Thursday, September 28, 2006

Big deal

Another day, another intriguing leaked document. Today it's apparently from the Ministry of Defence who have since been trying to claim that the views in it are not government policy. Its author, whom the BBC will not name on security grounds, was first dismissed by the British government as a junior, then a middle ranking officer. Just now on the BBC's late evening analysis programme, Newsnight, it has been revealed that he was appointed by the Chief of the Defence Staff to liaise with the US government in the war on terror. So probably not that junior then.

Most reports on this document have concentrated on its claim that 'The War in Iraq...has acted as a recruiting sergeant for extremists from across the Muslim world.' Nothing terribly original in that.

What is interesting, is the admission, which I hadn't heard before, that the British have been trying to pull their troops out of Iraq. 'British Armed Forces are effectively held hostage in Iraq - following the failure of the deal being attempted by COS (Chief of Staff) to extricate UK Armed Forces from Iraq on the basis of 'doing Afghanistan' - and we are now fighting (and arguably losing or potentially losing) on two fronts.'

What was the 'deal' mentioned here. Who was it with? What were its terms? And why did it fail?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Who is right?

Towards the end of his speech at his party's annual conference yesterday, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair turned to the threat of terrorism: "This terrorism isn't our fault," he said: "We didn't cause it. It's not the consequence of foreign policy." [My italics]

Later the same day, after sections of the secret National Intelligence Estimate on Trends in Global Terrorism were leaked, the US Government released fuller extracts of the report. It says:

"We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.
The Iraq conflict has become the "cause celebre" for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." [My italics again]

Who is right?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

'An open and genuine contest' - EU

Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, pictured right, ended up taking 77% of the vote in last week's elections - a percentage still in any dictator's comfort zone but a significant drop from the 96% he polled last time around. If he haemorrhages another 20% in the next seven years, the next election promises to be an interesting one.

What's interesting is that the EU monitors who observed the election have produced a contradictory preliminary statement which describes the election as 'an open and genuine contest', in one breath and then identified 'a number of important shortcomings' in the next. Apparently it's only observers from the United Arab Emirates (whose view matters, since the UAE is the most prominent supporter of Yemen's hope of joining the Gulf Cooperation Council) who have questioned the validity of the poll.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Quietly sympathetic

US Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (Photo: United States DoD)

Support among Iraqi Sunnis for the insurgency has risen to record levels, according to a poll referred to on the evening BBC news in Britain last night. The survey, which was apparently sponsored by the US Department of Defense apparently indicated that 75% of Sunnis questioned now support the insurgency, up from 14% in 2003.

As TE Lawrence recognised 90 years ago, winning this broad tacit support is the key to success in guerrilla warfare. He wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

"... our rebellion had an unassailable base.... It had a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts. It had a friendly population, of which some two in the hundred were active, and the rest quietly sympathetic to the point of not betraying the movements of the minority." (1935 edition, p.196)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

No change in Yemen

I'll be surprised if the ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh ends up with anything less than 75% of the vote in the presidential election in Yemen.

The government in Yemen controls TV and radio, and has done its best to intimidate the few independent journalists who try to report on the endemic corruption within the country. In previous elections voters have been under-age, or bussed in from other constituencies to vote the government back in. "We are not a democratic country", one opposition politician told me when I visited earlier this year, "We are trying to be." Still, if Saleh has won only 80%, that is a significant swing against him. But there is still a long, long way to go.

Yemen's most recent troubles started back in 1990. Yemenis used to work around the Middle East, but when Saleh backed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait that year Yemen was ostracised by other Arab countries and Yemenis were forced to return home. Unemployment has ballooned since, the population is growing unsustainably, and the country's oil is running out. And, as a walk around the capital, Sanaa, confirms, the famous statistic that, in Yemen, guns outnumber people by a ratio of 3:1 seems quite possible. Angry young men with lots of guns is a combustible mix.

Western governments are alive to the dangers of an unstable Yemen. And it is under pressure from these governments that President Saleh has promised to embark on the much-needed economic reforms that Yemen needs. But in this, the poorest of Arab countries, a tentative step in this direction last year - a cut in the petrol subsidy - sparked outrage and riots that led to many deaths. Most of the cut was rapidly reinstated. And his political party, the GPC, seems less convinced about the need for reform. I listened to the party's deputy general secretary complain that the opposition (who are massively outnumbered in a parliament which, in any case, has no real powers) were continually telling lies. "They always say that everything is black", he said. But if anything, 'black' is an understatement.