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.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Slavery in the Arab world

"There was still slavery there when I went in the 1960s." With this aside, Michael Binyon, The Times's resident expert on the Middle East, produced perhaps his most resonant description of the backwardness of Saudi Arabia. It was January 2005, and I was still trying to get a visa to visit the country to complete my ground-work for Setting the Desert on Fire. Mr Binyon had kindly agreed to meet me, and thought that my hopes of going were mad to say the least, since violence against westerners was on the rise.

Michael Binyon's reference to slavery returned to me this week amid commemorations of the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade here in Britain. When, having ignored his advice, I finally got to Saudi two months later, the signs of that trade were very visible. In Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, black African faces mingle with Arab. Yet interestingly, despite the obvious difference in appearance they are regarded as just as Arab as the local Bedu. The reason for this was explained partly in a BBC radio programme yesterday, when an expert on the Arab slave trade explained that, whereas in the British trade (which was focused on providing labour on the plantations) men outnumbered women two to one, in the Arab trade, that ratio was reversed. The simple reason was sex: east African women were enslaved and shipped to Arab lands as concubines. Truly degrading though the practice was, it is interesting that the offspring of these unions were much more readily accepted into Arab society than is the case elsewhere.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Speaking on Thursday in Oxford

The Oxford skyline
I'm speaking at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival this Thursday about TE Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, the subjects of my book. I'll be showing some slides I took during my travels in the Middle East as well and there will be time for questions and discussion.

The venue is Festival Room 1, at Christ Church, starting at 2.30pm. Tickets (yours for the princely sum of £7) can now be bought at the Festival Box Office, which is located beside the college in a Marquee in Christ Church Meadows off St Aldates.

My next planned talk is at the Royal United Services Institute, on the inauspicious Friday 13th July.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Churchill/Lloyd George relationship

Last week I started reading Richard Toye’s new book, Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness. Toye must be relieved that it got a good review in the Sunday Times at the weekend after a pasting from Martin Gilbert in the Spectator. Gilbert demolished Toye’s claim that Churchill had written an anti-Semitic article in 1937 by pointing out that the piece in question was ghosted by a journalist for Churchill. It was never published.

Toye sets out to show that the relationship between the Churchill and Lloyd George was rather more fraught than Churchill later made it out to be. There is nothing particularly new in this for anyone who has read some correspondence between the two men. The friendship, if it was one, was uncomfortably one-sided. Churchill saw himself as Lloyd George’s friend while Lloyd George saw his colleague - when it suited him - as a useful ally. He was very bitchy about Churchill behind his back.

From what I have read generally, Churchill’s relationship with Lloyd George soured as it became clear that Lloyd George’s determination to force tough terms on Turkey after the First World War would make Churchill’s job much harder. The reason for this was that Churchill, as Secretary of State for War and then as the Colonial Secretary was responsible for trying to withdraw troops from Iraq: at first, as part of an economy drive, and then, following the revolt in Iraq in 1920, as a way of reducing the British presence which had encouraged the rebellion. His task would have been much easier had Britain come to terms with Turkey, which bordered the north of Iraq. Lloyd George, however, refused to temper his position, which was based more on a visceral dislike of the Turks than on Britain's national interest. As a result Churchill spent much of the time worrying about the threat of a Turkish invasion of Iraq.

On 4 December 1920 Churchill wrote to Lloyd George saying that he was “sorry how far we are drifting apart on foreign policy”.

“It seems to me a most injurious thing that we, the greatest Mohammedan power in the world, [should] be the leading Anti-Turk power. The desire you have to retain Mosul - & indeed Mesopotamia – is directly frustrated by this vendetta against the Turks.”

“I deeply regret and resent being forced to ask Parlt for these appalling sums of money for new Provinces – all the more when the pursuance of the anti-Turk policy complicates and aggravates the situation in every one of them, & renders cheaper solutions impossible.” (Churchill Archive, CHAR 2/111)

There’s an interesting parallel between Lloyd George and Churchill and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown today. One gets the sense that once Lloyd George became Prime Minister, his relationship with Churchill became distinctly tense, just the same dynamic that affected Blair and Brown, who originally shared an office together in Westminster. Churchill, like Brown, was too big a beast to be excluded from the government. Churchill’s ambitions, like Brown’s, were constantly restrained by the knowledge that his own position depended on the patronage of the Prime Minister.

Friday, March 16, 2007


This item caught my eye this morning. A Swiss museum is returning its collection of Afghan artefacts to Kabul a decade after they were donated to keep them out of the hands of the Taliban. It was triggered by the calculation that Afghanistan is now stable enough: you may share my uncertainty over whether this decision is a little premature.

The event is being billed as "one of the biggest repatriations of a country's cultural heritage since World War II". Reading between the lines it adds to pressure on the British government to sanction what is known as restitution: the return of items like the Elgin Marbles or the Benin bronzes to their countries of origin.

A friend of mine is an expert on this (see him here hard at work on his research) but I think that there is a powerful argument in favour of any nation's cultural heritage being dispersed around the world. Dispersal is the best insurance policy. In Iraq and Afghanistan museums have been looted and their contents smashed respectively. Had items from either place held by the British Museum already been returned they would probably now be missing or destroyed. Similarly, I am always amused by the shameless determination of the Chinese government to reclaim Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts taken by Sir Aurel Stein, given the efforts they have gone to to pulverise Tibetan culture. Just as Britain prides itself a safe-haven for refugees so it should resist the calls to hand back historic artefacts in its care.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A push for more Pashtu speakers

This article reveals a substantial weakness in Britain's effort in Afghanistan: a lack of qualified Pashtu speakers. The British armed forces and diplomatic service have never had many people who could speak the language - I would be surprised if more than a handful speak Pashtu really fluently. Ironically, the "fall" of the Pashtu-speaking Taliban in 2001 probably reduced the pressure to produce more Pashtu speakers, as it was assumed that other Afghan languages like Dari might now predominate. Instead the need has never been greater.

Part of the problem was also a lack of qualified teachers and attractive textbooks. Until 2001 (indeed perhaps it's still the case) diplomats learning Pashtu made do with a grammar that was first published at the turn of the twentieth century prompted, as its author makes clear in the preface, by the experience of the second Afghan war - which Britain won.

The dividend of speaking Pashtu was set out shortly before that war by SS Thorburn. He wrote in 1876:

"The delight of a hill Pathan in being addressed by a Sahib in his mother Pashto is always genuine and irrepressible; his whole face, which ordinarily wears a fixed touch-me-if-you-dare almost defiant expression, breaks into one broad grin as he wonderingly asks you, "Eh, you talk Pashto, how did you learn it?" It is just the sort of question a Highlander would ask did a Southerner address him in Gaelic. The gain in personal influence, besides other advantages, which an ability to converse directly with the people gives an Englishman amongst Pathans is so obvious that I need not dilate on it."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Shia among Sunnis

The BBC reports that earlier today Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki made a surprise visit to Ramadi, a town on the river Euphrates fifty miles west of Baghdad, infamous today as a hotbed of Sunni insurgency.

The visit echoes a similar effort in 1921 to introduce Iraq's new king, Feisal, to the two most loyal tribes of the upper Euphrates, which had been an epicentre of the uprising a year before. Gertrude Bell described the meeting at Ramadi in July 1921 in a letter to her father.

"I washed and changed - we were grey with dust - and drove down to the Euphrates bank where Ali Sulaiman [the chief of the Dulaim, a local tribe] had pitched a huge tent of ten poles - ie about 200 ft long - with a dais at the upper end {covered} roofed with tent cloth and walled with fresh green boughs. Outside were drawn up the camel riders of the Dulaim, their horsemen and their standard carried by a negro mounted on a gigantic white camel; inside the tribesmen lined the tent 5 or 6 deep from the dais to the very end. Feisal sat on the high diwan with Fahad [leader of the other major local tribe, the Aniza] on his right while Major Yetts and I brought up people to sit on his left - those we thought he ought to speak to. He was supremely happy - a great tribesman amongst famous tribes and, as I couldn't help feeling, a great Sunni among Sunnis. The truth is I'm becoming a Sunni myself; you know where you are with them, they are staunch and they are guided, according to their lights, by reason; whereas with the Shi'ahs, however well intentioned they may be, at any moment some ignorant fanatic of an 'alim [an expert on Islam] may tell them that by the order of God and himself they are to think differently."

Just like Feisal, Mr Maliki went to Ramadi to seek recognition and reconciliation. Unlike Feisal, however, he is a Shia. It remains to be seen whether his attempt to reconcile Iraq's now bitterly divided population can succeed.

Friday, March 09, 2007

What a Sham

Syrian-Iranian relations reach new heights with the inauguration of a car plant which is a joint venture between the two countries.

However, just as Rolls Royce had trouble selling its Silver Mist in Germany, where Mist means dung (or worse), the name the Syrians have chosen for the model that will start rolling off the production line from April, means they probably can't expect too many orders from the English-speaking export market.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The surge: is it just squeezing the balloon?

The general in command of US troops in Iraq, David Petraeus, is due to give his first press conference later this morning. He has just been granted more than 2,000 extra military police to assist his operations. His spokesman has just been interviewed on the radio, and claims that there has been a 50% reduction in murders and executions since the beginning of the troop surge a month ago. A handful of families have returned home, and for the first time there is greater interaction between Baghdad's residents and the security forces - both Iraqi and American. He did concede however, that the clampdown in the capital may simply have displaced the violence to other cities - squeezing the balloon and not popping it.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Thoughts for the day

A couple more pertinent thoughts from Gertrude Bell, grappling in 1920 with the task of setting up a representative secular government in Iraq and on the conflict of loyalties among the Shia.

"The Shi'ah problem is probably the most formidable in this country. ...'Abdul Majid said "What are you going to do if the chief mujtahid, whose voice is the voice of God, issues a fatwah that no Shi'ah is to sit in the Legislative Assembly" - while the govt was under the British Mandate, he meant - "or when a law is being debated, suppose the mujtahid* cuts in with a fatwah that it's against canon law and must be rejected, irrespective of other considerations?" Imagine the Pope excercising [sic] real temporal authority in Italy and obstructing the Govt at every turn, and you have the position. The remedy is, over time, that which has been found in Italy. Pope and mujtahid end by being regarded merely as silly old men; but we haven't reached that stage here yet. But if you're going to have anything like really representative institutions - always remember that the Turks hadn't; there wasn't a single Shi'ah deputy - you would have a majority of Shi'ahs. ...I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil."

3 October 1920
"One of the difficulties is that all or nearly all the leading men of the Shi'ah towns are Persian subjects and must be made to adopt Mesopotamian nationality before they had take official positions in the Mesopotamian state."

1 November 1920
*Mujtahid: a Shi'ite qualified to give opinions on the interpretation of Islamic, Sharia, law.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Helmand offensive under way

Reuters is reporting that a major NATO offensive began in Helmand, southern Afghanistan at dawn today. It looks as if the combined attempts to secure the hydroelectric dam at Kajaki in the north of the province and the power lines running from it down the Helmand valley through Sangin, and by disrupting the imminent opium harvest, have started.

Out of the box thinking

This article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker is well worth a read. But it is long, so if you don't have the time, here is a rough summary of the content.

1) As the situation in Iraq has deterioriated, Iran has emerged the clear winner from the US decision to invade the country in 2003.

2) The deterioration, and Iran's ascendancy, have prompted the US to embark on a "new direction". This includes:

a) accusing Iran of active involvement in the killing of US troops inside Iraq to create a casus belli for possible US action inside Iran;

b) portraying the Sunni states (including Saudi Arabia) as moderates, and Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon as extremists with an intent to destabilise the region;

c) building a coalition of the "moderates", and encouraging better relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel to resist the rise of Shiite Iran (which helps explain why the Saudis tried to broker the "peace deal" between Hamas and Fatah at Mecca);

d) running a programme of covert action out of the vice-President Dick Cheney's office to undermine Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria. This uses funds designated for US operations in Iraq (and therefore impossible to account for) to pay the Saudis and the Jordanians to back Sunni extremists, and to seek evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq using special forces now operating inside Iran.

3) As Hersh points out, if accurate, this is a fundamental sea change. The policy has echoes of the Iran-Contra scandal, Cambodia, and most recently, Afghanistan. Effectively, desperation is forcing the US administration to fund exactly the groups which are behind the radicalisation of the Middle East and the emergence of Al-Qaeda. And at the heart of the strategy is a trust in Saudi Arabia which can most charitably be described as touching. One unnamed US government source tells Hersh that the Saudis have assured the White House that they will "keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was 'We've created this movement, and we can control it.' It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran."

It's worth remembering when considering the value of this assurance and the wisdom of the strategy Hersh is describing that fourteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals. As Vali Nasr, of the US Council on Foreign Relations is quoted observing, "The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can’t put them back."

Monday, March 05, 2007

Maliki under pressure

The BBC reports that the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has condemned a joint British and Iraqi raid on the National Iraqi Intelligence Agency headquarters in Baghdad.

To justify their action in raiding the HQ, the British issued a statement that they had found "around 30 prisoners, including a woman and two children, who were being held, and many of whom showed signs of torture and abuse". This is important because Mr Blair based much of his case for war on Saddam Hussein's record of torture. In his now infamous speech on 24 September 2002, he specifically drew attention to Saddam's "routine butchering of political opponents, the prison 'cleansing' regimes in which thousands die, the torture chambers and the hideous penalties supervised by him and his family." Saddam and his family may no longer be around to supervise, but it appears the torture chambers and the hideous penalties are still be used in earnest. And Mr Maliki seems to be condoning their use.

It looks as if Mr Maliki is feeling the heat of a distinct increase in the pressure on the Shia population, who he has been criticised for favouring in the past. Also yesterday (Sunday) US and Iraqi troops entered Sadr City, a run-down Shia district of north-east Baghdad in their effort to crack down on the militias thought to be based there. Mr Maliki is apparently considering a Cabinet reshuffle in which it is rumoured he will sack the six supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who criticised the security crackdown in the capital. Sadr made himself scarce shortly before the troop "surge" began.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The faintest glimmer of light?

Reuters is reporting that, at 1,645, the number of civilians killed in Iraq was the lowest for four months, though still three times the death toll in the same month last year. These monthly figures, together with US military casualty figures, are likely to become the benchmark of whether the US government's counter-insurgency strategy is having any positive effect.

The American predicament

There's an interesting article in the Guardian today about the brains trust advising the top US General in Iraq, David Petraeus. They believe they have six months to turn the situation around. It is not an enviable predicament, because they are fighting for hearts and minds not only in Iraq but in America as well. The problem for the commanders on the ground is that they are having to launch dangerous urban operations to clamp down on the militias in Baghdad, which they know will inevitably lead to more US casualties, just as domestic public opinion in the United States is softening. And they are having to do so without the necessary number of troops: effective counter-insurgency is very labour-intensive. The question is whether they can accomplish the task before public support completely evaporates, given that the harder they try to tackle the militias the more US deaths there will be, and the more US voters will turn against the policy.

Added to this dilemma is the fact that any American military action in Iran would only worsen the problem. Boris Johnson covers this vividly in the Daily Telegraph. The problem is, I suppose, that if the Iranians correctly recognise the fundamental weakness of the American position, ignore the sabre-rattling and persist in their nuclear ambitions, they will make belligerent action against themselves more likely. And bearing that in mind, an American offensive against Iran would be a sign of weakness, and not of strength.