Monday, December 24, 2007

In the bleak midwinter

Several years ago I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was cold day in early February and the rain was pouring down. My most vivid memory is of Manger Square, the bland concourse in front of the church, empty and glistening wet. I had just met two organisers of Bethlehem 2000. They were glum men whose plans had been thrown askew by the beginning of the intifada five months earlier. On the way to Bethlehem there were signs of recent fighting. One house, which had been hit by a tank shell, bore a blackened hole in one wall. The overriding feeling was of emptiness.

After I had stooped to get through the Church's tiny door, the simple interior reinforced that impression. Apart from a couple of cleaners polishing the brass rail around the altar, it too was empty. I visited the basement cave where Jesus is supposed to have been born. Perhaps appropriately it seemed unremarkable. There was a lot of crimson velvet.

Bethlehem was then about fifteen minutes by car from Jerusalem, but the security wall erected by the Israelis has now made that journey take longer. What struck me most on that first visit to the Holy Land was just how small it is. My preconceived assumption about the grander scale of the place still intrigues me. It derives entirely from the significance that Christians and Muslims attach to the events that happened there just over two thousand years ago.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Read this then eat it?

I discovered a review of Setting the Desert on Fire from an unexpected quarter yesterday - on the Central Intelligence Agency's website. You can read it here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Listen to me speak at the Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial have made my recent talk there available as a download. With it you can see the slides I showed, which I refer to in the course of the talk.

I'd like to thank the Memorial again for making me so welcome.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Look up, look up

The Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek
"Four hundred piastres for that room? Four hundred did you say? Good God! Away! Call the car. Three hundred and fifty? One hundred and fifty you mean. Three hundred? Are you deaf, can't you hear? I said a hundred and fifty. We must go. There are other hotels. Come, load the luggage. I doubt if we shall stay in Baalbek at all."
So starts Robert Byron's description of his arrival in Baalbek in his book The Road to Oxiana (1937). He secures the room eventually for two hundred piastres and sets out to view the ancient site, pursued, just as you are today, by hordes of souvenir sellers. His description of the ruins struck a chord when I re-read it yesterday. What hits you is the scale of the place and the size of the enormous stones it is built from. "Look up, look up; up this quarried flesh, these thrice enormous shafts, to the broken capitals and the cornice as big as a house." It is quite unlike any other Roman structure I have ever seen.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Hotel review

The Al-Fanar Hotel in Tyre wins 3 UN stars

Someone wiser than me once told me that you can tell the quality of a hotel in a warzone by the number of United Nations 4x4 vehicles parked outside. They are like mobile Michelin stars - they show where the richest arrivals in the neighbourhood like to eat and stay. I first saw this phenomenon in Axum in Ethiopia (the Remhai Hotel, if you are interested), close to the contested border with Eritrea, where the car-park was a sea of blazing white. Just over a fortnight ago, I was reminded of its accuracy in southern Lebanon.
The British Foreign Office advice on going to southern Lebanon is unambiguous.
"We advise against all travel south of the Litani River. There remains a serious risk from unexploded bombs remaining from the 2006 conflict between Hizbollah and Israel [many of which were dropped in the final days of a war that the British government refused to condemn- JB] and a risk [of] violence near the Israel/Lebanon border (the Blue Line). You should heed local advice in areas that have not been declared safe from unexploded ordnance."
But I wouldn't let that put you off, unless you are a rambler wanting to assert the "right to roam". Ever since the Bali bombings in 2002, the Foreign Office has realised that its published advice hangs like a millstone round its neck. So, fearing being quoted in the newspapers, it has warmly embraced the precautionary principle and discouraged British travellers from going anywhere they might end up in trouble that it could conceivably have foreseen. My experience is that the roads in southern Lebanon are quite safe (barring the driving - still the most dangerous factor), and the people are wonderfully hospitable. Just do beware the Israeli drone that buzzes miles overhead.
The Al-Fanar hotel, next to the rusting lighthouse in Tyre, south of the Litani River, is delightfully quiet. Promisingly, outside, when I arrived, were three UN 4x4s. It is, quite simply, the most tranquil hotel that I have visited in the Middle East. It is bang on the seafront, as its name suggests (it's Arabic for lighthouse), and has large, simple rooms that look out over the Mediterranean. I can't remember the cost, but it was cheap. There's an excellent seafront bar, and you fall asleep to the waves lapping against the stony beach. It is just perfect. But please don't trust my judgement: rely on the photograph above.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The power behind the throne

The Australian news channel ABC has broadcast some of the only wartime footage of T.E. Lawrence in his role as Feisal's adviser in Aqaba. You can see it here. Lawrence is the second from the right in the group shot which begins 21 seconds into the footage, in the white headdress and black woollen cloak and wearing a wristwatch. Feisal, wearing a black headdress, is seated right of centre.

It's worth watching this closely. Notice how Lawrence stands until Feisal bids him to sit down, and how Lawrence beckons another man round to sit between him and the camera, so that he is almost invisible, but still sitting closest to Feisal, who frequently turns to him. Notice how Lawrence deals directly with Feisal when he is translating, barely looking at Lowell Thomas, and keeps his back to the camera.

This film illuminates advice contained in the Twenty Seven Articles that Lawrence had written for the benefit of his colleagues about six months earlier, in August 1917. With the film in mind, here are some extracts:

(3) In matters of business deal only with the commander of the army, column, or party in which you serve. Never give orders to anyone at all, and reserve your directions or advice for the C.O., however great the temptation (for efficiency's sake) of dealing with his underlings. Your place is advisory, and your advice is due to the commander alone.

(4) Win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others when you can.

(5) Remain in touch with your leader as constantly and unobtrusively as you can.

(7) Treat the sub-chiefs of your force quite easily and lightly.

(8) Your ideal position is when you are present and not noticed. Do not be too intimate, too prominent, or too earnest.

Lawrence's anonymity is probably accentuated by the black and white film: in reality the fair-skinned Lawrence would have stood out more. What is so interesting is the impression one gets that Lawrence is subservient to Feisal: partly this is due to their difference in height, partly to the obsequious mannerisms - watch the hand wringing - that Lawrence adopts, which reminds me of Harold Nicolson's later comment about him: "What an odd shifty charlatan that man is."

Lawrence knew that this was all pretence. "It’s a kind of foreign stage" he wrote to an old friend later in 1918, "on which one plays day and night, in fancy dress, in a strange language, with the price of failure on one’s head if the part is not well filled". In reality, as Lawrence privately admitted, he was the power behind the throne. Telling his boss Clayton how to send intelligence to Feisal he wrote: "Information had better come to me for him since I usually like to make up my mind before he does."

Hat-tip: Mal Booth

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

3 Para

There's an interesting book review in this month's newsletter from the Frontline Club. Anthony Loyd, The Times's war correspondent, reviews Patrick Bishop's 3 Para, the story of the six month long Parachute Regiment deployment in Helmand last year. I've been reading 3 Para, and it's a good story, mixing the fruits of extensive interviews with the soldiers involved with a nice analysis of the problems that the battalion and its support units faced. The main of these was overstretch. The book's line is that the Paras coped admirably with the shortage - showing immense grit against the odds. I have no doubt that that is true, though the consequences of the force the soldiers used to protect themselves on the local population goes largely unremarked.

Loyd's take on the book is interesting. Seeing the guiding hand of the Ministry of Defence behind the cooperation of so many soldiers with the book, he points out that Bishop lays much of the blame with Mohammed Daoud, then governor of Helmand province. It was Daoud, according to Bishop, who urged the British to abandon their original inkspot strategy, which would have concentrated limited British resources on creating a safe zone near Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, and instead deploy to isolated and vulnerable platoon houses the length of the province. Certainly this marks a departure from the original British view that Daoud was the best man available and the widespread disappointment when he was moved from Helmand by President Karzai a year ago, though the news took some days to get out. Daoud has, incidentally, since publicly criticised the speed of Britain's reconstruction effort in Helmand.

Perhaps the most interesting endnote to the book is the fact that 3 Para's commanding officer, Lt Col Stuart Tootal, recently resigned from the army, apparently in protest at the "shoddy" treatment of his men by the Ministry of Defence.

Before announcing his resignation, Tootal appeared at the Frontline Club, where he was interviewed by Bishop. That evening he stuck carefully to the script. I was sitting in the audience behind a couple of people who had evidently worked for the Department for International Development, whose work in Helmand has been widely criticised. Judging by the snippets of sotto voce whispering I heard, they too are capable of producing an account of Britain's engagement in southern Afghanistan which would differ from the version of events that Bishop was evidently encouraged to produce. A full account of the ongoing Helmand deployment, mixing the soldiers' views with those of other British government officials and the Afghans themselves, has yet to be written. It would make a fascinating and educational read.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Australian War Memorial

I spoke last Wednesday at the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra. The talk will be podcast in due course, and you should be able to hear it, and see the slides I showed, and I will post the link as soon as I have it.

I got a very warm welcome, thanks to the head of the research centre at the AWM, Mal Booth, and after speaking had a chance to look around the memorial. This commemorates the names of those who lost their lives serving their country in a central courtyard that sits over a museum explaining Australia's enormous contribution in two world wars, Vietnam, and more recent conflicts. It's extremely good: a mixture of well-lit exhibits, paintings, video and audio footage, and a superb aircraft hall. It was busy with school children when I was there on a mid-week lunchtime.

The AWM's exhibition about T.E. Lawrence begins on 7 December.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Helmand: progress report

One of the aims of British policy in Afghanistan was to achieve sufficient security to make alternative livelihoods to growing opium poppies attractive. In the statement made by the then Defence Secretary (in the days before the post became a part-time job) announcing the original British deployment, eradication of poppy was a high priority.

This report then, which says that farmers in Helmand province are cutting down established fruit trees to grow more poppy, is a useful indicator of whether security has improved.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Unspoilt by progress


Since the discovery and exploitation of oil in the 1920s the Middle East has changed dramatically. Once flat skylines are now interrupted by towerblocks; cars and buses, rather than donkeys, are the usual form of transport. But now and then you spot ways of life that are utterly unchanged. That was the thought that made me take the photograph above, last Friday. It shows fisherman on the shore in the ancient city of Tyre, in southern Lebanon. Many of them carried on far after dark.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Archaeologists on the railway

Earlier in the summer I highlighted a report by the Great War Archaeology Group on their excavations of Turkish defensive positions along the Hijaz railway in southern Jordan.

They have just completed a second season of digging in the area. Alarmingly, their finds included several live hand grenades. This is their blog of their unique exploit.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tension in Lebanon

Hezbollah's flag, flying high at the infamous Al-Khiam detention centre, near the Israeli border

Early this year I wrote a piece about the Kalashnikov Index: the changing price of an AK-47 depending on supply, and demand due to perceived changes to security. In Iraq, where security appears to be improving, the Index should be falling, though I have seen no recent price data.

One nearby country where the Index has surged is Lebanon. There, says this report, the cost of buying an AK-47 has recently trebled to $1,000 a weapon. Rising expectations of violence lie behind the rise. Lebanon's politicians are currently deadlocked over the choice of a successor to replace Emile Lahoud, the Syrian-backed president of the country. A replacement needs to be found by 23 November when Mr Lahoud's term ends, but as the Index suggests people are pessimistic that an acceptable compromise candidate will be found.

I got back from a short visit to Lebanon this morning, and my impression was that the country, though outwardly calm, is close to the abyss. Having given the Israeli army a bloody nose last year, Hezbollah is reputedly preparing for trouble. Its distinctive green on yellow flags (depicting a forearm clenching an AK-47) were flying everywhere that I went, south of the River Litani and up the Beqaa valley, where souvenir sellers offering Hezbollah t-shirts congregate outside the famous ruins at Baalbek. It is clear that the spectacular damage to the country's infrastructure done by Israel (and supported without demure by Britain and the United States) during last year's war, let alone the deaths the war caused, has only reinforced Hezbollah's support. And I watched a procession of cars of another pro-Syrian faction, streaming down the main road from the Syrian border towards Beirut, flapping their disconcerting, rather fascist-inspired, red, black and white banners from the windows. Despite the signs of wealth and renovation of Beirut's battered city-centre there seems to be a fatalism among the few Lebanese I spoke to about their ability to influence events, and even a certain ambivalence towards the current, if uneasy, peace. Perhaps this has always been the case. This was my first visit to Lebanon and I have nothing to compare it with.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Balfour Declaration - ninety years on

The 90th anniversary of the controversial Balfour Declaration passed without much notice earlier this month. The Declaration was a mealy-mouthed expression of sympathy by the British government for Zionist aspirations. It was issued at this time because of a mistaken (and in itself decidedly anti-Semitic) belief that the Jews together wielded enormous hidden influence worldwide, and especially in Russia. There, British government officials forlornly hoped, the Jews might be able to halt the rise of the Bolsheviks. But the same day that The Times published the Declaration, 9 November, it also carried news of Lenin's successful coup in St Petersburg.

The Declaration also anticipated the capture of Jerusalem by British forces one month later. What had started as an aggressive defence of the Suez Canal had evolved into a military campaign. The pressing need for a victory of some sort to counterbalance bad news on the western front, and the perceived prestige of running such a sacred land were both reasons why it had.

But it was the cold logic of imperial strategy that was the fundamental reason behind the British invasion, and it was this that the Declaration sought to camouflage with its invocation of a moral cause for British actions, to a world that was increasingly cynical about imperial ambitions. As the significance of airpower began to be appreciated, it was Palestine's strategic value, as a buffer east of the Suez Canal and as a stepping stone between Europe and India that made it attractive to the British.

The development of aircraft that could fly ever further rendered Palestine ineffective as a buffer and irrelevant as an airstrip. Woolier hopes, that Britain could bring "a new order" in the Holy Land, "founded on the ideals of righteousness and justice" (© The Times's leader on the day after the capture of Jerusalem was announced) proved illusory for as long as the legitimacy of British rule was tied to the promotion of the Zionists' ambitions. Bruised by experience, public support for Zionism in Britain, which was probably never more than lukewarm, cooled quickly after 1948.

Some reasons why are put forward in a discussion here. Though I don't agree with all the analysis, the summary makes an interesting read.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Remembrance Sunday

A grave at Guillemont Road cemetery on the Somme

Apparently there are more marchers at the annual Remembrance Sunday parade on Whitehall this year than there have been for many years. Many people have expressed their surprise that, instead of withering as the two world wars grow ever more distant, the commemoration has only gathered strength.
Edward Marsh, Churchill's private secretary, described the first anniversary of the Armistice in 1919. At eleven o'clock in the morning - it was a Tuesday - everyone had halted where they stood, for two minutes, he said. "It was really solemn and impressive - everyone standing like statues, and the dead silence." Winning the war had cost Britain 723,000 lives, and a further 198,000 soldiers from the colonies had – willingly or otherwise – given theirs. Half a million more had been seriously wounded: nearly half of these were amputees. And sixty thousand men had shell-shock.
Marsh, however, had not fought in the war, and when I was researching Setting the Desert on Fire, I came across a surprising comment on the anniversary which made me wonder whether former combatants felt differently. It was made, some years later, by T.E. Lawrence. Writing to his confidante Charlotte Shaw (the wife of George Bernard Shaw) on 10 November 1927, he remarked: "Tomorrow … this horrible celebration of an armistice of long ago."

It would be interesting to know whether Lawrence's view was widely shared, or whether he was simply being provocative. It may be, though, that he did not appreciate the reminder. Like many former soldiers he must have suffered flashbacks to the violence he had witnessed. "It's like malarial bugs in the blood", he wrote later to his friend, the writer Robert Graves, "coming out months and years after in recurrent attacks." Perhaps too, as the years went by, while others continued to appreciate the sacrifice made on their behalf, Lawrence realised that the Great War had created more problems as it solved.

Friday, November 09, 2007


Aba Naam bridge on the Hijaz Railway
The bridge was T.E. Lawrence's first sight of the railway in April 1917
I'm next speaking at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, on 27 November at 10.30am in the Telstra Theatre. I'll be talking about my travel in the Middle East (with some slides) and looking into the reasons behind the differing versions of key events in the campaign.
The AWM is about to open a major exhibition on Lawrence of Arabia and the Australian Light Horse Brigade, which played an important part in the 1917-18 Palestine offensive. Mal Booth, the curator, has been running a blog where you can find further useful information as well as details of my talk and the others that the Memorial has lined up to accompany the exhibition.

Monday, November 05, 2007

What would TE Lawrence had done in the Second World War, had he survived his motorbike crash?

Patrick - friend, fellow (and much more frequent) blogger and occasional thoughtful commenter to this effort - has come up with an interesting question. "What would have happened", he asks me, "had TEL not gone for a motorbike ride in Dorset? What role may he have played during the Second World War?"

Normally I try to avoid counterfactual history, because I have a prejudice that dwelling on the what-might-have-beens is the preserve of fiction (and I have a feeling that a novel based on just this premise has been written at some stage; I've never read it). But I'm going to make an exception. I'm going to invite you into the dark and faintly mildewy tent of Mystic Barr, relieve you of a fiver, gaze into my crystal ball and ponder the question: what if Lawrence had been alive in 1939?

It seems likely that Lawrence would by then, or would soon, have been asked to help. In his resignation letter from the civil service in 1922, he wrote: "I need hardly say that I'm always at his [Churchill's] disposal if ever there is a crisis, or any job, small or big, for which he can convince me that I am necessary." Churchill replied, gratefully: "I feel I can count upon you at any time when a need may arise."

Churchill himself wondered what Lawrence might have done. "I had hoped to see him quit his retirement" he told reporters on the day that Lawrence died, "and take a commanding part in facing the dangers which now threaten the country". He added: "In Lawrence we have lost one of the greatest beings of our time."

Three broad options might have been open to Lawrence. A role within the military, within the Foreign Office, or at home within, or working for, the British government, especially after Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940.

By 1940 Lawrence was fifty-one years old- a tough and active man, for sure, but well above the upper age for volunteering for active service. The compelling possibility that Lawrence might have played an active military role during the Second World War, though attractive, therefore seems unlikely. But who knows? Lawrence was adept at bending rules. And others served in frontline roles: Lawrence's sometime opponent, the MP and former proconsul in Iraq, Sir Arnold Wilson, died serving as a tail-gunner in an aircraft covering the Dunkirk evacuation. And he was fifty five.

Might therefore have Lawrence returned to serve in the Middle East - perhaps in North Africa? This is where the counterfactual throws up some interesting points. Part of the reason for Lawrence's fame by 1939 was precisely because he was already dead. His death four years earlier cleared the way for the general publication of his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, of which, up to then, he had only had about 200 copies printed. He did give one of them to Archibald Wavell, who would command British forces in the Middle East early in the war and who encouraged the development of the famous Long Range Desert Group. But Wavell remained a controversial figure (Churchill eventually replaced him) and I wonder whether he would have been able to stand behind the LRDG had the trade edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom not already become a huge bestseller. The book certainly enthused some of his men. As one of the leaders of the Long Range Desert Group wrote in his own memoir: "Lawrence had lit the flame which fans the passion of those who lead guerrilla warfare and I wanted more than anything to experience it." So there remains a question as to whether, had Lawrence lived and Seven Pillars of Wisdom remained unpublished, he would have had as great an influence as he did because he was dead.

There were other jobs on offer in the Middle East. To coordinate the military and political efforts in the region, Britain posted a minister of state to Cairo. However, this role involved liaison with the Free French after Syria and Lebanon were taken back from the Vichy regime in 1941. To them however, Lawrence was anathema and it is highly unlikely that he would have been an acceptable candidate, particularly because the Foreign Office was anxious throughout the war to reduce friction with the French as far as possible. There were other diplomatic jobs. In early 1941, when it became clear that the government in Iraq was being subverted by Axis propaganda, the British government sent Lawrence's wartime colleague Kinahan Cornwallis to Baghdad to serve as ambassador. While he was there, Cornwallis effectively coordinated the military operation which ousted Rashid Ali al Gailani, who seized power in a coup in April that year. Given Lawrence's own interest in Iraq, and his knowledge of the region, this is certainly a role that would have been open to him. But - the problem with imagining Lawrence in any governmental job is that he had upset many civil servants during his earlier service and these enmities would inevitably have worked against him had Churchill dropped him into any job. A comparable figure was Sir Louis Spears, an MP whom Churchill made his special envoy in the Levant from 1941. Spears found himself under attack from almost every direction. Again, it is highly unlikely Lawrence could have fulfilled this role because of his known dislike of the French. Perhaps he might simply have served as an adviser, in Whitehall, to Churchill. Churchill numbered Lawrence, after all, was one of "the two or three of the very best men it has ever been my fortune to work with."

At home other opportunities might have been open to him. In his final years in the Royal Air Force he had worked on developing rescue boats that were to play a vital role during the Battle of Britain picking up airmen who had ditched into the English Channel. It is possible that he might have played a greater role in this capacity during the battle for British airspace in 1940-41. But given Churchill's like of Lawrence - and his appreciation of Lawrence's fame - it is hard to believe that he would have left Lawrence working on such an important, but fundamentally unglamorous project. Could Lawrence have worked at home for the Special Operations Executive, taking on a Maurice Buckmaster-type role? I don't know enough about the Political Warfare Executive to do more than raise that question. But with that thought, one last possibility comes to mind. Might Churchill have theatrically appointed Lawrence the guerrilla leader to lead the preparations to fight the Germans on the beaches and the landing grounds had Hitler invaded in 1940? Perhaps it is here, among the Home Guard - many of them old soldiers of the First World War - that Lawrence would have found his niche. It is, of course, impossible to know for sure.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

British "diplomats" bite back

On Monday we learned that, according to the Americans, the Taliban were taking MI6 for a ride.

Then on Wednesday we heard that, according to British "diplomats", a key tribal leader in Helmand was on the verge of defecting.

Could these two articles possibly be related?

Uxbridge here I come

I'm speaking next Wednesday, 7 November, at Uxbridge Central Library. T. E. Lawrence spent ten weeks in Uxbridge in 1922, under the guise of "Aircraftsman Ross". He had joined the Royal Air Force after handing in his resignation to the Colonial Office where he had served as Winston Churchill's adviser. By odd coincidence on 7 November it will be exactly 85 years to the day that Lawrence finished his basic training at the Uxbridge depot. My job next week will be to explain why he ended up there.

Lawrence had been spared the rigours of basic military training when he volunteered in 1914 and throughout the war he maintained an amateurishness (in the approving, British sense of the word) that often infuriated other professional soldiers. His experience at Uxbridge changed him profoundly. "The person has died", he wrote, "that to the company might be born a soul." Three years later he would write that "Uniform is like corsets …. you get used to the support of it, and feel undone if it is taken off you in the end of time."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ending the deafening silence

Last Friday's Times published an interesting list of the 50 key dates of world history by the historian Richard Overy. It's well worth a look: the tight selection inevitably makes it controversial and thought-provoking.

But what's he missed? Money for a start, which could have been added to one of the early Mesopotamian entries. Or accounting, from around the same time. Where's gunpowder, or the flintlock - for their explosive power and ability to change the social order? To be nit-picky I suspect Muhammad's death (and Christ's) were more important than their dates of birth. Muhammad's death sparked the creation of the Caliphate, under which Islam's influence massively expanded. The Black Death of 1348-49 - was responsible for the death of about a third of Asia's and Europe's peoples and spelled the end to feudalism in Europe. Penicillin. The telegraph, radio, television and flight are all absent, despite the impact that they have had on government communications and the speed at which the world moves. Many of the political developments of the early modern era - Hobbes's Leviathan, the US constitution, and the rights founded by the French revolution - all owe themselves to the rediscovery of classical political philosophy which itself resulted from the invention of the printing press and the breaking of the medieval church's restrictive stranglehold on ideas.

Anyway, have a look.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Missile defence: will the US go with the Russian suggestion?

Just before I went on holiday to the Caucasus earlier this summer, Russia made an interesting offer to the United States. Faced with the Americans' revived plans to create a missile defence shield with forward radar stations in eastern Europe, at the G8 Summit the Russians suggested that America might use a base in Azerbaijan to site its radar.

I remembered the story when I was travelling through Azerbaijan. At Qabala in the centre of the country, on a hill just south of the Caucasus chain, you can see two enormous concrete rectangular structures which the Russians originally built to warn of an American missile strike against them. Today they monitor Russian space shots. I assumed at the time that this must be the place that the Russians had in mind: and indeed it was - the BBC were there at much the same time that I was. The Azerbaijanis are, by and large, reluctant to talk about politics except obliquely, and my taxi driver (a trained lab technician who could earn more as a cabbie than in a hospital) did not directly answer my question about whether the Azeri press had covered the Russian offer, and if so, what they made of it.

An interesting snippet I have just seen would suggest that the Americans are considering the Russian suggestion, which was presumably made to bring the radar into their sphere of influence.

Azerbaijan is being tugged in different directions by the rival powers. US support for the corrupt Azeri regime is evident everywhere. Public buildings (for example in Sheki) have been renovated with the help of the Department of Defense, and the land border crossing with Georgia is smart, intimidating, and supplied with computers from the US Department of Homeland Security. It will be interesting to see if the United States investigates the option further. Its Missile Defense Agency's website gives nothing away.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Flying at each other's throats

I've just come across this interesting quote from Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, a British official who specialised in Middle Eastern matters. Here he is in 1931, commenting on the prospects for Iraq.
"What is going to happen when our influence is removed? My own prediction is that they will all fly at each other's throats and that there will be a bad slump in the administration which will continue until someone strong enough to dominate the country emerges or, alternatively, until we have to step in and intervene." (quoted in Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq, London 2007, p.210)

The situation in Iraq is now in flux and there is a sense that in the south, we have reached the finale of the British deployment. British troops in the south are now restricted to Basra Palace and the airport outside the town. Both are dangerous places, because they are attractive targets for regular mortar attacks by local insurgents eager to be able to claim the accolade of having forced the British to withdraw. Mortars are not the only threat. Conditions inside the airport base, where local contractors are also employed, are not deemed safe enough for British civilian officials to travel around without bodyguards. The focus of the British diplomatic effort is, apparently, not in improving relations with the Iraqis, but in persuading the Americans that it is time for the British to leave. Every optimistic British assessment you hear of the local authorities' determination to root out corruption, ability to run the police themselves, and so on, is designed to speed British withdrawal.

Initially proclaimed as a triumph for British "hearts n' minds" over American firepower, the south of Iraq has now become at least as unstable as the regions further north. The killing of the governor of Muthanna province this week is the latest sign that the Shia factions who 'rule' the south of the country have already started, to echo Cornwallis, "to fly at each other's throats". Muthanna had been a relatively quiet backwater, where the British passed control to the Iraqis last summer. Referring to the handover the defence secretary, Des Browne, said: "Today takes them one step nearer to assuming full responsibility for their own security and to building a stable and democratic future for their country." It does not look quite so rosy now. but there is widespread recognition that Britain has neither the forces nor the political will to stop the situation deteriorating further.

The prospect of a British withdrawal from Iraq explains the increasingly vocal American attacks on the British strategy in the south of the country, which are designed to counteract the optimistic British pronouncements that the local authorities are ready to stand on their own two feet, which are the overture to a pull-out. The American strategy to prevent a withdrawal they see as precipitate appears to be try to stir British pride by effectively accusing British troops of cowardice. Outraged British newspaper readers fired up by this slur would, presumably, demand that British troops should stay in place to prove the US wrong.

I wonder whether this rather desperate tactic will work. Surveys recently show that only a small percentage of the British public have friends and family serving in either Iraq or Afghanistan: there is a profound public lack of interest in what is happening in either, and that is clearly having a detrimental effect on British soldiers' morale in both. In this respect, note the successful intervention by the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt this week to pressurise the British Royal Mail postal service into delivering parcels to troops serving in both theatres free of charge. There is little general support for the war, and many people in any case believe that British intervention in the Middle East has made further terror attacks more likely, not the reverse. In other words they may support the professionalism of Britain's armed forces while believing simultaneously that the task they have been given, in the support of the US invasion, was the wrong one. If anything, the Americans' attempt to whip up British outrage is more likely to fuel rising anti-Americanism in Britain.

For Iraqis the sad question is what will fill the vacuum once the British leave. And here it is not difficult to believe that Cornwallis's analysis of the cycle of Iraqi history remains a timeless one.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Digging up the recent past

At the start of this year, the Great War Archaeology Group got in touch with me. The GWAG had recently got back from excavating two sites in southern Jordan, places I had also visited during the research I did for Setting the Desert on Fire. I have the greatest respect for them. Whereas I had stopped to take a few photographs and have a look about, they had spent a fortnight under the sun, surveying and digging.

Since for me, archaeology is inextricably connected to the consumption of significant volumes of real ale, their efforts were all the more impressive since they spent their time around the town of Maan, one of the more conservative parts of Jordan, and certainly some distance from the nearest keg of beer. I was delighted to be able to help them tie down the name of the station that they had been excavating on the plain south of Maan, at Wadi Rethem (Rutm), where I had briefly stopped in September 2004.

The discoveries GWAG have made are of real interest in the understanding of the Arab revolt. They have begun to shed some light on the lives of the Turkish soldiers who were stationed along the railway, and provide evidence of the fierce fighting in April 1918 around Maan station.

For a taste of where they were, do visit their website and read their excellent report, which takes a little while to load. They return to Jordan later this year. It will be fascinating to see what more they unearth this time round.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bringing back the Caliphate

The BBC is reporting that 100,000 people have attended a rally organised by Hizb ut-Tahrir in Indonesia. Western intelligence and border agencies look as if they have done their best to throw the conference programme into disarray, by preventing several of the speakers from travelling to Jakarta.

Hizb ut-Tahrir - banned in many countries although not in Britain (yet) - campaigns, in incendiary terms, for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate. The caliphs were the Prophet Muhammad's immediate successors; the caliphate originally was the Middle Eastern empire that they went on to conquer in the years after Muhammad's death. With the conquest of that empire by the Mongols in the thirteenth century the caliphate disappeared. The Ottoman sultans appropriated the title from 1416 as they approached the zenith of their power. From then until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was also the caliph. As the political leader and spokesman of Sunni Muslims worldwide he enjoyed a certain respect from European empires with Muslim colonies, like Britain, for the influence he was believed to wield over their subjects. The Sultan overstepped the mark in 1914, when, egged on by the Germans, he issued a call for jihad against his British, French and Russian enemies. By the time the war had ended Britain in particular was anxious for the caliphate to be wound up. By then and since, the caliphate had become firmly associated with the threat of jihad.

In fact it was the Turkish nationalists who dealt the caliphate its coup de grace. Initially they separated it from the Ottoman sultanate before finally scrapping it in 1924. The last caliph, a dignified and well-educated man named Abdul Mejid, who was a brilliant linguist and a painter, was escorted from Istanbul with two of his wives to the Greek border, from where, with only a small amount of money and "a number of jewels" he crossed Europe by the Orient Express. Photographs taken a few days later show him, dressed in a suit and fez, disconsolately taking the air in a resort on the edge of Lake Geneva. As far as the European powers were concerned, his role was, by the time of his deposition, reassuringly symbolic. As the London Times observed, by then he "had no power, even in spiritual matters; he could not issue decrees, and he was not permitted to exercise any form of patronage." He died in Paris, just as the city was being liberated in 1944.

In centuries past the caliphs took on the mantle of the Prophet. The Times, in its leader on the day after the caliph had been dismissed, wondered what had happened to that green garment. It reappeared in Kandahar in 1996, when the Taliban leader Mullah Omar appeared wearing it in public on a rooftop in the city. By doing so he was making the most open claim possible to be the caliph. A caliphate requires a caliph, and one of the reasons for the suspicion that rightly hangs around Hizb ut-Tahrir is the question of who that caliph would be.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A brilliant and subtly subversive exhibition

The Houghton Shahnama, courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network

You realise just how stupid a decision it was for London to refuse the Aga Khan planning permission to build a museum in the city at the Ismaili Centre's exhibition of artefacts from the Aga Khan's collection, entitled Spirit and Life. It only runs until the end of the month and, as the illustration above suggests, it is superb - and free to see. The items on display range in age from a page from a ninth century Cufic Qu'ran to a quirky twentieth century Sufi hat.
The exhibits - which are beautifully displayed - are quietly controversial. There are the familiar abstract geometric and foliage patterns that have come to epitomise Islamic art. But, to challenge that perception, there are dozens of different representations of the human form, as in the illuminated Shahnama above, many of them from Iran. In London they do not look as extraordinary as perhaps they should.
Further afield in the Islamic world, the sudden appearance of the human form is more arresting.

This picture shows one of the thirteenth century Bayil stones, which I saw in Baku last month. Taken from a nearby castle, they can now be found in the courtyard of the Shirvan Shahs' palace in the wonderful old city. The only other place where I have seen similar depictions of people in Islamic art is at Qasr Amra, in eastern Jordan. There the ceiling frescoes of this eighth century hunting lodge of the Umayyads have been badly damaged - whether by malice or the weather I am not sure - but, as you can see below, the energetic dancing girls painted to amuse the Caliphs can still be made out.
One connection links all three: all these representations were private art, bought by the seriously wealthy to be enjoyed beyond the general public's gaze. Thanks to the Aga Khan, we can now see many of them for ourselves - and savour their collector's poke in the eye for the petrodollar-fuelled Wahhabi extremists who would like to ban them. What a pity it is for London that the collection will be permanently housed in Toronto.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Speaking next in September

I'm next speaking to the Saudi British Society at the Middle East Association, 33 Bury Street, London SW1, early in the evening of Tuesday 11th September. If you are interested in coming, further details can be found here.

The date - a coincidence and not deliberate - is certainly a resonant one on which to speak about the Arab revolt, which began 91 years ago this year. It was in his first public announcement after 9/11 that Osama bin Laden claimed that "Our nation has been tasting humiliation and contempt for more than eighty years". Bin Laden shows a considerable awareness of the Arab revolt and its circumstances, and he understands how powerful an abbreviation for betrayal that episode has become across the Muslim world.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"Our man in Pakistan"

Listening to the radio news this morning, I particularly enjoyed novice Foreign Secretary David Miliband's description of President Musharraf as "Our Man in Pakistan". I wonder though, if President Musharraf will appreciate the implication that he is Britain's agent in the region. That after all, is what is helping to galvanise the groundswell of opposition to him.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Back from the Caucasus

Alaverdi, Northern Armenia
Back from three weeks in the southern Caucasus: a full report to follow shortly. It's good to return to find that there's now no longer any need for the Free Alan Johnston banner. Here is an interesting report from Conflicts Forum which provides more of the background to this welcome development, and emphasises the need for direct talks with Hamas, no matter how unpalatable that organisation's views can seem.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Missing Links

If, like me, you don't read or speak Arabic, then this blog, which provides quotes from, and commentary on, the Arabic press is very useful. I added it to my links recently but made no comment.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Out now!

The paperback edition of Setting the Desert on Fire is published by Bloomsbury today. You can buy it here and read customer reviews of the hardback here.

The book featured among the Daily Telegraph's Pick of the Paperbacks on Saturday and has also recently been added to the reading list for Cambridge University's undergraduate history course: TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell: Britain and the Arabs 1914-1922. See the full reading list here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Advice from the past

A handy guide from 1942

See this from Andrew Sullivan. The pdf is the thing to read. I disagree on his money quote; I would go for:

"You aren't going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. Just the opposite. We are fighting this war to preserve the principle of 'live and let live.'"

or maybe:

"Iraq has great military importance for its oil fields, with their pipelines to the Mediterranean Sea."

or perhaps, from the conversion table:

"100 Dinars........................................$402.00"

Today 100 Iraqi dinars is worth less than 8 US cents

And finally, the fact that this copy, in a university library in Dallas, Texas, was last borrowed in 1956.

The pamphlet is full of nuggets. Do read it.

The Sunni-Shia split

The Shia Al Askari mosque in Samarra has been bombed again. It looks like another attempt to deepen the black chasm between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country even further.

What is the origin of this divide? The answer lies thirteen hundred years ago.

The Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD quickly precipitated a factional dispute over who should follow him as Caliph – a title meaning “the successor”. The murder of the third Caliph, Uthman, opened a schism between the Muslims of Iraq and Syria. When the fourth Caliph, Ali, refused to denounce his predecessor’s killing, a Syrian named Muawiyyah took matters into his own hands and seized the title from Ali; by doing so Muawiyyah became the fifth Caliph; Ali was subsequently murdered.

Ali’s hard-line followers were shocked by their leader’s murder and the speed with which his son Hasan hurried to reach agreement with Muawiyyah. They turned to Ali’s second son, Husein, to front their cause, calling themselves the Shia – short for Shia’t Ali, or the followers of Ali. At Kerbela, southwest of Baghdad, in 681 they were surrounded and massacred by an army loyal to Muawiyyah’s son Yazid, who had by now inherited his father’s mantle.

Thirteen centuries on, processions of Shia flagellants still gorily commemorate the anniversary of Husein’s death. After Mecca and Medina the Iraqi cities of Najaf, where Ali is buried, and Kerbela, where his son Husein met his fate, are the holiest Shia sites in the world. The Shia remain outnumbered by the Sunnis by more than two to one today. The split has its origins in what is now Iraq.

The absence of Alan Johnston

The kidnap of BBC reporter Alan Johnston three months ago, has had an appreciable effect on the BBC's coverage of the developing chaos in the Gaza Strip, which has been building for several days. The BBC started reporting the crisis in detail last night, at least twenty-four hours after most of the events they were describing had happened. There has been a wave of appalling tit-for-tat killings. A commentator on the BBC's excellent World Tonight radio news last night (what a contrast in the amount of information you get compared to the simultaneous television news, where it's always "Back to you Huw") did not believe that this was the beginning of a civil war, but it looks like Fateh will withdraw from the "Unity" government and I fear revenge will take on a momentum of its own, despite the fact that most residents of the Gaza Strip deplore what is going on.

The fighting is fierce enough to prevent the journalists who are still there venturing out into the Gaza Strip but it is hard to believe that, had Mr Johnston not been abducted, the British public would have known rather sooner of the violence that is now drowning the Palestinian state.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Witness in Baghdad

The doughty Saad Eskander's diary for May can be read here. Electricity and water shortages in the Iraqi capital have been making life very difficult as the temperature soars and even Eskander's mood seems to darken by the month. If you haven't got time to read the whole, this excerpt gives a flavour of what life is like:

"one or my library workers approached me, asking if I would grant her one month paid leave, before she submitted a memorandum. After I asked her about the reason, she told me that she suffered from some heart problem. She needs to go abroad to have an operation on her heart, as most Iraqi heart surgeons left the country for fear of kidnapping and killing. So, we have not only political, security, electricity, water and economic crises, but also acute medical crisis. We have not enough good medicine, hospitals and experienced doctors. Only the well-off people can go abroad to receive good medical treatment. The poor has always been paying much heavier price then the others, since the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War in 1980. The night was as hot as the day. The sky was soon clouded. This what made the situation far worse. The temperature exceeded 42 centigrade. We did have national electricity for two days. We could not take frequent showers, as we have been suffering from water shortages for some time now. I was not able to use my generator for more than four hours, as I had little fuel to cool my very hot flat. The prices of fuel have gone up sharply in the black market, as our 'beloved hero' , the Minister of Oil, failed to put an end to the ongoing fuel crisis. Like all Baghdadis, we escaped to the roof, trying to have some fresh air; but there was not any. High temperature and humidity prevented my son and my wife from sleeping. They slept finally at 4.00, after the weather got a bit cooler."

Monday, June 11, 2007

Beyond the world of Big Brother and Paris Hilton

News that the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, had a close shave when he was rocketed earlier today has finally galvanised me into writing a post I have been planning for ages: a summary of what's been going on in Afghanistan, highlighting the best of the recent press coverage.

The attack on Karzai reflects the country's growing lawlessness, which was highlighted in a report last week in the Independent. It noted a sharp increase in attacks on UN aid trucks and said that the UN's own security assessment showed a severe deterioration in the south of the country. According to the UN, most of the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan is regarded as "an extreme risk/hostile environment", when last year, the estimate of these areas was that they were "high risk/volatile".

Despite the worsening violence, at this time of year the southern provinces attract men looking for work in harvesting the annual opium poppy crop. This article explains the dilemma itinerant workers face, while this piece reports collusion between the farmers, Taliban and the local police to share the wealth created by the crop.

In the meantime there is a new genre of article on Afghanistan, familiar to anyone following news coverage in Iraq: the article pointing to Iranian involvement. The BBC currently offers two examples. One report says that Iran is exerting increasing influence in the country ; another reports that a "sophisticated bomb" has been found on the streets of Kabul: interestingly, it does not say when. According to the article, this device's similarity to weapons used in Iraq suggests that there is a technology transfer going on between the two war-torn countries and, the author continues, citing unnamed sources, is evidence of Iranian interference in the country's insurgency. Bombmaking experts - one of whom I met a few weeks ago - say that "shaped charge" bombs are nothing new. They certainly are not proof of Iranian involvement.

An interesting article by a former Indian diplomat in the Asia Times suggested a political decision which may help explain the deterioration in the situation in Afghanistan. MK Bhadrakumar charts the decline to the decision at the end of last year by the Afghan Parliament to grant an amnesty to any Afghan involved in any war crime during the past twenty five years. "At a single stroke", he believes, "the December 31 amnesty move deprived the US of the one weapon that it wielded for blackmailing the 'warlords' into submission - powerful leaders of the Northern Alliance groups, the mujhideen field commanders, and petty local thugs alike. The prospect of a war-crime tribunal was held like a Damocles' sword over any recalcitrant Afghan political personality". The Afghans' decision reflects their own belief that the United States government no longer has the willingness to stay the course in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and once they go, dialogue with the Taliban will be necessary.

The parliamentary decision undermines the apparent progress the British are making in the south of Afghanistan. The British have been trying to provide enough stability to enable the renovation of the hydro-electric powerplant at the Kajaki dam in the north of Helmand province, a project designed to win over local support by restoring electricity, but to do so successfully they have to pacify the area between the dam and the regional capital Lashkar Gah, along the Helmand valley, which forms the main artery of communications and the major opium poppy growing district. Since the Taliban feed off the revenue that the poppy crop generates, the towns along the river, including Gereskh and Sangin have been fiercely fought over.

There has been some evidence that the British are making headway. First came the killing of the one-legged Taliban leader, Mullah Dadullah, a brilliant operation that took advantage of a botched hostage swap in which the Taliban were induced to exchange an Italian journalist they had kidnapped for a number of their captured colleagues. One of these prisoners was Dadullah's brother, who was followed on his release by British special forces to Dadullah himself. The swap, which was heavily criticised, itself sheds light on the new dynamic in Afghanistan identified by Bhadrakumar. Then came came a new British offensive to take control of Sangin, one of the major opium markets in the region. This operation was extensively reported in the Daily Telegraph. The article contains a sentiment echoed in another Times piece today, that the soldiers in Afghanistan feel that their efforts are barely being recognised, beyond sporadic reports of the rising British death toll. "There is a lot of hard graft and sacrifice. It means a lot to the blokes for their exploits to be recognised in a world fixated by Big Brother and Paris Hilton", says a British officer quoted in the Telegraph.

The method and the result of the British offensive are reported by Reuters. Whether the peace will hold remains to be seen.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Hay fever

Railway carriage, near Toweira station, Hijaz Railway
So the weather forecast isn't great but I am eagerly looking forward to my weekend trip to Hay-on-Wye, where I am speaking at the Festival at nine o'clock on Sunday morning, hail, rain or shine.

There will be slides - both pictures familiar if you've seen or read my book - and photographs like the one above that I took in the Hijaz mountains on the railway while doing my research in the Middle East. And there will be time for questions and ideas too.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Railways, religion and politics

Evidence of an earlier German railway project in the Middle East
Following the news last week that the Hijaz Railway is to be revived, another Middle East, railway related story caught my eye this morning. The Iranians have signed an agreement with a German company to build a high-speed "maglev" railway line from Teheran to Mashhad, a shrine for Shia pilgrims. A spokesman for the German firm brushes aside the threat of further sanctions on Iran. "The transportation of pilgrims", he says, "is certainly not a project that would fall in the remit of a political boycott." If he truly believes this, he is falling into the trap of trying to separate politics and religion in a part of the world where they are intertwined like arabesque designs.

In this project's likely underlying motive, its similarity with the Hijaz railway, 100 years old next year, is uncanny. The Times article says, almost in passing, that "The Iranians, for their part, appear determined to make the Shia shrine easily accessible across the region." And this is surely the crux of the matter. Some of the greatest beneficiaries would, of course, be the sizeable Shia population in Iraq. Like the Hijaz Railway, this new project is profoundly political. It is to win the gratitude of Shias worldwide, and along the way, cause disagreement in Europe on the need for tighter sanctions.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Struggling with the heat?

After a disappearance lasting several months, the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has magically reappeared in the holy city of Kufah, in Iraq. I've just watched him giving a press conference, half-hidden behind a battery of microphones. You can read the various theories why he has suddenly rematerialised here. Reuters adds that he is trying to reposition himself as a nationalist. In his sermon today he apparently called on his supporters to protect Sunnis and Christians from attack.

What was interesting was the way that Moqtada frequently wiped his face with a handkerchief throughout. His aides claim that he has been in Iraq throughout his absence. But it looked to me as if he was struggling with the heat. My guess, for what it's worth, is that he has just returned from somewhere rather higher and cooler, perhaps in the mountains across the Iranian border.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Greed and intrigue

The American edition of Setting the Desert on Fire is now finally coming together. After the publication of the Bloomsbury edition last summer I made further changes to the text to make the story tighter. My publisher WW Norton's Winter and Spring catalogue is now out. "Greed and intrigue", it says, "combine explosively in this gripping tale of how the mercurial Lawrence of Arabia changed the Middle East forever." Publication is set for February next year, and the book will include more of the photographs I took during my research, as well as photographs from the time.

Separately, and halfway round the world, Auckland City Library has nominated Setting the Desert on Fire as one of its "Good Reads" this month.

Monday, May 21, 2007

There's an interesting article in The Times today by Michael Binyon on the restoration of the Hijaz Railway, the old narrow gauge track that used to connect Damascus in Syria to Medina - 800 miles to the south - in modern Saudi Arabia. Connect them, that is, until the First World War enveloped the region and TE Lawrence arrived on the scene with copious quantities of dynamite.

Attempts since then to reconstruct the railway have always foundered. The line was surveyed in the 1960s but the Saudis' desire for isolation, and then, apparently, pressure from Saudia, the national airline which feared the cheaper competition, ensured that all efforts came to naught. Ambitions to resurrect travel down the railway voiced by successive directors of the forlorn Hijaz Railway office in Damascus have since been met with laughter.

Which is why this effort is all the more remarkable. Again, as was the case 100 years ago, the offer of foreign help has been the catalyst. In 1900 it was the Germans; today it is the Chinese. In 1900 German involvement in the project excited British suspicions. Although the single-track railway gave the Ottomans an artery that bypassed the British-controlled Suez canal, the line looked rather more sinister than it was in practice, for it never reached the coast because of violent tribal opposition. The Chinese have similar motives to the Germans. These are the desire to make money and win favour in the Arab world. It is good news that the first stretch that will be completed will connect Amman with Zarqa, the down-at-heel satellite suburb that infamously spawned the terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Anything that improves the economic prospects of this increasingly troubled region is to be welcomed.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Prince Harry - three thoughts

While I've been away, the Ministry of Defence here in Britain has finally decided not to allow Prince Harry to go with his unit to Iraq. Harry - third in line to the throne - was due to be posted imminently with the Blues and Royals. The announcement was a complete turn-around from the impression given last month by the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt - though the general made the caveat at the time that his decision would be kept under review if the situation deteriorated.

So what can we learn from this abrupt change of heart?

1) The situation in southern Iraq has worsened. There have been reports that militants were planning to target Prince Harry specifically and evidently these are being taken seriously. The insurgency appears therefore to be strengthening, despite claims yesterday by the Prime Minister that life in Iraq is getting better.

2) The question of whether Harry would serve in either Iraq or Afghanistan has been foreseeable since the day that he joined up: its handling by the Ministry of Defence has been butter-fingered to say the least. Expectations that Harry would serve on the frontline have been raised and then dashed. The result: the British army appears to be dancing to the insurgents' tune.

3) There is a strong historical parallel (which a friend reminded me of - I can't take the credit for this one). In the First World War the then Prince of Wales, Edward (second in line to the throne and who afterwards briefly became Edward VIII) pleaded to be allowed to fight on the Western Front. This was apparently vetoed by the British general Douglas Haig, who feared that Edward would be kidnapped by the Germans and used as a pawn. Edward became a staff officer who toured the various fronts. In his biography of Edward VIII Philip Ziegler takes the view that the prince did not care for what were essentially sightseeing trips. Preparing for the visits was also a distraction for the local officials concerned. When he visited Khartoum, Edward wrote of Sir Reginald Wingate, the governor general, that "He is HRHing the whole time and never relaxes a moment."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

America's "Reverse Midas Touch"

Here is another brilliant piece from the Conflicts Forum website on a mysterious effort from the English-speaking world to reinforce support for President Abbas in the Palestinian Territory which will have the opposite effect. If you don't have time to read it, the analysis in the final paragraph - reproduced below - neatly sums up the problem that dogs the current administration in the United States - and did so most acutely in their backing of the beleaguered Lebanese government recently.

"An American conviction that success — whether in business or politics — is always commensurate with purchasing power, never seems to be dampened by evidence to the contrary. In this case, the underlying assumption is that in throwing its weight behind Abbas and Fatah, the U.S. will ensure their success and hasten Hamas’ failure. What is ignored in this is America’s reverse-Midas touch. U.S. interference will only diminish the power, credibility, and legitimacy of its favored partner — in the process, the whole Palestinian Authority may collapse. In that event, Israel’s heavy military hand will push down even harder only to be met with renewed and determined resistance from the Palestinians. The result may well be that the Action Plan designed to shift power in accordance with Washington’s predilections, will instead turn out to be a clarion call for the next intifada."


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Are Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents in Iraq at odds?

A report the other day claiming that Abu Ayyub al-Masri, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, had been killed by rivals, suggested tensions between Al Qaeda and homegrown Sunni insurgents. Also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Al-Masri (which simply means 'the Egyptian') declared an Islamic State of Iraq in the west of the country early this year. This article and this one from Conflicts Forum provide more interesting detail on the split between the Sunni groups inside Iraq.

Even if the report is accurate, it does not give much cause for celebration. The insurgents say that their differences have not undermined their determination to expel foreign forces from the country, and in any case, the extent to which some sort of central Al Qaeda operation really determines the insurgents' strategy inside Iraq was questioned by the publication of this letter to a previous Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, late in 2005. Rather, it seems the Al Qaeda banner is one adopted locally by a particular insurgent faction to give itself greater credibility.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Harold Nicolson and Nicolas Sarkozy

As France went to the polls to choose its next president yesterday, I was reading Harold Nicolson's diary during the 1919 Peace Conference and came across a pithy observation about the French that rings a bell.

"One must force oneself to see the French point of view and to visualise in terms of their minds the nightmare of French security. They are a profoundly defensive people. And they long to create a ditch between themselves and the outer world."

(1 May 1919)

The reaction here in Britain to Nicolas Sarkozy's victory has been broadly positive. For too long France has been stuck with obstinately high unemployment. Its 35 hour week - an ill-conceived idea designed to share the work around - only served to make employers less willing to recruit at all. A massive brain-drain has followed. Travel into London from the west on the District Line in the rush hour and you will almost always hear French being spoken. There are an estimated 300,000 French men and women in Britain now and the average age of those of them who had registered to vote in this election was 29.

Mr Sarkozy billed himself as the candidate who will face up to these problems. Yet whether he really believes in the economic liberalism that will be necessary and has the courage to force it through against the militant reaction for which the French are unfortunately world-renowned, remains to be seen. Here he is speaking about the European Union with words which would be familiar to Nicolson. “It must not be the Trojan horse for globalisation’s ills,” he said. I have yet to be convinced that he will live up to already-high expectations.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A kiss lands Ahmadinejad in trouble

I can't claim I know much about the Byzantine complexity of Iranian politics. But I think this story - and I wish I could reproduce the picture - gives us a fascinating glimpse into the tensions at the top. President Ahmadinejad (his blog and the comments make intriguing reading) is portrayed in the west as an Islamic extremist. And yet here he is being attacked by the real hardliners for kissing his teacher's hand. He looks moderate by comparison with the theocrats. Note the parallels too, with the outrage that followed in India when Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty - admittedly with rather more gusto.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I've been lucky recently: I've hit a rich vein of fascinating books. The latest is Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It is an astonishing, darkly funny read, which shows what happened when the acolytes of neo-conservative ideology collided with the reality of Iraq. I am less than halfway through but key among the failures so far was the de-Baathification programme, which disqualified most of the key personnel in Iraq's one-party state and command economy from holding any kind of office, creating unemployment, resentment and the seeds of the later insurgency at a stroke.

Hindsight of course is a wonderful thing, but eighty years earlier the British had done much the same thing, dismissing the existing Ottoman administration in Iraq - composed mainly of Sunni Arabs, as it was in 2003 - and replacing them with British political officers, with disastrous consequences.

Then this evening I happened to read a comment by Gertrude Bell in January 1921, when she was looking back on what might have been. "Think" she wrote to her father, "if we had begun establishing native institutions two years ago! By now we should have got Arab govt and an Army going; we should have had no tribal revolt; all the money and lives wasted this year would have been saved."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Desert of Death

I've just finished reading Desert of Death by Leo Docherty. Docherty, a former Scots Guards officer, left the army after criticising British tactics in southern Afghanistan. The short book, which fleshes out his argument, covers episodes from his tour in Iraq and a few weeks at the very start of the campaign in Helmand before he left the army. He left just as the violence erupted there last June and he documents the uneasy "peace" and tensions in the market town of Sangin on the Helmand river just beforehand. Although he says on the dustjacket that he's "not a journalist or a writer", this turns out to be rubbish, because he writes well and has a sharp eye for telling detail. What is clear is the sense of powerlessness of the British soldiers in Sangin at that time. With no Foreign Office or DFID support they are unable to promise anything by way of the reconstruction which was the strategic cornerstone of the British deployment.

The problem arose from the departure from the original "inkspot" plan which aimed to use the limited British resources to achieve proper security in the area immediately around the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and deliver reconstruction that would become the envy of people living in the surrounding area. With public opinion behind the British presence, the strategy ran, the inkspot would gradually grow. However, the provincial governor ordered the dispersal of British forces to support his local administrators around the province. Now isolated and vulnerable to attack, the British have had to rely increasingly on heavy firepower - either artillery or aerial support from bombers and Apache attack helicopters - to defend themselves. As Docherty points out, even when used carefully these are "blunt edged, indiscriminate weapons that have "killed numerous civilians".

All this makes the Sunday Telegraph's report at the weekend all the more disturbing. It described "a new, aggressive, approach adopted by American forces in southern Afghanistan and particularly in Helmand" involving the Apache helicopters. One American pilot is quoted saying: "The Brits are good but they don't have the extreme aggression that we do." The pilots admit that their speed and the intensity means that there is little time to separate the enemy from the local inhabitants who are, as Docherty extremely difficult to identify. "The enemy cannot simply be described as 'Taliban'", he writes, "A Helmand poppy farmer can hang up his hoe over lunchtime, pick up his Kalashnikov, shoot at the British and be back in the fields for the rest of the afternoon. The farmer has nothing ideologically in common with the Taliban but they may share a common aim, for example the absence of foreign troops, for different motives." That distinction is lost on the US Apache pilots. "When you are on top of the enemy you look, shoot and it's, 'You die, you die, you die'", says another quoted in the Telegraph. So much for reconstruction.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Hay Festival

Several years ago I walked the length of Offa's Dyke with a friend. We were at school and did the southern half one summer holiday, and the rest the next after we had finished our A-Levels. The Welsh Marches - the frontier between England and Wales that the dyke originally delineated and which was then fortified by castles in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries - are undoubtedly my favourite part of lowland Britain. In March 1188 Gerald of Wales came through the border town of Hay-on-Wye with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was on a recruiting tour for the Crusades; Jerusalem had been captured by the Turks the previous year. Gerald recorded that "we saw a great number of men who wanted to take the Cross come running towards the castle where the Archbishop was, leaving their cloaks behind in the hands of their wives and friends who had tried to hold them back."

I'm really pleased that I've been invited to speak at this year's Hay Festival. I'll be talking about the book on Sunday 3 June, the Festival's last day, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

ABC's Book Show

To my surprise I've discovered I made an appearance on Australian ABC's Book Show earlier this week, talking about my book at last summer's Edinburgh Book Festival. Click here for the programme and fast-forward 29 minutes to hear what I said.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mixed views of the Australians

Today is, or nearly, was, Anzac Day. 92 years ago today a force comprising a substantial number of Australians and New Zealanders landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Dardanelles. They were the spearhead of a brave and very risky attempt to grab the Ottoman Empire by the throat. Having landed on the Gallipoli peninsula the force was supposed to advance north-eastwards to Constantinople, the capital, knock the Ottomans out of the war and open a new front against the Germans.

In theory it was a brilliant plan. In practice, of course, it turned out to be a disaster. There was too little preparation, surprise or firepower. There were a quarter of a million casualties. yet, as its continuing commemoration indicates, the operation sealed the reputation of both Australian and New Zealander troops. Britain owes both nations a great debt.

That winter Gallipoli was abandoned. The British army - as it was called - withdrew to Egypt to lick its wounds. There there were problems with discipline. The British general, Sir Archibald Murray, reviewed the Australians' strengths and weaknesses and it was his memorable opinion that came to mind today. “They are unquestionably from a physical point of view a magnificent body of men and hard and fit as they can possibly be. The finest by far that I have ever seen. As regards discipline, I wish to make it clear that I have never seen any body of men in uniform with less idea of discipline. Drunkenness is extraordinarily prevalent, and many of the men seem to have no idea of ordinary decency or self control. ”

Sir William Birdwood - the Anzacs' British commander - tried to temper that opinion. But he acknowledged, wonderfully, that “On the [Gallipoli] Peninsula we certainly had two great advantages: One, drink was unobtainable; two, there were no women.”

(Source: British Library Add Mss 52463, Egypt 1916-17, Private letters between General Sir William Robertson and General Sir Archibald Murray, Privately printed in 1932. Murray to Robertson, March 1916, and Birdwood to Murray, 25 February 1916.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

A sharp rise in British casualties in Iraq

These tables on the Ministry of Defence website document the sharp increase in British casualties and fatalities in Iraq so far this year. The figures do not include the numbers for April: so far this month 10 servicemen and women have lost their lives, according to the Daily Telegraph. The two deaths yesterday happened in Maysan province, where the handover from the British to the Iraqis is being portrayed as a sign of growing stability.

One figure stands out. After three months of the year, the total of seriously and very seriously injured/wounded (at 24) is already 80% of the full-year total for last year. It suggests that there has been a dramatic increase in violence directed at British troops.

A report in The Times today also shows how the numbers of physically injured are dwarfed by the numbers of soldiers suffering from combat stress.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How American's Arab experts were sidelined

Here's a thoughtful, fascinating article on the US government's use (and failure to use) Arabists in Iraq. There's not much to add, save to say that you might enjoy reading the splendid debunking of Edward Said by Robert Irwin, which was published recently.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The poppy harvest

Here's an interesting article on the poppy harvest in Helmand, southern Afghanistan.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Books, tears and blood

You can read Saad Eskander's diary for March here. Amid his description of his attempt to live a normal life in Baghdad, he covers the bombing of the Al-Mutanabi book market: "Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The diplomatic dividend of dealing with Syria

It looks as if the Iranians are about to release the 15 British service personnel they captured in the northern Gulf. Earlier today the Syrians said that they had played a role in mediating between the Iranians and the British and bringing the matter to a conclusion. The British have been cultivating the Syrians for some time and this has brought a diplomatic dividend now.

Contrast that with the slating Nancy Pelosi has received from the White House for meeting the Syrian President Bashar Assad. The White House says that Pelosi is sending the wrong signals; but the fact is, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation - and it is a complex one - the Syrians are influential in the region. No peace deal will be achieved without their backing, and that is something the White House needs to accept.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Venice - gateway to the east

Venice: built on the infamous Fourth Crusade

The sun was shining in Venice this morning, where I've just spent a few days. What I liked most about the city was the feeling that it is the gateway to the east. Lofty campanili poke like minarets above the skyline. Buildings like the fifteenth century Doge's Palace have distinctly arabesque architecture. The canals smell rankly of sewage. The galleries are full of paintings of the martyrdoms of saints by men in turbans. The zenith of this genre came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just as the threat from the Muslim Ottomans was at its height. The paintings were designed to rally public opinion against the enemy in no less compromising a way than the crusading rhetoric of George W Bush.

Venice was the starting point for the infamous Fourth Crusade. Viewing the expedition as a commercial opportunity, the Doge apparently offered the crusaders transport and armed galleys if they would agreed to a straight split of any booty. Having watched money evaporate from my wallet over the last four days, I know the sensation.

The numbers volunteering for the crusade proved disappointing however, and the expedition plunged into debt. At this point, the Venetians offered to restructure what they were owed if the crusaders would help them capture the city of Zadar on the opposite coast of the Adriatic. The only hitch was that Zadar was then part of Hungary, whose king had himself supported the crusade. The pope - who had called for the crusade in the first place and could see its momentum ebbing - forbade this diversion. When the crusaders ignored him and captured Zadar late in 1202, he excommunicated them. It was there that the crusaders were approached with yet another plan, to restore the former Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Isaac Angelus, on the throne. The Doge, who wanted to cut a better set of trade agreements with Constantinople, supported this idea. Thus it was that Constantinople was sacked by the crusaders in 1204, who had entered the city on ladders made from the spars of the Venetian ships which had carried them there. St Mark's Cathedral in Venice today is a rococo confection of stones taken from Constantinople. Venice, the gateway to the east, was built on the profit of this most infamous crusade.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A new Dark Age?

The historian Ben Macintyre wrote an article in The Times the other day voicing his concern that “there is a real danger that technology will leave much of the electronically written record marooned and illegible.” His central point is that while we document our lives better than ever before – in computer documents, a welter of emails and billions of text messages – no-one makes much effort to keep this material for posterity in a way (ie on paper) that will make it easily accessible to the historians of tomorrow. His fear is that this era will become a new Dark Age, as impenetrable in a thousand years’ time as the period after the Roman Empire is to us today, and illuminated only by a few remaining sagas, perhaps works like Harry Potter. Disturbing a thought though this is (I suppose because it confronts the human instinct to be remembered by posterity), having had a lengthy think about it I think his worries are exaggerated.

Macintyre’s worry is one peculiar to modern historians. His excellent latest book Agent Zigzag uses newly released transcripts from interrogations of a famous double agent, Eddie Chapman, by the British security service MI5 to build a rich and fascinating spy-story. My own book similarly relies on hours spent mining The National Archives in London, looking for nuggets that I could use to tell the story. The thought that the often hilariously cynical observations of future civil servants and ministers might never see the light of day (and provide us with a future advance) strikes dread into the modern historian’s heart: particularly when one thinks of the promisingly confessional effect that email seems to have.

The archives of the British government since its vast expansion in Napoleonic times are an amazing, and completely extraordinary resource. Few other countries in the world have such a comprehensive record of modern times. But the danger in relying on them overly is that they encourage us to exaggerate the importance and effectiveness of government. Reading through the archives makes one quickly aware that much of the time officials and politicians are buffeted by what Harold MacMillan famously called “events”. That – with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight – is precisely what provides the entertainment.

In truth historians of most other periods and of wider society have to put up with written records that are fragmentary at best. Science increasingly can help to fill in the gaps: from long dead humans’ hair and bone for example we can tell what they ate, far more reliably than if we could have interviewed them ourselves. Forensic techniques, as I discovered in my research, open other doors. And legal records, like lawyers’ briefs, and court reports, or transcripts of inquisitions taken as the thumbscrews were turned continue to be produced in hard copy. Our concerns about the rubbish we throw away today, and its biodegradability will not be shared by future historians, who will be able to build an incomparably detailed picture of our lives tomorrow from the landfills of today. And who knows what ingenuity will enable people in the future to decipher electronic data from the zip-disks we throw away.

That said, Macintyre makes a basic point. History emphasises the achievements of life’s hoarders. So if you want to guarantee yourself a prominent position in the history of today a thousand years from now, print off and file your emails.