison blanket, still stares out from the gable end of a house in Derry City's Bogside area as a tribute to the hunger strikers.

Today McCartney is a respected politician. His murder convictions were quashed last year by the same British courts that condemned him years earlier. As a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, representing Sinn Fein, he now works closely with the British government whose prisoner he once was and whom he almost died opposing. The now middle-aged and gray-haired McCartney is both beneficiary and part of the new political establishment created by the peace process of recent years.

As a member of the Northern Ireland's International Development Committee he now travels across the globe, from South Africa to the Middle East and Basque region of Spain, discussing conflict resolution. History is riddled with examples of men labeled terrorists one day and statesmen the next. In this part of the world Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat spring to mind, though the most globally recognized and revered is the former South African President Nelson Mandela.

But what can someone with McCartney's experience as a former political prisoner turned statesman offer to the myriad conflicts that beset the Middle East? McCartney concedes that he can provide few concrete solutions and structures to deal with the issues facing Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan or Lebanon. "I'm simply in Beirut to outline my experience," he told me before traveling to Lebanon. "That allows people in similar struggles to relate my experience to their own and maybe use what's of benefit to them."

McCartney expected to meet Lebanese people "from various factions" during his short stay, including Hizbullah. He will find an informed audience. In the handful of meetings I had with Hizbullah officials while based in Beirut I was always impressed by their knowledge of the situation in Northern Ireland. It was a good deal better than that of the average Irish American. But Hizbullah officials were always at pains to insist they were not following the same path as Sinn Fein, that of abandoning arms for political progress or even political power.

McCartney agrees that it's difficult to draw direct parallels, but adds there are what he calls "general principles" for resolving conflicts within rival groups that could be used in Lebanon and elsewhere. "Conflict resolution success processes have common threads, inclusivity, representation and equality," he explains. "Everyone has to see and treat everyone with equal respect. You cannot have a framework of resolving conflict based entirely on your terms. You have to have a mutual understanding of everyone's views."

A leadership that knows when to take the gun out of politics is crucial too, but that is something the Middle East, on the whole, has, so far at least, to grasp. This is arguably where British government officials, including current Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who continually raise the peace process in Northern Ireland as a template that can be utilized for the Middle East make a serious error.

In Northern Ireland the British government negotiated directly with those who could deliver the hard-line gunmen, those who in effect controlled them. That single point of contact does not appear to exist within Hamas, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. It does of course exist within Hizbullah, but there is more chance of US President George W. Bush being offered the keys to Tehran than Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah ordering Hizbullah to disarm and commit itself solely to the political process.

While not wishing to discuss the issue of Hizbullah's weapons directly, McCartney makes it clear he believes the party's reluctance stems from a lack of political progress. "Ability to deliver people is one thing," he says. "But political progress is the paramount requirement."

"The key to the process in the north of Ireland was people could see that politics were working. Ability to deliver is meaningless if you're faced with a political vacuum. Things had to be achieved and aims have to be realized to keep people on board. The political process has to deliver meaningful change, otherwise the ability to deliver people counts for nothing."

Arguably, political progress in the Middle East is bedeviled by the inability of various parties to compromise. But can a visitor from Northern Ireland provide those in the region with good ideas for how to do so? Raymond McCartney doubtless hoped so as he made his way through Lebanon, where compromise has not been the highest priority lately.
Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Amid worsening wars, Brown spins

By Michael Glackin
Friday, 20 June 2008

The Daily Star

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is scheduled to make "an important strategy announcement" on Iraq next month. Much to US President George W. Bush's chagrin it will involve troop withdrawals, which are likely to take place in the last quarter of this year.

But it will not, military insiders assure me, involve the withdrawal of all British forces from Iraq by the end of the year, as some government officials were suggesting last week. That particularly tasteless bit of spin came as the number of British troops killed in Afghanistan has reached 106. You don't have to be a cynic to see the connection. But Brown is increasingly relying on spin these days as his political reputation unravels.

A humiliating by-election defeat recently was followed by the government scraping to victory in a parliamentary vote to extend the number of days terror suspects can be held without charge, from 28 days to 42. Thirty-six of Brown's own parliamentarians voted against him, forcing the prime minister to appeal for the support of nine Ulster Unionist members to win. Meanwhile, breaches in domestic security have resulted in top secret intelligence documents related to Al-Qaeda, Iraq and British defense matters being lost or stolen on three separate occasions in less than a week.

Unfortunately foreign affairs do not offer Brown much respite from his domestic woes. Military sources insisted to me last week that current British troop levels in Iraq of 4,000 would be maintained for the "foreseeable future." Another said there was a chance that around 500-1,000 of the current force could be withdrawn, but that would not occur until September or October at the earliest, because Iraqi troops are still not capable of handling the situation in Basra on their own. The military insider said: "Iraqi forces are a brigade down at the moment. They're not up to full strength, let alone trained strength. Any drawing down of troops cannot happen until these two issues are addressed."

Currently there are around 30,000 Iraqi troops in southern Iraq spread among three brigades.
A Defense Ministry source added the security situation in Basra remained "fragile." "There is still an insurgency and that still needs to be dealt with," he said. Since the row with the Iraqi government over Brown's attempt to reduce the British force by almost half earlier this year - which embarrassingly left British troops on the sidelines during the initial phase of the operation to crush Shiite militias in Basra last April - British military policy has changed.

Although a majority of British soldiers remain concentrated at the Basra air base on the outskirts of the city, a number of troops have now been embedded in Iraqi units operating in the south in a bid to improve the performance of Iraqi forces in the field. In addition, training of Iraqi forces now focuses on urban fighting rather than battlefield training.

The change in policy, which stems from Iraqi failures during the battle for Basra, is a departure from the British government's earlier cut and run policy. But it is still about paving the way for the United Kingdom's exit, albeit less hastily, within the next two years, before the next British election. That will of course free up troops for the conflict in Afghanistan. The milestone of the death of the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan last week reopened the debate about what purpose the British presence in the country is serving.

Defense Minister Des Browne insisted a few days ago that the West is winning the war, as he announced an additional 230 British troops would be sent to Afghanistan. Contrary to Browne's assessment, however, General Sir David Richards, the commander in chief of British land forces, told the Defense Ministry's in-house journal: "Though things have improved, don't think for one minute we can believe that we are winning."

A few days ago, 400 Taliban fighters, who escaped from a jail in Kandahar following a Taliban rocket attack on their prison, seized villages near the main British airbase there, a move that threatens the facility providing the main air link with the UK. And last weekend four US marines were killed by a roadside bomb in Farah. Total allied combat deaths in Afghanistan for the month of May exceeded the toll in Iraq during the same month.

The small area where the writ of Afghan President Hamid Karzai runs is shrinking further as insurgent attacks occur in areas, such as Herat, that a year ago were considered safe. The Taliban even came close to assassinating Karzai a few months ago. Outgoing NATO commander Dan McNeil has said that there has been a 40 percent increase in attacks this year as the Taliban moves away from direct confrontation to attacking troops with improvised explosives and suicide bombers.

As the security situation deteriorates, infrastructure and development work becomes further stalled. Political progress is virtually nonexistent and Karzai's administration is riddled with corruption. Many in the UK looked on aghast at the $21 billion pledged to Afghanistan last week. Billions of dollars have already been spent since the invasion and more than 800 allied troops have been killed, not to mention thousands of innocent Afghans. Throwing more money at the country will hold the ring for Karzai in Kabul, but it will not provide a long-term solution to Afghanistan's woes.

Against this backdrop an additional 230 British troops is hardly the cavalry arriving over the hill to save the day, no matter how much the Brown government spins it.

Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Gordon Brown is hurt, but not dead yet

Michael Glackin
The Daily Star

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Despite appearances to the contrary, the knives are not quite out yet for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. They are certainly being sharpened. But no one is willing to step forward and wield the blade, even though critics within government who behind closed doors had accused him of being neurotic and paranoid are starting to emerge into the open.

Last week Labor peer Lord Desai opined that "Gordon Brown was put on earth to remind people how good Tony Blair was." He insisted Brown was "indecisive" and "weak" and that Labor parliamentarians were actively considering who should succeed him as leader.

Desai is a peripheral figure in Labor politics. But Brown's acolytes are also starting to speak out. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, a member of Brown's trusted inner circle, stunned Westminster by conceding the government needed to "sharpen up" and give a "clear message" about what it was doing. Brown has been partly damaged by the impact of the global credit crunch on the United Kingdom. But it is the lack of direction of his government and his indecision when faced with big issues - epitomized by his allowing election speculation to mount last year - that is causing concern among Labor parliamentarians.

Iraq and Afghanistan are also contributing to Brown's woes, although arguably the ineptitude of his defense secretary, Des Browne, serves as a useful lightning conductor for the prime minister. A fortnight ago the High Court rejected Browne's attempt to prevent coroners' courts from criticizing the government for servicemen's deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. The court ruled that families of soldiers killed in action could even sue the government under human rights laws.
And last week it emerged that Browne had misled Parliament over the fiasco last year when 15 British sailors were taken hostage by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Browne had insisted that the sailors were seized in Iraqi waters, but government documents now reveal that they were in fact located in disputed territory.

The government could conceivably withstand all these embarrassments were it not for the fact that British policy toward Iraq, indeed like most things at home as well, is drifting along in much the same confused manner as were the 15 sailors. The confusion, or ineptitude, was apparent again when the prime minister recently traveled to Washington, only to find himself eclipsed by Pope Benedict's visit to the city.

Although the rapport between US President George W. Bush and Brown was warmer than during Brown's visit last year, Bush still doubts the prime minister's commitment to the war in Iraq. Bush will soon be gone, but Brown is also viewed with suspicion in Baghdad where his desire to escalate the withdrawal of British troops, begun by Blair, spooked the perennially fragile Iraqi government.

The Iraqi pullout, which would have reduced British forces from 4,000 to 2,500 this year, has now been abandoned because of the fighting in Basra. But until this past weekend, British forces were embarrassingly restricted to providing air cover and medical aid in the battle between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army. One can argue there is little point in having troops in Basra if they are not going to fight when needed. But equally, if they are going to fight, then military sources insist the 4,000-strong force must be increased. On this, Brown remains silent, underlining for many his indecision when facing big issues.

Even Brown's much touted, and frankly turgid, speech on foreign policy in Boston last week failed to provide any clues on where he stands. Brown reiterated Blair's vision of "liberal interventionism" outlined in Chicago in 1999 when NATO bombing was forcing Slobodan Milosevic to pull his Serb forces out of Kosovo. But while Blair's interventionism was based on a US-British alliance, Brown's, as stated in his speech, centers on working through global institutions like the United Nations. This is unlikely to chime any more with the next president of the United States than with Bush if US interests are threatened by, let's say, Iran. But lest we forget, five years ago Brown voted in Parliament to invade Iraq, despite a lack of UN support. Moreover, few would dispute that intervention in Kosovo was just, and that too was carried out without UN approval.

Brown's criticism of Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe in New York was a similar hypocrisy considering his willingness to be photographed alongside aggressive track-suited Chinese security guards in Downing Street when the Olympic torch came to London. The security guards are part of China's People's Armed Police, the force spearheading Beijing's brutal crackdown in Tibet. Moreover, China is a key supplier of arms to Zimbabwe. Small wonder people accuse Brown of lacking direction.

The tipping point for Brown may well come next month. The government is reconciled to a humiliating loss in upcoming local elections, but is also facing defeat in Parliament on two key government policies. Labor parliamentarians are expected to rebel against their government when Parliament votes on extending the time allowed to detain terrorism suspects without charge to 42 days. Another revolt will occur over plans to increase taxes on some of Britain's least well-paid workers, as Brown attempts to shore up the finances of his cash-strapped government.

Yet Brown is safe in his job. His most likely successor, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, refused to stand against him last year and is unlikely to rock the boat now. Moreover, Brown has waited a long time to get the reins of power in his hands. He will not relinquish them willingly and Labor cannot afford a bloody battle to oust another prime minister barely a year after allowing Brown to evict Blair. But while Brown will likely ride out this storm, he would do well to remember that just because you're paranoid, that doesn't mean people aren't out to get you.

Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

Thursday, 22 May 2008

A man who helped push the Middle East into chaos

The Daily Star

Tuesday June 26, 2007
By Michael Glackin
In May 1997 Tony Blair was swept into power on an enormous wave of optimism. Britain 's youngest prime minister since 1812, his approval ratings were the highest of any postwar British leader. He won three elections, two of which, prior tothe Iraq War, were landslides. Yet tomorrow, 10 years on, Blair will leave office, pushed out against his will and carried out on the political equivalent of a dust cart: unwanted by his party, unloved by the public.
Blair's demise dates from the day he made the ill-fated decision to support US President George W. Bush in his quest to oust Saddam Hussein. Blair, who famously said "mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war," became the leader who put more British soldiers in harm's way than any post-World War II prime minister. And many, along with millions of fathers, mothers, daughters and sons in the Middle East, are set to remain in harm's way long after he has gone.
Of course, it was all to make the world a better, safer place. But Blair's foreign policy legacy, as he heads off to justify his actions and hit the lucrative lecture circuit, is a Middle East close to meltdown and a world facing a more uncertain and dangerous future. Ironically, The Financial Times reported yesterday that Blair might be named as the new Middle East envoy of the Quartet.
Less than two years ago Blair joined Bush in taking credit for free elections in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon. Today they must take the lion's share of the blame for the current turmoil and instability in each of these countries.
Recently, Hamas militants took over Gaza in the latest escalation of its civil war with Fatah for control of the Palestinian territories. In Lebanon , Walid Eido became the latest anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated as the government propelled to power by the 2005 "Cedar Revolution" continues to totter while an emboldened Hizbullah and Syria plot to bring it down. Iraq 's bloody civil war goes from bad to worse while the United Kingdom beats a hasty retreat and America starts looking beyond Bush and toward the exits. And last week Britain 's ambassador to Afghanistan , Sherard Cowper-Coles, warned the UK might have to remain in the country for decades to protect Afghans from the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the influence of the Middle East states that defied Blair and Bush - Iran and Syria - is increasing to such an extent that they are now being increasingly courted by the West to solve the problems Blair's policies helped create. While Blair could not have prevented Bush from invading Iraq , he could have used his influence to make the US president more flexible on Palestine . Instead Blair made Britain 's foreign policy subservient to Washington 's, earning his sobriquet of "Bush's poodle."
Hamas won a clear election victory in the Palestinian Authority that Blair and Bush chose to ignore, preferring instead to negotiate and fund a corrupt Fatah under President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas could not deliver the gunmen, nor as the parliamentary elections conclusively proved, the wider public. Bush and Blair weakened Abbas further by ignoring his pleas to end Western sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority in the wake of Hamas' election victory. The resumption of aid last week was too little too late. Abbas needed a meaningful peace process. Blair and Bush delivered neither and, as such, bolstered the standing of Hamas.
The result is the West Bank and Gaza are now divided by ideology as well as geography and another Middle East powder keg has been ignited.
In Lebanon , Blair's refusal to condemn Israel 's bombing of Lebanese civilians last year weakened the pro-Western government at the same time as Israel 's military incompetence strengthened Hizbullah and with it Syrian President Bashar Assad. Two years ago Syria was forced out of Lebanon and Assad feared being on the wrong end of a US assault. Today Blair's government, followed by others, has beaten a path to his door to ask for help in combating Islamist terror groups. Yet only the bumbling Inspector Clouseau could fail to link Damascus to the series of murders in Lebanon that began with the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
Iraq remains a catastrophic human tragedy that worsens at every turn. No one could fail to be moved by the millions of Iraqis marching to vote in the National Assembly elections in 2005, Iraq 's first free elections. One could argue at the time that the sight of people risking their lives to vote for a better future, despite the turmoil caused by the invasion, might vindicate Blair and Bush's decision to go to war. But two elections later - one to ratify the Constitution and new parliamentary elections - the voters have shown more courage and vision than the politicians, whose failure to properly plan and execute the occupation and restructuring of Iraq has allowed festering sectarianism to explode in an orgy of violence.
The prospect of Iraq being spilt into separate states grows more likely. Blair has already abandoned the country and moves for a US pullout could begin as early as September when the US commander, General David Petraeus, delivers his progress report on America 's "surge" strategy, Bush's last-ditch attempt to finally bring order to the chaos.
Blair's failures in these countries have also jeopardized the initially successful war to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan . The US and British decision to open up another front in the"war on terror" in Iraq and spread increasingly thin military resources has emboldened the Taliban. As recent developments in Afghanistan make clear, the war in is no longer confined to the south of the country and threatens to spiral out of control.
The scale of the failure of Blair's foreign policy can be measured in death, carnage and misery across the Middle East, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris. Nero supposedly played his lyre while Rome was devoured by a fire he started. Blair's lucrative employment on the US lecture circuit will offer a modern example of the Roman emperor's vanity, while the Middle East remains enveloped in a conflagration partly of Blair's making.
Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

Britain tiptoes away in the darkness

The Daily Star

23 February 2007
By Michael Glackin
"What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by the Iraqis." With these words British Prime Minister Tony Blair formally announced the start of the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. It is the end for a government involvement in the bloody quagmire that Iraq has become since the US-led invasion in 2003. It is an admission of defeat.
The reality of Blair's astounding and tasteless understatement is that British troops are exiting a country in the throes of civil war. One where poverty and death are endemic, and corruption within all branches of government is rife.
The great beacon of democracy that Iraq was to symbolize for the entire Middle East will remain unlit as Britain tiptoes away in the darkness.
But to hear Blair talking on Wednesday you could be forgiven for thinking that none of this had anything to do with him.
It has been clear for some time that the endgame in Iraq was not going to be defined in the simple, clear terms of victory or defeat. But the idea of leaving Iraq in a better shape than Blair and US President George W. Bush found it appears to have been abandoned. Along the way, the entire Middle East has become a much bigger powder keg of trouble than it was before the invasion.
Withdrawal is the right thing to do, but the sheer hypocrisy of Blair and his government in claiming their Iraq mission has now been successfully accomplished beggars belief. Running for the door before you have fully cleared up a mess you've created is hardly a job done.

But against the backdrop of seemingly never-ending violence, Blair steadily reduced the scope of his ambitions until they became meaningless but easier to fulfill.

And make no mistake, where Blair has trod this week, Bush will follow once his last-ditch "surge" has run its course, whatever its outcome. No one wants to inherit Iraq when its principal authors leave office.
Wednesday's announcement was not a surprise. The Blair government has been briefing that a pullout, or "drawdown" as officials prefer to call it, would begin in earnest for months. A succession of senior soldiers - most notably the head of the armed forces, General Sir Richard Dannatt, last year - have warned British troops are no longer serving a useful purpose in Basra, and are now exacerbating the situation.
Dannatt's unprecedented intrusion into politics proved to be a defining point in the ill-fated Iraq mission. The British public, never wholehearted supporters of the decision to invade Iraq, became increasingly weary following Dannatt's attack on the war. In addition to thousands of Iraqis killed since the invasion, 132 British soldiers have died serving in Iraq since March 2003. The latest, Private Luke Simpson, was being buried at the same time as Blair was announcing the withdrawal to Parliament.
Blair is weary too. When government colleagues ask about policies on various issues, he reportedly answers: "Well, I won't be around for that."
Because of this, his power and grip on Cabinet colleagues is eroding fast.
Senior government official Peter Hain recently felt confident enough to slam Bush for being "the most right-wing" American president in memory.
Not so long ago, criticizing Blair's partner in the war on terror would have cost Hain his job.
Blair, a politician besotted with his legacy, has been desperate to have the start of a withdrawal in place before leaving office this summer. The beginning of the drawdown, which will reduce troop numbers in Basra from 7,100 to 5,500, is expected in May or June. This is likely to coincide with an announcement from the prime minister of a timetable for his departure from 10 Downing Street. A further 500 troops will be sent home by the end of the summer and, if all goes according to plan, there could be a further withdrawal before the end of the year. By the end of 2008, a majority of the remaining troops will be withdrawn. However, it is understood that a brigade-sized force of around 2,000 soldiers will remain garrisoned in Basra as a backup to Iraqi security services.
The speed of the withdrawals is much slower than many had forecast.
The army is understood to have recommended a much faster timetable, but concerns in Washington about Britain's dwindling commitment curbed the government's enthusiasm. Behind the supportive statements from Washington on Wednesday, the White House is greeting the withdrawal through gritted teeth. Although the withdrawn troops are likely to end up being dispatched to Afghanistan at some point, it is no secret that Washington was keen to redeploy them to Baghdad to help US troops.
Washington is also worried that arms smuggling from Iran will increase once British troops leave Basra. Basra isn't pacified, it is simply as good as it is going to get for now. The Bush administration fears withdrawal will open the floodgates to a fresh round of violence between Shiite militias in the south as they seek to fill the vacuum left by the British.
The US ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said as much last month when he admitted he would prefer British forces to remain at their current levels. When surging, you need all the surge you can get, and a 23 percent reduction in British troops while the US is increasing its numbers by 14 percent indicates a diminishing commitment in any language.
Despite this, British Defense Minister Des Browne, a close ally of Blair's likely successor, Finance Minister Gordon Brown, insisted that the United Kingdom and the US remain "on the same page" in terms of policy.
Having promised democracy and investment, the UK helped create a bloodbath. The next chapters in Iraq's history may well be written by the Iraqis, but they are stuck with a script authored by the West. And the pages look set to get even bloodier.
Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, for which this commentary was written.

Engaging Syria over Gemayel's dead body

The Daily Star

Friday 24 November 2006

By Michael Glackin
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a man in a hurry. He is desperate to tie up as many political loose ends as he can in the coming months, the tail end of his premiership, which will end by the summer of next year. On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament that British troops might hand over all of southern Iraq, including Basra, to Iraqi forces by spring. Although the Foreign Office insisted this did not mean all troops would be leaving, it reflects a fresh determination by the government to extricate itself, sooner rather than later, from an ill-fated military adventure that cannot be won and which even Blair was forced to concede last week had been a disaster.

Ready or not, Blair is hoisting the exit signs in Iraq. Hence his desire to "reach out" to Syria to help in Iraq; or more accurately get it to tighten its border to make the departure of British soldiers easier, and then fill the vacuum left behind once the pullout begins in earnest. But if last Tuesday's Mafia-style hit on Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel proves anything, it is that the United Kingdom's desire to bring Damascus in from the cold - a desire shared by a number of former American officials, most prominently the one-time secretary of state, James Baker - is misguided, to say the least.

You do not have to be Hercule Poirot to realize that despite its denials, Damascus must be a prime suspect in this latest murder. Gemayel is the fourth anti-Syrian public figure to be murdered since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year. Syria has also worked hard to bring down the elected government of Lebanon through Hizbullah, freshly emboldened by its resistance in the war against Israel last year. The result of the ballot box in Lebanon is increasingly under threat of being overturned by the bullet and the bomb. But talk in Britain and America this week of defending Lebanese democracy - just months after the West's failure to intervene more actively during Israel's deadly bombardment - sounds hollow and sits ill with attempts to court a Syrian regime that continues to undermine that very democracy. Blair's office insisted on Wednesday that Syria's conduct in Lebanon "was one of the criteria by which we would judge whether they were playing a constructive role or not in the Middle East as a whole." Well maybe. But in reality few believe it will stop Blair from pursuing an understanding with Damascus as the prime minister embarks on what many in Britain now see as a "unite and quit" strategy in Iraq.

Blair's desperation to extricate himself from the Iraqi labyrinth was most recently seen in his decision to dispatch his chief foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus to sound out President Bashar Assad on helping with Iraq as well as on resuscitating whatever is still breathing of the all-but-dead Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The idea of course is to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran with the carrot of a friendlier Western policy toward Damascus. It is understood that the US was also considering sending Ambassador Margaret Scobie back to Damascus next month, a move that is unlikely to take place now. But Western attempts to openly court Syria, and indeed to a lesser extent Iran (one-third of Washington's axis of evil), are wrongheaded for a raft of reasons.

Despite Syria's halfhearted approach to border security and Iran's backing of various Iraqi Shiite militias, it is highly questionable whether either country has any real influence over what has now become a full-blown civil war in Iraq. Second, Syria and Iran both have their own interests in Iraq and in the wider region, and unless I've missed it, so far those interests have not coincided with those of the US or Britain.

While issues like the return of the Golan Heights and a fresh Palestinian-Israeli peace process can be fudged into another of those meaningless face-saving formulas the Middle East is so familiar with, other issues cannot be so easily dealt with. Tehran is determined to join the nuclear club, while Damascus wants to restore its hegemony over Lebanon. Assad also wants to thwart the mixed Lebanese-international tribunal put forward by the United Nations to try suspects in the Hariri assassination and thus avoid seeing senior officials from his regime in the dock. Is Blair, and perhaps Washington too, really prepared to pay for engaging Syria and Iran by compromising on all those issues?

One hopes the answer is no. But there is of course a horrible sense of deja vu in all this. Less than 16 years ago the fathers of the current presidents of the US and Syria came to an agreement over Iraq: In exchange for joining the international coalition forming to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait, Syrian President Hafez Assad was granted leeway to impose his control over all of Lebanon.

It was all about the "bigger picture" then, and still is today. But not so long ago, officials from the US and the UK were insisting that Lebanon was integral to their wider vision for the Middle East, even a catalyst for change in the region, not a bargaining chip. The brave new world which those who support engagement with Syria want to usher in in the Middle East is starting to look increasingly like the same old one.
Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

False Dawn in Saudi Arabia

Morning Star
Tuesday 29 January
By Michael Glackin
In 2005 thousands of Shias in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia queued from dawn outside polling stations to vote in the kingdom's historic local elections. Women were not allowed to vote of course, and only half the members of local councils were actually elected with the remainder appointed by the government. But despite this, those who stood in the early morning light waiting for the polling booths to open - and inspired in part by the sight of Iraqi Shias braving bomb attacks to vote in their own elections - hoped it would mark the first tentative step towards ending years of inequality and discrimination.
Unfortunately, as so often in the Middle East , it proved a false dawn. The local councils turned out to be more impotent than even cynics predicted and talk of Shias using the authority of elected office to push for equal rights is no longer heard. Indeed two years on from the elections the plight of Shias in Saudi Arabia has in some respects worsened.
Jafar Al Shayeb, a Shia politician who was successfully elected chairman of the local council in Qatif, a predominately Shia city, admits the councils have failed to be the catalyst for change that Shias had hoped for. "It's true," he says. "The municipal council has very little authority regarding local community issues, especially religious and political ones. Shia community issues are far beyond the council."
Al Shayeb lived in exile for many years. He returned to the kingdom in 1993, when King Fahd relaxed some of the restrictions imposed on Shias in exchange for their ending active opposition to the regime from abroad. He believes some things have improved since his return, albeit due to benevolence from above rather than political power from below, but concedes the situation is far from perfect.
"Many types of harassment still take place" he explains. "Such as being held in prison for holding some religious ceremonies, distributing religious books and building religious places without a permit, which is hardly ever granted."
Discrimination has long been a fact of life for the Saudi Shia. They are prevented from building mosques, kept out of the upper ranks of the army and the security services, and deprived of senior jobs in the bureaucracy. Things are even worse for the much smaller Ismaili Shia community that inhabits the south of the kingdom where last year a judge annulled a marriage on the basis that the husband was "inadequate" because he followed the Ismaili creed and not the Wahhabi creed of his wife.
Shia are estimated to comprise between 1.5 to 2 million of a population of around 25 million, but form the majority in the kingdom's eastern province, the strategically sensitive heartland of Saudi Arabia's oil wealth. Despite a government policy to move Sunnis into the region, Shias remain the majority in large cities such as Qatif and are at least a sizeable minority in others such as Dhahram, home to Saudi Aramco, and Al-ahsa.
"The Saudi government has encouraged Sunnis to move to the eastern province by giving them jobs while qualified Shias were denied," says Ali Al Ahmed, a Shia from the eastern province and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington based think tank. "There is a real sense today that Shia are under occupation and the situation is getting worse."
Al Ahmed's view is confirmed by humanitarian groups active in the region. "There were signs of improvement in treatment of the Shia a year or so ago," says Human Rights Watch Middle East specialist Christoph Wilcke. "But within the last 10 months we have seen signs of regression."
The long standing emnity between Saudi Arabia's dominant Wahhabi creed of Sunni Islam, which views all Shia as heretics, reached its apogee following the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the establishment of Aytollah Khomeini's Shia theocracy. Emboldened by events in Iran, Shias in the eastern province rioted precipitating a crackdown by Saudi authorities that left at least a dozen people dead and many more in gaol. The crackdown also resulted in a ban on the publication and distribution of Shia books and an increase in day to day harassment of Shias by police.
Many of the restrictions were later eased, most notably King Abdullah's decision while he was crown prince to allow Shias to observe the Ashura holiday, but the re-emergence of Iran as a regional power – not to mention its nuclear ambitions - combined with a Shia led government in Iraq has intensified Sunni suspicions that the kingdom's Shias are fifth columists for outside forces who desire to annex the kingdom's oil wealth. These tensions were exacerbated further by the 2006 war between Lebanon's Shia militia Hizbullah and Israel and the filmed images of Iraqi Shias joyfully carrying out the execution of Saddam Hussein.
"Following Saadam's hanging, two senior Saudi clerics [Abdullah Bin Jebreen and Abdul Rahman al Barak] issued fatwas on the entire Shia population," says Wilcke. "And now Shias who are found during police stop and search checks with photographs of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah on their mobile phones are arrested. The same thing happens to anyone who displays pro Nasrallah stickers on their cars."
Despite such incidents, Al Shayeb believes improvements remain possible by working through what passes for Saudi Arabia's political institutions. He believes the Majlis al-Shura, the 150 strong all male all appointed consultative council that advises the king and in some cases can initiate legislation is becoming increasingly proactive.
In addition King Abdullah’s announcement last year that he intends to create a supreme court, an appeals court and new general courts to replace the Supreme Judicial Council represents a substantial curb on the hitherto unchecked powers of the conservative clerics who lead the judiciary.
And a couple of months ago al Shayeb's council succeeded in overturning a law which restricted the size of basements in Shia homes in Qatif, a law designed to prevent basements being used for Shia prayer meetings.
It remains the council's sole success.
Another visible sign of change is the construction of the large Shia mosque in Al-ahsa .
But Al Ahmed disagrees. "Yes Shias have opened a Mosque in Al-ahsa but they are still discriminated against elsewhere. Saudi Arabia does not have one Shia diplomat in the ministry of foreign affairs. There are no Shia heads of universities or at the head of public companies. Shia girls cannot get into college in the east. What are the consultative and local councils doing about these things? Nothing because they are powerless."
Nowhere is this discrimination more evident says Al Ahmed than in the hiring and promotion of staff at Saudi Aramco, the giant national oil company headquartered in Dhahran, just south of Qatif. Saudi Aramco has consistently denied such charges.
"Shias traditionally worked in senior positions in Saudi Aramco," says Al Ahmed. "But during the 1980s the government suspended the hiring of Shia workers and that lasted until the mid nineties except in very rare cases. It is better now, Shias now account for around 50 per cent of Saudi Aramco's work force, but there are still no Shias at board level."
Saudi Aramco would not specify how many Shias it employed in senior positions but a spokesperson insisted: "Hiring and personnel policy is to seek the best person for any given position, while giving preference to Saudi nationals. Therefore, Saudis of all backgrounds are represented throughout the company, from new hires to executives."
He added: “"Our information systems aren't geared for tracking information like an employee's sect. Saudi Aramco is a global commercial enterprise, and promotions are based on merit alone."
Of course, dread of the so called "Shia crescent" stretching from Iraq through Iran to Lebanon is particularly keenly felt in the oil rich east where fear of attacks on installations, home to 90 per cent of the kingdom's black gold, has seen a huge increase in security around oil facilities.
Yet Shia hardly share uniform political interests. Iraqi Shias, who owe their new found status entirely to American military power, are no lovers of Lebanon's fervently anti American Hizbullah. At the same time, Iran is involved in a bitter dispute with the predominantly Shia government of Azerbaijan over oil rights in the Caspian Sea which has seen one high ranking Tehran official ominously warn Iran may have to "reclaim" northern Azerbaijan, an area that formed part of the Persian Empire two centuries ago.
But such subtleties are lost in the cauldron of Saudi Arabian politics where King Abdullah must balance even snail pace reform with the Wahhabi religious base on whom the House of Saud relies for its legitimacy.
And for all Al Shayeb's optimism things could still get worse.
Many younger Shias, emboldened by the success of Nasrallah and Hizbullah's "divine victory" during Israel’s hapless but bloody invasion in 2006 and are no longer content to hang around waiting for the change al Shayeb is convinced will eventually come.
"Younger Shias are mesmerised by Nasrallah," explains Al Ahmed. "It is he and Hizbullah, and to a lesser extent Iran, that young Shias in Saudi Arabia see as a model. It is a disturbing development."
While both Wilcke and Al Shayeb play down the notion of a more militant youth, there is a very real fear that violence between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq will spill over into Saudi Arabia, as battle hardened Saudi Sunni militants currently causing mayhem there return home.
This is part of the reason why the fate of Shia in Saudi Arabia is likely to depend in large part on events in Iraq and of course what happens in the current stand off between the US and Iran as much as events within the kingdom.
Against this backdrop is it realistic that councils such as the one in Qatif where Shia representatives control 50 per cent of the seats - more than in Al-asha and other eastern cities where the figure is 40 per cent or less - have any meaningful role to play in determining the future?
Although the councils have no real political power, they do at least provide a public forum in the eastern province that enables Shia men, who for all the shortcomings of the process are accountable to the narrow electorate that voted for them, to discuss the problems Shia face with Sunnis who live alongside them. Moreover, even Al Ahmed agrees the councils provide a useful role in giving Shias experience of how government administration works. "Through the councils, despite their weakness, you can educate and train people in government and that is a good thing," he says.
But power that emanates from above can easily be taken away again. And the fear remains that even the current begrudging reform process could be abandoned as US pressure on the House of Saud to liberalize recedes in the wake of the continuing bloodbath the attempt to establish democracy has caused in Iraq.
This is particularly pertinent against the backdrop of the fractious succession process that exists within the House of Saud. While 82 year old Abdullah's successor will be the octogenarian Crown Prince Sultan, contrary to custom there is currently no designated second in line to the throne, a deliberate oversight due to rivalry within the family. The choice of a successor to Sultan, should he succeed Abdullah, will be left to the so called Allegiance Institution, the committee established by Abdullah last year, composed of the sons and grandsons of the kingdom's founder Abdul Aziz.
Under the new rules the committee can vote for one of three princes nominated by the King for the post of Crown Prince. However, if it rejects the King's nominations it can put forward its own choice which the King can either accept or put to a vote of the Allegiance Institution.
In many ways the Allegiance Institution formalizes what has traditionally occurred anyway, but it has given rise to much political intrigue and jockeying for position within the House of Saud, particularly among those who want power to pass to the next generation, Abdul Aziz's grandsons.
"The House of Saud is not united," says Al Ahmed. "And if the family is not united about the succession the situation for Shias, indeed for the whole country, could become very fluid. A lurch back to repression could easily happen."
But Al Shayeb insists the fledlging reforms undertaken in Saudi Arabia are permanent and will improve life in the kingdom for not just Saudi Arabian Shias but for all Saudi Arabians. He says: "I remain optimistic about the future. I feel the Shia community and the government understand each other in a better way now. They both want to work to bridge the gap created by long years of tension."
Time will tell whether his optimism is well founded, or whether like those who stood in the dawn two years ago, he will be disappointed.
Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

To talk, or not talk, with the Taliban?

The Daily Star
Tuesday 15 January 2008
By Michael Glackin

"Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private individuals." So spoke Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller's famous World War II novel "Catch 22." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown must have a soft spot for Heller's antihero. The expulsion from Afghanistan last month of two private individuals close to, but with no formal attachment to, the United Kingdom government after they held talks with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan fits in neatly with Minderbender's theory of how to win a war. But despite the denials, it is hard to conceive that Irish-born European Union official Michael Semple or Northern Ireland-born United Nations worker Mervyn Patterson were not acting without at least the tacit blessing of the British government, even if Afghan President Hamid Karzai was kept in the dark.
Quite why Brown continues to insist that direct talks with the Taliban are not happening is a mystery. Four months ago both the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Office confirmed to me that contacts with the Taliban and its fellow travelers were going on through various channels "on the ground." It was an operational decision, the Defense Ministry insisted, not policy. But even allowing for that, reports that the British foreign intelligence division MI6 had also been negotiating with Taliban leaders should not come as a surprise either. Lest we forget, in Iraq the UK successfully negotiated a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army to ease a British military withdrawal to the departure lounge of Basra Airport last year.

But unlike Iraq, where the UK is leaving behind a mess (around 40 women have been killed for supposed "un-Islamic behavior" since September in Basra), there is no easy exit from the Afghan conflict. However, plainly, a variant of the Basra model - reaching out to elements of the Taliban and tribal leaders who might be "reconciled" to the Karzai administration - is a central aim in the Afghan war. It's all a bit reminiscent of the Great Game era of the 19th century when Britain and Russia vied for supremacy in the region.

Reports indicate that Semple and Patterson held secret meetings with a Taliban leader, Mansour Dadullah, who has waged a bitter war against the British Army in Helmand Province, to try to persuade him to break with the Taliban and form his own political party and militia. Soon after, a statement from the Taliban leadership released via the Islamic Press Agency, said Dadullah had been sacked for refusing to obey orders. It warned his followers to break of all contact with him and pursue their jihad. Of course Karzai has been talking with the Taliban for some time now and last year even made an appeal for talks with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. His annoyance with the Semple-Patterson talks came from the fact that his still weak position would be weakened further if he were bypassed in talks with the enemy.

At the heart of all this is the grim realization within the British government that there are limits to what military action in Afghanistan can achieve. The Soviet Union lost its war there with 300,000 troops; the UK- and United States-led international force is fighting with less than 45,000. The Taliban may not be able to defeat the West's military might, but the West cannot ultimately defeat the Taliban either. To break the stalemate, Brown, upon his return from last month's flying visit to Afghanistan to meet Karzai, unveiled what he called his "new strategy" for the UK's role in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, most of it turned out to be old hat. Brown did say he would increase support for Helmand's "community defense initiatives," where, as he put it, "local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families modeled on traditional Afghan arbakai." But this plan was shot down was last week by the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, US General Dan McNeill, who fears it will fuel inter-tribal fighting in the south.

Brown's announcement that the UK would, between 2009 and 2012, offer around $900 million in development aid and something called "stabilization assistance" was nothing particularly new either, because the money promised does not substantially increase current British financial support. Indeed the cash remains some way below the amounts the UK is putting into Iraq - which, in addition to having large oil revenues to rely on, also has less people than Afghanistan. Set Brown's investment against President George W. Bush's request to Congress for an extra $8 billion just to fund Afghanistan's new security forces and it looks half-hearted.

Ultimately perhaps, Brown knows that Karzai's tenuous grip on power can only be strengthened by persuading local leaders to back him. And the prime minister also knows that the need to get their backing has become more urgent in the wake of last month's assassination of the Pakistani opposition politician Benazir Bhutto. If civil unrest in the wake of Bhutto's murder forces Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to divert forces from the border areas, the Taliban could well be in a position later this year to reverse many of the losses they suffered to the coalition forces.

Against this backdrop, Western states may struggle to hold the ring in Afghanistan, although British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has unveiled what he called a "diplomatic surge" in the Middle East and Asia - increasing diplomatic staff in the region by 30 percent. Maybe he plans to talk the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to death.

As in Iraq, there will be no definitive military victory in Afghanistan. But the elephant in the room appears to be a realization by the UK that longstanding sectarian and tribal differences have made new democratic procedures and the Afghan government the West has established unworkable. Through his willingness to bring some Taliban fighters in from the cold, Brown is happy to concede, as he has in Basra, that the kind of democracy envisaged at the onset of the invasion in 2001 was more a lofty aspiration than a reflection of reality on the ground.

Michael Glackin, a journalist and former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.

War is emptying Britain's wallets

The Daily Star

Tuesday 4 March 2008
By Michael Glackin
How much does a war cost? Not just the cost of military firepower, but the cost of compensating the families of dead soldiers, looking after injured soldiers and the war's wider impact on a country's economy? In the case of the war in Iraq the figure for the United States alone is a minimum of $3 trillion if you take the word of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. In his book "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict," co-written with Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes, Stiglitz forensically dissects America's war costs. Unusually for an economist, Stiglitz's prose is crisp and clear, but the title undersells things a bit, since Stiglitz believes the ultimate cost to the US will be nearer $5 trillion. That's a lot of money, particularly compared with current White House estimates of $645 billion - a figure itself way above Washington's initial estimate of $50-60 billion.
When I spoke to Stiglitz during his visit to London last week he insisted he had been conservative in his estimates. "We were aware people would say 'he's a Democrat and against the war.' There are a few minor quibbles but the general judgment is we've been conservative," he says.
Stiglitz factors just about everything into his estimates, from troop pay and equipment to more hidden costs, including long-term veterans' healthcare benefits, replacing military equipment, interest on money borrowed to pay for the war (the Iraq war has been paid for largely through deficit spending), and the impact of the war on the price of oil. He also throws in his view that there is a direct correlation between the current crisis in global financial markets and the cost of the conflict.
For good measure Stiglitz also has a stab at crunching the United Kingdom's numbers, estimating the cost of British participation in Iraq and Afghanistan through to 2010 to be at least $40 billion, more than two-thirds of which is attributable to the Iraq war.
Is he correct? I've no idea. But at least he's come up with a figure. When I asked the UK Treasury, the government's finance department, for an overall estimate, I was tersely informed they did not have one. Instead they referred me to the Ministry of Defense, which in turn, and quite correctly, referred me back to the Treasury. When I explained the Treasury had referred me to them, they suggested I contact Number 10 Downing Street. The prime minister's office, you've guessed it, referred me back to Defense and Treasury. Mindful of my phone bill, I gave up.
It seems bizarre that the Treasury, the government department that holds the purse strings of all government spending, has no idea of how much money has been spent in Britain's two wars. Even more bizarrely, they refused to comment on Stiglitz's estimates.
Stiglitz is amused and surprised by the Treasury's ignorance. "Parts [of the costs] are relatively easy to account for and are really part of good government, such as costs of operations and injured people. Other parts, the ones based on economic assumptions, are harder to quantify but really should still be tracked by someone in the Treasury," he says.
Stiglitz calls the British system of funding the war "opaque," which partly explains why he was unable to separate spending in Afghanistan from Iraq. In his book he states that before the war, when Gordon Brown was in charge of Britain's finances, he set aside 1 billion pounds (about $2 billion) for war spending. Brown also allocated cash to a Special Reserve fund, a cash pot that allows the Defense Ministry to supplement its regular budget. Stiglitz makes the point that because funds from the Special Reserve are drawn down by the ministry when required, without approval by Parliament, it makes it harder to quantify how much is being spent. But Stiglitz estimates the UK has so far spent almost $19 billion on military operations alone in Iraq and Afghanistan. In crude terms that's the price of a lot of hospitals and schools at a time when the government is under fire for failing to adequately fund healthcare and education.
Considering the scandals that have erupted over the government's failure to properly equip soldiers in the field - last month an inquest found that a soldier in Afghanistan was "unlawfully killed" because the Defense Ministry failed to provide him with proper equipment during Brown's tenure as chancellor of the exchequer - you could be forgiven for wondering where all the money has gone.
But $40 billion is paltry when compared with the $200 billion worth of debt that Brown has taken onto the government's books by nationalizing Northern Rock, an inept high street bank plunged into crisis by the global credit crunch and whose plight last year caused the first run on a bank in Britain in more than a century.
The fact is Iraq has slipped down the political agenda in the UK. Notwithstanding last weekend's killing of a British airman in Basra, the war in Iraq is over as far as Brown is concerned. Afghanistan still looms large of course, but tough as the fighting there is, it's a war most people still largely back. Even Prince Harry has done a tour of duty there.
Brown at the moment is more concerned with the issue of banning plastic bags in supermarkets to help reduce global warming. He even took time to write a column on the issue for The Daily Mail, middle England's favorite newspaper. Oddly enough the government's marketing department used more than 1 million plastic bags last year in the cause of promoting itself. The Treasury couldn't tell me how much that cost either.
Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Conflict is costing trillions – 'they can explain the benefits'

Independent on Sunday
Sunday 9 March 2008
By Michael Glackin
Joseph Stiglitz's latest book, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, is provoking its very own war.

The Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist estimates that the cost of the US involvement in the Iraqi war is $3 trillion – including everything from military spending and long-term healthcare for veterans to interest on money borrowed to pay for the war and the impact of the conflict on the price of oil.

He also estimates that the cost of Britain's participation in Iraq and Afghanistan through to 2010 will be at least £20bn in direct military and social costs. But his critics, on the right of the US political spectrum, are having a field day demolishing his figures. A review in the Financial Times by Tunku Varadarajan of The Wall Street Journal accuses Stiglitz of having "entered into territory where it is fraudulent to offer up the omniscient exactitude of three trillion". He is also criticised for failing to detail the benefits of the war.

But speaking during a visit to London last week, days before he was due in Washington to give testimony on war costs to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, Stiglitz dismisses the criticism. "You know, the Bush administration has never challenged the numbers themselves. Of course, they said we hadn't counted the benefits. Well fine. We said we would look at the costs and let other people explain the benefits."

Stiglitz spits out statistics and economic paradigms supporting his case. Far from exaggerating the figures, he insists the real cost of the conflict to the US is likely to be nearer $5 trillion. "We were conservative in our accounting because we were aware people would say 'he's a Democrat and against the war'. But if you go through our costing item by item, there's no debate. Look at the number of injuries and there's no debate about that either. There are a few minor quibbles but most of the numbers in the book have been verified by the Congressional Budget Office as well as the Joint Economic Committee."

Getting a precise figure is no easy task. A request to the British Treasury last week ends with the terse response: "The Treasury does not have a figure on how much the war has cost." Stiglitz expresses a combination of amusement and surprise at such ignorance. "Well parts [of the cost] are relatively easy to account for and are really part of good government, such as costs of operations and injured people. Other parts, the ones based on economic assumptions, are harder to quantify but should still be tracked by someone in the Treasury."

He says Britain's system of funding the war is opaque, which partly explains why he was unable to separate UK spending in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his book he states that before the war, Gordon Brown, while Chancellor, set aside £1bn for war spending and also allocated cash to a Special Reserve – a cash pot allowing the Ministry of Defence to supplement its regular budget. Stiglitz makes the point that because funds from the Special Reserve are drawn down without approval by Parliament, it is harder to quantify how much is actually being spent. At any rate, he estimates that the UK has so far committed almost £9bn in military spending alone to Iraq and Afghanistan, 76 per cent of it in Iraq.

Having spent years working in Bill Clinton's White House, turning the large deficit Clinton inherited from George Bush senior into a budget surplus, Stiglitz makes no secret of his contempt for the current president, whose policy of delivering tax cuts to the wealthy while fighting two wars has left America with its largest-ever deficit.

"Part of the problem is that the war has almost been too easy for American people. We've financed it through deficit spending, so there have been no tax rises, but it's a cost that will continue for generations. You know this war has been funded by 24 separate Bills – that's how the administration has been hiding the total costs. It even tried to hide the number of casualties to hide the true costs."

To ensure greater clarity, Stiglitz believes Britain and America should levy a specific tax to fund conflicts in future. "People should know how much a war is costing them, and I think once a conflict has lasted more than three months, it should be funded by a war tax," he explains. "A tax would make the connection of cost and war much more clearly. War is expensive and you should not be allowed to fight one by borrowing."

Despite his links to the Clinton administration, Stiglitz is backing Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton's rival, this time round. Who knows, if Obama goes all the way, Stiglitz may well find himself in a position to implement his war tax, regardless of the arguments about his mathematics.

Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

An annivesary celebrated with gag orders

The Daily Star
Tuesday 1 April 2008
By Michael Glackin
A good deal of political hot air was expended in the United Kingdom marking last month's fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Although it was noticeable that there were no parades in Iraq celebrating what Prime Minister Gordon Brown described as the country's "liberation," we in the West got very excited about the whole affair.

US President George W. Bush treated us to his own version of French chanteuse Edith Piaf's classic song, "Je ne regrette rein," or I regret nothing. Failures in postwar planning, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the continuing carnage in Iraq are mere details it seems. In the UK, Brown marked the occasion by having his government launch legal action to prevent coroners from using inquests into military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq as an excuse to blame the Defense Ministry and Brown himself for having played a role in their killings.

Because bodies of British servicemen are brought back to Britain through a Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire, it falls to the area's local coroner to conduct a formal inquest into their deaths. In the UK it is the coroner's legal duty to ascertain the cause of death, and to report any irregularities or failings that may have contributed to it.

It is, to say the least, a highly unusual move by a government in any democracy to attempt to silence an independent law officer. But the Oxfordshire coroner has consistently found the Defense Ministry at fault for many of the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than one inquest has accused the ministry of "serious failings." Defense Secretary Des Browne insists the phrase "serious failings" is tantamount to blaming the government for the deaths, and fears families of dead soldiers will use the coroner's critical comments to sue for compensation.

The particular coroner the government most wants to silence is Oxfordshire's assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker. While investigating the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull, who was killed in a "friendly fire" incident involving an American A-10 plane in Iraq in 2003, Walker attacked the Pentagon for its lack of cooperation and delivered a verdict that the lance corporal's death was unlawful. During the inquest into the death of ITN journalist Terry Lloyd, who was killed when caught in a crossfire between the United States military and insurgents in Iraq in 2003, Walker recorded a verdict of unlawful killing and again criticized the US for failing to cooperate with the inquest.

But it is Walker's criticism of the Defense Ministry, but also the Treasury when Gordon Brown was chancellor, that has stuck in the craw of the government. Walker has consistently blamed shortages of military equipment for contributing to the deaths of a number of servicemen.

During an inquest last month into the death of Captain James Philippson, who died during a gun fight with the Taliban in Helmand Province in 2006, it emerged that Philippson and his unit lacked the necessary night-vision goggles, machine guns, and grenade launchers when they went into battle. Walker said, "To send soldiers into a combat zone without basic equipment is unforgivable, inexcusable and a breach of trust between the soldiers and those who govern them."

The government's cynical move to prevent coroners making these kinds of comments comes just after it emerged that Walker's contract as the Oxfordshire assistant deputy coroner will not be renewed. He will instead take up a post as coroner in London where he is unlikely to preside over any other military-related inquests.

It is impossible to say with any certainty that Walker's change of job is linked to his criticism of government. But what is clear is that for a war that was intent on bringing democracy and open government to Iraq and Afghanistan, it is extremely ironic that the British government is expending much energy in trying to silence people and keep things secret.

Without these inquests and judgments, the British public, not to mention the families of those killed, would be kept in the dark about the exact circumstances of soldiers' deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. But sadly this is how Brown's government wants things to be done. Under the guise of protecting national security the government also wants to lock people up without charging them for 42 days. It is, similarly, pressing ahead with the introduction of national identity cards, something last used in Britain during the dark days of World War II.

And two weeks ago Brown again sidestepped calls for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the British decision to go to war in Iraq, insisting he would hold one "when it is appropriate." Bearing in mind Brown's intense dislike of Tony Blair, the architect of the war, an investigation may well be in the cards at some point. But considering Brown's own support for the war, don't hold your breath waiting.

Meanwhile, the much-heralded final pullout of British troops from Basra airport is now likely to be delayed until 2009. Basra hasn't been under Iraqi government control for months and the "success" of the British Army's work there is evidenced by the current fighting, with the Iraqi Army trying to reclaim the city from the destructive and murderous grip of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, which has ruled Basra since the British soldiers withdrew to the airport.

The government in London can gag coroners, deny inquiries, and erode civil liberties all it wants, but it cannot gloss over the reality of Iraq five years after its "liberation." The country has been broken by the invasion, and the West has no idea about how to put it back together again.

Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a freelance journalist.