Tag Archives: UK foreign policy

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 March 2017

Earlier this month Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned the world was facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Speaking to the UN Security Council, O’Brien said more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria were facing starvation and famine.

Following up on this, on 17 March 2017 the Guardian published a report on Yemen, noting that aid agencies have warned the country is “at the point of no return”. UN figures show 17 million people facing severe food insecurity, the Guardian noted, including nearly seven million people deemed to be in a state of emergency. With the article relegated to page 29 of the newspaper, there was just one oblique mention of the US and UK, which the report explained “have influence over the Saudi-led coalition” currently attacking Yemen and blocking aid entering the country.

Here are the basic facts the Guardian chose not to highlight. Since March 2015 Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries in a bombing campaign to overthrow the Houthi government in Yemen (which itself overthrew the previous government). According to the United Nations there have been over 10,000 civilian casualties, with the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes responsible for the majority of casualties. In 2016 the Yemen Data Project – a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists – reported that one third of Saudi-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, believes “that in some regions, the Saudis are deliberately striking at agricultural infrastructure in order to destroy the civil society.”

The US and UK have been closely collaborating with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support”, the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced a month into the bombardment. Speaking to me last year, activist Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, explained Saudi Arabia is “getting munitions from the West… The US is even refuelling their planes in the air”. President Obama – described as “the reluctant interventionist” by senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland – sold $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia during his eight years in office. This makes the 44th president of the United States “the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history”, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel.

Speaking in January 2017, O’Brien was crystal clear about the main cause of the ongoing humanitarian crisis: “The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world.”

The Guardian has form when it comes to (not) reporting the causes of the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Surveying the newspaper’s coverage of Yemen between June 2016 and mid-January 2017, Peace News Editor Milan Rai concluded “The critical role of the Saudi blockade in creating these conditions in Yemen has been effectively suppressed by the British media, including Britain’s most liberal mainstream newspaper, the Guardian.” According to Rai there were 70 stories or editorials about Yemen on the Guardian website during this period: “Most of those 70 items (42 stories, 60 per cent of the total) do not mention the humanitarian crisis – or the role of the Saudi blockade – in any way at all.” And though the other 28 articles did refer to the humanitarian crisis “most did so only in a way that effectively suppressed the information”, Rai notes.

Unsurprisingly a recent YouGov/Independent poll found more than half of British people were unaware of the war in Yemen, with just 37 percent of 18-24 year olds aware of the conflict.

Turning to Somalia, on 13 March 2017 the Guardian published a full page article on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in east Africa. “As many as 6.2 million Somalis – more than half the population – need urgent food assistance”, noted the Guardian, including “some districts… under the control of Islamist rebels al-Shahaab, making [aid] access complicated.” There is one mention of the US – “The US government says it has spent more than $110m on humanitarian assistance in Somalia in 2017.”

In reality, the US has been heavily involved in Somali affairs since the 1990s. These interventions, noted BBC journalist Mary Harper in her 2012 book Getting Somalia Wrong?, are viewed by “a growing number of experts” as having “contributed towards [Somalia’s] destruction as a viable nation-state.”

Speaking to Democracy Now! in 2013, journalist Jeremy Scahill explained that in the early years of the ‘war on terror’ the Bush Administration “made a disastrous decision to put [Somali] warlords on the CIA payroll” and “basically had them acting as an assassination squad.” A relative stability was created for a brief period when the Islamic Courts Union took control in 2006 – quickly shattered by the December 2006 US-supported Ethiopian invasion and occupation. The occupation, as occupations often tend to do, energised extremists, with Somali journalist Jamal Osman explaining “al-Shabaab was born when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and some still see the group as a resistance movement.”

Since then the US has been trying to destroy the group its actions helped create. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times reported “The US has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabaab”.

“Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union”, the report explained. “But in truth, according to interviews by US and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon”. The US government “is trying to achieve US military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate”, the Los Angeles Times noted. Since then the US has intensified its clandestine war in Somalia “using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants”, according to the New York Times last year.

Like Yemen, the US military involvement in Somalia has negatively affected the country’s ability to deal with humanitarian crises. For example, though the Financial Times explains the looming famine in Somalia is primarily the result of regional drought, it goes on to note “The lack of effective government and an insurgency by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked jihadi group, have not helped.”

This quick survey of the Guardian’s recent coverage of Yemen and Somalia puts the lie to Guardian regular Polly Toynbee’s claim the newspaper is “always free to hold power to account: to take on politicians, global corporations, the secret security state or great vested interests.” The Guardian may well be free to hold power to account but it’s currently missing some huge open goals when it comes to Western foreign policy.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Guardian never mentions Western interference in Yemen and Somalia or links this to the growing humanitarian crises – I’m arguing the newspaper’s coverage does not match the importance of the issue. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent “That the media provide some information about an issue… proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage… More important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.”

Indeed, by downplaying of US intervention in Yemen and Somalia the Guardian have helped to keep the large swatches of the general public ignorant of Western foreign policy (see the YouGov/Independent poll) – a state of affairs that suits the US government’s interests, as the Los Angeles Times report above makes clear.

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

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 January 2017

A Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, in 2012 Dr Christopher Davidson published the best-seller After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.

Endorsed by John Pilger and Ilan Pappe, in his new book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East, Davidson turns his attention to the West’s often covert counter-revolutionary activities in the region.

Ian Sinclair: What have been the US and UK’s broad aims in the Middle East since World War Two?

Christopher Davidson: Although limping through World War Two as a technical victor, Britain’s surviving global empire was nonetheless in retreat.  With repeated uprisings and national liberation movements chipping away at overseas possessions, Whitehall officials and planners were already expert in devising strategies aimed at blocking or reversing indigenous challenges. But with increasingly resource-intensive heavy industries requiring vast imports of basic materials at a cheap and stable price from their remaining colonies and protectorates, such counter-revolutionary efforts had to become much more focused on what was now the greatest threat of all: economic nationalism. Certainly the enemy insurgents Britain was facing by the mid-twentieth century were no longer being measured by their ideology, religion, or barbarity, but quite clearly by their capacity to nationalize resources and industries or, at the very least, build states capable of demanding greater stakes in the local production of wealth.

Since its secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France that effectively carved up the territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War One, Britain’s grip over much of the Middle East had been more or less uncontested. But by the 1950s a potent pan-Arab movement was threatening to unseat remaining British client rulers in the region and jeopardize lucrative trade arrangements and control over valuable resources. With ‘classic nationalism [having become] impotent’ in the Middle East, as veteran correspondent Patrick Seale once described, many of the new ‘Arab nationalist’ revolts were effectively military operations, often led by army officers intent on forcibly removing foreign influences from their countries.

Despite some muted discomfort over Britain’s stance on Arab nationalism, the United States of the mid-twentieth century was nonetheless rapidly waking up to the demands of its own resource-hungry industries and the realities of its Cold War stalemate with the Soviet Union.  Ensuring vacuums left in the wake of the retrenching European empires were not filled by such antagonistic forces bent on nationalizing assets or – equally dangerously – liberation movements likely to align themselves with Soviet-sponsored international communism, the US government and its intelligence agencies soon found themselves at the very forefront of counter-revolutionary action, even surpassing the British. As Karl Korsch put it, the US may have been based on the ideals of revolutionary France, but by this stage it was fast losing its ‘capitalist infancy’.

Advancing into the void left by Britain’s retreat, and quickly overcoming their initial fence-sitting on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, by the mid-1950s US planners acknowledged that securing the Middle East, and especially the Persian Gulf region, was going to be vital to the future prosperity of Western industries and, in turn, for holding the Soviet Union in check.  As it was in the rest of the world, the extraction of natural resources was an obvious priority, so all indigenous attempts to nationalize economic assets – regardless of any progressive, liberal, or even democratic agendas – needed to be intimidated or destroyed by the US. In 1955, according to secret correspondence between British officials, President Dwight Eisenhower had even called for a ‘high class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies’.

Just two years later the region got its own ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’; an evolution of the earlier Truman and Monroe doctrines that had sought to secure US interests against international communism and foreign encroachment on the American continents. Stating that ‘the US regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East…’, Eisenhower effectively made the Middle East a special zone of US control. Moreover, as with Truman’s more global declaration, Eisenhower sought to tie the Cold War to all threats to the Middle Eastern status quo by claiming he was ‘prepared to use armed forces to assist [any Middle Eastern country] requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism’. He also proclaimed that ‘the existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the US before it is filled by Russia’.

The sudden special treatment of the Middle East at this time was, for the most part, due to the simultaneous deepening of US dependency on crude oil imports. Although still a net exporter at the end of World War Two, by 1950 the US was importing a million barrels per day, and by the 1960s more than a third of the US energy demands were being met by such imports, mostly from the Shah’s Iran and the Gulf monarchies. US oil companies had already arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in 1933, eventually founding the American-Arabian Oil Company – Aramco – in Saudi Arabia, and with President Franklin Roosevelt proclaiming in 1943 that ‘the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the US.

IS: Though most accounts of Western involvement in the Middle East focus on the large scale interventions such as the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Shadow Wars you’ve decided to look at the West’s often covert actions in the region. What are some of the common strategies and tactics the West has used to achieve their aims in the Middle East?

CD: Since the 1950s a variety of different strategies and tactics have been employed, mostly determined by the scale and urgency of the perceived threat to Western interests. The first ‘wave’ of activity, led by the US and Britain’s fast-growing intelligence agencies, mostly comprised of assassination attempts, false flag operations, and efforts to destabilize uncooperative governments by sponsoring street protests and public political violence. Our best case studies from this period of course include the multiple attempts to kill off Gamal Abdel Nasser, the efforts to unseat Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, who sought to part-nationalize his country’s oil industry, and the steps taken to undermine various Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian administrations.

With other, more paramilitary threats, such as the challenges to Britain’s control over Yemen and then the Dhofar rebellion against the British-backed Omani sultan, such strategies needed to be supplemented by ‘shadow wars’ in which British forces were secretly deployed to assist the troops of their local clients or ‘proxy’ regional allies. In Yemen, for example, Saudi Arabia was conducting airstrikes with considerable British assistance and was sponsoring ‘tribal irregulars’ to fight against a new nationalist regime that had unseated a British-backed imam who had been ruling autocratically over the northern part of the country. In Oman, as well as British intelligence helping to wage a propaganda war against the rebels, the SAS was being deployed without the British parliament’s knowledge, while forces from several other pro-British states including Iran and Jordan arrived to buttress the sultan’s beleaguered army.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, with the West’s demand for Middle Eastern resources intensifying and with the Soviet Union still undefeated, a much darker strategy started to form in which US and British officials sought to cultivate an ultra-conservative pan-Islamic movement capable of countering secular, progressive or potentially Soviet-aligned national liberation movements, or even simply nationalist governments. Gestating since the 1960s, by the 1980s the strategy was bearing great fruit as a CIA and Saudi-funded international jihad had already facilitated the arrival of thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan and helped forge a hardline Islamic state along the vulnerable Muslim-majority southern underbelly of the Soviet Union. By the end of the decade Al-Qaeda had emerged in the jihad’s wake, and since then its leaders and various splinter organizations proved themselves more than capable of sustaining the same sort of financial networks originally put in place for the Afghan campaign.

In the 1990s such Islamic fighting forces remained a strategic, but volatile asset for the US and British intelligence agencies, with Al-Qaeda veterans helping form a jihadist ‘foreign legion’ in the Balkans to assist the Bosnian and Kosovan forces against Serbia, and with the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ – whose leaders were living in Britain – being protected and paid by MI6 as part of a plot to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. Al-Qaeda blowback to the West by the end of the decade, including the bombings of US embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen was largely contained. Even the massive disaster of 9/11 – which briefly threatened to expose and undo the US’s historically useful relationships with Saudi Arabia and other ultraconservative allies in the region – was successfully repackaged as a casus belli for a fresh round of US military interventions against other problematic regimes, and was carefully refocused on the immediate symptoms rather than the root causes of Al-Qaeda terror.

More recently, the nationwide revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt led to the discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment and had satisfactorily played the game of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’. Their overthrow certainly wrong-footed the Western powers, but very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began as the West again began to call on key regional allies to either sponsor Islamist parties that could continue to uphold capitalistic structures and prevent the formation of inclusive, democratic, and secular societies, or could sponsor hard-man ‘deep state’ military dictatorships if Islamist parties proved incapable of keeping the crowds off the streets. By March 2011 a parallel campaign had also been launched to help re-direct the ‘Arab Spring’ to states such as Libya and Syria that remained antagonistic to Western interests. Wilfully fostering, funding, and weaponizing localized uprisings in an effort to create fresh nationwide revolutions, key US and British allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE all played major roles in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under the banner of the Arab Spring.

IS: Your book includes several sections on the ongoing Syrian war. The media and think-tank commentary around the conflict seems to be increasingly dominated by analysts who are pro-US intervention, or at least sympathetic to Western governments’ broad framing of the conflict. What do you make of the common arguments being put forward about the war?

CD: Despite the Central Intelligence Agency’s [CIA] bungled efforts in the twentieth century, the Western powers have still repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria’s affairs, with even Britain having had fairly well developed plans prior to 2011 to use the terrorist-designated Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and ‘armed men’ to destabilize the Al-Assad regime should it fail to prove more cooperative.  Given this, many seasoned commentators, and not just ardent anti-imperialists or pro-Iran/pro-Kremlin partisans, have correctly understood the dynamics behind the current, post-2011 Syrian conflict, seeing close parallels with the 1980s Afghanistan war, and understanding it as a function of covert Western assistance to Syrian opposition factions combined with more extensive support provided by the West’s regional allies to groups that have included Al-Qaeda franchises and other terrorist-designated organizations.

Nevertheless, as with the very vocal Western supporters of the Afghan ‘freedom fighters’ in the 1980s, most of whom were oblivious to the CIA’s ongoing ‘Operation Cyclone’ and the other efforts to wilfully create a hardline central Asian Islamic state, a significant proportion of the Western commentariat today continues to call for even greater Western intervention in Syria, either on some sort of selective humanitarian basis, or because Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been lobbying strongly for more extensive efforts to remove the Damascus administration from power once and for all, even if this would likely entail the disintegration of the Syrian nation state and the rise of yet another reactionary, conservative religious regime in the region. Indeed, most of the major think tanks and policy institutes in the United States and Britain that focus on Syria either receive substantial donations from such allied governments or, at minimum, have interests that are now incredibly closely intertwined with the political elites of the Gulf monarchies.

IS: What is the role of the Western mainstream media in the West’s ongoing shadow wars in the Middle East?

CD: In general, the Western ‘mainstream’ media seems to be suffering from something of a crisis, perhaps best exemplified by its relentlessly one-sided coverage of the British ‘Brexit’ referendum and the recent US presidential campaign, which has done little to contribute to informed debate and, as far as I can see, has helped to polarize Western society. Its coverage of international events is certainly in trouble too, as although there are still some outstanding foreign correspondents, severe cuts have drastically reduced the number able to provide high quality coalface reporting. I believe this is particularly evident when it comes to writing on the Middle East, as there are now only a handful of journalists left to cover several parallel conflicts all at once. Understandably unable to visit warzones populated by groups known to kidnap for ransom, this means that most have had to rely on difficult-to-vet intermediaries and an increasing army of organized ‘information entrepreneurs’.

Easily able to manipulate this situation, a number of bespoke media outlets and ‘atrocity propaganda’ operations either directly funded by Western governments or Western regional allies, and managed by leading PR firms, have been able to create believable, seemingly credible on-the-ground sources in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya that the Western media has largely had to rely upon. Usually identifiable by their catchy logos, high definition videos, slick websites, and bilingual twitter feeds, they are often ostensibly humanitarian, civil defence, or ‘citizen journalist’ non-governmental organizations, but yet they consistently produce a highly-politicized, and often very emotive narrative that almost always seeks to undermine the adversaries of the Western powers and their regional allies.  For those who remember the ‘Nayirah testimony’ of ‘babies in incubators’ in the build-up to Operation Desert Storm, or perhaps the story of Soviet soldiers burning babies alive in Afghanistan, there is an eerie sense of familiarity.

IS: Other than your book, which other writers and books would you recommend to someone trying to understand the West’s real role in the Middle East?

CD: Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game. William Blum, Killing Hope. Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs and Web of Deceit. Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations.

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
29 December 2016

Earlier this month the Morning Star newspaper found itself in the middle of a media shitstorm. The trigger was their front page headline about the final stages of the battle of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city: ‘Final liberation of Aleppo is in sight’.

The response from some Labour MPs and liberal commentators was immediate and indignant. ‘Absolute disgrace’, tweeted Tom Blenkinsop MP. ‘All parliamentarians, especially party leaders, should condemn false propaganda as was displayed in the Morning Star. People are being murdered not liberated’, Jess Phillips MP argued. Writing the next day in The Guardian Owen Jones noted ‘Yesterday’s front page of the Morning Star rightly provoked revulsion when it described Aleppo’s fall as a “liberation”’. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was similarly critical, as was fellow columnist George Monbiot, who retweeted Jones’s column. Paul Mason, also a regular at The Guardian, went one further tweeting the following challenge: ‘Dear NUJ colleagues at Morning Star: in what world does cheering on a war crime conform to union code of practice? Or any form of socialism?’

(Full disclosure: While I write for the Morning Star, I do not agree with the Morning Star’s front page description of what’s happening in Aleppo. Accordingly, I wrote a letter to the paper stating this, which was published on their letters page — like other letters I’ve recently written critical of their Syria coverage.)

To make sense of this uproar, it is useful to compare the reaction to the Morning Star front page on Aleppo to a recent three-page leading article in The Guardian’s Review section. With the front page of the Review section depicting a very presidential-looking Barack Obama next to the headline ‘Amazing Grace’, The Guardian asked seventeen leading authors to reflect on Obama’s legacy.

Before I consider the writers’ contributions, it’s worth stating some basic facts about the first black president’s time in office. Since 2008 the Obama Administration has bombed seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia), escalating the war in Afghanistan, and massively expanding the secret war in Somalia. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama had ‘embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties’ of US drone strikes that ‘in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.’ US counter-terrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explained: that ‘people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.’ According to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee the 2011 US-NATO bombing of Libya led to ‘political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in North Africa’. In Syria, Obama has been carrying out an illegal bombing campaign against Islamic State, and has provided extensive military support to Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government, and given a wink and a nod to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in arms to, thus playing a key role in escalating and prolonging the conflict.

The Obama Administration has supported Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen, with the Yemen Data Project reporting that one third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. With the US providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition, the war has played a key role in creating a dire humanitarian emergency, with the UN estimating as early as June 2015 that 20 million Yemenis — nearly 80 percent of the population — were in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. More broadly, the Obama administration has offered to sell $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia over its eight years in office, making Obama ‘the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history’, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel. Turning to the US’s other major regional ally, Obama has protected Israel more times at the United Nations than any other US president, recently agreeing a record $38 billion, 10-year US military aid deal with Israel.

At the tail end of George W Bush’s presidency US Special Forces were deployed in 60 countries. Under Obama today they are deployed in 135 countries — presumably why muckraker Matt Taibbi sees the US presidential race as being about choosing the next ‘imperial administrator’.

At home Obama ‘has waged a war against whistleblowers and official leakers’, according to Spencer Ackerman and Ed Pilkington. ‘On his watch, there have been eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act — more than double those under all previous presidents combined.’ In April 2011 more than 250 American legal scholars signed a letter protesting against the Obama Administration’s treatment of Chelsea Manning arguing her ‘degrading and inhumane conditions’ were illegal, unconstitutional and could even amount to torture. Described by some immigration NGOs as the ‘Deporter in Chief’, between 2009 and 2015 the Obama removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. ‘Based on statements so far, Trump’s plan to remove the undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes is similar to what President Obama declared in 2014’, ABC News noted in August 2016. On climate change — an existential threat to humanity — Obama’s actions have been wholly inadequate, with the US turning up at the crunch 2009 Copenhagen climate talks with a paltry offer to make 17 percent reductions in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2020 (in comparison the European Union pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020). For Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University polling institute, this obstructionism was further proof Obama was ‘a conservative voice among world leaders’ on climate change.

So, what did the authors commissioned by The Guardian make of Obama’s time in office? ‘Brilliant and understated, urbane, witty, compassionate, composed, Barack Obama is a unique human being’, began Joyce Carol Oates’s contribution. Siri Hustvedt described Obama as ‘an elegant… moderate, morally upright’ black man. ‘Thank you for your grace, your intelligence, your curiosity, your patience, your respect for the constitution, your respect for people who don’t look like you or pray like you’, wrote Attica Locke. Pulitzer Prize winner Marilyn Robinson asserted Obama was ‘a deeply reflective man, an idealist whose ideal America is a process of advance and self-realisation.’ In the most critical piece, Gary Younge inverts reality, arguing Obama’s ‘victories saved the country from… war without end or purpose’. Noting that she opposed Obama’s use of ‘kill lists’, Professor Sarah Churchwell nevertheless felt the Obama family were ‘disciplined, distinguished, serious… there was not a whiff of scandal’. After he leaves office Churchwell hopes Obama will ‘keep fighting’ as he ‘remains a formidable champion to have on our side.’ Ending the contributions Aminatta Forna laments ‘The world will miss Obama. Deeply.’

I could quote many more lines from the contributions, but you get the picture: evidence-free eulogising from supposedly free-thinking, smart individuals whose worship of established power would shame Pravda. Yemen is never mentioned, nor is Pakistan or Somalia. Libya gets one mention — described by Lorrie Moore as something Obama ‘did not entirely succeed at’. Lionel Shriver provides the sole mention of Afghanistan, noting Obama has been ‘slow to get us out of the sinkhole of Afghanistan’. In short, the deadly impact of American military power is largely either ignored or downplayed.

Far from being an outlier, the authors’ shocking support for an American president who has caused the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, and destabilised entire countries, fits well with the Guardian’s broader coverage of the Obama Administration.

For example, a front-page Guardian article penned by Freedland about Obama’s July 2008 speech in Berlin breathlessly reported the then Democratic presidential candidate ‘almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water.’ In January 2011 Guardian columnist Madelaine Bunting argued Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was advancing a US foreign policy with ‘an explicitly feminist agenda’. In April 2015 a Guardian editorial referred to ‘the Obama-esque oath to first do no harm’. A year before Assistant Editor and foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall chided Obama for his ‘retreat from attachment to the imperious might, the responsibilities and the ideals that once made America an unrivalled and deserving superpower.’ Tisdall has form — in December 2013 he wrote of the ‘good causes for which western soldiers bravely fought and died’ in Afghanistan. What are these, you ask? Tisdall explains: ‘creating and safeguarding the space for extending women’s rights, human rights in general, universal education and child healthcare.’ World Affairs Editor Julian Borger went one better in July 2012, making the extraordinary claim that the US’s ‘military and civilian assistance’ to Egypt was ‘an investment in Middle East peace.’

On Syria, The Guardian has repeatedly downplayed the US’s extensive intervention in the ongoing war. Shockingly, The Guardian’s report of a July 2016 US airstrike that killed at least 73 Syrian civilians — the majority women and children, according to activists — appeared as a small report at the bottom of page 22. In May 2013 Tisdall provided a perfect case study for Mark Curtis’s concept of basic benevolence — how the ideological system promotes the idea Western foreign policy is driven by high principles and benign intentions — when he asserted Obama ‘cannot count on Russian (or, therefore, Chinese or UN security council) support to fix Syria.’

If, as Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen argues, the role of mainstream journalism in a democratic society is ‘to analyse and critique systems of power to help ordinary people take greater control over our lives’, then large sections of The Guardian’s reporting of the Obama Administration has failed miserably.

But now I am downplaying things: if one seriously considers the level of devastation, death and misery around the world the Obama Administration is responsible for, then The Guardian’s ongoing support for/ignoring/downplaying (pick one) of these crimes becomes nothing less than obscene. But while there were howls of outrage at the Morning Star’s front page on the war in Aleppo, there is a telling silence when it comes to the more subtle pro-US government propaganda pumped out by the far more influential Guardian. The Morning Star’s headline was simply unacceptable to the liberal commentariat. In contrast, The Guardian’s often positive coverage of Obama is considered a legitimate part of the broader media debate.

The difference, of course, is all about politics — who is doing the killing and who is being killed. ‘A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims’, argue Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their seminal 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. In contrast ‘those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy. The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.’ And, of course, it’s all about which newspaper is doing the reporting — the small circulation, cash-strapped and generally left-wing Morning Star or the liberal, establishment newspaper that publishes the work of — and pays the salaries of — Jones, Freedland, Monbiot and Mason.

 

Lifting the lid on US ‘dirty tricks’ at the UN: interview with Katharine Gun

Lifting the lid on US ‘dirty tricks’ at the UN: interview with Katharine Gun
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2008

On 31 January 2003, Katharine Gun, a 28-year old Mandarin linguist at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, arrived at work to find she had been copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the American National Security Agency.  

With the US and UK facing stiff opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, the email explained how the American and British intelligence agencies were mounting a dirty tricks operation at the Security Council in an attempt to gain support for an invasion.

Horrified by the criminal content of the email, Gun passed it, via a friend, first to journalist Yvonne Ridley and then to the Observers Martin Bright, who published it in the paper on 2 March 2003.  

As she sits sipping tea in a coffee shop in Cheltenham, Gun – now 34-years old and holding her five-month old daughter in her lap – tells me she was a nervous wreck in the few days between the leak being published and admitting to GCHQ she was the whistleblower.  Under intense pressure, Gun was sacked from her job, briefly held in police custody, had her house searched and was charged under the Official Secrets Act.  I was on bail for eight months and that was really difficult because I didnt know what was going to happen, so there were times when I was really low, she remembers.

She thinks around 100 other people saw Kozas email, which begs the question: why did Gun act and no one else?  Her past life – growing up in Taiwan and moving to England for her A levels – give few clues.  Asked about her politics, Gun says she voted Labour in the 1997 General Election:  Cool Britannia – finally we were getting rid of the Conservatives.  I was all excited like everyone else.  Then, like so many other people, she quickly became disillusioned by New Labour.  I realised this whole business about an ethical foreign policywas just a catchphrase.  Then 9/11 happened and all the rhetoric started to increase towards military interventions.  

Gun was facing the very real possibility of a prison sentence, but on the day that her trial was scheduled to begin the Government mysteriously dropped the charges.  Many believe this was due to the defence basing their case on the question of the wars legality.  Gun agrees, and also suggests there was a good chance a jury might acquit her, which she believes would have possibly required the Government to reform the Official Secrets Act, adding a public interest clause in to it.

The political fallout from Guns leak was extensive, ramping up the pressure on the Government to release the Attorney Generals full legal advice and triggering further UN spying allegations from then Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short.  Most importantly,  Gun, hopes her leak contributed to the collapse of the all important second UN resolution, which would have given the invasion considerably more legitimacy.  

Former US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, now a close personal friend of Gun’s, believes that Gun’s revelations were “more timely and potentially more important than the Pentagon Papers”, which he leaked to the US press in 1971.  It was the first leak that was pre-emptive.  Most leaks are after the event, Gun explains about the timing of her actions.

Like other prominent figures who opposed the Government during this period such as George Galloway, David Kelly and Craig Murray, Gun paid a heavy price for her moral stand.  I lost my job, I lost a good career, I lost a circle of friends and stability, she says, revealing that friends from GCHQ are now scared of speaking to her on the phone, fearing the intelligence services are listening in.  At the same time, she believes she gained a lot of other good friends and met some amazing people.  Considered and composed, she adds, I suppose I have peace of mind.  I dont feel guilty.

Six years after the world-influencing events of 2003, Gun rolls her eyes when I mention Tony Blairs current position as Middle East Peace Envoy.  Ive become very very disillusioned and cynical about politicians in general, she notes.  I dont think there is anyone who could legitimately be called a statesman these days. There is no one I would say I trust.  I see behind the spin now and all the doublespeak that goes on.  

How does she feel about GCHQ after all that happened to her?  What advice would she give to a friend who wanted to apply to work there?  Gun has clearly thought long and hard about this question, and her answer is thoughtful and measured.  You become a linguist because you are interested in other cultures and you have spent time in other countries and you dont tend to think in terms of black and white, she says.  In contrast she points out that at GCHQ  the whole atmosphere is ‘us’ versus ‘them.  The mentality is not the inter-cultural everyone getting on with each other, its all about targeting other people.  Its not easy if you have spent your formative years falling in love with a culture and then you have to turn round and say well sorry I think all of you lot are dodgy.

Although a book about her case has recently been published in the US, Gun is more than happy to be out of the spotlight.  I dont want this weird double life.  I know people like David Shayler have gone off the wall a bit. They sort of become defined by what they did, she says.  I just want a normal family life.  

While Gun certainly deserves the quiet life she seeks, hopefully her extraordinary, very human story will inspire others to take similar, courageous action in the future.

The Spy Who Tried to Stop War.  Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell is published by PoliPointPress.

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.

 

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.