Category Archives: US Foreign Policy

Book review. The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution by Nils Melzer

Book review. The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution by Nils Melzer
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2022

Opening with a quote from Otto Gritschneder – ‘Those who sleep in a democracy will wake up in a dictatorship’ – Nils Melzer notes his newis intended as ‘an urgent appeal… a wake up call to the general public’.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2016 until March 2022, Melzer provides a damning indictment of the US, UK, Sweden and Ecuador for their treatment of Wikileaks founder Assange. Writing in methodical and accessible language, he runs through the key events, starting with Wikileaks momentous work with Western media outlets in 2010 to publish the leaked US Afghanistan and Iraq war logs and diplomatic cables. Describing Assange as a ‘high-tech terrorist’, in 2010 then US Vice-President Joe Biden said ‘he has made it difficult to conduct our business with our allies and our friends… it has done damage.’

In August 2010 the Swedish authorities opened an investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Assange, and two years later he took refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. When he was forcibly removed from the embassy in April 2019 the US quickly issued an extradition request, charging him with violating the 1917 Espionage Act. Since then Assange has been incarcerated in the UK’s high-security Belmarsh prison as the legal battles over his fate play out.

Interestingly, Melzer himself initially dismissed requests to investigate the case, believing Assange to be ‘a rapist, hacker, spy, and narcissist.’ However, he eventually relented, visiting Assange in Belmarsh in May 2019, after which he wrote to the UK government arguing Assange had been exposed to ‘various forms and degrees of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment… which clearly amount to psychological torture.’ For Melzer, this is ‘a story of political persecution’, a deliberate attempt to deter other journalists and activists from challenging US power.

He is particularly critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of events, noting that just one journalist turned up to the press briefing he had organised during his visit to Assange – from Ruptly, a subsidiary of the Russian television network RT. Later he highlights how the three leading Russian newspapers printed a coordinated protest against the arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov by Putin’s government in 2019: ‘Without a doubt, a comparable joint action of solidarity by the Guardian, the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post would put an immediate end to the persecution of Julian Assange,’ he argues.

Though Melzer includes a list of key documents, the lack of references is frustrating. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced his extensive, highly censorious examination of the sexual assault allegations is wise, or falls within his area of professional expertise (one of the women who accused Assange wrote to Melzer in 2020 criticising his public statements about the case).

Nevertheless, with Home Secretary Priti Patel recently approving Assange’s extradition to the US, where he could face up to 175 years in prison, The Trial of Julian Assange is an incredibly important, myth-busting book – especially when you consider Melzer’s job title. As he notes, ‘At stake is nothing less than the future of democracy.’

Book review. The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan

Book review. The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2022

Presumably hastily put together after the disorderly US-UK-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, The Ledger is written by two advisors to the Western militaries and Afghan government: David Kilcullen and Greg Mills. Their roles gave the pair an enviable level of access to top level US-UK government and military sources, whom they cite regularly, but is also likely a key reason why their analysis is so restricted, generally limited to what Noam Chomsky calls the ‘fight it better’ school of criticism.

Kilcullen and Mills provide a number of reasons for the West’s failure including: an absence of strategy and political leadership, shifting war aims, a refusal to stay in Afghanistan for the long-term, insufficient troop numbers, underestimating the Taliban, and failing to address a key source of support for the insurgency – Pakistan.

As the endorsements from the UK chief of defence staff and former US chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff make clear, this isn’t a book written for peace activists. Nevertheless, it does contain some useful information.

For example, in December 2001, after the US-led invasion and defeat of the Taliban, anti-Taliban Afghan leader Hamid Karzai pushed for peace negotiations with the Taliban. This move was blocked by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

This was a huge missed opportunity – the war’s ‘original sin’, according to United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi – opening the door to 20 years of death and destruction.

How Rumsfeld overriding Karzai’s wishes fits with the authors’ claim elsewhere that a central objective of the US-led occupation was ‘promoting democracy’ is never explained.

Elsewhere, Killcullen and Mills mention in passing that the reduction of Western advisors and contractors in the last two years of the Obama administration ‘was driven by American domestic politics.’

This is a significant and hopeful acknowledgement for peace activists, and fits with evidence public opinion had a constraining influence on British forces in Afghanistan (see PN 2644 – 2645).

Frustratingly, the authors ignore a lot of important arguments and information. The high levels of violence meted out by US-UK forces is barely mentioned, while the idea that a police operation should have been conducted to capture the perpetrators of 9/11 is never considered, nor the argument that it was the military occupation itself that was the root problem.

Those interested in reading more critical analyses of the war in Afghanistan should seek out Fred Ledwidge’s Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War (Yale University Press, 2013) or Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls (Seven Stories, 2006).

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.


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.

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.

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 November 2021

Non-violence is under attack.

Many influential figures on the Left in the UK dismiss, misrepresent or ignore the concept of non-violent struggle, also known as civil resistance. Indeed, two books have recently been published that explicitly criticise non-violence – Andreas Malm’s ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ and ‘In Defense of Looting’ by Vicky Osterweil. In a June 2020 editorial, the revolutionary Leftist magazine Salvage proclaimed: “Salvage glorifies the burning down of the Minneapolis third police precinct [in response to the murder of African-American man George Floyd]”.

Below I respond to some of the myths often repeated on the Left about non-violent struggle.

Myth One: violence is more effective than non-violence in making change

“Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it,” wrote Afua Hirsch in The Guardian in April 2018 about the end of apartheid in South Africa. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”

Yet while there is disagreement about the relative importance of violence and non-violence in the struggle, it is clear that at the very least, non-violent struggle played an important contributory role in the end of apartheid.

Summarising the key events – which included labour strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and civil disobedience, activities involving hundreds of thousands of people – in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Lester Kurtz, a professor at George Mason University, wrote: “In the end, a concerted grassroots non-violent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate.” Of course, many highlight the importance of the armed resistance but I’m confident no serious historian or observer would be dismissive of the incredibly brave non-violent resistance to apartheid.

More broadly, to quote the non-violent action guru George Lakey, “the underlying assumption” of a view such as Hirsch’s “is that violence is the most powerful force in the world”. As Lakey noted in 2001: “This is conventional wisdom, shared by most right-wingers, left-wingers, and people in the middle. It’s as popular as the old consensus that the earth is flat. And it is just as incorrect.”

The 2011 book ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’ by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan provides academic evidence in support of the efficacy of non-violent struggle. The 2012 winner of the American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, given annually for the best book on government, politics, or international relations, the study was a key inspiration for the founders of Extinction Rebellion, arguably one of the most successful protest movements in recent British history (though writing in Peace News Gabriel Carlyle notes their analysis of the book isn’t quite right).

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, the authors concluded that non-violent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They argued this difference is down to non-violent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support. This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters, and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the chances of success.

Their findings are broadly supported by the research of Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Using a different data set of violent and non-violent strategies of groups seeking self-determination between 1960 and 2005, she concluded that non-violent resistance “is more effective than violence in obtaining concessions over self-determination”.

2020 journal article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow of Princeton University provides further evidence. Evaluating Black-led protests in the US between 1960 and 1972, he found that “non-violent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to non-violent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6-2.5%.”

In contrast, “Protester-initiated violence… helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward ‘social control’.” He concluded that violent protests likely caused a 1.5-7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans in the 1968 presidential election, tipping the close-run election for Richard Nixon.

Myth Two: non-violent struggle is passive

Hirsch’s framing above implies that ‘peaceful’ activists don’t break the law, aren’t willing to get killed, and aren’t revolutionaries. This ahistorical muddle feeds into another popular myth about non-violent struggle – that it is passive and avoids conflict.

Chenoweth sets out the reality in her new book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’: “Civil resistance is a method of conflict – an active, confrontational technique that people or movements use to assert political, social, economic or moral claims… In a very real sense, civil resistance constructively promotes conflict.”

Having created a list of 198 methods of non-violent action, Gene Sharp – sometimes called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” – described them as “non-violent weapons… the direct equivalent of military weapons”. Sharp saw non-violent struggle as a form of warfare, arguing that a non-violent campaign should have the same level of strategic vision, tactical smarts and coordination as a successful military campaign – one reason he sought out the influential military historian and strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart to discuss the topic in the late 1950s.

The often strategically brilliant US civil rights movement provides a good case study. Writing about the representation of Martin Luther King in the 2014 film ‘Selma’, Jessica Leber noted that the non-violent campaign he led in 1965 for African-American voting rights “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition”.

Myth Three: non-violent struggle isn’t a realistic option when confronting dictatorships

Writing last year in support of Palestinian armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, Louis Allday approvingly quoted the former resistance fighter and South African president, Nelson Mandela: “Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do, but if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

Like Allday, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, also believes non-violent struggle is not a realistic tactic in the face of violence. Speaking to Giles Fraser on the latter’s Confessions podcast, Andrews argued: “You have to be realistic. If you create a politics which can overturn Western capitalism, you are going to have to use violence. You are not going to have a choice because there will be violence meted out against you.”

In contrast, Chenoweth and Stephan noted: “The notion that non-violent action can be successful only if the adversary does not use violent repression is neither theoretically nor historically substantiated.” They argued that their findings are “true even under conditions in which most people would expect non-violent resistance to be futile, including situations in which dissent is typically met with harsh regime pressure”. Writing in 2003 about the misconceptions around non-violent resistance, the political scientist Kurt Schock argued that the evidence actually points to the opposite conclusion: “In fact non-violent action has been effective in brutally repressive contexts, and it has been ineffective in open democratic polities.”

There are many historical examples showing how largely non-violent movements played a central role in overthrowing repressive governments. The Shah of Iran in 1979, President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986 and President Bashir in Sudan in 2019 are just a few.

One reason non-violent struggle can overthrow brutal dictatorships is because, as Chenoweth and Stephan note, government repression is more likely to backfire against a non-violent campaign than it is against a violent campaign. This backfiring often leads to even greater mobilisation against the government, shifts among loyalists to the regime and sanctions against the violent offender.

What’s more, using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski, from the University of Connecticut, highlight a “counterintuitive paradox” – that those campaigns which remain non-violent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings. They concluded: “Non-violent uprisings are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.”

Myth Four: non-violence isn’t realistic in the Global South

Speaking on a Novara Media livestream last year, host Michael Walker explained that he supports a strategy of non-violence in countries like the US and UK, countries which “are liberal democracies where public opinion matters”. However, he went on to note “the limits of non-violence in Global South countries” such as Indonesia and Chile, where reformist, largely non-violent social democratic movements and governments were violently overthrown by the military and CIA.

Last year, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik wrote that in 2010, as she was travelling to Sudan, the country of her birth, at the beginning of what became the Arab Spring, “it was simply unfathomable that peaceful protests would overthrow an Arab dictator. It had never happened before.”

In reality, movements that have primarily relied on non-violent struggle have a long history in the Global South, including some successes in the Arab world.

Sudan itself provides two examples, with dictatorships toppled in 1964 and 1985 “through massive civil resistance campaigns”, according to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, an assessment confirmed by Dr Willow Berridge in his 2015 book ‘Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: the “Khartoum Springs” of 1964 and 1985’.

It is also worth noting that in the Novara Media livestream, Walker was referring to President Suharto’s murderous seizure of power in Indonesia in 1967, and Augusto Pinochet’s destruction of Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in 1973. But he failed to mention that non-violent campaigns played a central role in ousting Suharto in 1999 and Pinochet in 1988.

Though pretty much unknown in the West, there are many other examples of non-violent campaigns playing a central role in regime change in the Global South. In 1944 peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico. The same year, President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador was removed by mass civil resistance. Influenced by Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah led a popular, largely non-violent uprising to win independence for Ghana in 1957. Many more examples of the power of non-violent struggle are listed in Chenoweth’s book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’ – from the campaign for Zambia’s independence in 1964 to Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to popular democracy in the 1980s, and Malawians bringing down 30-year dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda in the early 1990s.

Is the data on non-violence reliable?

As a seminal text with a bold conclusion, Chenoweth and Stephan’s ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ has unsurprisingly received some criticism, including a number of academic responses.

All of the three critiques I have read argue the NAVCO database that Chenoweth and Stephan base their conclusions on is flawed.

In 2018 Mohammad Ali Kadivar and Neil Ketchley noted: “The coding of violence used in NAVCO derives primarily from the Correlates of War data set, which requires that all combatants be armed and for there to be at least one thousand battle deaths during the course of a campaign.” This definition, they added, “excises incidents of unarmed collective violence, which are otherwise coded as episodes of nonviolent protest.” Therefore, in addition to non-violent and violent campaigns, Kadivar and Ketchley presented a third category: “unarmed collective violence”, described as episodes which “inflict physical damage on persons and/or objects… without the use of firearms or explosives”.

With this expanded terminology, they concluded: “An event history analysis finds that riots are positively associated with political liberalisation in 103 non-democracies from 1990 to 2004,” and that, “In contrast to the assertions by non-violent resistance literature… acts of [unarmed collective] violence have not been detrimental to the cause of democratisation but may have even enhanced the chances of a democratising outcome.”

In a 2020 journal article in Critical Sociology, Alexei Anisin highlighted a number of campaigns that are missing from the NAVCO dataset. When these are included, he noted that from 1900-2006 non-violent campaigns were successful 48% of the time, unarmed violent campaigns 56% of the time, and violent campaigns 29% of the time.

Similarly, writing in the Comparative Politics journal in 2016, Fabrice Lehoucq noted that Chenoweth and Stephan omitted several campaigns that took place in Central America after 1900. Adding in these omitted examples he finds the success rate of non-violent and violent campaigns to be pretty much the same – 42% and 41%, respectively.

Chenoweth replied directly to Lehoucq’s criticism, noting the NAVCO database had been expanded and refined since 2011, and that “the aggregate statistics are virtually identical to those cited in ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’, with non-violent campaigns having a much higher success rate than violent campaigns.” Moreover, even if one were to agree that Lehoucq’s and Anisin’s analyses are accurate, then non-violent campaigns have close to the same success rate as “unarmed violence campaigns”, and close to or better success rates than “violent campaigns” – results which are very far away from the dismissive assertions of the UK Left.

It is also worth highlighting two key takeaways from ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ that I am not aware of being seriously challenged. First, non-violent campaigns are associated with far less death and destruction than violent campaigns – compare the orgy of violence in Syria and Libya after 2011 with what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, for example. Second, non-violent campaigns are more likely to lead to more democratic forms of governance than violent campaigns, a finding which is echoed by a 2005 Freedom House study.

As Chenoweth noted in her reply to Lehoucq: “‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ was not intended to be the final word on the matter, but it has helped to provoke systematic academic inquiry on a topic that has long been neglected or even derided in scholarly circles.”

Future research will refine and challenge our existing assumptions about non-violence and violence. Having read a little around the subject, I’m struck by how complicated and often contradictory campaigns and movements are in the real world – history rarely provides definite answers. In addition to actively reading about the topic, supporters of non-violent action should welcome sincere, evidence-based research and criticism. This is, after all, how one gains a greater understanding of how the world works and how to make it better – not by reflexively rejecting and misrepresenting a concept that has a long history of creating positive change.

Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama

Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13-14 November 2021

Having released a joint podcast earlier this year, US music superstar Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama have just published those conversations as a book – Renegades: Born In The USA.

The podcast was hugely popular, and no doubt the book will be a bestseller this Christmas and beyond.

As a Springsteen fan, I’m very uneasy about this partnership.

First, I was surprised Springsteen decided to do it. Since President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to appropriate his epic Born In The USA song in 1984, The Boss has been wary of intervening in party politics. As he explained in 2012, “I don’t write for one side of the street … normally I would prefer to stay on the sidelines.”  This general stance shifted in 2004, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and then Obama in 2008. However, it’s worth noting he told Channel 4 News he didn’t “have any plans” to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, just three weeks before he did exactly that. Beyond these endorsements, there is a sense Springsteen thinks very carefully before acting in the political arena, aware the more he campaigns the less power each intervention has.

Second, though both men are Democrats, arguably Springsteen is further to the left than Obama, and certainly the 2008-2016 Obama Administration.

Springsteen’s concern about the lives of Americans stretches back decades. In October 2016 he told Channel 4 News “The past 40 years, as the deindustrialisation and globalization has affected a lot of work lives, the issues that matter to a lot of hardworking folks haven’t been addressed… neither party has really addressed their concerns.” Note the timing of his criticism of all US political leaders – the tailend of Obama’s supposedly paradigm-shifting presidency.

Speaking about his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, his angry response to the financial crisis and its effects on Mainstreet USA, Springsteen told the Guardian “What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American and nobody has been held to account.” Of course that’s because Obama didn’t take any significant action to punish or reign in Wall Street. Meeting the US’s top thirteen financial executives in March 2009, according to Politico Obama told them “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” He continued: “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help… I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you… I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

During a 2012 press conference in Paris Springsteen praised Obama for keeping General Motors alive and killing Osama Bin Laden. However, though he noted Obama “got through healthcare” he said it was “not the public system I would have wanted… big business still has too much say in government and there has not been as many middle- or working-class voices in the administration as I expected.”  

This is an accurate analysis. Obama stuffed his administration with Wall Street insiders. Larry Summers, who as Deputy Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton played a key role in the deregulation of the finance sector that led to the 2008 financial crisis, was appointed Chief Economic Advisor, Timothy Geithner, a protégé Summers, was made Treasury Secretary, and Mark Patterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs investment bank, Geithner’s Chief of Staff.  

On healthcare, Springsteen is in agreement with Obama circa 2003, when as a state senator he supported “single payer” (universal public healthcare), though explained its introduction would require Democrats to take back the White House and Congress. By 2009 Obama was in the White House and the Democrats controlled Congress. However, the Obama Administration “worked to deliberately marginalize the idea” of single payer, according to Tim Higginbotham, writing for Jacobin in 2018. For example the White House held a summit on healthcare reform in March 2009 where “every voice has to be heard” and “every idea must be considered”, according to the president. But as always with Obama, it is best to attend to his deeds, not words. The idea of creating a single-payer programme had already been rejected, it seems. Asked at the start of the summit why Obama was against single payer, the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs answered “The President doesn’t believe that’s the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access.”

The Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) was eventually passed in 2010, expanding health insurance coverage to around 20 million people but it wasn’t the public option Springsteen favours. As Matt Taibbi explained in Rolling Stone in 2009: “Even though [Obama] and the Democrats enjoy a political monopoly and could have started from a very strong bargaining position, they chose instead to concede at least half the battle before it even began.”

While it is important not to exaggerate the differences but Springsteen and Obama, the former is probably best described as a New Deal Democrat, giving a voice to politically and economically dispossessed Americans on albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska. In contrast, in 2008 US writer Paul Street described the first African American president as a “relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and Empire-friendly centrist”. As US journalist John R. MacArthur said in 2013: “He never stops serving the ruling class.”

Listening to the eight-episode podcast series the lack of time given to hard politics is noticeable, with no serious discussion about Obama’s actual record in office.

Turning to US foreign policy, a survey of Springsteen’s albums suggests it’s a secondary concern for the New Jersey native. And largely only of interest when it negatively impacts Americans. His epic Born In The USA song, for example, refers to “Viet Cong” and the “yellow man” but is far more interested in the dark days facing the returning Vietnam veteran. During his recent Broadway show, he introduced the song as a “G.I. blues.” Ditto Youngstown from 1995, which mentions wars in Korea and Vietnam, and alludes to the forces of globalisation (“now sir you tell me the world’s changed”) but is primarily concerned with how industrial decline impacted the American worker. And I think his 2002 album The Rising – made in the wake of 9/11 – is a great record, but its lack of interest in what the US had been doing around the world – when the national political debate cried out for exactly that – was telling.

This disinterest (or should I say ignorance?) likely suits their friendship: Obama’s murderous foreign policy record wouldn’t be the best fit with the relaxed atmosphere of the podcast.

As Peter Bergen, then CNN’s national security analyst, wrote in 2014: Obama is “one of the most militarily aggressive American presidents in decades”, bombing seven Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Obama embraced drone warfare, conducting ten times more air strikes in the so-called war on terror than President Bush, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a Council on Foreign Relations blog, Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson note the Obama Administration dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.

Infamously, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” for air strikes, the New York Times explained in 2012. Citing several Obama Administration officials, the report noted this approach “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Tellingly, Springsteen recently told US talk show host Stephen Colbert that it was Obama who approached him about doing a podcast. It seems Obama, a master of dazzling, criticism-muzzling presentation and PR, still has an expert eye for engagements that will burnish and improve his image.

But what does Springsteen get out of it? Over his more than 50-year music career he has built up a perhaps unprecedented level of respect and trust with his audience. Why risk endangering this?

Personally, I’m all for more political interventions from artists – just not a close collaboration with a former Imperial Administrator who is up to his neck in the blood of thousands of men, women, children and babies from the Global South.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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.

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.