Tag Archives: Afghanistan

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

On 2 February 2017, Phil Shiner, the award-winning human rights lawyer who brought the UK government to account for the 2003 killing of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, was struck off by the solicitors disciplinary tribunal (SDT). In March 2017, Shiner, who was also ordered to pay interim costs of £250,000, was declared bankrupt, and was reported to be in poor health.

Shiner and his legal firm, by fighting for victims of the Iraq war, had made enemies of some of the most powerful forces in our society – the government, the military, and the right-wing press. The British military has been on the back foot since the deeply unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its international reputation damaged and recruitment dwindling.

It seems likely that these rattled centres of established power have been hounding Shiner – and have now seized on his professional demise – to drive home their own long-term agenda: to shift national politics back to unquestioning support for the armed forces and an interventionist foreign policy.

Shiner, 60, set up Midlands-based Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) 18 years earlier, gaining plaudits for the company’s environmental work, for winning a landmark battle for equal pay and pensions for Gurkhas, and for acting for veterans suffering from ‘Gulf War Syndrome’.

However, it was the Baha Mousa case which brought Shiner to the public’s attention – and led to him to coming ‘under concerted attack’, Bill Bowring, professor of law at Birkbeck at the University of London, told me. As a result of Shiner’s efforts, it was found that Mousa had died in British custody after sustaining 93 injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken nose.

In 2004, Shiner was named human rights lawyer of the year by the organisations Liberty and Justice for ‘his tremendous skill, tenacity and dedication to fighting for justice’. William A Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University, told me: ‘For many years, Phil Shiner was one of the most effective and eloquent voices against impunity for the violations of international law attributable to the government of the United Kingdom and its armed forces.’

Firing squad

It was after the Al-Sweady public inquiry was set up in 2009 that Shiner’s fortunes started to change. The inquiry investigated accusations by PIL and others that British soldiers had murdered and mistreated prisoners following the ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ in Iraq in 2004.

The inquiry concluded in 2014 that a number of prisoners had been abused, and that British troops had breached the Geneva Conventions. However, in relation to murder, the judge stated that the accusations against British soldiers were ‘wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.’

The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, denounced Shiner for leading the ‘shameful attempt’ to attack the British armed forces. He announced that the solicitors regulation authority (SRA) would be investigating.

Taking his cue from Fallon, in a December 2014 article titled ‘These human rights parasites should be tried for treason’, Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail suggested that those falsely accused ‘would be happy to form a firing squad’ to shoot Shiner.

This campaign against Shiner was widely criticised. ‘In sending a dossier to the Solicitors Regulatory [sic] Authority the government is not only trespassing on an important separation of powers’, a March 2015 Guardian editorial argued; ‘it is risking the same over-identification between lawyer and client’ that led to the murder of Irish human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989.

Indeed, Shiner was receiving multiple death threats. The UK law society and the council of bars and law societies of Europe wrote to the UK government to protest against its political attacks on Shiner.

In absentia

Announcing in February that Shiner had been struck off, the SDT upheld 22 charges of professional misconduct surrounding the Al-Sweady inquiry. This judgement was based on sources including emails, text messages, handwritten notes and witness statements. Shiner, pleading ill health and lack of funds, did not appear – and was not represented – at the trial. According to the SDT, the charges were ‘proven to the criminal standard of proof’.

The Legal Futures blog summarised the charges: ‘authorising unsolicited direct approaches to potential clients; paying prohibited referral fees to, and approving an improper fee-sharing arrangement with, a middleman, Mazin Younis, and later bribing him to change his evidence on how the clients had been identified; misleading the SRA [all these were admitted by Shiner, though he did not admit to the following]; failing to comply with his duty of candour to the court; failing to comply with his duty of full and frank disclosure to the Legal Services Commission; and making improper allegations at a press conference that the British Army had unlawfully killed, tortured and mistreated Iraqi civilians, including his clients.’

‘His misconduct has caused real distress to soldiers, their families and to the families of Iraqi people who thought their loved ones had been murdered or tortured’, stated Paul Philip, the SRA chief executive.

Other than Shiner, I cannot find any journalist or commentator who has questioned the SDT’s findings, though the Leigh Day law firm (see below) has claimed the SRA may have been pressured by the government to bring the case.

Impunity returns

Shiner’s professional disgrace has already had significant repercussions, with Professor Schabas noting it ‘has only emboldened those who proclaim impunity for war crimes and other violations of international law.’

In October 2016, the government announced plans to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights during future conflicts to block an ‘industry of vexatious claims’ against troops – a move criticised as dangerous by both Liberty and the Law Society.

In February 2017, it was announced that the Iraq historical allegations team (IHAT), the unit investigating claims of abuse by British forces in Iraq, would be shut down. Shiner’s downfall was ‘the beginning of the end for IHAT’, Fallon noted, ‘Now we are taking action to stop such abuse of our legal system from happening again.’

As part of this process, the royal military police are to discontinue investigating 90 percent of the 675 allegations of abuse from Afghanistan, according to the ministry of defence.

The government’s pursuit of Shiner seems to have been a deliberate attempt ‘to chill future claims’, according to the Guardian (3 February 2017).

Professor Bowring agrees: ‘Any lawyers who assist victims of UK government injustice can now expect similar treatment’ to Shiner. He adds: ‘The attacks on Shiner culminating in the latest findings, closure of Public Interest Lawyers, bankruptcy, and criminal prosecution are likely to be the fate of any campaigning lawyers.’

It was reported in April that the law firm Leigh Day is being prosecuted by the SRA because of its conduct during the Al-Sweady inquiry.

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
February-March 2017

Having published the critically-acclaimed After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies in 2012, with his new book Christopher Davidson has broadened his analysis out to the wider Middle East. For Davidson, a Reader in Politics at Durham University, ‘the primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamist extremist organizations’ such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State ‘must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and “advanced-capitalist” administrations’ – that is, the West.

The 670-page tome (including 120 pages of footnotes) begins with a fascinating survey of the US and UK’s long history of interference around the world, opposed to any independent and democratic forces which might endanger access to natural resources or reduce the West’s geo-political advantage. In the Middle East this often covert counter-revolutionary strategy meant backing monarchs, radical Islamists and other reactionary forces, with the US taking the reins from the fading British Empire in the early 1950s. Davidson’s frequent citing of British historian Mark Curtis and American dissident William Blum hint at his own politics, though Shadow Wars delivers more detail and expertise than either Curtis or Blum. For example, there is an absorbing section about the US and UK’s support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan. “The US deliberately chose to back the most dangerous elements of the insurgency”, Davidson notes. The danger of this Machiavellian strategy was obvious, with 9/11 the shocking blowback.

Likely to be provocative to many, Davidson highlights a number of uncomfortable facts in chapters titled ‘Enter the Islamic State – A Phantom Menace’ and, more controversially, ‘The Islamic State – A Strategic Asset’. There is a welcome mention of the formerly classified 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency report that notes the West wanted a ‘Salafist Principality’ to be established in Eastern Syria. Davidson also highlights how US-UK close allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Islamic State – confirmed by Hillary Clinton’s recently leaked emails that show the former US Secretary of State explaining the two Gulf monarchies are providing ‘clandestine financial and logistic support’ to the Islamic State ‘and other radical Sunni groups in the region’. So much for the Clash of Civilizations.

An accessible, though scholarly, tour de force, Shadow Wars is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the West’s ongoing and deadly interventions in the Middle East.

Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East is published by Oneworld Publications, priced £25.

*An edited version of this review appears in Red Pepper

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin

Spotlight on Saudi: interview with Medea Benjamin
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2016-January 2017

Having become one of the most prominent US anti-war activists protesting against the US-led ‘war on terror’, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group CODEPINK, has now turned her attention to her nation’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

‘I’ve been doing a lot of work around the Middle East conflicts since the 9/11 attacks’, Benjamin, 64, tells me when we met in London during her recent speaking tour of Europe. ‘I realised as the years went by that there was this elephant in the room and it was kind of crazy that the anti-war movement, at least in the United States, was not doing anything on Saudi Arabia’, she says. ‘I just thought how ironic it is that the US is spending at this point trillions of dollars fighting a “war on terrorism”, and yet is arming the country that is the most responsible for the spread of terrorism.’

The outcome is Benjamin’s new book Kingdom of The Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, which charts the history of US ties to the absolute monarchy. A key moment was the 1945 meeting between US president Franklin D Roosevelt and Saudi king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud to agree US access to the kingdom’s vast oil supplies in return for military support. Since then, ‘one by one, US presidents promised to keep Saudi Islamist theocracy in power’, Benjamin notes in the book.

Buying silence

‘Oil is the foundation of the relationship, but it’s become much more complicated today’, she says, highlighting the ‘mindboggling’ $110bn of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration. In addition, she notes, the Saudis ‘have invested in the US economy buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of US treasury bonds, and investing in Wall Street, investing in real estate’ and have ‘bought silence or complicity by giving millions of dollars to US universities and think-tanks and paid lobbyists’.

‘There is so much intertwining of this relationship that to start peeling away the layers is very important to do’, she believes.

Fearful of growing Iranian influence following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and buoyed by high oil prices, Saudi Arabia has spent huge sums of money exporting Wahhabism, their extremist version of Islam, across the Middle East. Madrassas (religious schools) and mosques were built and imams and teachers brought to the kingdom to be indoctrinated. ‘It has become such a potent mix and has corrupted the minds of a lot of young people who live in poor countries, who don’t have job opportunities, who are looking for some kind of outlet, something to believe in.’

As part of this mission, the Saudis – collaborating with the US central intelligence agency (CIA) – funnelled weapons to the armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, strengthening the most extreme jihadis, out of which came the Taliban and al-Qa’eda.

Benjamin personally experienced the consequences of this policy after the October 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan. ‘I was at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and I was told there was a rally against the Western invasion of Afghanistan’, she notes. ‘We were two Western women and when we got there we were attacked by the guys there and we had to get out for our lives because they were after us. I had never been in such a situation. I had always been able to talk to people and say: “Hey, I’m an anti-war activist in the US, I don’t like the invasion either.” And people said: “No, you can’t do that here because these are the Saudi-funded madrassas and they are really taught to hate people from the West.”’

The CIA’s role in arming the jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s was a covert operation – a cornerstone of the US-Saudi relationship, Benjamin says. ‘When the CIA has wanted to do illegal activities around the world and doesn’t want to go to the US congress, because they want these to be unseen and unheard by the American people, they go to the Saudis to get the funding.’

According to a January 2016 New York Times article, the CIA and Saudi Arabia continue to work closely together, arming the insurgency in Syria since 2013. ‘The US is selling all these weapons to Saudi Arabia; where do these weapons end up?’, she asks. ‘They are being channelled into groups that the Saudis are supporting in Syria, including the al-Qa’eda affiliate in Syria’.

Divest Saudi money

Turning to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, Benjamin quotes the Yemen Data Project, noting that one-third of Saudi airstrikes have struck civilian sites, including hospitals, schools, markets and weddings. ‘They are getting munitions from the West, they are getting the logistical support. The US is even refuelling their planes in the air’, she explains. With the Saudis unable to continue their air campaign without US and UK support, Benjamin believes the peace movements in the US and UK have a great opportunity to exert pressure on the kingdom. How? ‘The number one thing is weapons. Look and see who is providing the weapons, what weapons are they providing, starting to do protests at the headquarters and the production facilities. We are even looking to see where the shipments are going out of and seeing if we could block the shipments.’

She also suggests ‘shaming the political figures who are supporting the weapons sales… doing a divestment campaign to get universities and pension funds to take their money out of the weapons industries that are profiting from Saudi sales’ and ‘looking at the places that received Saudi money, like universities, and asking them to renounce taking Saudi money.’

During our interview in September, Benjamin mistakenly predicted a Hillary Clinton victory in the US presidential election. However, though she says Donald Trump in the White House would be ‘a wild card’, she expects ‘there will be a continuity of the present relationship’ between the US and Saudi Arabia. ‘There is a certain momentum that the military-industrial complex keeps in motion no matter who is in the White House… it’s bigger than one individual.’ She is also hopeful there will ‘be much more of a possibility of building up an anti-war movement like we had under the Bush years’. Presuming a president Clinton, she argued that nobody had any illusions about her ‘being a peace candidate or a peace president, so I don’t think it is going to be so hard to get people to protest her policies.’ This, of course, applies even more so to Trump.

Medea Benjamin is the author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, OR Books 2016, 246pp, £13.

 

The Granai massacre: interview with Guy Smallman

The Granai massacre: interview with Guy Smallman
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
August 2009

On 4 May 2009 the US bombed the village of Granai in Farah Province, Afghanistan killing 140 civilians according to the Afghanistan Government, including approximately 90 children. It was the single largest loss of life caused by US/NATO forces since the 2001 invasion. President Hamid Karzai denounced the air strikes as “unjustifiable and unacceptable”, hundreds of people demonstrated in Kabul, and in Farah City there was a riot outside the governor’s office and traders closed their shops in protest.

The US military initially claimed the civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban fighters. These baseless assertions were shown to be false by eyewitness accounts, and quickly withdrawn. The US military has since published a 13-page report, estimating that 20-30 civilians died in the bombing along with 60-65 Taliban fighters. The investigation conceded errors had been made in the military operation, but did not call anybody to account or apportion blame, and, importantly, did not “recommend the curtailment of close air support.”

In contrast to the findings of the US military’s investigation is the testimony of British photojournalist Guy Smallman, the only western journalist to visit the site of the air strikes. Back in London after visiting Granai in late May, Smallman – an experienced journalist who has previously reported from Iraq, Lebanon and the social movements in Bolivia and the factory occupations in Argentina – spoke to me about the events of 4 May.

With Granai and the surrounding area in western Afghanistan “pretty much controlled by the Taliban” the 37-year old photographer explains that it was “very risky” for him to photograph the bomb sites. “I was taken there by a couple of local people at a certain time when they thought the Taliban were less likely to be around”, he says. “I was dressed as a local and my face was covered and I was wearing sunglasses. I was told to take the photos and keep my mouth shut. My translator did all the talking.”

By combining the evidence he gathered on his trip to the village (he photographed the bomb sites and cemetery and spoke to several locals) with an indepth interview with a village elder, media reports and the US military investigation, Smallman has built up a detailed picture of what happened in Granai on 4 May.

Most accounts of the bombing start with the battle between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government forces that took place “about three kilometres from the village” along the main road all afternoon, Smallman says. Pinned down by the Taliban the Afghan government troops called for US assistance, and ground troops and close air support were dispatched. Early news accounts and the US military reported that fighting had taken place in Granai with the Taliban firing from civilian compounds. Smallman says this is “absolute bullshit” – the villagers he spoke to insisted the Taliban never entered the village. “We walked the length and breadth of that village… we never saw a single bullet hole or single shell casing anywhere.”

The bombing – carried out by a B-1B bomber – started at least an hour after the end of the fighting. “From the villagers’ point of view they didn’t have a clue what was going on”, says Smallman. “As far as they were concerned there was no reason for their village to be bombed.” He notes there were two concentrations of air strikes in Granai, the first outside a mosque where a crowd had gathered after evening prayers. “You could see that trees were snapped in two by the bombs, so you can only imagine what happened to the people there”, he says about photographing the bomb site.

Understandably this air strike produced “blind panic” among the villagers, with the elderly, women and children evacuated to a compound at the far end of the settlement. “A single 2000lb bomb was then dropped in to the middle of them”, reports Smallman. “That was where there was the biggest loss of life. That is why the number of children killed was so high. A 2000lb bomb vaporises literally everything at its epicentre”. During his visit to Granai, Smallman says he was saddened to see a mass grave in the cemetery with the remains of 54 people. “The reason they are buried together – which is very out of keeping with Muslim tradition – was because they were all in pieces, and it was impossible to tell who was who.”

Smallman is keen to highlight the absurdity of the US investigation’s claim that the civilians targeted were “moving in a tactical manner – definitively and rapidly in evenly spaced intervals across difficult terrain” in the dark. “This is bullshit – the Taliban are not renowned for their marching or drilling. They are guerrilla fighters.” He also argues the US estimate of the number of civilian dead is “way off the mark”. He agrees the exact number will never be known, but believes the best estimate to be 140 civilian deaths – a figure supported by the Afghan Government, the Red Cross and the villagers themselves. Smallman does not believe the US military deliberately targetted civilians in Granai – “they’ve got nothing to gain from this and everything to lose” – but he contends it should be investigated as a war crime. “What has happened so far is the US military has investigated itself, and found itself not guilty.”

Smallman points out the US/NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan are caught in a Catch-22. “If they take away the air support then they would immediately level the playing field between their troops and a very determined enemy fighting on their own turf. The NATO casualty rate would soar.” However, if they continue using air strikes he believes “civilian casualties are absolutely inevitable” and “every time an innocent dies it brings money and recruits to the Taliban.”

So what prospects does Smallman see for Afghanistan‘s future? “Would things be any better if the troops were pulled out?” he asks rhetorically. “It is hard to imagine that things could be any worse. Certainly the occupation is not working – it is a magnet for every jihadist headcase on the planet.”

By documenting the attacks on Granai on 4 May, Smallman has done a great service for those who wish to know the truth about the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan. However, due to the danger to himself and his contacts in Afghanistan, he says he is unlikely to return to Afghanistan this year. “I don’t particularly want to push my luck – I‘ve been there three times already”, he says. “It is the maddest place I’ve ever been too, bar none.” The question of safety is hugely important because, as Smallman explains, if independent journalists can not gain access, then the US military is better able to control the information flowing from the battlefield. “How many more massacres have gone completely uninvestigated because the slaughter has been off-limits to the press?”

Understanding the Taliban insurgency: interview with Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Understanding the Taliban insurgency: interview with Dr Antonio Giustozzi
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2009

In the introduction of his new book Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field, Dr Antonio Giustozzi argues the public debate surrounding Afghanistan has been “dominated by superficial or plainly wrong assumptions.”

In an attempt to gain a better understanding of those violently resisting British and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, I recently spoke with Giustozzi at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he works as a research fellow in the Crisis States Research Centre.

Since 2003 the 43-year old Italian academic has visited Afghanistan about three times a year every year, including twelve months working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. This extensive fieldwork informed his 2007 book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan and his new study – two academic volumes that have made him the foremost expert on the Taliban working in the UK today.

Giustozzi uses the term “neo-Taliban” or “new-Taliban” to refer to the Taliban who has been operating in Afghanistan since the US/NATO invasion and occupation in October 2001. “It has the same leadership”, he notes, but it is now “an insurgent force – essentially an underground operation.”

In southern Afghanistan, an area dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban and the insurgency are essentially synonymous, he says. From 2001 to 2006, he explains the Taliban largely consisted of small groups of young, hardcore fighters based in remote, rural areas. “By and large there was a certain correspondence between clerical influence and the spread of the Taliban, for the obvious reason that during the Taliban government they were in power”, he says. “The judiciary was totally clericalised. Education was largely clerical. All the governors and ministers were Mullahs.” In areas where state education has been traditionally weak, such as the south, Giustozzi notes “the Taliban and clergy have been proportionally stronger.”

He estimates that between 10-15 percent of Afghans are linked to the clergy directly. “On top of this there are the people who are not Mullahs themselves but are very religious and likely to be influenced by the clergy”, he adds.

From this core base, the Taliban were able to gain additional support from marginalised people dissatisfied with or opposed to the Government presence in their community, and through a gradual process of Talibanisation. “If the Taliban had been in a community a long time, the Taliban fighters would marry local girls, and the Taliban themselves would actively eliminate elders they didn’t trust”.

However, Giustozzi sees the large-scale NATO deployment to the south in 2006 (the British to Helmand, the Canadians to Kandahar and the Dutch and Australians to Oruzgan) as “a turning point” in the conflict.

“Up to 2006 Helmand was not a stronghold of the Taliban”, he notes. “They were not able to fight openly. Then from 2006 there was a major upsurge in resistance against the British.” This resistance “was crushed” by the British forces, with thousands of Taliban fighters dying. However, Giustozzi says if you look at the fighting from the Taliban’s perspective “it gave an impression, not only in Helmand but throughout the country, of popular mobilisation, a people’s war against the British. Whole communities rising up.” In addition the large number of Taliban casualties meant whole “communities got disrupted and destroyed and people – particularly young men – were on the loose. These people become recruitable by the Taliban as core fighters.”

Similarly Giustozzi believes what has become known as The Battle of Pashmul was another example of what he calls the ‘Tet Offensive effect’ – when a superior military force is successful on the battlefield, but loses the propaganda war. Engaging a large Taliban force in the vineyards just outside Kandahar in summer 2006, the newly-arrived Canadian troops inflicted a heavy defeat on the Taliban. But, as Giustozzi explains, “in terms of perceptions it showed the Taliban were able to fight against NATO with all its power on open ground near Kandahar, and showed they were no longer a marginal movement but a big force to be reckoned with.” Just like the British experience in Helmand, this propaganda success “started to have a big effect in terms of recruitment, and opened new constituencies to Taliban influence”, he says.

Regarding President Obama ordering of an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, Giustozzi argues the “numbers don’t mean much.”

“It depends how they use the troops”, he says. “If the troops stay in the barracks it won’t have any effect.” However, if the US soldiers engage the Taliban – and the fighting is “indecisive, protracted and creates destruction” – he contends this is likely to have “a destabilising impact, certainly at the beginning. Also it produces extremists.”

Giustozzi’s description of growing support for the Taliban and his belief that between 60,000 and 70,000 Afghans are now actively involved in the insurgency jars uneasily with the dominant narrative in the West of the Taliban being very unpopular. In particular I ask him about the 2009 BBC/ABC opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan that puts support for the Taliban at around 9 percent and support for the Government at 65 percent.

“The 9 percent is an underestimate”, he replies. Having studied the methodology of previous BBC/ABC polls, he explains it is very unlikely the polling staff travelled to the rural areas in the south (“where the Taliban are”), instead focusing on the cities and provincial centres. “The sampling is very, very biased.. there are very few unemployed people, whereas even the Government says unemployment is 40 percent. In the poll 5 percent were police and army, whereas in Afghanistan the actual percentage of the population in the army and police is 0.2 percent. 14 percent were managers and directors. There were no Mullahs.” If the sampling was balanced, he estimates the Taliban would get around 15 percent support nationwide, and between 30-40 percent support in the south.

Interestingly, Giustozzi mentions that he has seen polls conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which use different methodologies and get very different results – much higher support for the Taliban and much lower support for the Government. “In ISAF polls in early 2009 support for [Afghan President] Karzai was 4 percent”, he reports. “They don’t release them, of course, because they show a completely different picture.”

After spending more than an hour speaking to Giustozzi, I certainly learned a lot, but couldn’t tell you what he personally thinks about the war in Afghanistan. Such is the nature of academic analysis, with its emphasis on objective and detached thinking, I suppose. Throughout the interview he continually highlights the contradictory nature of Afghanistan and the current war, and rarely provides blanket answers. Instead he chooses to highlight the importance of local factors, such as power struggles and individual self-interest, and bureaucratic explanations. Moreover, I am happy to concede this article has significantly simplified and shortened his often complex arguments.

However, there is no doubt Giustozzi’s careful and considered analysis – best encountered in his two academic books – is an essential stop for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the continuing British involvement in Afghanistan.

Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field is published by C Hurst & Co, priced £16.99.

The Obama Illusion

The Obama Illusion
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
November 2008

Those wishing to keep a level head should certainly keep away from the mainstream media. Jonathan Freedland, writing about Barack Obama’s July speech in Berlin for the UK’s most progressive national newspaper the Guardian, breathlessly reported that the Democratic US presidential nominee “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water.”

Although he doesn’t reference the second coming, the liberal American journalist Jann Wenner’s description of the Great Black Hope is no less gushing: “There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline…. Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama challenges America to rise up, to do what so many of us long to do: to summon ‘the better angels of our nature’.”

The propensity of some journalists to bow to the powerful clearly knows no bounds. But what lies behind the slogans, soundbites and rhetoric presented to us by Obama’s slick PR machine and the wilfully naïve media?

Contrary to the widespread myth surrounding his candidacy, from his public statements there is very little to suggest Obama will make significant changes to US foreign policy – the topic of his Berlin speech and the issue that most affects the rest of the world.

Like George Bush, Obama views the world in Manichean terms and believes the United States has a divine right to intervene anywhere in the world. “We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good”, he proclaimed in his first major foreign policy speech in April 20a07. “We must lead by building a 21st century military…. I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.” That’s right folks, liberal America’s poster boy wants to increase the size of the US military, whose 2008 budget is already a staggering $711 billion – a figure greater than the budget of the next 45 highest spending countries in the world combined.

It is important to remember Obama’s opposition to the foreign policy of the Bush administration has largely been on tactics grounds – cost and failure – rather than principled moral objections.

For example, Obama believes the US invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq is a “strategic error”, rather than an illegal act, as described by ex-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, or the “supreme international crime,” as the Nuremberg Tribunal determined in 1946.

Indeed, for a man who prides himself on being a “citizen of the world”, Obama is strangely silent about the suffering of other nations under the boot of his own. How many times has he mentioned the more than one million Iraqi people who have died because of the invasion, according to UK polling company Opinion Research Business?

His headline-grabbing pledge to withdraw from Iraq is actually nothing of the sort. If you read the small print you will find Obama has only promised to withdraw combat troops, which only comprise about a third of US forces currently in Iraq and Kuwait. Earlier this year Robert Kahl, Obama’s foreign policy coordinator on Iraq, recommended keeping between 60,000 and 80,000 troops in Iraq until at least 2010 to play an “overwatch role” – supposedly to conduct “counter-terrorism” operations, train Iraqi government security forces and protect US facilities and citizens.

By reducing US troop levels in Iraq, Obama hopes to transfer 10,000 extra troops to escalate the increasingly bloody “good war” in Afghanistan, where president Bush “responded properly,” he noted. Indeed, by signing an order in July authorising illegal US military ground incursions in to neighbouring Pakistan, the incumbent US president seemed to be paying tribute to the senator from Illinois, who had stated his support for the exact same policy a year before.

“I continue to believe that we’re under-resourced in Afghanistan… the real centre for terrorist activity that we have to deal with and deal with aggressively”, said Obama in the summer.

Compare this militaristic posturing to this month’s admission by the British military’s top brass that the war can not be won militarily, and the testimony of the current British ambassador to Afghanistan, who reportedly said the US/NATO presence is “part of the problem, not the solution” and that the American strategy was “destined to fail.”

On Iran, Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in June, “there is no greater threat to Israel – or the peace and stability of the region – than Iran.”

Interviewed by Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly last month about the so-called nuclear ambitions of the Iranian government, Obama stated he “would never take a military option off the table”.

US dissident Noam Chomsky perceptively points out that by constantly threatening Iran with military strikes, Obama is brazenly violating the UN Charter, and also going against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans, with 75% favouring building better relations with Iran, according to a recent Program on International Policy Attitudes poll.

Furthermore, by telling a Cuban-American audience in 2007 that he would continue the barbaric 47-year embargo on Cuba because “it is an important inducement for change,” Obama adopted a view that is not only opposed by the majority of Americans (who broadly support ending the embargo), but also runs counter to global public opinion, with the UN General Assembly last year voting 184 to four in favour of ending the blockade .

Obama’s hawkish pronouncements shouldn’t really be surprising when you consider most of the United States’ wars in the modern era have been initiated by Democratic presidents – Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam, Carter in Afghanistan and Clinton in Somalia, Kosovo and Iraq in 1998.

As the only realistic alternative is the Republican John McCain, progressives in the United States and around the world will undoubtedly by hoping for a Obama victory on 4 November.

However, we should not be under any illusions about what that really means. Those opposed to aggressive western military interventions abroad and corporate-led globalisation, and who are fearful of climate change and interested in promoting fair trade and human rights, will have to continue to fight for these causes – regardless of whether the next president of the United States is John McCain or Barack Obama.

 

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?
by Ian Sinclair
29 August 2016

In his now infamous July 2016 blog ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’, Guardian columnist Owen Jones argued Corbyn’s policies are pretty much the same as those of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party at the time of the May 2015 general election. “It seems as though Ed Miliband presented his policies as less left-wing than they actually were, and now the current leadership presents them as more left-wing than they actually are”, Jones noted. “It’s presentation, style and sentiment that seem to differ most.”

This is a bold claim made by a very influential left-wing commentator. Therefore it is worth seriously considering the claim. With this in mind, I sketch out some key policy differences between Corbyn and Miliband below.

Economy

On the economy, Jones argues though “the Labour leadership now says it’s anti-austerity”, the fiscal rule accepted by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell means his economic policy is similar to that of ex-Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, “including a focus on deficit reduction”. James Meadway, the head of policy for Corbyn’s leadership campaign and former chief economist at the New Economics Foundation, notes Jones “is wrong to claim that John McDonnell is offering Ed Balls’ fiscal policy. He is absolutely not. He is opposed to cuts.” During the 2015 general election campaign Ed Balls “offered up cuts”, Corbyn explained to Jones before Jones wrote his blog. “To be clear, Labour is now an anti-austerity party opposed to the rundown and break-up of our public services”, notes Meadway.

Miliband’s Labour stated it “support[s] the principles behind the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Treaty (TTIP)”, though was concerned about a number of issues including “the impact on public services and the Investor to State Dispute Settlement Mechanism”. Miliband’s Labour pledged to “ensure the NHS is protected from the TTIP treaty.” Commenting on Miliband’s position, The Guardian’s Political Correspondent Rowena Mason noted TTIP is “a key issue for many voters on the left” and “it does not look like this will satisfy those who view TTIP as a deal for big corporations and want it to be abandoned entirely.” Corbyn opposes TTIP outright.

NHS

Jones argues Labour under Corbyn “would reverse NHS privatisation: again, Labour at the last election committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act and regretted the extent of NHS private sector involvement under New Labour.” However, though Labour’s 2015 election manifesto promised to repeal the Coalition Government’s NHS privatisation plans, it also saw a role for existing private firms in the NHS because it pledged to cap profits of private firms on NHS contracts. The manifesto had nothing to say about the hospitals built under the Private Finance Initiative policy instituted by Tony Blair’s Government. Earlier this month Corbyn confirmed a Labour Government led by him would cancel PFI contracts.

Education

Jones doesn’t mention any education policies. Miliband promised to reduce university tuition fees to £6,000 per year. The 2015 Labour manifesto did not mention the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) scrapped by the Coalition Government. Corbyn has promised to abolish tuition fees completely, reintroduce student maintenance grants and reinstate the EMA.

Transport

Jones says Corbyn’s plans to renationalise the railways “beefs up Labour’s pledge under Miliband’s leadership.” In actual fact the 2015 Labour manifesto only promised to “reform our transport system in order to provide more public control and put the public interest first.” If all this seems a little vague that’s because it is: “We will review the franchising process as a priority to put in place a new system… a new National Rail body will oversee and plan for the railways and give rail users a greater say in how trains operate. We will legislate so that a public sector operator is allowed to take on lines and challenge the private train operating companies on a level playing field.” This is not renationalisation.

Royal Mail

Jones doesn’t mention the Royal Mail. Miliband’s Labour promised to “safeguard the public interest in the [now privatised] Royal Mail, supporting the creation of a staff-led trust for the employee share, and keeping the remaining 30 per cent in public ownership.” In contrast, Corbyn proposes to renationalise the Royal Mail.

Welfare

Jones doesn’t mention welfare policy. Corbyn explained to Jones before his blog was published that Miliband’s Labour used “appalling language on the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], on welfare systems”. Corbyn is presumably referring to comments made by Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary under Miliband, about how “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work… Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.” When she was first appointed by Miliband in 2013, Reeves said Labour would be tougher than the Tories on benefits. Similarly, a briefing from Labour’s welfare spokesman under Miliband led to the Daily Mail headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against “evil” of benefits scroungers’. Corbyn voted against the Welfare Bill in July 2015 and is strongly opposed to benefits cuts.

Immigration

Jones doesn’t mention anything to do with immigration. During the 2015 General Election campaign Labour produced their UKIP-pandering ‘controls on immigration’ mugs, while Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives,” The Guardian noted at the time. Corbyn has long been a defender of migrant rights.

Trident

Jones doesn’t mention Trident. Labour under Miliband supported the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Corbyn opposes the UK owning or using Weapons of Mass Destruction and is attempting to change Labour Party policy on this.

Foreign Policy

Jones asserts “Corbyn opposed the Iraq war; so did Miliband. The Labour leadership’s policy was to vote against the bombing of Syria, as it was under Miliband.” This is a particularly disingenuous argument from Jones. First, because he chooses to omit several significant foreign policy votes and positions – the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, the 2014 vote on the UK bombing Islamic State in Iraq and the British occupation of Afghanistan. All were supported by Miliband and opposed by Corbyn.

Second, Jones’s summary of Miliband’s position on Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013 (both opposed by Corbyn) is incomplete at best. In 2003 Miliband was teaching in the United States. Apparently he contacted people, including Gordon Brown, to try to persuade them to oppose the war. Speaking at the Labour leader hustings in 2010 Ed Balls labelled Miliband’s claim to be anti-war as “ridiculous” noting that Miliband “did not tell people” he was against the war. Even if Miliband privately lobbied Labour politicians, this misses a key point, as I’ve argued previously:

“There were numerous opportunities for Miliband to make a public stand against the impending war – which arguably would have had a far greater impact than his supposed behind the scenes advice – including speaking at the biggest protest in British history. That Miliband, at best, opposed the war in private strongly suggests to me that he was thinking more about his future political career than the welfare of Iraqis or the British soldiers being sent to fight in Iraq.”

In contrast, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement, speaking at hundreds of anti-war meetings and rallies. On the Syria vote, the parliamentary record shows the Labour motion tabled by Miliband was very similar to the defeated Government motion, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the more experienced foreign affairs experts in the Commons. “I can find no difference of substance or principle anywhere in the two offerings”, explained Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, ex-Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind noted “virtually all” of Labour’s list of requirements for supporting military action “appear in the Government’s own motion.” In addition, Miliband stated that he would support military action against Syria without a United Nations Security Council Resolution – essentially agreeing with the Government again.

Jones versus reality

After considering the information above, one can only argue Corbyn’s policies are the same as the austerity-lite policies of Labour under Miliband if one chooses to ignore large swathes of policy areas or is ignorant of Corbyn’s and Miliband’s actual policy positions. That the analysis of Jones – a huge and influential left-wing voice in the mainstream media – is so pitiful and shallow is extremely concerning, and very damning, indeed.