Thursday, 26 November 2009

Gordon Brown's small Afghan games

The Daily Star
Friday 27 November 2009
By Michael Glackin

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He could just as easily have been talking about current Western policy in Afghanistan.

Last week, British Premier Gordon Brown announced plans to host a conference in London next January involving NATO and the Afghan government. The gathering would set out an Afghan exit strategy and establish “a timetable for transfer [of power] starting in 2010.”

But just days after Brown floated his timetable for the United Kingdom’s military exit from Afghanistan, his foreign secretary, David Miliband, warned that “artificial timetables just give succor to your enemy.” Miliband insisted the UK was in Afghanistan for the long haul, because the government in Kabul would collapse within weeks if NATO troops left. Oddly enough, last month the newly installed head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, warned that British troop numbers in Afghanistan couldn’t be reduced until 2014 at the earliest, a date with which Afghan President Hamid Karzai hastily concurred last week.

So, is the UK cutting and running – remember Basra – or digging in? Last week, I spoke to the Foreign Office in a forlorn attempt to clarify British policy. An official insisted that the prime minister was not talking about withdrawal, and bizarrely he added that “no one is putting a timetable” on an exit. The official added that the UK’s strategy remained centered on building up Afghan institutions, the army, police and political system, so that Afghans could run everything themselves “at some point.”

I admit I was still confused, but a later inquiry to the Defense Ministry about how many coalition and Afghan troops were currently in Helmand Province alongside British forces turned confusion to farce. Astonishingly, the Defense Ministry didn’t know, and referred me to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. I duly contacted a very helpful chap at ISAF who informed me there were 15,000 coalition troops in total in Helmand, but that he had no idea how many Afghan soldiers were in the field. Let’s hope someone figures it out before Brown’s 2010 transfer. It’s one hell of a way to run an eight-year-long war.

Karzai has said that he will send 5,000 Afghan trainee troops to help in Helmand, but the Defense Ministry in London confirmed it had no idea when these troops would be dispatched. Based on all this, the chances of Helmand being handed over even in five years are slim to say the least, even if ISAF and the DefenseMinistry finally work out how many Afghan soldiers there are in the province to transfer security to.

Meanwhile, the government of the “re-elected” Karzai was last week declared by Transparency International the second most corrupt in the world, second only to Somalia’s. Brown has warned Karzai that he is not prepared to put the lives of British soldiers “in harm’s way” if the Afghan president fails to stamp out corruption. But as Miliband’s comments made clear, the threat is an empty one. It’s true that Brown has still not made good on his much-touted announcement to boost British troop numbers to 9,500, but that is because he is waiting for US President Barack Obama to decide how many soldiers he will commit to the Afghan conflict, with the announcement expected early next week in Washington.

Therefore, in place of anything resembling a firm policy, the prime minister dangled an ill-conceived and entirely unrealistic prospect of a military withdrawal before the British electorate, in order to fill the void. While Brown studiously avoided using the word withdrawal, his inference was as clear as it was cynical. It was a desperate attempt to shore up crumbling public support for the Afghan war, and for his government, ahead of next year’s elections, which must take place by June at the latest.

Brown wants to be able to tell voters that the process of withdrawing British troops is under way on his watch, even if no troops actually leave Afghanistan before the UK goes to the polls. Weekend leaks from the armed forces suggested the government was putting them under pressure to send a small number of troops home before the end of next year. Thus, British strategy is now subordinated to getting Brown re-elected.

The impression that British policy in Afghanistan now owes more to the Marx Brothers than Churchill was further underlined following a recent military briefing in London.

Those interested in financial markets will have noticed that the price of gold has soared this year. This is good news for the Taliban, who, following an alleged change in tactics by the British Army, are poised to receive “bags of gold” from soldiers in a bid to tempt them to lay down their arms. This “bags of gold policy,” outlined in a Defense Ministry briefing last week, is already being pursued, albeit with cash, not gold, by French and Italian forces in Afghanistan. Such payments could provide the Western powers with enough breathing space to allow international development programs to take root and provide real benefits to Afghans.

Except that according to the Defense Ministry the story is not true. It appears that “bags of gold” is merely a metaphor for stepping up development programs to provide work and benefits enabling “moderate insurgents” to see that there are alternatives to the $10 a day they are paid to take up arms with the Taliban. It appears that the British government believes bribing insurgents is something best left to the continentals.

That’s a shame. The handing of British gold to Afghan insurgents actually has a long and successful history. During the Great Game era of the late 19th century, the emir of Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman, received large supplies of gold and guns from Lord Dufferin, then viceroy of India, to maintain order in Afghanistan and keep Tsarist Russia at bay.

Mind you, Lord Dufferin probably knew how many Afghan troops he was paying for.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Tony Blair's record as 'Quartet' envoy displays distinct lack of substance

The Daily Star
Friday November 6 2009
By Michael Glackin

During a trip to Nablus earlier this year, Tony Blair insisted that improving conditions for Palestinians in the Israeli occupied West Bank was proof that a Palestinian state can be “built from the bottom up while it’s being negotiated from the top down.” Blair was referring to the removal of three Israeli checkpoints around the city.

It was a typical snappy, political sound-bite of the kind Blair, special envoy for the Middle East “Quartet” – the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations – excels in. Remember the one about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “which could be activated within 45 minutes?”

Unfortunately, like the sound-bite he used to win support for the invasion of Iraq, Blair’s comments in Nablus were untrue.

Firstly there are currently no meaningful “top down” negotiations between the governments of the Palestinian Authority and Israel, nor indeed anyone else it seems. Secondly, the “bottom up” improvements that Blair was extolling, the easing of restrictions at Israeli checkpoints, only exist in a handful of places and are seen by many Palestinians as a sop for the lack of meaningful political progress to improve their plight.

These small improvements in the everyday lives of people shouldn’t be overlooked of course, but in reality they are not much to show for more than two years in his role as Quartet envoy and hardly evidence that Blair is slowly laying the economic foundations of a viable Palestinian state. This year Israel has removed 11 checkpoints, but according to the UN there are still more than 600 checkpoints and unmanned barriers choking the free movement of goods and people throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

So what exactly has Blair achieved during his two years as Quartet envoy?

Well for one thing, he has succeeded in rapidly turning himself into a multi-millionaire. It is estimated Blair has made around $24 million since he stepped down as prime minister in 2007. He is of course unpaid in his role as part-time Quartet envoy – although his expenses are picked up by taxpayers – but he appears to have found his Middle East role a useful way to generate cash for himself.

Last weekend it was reported that Blair had held talks with UK supermarket giant Tesco about helping the superstore establish itself in the Middle East for a fee of $1.6 million. The talks, which ended without agreement, have increased accusations that Blair is utilizing his unpaid role in the Middle East to feather his own nest by promoting his private political and economic consultancy, Tony Blair Associates (TBA).

TBA, which Blair runs with his former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell, was established shortly after he was forced out of government by current UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Earlier this year, Blair was in Saudi Arabia in his peace-envoy role to hold talks with King Abdullah on the situation in the Gaza Strip. He was accompanied by Powell, although Powell has no role in the peace process. After the meeting the pair also met Prince Al-Waleed, King Abdullah’s nephew, who has no political role but is widely recognized as the wealthiest and smartest businessman in the Middle East. TBA’s clients are understood to include members of the royal families of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, countries Blair has visited in his role as Quartet envoy.

Last month a friend of Blair’s told the Sunday Times newspaper that TBA “had been set up to make money from foreign governments and companies. There’s a focus on the Middle East, because that is where the money is.”

On top of all that, Blair also represents US investment bank JP Morgan in the region in return for an estimated annual fee of $3 million. Beyond the Middle East there’s also the $800,000 Blair earns for representing Zurich Financial Services and a $7 million advance on his memoirs he received from publisher Random House in 2007. He is also reputed to earn up to $300,000 for each talk he gives on the global lecture circuit.

But what has been good for Blair’s finances has not been so good for Palestinians who remain burdened by Israeli restrictions, with movement into and through the West Bank strangled by checkpoints.

This week the Israel relaxed its blockade on Gaza to allow in tea and coffee. Both had been on a long list of items prohibited by the Israelis for security reasons along with cooking oil, dairy products, flour and frozen meat.

Another successful example of Blair’s “bottom up” theory? Hardly.

The blockade, imposed following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 continues and still includes the closure of Karni, one of the largest and best-equipped commercial crossings, continuing restrictions on the import of industrial, agricultural and construction materials, the suspension of almost all exports and a general ban on the movement of Palestinians through Erez, the only passenger crossing to the West Bank.

The bizarre ban on pens and pencils also appears to remain in place. The World Bank warned this year that the impact of the blockade on Gaza has been so severe, that it is unlikely many of the area’s fledgling businesses will be able to recover if and when the blockade is eventually lifted.

Other areas where Blair has become directly involved, such as his commendable attempts to persuade Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to allot the promised bandwidth for a second Palestinian mobile-phone company, operated by Wataniya Palestine, and which Blair said was “an important indicator of whether Palestinians are going to be allowed to run an economy properly” have also failed. Wataniya finally launched this week but not on the promised bandwidth it needs for the business to be viable.

In fairness to Blair the political process, under the aegis of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has also failed to deliver and US President Barack Obama’s demand for a one-year freeze on settlement construction has been ignored. But given Blair’s narrow economic remit he has achieved next to nothing. Based on results, Blair’s role has been revealed as a non-job, save for providing him with a political calling card to present when selling his other wares.

Blair’s burning ambition to become the first president of the European Union appears to have been scuppered by European leaders over his support for former US President George W Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein. But they didn’t have to go that far back to find his flaws.

Blair is an extremely accomplished communicator, a skill not to be overlooked in modern politics, but one that should compliment political acumen and leadership, not serve as a substitute for it.
There must be substance behind the sound-bite, and frankly, Blair’s record as Quartet envoy displays a distinct lack of that particular commodity.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.