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Friday 22 August 2014

Simon Jenkins writes:
ISIS appears to be like the Taliban, another fanatical group that arose on the back of the US intervention in Afghanistan in the 1990s, though it looks more flaky because it lacks a tribal base. Such movements have risen and fallen over time. They pose no substantive, let alone existential, threat to the west.

Cameron was silly to claim, in a welter of Sunday Telegraph platitudes, that ISIS was "a danger to Europe", that its caliphate was "not miles from home" and threatened "the brighter future we long for". He should sprinkle something else on his cornflakes.
That's what were writing last Sunday: "There is no 'terrorist state' and the surge won't succeed. These tribal surges never do. Eventually they outstrip their tribal bases, and begin to fragment. That is exactly what is happening in Iraq, where that the force of the insurgency is already spent".

We were right. Mr Cameron was wrong. He really does need to sprinkle something else on his cornflakes. The trouble is, Chuck Hagel is wrong as well. But I don't think he eats cornflakes.

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Richard North 22/08/2014 link



Friday 22 August 2014

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Some of us are familiar with the concept of "war tourism" and the allied concept of "war porn", the one being the thrill-seeking tendency of certain types of journalist, the latter being the product of his or her endeavours, enabling the weak-minded vicariously to experience the "horrors of war" in the service of the 24-hour news agenda.

The test, as I remarked in an angry piece written in May 2007, is whether the reporting of an horrendous event is a necessary adjunct to informing readers, in the true spirit of journalism, or whether the event itself becomes the focus – the circumstances merely being the excuse for publicising events which would otherwise be deemed unacceptable.

In this context, I am not going to pronounce on James Foley, the violent and horrific death of whom has sparked an orgy of self-regarding introspection in the legacy media, which has convinced itself that the man was a hero, and that he was providing a valuable service to the television-watching public.

Nevertheless, it is not untoward to note that the essence of war reporting in the contemporary media tends towards "war porn", even in formerly serious newspapers, such as in this report, pandering to a base fascination with the gruesome.

Here, it can readily be seen that the emphasis is on the lurid and the violent, while the far more important political events dealt with in the same report are relegated to a spot towards the end, relying on a copy-and-paste insert from an agency source, days after the events had become observable.

The focus on the "porn", therefore, has its very obvious penalty in that the analyses which follow the news become as distorted as the news itself. While the decapitation of Foley has the commentariat spiralling off into a frenzy of moral panic, the indications are that, just as Mr Cameron might have been exploiting the situation to his own advantage, so too might others. There are some who stand to benefit from having ISIS as the prominent villains, and from making the linkage between Syria and Iraq.

Some insight into this comes from a remarkable analysis in Asharq al-Awsat by former editor-in-chief Tariq Alhomayed, who starts by remarking on Bashar al-Assad's media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban speaking on CNN regarding the danger represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The facts on the ground, writes Alhomayed, indicate that ISIS emerged and grew under the Assad regime. Its leaders sprung from Syrian prisons, while Syrian military forces have yet to successfully attack them on the ground, even after the Americans have taken action against ISIS fighters in Iraq.

Alhomayed now thinks Assad believes the time is ripe to exploit ISISs presence and present himself as the victim of extremism and extremists. It is clear that this has been among Assad tactics from the start of the revolution, and explains his troops' lack of real action against ISIS.

Amid the torrent of media reporting, even Reuters has noticed this – after a fashion – casually tucking in this comment into a recent piece, telling us that: "Until this summer, Assad's forces held off from targeting [ISIS] ... This has allowed the group to thrive and also weaken less hardline opposition groups that are backed by the West".

The kid-gloves treatment, Alhomayed believes, is a deliberate stratagem on the part of Assad.  He has allowed the organisation to grow and become a threat so that he can use the international fear of ISIS for his own ends. In particular, he is seeking to turn the tables on the Americans, particularly after Washington warned that Syria had become a gathering place for extremists and militants.

The American way of thinking is that the extremist groups will fight it out among themselves, or will come out weaker and thus be easier to target. Assad has adopted this idea for his own purposes, allowing ISIS to fight the Al-Nusra Front while concentrating his own forces against the Free Syrian Army, clamping down on his opponents and attempting to polish his image in the eyes of the world.

By this calculation, his enemies would destroy themselves, or he would be able to take advantage of the major political shifts that are taking place in the region to overcome his opponents with the help of international backing, supporting him because ISIS is regarded as the greater threat.

This is precisely what Bashar Al-Assad is seeking to do today, concludes Alhomayed, "but this can only be achieved if the international community naively permits it to happen".

Obsessed with the gruesome detail of Mr Foley's death though, the western media - in alliance with the politicians – are falling for Assad's ploy, focusing all their attention and energies on the common enemy, thus fighting Assad's battles for him.

The obsession with the gruesome, though – pandering to the basest instincts of its audience - does not define the entire extent of the media's dereliction. For many years now we have charted a gradual contraction in the breadth of media coverage, to the extent now that they seem incapable of handling more than one major story at a time – certainly when it comes to foreign affairs.

My own coverage for the last few days rather proves that point. Clearly, there is more than enough activity in Ukraine to support major coverage, but media coverage has been slight – despite bodies in the streets, comprising a copious supply of "war porn" for those who are in the business – see below. 

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There has to be, therefore, something more to this than the usual inadequacies of the media – and nor specifically is this entirely a fascination with the gruesome. After all, as Complete Bastard points out, beheading is by no means confined to Islam, and nor is it that exceptional in modern times.

The picture at the very top of this piece was published in the American Life magazine in 1952, the action of Communist North Koreans against a suspected partisan (with crimes against humanity continuing to this day). Atrocities by the Viet Cong were also commonly reported. Amongst many other things, they were responsible for the massacre of 3,000 unarmed civilians during the Battle of Huế in 1968.

Yet this, the Kmer Rouge atrocities of the late '70s - which accounted for the deaths of an estimated two million - and the Rwandan genocide in 1994 which took an estimated 800,000, seem hardly to rank against the fate of Mr Foley. His death has seemingly triggered a more strident reaction than the sum total of all these previous deaths.

One of the contributory factors must surely be the fact that Foley was a journalist. We have the self-obsessed media establishment which has lost any sense of value and which genuinely believes that looking after its own if the most important thing on the planet. By comparison, the renewal of the Cold War, and the deaths of thousands in Ukraine, is relatively small beer. A mere global crisis simply cannot compete.

Even then, I have difficulty in believing that this is the entire rationale for the grotesquely distorted media coverage that we are seeing. But it could be sufficient. A media which has lost the art of reporting and analysis, and which is no longer able to discern what is important is a hierarchy of values, is going to get its reporting wrong.

When it also regards itself as part of the entertainment industry, its task to provide a "modern digital experience", news values begin to take second place as the business seeks to deliver an "experience", rather then the news.  And while values are enduring, an "experience" always have to be refreshed and reinforced, with a premium on original content, and the ability to challenge, disturb and even shock.

Thus, news becomes "news porn" and values are overturned by the need to deliver an "experience". And in that world, the horrific death of one journalist naturally assumes a far greater importance than the death and suffering of thousands of people, potentially taking us to the brink of a major war. The media is no longer in the business of providing news, and it is irrational that we should any longer expect it.

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Richard North 22/08/2014 link



Thursday 21 August 2014

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Pro-Russian separatists have hit two Ukrainian helicopters, downing one, with fire from portable missiles in the Luhansk region, a source within the Ukrainian military has said in confirming a statement by the "South-East Army". It was unclear whether the other crashed.

In addition to that, the Ukrainians are admitting that another Sukhoi Su-25 assault aircraft (pictured top) has been downed. The pilot is said to have ejected, but is reported missing.

This makes for an interesting – and for the Ukrainians alarming - situation as, during the last three weeks, it is asserted that ninety percent of all Ukrainian air force sorties over Donbas ended with a downing of the involved aircraft.

Whatever the exact percentage, it is certainly the case that the Ukrainians are taking losses. The commentator responsible for the 90 percent claim is suggesting that this is because of the availability of BUK to the separatist forces, but that is not necessarily the case.

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What we have seen is that separatists have a ready supply of 9K338 Igla-S MANPADS (NATO reporting name SA-24 Grinch). And what may make these particularly deadly is that they seem to be able launch volleys of the missiles, thus overwhelming the aircraft defences (see picture above).

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But other missile types have also been seen in the area. For instance, there have been reliable reports of a Strela 10 launcher (above) in separatist hands, while a Pantsir-S1 (Nato code SA-22 Greyhound) system has been seen on the Russian side of the border (pic below).

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In a way, it doesn't really matter what precisely is bringing down the Ukrainian aircraft. What's significant is that the Ukrainian forces have effectively lost air supremacy. And, as we have seen so recently in Iraq, without that, defeating an insurgency is immeasurably more difficult.

That may explain the ongoing battle for the small town of Ilovaisk on the outskirts of Donetsk. Variously reported as captured and in separatist hands, it seems to be the focus of intense fighting, with nothing as yet resolved.

However, in what some might regards as the most portentous sign of deteriorating relations, Russia has ordered the temporary closure of all four of the McDonald's restaurants in Moscow.

The decision, made by the state food safety inspectorate is said to have been made over "sanitary violations", and includes the first ever McDonald's in Russia, which the company says is its most frequented in the world.

Its opening in 1990 was hailed as a sign of improving relations with the West, when huge queues formed to embrace its culinary capitalism. By the same measure, the symbolism of the arbitrary closure cannot be ignored.

Obviously, the intensifying shelling is more damaging, but symbols mean a great deal. And there is no way the signs can be made to look good.

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Richard North 21/08/2014 link



Wednesday 20 August 2014

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If it isn't an invasion, it's looks like something very close it, as reports come in from here, seemingly confirmed by a Ukrainian official, that a Russian convoy of 150 vehicles, including 40 MBTs, has broken through into the greater Luhansk city area.

What seems to stack this up is a report in the Mail, which has picked up tank transporters carrying what it says are T-90s heading towards the Ukrainian border, and returning empty (top and below). As of this morning, the Kiev Post is endorsing the earlier reports, and it has been picked up by the Polish press.

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Even as we see a graphic report of an air attack on Luhansk, Reuters seems way behind the curve, and I don't see any other media reporting the convoy breakthrough. But if the reports are correct, we are about to see a major turnaround in the fortunes of the separatists, with the Russians seemingly unconcerned about concealing their involvement.

It could, of course, be the case that the tanks seen by the Mail have merely been laagered close to the Ukrainian border, awaiting orders. But that much heavy metal close to a war zone bodes no good. At the very least, this racks up the tension, despite the New York Times talking of a "fading rebellion". At worst, the NYT is hopelessly off beam and we're looking at all-out war. 

As to the situation on the ground in Luhansk, all we can get is that it "remains critical", with fighting reported in the city in the early hours of today. Luhansk city council says that people have been without electricity, water, mobile and landline communications for 18 days. Power supply cannot be restored due to "permanent military action on the territory of the city".

Several residential buildings in the city have been damaged by explosions, bread and the essential foods are available in the city's shops, but the supply of food, medications and fuel has long stopped. People have not been paid wages, pensions and social benefits for several months.

We also see disparate reports about the strains and stresses affecting the separatists, but very little reflecting the events of the last 24 hours.

Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS relays a communication from the Ukrainian National Guard's press service which says that Ukrainian troops have taken control of Donetsk.

"The Donbas troops together with servicemen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the territorial defense battalions Dnepr and Shakhtersk are continuing the operation to liberate Ilovaisk", the press service says, going on to claim that the Ukrainian army is controlling the entire city, while militias are conducting artillery-and tank-led counter-attacks. 

The agency says it is unable to confirm these reports. 

FORUM THREAD




Richard North 20/08/2014 link



Tuesday 19 August 2014

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Despite the legacy media maintaining its policy of reporting only one foreign crisis at a time, with Iraq being the fashionable crisis for the moment, serious events are unfolding in Ukraine.

As it stands, the Donbass cities of Donetsk and Luhansk are variously under siege, liberated by Ukrainian forces who have broken though the rebel lines, in the midst of vicious fighting and/or under the control of pro-Moscow separatists.

Most if not all journalists seem to have deserted the front lines, so "mainstream" reports are coming via Kiev, copied out from military spokesmen, through TASS in Moscow, or from journalists such as Andrew Roth, NY Times, Reporter for the Moscow Bureau camped out on the Russian side of the Ukrainian border, many miles from any action.

And since Roth, like his colleagues, seems unable to distinguish between a BUK battery command unit and a "military transport" (pictured top), we are not going to get much sense from the girlie-boys. 

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Meanwhile, blogs and social media are offering persistent reports of Russian equipment crossing the border, to be seen later inside Ukraine, including pictures of towed 122mm gun-howitzers (probably 2A18 models – one pictured above), and ultra-modern T-72B1 main battle tanks (pictured below) - or possibly T-90s.

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In a statement, the new head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, then admits that the separatists have received at least 1,200 troops, 30 tanks and 120 armoured vehicles from Russia, which he calls "heavy reinforcements".

With reports of gun battles in the centre of Donetsk, Ukrainian shelling, and the use of Grad BM-21s (Katyushas), plus major Russian military movements, reportedly close to the border, there can be doubt that we are seeing a significant escalation in this conflict.

Add also the movement of a complete BUK battery, including (unusually) replenishment missiles (pictured below), plus diverse hardware such as Strella 10 launchers (short-range AA missiles), and there are no signs that either side is preparing to back down. 

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Earlier, we were seeing nothing much more than BMD light tanks, and their counterpart BTR-D tracked APCs, plus the ubiquitous BTR-80 series APCs, but now we are seeing the heavy metal, this suggests that things are way past the skirmishing stage. The indications are that the protagonists are drifting into a full-blown war.

Yet, apart from reports on an attack on a refugee convoy, reportedly killing 15, there is scarcely any reporting of current events in the western media. The peoples of Ukraine have little in the way of dead baby porn, and no refugees trapped on a mountain for breathless hacks to interview. There is no "caliphate" to keep Mr Cameron awake on his holiday bed in Cornwall, and even the "humanitarian aid" convoy seems to have disappeared.

But then, the fighting in eastern Ukraine has only killed 2,086 people, according to United Nations estimates, including civilians and combatants, the casualty rate doubling since the end of July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive and fighting started in urban areas.

Thus, it seems, they must wait for the drama in Iraq to play itself out, before their conflict becomes fashionable again, and the press devote some attention to their suffering. Until then, one might even ask, when an artillery shell falls and there is no journalist to witness it, whether it even makes a sound.

FORUM THREAD




Richard North 19/08/2014 link



Tuesday 19 August 2014

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One could have predicted it, of course, but Handelsblatt makes it official. The Ukraine crisis has prompted European governments to reconsider the gradual phasing out of the main battle tank (MBT) - a weapons system which during the Cold War confrontation between East and West played an important role.

Vladimir Putin's "annexation" of Crimea and the concentration of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine have given neighbouring countries cause to to ponder, says Frank Haun, CEO of the tank builder Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW).

The demand for equipment such as the Leopard 2 had diminished in recent years in Europe, since the relations with Russia improved. Some 3,200 Cold War tanks have been sold to the armed forces of 16 countries, but in five years not a single new model more been made.

But now, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries such as Finland and Poland are thinking about acquiring more tanks. As tensions rise in Eastern Europe, Poland, Finland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - all direct neighbours of Russia – are increasing defence budgets.

One development, though, would have Jean Monnet celebrating, were he still alive. Twp of the leading European manufacturers of armoured vehicles have just decided to merge, the German makers of the Leopard, KMW, and the French tank builder, Nexter.

Thus we are seeing the ultimate in Franco-German interdependence, the ethos which drove the creation of the EEC, thereby depriving former warring nations of the means of fighting each other. With a joint tank-making enterprise, we can now be assured that France and Germany will no longer be able to go to war with each other.

Instead, we have a new "regional champion" which, as a good European, will probably have its headquarters in the Netherlands, where it will manage an order book with a volume of more than €6 billion, including in the most recent order for the Leopard 2, which came from Qatar last year.

Nexter wants to provide the French Army with an upgrade for its Leclerc MBT, and wants to develop a light tank and a troop transport.

Apart from making Jean Monnet, happy, though, the consolidation of the European arms industry would have significant advantages. Currently, it maintains 17 active production lines for the manufacture of tanks, troop carriers and artillery.

In the United States, however, there are only two major producers. Through joint production in Europe, unit costs of equipment could fall by 30 percent. And therein also lies a significant issue for the UK, which could equally benefit from defence industry rationalisation, if we could ever agree a common equipment standard for the equipment we need.

In fact, though, we are already committed by treaty to seek such rationalisation – a treaty which lies outside the EU.

This is the treaty signed between the British government and five other nations – France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Sweden – on 27 July 2000. Described as a "Framework Agreement" between the six countries, it concerned "measures to facilitate the restructuring and operation of the European defence industry".

In Part 7 (Articles 45-49), the Parties recognised "the need to harmonise the military requirements of their armed forces" and set out a permanent process for "harmonised force development and equipment acquisition planning".

The Framework Agreement is an inter-governmental treaty and is thus not an EU institution. It does not have an office, secretariat or budget and relies on the parties to agree and deliver the work programmes. It was one of the first examples of closer European co-operation in the armaments field.

Crucially, the Parties agreed "to co-operate in establishing a long term master-plan that would present a common view of their future operational needs". This would constitute a framework for harmonised equipment acquisition planning and "orientation for a harmonised defence related R&T policy".

To that effect, the six countries have agreed to subscribe to a "detailed analysis of military capabilities and the national planning status and priority of equipment and system programmes", as well as co-operating "as early as possible" in the genesis of the requirement up to and including the specification of the systems they wanted to develop and/or purchase.

So far, we have not seen the full measure of this treaty, but the Franco-German merger is a step in that direction. And with British troops riding in German MAN trucks, it seems only a matter of time before we replace our ageing Challengers with Anglo-German panzers, ready for the coming war with Russia.

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Richard North 19/08/2014 link



Monday 18 August 2014

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There always has been something of a symbiotic relationship between the legacy media and blogs, as media output was often the starting point for a blog post, as one sought to explain and develop their reports.

Such has been the deterioration in the media, though, that the lack of trust not extends beyond that which is supposedly factual reporting. The "bias by omission" is so great that one must trawl an increasing range of sources before it is possible to put together an account of events, or take a media report at face value.

That means that blogging is getting rather more complicated these days, although as Complete Bastard remarks, I'd sooner be a blogger attempting to get things right, than one of the increasingly useless hacks, polluting the media with their low-grade drivel.

No lower does this drivel get, though, than in the comment sections, so much so that I mostly deliberately steer clear of them, to avoid the taint of false or inaccurate analysis, but one occasionally descends to view the like of this Telegraph leader which today argued for "clarity" in the prime minister's policy in Iraq.

Already, Complete Bastard has spotted a particularly egregious example of fatuity, as the leader bemoans the difficulty in discerning public opinion, "not least because Parliament is in recess".

This is classic example of the MPM-loop (Media-Politico-Media) where the media offers its own distorted view of events, only to have the politicians comment on it, then to have the media report on the comments, so creating the narrative which becomes the "received views" which too many people mistake for expressions of public opinion – not least, the media itself.

But the fatuity in this leader goes much further than this piece of self-serving rhetoric, to make the bizarrely absurd charge that, while the Islamic State (IS) forces have rampaged through Iraq, it is apparent that Washington no longer wants to fulfil its role of world policeman".

In the considered opinion of this dire publication which still has the nerve to call itself a newspaper, it opines that: "The baleful legacy in blood and treasure from George W Bush's invasion in 2003 was too great to allow for another US intervention".

This, of course, completely miscasts recent events, but it is the sort of thing that happens when the concentration is on the "human drama" of an event such as the Iraqi crisis, and the politics is completely ignored. As a result, the paper is totally out of its depth.

What in fact has been going on centred on the increasingly autocratic behaviour of Nouiri al-Maliki who, after the general election, was seeking to hold onto power despite his party not having majority support.

Alongside this, with the Sunni tribes having lost confidence in the Maliki government, allowed al-Baghdadi's ISIS thugs to run riot, while the Sunni-led Army, deserted by its officers, either failed to perform or sat on its hands.

With the situation crying out for intervention, the US was in an impossible position. If it sought to take any military action, it would have been seen to be supporting Maliki, thus exacerbating an already fraught situation, while any action take could not have succeeded without the support of the Sunni tribes – which would not move as long as Maliki was in place.

Gone are the days – as in Vietnam and South America – where the US could actively conspire to achieve regime change. To be seen interfering in the internal politics of Iraq would have been catastrophic, leaving the US no option to sit on its hands and await developments.

Having seen the same dynamic before, with the Sunni awakening in exactly the same areas where ISIS is currently running amok, Pentagon analysts doubtless reasoned that the tribes would, in time, be sickened by the barbarity of the ISIS thugs – as they had been by the al-Qaida who came before them.

Then, as the situation deteriorated without US intervention, Maliki's power base would weaken. And then, as Iran observed the deterioration and took fright at the apparently growing power of the Sunni insurgency, it withdrew its backing from Maliki and publicly endorsed his successor, al-Badi.

As we remarked at the time, the moment Iran cast its lot with al-Badi, it was game over for Maliki and it was no coincidence that the moment this happened, US air power was unleashed – from a conveniently positioned carrier group in the Gulf. Since then, ISIS has been on the run.

This, then, is not an indication that, "Washington no longer wants to fulfil its role of world policeman", as the Telegraph leader avers. The paper has misread the situation and got its analysis completely wrong. The US is very much in the game, and is looking after its interests in Iraq.

What the US is very well aware of – as are seasoned British observers in the field – is that any solution to this crisis must be seen as an Iraqi solution, implemented by Iraqis. Support is welcomed, but "boots on the ground" in a combat role is not. The Iraqis need to deal with ISIS themselves, if there is to be an enduring settlement.

Thus, as it stands, UK the UK policy response has been entirely adequate. The provision of humanitarian aid, followed by the deployment of the RAF's formidable surveillance assets (including Rivet Joint, recently bought second-hand from the USAF), has been as much as can be expected and is certainly as much as is needed for the time being.

However, after his particularly inept intervention on Sunday, Mr Cameron has ramped up the threat just at the time when the tide had turned against ISIS, and the power if its leader, al-Baghdadi, was on the wane.

Having wrongly magnified the threat, however, Cameron has raised the bar in terms of an expected response, and has now created a rod for his own back. A high level of threat requires a high-level response and, as the Telegraph observes, Mr Cameron is not in a position to deliver the "tough response" that Mr Cameron says is required.

With an election in the offing, though, it occurs to me that Mr Cameron may be running the purple banana ploy.

This is my imagined response to any crisis where, just before the turning point when things start to get better, the opportunist politician suggests that the problem is caused by yellow bananas and orders them all to be painted purple. When the crisis abates (as expected) the politician can then claim the credit, having ordered the timely and "effective" action.

In this case, any informed analysis would have told you that the tide was about to turn against ISIS, in which case Cameron's timing is immaculate. He simply needs to talk tough – very loudly – and then take a few token action, only then to watch the crisis abate, as it is already doing. In a few months time when memories have faded, Mr Cameron can add to his list of very great achievements, the defeat of the "caliphate" about which he warned so stridently, and no longer exists.

Inasmuch as the anti-elephant policy on Wandsworth High Street – prohibiting the free roaming of pachyderms – has been an absolute triumph, so too will have been Mr Cameron's anti-caliphate strategy.

If that is the case, in accepting the prime minister's copy for publication, The Sunday Telegraph and its readers have been well and truly "played" by Downing Street. Sadly, this probably doesn't matter to the paper. It must have done wonders for Jason Seiken's hit rate, which is all he is really concerned about for his global digital media brand.

On the other hand, if Mr Cameron really does believe he is confronting the "creation of an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria", then his FCO advisors should be fired. They, like the Telegraph leader writers, don't have the first idea of what is going on. And Mr Cameron doesn't have the first idea what to do about it.

FORUM THREAD




Richard North 18/08/2014 link



Monday 18 August 2014

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Four days ago, the BBC was telling us how the capture of the Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq, by Islamic State (IS) insurgents was of "huge strategic significance" in terms of water and power resources.

We were left in no doubt by the BBC of the implications of this capture, relying on Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Centre in Qatar, to tell us that: "These extremists are not just mad".

"There's a method in their madness", Shaikh says. "They've managed to amass cash and natural resources, both oil and water, the two most important things. And of course, they're going to use those as a way of continuing to grow and strengthen".

As of Sunday evening, however, we see an example from the same BBC of how these "Islamic State insurgents" are going to use this water resource "as a way of continuing to grow and strengthen" (not).

Kurdish forces, we were informed, are in "near complete control" of Iraq's largest dam after ousting Islamic State militants. Ground forces supported by US air strikes launched the operation to take Mosul Dam on Sunday morning. 

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Kurdish sources said they were still trying to clear mines and booby traps from the area round the dam, a process which could take several hours.

Earlier, we saw reports from NINA that the US had launched 14 air strikes on ISIS positions around the Mosul dam, with the confirmed destruction of ten armoured vehicles, including seven Humvees. 

The previous day, there had been nine air strikes near the city of Erbil and Mosul Dam and the action to recover the dam had started at dawn. The first air strike killed 11 members of the Islamic State (IS) and wounded eight. We also saw an air strike in the Jamahir neighborhood, northeast of Baquba, with IS members also killed and injured.

This was not the only activity, as the Iraqi Air Force directed 17 air strikes on IS concentrations in Yousfiyah, Jalawla, Hawija and Saqlawiyah areas, resulting in "significant losses in lives and equipment".

The main event, though, has been the Mosulk dam and the retaking of such a high profile target has to be regarded as a serious blow for the insurgents. This clears the way for the next target, the city of Mosul which government forces are poised to retake.

The success comes after a flood of media reports over the weekend talking up the ISIS threat, and the emerging "caliphate", including a lamentable piece from the Observer, which manages to illustrate that, when it comes to the ignorance of the politicians and the church over the events in the Middle East, there is very little to choose.

In the article, the Church of England describes David Cameron's Middle East policy as incoherent, ill-thought-out and determined by "the loudest media voice at any particular time".

The bishop of Leeds, Nicholas Baines, with the support of the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, complain that UK's foreign policy is so muddled and reactive that it is "difficult to discern the strategic intentions" of the government's approach to the region.

Cameron is taken to task for failing to develop an effective plan to tackle the spread of violent Islamist extremism from Iraq to Nigeria, where the militant group Boko Haram has terrorised the north of the country. "We do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamic extremism as it is developing across the globe," the bishop writes.

Thereby the priests are making the same mistake as the politicians, lumping together what are disparate issues under the flag of "Islamic extremism" when they really are separate and need to be treated separately. The idea that there is a common thread driving Islamist extremism "from Iraq to Nigeria" is in fact rather fanciful. 

That there are disturbances all over the world is indisputable, but this has always been the case. Before the break-up of the Soviet empire many of these conflagrations were lumped in as "proxy wars" inspired by the Communists. But before that, they were called wars of independence and before that they were colonial wars.

For what are most often tribal disputes, though, Islam can hardly be a unifying force. There is, for instance, the huge schism which divides Sunni and Shi'a, in a religion which does not have leaders of the stature of the Pope. It does not even have an established hierarchy: every Imam is master in his own house.

It defies logic, therefore, to argue that there is same vision of Islam as between the Nahdatual Ulama of Indonesia, the Hazaras of Iran, the Pashtuns of Waziristan, the Kanuris of Boko Haram, the Malikite Sunnis of Mali, the Barwaris of Kurdistan and the Kutama of North Africa. Some would as soon murder each other as rise up under the flag of a a single caliphate.

To suggest that there is a unity of vision would be to argue for a degree of cohesion which even the Christian religions have not been able to achieve. In fact, as has been pointed out by many commentators, the biggest killer of Moslems over the ages has been other Moslems.

But, as the fightback in Iraq continues, we see a campaign entirely distinct from events in Syria. The priests and Mr Cameron may stick to their idea of an: "extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria", but they are talking nonsense - as they so often do.

Cameron, the Observer suggests - based on its reading of the Telegraph article - is inching towards supporting Britain's involvement in a military response to the threat from the Islamic State. To that effect, he says that the current crisis is not a problem "that should be defined by a war ten years ago".

But, if we are to learn any lessons, they should come from that war. The insurgency that followed the coalition invasion in 2003 was only resolved after Iraqi forces finally took responsibility for their own national security – with a little help from the Americans.

Once again, the same dynamic is at play, which must be encouraged and reinforced. Bleating about "caliphates" doesn't cut it any more than does trying to link disparate events under the Islamic banner. Our politicians need to deal with the problems as they arise, largely as individual problems, and stop playing games.

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Richard North 18/08/2014 link



Sunday 17 August 2014

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For the second time in three weeks, the Booker column has been censored, with the omission of one the stories.  Last time, a story was removed after direct intervention from the director of content, Jason Seiken. This time it was London, which at least managed a modicum of professionalism in that it decided to exclude the material in sufficient time for Booker to write a replacement.

Thus we still have a full column, concealing the evidence of anything untoward. However, the lead story has its comments disabled and the other stories have not been posted separately, so the entire column is also without a comments facility.

The story which has been removed concerns Iraq, and is reproduced above (click to enlarge to readable size). Readers will notice that it bears some relation to the work produced on this blog, but that is not the specific problem.

Why it was deemed necessary to remove the work is that it is at odds with a separate piece written by David Cameron, published in the Sunday paper, and given front-page treatment (below). And so privileged is the newspaper at having Mr Cameron write his pearls of wisdom on Iraq that Booker is not allowed to contradict him in the same edition of the newspaper. 

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The Booker-North thesis, as it stands, is that with the Sunni tribes rallying against ISIS, the worst of the crisis in Iraq is over and is "moving into its final phase".

This perspective contradicts what Mr Cameron is saying, so it is not allowed. "Of course there is conflict between Shias and Sunnis", the prime minister tells us, "but that is the wrong way to see what is really happening. What we are witnessing is actually a battle between Islam on the one hand and extremists who want to abuse Islam on the other". Then says Cameron:
These extremists, often funded by fanatics living far away from the battlefields, pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology – and they do so not just in Iraq and Syria but right across the world, from Boko Haram and al-Shabaab to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Thus, we are told, "this threat cannot simply be removed by airstrikes alone. We need a tough, intelligent and patient long-term approach that can defeat the terrorist threat at source".

Unusually for authored pieces by politicians – and especially by Mr Cameron – there is a comments facility, giving hundreds of readers the opportunity to tell the prime minister he is wrong. There is no such thing as an extremist perversion of Islam, they say. There is only Islam.

Whether or not this is the case, though, Islam cannot be divorced from its context of tribalism. The reason why the religion has taken such deep root in the Middle East and all the way to the Indian sub-continent is that it fits with the underlying tribal mores, rather than replacing them. The tribe comes first, and demands the greater loyalty.

The important thing about this is that, in the region where we see ISIS operating, we are seeing a classic tribal surge, of the sort we also see in Afghaistan and have seen so many times before. Take away the tribal context, take away the support of the tribes, and there is no Islamic uprising. There is no insurrection. There is "simply" (if anything is simply in the Middle East) a borderless tribal surge colliding with the constraints of nationalism. 

For tthishis reason, I find myself disagreeing totally with Cameron. "We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime", he says.

But, in fact, we are dealing with a dynamic that reaches back before Islam, to pre-Christian times. Colonial Britain faced rebellions in Iraq, the Raj faced such surges in Afghanistan, Churchill was familiar with them and the Faqir of Ipi kept the inheritors of the Raj busy into the 1950s.

What Mr Cameron wants us to believe is that ISIS/ISIL is "a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives". Gilding the lily, he goes on to assert that it "controls not just thousands of minds, but thousands of square miles of territory, sweeping aside much of the boundary between Iraq and Syria to carve out its so-called caliphate", making "no secret of its expansionist aims".

The reality is, though, that it is old wine in new bottles - these surges come and go. The insurgents do not "control" the territory they currently occupy, and the extent of which they do occupy is diminishing by the day. In a matter of months, the fighting in Iraq will be all but over – and that's what the Telegraph didn't want Booker to say. They don't want him contradicting Mr Cameron and his vision of an all-threatening, all enduring caliphate.

Syria is, of course, a different matter, but the same dynamic is at play. A fractured insurgency survives there because of weakness at the centre. In this case, though, it is greatly facilitated by Mr Cameron and his allies. Had he succeeded in taking military action to bring down Assad, the likelihood is that ISIS would be even more strongly entrenched than it is now.

For sure, as Mr Cameron says, ISIS has the ancient city of Aleppo firmly within its sights. And it boasts of its designs on Jordan and Lebanon, and right up to the Turkish border. If it succeeds, says Cameron, we would be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member.

And that is the paradigm with which the prime minister is working. Right at the beginning of his piece, he declares that, "The creation of an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria is not a problem miles away from home. Nor is it a problem that should be defined by a war 10 years ago. It is our concern here and now".

But this is no "caliphate". Even now, the Grand Mufti has rejected the title "Islamic State"and has been contemptuous of its putative leader, al-Baghdadi. There is no "terrorist state" and the surge won't succeed. These tribal surges never do. Eventually they outstrip their tribal bases, and begin to fragment. That is exactly what is happening in Iraq, where that the force of the insurgency is already spent.

Syria, on the other hand, will need different treatment. The uprising there is coinciding with and feeding off the destruction of a nation state, a situation which Mr Cameron did much to promote and has gone out of his way to assist. But it is wrong to conjoin Syria and Iraq - they are essentially separate issues, albeit with trans-border implications.

When it comes down to it, therefore, Cameron doesn't even begin to understand the nature of the problems he is dealing with (or not dealing with). Furthermore, he doesn't have any real solutions – only platitudes. This can be seen from the conclusion to his piece:
This is a clear danger to Europe and to our security. It is a daunting challenge. But it is not an invincible one, as long as we are now ready and able to summon up the political will to defend our own values and way of life with the same determination, courage and tenacity as we have faced danger before in our history. That is how much is at stake here: we have no choice but to rise to the challenge.
Before we can go anywhere, he needs to be more specific about the nature of this challenge and, as far as I can see, he's got it so wrong that we won't have any useful contribution to make. He is taking us up a blind alley on the basis of a false diagnosis.

Returning to the Booker column and the Telegraph though, it is a sad day when a national newspaper will not tolerate any alternative view, allowing itself to be used as a platform for a politician and suppressing any dissenting voices in its own pages. 

In a supposed democracy, the issues we confront require the widest debate in a country where newspapers should speak to the politicians. They should not be propaganda sheets through which our political class address the serfs.

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Richard North 17/08/2014 link



Sunday 17 August 2014

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Since Wednesday, we've been pointing out that the political deadlock in Iraq was breaking, allowing a resolution of the crisis that owes much to Maliki's intransigence. But now, one newspaper, the Independent is picking up the sea change, remarking that:
… both Sunni and Shia tribal and clerical leaders have given their conditional backing to Iraq's new Prime Minister, in a move that could end political deadlock and ultimately contain an offensive by extremist Sunni Islamic State (IS) militants.
Interestingly, over term, The Independent has been one of the more reliable newspapers in recording events in Iraq (judging in relative terms), one of the least reliable in my view being The Times.

As I recall, even at the end of March 2008, when there were good indications that Maliki had succeeded with his gamble in launching Operation Charge of the Knights in Basra, The Times was calling it wrong (their blushes now concealed behind the paywall) - correspondent James Hider in Sadr City, 350 miles away from the action, was pronouncing: "Nouri al-Maliki humiliated as gamble to crush Shia militias fail".

This is the same newspaper which currently is retailing a story from Lt-Col Richard Williams, a "former SAS commanding officer", under the headline: "UK suffering from lack of intelligence".

Disregard the obvious double entendre, it seems Britain has suffered an "intelligence gap" in Iraq since withdrawing troops and should rebuild its ability to combat jihadists who pose a threat to the UK. In this assertion, Williams is also joined by Lt-Gen Graeme Lamb, who makes it an "intelligence and information gap".

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Actually, as I see it, this is more an inadequacy in monitoring available sources, and poor analysis. The information is usually there if you look for it, and are prepared to cast your next wider than the "usual suspects".

In the military, the government, politics generally and the media, there is a huge degree of snobbery in the treatment of sources, with "prestige" more often than not deciding on which information is used. The more prestigious the source, the more likely it is that an account – or analysis - will be accepted.

Basically, "buyers" of information more concerned about prestige than accuracy. Because so many journalists simply do not have the architectural framework to understand what they see or are told, much less determine its veracity, they judge it according to the prestige of the source.

This is also a safe option. No fault lies in getting it wrong, as long as the source is prestigious. On the other hand, someone who goes out on their own and uses unorthodox sources, and gets it wrong, is more likely to be criticised or have their work rejected.

Thus, we see The Times prefer "Pentagon briefings" and statements from the office of the President, rather than local sources which have details of what is actually happening on the ground.

Even though we learn on Friday from Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, governor of the Sunni heartland Anbar, that the US is committed to providing air support in the battle against ISIS, we have to wait the next day to be told by The Times, for Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

When he tells us that the US Navy and Air Force were authorised to launch attacks wherever Americans, military or civilian, were under threat, and that the air strikes already carried out were "predominantly to protect US personnel and facilities", this goes on the front page.

This dynamic undoubtedly means that the media is struggling to catch up on the reality, as reports come in of attempts to recapture Mosul dam, with the effect that we have never been so expensively or comprehensively misinformed.

After all, is was only a day ago that the media was reporting that ISIS forces were massing for an attack on the Kurdish capital, with Baghdad also threatened, and now – without so much as a blush – we hear of attacks in the heart of ISIS-held territory.

But then as I remarked the other day, being in the legacy media means never having to say you're sorry.

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Richard North 17/08/2014 link


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