Category Archives: UK Foreign Policy

What the media and political establishment isn’t telling you about Afghanistan

What the media and political establishment isn’t telling you about Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

‘There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain,’ a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008. ‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

Unsurprisingly, then, while there has been a huge amount of media coverage of the US-UK-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, lots of important information has not been presented to the British public.

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  • Spreading Western-style democracy to Afghanistan was not a priority for the West.

Having supported the most fanatical elements of the Mujahidin fighting Russian forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US and UK returned numerous warlords to power after they invaded and occupied the country in October 2001. Hamid Karzai became president, following ‘deep political manipulation by the US’ (Bleeding Afghanistan, 2006), with the CIA dropping off ‘wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags… every month or so’ to his office for over a decade (New York Times, 28 April 2013). However, it wasn’t Karzai who held power when Afghanistan was building new governing institutions in the 2000s but US Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, ‘dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan,’ according to a 2005 BBC report.

‘The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history,’ explained the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 2013.

  • The presence of US-UK-NATO forces fuelled the insurgency.

‘Before the British burst onto the scene [in 2006], Helmand was “stable” in the sense that there was almost no Taliban presence and little prospect of any,’ Frank Ledwidge, a British military intelligence officer who worked in Afghanistan, observes (Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, 2013). ‘After three years of British presence, the province was the most savage combat zone in the world.’ Academics Theo Farrell and Antonio Giustozzi came to a similar conclusion after interviewing elders and 53 Taliban fighters from Helmand, noting the British deployment ‘became a magnet, drawing Taliban in from surrounding districts and provinces’ (International Affairs, July 2013). This correlation was confirmed by a 2012 report from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which explained International Military Forces’s ‘disengagement is the cause of AOG [Armed Opposition Group] de-escalation – not the other way around – as by removing themselves they remove the key driver of the AOG campaign.’

  • The US-UK-NATO occupation was marked by high levels of violence.

‘We’ve said we’ll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them,’ Leo Docherty MP, who fought as a British officer in Afghanistan, told the Sunday Times in September 2006. The US-UK-NATO reliance on air power has had deadly consequences for Afghans, with children making up 40 percent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes, according to United Nations data for the last five years (AOAV, 6 May 2021).

Speaking in 2009 Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, noted the UK military deployed White Phosphorus ‘even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population’ (The World Tonight, 23 February 2009), while US forces wiped out three villages – Tarek Kolache, Khosrow Sofia and Lower Babur – in Kandahar in 2010 (Wired, 2 January 2011). ‘We ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques’, General David Richards, the UK Chief of Defence Staff 2010-13, admitted about the early part of the British deployment (War Against the Taliban, 2012). Indeed, Ledwidge estimates British forces ‘killed thousands of non-combatants in Helmand’ (Guardian, 6 September 2021), while the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an affiliate of the Norwegian Refugee Council, reported about 730,000 people were displaced between 2006-10, mostly due to military operations by US-NATO forces (IRIN, 21 April 2011).

‘The presence of foreigners, particularly the British, whose injudicious use of firepower was reminiscent of Soviet military operations, made funding and recruitment non-issues’ for the Taliban, explains Mike Martin, a Pashto speaker who spent two years in Helmand as a British army officer (An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 2014).

  • The insurgency in Helmand was largely made up of local people fighting to defend their communities.

Docherty estimates that in the first 18 months of the British deployment 6,000 people were killed in Helmand (Investment in Blood). Areas would be ‘cleared’ again and again – ‘just like mowing a lawn’, notes Ledwidge. ‘One reason these “Taliban” returned was that they were, in fact, local farmers and they had nowhere else to go; they were defending their homes against foreigners.’ Adam Holloway MP, who also served in Afghanistan with British forces, echoed Ledwidge’s analysis in 2010, noting ‘most of’ who we call the Taliban are ‘the sons of local farmers… approximately 80 per cent of those we call the enemy die within 20 miles of where they live’ (Independent, 21 February 2010). With recruitment largely voluntary, Farrell and Giustozzi note ‘Taliban interviewees… described forming what we might call “pals platoons”’.

  • The UK intervention in Afghanistan increased the terror threat to the UK.

Appearing on BBC Any Questions in August 2021, James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, mendaciously described the war in Afghanistan as a ‘success’ because ‘in the 20 years that have followed [the 9/11 attacks] there have been no international terrorism attacks from Afghanistan into the West’. In reality, the US-UK intervention has inspired terrorist attacks in the West. In his martydom video Shehzad Tanweer, one of the suicide bombers in London on 7 July 2005, said ‘What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel’. Similarly, Michael Adebolajo was clear why he killed off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, telling a bystander: ‘I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”’

Indeed the UK government itself has long understood the war in Afghanistan heightens the terrorist threat to the West, with the Home Office and Foreign & Commonwealth Office warning in 2004 that a major driver of ‘extremism’ among young British Muslims was ‘a perceived “double standard” in the foreign policy of western governments’. The study elaborated: ‘the war on terror, and… Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam’ (see PN 2537).

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Though there is evidence anti-war feeling amongst the British public constrained the UK military in Afghanistan (see PN 2644-2645), arguably the anti-war movement has been unable to exert decisive pressure on UK policy. One thing that would likely increase opposition to  the war in Afghanistan – and, importantly, future UK wars – would be if damning facts like those presented above were better known – something the government and military are actively trying to stop, and which therefore should be a key task for peace activists.

BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?

BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2021

“Watch Newsnight tonight.” This was the response from BBC Newsnight’s Policy Editor Lewis Goodall to someone tweeting on 12 August “Who should I follow to understand the contemporary situation in Afghanistan? Feel like the media in the UK not covering it enough/from all angles.”

How well has Newsnight been reporting on Afghanistan? In an attempt to gain some insight into this question, I made a list of the people the BBC news programme directly interviewed about Afghanistan in August, when the Western military forces were compelled to hastily withdraw and a crisis ensued in and around Kabul airport. This amounted to 118 people interviewed either from the studio or as part of a video report (this figure includes multiple appearances on different days by the same person). I didn’t include pooled news clips of speeches and interviews – those shared with other outlets – which were largely of US-UK government and military figures.

Who gets invited on the UK’s premier news programme, who gets to speak, who the BBC believes to be an expert and therefore worthy of our time is, of course, very important. Those who appear have the power to frame the debate, and inevitably bring their own experience and politics, and therefore bias, to the topic. An appearance on Newsnight confers legitimacy and credibility – at least in the eyes of many – and will likely lead to more invitations from other news outlets, increasing the power of the interviewee to define the debate across the wider media.

My analysis shows just 32 per cent of the 118 guests were women, with Afghans making up 31 per cent of interviewees.

In contrast, Western voices (current and former representatives of the US and UK governments, US and UK political parties, Western militaries and thinktanks based in the US, UK and Canada) made up 48 per cent of interviewees.

Of the Afghan interviewees, 62 per cent were either current or former representatives of national government, local government, MPs or had worked for the British.

And who were the guests on the 12 August, the night Goodall recommended people tune into Newsnight? Three Afghans were interviewed – freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary and Gul Ahmad Kamin, the MP for Kandahar, appeared in a news report, while Mariam Wardak was a studio guest, appearing via video link. Wardak was billed as the founder of the women’s rights charity Her Afghanistan. However, she also worked as the Communication Adviser to Afghan National Security Adviser from 2015-18, which wasn’t mentioned (though was when she appeared on the programme earlier in the month). Joining Wardak for the studio discussion was General Lord Richards, the former British Chief of the Defence Staff, and David Sedney, ex-US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Afghanistan. Hardly a recipe for deep understanding and enlightenment.

Of course, an examination of guests invited to speak by Newsnight only gives a small insight into how the programme has covered Afghanistan. The guests aren’t robots. Affiliation is not destiny: interviewees may, intentionally or unintentionally, say something that significantly conflicts with their current or previous employer’s interests or viewpoint. For example, ex-British Army officer Michael Martin, who briefly appeared in a news report on 2 August, wrote the 2014 book An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, which contains many inconvenient and important facts about the British intervention in Afghanistan. (Martin didn’t say anything controversial during his Newsnight appearance, just gave an update on what was happening on the ground in Helmand).

Despite these caveats, I believe Newsnight’s selection of guests is very telling, and is a good indicator of their broader coverage of Afghanistan. However, arguably as important as who is chosen to appear on Newsnight, is who doesn’t appear on the programme, those whose voices are excluded.

No representatives of the Taliban are directly interviewed by the programme (pooled interviews with Taliban spokesmen briefly appear in a couple of video reports). From what I can tell this exclusion isn’t because of access – several other news organisations, including France24, NPR in the US and Turkey’s TRT, all conducted in-depth interviews with Taliban representatives in August.

Except for a representative from peace organisation Pugwash, no one from the British or American anti-war movement appeared. No one from Stop the War, the Peace Pledge Union, Peace News or individuals like peace activist Maya Evans, who has visited Afghanistan many times in recent years. This omission is especially frustrating when you consider, as Richard Burgon MP tweeted in August, “The political establishment needs to learn the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They got it disastrously wrong and the anti-war movement got it exactly right.”

All of the 13 British MPs who appeared were either members of the Conservative Party or the centre and right of the Labour Party. No members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, namely Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, all three of whom opposed the war in parliament in November 2001, were interviewed by Newsnight. No one from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.

Organisations like Veterans for Peace UK and individual ex-soldiers who served in Afghanistan and who take a principled stand against the war, such as Joe Glenton, did not appear. No one from the lower ranks of UK and US forces who served in Afghanistan got to speak – all of the current and former Western military representatives who were  interviewed were mostly very senior figures in the military (General Lord Richards appeared twice, while Major General Charlie Herbert, NATO Adviser to the Afghan government from 2017-18, appeared four times).

All of this won’t be a surprise to most Morning Star readers. As academic Tom Mills summarises in his 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, the BBC’s “journalism has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

This pattern of news coverage holds for Iraq too. Speaking about the run up to the 2003 Iraq War during a 2020 Aljazeera panel discussion, former Newsnight Business Editor Paul Mason argued the programme “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices,” including writer Tariq Ali “were not allowed.”

This broadly fits with academic research done on the BBC’s performance during the Iraq War. For example a 2003 Cardiff University study of peak-time television news bulletins during the course of the Iraq war found the BBC was more reliant on government and military sources than other UK broadcasters. According to a Guardian summary of the study “The BBC was the least likely to quote official Iraqi sources, and less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent (and often sceptical) sources such as the Red Cross.”

As Newsnight Editor Peter Horrocks reportedly told staff in 1997, “Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” This power-friendly MO was perfectly illustrated in 2005 by Horrocks’s successor, Peter Barron. Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about a Newsnight presenter assuming President Bush wanted democracy in Iraq, Barron replied “While there’s bound to be a debate about what kind of democracy the US is furthering in the Middle East, there can be no doubt that President Bush regards it as a foreign policy goal to install what he regards as democracy.”

Contrary to what Goodall self-servingly believes, the brief survey of the people interviewed by  Newsnight suggests watching the programme is unlikely to provide an accurate picture of what has been going on in Afghanistan. Indeed, for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Afghanistan and Western foreign policy a good idea would be to seek out the groups and individuals excluded by Newsnight and listen to what they have to say.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Tell Me Lies About Afghanistan

Tell Me Lies About Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 September 2021

The omissions and distortions that have been made by politicians about Afghanistan over the last few weeks, echoed by much of the media, have been so big and unremitting it’s easy to start questioning one’s own grip on reality. Why are the media giving so much airtime to the politicians and senior military figures responsible for the carnage in Afghanistan? Why is no one pointing out it was the violent Western occupation of the country that fuelled the rise of the Taliban-led resistance? Or that the West worked closely with warlords and human rights abusing militias? That the West backed the “worst crazies” amongst the Mujahideen forces in the 80s?

A recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions political debate programme raised the propaganda and dishonesty to stratastrophic levels.

Asked by an audience member if the war in Afghanistan has been a failure, James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces who served in Helmand himself, replied “In the 20 years that have followed [the 9/11 attacks] there have been no international terrorism attacks from Afghanistan into the West, and in that sense it was successful… on the macro level, no international terrorism. That’s success.”

No one, not BBC presenter Chris Mason, the other three guests or any of the audience said anything in response to this disingenuous BS. Frustratingly, fellow panellist Diane Abbott MP, who boldly opposed the UK participation in parliament in 2001, made a similar argument herself:  “If you are going to look at it in narrow security terms, you can point to some success. Osama bin Laden was found and killed and so on”. Note: Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Presumably on a list of talking points given to Tory appearing in the media, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the same point as Heappey in his “address to the nation” on 29 August: “To the families and loved ones of those British troops who gave their all, your suffering and your hardship were not in vain. It was no accident that there has been no terrorist attack launched against Britain or any other Western country from Afghanistan in the last 20 years.”

There are several obvious flaws in this astonishingly deceitful claim.

First, terrorist attacks have taken place in the UK and US that have been inspired by the US-UK invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

In his martydom video Shehzad Tanweer, one of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London on 7 July 2005, said “What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel”.

Michael Adebolajo was clear why he killed British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, telling a woman who spoke to him: “I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And according to the Huffington Post, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, “told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack”.

Second, it is widely understood by intelligence agencies and experts that the West’s military intervention in Afghanistan led to a heightened terrorist threat to the West.

In 2004 the UK’s Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office co-published a report titled Young Muslims and Extremism. The study concluded that a major driver of “extremism” among young British Muslims was “a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of western governments… in particular Britain and the US”. The study elaborated: “the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam”.

After Prime Minister David Cameron claimed in 2010 that British troops in Afghanistan made people “safe and secure back home in the UK”, Richard Barrett, a former Director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations at MI6, was scathing: “I’ve never heard such nonsense… I’m quite sure if there were no foreign troops in Afghanistan, there’d be less agitation in Leeds, or wherever, about… what Western intentions are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The establishment Chatham House thinktank came to a similar conclusion, noting in a briefing published just after 7/7 “The UK is at particular risk [from al Qaeda terrorist attacks] because it is the closest ally of the United States” and “has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq… riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.”

The final problem with the government’s claim that the war stopped terrorism on the West from Afghanistan is that it’s based on a simplistic understanding of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks – that it was necessary for terrorists to “have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations”, as President George Bush explained in 2006.

In reality we know 9/11 was “conceived and initially planned in Germany, that the training was carried out in the US and that most of the hijackers were Saudi”, as Frank Ledwidge explained in his 2013 book Investment In Blood: The Trust Cost Of Britain’s Afghan War. 7/7, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and London Bridge attacks – none of the perpetrators of these atrocities required a “safe haven” to deliver death and destruction in the UK.

Indeed, as foreign policy analyst Micah Zenko argued in his 2015 article The Myth of the Terrorist Safe Haven, “Americans, themselves, have been responsible for 50 percent of plots and attacks against the United States since 9/11, followed by Brits at 21 percent.”

“If anywhere is a safe haven for terrorism against the United States, it is America.” Ditto the UK.

In addition, Western military action in so-called safe havens increases terrorist attacks on Western forces in these countries. Zenko again: “According to the State Department and Global Terrorism Database, of the 335 Americans who have died from terrorism since 9/11, 268, or 80 percent, died within Iraq or Afghanistan — the very places where the United States started wars to prevent or destroy safe havens.”

The government’s focus on the impact of the British war in Afghanistan on terrorism in the West serves a broader purpose: obscuring the real reason for the UK intervention. Ledwidge explains: the UK was involved so heavily in Afghanistan (and Iraq) because of “the perceived necessity of retaining the closest possible links with the US.” This, he notes, “is accepted in private by most politicians and senior soldiers.”

After his staff interviewed over 600 people with firsthand experience of the war, the head of the US government’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told the Washington Post “the American people have constantly been lied to” for 20 years.

The Post’s impressive December 2019 reporting of the $11 million Lessons Learned project was covered by the UK media, but has been quickly forgotten, and hasn’t framed the subsequent political debate and media coverage of the conflict. There has, in short, been no national reckoning in the UK about the Afghan war, no public inquiry. The families and loved ones of the 457 members of the British armed forces who were killed in Afghanistan, and the thousands of civilians who died at the hands of the British military, deserve the to hear the truth.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 March 2021

Increasingly shared on Twitter, Andrew Marr’s 1996 interview with Noam Chomsky has become a well-known TV moment for many on the left.

Over the course of 30 minutes discussing the politics of the media on BBC2’s The Big Idea, the seemingly unprepared Marr, who would become the Editor of the Independent in 1996, is repeatedly corrected and out-argued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Chomsky begins by summarising the Propaganda Model he developed in the late 1980s with Edward Herman, which they argue shows the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity.”

Discombobulated, Marr says: “I was brought up like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on to believe that journalism was a crusading craft and there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism.”

Chomsky doesn’t dispute there are people like this in the media but argues the Propaganda Model can be applied to US media coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate. For Chomsky, one of the roles “of the liberal intellectual establishment”, within which the New York Times, BBC and Guardian operate, “is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. This far, and no further.”

“How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”, Marr asks. To which Chomsky replies: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

It’s an extremely telling interview – at one point Chomsky has to explain what COINTELPRO is to Marr – which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

25 years later and Aljazeera has provided another illuminating example of an established journalist having the politics of their own profession explained to them by a left-wing academic.

After broadcasting their Battle for the BBC documentary, last summer Aljazeera organised an online discussion with key interviewees from the programme – BBC big beast David Dimbleby and the academic Tom Mills, author of the 2016 book The BBC Myth Of A Public Service. Former BBC Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason was also on the panel, but the crux of the debate is between Dimbleby and Mills.

Aljazeera presenter Flo Phillips led the discussion on three key events in BBC history: the 1926 General Strike, the Thatcher era and the corporation’s coverage of the Iraq War.

As the Aljazeera documentary set out, the BBC backed the government during the General Strike, with BBC founder Lord John Reith even helping to write one of the Prime Minister’s speeches, which was delivered from Reith’s own home. This supportive relationship occurred within the framework of a typically British compromise: the government did not commandeer the BBC, as some members of the cabinet wanted, on the tacit understanding the BBC would broadly serve the government. “Dissenting voices, from the trade unions to the opposition Labour Party, were banned”, Phillips notes in the documentary.

“They know they can trust us not to be really impartial”, is how Reith put it in his diary at the time.

Dimbleby is quick to dismiss the focus on 1926: “It’s like talking about an adult who is now in his middle age, like the BBC as it is now, and then complaining about what it did when it was a toddler. It’s absurd to go back that far.”

Mills explains why the history is important: “If you want to understand the BBC, if you want to understand any institution, you have to understand first of all its origins.”

“It tells us something about the ambiguous position that the BBC has found itself actually since the General Strike, which is that it has neither been independent of government, nor a direct instrument of government.”

Turning to the BBC under Thatcher, Mills sets out how John Birt pushed through a radical process of organisational and cultural change when he became Deputy Director of the Beeb in 1987 (and then Director-General from 1992), integrating the BBC into the market and making its journalism more risk averse.

“Birt was allied with the New Right”, Mills says. “He was a neoliberal in the very narrow sense of the word. He would go for lunch with [right-wing Tory Minister] Keith Joseph and… the Institute for Economic Affairs.”

Dimbleby, though opposed to Birt’s ‘reforms’, is again dismissive. “I don’t think there was a political agenda here”, he says, before layering on the sarcasm: “He had lunch with Keith Joseph? Wow”. To back up his position, Dimbleby notes Labour-supporting Peter Jay, who was Economics Editor at the Times and then at the BBC, also supported Birt’s changes.

Mills is fully aware of this, and unlike Dimbleby can clearly think outside the narrow Tory vs. Labour framing of British politics, replying that Jay “was one of the largest advocates of monetarism in that period” and “a big fan of Milton Friedman.”

“I’m surprised you don’t know that”, Mills says, likely annoyed by Dimbleby calling him “Tim” moments before.

Dimbleby can’t quite believe what he is hearing: “Sorry. What are you saying? That Jay and Birt came in to take over the BBC with monetarist policies? Is that your line?”

Mills: “That’s what happened, yes.” Mills tries to elaborate but is unable to as Dimbleby temporarily takes over as chair and invites Mason to comment.

Dimbleby has less to say on Iraq, other than to point out that the anti-war campaigner Tariq Ali had been a guest on BBC Question Time (Mason had noted BBC Newsnight “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices”, including Ali, “were not allowed”).

It is left to Mills to provide the key bits of evidence, mentioning the 2003 Cardiff University study which found the corporation displayed the most pro-war agenda of any broadcaster in the UK.

Marr himself infamously became the government’s spokesperson as the BBC’s Political Editor. Speaking about Prime Minister Tony Blair on the News At Ten just after US-UK forces had taken Baghdad in April 2003, Marr opined “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”

Mills also highlights how Kevin Marsh, the Editor of the BBC Today programme from 2002-6, had admitted they were not interested in covering the anti-Iraq War protests.

Mills is referring to testimony that appeared in my 2013 book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003.

“Since we, rightly or wrongly, see ourselves as public policy journalists then necessarily we look at what is happening in public policy i.e. politicians and officials”, Marsh told me. “And it is probably true that we would think more about what politicians and the military and so on were saying to us than we would think about those who were not in a position to make decisions, like the anti-war movement.”

As Mills explains, many people at the BBC believe the job of political journalism is “to report what is going on in the corridors of power.” Indeed, responding to complaints about his reporting on Iraq, in 2004 ITN reporter Nick Robinson – soon to become a BBC big beast himself – explained “It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… that is all someone in my sort of job can do.  We are not investigative reporters.”

Two conclusions can be drawn from the Aljazeera panel discussion and Marr’s interview with Chomsky.

First, senior media figures often simply don’t understand the history and political economy of the institutions they work – and exercise considerable power – in. As Chomsky might say, it is precisely their establishment-friendly, ideologically-restricted mindset that has allowed Marr and Dimbleby to rise to the top of the BBC: if they had a more radical worldview they wouldn’t be senior figures at the BBC.

Second, faced with academic evidence and critical thinking both Marr and Dimbleby had very little to offer in response except spluttering disbelief, well-worn clichés and anecdotal evidence.

Rarely has Upton Sinclair’s well known dictum been illustrated so well: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Andrew Marr’s interview with Noam Chomsky can be viewed on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjENnyQupow. As can Aljazeera’s The Battle for the BBC panel discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74qcsksuqtU

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.

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


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.

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell

Book review: Collateral Damage by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 April 2021

FROM Reagan-loving Republican Tom Clancy, to the Conservative Frederick Forsyth and Jonathan Freedland’s rose-tinted views of Democratic presidents, political thrillers are often underpinned by some unpleasant, power-friendly politics.

Which makes Steve Howell’s Collateral Damage a welcome addition to the genre.

The book’s politics are perhaps unsurprising when you consider the author’s position as Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team during the 2017 UK general election.

However, more pertinent is Howell’s activism in the late 80s – along with being Secretary of UK Local Authorities Against Apartheid, in 1987 he attended a conference in Tripoli, Libya to mark the first anniversary of the US air strikes on the country.

With the US warplanes taking off from UK bases – the first US combat operation launched from British soil since the Second World War – Howell believes the attacks mark the beginning of the era of regime-change wars.

Accordingly, the novel begins with the death of British peace activist and journalist Tom Carver while attending a conference in Tripoli in 1987. Suspecting foul play, Carver’s partner Ayesha, a Palestinian exile, works with young London School of Economics lecturer Hannah and lawyer Jed to uncover the truth.

Fast-paced and carefully-plotted, it’s a short and punchy read, which I devoured in a couple of sittings. While Clancy and Freedland fantasise about grand presidential politics in Washington D.C., Howell’s canvas is much more modest. The action does shift to Libya at one point, but most of the events occur in and around London. He provides some authentic period detail, including passing mentions of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Spycatcher and the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan. Of course, there were no mobile phones in the late 80s, with the characters making copious use of phone boxes on the street.

And while the novel’s central twist is very much of its time, unfortunately it continues to have painful relevance today.

Echoing films from the period like 1986’s Defence of the Realm and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda from 1990, there is a foreboding sense of the British secret state working to protect the powerful in the name of “national security”.

With former Head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove branding Corbyn a “present danger to our country” just before the December 2019 general election, the struggle between the general public and established power continues, it seems.

Collateral Damage is published by Quaero Publishing, priced £8.99 https://www.steve-howell.com/collateral-damage/

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 December 2020

As the famous quote – commonly attributed to US writer Mark Twain – goes: “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that while the case for the 2003 Iraq war has been largely discredited, an unnerving amount of propaganda spread by the US and UK governments at the time still has some purchase today.

For example, Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University Qatar, recently tweeted about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): “Saddam’s aim was to keep everyone at home & abroad guessing.” Similarly a November Financial Times review by Chief Political Correspondent Philip Stephens of two books on UK intelligence matters noted the then Iraqi leader “believed his domestic authority in Iraq rested on a pretence that he still had WMD.”

The thesis that Hussein tricked the rest of the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs is surprisingly common. Appearing on a 2013 BBC Newsnight special Iraq: 10 Years On veteran correspondent John Simpson said “It came as a shock to Blair and Bush to find that Saddam had craftily got rid of his weapons” before the 2003 invasion. And during his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009, Sir John Scarlett, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in 2003, argued Hussein wanted to create the impression he had WMD to “project power in the region”.

Compare these claims with public statements from Saddam Hussein and other members of the Iraqi government.

In early February 2003 Hussein told Tony Benn in an interview screened on Channel Four “There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever”. Later that month he referred to “the big lie that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons” in an interview with CBS News. In December 2002 the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC News “We don’t have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry”.

As the US Brookings Institution think-tank noted in December 2002: “Iraq has repeatedly denied that it possesses any weapons of mass destruction.”

On 13 November 2002 Iraq told the United Nations it had neither produced nor was in possession of weapons of mass destruction since the inspectors left in December 1998. And two months earlier on 19 September 2002 CNN reported “Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivers a letter to the United Nations from Hussein stating that Iraq has no chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.”

What’s going on? Why are supposedly smart and informed people claiming Hussein tried to trick the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs when the evidence clearly shows the exact opposite – that the Iraqi leadership repeatedly denied having WMDs?

The answer is to be found in the part of Nonneman’s tweet preceding his claim about Hussein’s duplicity: “The problem wasn’t [US and UK] mendacity, it was intel being skewed by group think & failure to contemplate alternative explanations.”

If Hussein was deceiving the world, then it means the US and UK governments mistakenly, but sincerely, believed there were WMD in Iraq. In short, there were no lies about WMD. The 55 per cent of respondents to the July 2004 Guardian/ICM opinion poll who said UK Prime Minister Tony Blair lied were wrong.

Like the belief the Iraqi government was deliberately ambiguous about WMD, this thesis doesn’t stand up to elementary evidence either.

As anyone who had a passing interest in the news circa 2002-3 will remember, the UK government’s lies and deceptions on Iraq were numerous, relentless and increasingly blatant.

For example, Blair repeatedly said he wanted to resolve the issue of Iraq and WMD through the United Nations. The historical evidence suggests something very different. In a March 2002 memo to Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, the UK Ambassador to the US set out a plan “to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and UN SCRs [UN security council resolutions]”. How? A July 2002 Cabinet Office briefing paper explains: “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community.” The goal, then, was to use the weapons inspectors and the UN process to trigger war, not to negotiate a peaceful solution.

In July 2002 – fully eight months before the invasion and before UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002 – Blair also wrote to US President George Bush, telling him: “I will be with you, whatever.”

The minutes of a July 2002 meeting in Downing Street with Blair and senior government officials – recorded in the leaked Downing Street Memo – highlight further deceptions. The Head of MI6 is summarised as saying “Military action was now seen as inevitable” in Washington. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The minutes summarise Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as saying the case for war “was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Furthermore, the JIC’s Assessment of 21 August 2002 noted “We have little intelligence on Iraq’s CBW doctrine, and know little about Iraq’s CBW work since late 1998”, while their earlier assessment on 15 March 2002 explained “Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programme is sporadic and patchy.”

In contrast, Blair’s foreword to the infamous September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s supposed WMDs boldly stated “I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current”, with the Prime Minister noting “the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.” 

Largely ignored by the media at the time, and rarely mentioned since, is the testimony of Iraqi general Hussein Kamel, the head of Iraq’s weapons programme in the 1980s and 1990s, which was leaked to Newsweek magazine. Speaking to UN inspectors in Jordan in 1995 Kamel, who was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, said “I ordered the destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.” However, not only did the Blair government fail to disclose this important information in the run up to the war, Blair shamelessly cited Kamel when he pushed for war in parliament on 18 March 2003: “Hussain Kamel defected to Jordan. He disclosed a far more extensive BW [biological weapons] programme and for the first time said Iraq had weaponsied the programme.”

What does all this show?

First, it highlights the power of what British historian Mark Curtis called “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. For example, a 2006 Harris Interactive poll found half of Americans believed that Iraq had WMD when the US invaded in 2003.

Second, it suggests supposedly highly educated, critically-minded members of the elite, such as Nonneman, Simpson and Stephens, are as susceptible to government propaganda as anyone else. Indeed, US dissident Noam Chomsky suggests intellectuals are likely the most heavily indoctrinated sector of society: “By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.” Chomsky notes “the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power.”

And finally, it highlights the upside down moral world we live in.  So while Blair, his spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Chancellor Gordon Brown all played a central role in the illegal and aggressive invasion of Iraq that led to 500,000 dead Iraqi men, women and children, millions of refugees and created the conditions for Islamic State to prosper, all three continue to appear regularly in the mainstream media.

In a sane and just world the only public appearances these men would be making would be at The Hague to answer for their crimes.

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