Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Iraq in fragments

Iraq in Fragments; Mohammed is bullied by his guardian/boss, Abu Ziad

Last Friday I went to see James Longley's acclaimed film, Iraq in fragments, at the ICA in London. The film tells three stories: the first of a boy named Mohammed working in an oily workshop in Baghdad. The second chronicles the rise of Moqtada al Sadr in Najaf and Nasariyeh. There is disturbing footage of his militiamen beating up men accused of selling alcohol in one of Nasariyeh's markets, and of the rise of a determined young mullah, Sheikh Aws, on a tannoyed manifesto of anti-American rhetoric. Then finally and thankfully the scene shifts to Kurdistan, where a young man named Suleiman works as a shepherd and in the brick kiln, though his father has plans for him to become an imam. If you want an unsettling portrait of what life was like in Iraq in 2003-04, this is a film you must see.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Poppy harvest update

Amid the first signs of friction between the United States and the British there's a debate in Afghanistan going on about whether or not to spray the poppy crop which is currently growing in the country, to destroy it. The American government backs spraying. The British - worried about a local backlash - do not. Today Associated Press reports that the new governor of Helmand has ruled it out, though somehow I doubt that his intervention will end the argument. The sense of urgency of these discussions is because the weather conditions have apparently been perfect for opium poppy farming and the harvest is expected to begin early, in March.

In the meantime, the British Medical Association has stepped in, suggesting that Afghan farmers should be licensed to produce the crop, to legalise their way of life and help end a shortage of diamorphine in the National Health Service. Critics of this idea say that the drug smugglers can always offer more for the crop. The other way to deprive the Taliban of this major source of revenue, of course, would be to legalise the drug in Britain. And I look forward to meeting the politician brave enough to advocate that...

Education, education, education

(Image courtesy Greg Mortenson, Central Asia Institute)

Writing about education in Afghanistan the other day reminded me about a project in the region that I've wanted to write about for a while. American Greg Mortenson has been setting up schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1993 when he attempted to climb the world's second highest mountain, K2. Since then, according to his website, he has set up 58 schools, which have educated as many as 14,000 children. I came across his work at the end of a walk through the Karakoram mountains of northern Pakistan, in the moutain village of Hushe.
Much is made of the role that religious schools - madrassahs - have played in the radicalisation of young men in the lawless border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, Mortenson is going about providing an alternative: balanced education, particularly for girls, which provides a bulwark against extremism. His book, Three Cups of Tea, which I am going to read, is published here in February. As the politicians begin to realise that the "War on Terror" cannot be won by force, Mortenson's work deserves much wider recognition and support.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The media-savvy Taliban

One of the points Sean Langan made last night in the question and answer session after his film was that the Taliban are becoming increasingly media-savvy. Previously, the Taliban actively avoided publicity and obstructed reporters who wanted to film. Now, both Sean Langan and David Loyn have been able to meet the Taliban.

The Taliban have taken this battle for hearts and minds to a new level with their announcement today that they will spend $1 million building new schools in the south of Afghanistan. Deeply cynical though this announcement is - the Taliban's campaign of terror has been behind the destruction and closure of schools across Afghanistan - it is designed to capitalise on the dissatisfaction the Afghans feel with their government, because of its failure to deliver over the last five years. It will be interesting to see whether the promise is followed up by action. But unless foreign governments can dramatically improve the lives of ordinary people across the country soon, they will quickly lose what little local sympathy they still have.

"Fighting the Taliban"

Last night I went to the Frontline Club to see a screening of Sean Langan's documentary "Fighting the Taliban", which was aired on Channel Four's Dispatches recently. With Channel Four coming in for so much stick at the moment, it's worth pointing out that this was an awesome piece of reporting, much of it punctuated by the snapping of enemy bullets passing within feet of the camera. Sean Langan's friend Toby Young quoted him quoting Churchill in The Spectator recently: "Winston Churchill was right", said Langan over dinner back in Britain, "There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result." Having survived the ordeal, Langan brought back impressive footage showing the difficulties the British are facing, with enormous courage, in southern Afghanistan at present.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Fallen columns at Apamea, Syria

At the weekend I went to see the Georg Gerster exhibition of aerial photographs at the British Museum. The exhibition has been well advertised around London - and it was a picture of Apamea in Syria on one of those ads that caught my eye. The exhibition combines the photographs with related items from the British Museum's collection - and reminds the visitor just how broad the collection is. I suspect many people go along for a different perspective of places they have been to see. Syria, Jordan and Iraq are all well covered.
Unfortunately, though, the photographs are poorly displayed. A couple of weeks ago I went to see another photography exhibition at the Natural History Museum. All the photographs there were displayed as backlit transparencies (much as a photograph looks like on a computer screen) and they looked vivid and superb. By contrast, Gerster's photographs were simply printed onto board. Given the £5 entry - and the exhibition was very busy - it's a cheap option, and it looked it.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Armenian writer murdered

This is a nasty piece of news from Turkey. And it is absurd for the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to say that the murder was a “bullet fired against free speech and democracy” when Mr Dink and many others have been found guilty by the Turkish courts of “insulting Turkishness”. Their “offence” is their refusal to gloss over the Armenian genocide which took place during the First World War following the Sultan’s call for jihad on 14 November 1914.

Interestingly, a Turkish press is interested in publishing my book in Turkish. In it there is a passing reference to the genocide. I shall be watching closely to ensure that it is not edited out of the translation.

The Turks are a proud people but they have to come to terms with the past.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tribes and towns

Due to the wonders of technology I am actually able to write this direct from the Churchill Archive in Cambridge, where I am working today.

Following the revolt in Iraq in 1920, Sir Percy Cox, a popular British officer who had been the chief political officer in Baghdad during the First World War, was brought back to serve as High Commissioner. Coccus, as he was known to the Iraqis, was clearly the linchpin. As one of his colleagues wrote: "the whole apparatus of administration is held together simply by Sir Percy’s personality." The official went on to have a dig at Lawrence, whom, he said thought that it would be possible to unite the tribesmen and the towns. "The former are terrified of an Arab Government as we understand it (the Euphrates tribes hoped for universal lawlessness), and they accept it only because of Sir Percy." Lawrence denied this: "tribes and towns are irreconcilable" he wrote in the margin of the report, pointing to one essential fautline in the Iraqi state today. (Ref: CHAR 17/2/100)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Overstretched, over there

Of all the British newspapers, the Glasgow Herald is reporting in greatest detail on Afghanistan at the moment. The reason is that it is a unit based in Scotland, 45 Commando Royal Marines, which is serving in the lawless Helmand province in southern Afghanistan at present.

The Herald reports that the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates asked Tony Blair on Sunday for Britain to send 1,000 more troops to Afghanistan. With the British Army as stretched as it is, such an increase could only come if troops were withdrawn from Iraq, which in fact the Daily Telegraph reported they would be the other day. The development follows the deaths of two British soldiers serving in the region in the last three days.

A unnamed source quoted in the Herald report says that the British contingent needs twice the number of helicopters and three more battalions of troops. The shortage of air transport was brought home in Sean Langan's recent documentary for Channel Four's Dispatches, on operations in the south of the province, where Afghan casualties could not be evacuated because a helicopter had already been diverted to pick up British wounded elsewhere.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Foreign aid - more harmful than good?

I've just seen an interesting piece in yesterday's Observer reporting new research by a group called Tiri. Tiri claims that much of western aid sent to rebuild wartorn countries in fact breeds political instability and violence. The report highlights the situation in Afghanistan, saying that western countries' determination to back Hamid Karzai's government is completely counterproductive, since the Afghan government is widely and correctly perceived by the Afghans to be corrupt, fuelling support for the Taliban.

At a debate organised by Intelligence Squared before Christmas I witnessed a scepticism about benefits of government aid that surprised me, although I tend to share it. Speaking for the motion, that 'foreign aid to poor countries has done more harm than good', were the former Reuters correspondent Aidan Hartley and an American named David Rieff, who I had not heard of before but who presented his case in a wonderfully laconic style. Speaking from his own experience in Kenya, Hartley suggested that aid frequently finds its way into buying more Mercedes for Africa's corrupt rulers. The star against these two was Rory Stewart, who asked the audience to imagine what the world might be like if all aid was stopped altogether. As a piece of oratory, Stewart's speech was the most brilliant. Yet the audience voted narrowly against him.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Will the surge work?

US troops patrolling in Adhamiya, Iraq, December 2006 (Photo: United States DoD)

The prospects of President Bush's troop surge in Iraq are set out in a wideranging, excellent article by Jon Swain and Sarah Baxter in the Sunday Times. The aim is to concentrate US forces to try to deprive the insurgents freedom of movement within the Iraqi capital, much in the way that the guerrilla warfare expert TE Lawrence advocated. The Iraqis, rightly apprehensive, expect a bloodbath.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

I'm speaking at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival on 22 March at 2.30pm.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Can the Shia rule Iraq?

Last night President Bush announced a ‘new strategy’ which will involve sending thousands more US troops whose main task will be to try to stop the violence in Baghdad. But he also seemed to be trying to shift increasing responsibility onto the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Suspicions are growing that Mr Maliki’s predominantly Shia government has not been doing enough to govern for all Iraqis – including the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. “Only the Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people”, Mr Bush pointedly noted last night: “Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.”

The question of whether a Shia could govern Iraq was one the British faced in 1918. When a local Shia sheikh offered his services as Emir of Mesopotamia, he was turned down on the grounds that “It would alienate Sunni element in Baghdad which accounts for the best educated and most advanced group in Mesopotamia. …It would raise throughout Iraq latent animosity between Shiah and Sunni which every administration must strive to allay.” (The National Archive: FO 141/444/7)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The oilfields of Persia and Mesopotamia

I spent yesterday back at the National Archives in London, making the first investigations which may turn into a new book. By far the most interesting document I found was a memorandum written by British Naval Intelligence and entitled “The Oilfields of Persia and Mesopotamia”. It was circulated on 26 February 1919 (Ref: FO 608/97/15). Within weeks Britain and France were to agree an arrangement on how to share the oil reserves now under their control as a result of the First World War.

This memorandum was presumably timed to influence the British negotiators during their talks with their French counterparts but it seems to have had a longer-term influence. It argues that as oil reserves appeared to be diminishing, it was "essential" for Britain to control Iraq both for the oil fields there and because Iraq's rivers provided the most obvious route for the crude oil both from the Iraqi and Persian fields to the market. Here are some choice extracts:

“The security of this country and of the British Empire is dependent on oil for, setting apart the immense and growing demands for petrol, lubricants, and fuel for oil-engines, fuel oil is now essential to the maintenance of British sea power.”

“It seems clear ... that it is to the Persian and Mesopotamian fields that this country must look for its most important future source of supply.”

“... so far as is known, they are beyond comparison the most important oil lands either now in our possession, or which may come under our influence as a result of the Peace Settlement. It is therefore of the first importance both commercially as well as strategically that the whole development of these oil fields should now be brought under an exclusive British control.”

“Additional importance attaches to the latter country [Mesopotamia], owing to the fact that through it pass the natural communications with the most productive part of the Persian field.”

“Under a strong and stable government the means of communication would be kept open and improved, and the Mesopotamian portion of the field would be opened up.”

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Churchillian advice for Blair

The covering minute sheet on archived government files provides space for officials and ministers to comment on the content of the official papers within. The minutes often provide highly entertaining banter that reveals far more than the dry documents they enclose.

Here’s Churchill tempering the enthusiasm of his private secretary, Edward Marsh, for the Americans’ contribution to the Allied victory in the First World War:

EM: ‘I’m in favour of kissing him [Uncle Sam] on both cheeks.’
WSC: ‘But not on all four.’
(Christopher Hassall, Edward Marsh, London 1959, p.484)

Monday, January 08, 2007

The fall-out

A report at the weekend and an article in this week's Spectator both suggest that the Israelis are planning nuclear strikes on Iran's nuclear bomb-making facilities before this year is out. Both articles explain that such action would be justified by President Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel to be wiped off the map. But how likely is it that Iran would bomb Israel?

Israel is a tiny country. The damage done by any nuclear missile hitting the capital, Tel Aviv, would not be confined to Israel. Radioactive fall-out would pollute a larger area - one which potentially includes Jerusalem and Damascus. Jerusalem - where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven - is Islam's most holy city after Mecca and Medina. Syria is an ally of Iran. The West Bank is inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs. Many hundreds of thousands more live nearby in Jordan and Syria. Iran would lose the support of them all if it launched a nuclear attack that could render part or all of 'Palestine' uninhabitable and have long-term consequences for a much wider surrounding area. It seems an improbable course of action and a very questionable basis for Israel to justify a pre-emptive nuclear strike of her own.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Honest admission or heavy hint?

It seems well worth asking why Iraq's prime minister Nuri al-Maliki chose an interview with the Wall Street Journal to let slip that he's anxious to be shot of his job. Sure, with the events of the last few days in mind, he might really be tired of office. But Mr al-Maliki gave his interview before he could have known what a horrendous disaster Saddam's execution would turn out to be, giving a man few Iraqis surely miss the potential to assume the status of a martyr, something I admit I did not think was possible.

Rather, the timing of Mr al-Maliki's admission seems to reinforce the interesting suggestion from Anatole Kaletsky in The Times today that an unholy alliance of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States is being forged to deal with the threat posed by Shia Iran. Both Israel and the Saudis are alarmed, Kaletsky says, by the influence the Iranians now have over Washington because of the Americans' dependence on the mainly Shia government in Baghdad. Both the Saudis and the Israelis are doing all they can to force the Americans to dump Mr al-Maliki. In this light, Mr al-Maliki's slip looks like a veiled threat to the Americans to persuade them that they need him more than he needs them at the moment.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The rising death toll in Iraq

The coincidence of the 3,000th US military death in Iraq (and the likelihood that George Bush will commit further troops), and news that more Iraqi civilians were killed in December than in any month since the invasion, has sparked a number of reports.

The BBC has a fairly comprehensive report showing the upward trend in the number of military and civilian deaths up to September 2006. It shows the steady rise in attacks by insurgents. It does not, however, include any figures on the number of wounded. This is supplied by The Times, which reports that the total number of US wounded at 16 December was 22,057: over seven times the number of deaths. The tendency to overlook this statistic - and in Britain, certainly, the government has tried to hide the number of soldiers left disabled by the war - was brought home to me several months ago in a powerful documentary showing the physical and mental effects on the war on three invalided British servicemen. Raw British figures (and figures for Afghanistan) can be found on the Ministry of Defence website.

So, not a very optimistic start to 2007, but one that, like Saad Eskander's diary yesterday, reveals the reality of what is happening inside Iraq.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A librarian writes

The British Library is publishing the diary of the Saad Eskander, the head of Iraq's National Library and Archive. It is worth a read for a glimpse of the country's descent into anarchy. Libraries are by reputation quiet places. Not so the National Library in Baghdad.