Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?

Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 September 2021

As the Taliban approached Kabul in mid-August, Channel 4 News’s Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson noted on Twitter that the West has been “obsessed about trying to turn Afghanistan into Sweden with sand, fetishising democracy and educating women” but “Afghans outside Kabul kept telling me the Taliban ended corruption and brought security which they want first and foremost.”

The idea the West is sincerely interested in spreading democracy in Afghanistan is widely believed across the political spectrum. For example, in the recent House of Commons session devoted to the Afghan crisis, the brilliant Labour MP Zarah Sultana warned “the West cannot build liberal democracies with bombs and bullets.” This, she noted, was a “dangerous fantasy cooked up by neo-conservative fanatics in Washington and championed by their faithful followers in London.”

Certainly the US and UK governments and their cheerleaders in the media often claim benign intentions. However, if we take seriously Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s dictum that “in general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions but to disguise them” then it’s vital to consider the West’s deeds in Afghanistan, rather than its public statements.

So what does the historical record show?

Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, in December 2001 the New York Times reported the military campaign “has returned to power nearly all of the same warlords who had misruled the country in the days before the Taliban.” Hamid Karzai, “a previously little-known figure nationally who controls no real army of his own and no territory… was handpicked by the United States” to head the interim government.

Karzai was installed in early December 2001at a gathering of key Afghan players in Bonn, Germany. “The Bonn conference was only for show,” Haji Attaullah, a Pashtun delegate, told the New York Times. ”The decisions had been made before.” Writing in their 2006 book Bleeding Afghanistan, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls concur, arguing “This new Afghan ‘democracy’ was ultimately not shaped by ordinary Afghans, but by the US and its agent Zalmay Khalilzad.”

Born in Afghanistan and ensconced in the US foreign policy establishment since the late 70s, Khalilzad was appointed as the US Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan in December 2001. Then, from November 2003 to June 2005, he served as US ambassador to Afghanistan. “No major decisions by the Afghan government have been made without his involvement”, a 2005 BBC report noted. “He has sometimes been dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan.”

His job, the New York Times explained in 2004 without a hint of self-awareness, was “to ensure that the elements friendly to America gain ascendency in a democratic Afghanistan.”

Karzai himself went onto to win two dubious presidential elections in 2004 and 2009 – exercises perhaps best described as “demonstration elections”, which Edward Herman defined in 1992 as “the art of staging elections in Third World client states as a means of assuring the home populace that a US interventionary process is meritorious and serves a higher purpose.”

In 2013 the New York Times reported “For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Khalil Roman, Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, said “It came in secret, and it left in secret.” The New York Times noted some American officials told the paper “the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords.” Indeed, according to one US official, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”

No doubt Swedes reading all this will recognise the close similarities to their own nation’s political system.

The reviled night-time kill and capture operations (night raids) conducted by US Special Forces give another window into the West’s real position on democracy in Afghanistan. In February 2009 a leaked US diplomatic cable showed Karzai asking the US Under-Secretary of Defence Policy for a limit on the raids. Karzai, it seems, was ignored, with a 2011 Open Society Foundations study noting a fivefold increase in raids between February 2009 and December 2010, with a total of 1,700 raids between December 2010 and February 2011. A deal was eventually brokered between Karzai and the US in April 2012 to shift control of night raids over to the Afghan government. However, Atlantic magazine explained the agreement “appears to offer Karzai an applause line for speeches rather than significant changes in the way raids are carried out.” The night raids – and the extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses that occurred on them – continued, albeit now nominally led by Afghan forces.

With the Afghan president perhaps becoming a little too independent for the US’s liking, the Guardian reported in 2014 that the US had attempted to intervene in Afghan elections. Citing the memoir of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the newspaper noted “top US diplomats connived in delaying an Afghan presidential election in 2009 and then tried to manipulate the outcome in a ‘clumsy and failed putsch’ that aimed to oust” Karzai.

In addition to all this, any summary of the West’s role in Afghanistan needs to include the torture centre at Bagram airbase and the thousands of Afghans killed by airstrikes carried out by the US, UK and their allies (in the past five years 40 percent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes were children, according to UN data). Speaking to journalist Sandy Gall, General David Richards, the former UK Chief of Defence Staff, said in the early stage of the British deployment to Helmand “we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques.”

And what about the armed militias roaming the country? Reporting from Afghanistan, in July the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison made the astonishing claim Afghan officials “are embracing militias, after years of western-backed efforts to disarm the country’s unofficial bands of armed men”. The truth is the opposite: a 2019 study from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University noted “the CIA is still running local militias in operations against the Taliban and other Islamist militants”. The study goes on to note “the militias reportedly have committed serious human rights abuses, including numerous extrajudicial killings of civilians” and that “CIA sponsorship ensures that their operations are clouded in secrecy. There is virtually no public oversight of their activities or accountability”.

As David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, wrote in a Guardian in 2013, “the idea that the British state’s involvement in Afghanistan was due to some principled commitment to democracy and human rights is one that scarcely passes the laugh test.”

Patricia Gossman, Associate Director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, echoed Wearing’s analysis in May: “The United States has since 2001 consistently subordinated human rights and good governance to short-term political objectives, partnering and funding Afghan warlords who used their new power to target not just the Taliban, but local rivals.”

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan put it more forcefully on the twelfth anniversary of the 2001 invasion: “The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history”.

Rather than “Sweden with sand”, the evidence suggests the West’s primary goal has been the creation of a client state in Afghanistan – “a politically and militarily allied government in a strategically important country”, Wearing explains.

None of this will be a surprise for those who are close observers of Western foreign policy. Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House thinktank in 2013, provided the key context: “The long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East… has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratise the region.”

“Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

Western democracy promotion in Afghanistan? To paraphrase Gandhi: it would be a good idea.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

August-September 2021

Published in 2004 alongside the film documentary of the same name, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power was a timely and influential assault on the central institution of contemporary capitalism.

Bakan has now written a sequel, a response to the ‘trend of corporations claiming to be different, to have changed into caring and conscientious actors – ready to lead the way in solving society’s problems.’ This shift is, it seems, a reaction to public concern, with Larry Fink from investment management firm BlackRock writing to business leaders in 2018 to tell them ‘Society is demanding that companies serve a social purpose.’

Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, is having none of it. ‘Making money for themselves and their shareholders remains their top priority’, he notes about these ‘new’ corporations. ‘So while they might care about social and environmental values, they care only to the point such caring might cut into profits.’

Despite their progressive-sounding public rhetoric these profit-seeking entities fight against ‘policies aimed to promote social welfare’ including workers’ rights and unions, taxes on wealth and regulations that restrict the power of big business to rule the world.

Bakan weaves numerous shocking examples of corporate malfeasance into the book, including Volkswagen fitting a ‘defeat device’ in diesel engine cars sold in the US that detected when they were being tested and changed the environmental performance to improve results. Elsewhere he highlights how Johnson & Johnson were caught hiding from consumers and regulators the fact some of its products used by children included harmful materials.

With corporate influence weakening democratic institutions, Bakan’s solution is more and deeper democracy – to ‘expand the floor of the cage’, as Noam Chomsky says. ‘Protest is not enough’, Baken argues. ‘Electoral movements are needed to put sovereign power behind the values and energy people express in the streets’. He highlights the successes two municipal politicians have had in taming corporate power – activist turned Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, and Seattle City Council Kshama Sawant, who was re-elected in 2019 despite a multimillion dollar lobbying effort from Amazon.

Though perhaps not as hard-hitting or revelatory as his 2004 book, The New Corporation is nevertheless a hugely important polemic. Written in an accessible journalistic style, with plenty of footnotes for those wishing to investigate further, it could be a valuable and inspiring campaigning tool for both experienced anti-corporation activists and those new to the topic.

Defending democracy? The UK and Uganda

Defending democracy? The UK and Uganda
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
1 August 2021

The June G7 summit in Cornwall generated the usual liberal drivel about the West’s noble global goals. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour noted Joe Biden and Boris Johnson “had a grand agenda ahead of them, covering democracy’s defence, climate change and pandemic.” The photo illustrating this “analysis” piece was captioned “Defending democracy is crucial to Joe Biden’s tour of Europe.” A couple of days later, in his Guardian review of Gordon Brown’s new book Seven Ways to Change the World, the academic William Davies stated the former prime minister “clearly holds deep-seated moral views regarding the responsibilities of wealthy countries to less wealthy ones, combined with a sense that true justice… is never adequately achieved, but needs constantly pushing for.”

When considering the UK’s role in the world, the UK’s relationship with Uganda provides a useful case study.

With a population of close to 45 million, and 75 per cent of people under the age of 30, on 14 January 2021 Uganda held a general election. The contest for the presidency was between authoritarian incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, and the 38-year old opposition politician Bobi Wine.

According to Human Rights Watch, the elections, of which Museveni was declared the winner, “were marred by widespread violence and repression. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and beat opposition supporters and journalists, killed protestors, and disrupted opposition rallies.” More broadly, Amnesty International note “the authorities continued to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

Shockingly, over 50 people were killed during a government crackdown following the arrest of Wine on 18 November 2020. In comparison, two people died in the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, and no one has died in the anti-government demonstrations in Russia that started in January. The Ugandan authorities claimed the dead were rioters, though a BBC Africa Eye documentary investigated several of the killings and found none had been involved in rioting when they were killed.

Wine was put under house arrest for 11 days after the election, with his National Unity Platform party claiming in February that 3,000 people had been detained by security forces since November 2020. Jason Burke, the Guardian’s Africa correspondent, reported “some detainees have had joints or genitals beaten with wires, been burned with cigarettes, or had fingernails torn out.”

On 16 January the UK Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, released an extraordinary statement on the elections: “The UK Government welcomes the relatively calm passing of the elections in Uganda and notes the re-election of H.E. Yoweri Museveni as President.” Duddridge went onto note “Many in Uganda and beyond have expressed concerns about the overall political climate in the run up to the elections as well as the electoral process,” before asking “all parties, including the security services, but also all of Uganda’s political movements, act with restraint to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes.”

I have searched the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s website and cannot find any statement about the November 2020 massacre (the FCDO press office has not replied to repeated emails asking if a statement exists). Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab doesn’t seem to have tweeted anything about the election or the November 2020 killings. He has, though, found time to tweet about opposition politicians in other nations, including support for Joshua Wong in Hong Kong, Alexei Navalny in Russia (25 times), and Juan Guido in Venezuela (five times).

Perhaps in response to criticism, it should be noted Duddridge tweeted a stronger response on 19 January: “We have significant concerns about restrictions of political freedoms following the Ugandan elections, including denying Robert Kyagulanyi’s [Bobi Wine] fundamental freedoms.”

Despite this shift, the UK’s response to the election and killings is deeply troubling – “inconsistent with the political reality,” is how Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist and analyst, put it to development news site Devex. “It didn’t speak at all to the scale of what was going on in Uganda, which by any standards was a uniquely severe challenge to democratic norms.”

So what’s going on? Rosebell Kagumire, the Uganda-based editor of the African Feminism website, told Devex the UK has “played a very important role in propping up this regime… they are partners with it”.

Ugandan journalist and TED Fellow Yasin Kakande explained these close ties. “British economic interests… remain prominent in Uganda’s economy”, he noted in The London Economic in February, highlighting the role of Standard Chartered and Barclays in the financial sector, and Shell in the oil sector. Incidentally, Kate Airey, the British High Commissioner to Uganda, used to work for Shell. And Declassified UK have revealed that until recently Duddridge himself “earned tens of thousands of pounds as an adviser to a London-based finance house whose advisory board is chaired by an ally of Uganda’s authoritarian ruler”.

Furthermore, Johnson met Museveni during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January 2020 and “spoke of the UK’s commitment and investment in Uganda and his desire to see the two countries’ trade relationship go up a gear”, according to Number 10.

Writing for Declassified UK in January, ex-Morning Star journalist Phil Miller noted UK troops train Ugandan forces, supposedly as part of the so-called war on terror. In 2006 Oxfam claimed Ugandan forces were using armoured vehicles sold by BAE Systems to suppress opposition demonstrations. And echoing the Pegasus revelations last week, in 2015 BBC News reported a “UK-based firm has sold surveillance technology to Uganda which has been used to crush and potentially blackmail opponents of the president.”

While liberal theory posits the media acts as a fourth estate, holding the government to account and lubricating democracy by keeping the public informed, in reality the media has a remarkable tendency to echo the government’s interests and concerns.

For example, in his Declassified UK article Miller noted Wine has been mentioned in 39 articles in The Times newspaper since he announced he was running for Uganda’s parliament in April 2017. During the same period, Miller found the same newspaper named Wong in 94 articles, and Navalny in up to 600 articles.

A similar pattern can be seen with the Guardian. A search of the Lexis-Nexis database on 13 July found Wine has been mentioned in 57 Guardian articles since April 2017, while 150 articles naming Wong and 345 articles mentioning Navalny.

Even when there is reporting on Uganda, the UK’s close relationship to Musevini is rarely mentioned. The Financial Times’s 18-paragraph story on 13 January looking at the Ugandan elections didn’t mention the UK, and neither did a full page, 19-paragraph report in the Guardian two days before. A June report from Burke in the Guardian did note Musevini “has long been perceived as a key ally of western powers”, with Uganda receiving £150m of assistance from the UK in recent years, but this information appeared in paragraph 20 of 21 of the article.

Of course, there are exceptions. Miller has put the UK’s nefarious involvement at the forefront of his reporting for Declassified UK, while Burke wrote an April report about “the country’s worst wave of repression for decades” that made a more prominent reference to the West’s support for Musevini.

However, overall it is clear the British media have failed to adequately inform the British public what their government has been up to in Uganda, a situation the British government is more than happy with, I’m sure.

“What seems to be happening so far is the UK is privileging its strategic interests over its concern with open societies,” Samuel Hickey, Professor of Politics and Development at the University of Manchester, told Devex in January.

The article also quoted Nicholas Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham: “If you are going to support democracy around the world, Uganda is a pretty easy test case. This is not China or Saudi Arabia, a major economic power with influence at the United Nations and beyond. If you are going to pull your punches on Uganda, you’re going to pull your punches on most countries out there.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair


Book review. Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian

Book review. Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of the Guardian edited by Des Freedman
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

August-September 2021

‘The Guardian’s mission’, Editor Katharine Viner recently stated, ‘is one that allows – and even encourages – its editor… to challenge the powerful, whatever the consequences.’

This collection, edited by Des Freedman, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, does a good job of demolishing this self-serving view.

Though it has a reputation for identifying with left-wing positions, Freedman argues “The Guardian is not a left-wing newspaper… it is not affiliated to nor was it borne out of left-wing movements” and “it has never been a consistent ally of socialist or anti-imperialist voices.”

Instead, most of the well-reference contributions from academics and journalists highlight the publication’s establishment liberalism. These politics often means its reporting is better than much of the rest of the mainstream media (important stories such as the Snowden leaks and phone hacking scandal are highlighted) but still has serious limitations, as Ghada Karmi explains about the paper’s coverage of Israel-Palestine. Alan MacLeod’s impressive chapter on Latin America is much more scathing, noting the Guardian often ‘attacked progressive movements… while failing to hold the region’s right-wing rulers to the same standard.’

The Guardian’s broad opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party casts a long shadow over the volume. Former Guardian staffer Gary Younge provides an insider’s insight into the challenge Corbynism posed to the media establishment, while there are two interesting essays looking at how Brexit and Liberal Feminism were deployed by Guardian writers to drive a wedge between Corbyn and the movement behind him.

Because of its relative popularity with Labour supporters and the broad left, Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis argue ‘the paper has probably done more to undermine Corbyn than any other’.

For peace activists, it is noticeable there is no mention of the Guardian’s reporting of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria or the UK’s nuclear weapons. And there is nothing on the climate crisis. Indeed, I am aware Media Lens, who have arguably done more than anyone to expose the propagandistic nature of much of the Guardian’s reporting, were not invited to contribute a chapter (they would almost certainly have written about some of these missing topics).

Despite these omissions, Capitalism’s Conscience is a timely and important book, and could make a useful contribution to debates happening on the left since the December 2019 election. As Freedman argues in the introduction, given the paper’s hostility to transformative change, ‘It is essential to build an independent media that tells the story of the left and that more consistently holds power to account’.

Capitalism’s Conscience is published by Pluto Press, priced £16.99.

The Third Wave: A Timeline Of How We Got Here

The Third Wave: A Timeline Of How We Got Here
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 July 2020

“We’re seeing cases rise fairly rapidly – and there could be 50,000 cases detected per day by the 19 [July] and again as we predicted, we’re seeing rising hospital admissions”, Boris Johnson explained at a Downing Street press conference on 5 July. “We must reconcile ourselves sadly to more deaths from Covid.”

Frustratingly, as epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani told the Morning Star last month, “what is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”.  And incredibly, despite the rising number of hospital admissions endangering the NHS’s recovery, over one million people living with Long Covid and an increasing risk of a new variant resistant to vaccines, on 5 July the Prime Minister announced plans to fully open on 19 July. In short, UK government policy is let the virus “rip” in the UK.

How did we end up in this mess?

21 January: The minutes from the day’s SAGE meeting warns the “evidence from the continued spread of the South African and UK variants suggests that reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants once identified.” The minutes also note “No intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully prevent the importation of cases or new variants.”

25 January: Speaking to a Confederation of British Industry webinar, Dido Harding, the Head of the Test and Trace, says fewer than 60 per cent of people asked to self-isolate actually do so.

24 March: India announces it has detected a new “double mutant variant” of coronavirus.

1 April: According to the Times, ministers are told about the arrival of a variant in the UK that has originated in India (AKA the Delta variant). Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says the idea that Covid variants can be stopped from entering the country is “not realistic”, reports the Guardian.

12 April: The government proceeds with step 2 of lockdown easing, with non-essential shops, hair salons pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating all re-opened.

15 April: Public Health England announces the Indian variant has been found in the UK. Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s clinical operational research unit and member of Independent SAGE, says “It is ridiculous that India is not on the travel red list yet – or many other countries for that matter – when India is seeing 200,000 new cases every day at the moment.”

23 April: The government adds India to the red list, banning travel to the UK from India. The Sunday Times later reports “Analysis of Civil Aviation Authority figures suggest that 20,000 people arrived in the UK from India from April 2 to April 23.” A Whitehall source told the newspaper: “It’s very clear that we should have closed the border to India earlier and that Boris did not do so because he didn’t want to offend [Indian Prime Minister] Modi.”

4 May: Teaching unions the NEU and NASUWT, along with support staff unions Unite, Unison and the GMB, have sent an open letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, co-signed by around 20 scientists and public health professionals, urging the government to keep face covering in secondary schools until at least 21 June.

7 May: Public Health England identifies the Delta variant as a “variant of concern”.

12 May: The Prime Minister announces the public inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic will start in spring 2022. Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, says delaying the inquiry “means vital lessons will go unlearned,” the Guardian reports.

13 May: The minutes of the day’s SAGE meeting warns “If this [Delta AKA Indian] variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to” the so-called Kent variant the modelling “indicate that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone… would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”.

17 May: The government proceeds with step 3 of the lockdown easing. People are now allowed to socialise indoors in limited numbers and visit pubs and restaurants inside.The government announces pupils are no longer required to wear face coverings in schools and colleges. International travel is allowed again, governed by a new traffic light system.

3 June: Professor Pagel tells the Guardian: “it is clear that schools are a major source of transmission and that outbreaks in primary and secondary schools have been growing a lot week on week.”

8 June: Keep Out NHS Public co-chair Dr John Puntis tells the Morning Star: “To reduce the spread of the virus, we need proper support for those asked to isolate, improved ventilation in indoor environments, face mask for secondary school children, stricter controls on borders and international travel, speedier vaccine rollout and a serious global vaccine initiative.”

11 June: Public Health England reports the Delta variant is 64 percent more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) variant.

15 June: The Prime Minister delays plans to lift most remaining restrictions (step 4 of the lockdown easing), planned for 21 June, by a month, warning that thousands more people could die if the government opened up as planned, because of the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

16 June: During Prime Ministers Questions, Boris Johnson states the UK “has the toughest border measures anywhere in the world.” The Guardian notes this is “hard to square with the fact that some countries, including Australia and New Zealand, bar almost all overseas arrivals.”

17 June: Speaking to the Morning Star, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning and epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, says “I do think the 17 May re-opening was a mistake but I think we would have likely seen a rise in cases even then because we know that cases of the Delta variant were actually doubling even prior to 17 May”.

18 June: Nearly two-thirds of workers in England seeking grants to help them self-isolate are refused help, according to research from the Trades Union Congress.

20 June: Hosting The Andrew Marr Show, the BBC’s Nick Robinson quotes Jeffrey Barrett, Director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative, Wellcome Sanger Institute: “Looking back it’s clear that a major part of why we are now faced with a growing wave of cases of the Delta variant is because there were hundreds of introductions from abroad during April.”

23 June: The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, tells BBC Breakfast: “Trusts on the frontline are really coming under huge pressure … they have plans in place to tackle the backlog, but with more Covid cases and demand for emergency care going up, that’s really challenging.”

28 June: Newly appointed Health Secretary Sajid Javid says the country must “learn to live” with Covid-19.

1 July: The European Parliament’s committee on public health describes allowing 60,000 fans into Wembley for the European Championship semi-finals and final as “a recipe for disaster,” the Irish Times reports.

3 July: The British Medical Association urges the government to keep some targeted measures to control the spread of Covid-19 in place after 19 July in England, including face masks in enclosed public spaces and improved ventilation.

5 July: Emphasising “personal responsibility”, the Prime Minister announces the loosening of all restrictions on 19 July. The one-metre social distance rule will and the work from home guidance will end, and mask-wearing will be voluntary. This opening up will make England “the most unrestricted society in Europe,” the Guardian reports. Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at University College London, describes it is “Libertarian public health”.

6 July: The health secretary says the number of infections could rise above 100,000 a day over the summer.

7 July: Over 100 global experts publish an open letter in the Lancet medical journal arguing the government’s plan to lift nearly all restrictions on 19 July is “dangerous and premature.”

In April, Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read published A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis, available as a free PDF and EBook, and as a pay-to-print book at https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/.

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the papers “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: “The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties”.

“Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage ‘casualty averse’ public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

“What is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”: Deepti Gurdasani interview

“What is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”: Deepti Gurdasani interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 June 2021

With a third wave of the pandemic surging in the UK and hospital admissions rising, on Monday the Prime Minister announced a four-week delay to the lifting of all restrictions in England beyond 21 June.

For weeks the media and Westminster has been fixated on whether “Freedom Day” should go ahead as planned. However, speaking to me over the phone last week, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning and epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, says “the focus on the 21st is a complete distraction.” As she tweeted just before Boris Johnson’s press conference, “Postponing 21st June isn’t remotely sufficient to deal with the current crisis.”

Furthermore, she tells me “what is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted by SAGE” (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advising the government).

The risks of further opening up were clear before the step three change to the “roadmap” on 17 May, she explains, pointing me to the 13 May SAGE meeting. “If this [Delta AKA Indian] variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to” the so-called Kent variant the modelling indicates “that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone… would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”, the minutes record. These fears were confirmed on 4 June when SAGE’s Professor Neil Ferguson told the BBC Today programme the best estimate is the Delta variant is 60 per cent more transmissible.

“I do think the 17 May re-opening was a mistake but I think we would have likely seen a rise in cases even then because we know that cases of the Delta variant were actually doubling even prior to 17 May”, Gurdasani notes. The spread of the virus that has happened in schools actually predates the Delta variant, she says, “but the government went ahead and removed masks, which was one of the few mitigations that we have in schools.”

She also highlights SAGE’s 21 January 2021 warning that the “evidence from the continued spread of the South African and UK variants suggests that reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants once identified.” Similar advice was given by Independent SAGE at the time, she explains. Both were ignored by the government, which re-opened international travel, governed by a new, leaky traffic light system, on 17 May.

Gurdasani, who has made a name for herself as one of the most outspoken experts appearing in the media, doesn’t hold back: “Where we are now is a completely predictable consequence of government repeatedly ignoring advice from its own advisers.” Indeed, it is worth remembering Dominic Cummings testified that Boris Johnson repeatedly cited Jaws, specifically the mayor of the resort town who keeps the beaches open despite evidence of shark attacks, when considering lockdowns.

Though her main focus is the government, Gurdasani doesn’t shy away from criticising her own profession. Interviewed on BBC News on 4 June she noted “The risk of the Delta variant was hugely minimised by our scientific community and our scientific leadership”.

Why? “What I see here is exceptionalism within our scientific community”, she replies. “We repeatedly dismiss evidence coming in from other countries. And we have done right from the beginning of the pandemic, suggesting that what is happening to other countries has something to do with those countries characteristics, rather than something that applies to us.” She points to the example of Italy in early March 2020: “We looked at what was happening in Italy and we still didn’t act, we still didn’t close our borders.”

She is also dismayed at how the UK has generally wanted “to wait for rigorous evidence on everything before we act.” Not only that, “we deal with uncertainty by assuming there isn’t risk.”

“We kept saying masks don’t work because we didn’t have trials on them and we wanted to wait for evidence”, she says. “Whereas there were countries that put them in very, very early on. It is the same with variants. We waited so long to make this [the Delta variant] a variant of concern and start surge testing on it despite the fact there were several scientists who had been screaming for weeks, at least four to six weeks, saying that this was really, really concerning given what was happening in India.”

She continues: “It has huge consequences because it takes weeks and months to accrue evidence. Much better to overreact and act early and then when evidence accumulates showing something isn’t a risk then you can remove things.”

She also believes the pandemic has revealed “very clear racial stereotypes” that have undermined the UK’s response. “We still hear about this: ‘People won’t accept lockdowns because they are freedom loving. They are not like people in China, like people in Southeast Asia, who are far more culturally obedient’… or people won’t wear masks, not like the mask wearing culture in Japan.”

However, as the polling shows, the British public “would have been very happy to adopt earlier lockdowns, and have supported a cautious approach consistently”, she says.

Like the Morning Star, Gurdasani advocates a Zero Covid (elimination) strategy.

It “is not an alternative to a vaccine-based strategy, it is an adjunct”, she explains. “It complements it. And the way it complements it is it really reduces the risk to the population while you roll out vaccinations. It protects people from the risks of transmission, like Long Covid, hospitalisations and deaths”. Secondly, “it prevents new mutations or variants from arising within the country, or being imported into the country, that potentially threatens that vaccine strategy.”

As it happens, just before I spoke to Gurdasani I received an email from my Labour MP about Zero Covid. “I am not aware of any examples of countries where Covid has been eliminated after infections have grown to a significant level and sustained community transmission has taken hold”, my parliamentary representative wrote.

Gurdasani laughs when I quote this to her: “I have a one-word response to that: China.” She is referring to the Chinese city of Wuhan, which went from being the epicentre of the outbreak in early 2020 to life pretty much returning to normal by January 2021, according to news reports.

She argues there is widespread confusion about Zero Covid, even amongst some scientists. “Elimination is not eradication. We’re not saying this is Smallpox and we will get rid of it entirely forever. We are saying that we are going to try and keep it out of the community, out of community transmission.”

To suppress the virus she proposes the test, trace and isolate system be completely overhauled. It should work closely with local authorities and take inspiration from South Korea and Japan where there is effective backward and forward contact tracing: “So there is a focus on finding the people that somebody has infected but also how that person has been infected to identify actual clusters of transmission and break them.”

In addition, she advocates “mandatory quarantine for anyone coming in from any country” should be introduced “because once you reach zero risk of transmission essentially comes from outside.”

Implementing an elimination strategy would mean “we can return to near normal faster”, she argues. “Vaccination takes time but a Zero Covid strategy can be achieved in a matter of four to six weeks, depending on the number of cases you are starting from.” And if successful, travel corridors could be set up with other countries that have successfully implemented a Zero Covid strategy.

While she says there is a much to be optimistic about, the interview is, unsurprisingly, dominated by her worries about the government’s continued disastrous response to the pandemic. As she told Channel 4 News earlier this month, the roadmap “has never focussed on bringing transmission down.”

And while she “wholly supports” the vaccination programme, she argues there is an over-reliance on vaccines. “The scientific community has, I think, adopted hopium – a sort of blind optimism around vaccines.”

“We are still not thinking ahead to ‘What about the next variant?’”, she tells me. “How do you know this virus won’t adapt towards more [vaccine] escape, which is very likely, or that we won’t import another virus?… What happens then? Are we back to square one? If you want to avoid that I think the only sure way to do it is Zero Covid.”

Follow Dr Deepti Gurdasani on Twitter @dgurdasani1.

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2021

Having directed the award-winning 2011 documentary about Gene Sharp, How To Start A Revolution, Ruaridh Arrow has now published an engrossing biography of the man who CNN once called ‘the father of nonviolent struggle’.

Sharp, who died in 2018 aged 90, led an extraordinary life.

He was sent to prison for refusing to be drafted at the time of the Korean War, worked as assistant editor at Peace News in the late 1950s, observed firsthand the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and trained activists in Burma in the early 1990s.

Along the way he corresponded with Albert Einstein, argued with Frantz Fanon in Accra and tried to convert Yasser Arafat into adopting a nonviolent strategy.

This was crucial: Sharp saw strategic planning as essential if a nonviolent movement was to succeed. ‘No military commander would ever dream of putting 1,000 soldiers on a battlefield without a strategy for how to use them and so it was of nonviolent action’, Arrow summarises.

Moreover, Sharp’s argument for pursuing nonviolent struggle is not that it is moral but that it’s the most effective method to effect change – something confirmed by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works.

With his journalistic eye for a story and access to archival material, Arrow runs through a number of fascinating case studies, highlighting the impact Sharp’s thinking had on the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, as well as in Burma, the Baltic states (against the Soviet Union), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

Arguably Sharp’s most spectacular influence was on the Otpor movement that played a central role in the overthrow of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević – described by Arrow as ‘the most advanced nonviolent campaign in history’.

Though he clearly admires Sharp, Arrow provides a rounded, very human portrait, noting how he could often be obstinate – it was Sharp who chose the Albert Einstein Institution as the confusing name of the organisation that he founded in 1983 – and how several close professional relationships eventually broke down.

Anti-imperialist activists will likely baulk at Sharp’s links with the US defence and state departments, as well as with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute.

However, it’s Sharp’s huge, power-threatening body of work – something he argued could be used by anyone – that is most important to peace activists today. And there is much to do.

As Sharp told US activist George Lakey: ‘We are simply at the bow and arrow stage of the development of nonviolent struggle.’

For those hungry for more, Arrow provides good news – Jamila Raqib, Sharp’s colleague at the Albert Einstein Institution in his later years, is currently writing her own book about Sharp.

How To Start A Revolution is published by Big Inky Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 May 2021

RUPERT Read’s latest book on the climate crisis is underpinned by the realisation pretty much all of us are “in some form or another of climate denial” – about honestly facing up to the level of threat, and the speed and depth of change required to successfully deal with it.

On the former, Carbon Action Tracker estimates the current policies in place around the world will lead to 2.9oC of warming by 2100. Read believes it is “very likely” climate and ecological chaos will lead to civilisation disintegrating “within the lifetimes of some readers”.

For the latter, he argues the desperate situation we now find ourselves in cannot “be adequately addressed from within our current paradigm of politics and economics.” As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warned in 2018, limiting warming to 1.5oC will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

A call to arms for everyone to step up to the challenge, Read’s thesis is, in many ways, very simple: if you care about your children (or other people’s children), then you should also care about their children, and their children’s children – “the whole human future.” And this means you should also care about the future of the planet all these future generations will live on.

He presents three core proposals for embedding this transformational thinking. First, the setting up of citizen’s assemblies that would be empowered to make the long-term proposals and decisions our fatally compromised and short-termist political system is unable to do. Second, the introduction of what he calls Guardians For Future Generations – a permanent “super-jury” that would sit above parliament and consider the interests of future generations in policymaking. And, finally, adherence to the Precautionary Principle – “when you lack full evidence and potential consequences [of a path of action or inaction] are grave, you need to err on the side of taking care.”

The book’s logical, essay-length polemic points to Read’s academic position as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Likewise, the clarity and urgency of his message also highlights the influence of his time as spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Compelling and deeply challenging, it is often an uncomfortable argument (Read tells readers: “you… need, at a minimum, to devote either your time or the bulk of your financial resources to this cause”). Which, of course, is why it is such an essential read. Time to get busy.

Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse is published by UEA Publishing Project, priced £10.99