Category Archives: UK Foreign Policy

If Vladimir Putin is to be tried as a war criminal, why not Gordon Brown?

If Vladimir Putin is to be tried as a war criminal, why not Gordon Brown?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 April 2022

Last month former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was among 140 academics, lawyers and politicians who signed a petition calling for a Nuremberg-style trial for Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion of Ukraine.

Appearing on the BBC Today Programme, Brown said “We believe that Putin should not be able to act with impunity, that a warning should be sent out that he will face the full force of international law, that his colleagues who are complicit in this will do so as well”.

He continued: “The foundational crime… is the crime of aggression, the initial crime of invading the country… the rule of law has been replaced by threats and by the use of force, and that has to be punished.”

Asked if he considered the Russian leader to be a war criminal, he replied: “That’s what President Biden said, and that’s my view.”

There is, of course, another relatively recent and glaring example of the “foundational” crime of aggression – the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq led by the US and UK. With the US and UK failing to gain United Nations support for military action, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan explained in 2004 the war “was not in conformity with the UN charter” and therefore “from our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has undoubtedly been bloody with, it seems, indiscriminate bombing and shelling of urban areas leading to thousands of civilian deaths and millions of refugees. The reporting at the weekend of Russia’s alleged massacre of civilians near Kyiv is particularly horrifying. However, it is also worth remembering the US-UK attack on Iraq and the chaos it caused 500,000 deaths, according to a 2013 PLOS Medicine journal study, and over 4.2 million people displaced by 2007, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Brown has direct responsibility for the destruction of Iraq. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 to 2007 – the second most powerful person in the government after Prime Minister Tony Blair – he oversaw the financing of the war. As a senior cabinet minister he also had collective responsibility for the decision to invade. Andrew Rawnsley explained Brown’s role in the immediate run-up to the war in his 2010 book End Of The Party: The Rise And Fall Of New Labour: on March 17 2003 “Brown gave an unequivocal statement of public support and threw himself into the effort to win over Labour MPs.”

“In the final days [before the invasion] Gordon was absolutely core,” senior Blair aide Sally Morgan told Rawnsley.

Incredibly, Brown was still supporting the war in 2010, telling the Chilcot Inquiry the decision to attack Iraq was “the right decision for the right reasons” and that “everything that Mr Blair did during this period, he did properly”. According to the Guardian’s report of his appearance at the inquiry “Brown accepted he had been fully involved in the run-up to the invasion”.

Brown was also Chancellor for the illegal invasion of Afghanistan, and then Prime Minister from 2007-10. According to Brown University’s Costs of War research project, as of 2021 an estimated 176,000 people had died in the near 20-year Afghan war, including around 46,000 civilians. After his staff interviewed over 600 people with first-hand experience of the Afghan 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. As the US’s closest ally in Afghanistan, how many lies did the Blair and Brown governments tell the British people about the war?

Surely, then, if anyone should be facing a Nuremberg-style war crimes trial for the crime of aggression it is Brown himself – along with Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, and senior figures in the US government at the time.

Brown’s responsibility for the slaughter in Iraq is unarguable, though unmentionable in the mainstream media and by the blue tick commentariat.

Even much of the left seem unable to compute Brown’s culpability for mass death in Iraq. In a review of Brown’s new book Seven Ways To Change The World, last year William Davis, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, argued “Brown’s forte as a politician was his combination of clear moral purpose with a mastery of technical minutiae, but which sometimes resulted in an air of bookish detachment.” In June 2021 Professor Anthony Costello, a member of the leftish Independent SAGE group, tweeted that Brown was “a true international statesman”, while in 2012 Save the Children CEO – and former Special Adviser to Brown – Justin Forsyth tweeted “Well done to Gordon Brown for being appointed UN SG special envoy for education. His leadership over many years is impressive.”

Brown’s ‘leadership’ certainly helped to change Iraq’s education system. A 2004 UNICEF survey found “over 700 primary schools had been damaged by bombing… with more than 200 burned and over 3,000 looted” since the US-UK invasion in March 2003. “Iraq used to have one of the finest school systems in the Middle East,” commented UNICEF Iraq Representative Roger Wright. “The current system is effectively denying children a decent education.” Brown University’s Costs of War project found similar impacts on Iraq’s higher education sector: “The Iraq war resulted in the decimation of Iraqi universities, through looting, violence against academics, and the removal of Iraq’s intellectual leadership.”

There are rare exceptions to this power-friendly historical amnesia. Over the years media watchdog Media Lens, the editor of Interventions Watch blog, Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard and blogger John Hilley have all highlighted Brown’s responsibility for the Iraq War. And in 2009 Peter Brierley, whose son Shaun was killed in Iraq in 2003, said both Blair and Brown should be tried as war criminals. And while 37 per cent of respondents to a 2010 ComRes poll answered that Blair should be tried as a war criminal, in the same poll 60 per cent of respondents said that Brown should share responsibility for the conflict with Blair.

Arguably the anti-war movement has all too often focussed their ire, rather successfully I would argue, on the individual figure of Blair.

But this isn’t how history works. Blair could only take the UK to war because he had the support – or at least acquiescence – of key centres of power, including Brown, the cabinet, the vast majority of Labour Party MPs, nearly all Conservative Party MPs, the military, the civil service and significant sections of the press.

Indeed, Brown’s importance to events is highlighted by the argument that if Brown, representing a huge power base in the Labour Party, had publicly opposed the war in 2002-3 it would have likely stopped British military involvement – something then International Development Secretary Clare Short said in the recent BBC documentary Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution.

Of course, it is very unlikely Brown (and Blair) will ever appear in front of a Nuremberg-style trial for what they did to Iraq. But in a sane and just world Brown’s crimes would have ended his career as a public figure long ago. Instead his ‘expertise’ is regularly sought by the mainstream media, the Guardian provides him with a platform to opine about Afghanistan (stop laughing at the back), he is regularly invited to give prestigious public lectures, and he has been appointed to a number of high profile positions.

Excepting Blair and his many “rare interventions” in public life, a more perfect illustration of the moral bankruptcy of the British political and media elite you could not wish to find.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies

Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 March 2022

In 1917, after listening to an account of fighting on the Western Front, Prime Minister Lloyd George is reported to have said “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

80 years later and a similar quote from a “senior official” was included in a book published by the establishment think-tank Chatham House: “Much of our foreign policy is conducted on the sly for fear that it would raise hackles at home if people knew what we were pushing for.”

The government camouflages the reality of British foreign policy in a variety of ways, including blunt censorship by the British military in war zones, ‘requests’ to edit reporting by issuing D-notices, the favouring of particular journalists and, likely most important, the normalisation of policy discussion and decision making that excludes the general public – an arrangement largely taken for granted by the media.

As Hew Strachan, Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and Ruth Harris, a researcher at RAND Europe, noted in a 2020 report prepared for the Ministry of Defence, “The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power.” This means “the making of [‘defence’] strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.”

Nowhere is this defacto concealment of British actions abroad more important than the UK’s relations with the repressive monarchies in the Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Check out, for example, the 1972 Thames Television documentary about the war in the Dhofar region of Oman, available on Youtube. “The war in Oman is an unknown war and Britain’s involvement in it something of a mystery,” presenter Vanya Kewley notes about the British role supporting the dictatorial Sultan Qaboos in the war against leftist rebels. Why? “Both the British government and the government of Oman are anxious to play down the British presence in such a sensitive area of the Arab World where British soldiers are fighting and dying for the Sultan of Oman,” she notes.

Mark Curtis explains the inconvenient truth in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World: “British policy in the Middle East is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s business and military interests.”

“Torture, discrimination against women, the complete suppression of dissent, free speech and association and the banning of political alternatives are all the norm” in these nations, he notes.

Little has changed since then. In the UAE, “scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences… in many cases following unfair trials on vague and broad charges,” Human Rights Watch report. Saudi Arabia recently executed 81 men on one single day. And though it seems to have been forgotten, in 2006 the head of the Saudi national security council “threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London” unless a UK Serious Fraud Office investigation into a UK-Saudi arms deal was halted, according to the Guardian. (Days later Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote to the Attorney General and the inquiry was, indeed, dropped).

In Kuwait – generally consider the most open society in the Gulf – criticism of the head of state is outlawed, sex between men is criminalised and nearly 5,000 books were banned in the seven years up to 2020, according to the Guardian. “Kuwaiti authorities continue to use provisions in the constitution, the national security law, and the country’s cybercrime law to restrict free speech and prosecute dissidents,” Human Rights Watch note.

How did the UK respond to the challenge the Arab Spring represented to the Gulf’s rulers? “With a major strategic vote of confidence in the conservative regional order,” David Wearing explains in his 2018 book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Speaking about the UK’s support for Bahrain following its violent crackdown against protestors in 2011, Middle East specialist Professor Rosemary Hollis noted “the British do not want to be seen – in front of the British public, Human Rights Watch and all those other NGOs that are monitoring this – to be aiding and abetting oppression of the civilian population.”

As with the quotes from Lloyd George and the unnamed “senior official” above, the underlying assumption is the British public is a threat to the UK’s support for the Gulf’s repressive elites – that people would be distressed by the truth. Indeed, occasionally it becomes clear just how much the public cares given enough information. According to John Pilger, when his 1994 documentary Death of a Nation,  about the 1975 invasion of East Timor and the genocide that followed, was first shown on TV it triggered more than 4,000 calls a minute to a helpline telephone number in the hours that followed. More recently, around one million people marched in London on 15 February 2003 in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq – the largest demonstration in British history. And earlier this month more than 100,000 British people offered homes to Ukrainian refugees in the first 24 hours of the government scheme that allows families and individuals to bring them to the UK.

However, when it comes to revealing and explaining what the UK and the local elites are up to in the Gulf, institutions that should inform the public have not done their job.

Media coverage of UK foreign policy tends to broadly follow the priorities and interests of policymakers, with minimal space allowed for critical, independent journalism. “Key British foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East, are being routinely under- or un-reported in the UK national press”, Curtis noted in 2020. For example, on 13 March investigative journalist John McEvoy tweeted “The Guardian has published more stories about Ukraine just today than it has published about Yemen in all of 2022.”

Academic research on the Gulf is often compromised by the fact many academics and research centres focussing on the region are themselves funded by Gulf monarchies. As well as steering research away from sensitive topics, in his book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies academic Christopher Davidson argues this funding means “it is almost inconceivable… to imagine an academic with no alternative source of income researching and writing a serious critique of a regime that has… paid for his or her salary”.

The funders of two premier think-tanks focussed on UK foreign policy, Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute, include the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, US State Department, BP, Chevron, BAE System and the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier this month Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – a UK government-funded organisation “working to strengthen democracy across the world” – “hasn’t a single ‘pro-democracy’ project in any of the 6 UK-backed Gulf dictatorships.”

Perhaps understandably, the anti-war movement and the broader left tends to focus on active wars, such as Ukraine now, and Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the last two decades. However, this means the UK’s relationship with the Gulf states has largely been ignored.

What all this means is that for decades UK governments have been able to continue their support for the despotic governing monarchies in the Gulf with relatively little public scrutiny and opposition.

The job of concerned citizens should be clear: to bring the UK’s dirty dealings in the Gulf into the public sphere. As US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis once famously claimed, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

An idea: how about solidarity campaigns and organisations are set up for individual Gulf states, like there is already for Palestine, Venezuela and Western Sahara? These would draw attention to UK’s support for authoritarian rulers in the Gulf, educate the British public, act as a centre of knowledge and expertise and give support to pro-democracy activists and movements in the Gulf – all of which would apply pressure on the British government.

The Saudi Arabia Solidarity Campaign. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 March 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the criminal barbarity of the Russian government and the leadership of its armed forces.

On 8 March Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said two million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian attack on 24 February. The same day the World Health Organisation reported attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had surged, and the International Committee of the Red Cross described the conditions in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as “apocalyptic”. On 10 March the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 564 civilian deaths, with close to 1,000 injured.

In addition to this horror, the crisis has also highlighted the extraordinary power and influence of the mainstream media. In particular, it has proven the continuing relevance of Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s analysis in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: A Political Economy of the Mass Media. “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy”, the argue. “The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.”

Following this framing, the Ukrainians under Russian attack are, rightly, considered worthy victims. For example, as of 11 March, the Guardian has devoted no less than 13 pages in the news section of each day’s newspaper to the crisis since Russia’s invasion (not counting the extensive coverage in the Finance, Sports and G2 sections of the paper, and the many op-ed columns and editorials devoted to the topic). Media watchdog Media Lens has highlighted a similar level of coverage on the BBC News website, noting the first 26 stories on the BBC News’s home page on 27 February were devoted to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

As well as focussing on the military situation, the Guardian has provided extensive coverage of the refugee crisis and civilians living under Russian bombardment, focussing on personal, often heart-breaking stories. It has published powerful front page images of people injured in Russian airstrikes and covered debates in parliament about how many Ukrainian refugees the UK should take in. The ongoing protests in Russia against the invasion have also been reported, while columnists and reporters have shown understandable outrage and indignation about Russia’s attack. There have also been reports on moves to get the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

All this coverage has led to an extraordinary – and very welcome – show of solidarity and support for Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression. The UK and other nations have delivered significant amounts of arms to the Ukrainian forces, aid has been sent to assist refugees, protests have been held across the country, and many corporations, under public pressure, have stopped doing business with or in Russia.

However, as Herman and Chomsky intimate, we should not forget the people considered unworthy victims by the media propaganda system. These tend to be non-white people in the Global South who are on the business end of Western military and corporate power, either directly or indirectly through the West’s clients.

For example, since 2016 the United Nations has repeatedly described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. 377,000 people have been killed, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease, since Saudi Arabia’s military intervention began in March 2015, according to the United Nations. In March 2021 Save The Children estimated that over the past three years almost one in four civilian casualties in Yemen were children. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reported an estimated 24.4 million Yemenis –roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s total population – needed humanitarian assistance to survive.

By supporting the Saudi intervention, both diplomatically and militarily, the UK and US bear significant responsibility for the continuation of the carnage in Yemen. However, as per Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the UK media has largely ignored the slaughter in Yemen.

Take the Guardian, which is generally viewed as the most anti-establishment mainstream newspaper. It has published some in-depth, on the ground reporting from Iona Craig and Bethan McKernan. However, all too often the Guardian’s news reports on Yemen are buried deep inside the paper. On 20 February 2021 a report with the frightening headline Yemen At Risk Of World’s Worst Famine In Decades was published on page 28, while a tiny report titled Cholera: Yemen On Course For Catastrophe appeared on page 27 of the 29 July 2020 edition of the paper.

Sometimes this media’s laser-like focus on worthy victims becomes too much to take. For example, on 10 March the first two headlines during the BBC Today Programme 8 am news were the Ukrainian president saying a Russian attack on maternity hospital was a war crime, and that Russia had been accused of deploying powerful vacuum bombs in Ukraine. All of which is important news, of course.

However, in 2019 The Yemeni Archive, a Danish-based database project tracking human rights violations in the war, stated the Saudi-led coalition was allegedly responsible for 72 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, while Action on Armed Violence confirms the US has previously dropped vacuum bombs – AKA thermobaric weapons, which take oxygen from the air around them to create an explosion with a more deadly blast wave – in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t have a time machine but I’m willing to bet none of the Saudi and US actions made it into a BBC News headline at the time.

One conclusion seems inescapable: if the war in Yemen received the level and quality of media coverage Ukraine has had for just a couple of days the UK would be forced to end its support for Saudi Arabia. This would mean the end of the Saudi bombardment of Yemen as they wouldn’t have the crucial UK logistical support they need to continue their air war, as one BAE employee explained to Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2019.

In case it is not already clear, I am not arguing the media shouldn’t focus on the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. I am arguing the media should also be focusing on the atrocities the UK is helping Saudi Arabia commit in Yemen.

Indeed, a case can be made that the media have a responsibility to focus more on Yemen than Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been fuelled by the UK, the home country of the UK media, and the vast majority of its journalists and audience. It is where we pay our taxes and have the greatest opportunity to impact government policy. And while stopping the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine will be a very difficult task, ending the Saudi attack on Yemen is comparatively simple: the UK just needs to stop providing support to Saudi Arabia.

So, yes, of course we should all show solidarity and support for Ukrainians under Russian attack. But at the same time we would do well to understand, as Herman and Chomsky argue, that the media coverage of the conflict “is evidence of an extremely effective propaganda system.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.


Why is no one talking about how senior Labour Party figures whitewash apartheid?

Why is no one talking about how senior Labour Party figures whitewash apartheid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2022

Amnesty International’s recent report condemning Israel for “committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians” is a damning indictment of the current Israeli government (and its predecessors), and its supporters around the world.

After carrying out research for four years, Amnesty concludes “Israel enforces a system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights”, including Palestinians living in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and displaced refugees in other countries.

Defining apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination by one racial group over another,” Amnesty explains Israel’s “massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians are all components of a system which amounts to apartheid under international law.” This constitutes a “crime against humanity”, the human rights organisation notes.

Amnesty also has a message to those backing Israel: “governments who continue to supply Israel with arms, and shield it from accountability at the UN are supporting a system of apartheid, undermining the international legal order, and exacerbating the suffering of the Palestinian people.”

The UK does exactly this. In 2018 the Campaign Against Arms Trade exposed how British defence contractors were selling record amounts of arms to Israel, with the UK issuing £221m worth of arms licences to defence companies exporting to Israel. This made Israel the UK’s eighth largest market for UK arms companies, the Guardian reported.

The same year, Mark Curtis, the Editor of Declassified UK, highlighted “consistent British support for Israel internationally, helping to shield it from ostracism”. In 2017 the Foreign Office refused to sign a joint declaration issued at a Paris peace conference on Palestine attended by 70 nations, accusing it of “taking place against the wishes of the Israelis”. And in 2019 the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt confirmed the UK would oppose motions criticising rights abuses carried out by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s Human Rights Council.

While the world’s leading human rights organisation criticising Israel for perpetrating the crime of apartheid is hugely significant, it is important to remember Amnesty is just the latest group to come to this conclusion.

In April 2021 Human Rights Watch declared Israel was committing the crime of apartheid, enforcing the policy to “maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.” Drawing on years of documentation, analysis of Israeli laws, government planning documents and public statements by officials, the rights organisation concluded Israeli authorities “systematically discriminate against Palestinians” and have adopted policies to counter what it describes as a demographic “threat” from Palestinians.

Similarly, in January 2021 B’Tselem, the leading domestic rights group in Israel, described Israel as an “apartheid regime”.

“One organising principle lies at the base of a wide array of Israeli policies: advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.” Hagai El-Ad, the group’s director, noted “Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it. It is one regime between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.”

Likewise, Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli cabinet minister and longstanding member of Israel’s parliament, said in 2008: “What acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck – it is apartheid.” Famously, former US President Jimmy Carter published his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in 2006, and in 2002 Desmond Tutu, who knew a thing or two about apartheid, told a conference in Boston about a recent visit to the Holy Land and how “it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Though the UK media have studiously avoided making the link, the reports from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, and the quotes above, have huge ramifications for key figures in the UK Labour Party.

Giving the keynote speech at the November 2021 Labour Friends of Israel’s annual lunch, Keir Starmer noted Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 “committed the new state to freedom, justice and peace; complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

“Israel herself is the first to acknowledge that at times she falls short of these goals”, he continued, “But we will continue to support Israel’s rumbustious democracy, its independent judiciary, and its commitment to the rule of law”.

The Labour leader said Labour Party saw their counterparts in the Israeli Labor party “as comrades in the international struggle for equality, peace and freedom”, before quoting Prime Minister Harold Wilson: “social democrats who made the desert flower.”

The assertion it was Israeli pioneers who made the desert bloom repeats one of the founding – and racist – myths of Israel. Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani tweeted why at the time of Starmer’s speech: “The reason why is because it implies it was ‘terra nullius’, nobody’s land, & therefore fine to be appropriated. The story of colonialism.”

Starmer also explained the UK Labour Party does not support the Boycott, Disinvestment and Solidarity campaign against Israel. Why? “Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state”.

“We believe that international law should be adhered to”, he stated, and therefore Labour “opposes and condemns” illegal settlements, and annexation and the eviction of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Starmer said nothing, of course, about Israel being an apartheid state.

Speaking at a 2017 Jewish News/Bicom Balfour 100 event, Emily Thornberry MP, then Shadow Foreign Secretary, echoed Starmer’s sentiments: Israel “still stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particular in respect of women and LGBT communities, in a region where oppression, discrimination and inequality is too often the norm.”

And speaking at the 2017 Labour Friends of Israel annual dinner, Thornberry praised former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres as “a hero of the left, of the state of Israel and of the cause of peace.”

In contrast, in 2005 US dissident Noam Chomsky called Peres “an iconic mass murderer,” presumably for his role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel and for being Prime Minister when Israel shelled a United Nations compound in Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians. After conducting an investigation, Amnesty International concluded the attack was intentional.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy excels at smearing critics of Israel. Interviewed on the BBC in early 2020 when she was running to be Labour leader, presenter Andrew Neil asked her about online Labour activist Rachael Cousins, “who’s tweeted calling the Board of Deputies of British Jews Conservative [Party] backers, and demanding that they disassociate themselves from that party, and that they condemn all Israeli military atrocities in the West Bank – her words. Is that anti-Semitic?” Nandy is quick to respond: “Yes.”

And when there were nonviolent protests at the London School of Economics in November 2021 against Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, Nandy, then Shadow Foreign Secretary, tweeted: “The appalling treatment of Israeli Ambassador @TzipiHotovely is completely unacceptable. There is no excuse for this kind of behaviour. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right and any attempt to silence or intimidate those we disagree with should never be tolerated.”

Reading these quotes in light of all the reports and testimony above is nothing short of shocking. As the American historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

The Labour Party’s code of conduct notes it “will not tolerate racism in any form inside or outside the party” and that “any behaviour or use of language which… undermines Labour’s ability to campaign against any form of racism, is unacceptable conduct within the Labour Party.” Surely, then, the whitewashing of, and apologism for, the racist Israeli apartheid state carried out by Starmer and co. should lead to them being expelled from the Labour Party?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

How do we stop the UK enabling the bloodbath in Yemen?

How do we stop the UK enabling the bloodbath in Yemen?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 February 2022

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military intervention and blockade in Yemen, the horror continues.

By the end of 2021 the United Nations Development Programme estimated 377,000 people had been killed in Yemen, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease. This follows 2018 analysis from Save the Children that estimated “85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger since the war in Yemen escalated” in March 2015 with the Saudi involvement. More broadly, in September 2021 the United Nations World Food Programme warned that 16 million Yemenis – over half the population – were “marching toward starvation”. And in 2018 Mark Lowcock, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said Yemen was dealing with “what most people think is the biggest epidemic of cholera outbreak the world has seen.”

Unsurprisingly, the United Nations calls Yemen “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

According to Saudi Arabia, their intervention started in support of Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been overthrown by Houthi rebels. Working with a coalition of Middle East states (including Egypt, UAE and Kuwait), and backed by the US and UK, Saudi Arabia has been bombing and blockading Yemen, long known as the poorest country in the Middle East.

Speaking to the Guardian’s Owen Jones, Sam Perlo-Freeman from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) noted “The Saudis are maintaining [the blockade] without suffering any consequences or diplomatic efforts. The attention given by the world’s powers to end the war or at the least the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is woefully inadequate to nonexistent.”

This is especially pertinent to the UK’s role in the conflict, as the UK is the “penholder” on Yemen at the UN Security Council. “That means that the UK has the power to draft and table Security Council products on Yemen – including press statements, resolutions, and presidential statements, and more,” Save the Children explains. “It means they have the power to lead the way in efforts to forge a political, not military, solution to the conflict.”

But the UK’s role in Yemen goes far beyond refusing to act to end the fighting – the UK has actively worked to shield Saudi Arabia from criticism. For example, in 2018 the Guardian noted the UN Security Council “failed to agree to a statement calling on forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to implement a ceasefire, with the US and UK both voicing opposition to the text introduced by Sweden.”

This is unsurprising when you consider the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated in March 2015 that “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

With the UK one of the leading arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, in January CAAT reported “the published value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi-led coalition since the bombing began in March 2015 is £6.9 billion”. However, CAAT themselves estimate the real value of UK arms to Saudi Arabia to be over £20 billion.

And as Hammond explains, UK support goes beyond arms sales, providing personnel and technical expertise to keep the Saudi assault going. Writing in the Guardian in 2019, Arron Merat notes “around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia”, where they train pilots and carry out essential maintenance on the planes. In 2016 the Telegraph reported British (and US) military officials were working in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes on Yemen, which included access to lists of targets. After conducting a survey of Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, in 2016 the Yemen Data Project, a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists, noted more than one-third of air raids on Yemen had hit civilian sites, such as hospitals, schools, mosques, markets and economic infrastructure.

“The Saudi bosses absolutely depend on [UK arms company] BAE Systems. They couldn’t do it without us,” John Deverell, the ex-defence attache to Saudi Arabia, told Merat. Appearing in a 2019 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary a BAE employee explained “If we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

Moreover, it seems British troops have actually been fighting on the ground in Yemen, with the Mail on Sunday reporting in 2019 “at least five British Special Forces commandos have been wounded in gun battles as part of a top-secret UK military campaign”. According to the article “the SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include medics, translators and Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Despite this deep involvement, frustratingly YouGov polls in 2017 and 2018 found a large section of the UK public was not even aware the war was happening. That luxury is not available to Yemenis.

“The 70% of Yemenis living in Houthi rebel-controlled areas are well aware it is nations such as the UK that enable bombing raids on their weddings, hospitals and schoolchildren,” Bethan McKernan reported in the Guardian last year. “Technical information and serial numbers from missile parts are easily traced to western arms manufacturers, and many families hang on to such evidence in the hope that one day, justice for their loved ones will be served.”

So far the British left, anti-war and peace movement have been unable to stop the UK’s complicity in the slaughter in Yemen. It came close in 2019, when the government was forced to temporarily suspend new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after a legal challenge from CAAT led to the court of appeal ruling British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful. And there have been other impressive acts of resistance, including British soldier Ahmed al-Babati courageously protesting in Whitehall against Britain’s involvement in the war, and peace activist Sam Walton’s attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi general in London in 2017.

So what is to be done? How can the anti-war movement increase the public’s awareness – and anger – about Britain’s role helping to escalate the conflict, and therefore exacerbate the catastrophe?

It would be unwise to expect help from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which obviously doesn’t see the destruction of Yemen as a priority. In February 2021 Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard noted the Labour leader had “tweeted the word ‘Yemen’ once in history.”

Ditto the corporate media, including much of the liberal commentariat, which has all too often mirrored the British elite’s indifference to Yemen – a point Florian Zollmann, a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, made to me in 2018.

“Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force,” he noted. “Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.”

The editor of Interventions Watch blog recently noted the journalist Paul Mason had sent just three tweets including the word “Yemen” since the start of the Saudi intervention in March 2015. Similarly, a search in early February showed senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland has tweeted about Yemen five times in the same period – less than once every year of the conflict. In comparison, Mason had sent 18 tweets including the word “Russia” since the start of 2022 alone.

As is often the case, any shift in UK policy on Yemen will likely come down to the size and effectiveness of grassroots activism and pressure. The British left needs to make Yemen a campaigning priority. Perhaps the war should be a central focus for Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project, which feels it has a huge amount of unrealised potential.

Could 2022 be the year the UK is forced to end its crucial role in enabling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Munich – The Edge Of War: glossing over the British Empire

Munich – The Edge Of War: glossing over the British Empire
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
4 February 2022

A pretty good, sometimes gripping, political thriller, the new movie Munich – The Edge Of War, based on Robert Harris’s 2017 novel, includes a couple of obvious howlers.

First, the film’s Adolf Hitler is so bad it becomes comical. Surely, filmmakers understand Bruno Ganz as the Fuhrer in the 2004 German film Downfall irrevocably raised the bar when it comes to onscreen portrayals of the Nazi leader? Second, amazingly the filmmakers chose August Diehl to play a slightly manic, slightly comic SS officer, after he had played a slightly manic, slightly comic SS officer in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds. Is the pool of decent German actors really so small?

Furthermore, a couple of casting choices seem particularly significant. Cecil Syers, a civil servant in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Downing Street, is played by Black British actor Raphael Sowole, while British Asian actress Anjli Mohindra plays Joan Menzies. Initially presented as the best typist in Downing Street, she is – spoiler alert! – later revealed to be the niece of a senior MI6 official.

Whether these are examples of “colourblind” casting is unclear. In a recent interview Mohindra notes “There were lots of South-Asian civil servants working for the British government at that time”, and specifically mentions British South-Asian spy Noor Inayat Khan as an inspiration for her work on Munich.

For the record, I have no problem with Black and ethnic minority actors taking roles that would traditionally be given to white actors. I loved Dev Patel as the titular character in 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield; the ethnically diverse cast of playful period drama Bridgerton made perfect sense to me; I was mystified by Laurence Fox’s criticism of a Sikh soldier appearing in Sam Mendes’s epic and brilliant 1917 film (more than 130,000 Sikhs fought in the First World War).

However, there are wider political ramifications connected to these casting decisions in Munich that I think are worth exploring. So while the Nazis are depicted as, well, Nazis, including several obligatory scenes showing the repression and dehumanization of Jews, Sowole playing Syers, and Mohindra as Menzies, suggests Chamberlain’s government, ruling over the biggest empire the world had ever known, was running an equal opportunities recruitment process for top-level “national security” work in Downing Street.

In short, the casting choices arguably work to gloss-over the racism, repression and elitism of the Chamberlain government, and of the whole British ruling class at the time. A similar concealing effect can be seen in 2017’s Darkest Hour movie, which conjures up the fantasy of Winston Churchill getting inspiration after travelling on the tube and swapping lines from a Macaulay poem with a West Indian man.

Indeed, like nearly every British war film, Munich reaffirms a ‘Britain = good, Nazi = evil’ binary understanding of history. With the action shifting to the emergency talks in Munich, one of the film’s two main characters, Paul Hartmann, a translator in the German Foreign Office who is heroically trying to stop Hitler, tells Chamberlain the German Chancellor is “a man who hates everything you stand for.”

The problem with this popular framing of the Second World War, as the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good”.

As then Guardian columnist Seamus Milne noted in 2010, “The British empire was… an avowedly racist despotism built on ethnic cleansing, enslavement, continual wars and savage repression, land theft and merciless exploitation. Far from bringing good governance, democracy or economic progress, the empire underdeveloped vast areas, executed and jailed hundreds of thousands for fighting for self-rule, ran concentration camps, carried out medical experiments on prisoners and oversaw famines that killed tens of millions of people.”

Though it remains pretty much verboten to mention in polite company, the uncomfortable truth is Hitler and Chamberlain (along with a significant segment of the British elite) shared some key values.

“Hitler’s dream was inspired, in part, by the British Empire,” noted British historian Richard Drayton, currently Professor of Imperial and Global History at King’s College London, in the Guardian in 2005. “The British and Americans were key theorists of eugenics and had made racial segregation respectable. The concentration camp was a British invention, and in Iraq and Afghanistan the British were the first to use air power to repress partisan resistance… we forget, too, that British and US elites gave aid to the fascists.”

In addition to obfuscating the reality of the British Empire, the film also ignores the importance of the British Empire to Chamberlain’s decision-making during the Munich crisis.

“By the mid-1930s Britain was defending a vast and vulnerable empire encompassing a quarter of the world’s territory and population, with the dismally depleted military resources of a third-rate power”, historian Robert Self noted on the BBC News website in 2013. He goes on to quote Sir Thomas Inskip’s defence policy of December 1937, commissioned by Chamberlain: “it is beyond the resources of this country to make proper provision in peace for defence of the British Empire against three major powers [Germany, Japan and Italy] in three different theatres of war.”

The 1985 Granada Television documentary End Of Empire explains what this meant for the UK government: “Britain’s leaders feared the empire would not survive a war on both sides of the world at once, so desperate for peace at almost any price, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich and appeasement.”

To be clear, I support more Black and ethnic minority-centred stories and actors on our TV and film screens. For example, I consider Steve McQueen’s monumental Small Axe film anthology one of the most important British cultural events of recent times.

There is no shortage of historical events and stories centred around the experience of Black and ethnic minorities that could be mined if mainstream Western filmmakers were as open minded and progressive as they thought they were. How about a period drama about the brutal British repression of the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya? Or an epic film about the largely nonviolent national movement that forced the British to grant Ghana independence in 1957? Why hasn’t there been a television series about the British arming recently surrendered Japanese troops in 1945 to put down a nationalist uprising in Vietnam? Or about Greek resistance fighter Manolis Glezos, who was moments away from killing Winston Churchill in Athens on Christmas Day 1944, after Britain had turned against the Communist-led insurgents who had helped defeat the German Army? Or a political thriller about all the dirty dealings and repression the UK has carried out and supported over decades to keep all their favoured despots in power in the Gulf?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22-23 January 2022

Last month Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, the nation’s oldest human rights group, which was devoted to researching and recording crimes committed in the Soviet Union.

“It is not hard to see how Putin, mired in historical conflicts over Crimea, Nato expansion and the fall of the Soviet Union, the second world war and more, sees investigation of Soviet history as a threat to national security”, the Guardian noted.

Back in the UK, such overt, authoritarian censorship is rarely deployed by the government. As George Orwell argued in his unpublished preface to his 1945 novella Animal Farm, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he explains, the dominant orthodoxy and wealthy press owners creating an environment in which there is “a general tacit agreement that ʻit wouldn’t doʼ to mention” particular facts.

Over 75 years later and Orwell’s pithy analysis is as relevant as ever. “The wildest thing about Western establishment media is its journalists aren’t even working under threat of prison or violence,” Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted about the fawning media coverage of ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died in October. “They do state propaganda – and sanitise our worst war criminals – totally off their own back. Incredible discipline and dedication to serving power.”

A good example of the propagandistic nature of the UK media is its coverage of the draft agreement Russia presented to the United States on 17 December – titled Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Russian Federation On Security Guarantees (Russia also presented a draft security agreement to NATO).

With tensions rising over Ukraine, amongst other things the draft text calls for an end to further eastward expansion of NATO, no US bases established in former USSR states and that “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.”

Article 7 of the treaty is particularly interesting: “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories”.

For anyone interested in reducing the threat of nuclear war, this sounds like an extremely sane, fair proposal. As the Morning Star recently reported, US nuclear weapons are currently based in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Russia does not currently station any nuclear weapons outside of Russia. Interestingly, a January 2021 YouGov poll found 74% of Italian respondents, 58% of Dutch and 57% of Belgians wanted US nuclear weapons removed from their countries. A July 2020 Kantar poll found 83% of Germans also supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from their country.

However, after conducting searches of Google and the Lexis-Nexus newspaper database, as far as I can tell the existence of Article 7 has only been acknowledged by two national newspapers in the UK – the Morning Star and the Financial Times, in one report on 17 December. Despite devoting a huge amount of column inches to the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia, the Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express do not seem to have mentioned Article 7. (A caveat: on 10 January the Guardian did briefly mention Russia’s demand for ”the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe”, which nods to the content of Article 7, though ignores US nuclear weapons in Turkey and, more importantly, erroneously presents the demand as one-sided).

This press blackout is important because productive and fair public debate requires an informed citizenry and politicians. What happens when the media do not report key facts? How are citizens and politicians supposed to make informed decisions about current affairs?

The memory holing of Article 7 echoes the British public’s broader ignorance surrounding the country’s nuclear weapons. This dearth of knowledge is no accident – the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been mired in secrecy from the start, with Labour Party hero Clement Attlee authorising the creation of the UK’s first atomic bomb in 1947, keeping it secret from parliament, the public and even some members of his own cabinet.

While the official government narrative – happily repeated by mainstream media commentators and academics – is one of defensive deterrence and use as a last resort, activist and author Milan Rai provides an alternative, very persuasive understanding of the UK’s nuclear weapons.

Rai, editor of Peace News newspaper, highlights the analysis of famed US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation in the early 60s on nuclear strategy, later challenging the popular belief the US hasn’t used its nuclear arsenal since 1945. “It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years… unused and unusuable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets”, Ellsberg argued in 1981. “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite difference purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”

This revelatory framing indicates the UK uses its nuclear weapons every day. In every diplomatic meeting, both cordial and confrontational, the UK’s status as a nuclear power, and all this means, is there in the background, impacting the decision-making of participants. Every time a rival nation considers confronting the UK government or the UK military they are there in the background.

More precisely, Rai points out the UK has conducted nuclear terrorism – issuing nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapons states in the Global South, with the aim of intimidating their opponent and giving the UK the freedom to act on the world stage. Writing in Peace News in 2020, he explained that during the ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia between 1963-66 over the future of Brunei and North Borneo, British Victor strategic nuclear bombers were deployed to RAF Tengah in Singapore, carrying out low-level bombing practice. In his official history of the RAF in South-East Asia, Air Chief Marshall David Lee noted “Their potential was well known to Indonesia and their presence did not go unnoticed.” He continues: “the knowledge of RAF strength and competence created a wholesome respect among Indonesia’s leaders, and the deterrent effect of RAF air defence fighters, light bombers and V-bombers… was absolute.”

Rai has also highlighted the UK’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. “If we were prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Russians, I can’t see why we shouldn’t be prepared to use them against Iraq”, a senior British minister was quoted saying by the Daily Mail in October 1990. 12 years later during the lead up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee states like Iraq “can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Speaking to ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby a few days later, he explained what the “right conditions” might be – if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.

The secrecy and ignorance surrounding the reality of the UK’s nuclear weapons has very real consequences for public opinion, which broadly favours the retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. Who can forget, for example, the seven-minute primetime TV grilling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about his position on Trident during BBC Question Time’s general election special in 2017?

A key job of anti-war and peace campaigners should be clear – to draw the public’s attention to the UK’s history of aggressively using its nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce other nations. This can only undermine the government’s benign ‘deterrence’ narrative and shift the debate towards disarmament.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton

Book review. Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 December 2021

A wide-ranging memoir-polemic, Joe Glenton sees his new book is an attempt “to address the commonly held idea that we vets are all irredeemably right-wing.”

Glenton, who served in Afghanistan with the British Army’s Royal Logistical Corps before going AWOL in 2007 and refusing to fight in the war, proves to be an excellent guide to this complex and often controversial topic, deploying lashings of black humour and military lingo (explained for the uninitiated).

Rather than “a reactionary blob”, he argues the military has always been a contested space, with a rich, though largely unknown, history of progressive dissent and resistance in the ranks. This applies to veterans too, with Glenton and others working in grassroots organisations such as Veterans For Peace UK and Forces Watch. 

His brief historical overview of political and social struggles within the military is exceptional, with inspiring pen portraits of the New Model Army in the English Civil War, the radicalising Cairo Parliaments at the end of World War Two, Ahmed al-Batati’s 2020 Whitehall protest against the Yemen War, and other rebellions. Another impressive chapter focusses on the post-9/11 Militarisation Offensive in the UK – the extensive campaign by the government, military, MPs and the media “to stymie criticism of British foreign policy on the home front by popularising the military.” This, he notes, was not planned and run by the Tories, as you might expect, “but by the most violent force in British politics in my lifetime: New Labour.” 

Glenton is similarly sharp in his criticism of high-profile military veterans (“either openly reactionary or political mediocre”) and those ex-military figures who end up in parliament, such as former Minister for Veterans Johnny Mercer MP (“the sullen personification of a failed officer corps”) and “NATO-backing” Clive Lewis.

He quotes testimony from other veterans throughout the book, with one comparing large parts of military training and culture to domestic abuse, noting the commonality of “controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour”. As another veteran argues, “It is not just battlefield trauma that causes mental health issues but the conditioning associated with training have a massive part to play.”

Glenton isn’t a pacifist though: he describes his politics as mostly anarchist and libertarian socialist, and explains he would seriously consider supporting UK military action in defence of Palestinians or Kurdish Rojava. And while the book is a radical critique of the institution of the military and how the armed forces are used by the ruling class as an “instrument for imperial violence”, “the Mob” continues to exhibit a pull on him. He clearly has affection for some aspects of military culture, and respect for the men and women who have worn the uniform. “These are not simple lives, and they defy simple interpretations”, he notes.

While some non-fiction books can be a chore to read, Veteranhood, like his award-winning 2013 biography Soldier Box, is full of brilliant writing, with a certain swagger and righteous anger to the prose. 

Quite simply, Glenton is one of the most important voices writing about UK military matters today.

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.

________

  • 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).

_________

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.