Tag Archives: Jane Kinninmont

Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?

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

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

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

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

So what does the historical record show?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 July 2017

In May 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published a report titled The Middle East: Time for New Realism. The group who compiled the report include ex-foreign policy advisers to William Hague and Gordon Brown, former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Reid and Lord Hannay, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations from 1990-95.

Some people on the left are dismissive of establishment sources. This is a shame because they can be very useful, so are worth reading carefully if one has the time. For example, the 116-page report contains original testimony from high level policymakers, giving a rare insight into elite thinking. US dissident Noam Chomsky has a similar view of the business press, arguing “it is useful to read what the ruling class tells its people… they tend to be more honest, because they are talking to people they don’t have to worry about, and to people who need to know the truth so that they can go out and make decisions”. Select committees also attract some of the best experts on the topic under consideration. As a consequence, reports such as this are considered trustworthy and credible by many, especially the establishment itself, so are useful to cite to back up one’s argument in any debate.

The report starts by noting “The UK has critical interests in the region, both economic and security”. With the stability of the oil and gas markets having a direct impact on global economic prosperity, it explains “the interest for the UK in Middle East energy remains in securing stability of global oil supplies through the Gulf and securing its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies.” Stewart Williams, Vice-President of the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, explains that over half of the UK’s gas is now imported, of which around a third comes from Qatar.

The region’s energy resources have long been a central geopolitical interest of the West, with the US State Department noting at the end of the Second World War that Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies were “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“British commercial interests in the region are sizeable”, the report continues, noting trade in goods and services between the UK and the Middle East amounts to approximately £18.9 billion, with the Gulf states accounting for around £16 billion of this. “Above all, the Middle East dominates the UK defence export market and is the largest regional importer of British defence services and equipment”, the select committee says.

Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), notes these security and commercial interests “draw us towards more engagement” with the region.  This euphemistic description is clarified later in the report when Hayder al-Khoei, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains the UK “gives almost unconditional support” to its Gulf Arab allies. And we have no bigger Gulf Arab ally than the theocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia, who the UK has been supporting in its bombing of Yemen “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, according to the UK foreign secretary in 2015. The report notes that in January 2016 a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen estimated that 60 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, with “air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”, including refugee camps, weddings, residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets and food storage warehouses.

“The UN has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a famine, with children paying the heaviest price”, the report notes. As of 6 July 1,600 Yemenis had died from cholera, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Invited to give evidence to the select committee, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain maintains the UK’s support for the Saudi-led bombing has “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. Moreover, the report goes on to note “The conflict in Yemen has jeopardised UK development work in the region”, with the Department for International Development forced to suspend its development programme in the country.

Discussing broader developments since the 2011 uprisings, Dr Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, notes that the UK has supported counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain. The UK’s “supposed support of democracy… would be strongly challenged by many people” in the region, he argues. Antoun Issa from the Middle East Institute builds on Davidson’s testimony, explaining that a “large source of anti-Americanism (and anti-UK sentiment as an extension) stems from a region-wide perception that Western powers underwrite the regional autocratic order”.

Turning to the future, the selection committee believe that post-Brexit the UK government will seek “to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states” with “the UK’s dependence on arms exports… likely to increase”. Worryingly, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House think-tank, explains that Gulf nations will see that the “UK needs new friends or renewed relationships with old friends” and consider British policy to be “more malleable and susceptible to influence”.

It gets worse. In a section titled Dilemma of Democracy Promotion the report argues “In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region.” There is that word again – “stability”. In a recently compiled list of Common Terms Used by the Elite to Mislead the Public British historian Mark Curtis argues the actual meaning of “stability” is “repression by Western-backed governments.” The report shows that Curtis is right on the money, when it explains the UK’s support for “the stability offered by hereditary family rulers” in the Gulf means it has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

The dire ramifications of this shameful policy are inadvertently made clear by Neil Crompton from the FCO. The “underlying causes” of the Arab spring, including “the sense of economic disempowerment” among young people “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region”, he notes. So, contrary to the mainstream media’s framing of the West being interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East, a careful reading of the House of Lords report highlights a far more uncomfortable reality: that UK’s foreign policy plays a role in stifling popular movements that are trying to throw off the shackles of their authoritarian and unelected rulers.

The red herring of post-war planning in Iraq

The red herring of post-war planning in Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
23 June 2016

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions”, the American novelist Thomas Pynchon once wrote, “they don’t have to worry about answers.”

When it comes to the US and UK’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent occupation, the British establishment have conveniently and repeatedly asked the wrong questions. Quoting a senior, unnamed source, last month the Times newspaper reported Tony Blair, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove “will face serious ‘damage to their reputations’ from the Chilcot report into the Iraq War, which has delivered an ‘absolutely brutal’ verdict on the mismanagement of the occupation.” According to the Times “the section [of the Inquiry’s report] on the occupation will be longer than that on the build-up to” the invasion, with the Times reporter blogging that the section on the occupation “is where some of the most damning verdicts are drawn.”

As they have done with every previous public utterance he has made in recent years, the Guardian happily provided Blair with a platform in June to pre-empt the Inquiry’s findings – and shift the focus to the occupation and away from the most damaging and dangerous areas for the former prime minister. According to Guardian Blair will “argue the ultimate cause of the long-term bloodshed in Iraq was the scale of external intervention in the country by Iran and al-Qaida.” (Come on, stop laughing, this is serious). He will also “accept that the planning for the aftermath of the war was inadequate” and admit “the west did not foresee the degree to which complex tribal, religious and sectarian tensions would be uncorked” by overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Let’s be clear: the US-UK military occupation of Iraq – full of massive amounts of deadly violence dished out by the US and UK armed forces, torture and destructive divide and rule tactics – was a catastrophe for the people of Iraq. And it was hugely unpopular, with a secret Ministry of Defence 2005 poll of Iraqis finding 82 per cent “strongly opposed” the presence of coalition troops, and 45 per cent saying attacks against US and UK forces were justified. However, it is a complete red herring to suggest better planning is the crux of the issue. “The problem wasn’t the way that this was implemented, the problem was that we were there at all”, argued Rory Stewart, who served as the Coalition Provisional Authority Deputy Governorate Co-Ordinator in Maysan province In Iraq, in 2013:

“All these people who think ‘If only we had done this, if only if we hadn’t de-Ba’athified, if only we hadn’t abolished the army’ misunderstand the fundamental tragedy of that encounter between the international community and Iraqis… it wasn’t the detailed, tactical decisions that were made, it was the overall fact of our presence. The problem was so deep that if we hadn’t made those mistakes we would have made other mistakes. It was a wrecked intervention from the beginning, from the very moment we arrived on the ground.”

Moreover, the assumption behind the establishment’s fretting over post-war planning is that if the occupation had gone smoothly then everything would have been OK. In reality, it would not have changed the fact that the US and UK aggressively invaded an oil rich nation in contravention of international law, based on pack deceptions. It was a “crime of aggression” – as explained by the chief legal adviser at the Foreign Office at the time – whether the occupation was successful or not. Bluntly, if I plan and execute a robbery, whether it goes ‘smoothly’ with minimal violence and resistance or is a complete mess is immaterial – it’s still a crime.

The limited, self-serving debate surrounding post-war planning in Iraq echoes the liberal media’s belief that, to quote Cambridge Professor David Runciman, the US and UK invaded Iraq “to spread the merits of democracy.” Yes, it all went wrong, but our intentions were good. This kind of thinking can lead to spectacularly convoluted and offensive conclusions, as the BBC’s John Humphrys proved in October 2012 when he asked about the British occupation of Iraq: “If a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?”

British historian Mark Curtis has coined a term for this blinkered power friendly framing: ‘Britain’s basic benevolence.’ Criticism of foreign policies is possible, notes Curtis, “but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence”.

The West’s support for democracy in the Middle East is also evidence free. “It is presented as though the invasion of Iraq was motivated largely or entirely by an altruistic desire to share democracy”, notes Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. “This is asserted despite the long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East, which has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratize the region”, she explains. “Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

Back to Chilcot. Blair’s Government and its supporters successfully deceived – or atleast bamboozled – large sections of the press and key sections of the establishment in 2002-3 in what Curtis calls “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world.” By steering the debate onto questions surrounding the occupation of Iraq, Blair and co., assisted by a pliant press and Chilcot, are once again shifting the narrative to their advantage. We cannot allow them to triumph over us again. Therefore it is imperative that everyone interested in uncovering the truth and seeking justice for Iraqis keep the focus on the key issue – the deceptions, lies and legal questions surrounding the run up to the initial invasion. As the judgement of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg – a key influence on the development of international law – declared, “To initiate a war of aggression… is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

 

 

The Liberal Media vs. Reality: The West’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East

The Liberal Media vs. Reality: The West’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
19 January 2015

One of my favourite quotes about Western foreign policy comes from British historian Mark Curtis:

“The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy. Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.” (Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003, p. 380)

Take these recent examples from the liberal media assuming the West’s basic benevolence:

  • Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, 23 October 2011: “The neocons’ grand plan to use the 2003 invasion to turn the country [Iraq] into a secure pro-western democracy and a garrison for US bases that could put pressure on Syria and Iran lies in tatters. Their hopes of making Iraq a democratic model for the Middle East have been tipped on their head.”
  • Presenter John Humphrys talking about the British 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, BBC Today Programme, October 2012: “If a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?”
  • Professor David Runciman, Guardian Review, 8 November 2013: “The wars fought after 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq were designed to combat terrorism and to spread the merits of democracy.”
  • Peter Baker, New York Times, 24 February 2014: “For Mr. Bush, the focus on spreading democracy preceded his decision to invade Iraq, but it was inextricably linked to the war after the failure to find the unconventional weapons that had been the primary public justification. The goal of establishing a democratic beachhead in the Middle East began driving the occupation, but it became tarnished among many overseas because of its association with the war.”
  • Editorial, The Guardian, 3 September 2014: “In the Middle East, the rise of a new jihadist movement burst upon the western nations who had once aspired to democratically reshape the region like a thunder storm.”

Compare these statements with the recent blog post on The Guardian website by Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen MacAskill titled ‘Saudi Arabia and Bahrain: UK arms sales trump human rights’. Noting the planned British base in Bahrain and large-scale weapons sales to Saudi Arabia – both of whom have violently put down pro-democracy and human rights protests – the authors note “Britain has made it clear that arms sales and military and security considerations must take priority over human rights, even torture.”

Noam Chomsky has long been making similar statements. For example in 2011 he noted “Both Bush and Obama are terrified of the Arab spring. And there is a very sensible reason for that. They don’t want democracies in the Arab world. If Arab public opinion had any influence on policy, the US and Britain had been tossed out of the Middle East. That’s why they are terrified of democracies in the region.”

Chomsky is frequently derided by liberal commentators, but his broad argument is backed up by Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House: “It is presented as though the invasion of Iraq was motivated largely or entirely by an altruistic desire to share democracy. This is asserted despite the long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East, which has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratize the region. Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

David Wearing, a PhD student at the School of African and Oriental Studies, concurs: “Over the last ten years of debate, this bipartisan assumption has persisted in both countries: that Britain and America, long-time supporters of some of the region’s worst autocrats, including Saddam Hussein, genuinely sought to bring democracy to Iraq.” In reality, Wearing notes “What the Bush and Blair administrations wanted for Iraq was a hollowed-out democracy where the elected government was subservient to a huge US military and diplomatic presence, where the shape of the economy had been decided for them in advance by the occupiers, and where management of the nation’s key natural resource was largely in the hands of foreign multinationals.”

UK public opinion seems to be broadly in line with Chomsky, Kinninmont and Wearing. In January 2003 a YouGov /ITN poll found just 5 percent of respondents thought the US and UK were invading Iraq “to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq” (30 percent of respondents thought the invasion was “to secure and control oil supplies from the Middle East”). Similarly, an October 2003 Gallup poll of Baghdad residents found just one percent of respondents believed that “a desire to establish democracy” was the reason for the US-UK invasion (43 percent said the invasion’s principal objective was Iraq’s oil reserves). In terms of wider Middle East opinion, a 2012 Pew poll discovered “majorities or pluralities in six predominantly Muslim countries see Washington as an obstacle to their democratic aspirations”.

To summarise: the basic facts, a significant section of expert opinion and public opinion both in the UK and Middle East all run counter to the liberal media’s belief in the basic benevolence of Western Government. So, does this overwhelming evidence mean the liberal media will change its tune when it comes to assuming the West promotes high principles like democracy and human rights in its foreign policy? Does it heck…