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.