Monday, August 31, 2009

We face certain defeat

You have to give the Chief of the Defence Staff some credit – his sense of timing is immaculate. No sooner does he go live on the MoD website telling us that "the UK strategy in Afghanistan is the right one," up pops General Stanley McChrystal to tells us that the coalition strategy in Afghanistan is failing.

Interestingly, Michael Yon has just published a new post. We'll review it later today. But what immediately leaps from his post is this statement:

The Pentagon and MoD as a whole cannot be trusted because they are the average of their parts. There are individual officers and NCOs among the US and UK who have always been blunt and honest with me. Among the higher ranking, Petraeus and Mellinger come to mind, but for day-to-day realities this is where it's at. Out here. Nothing coming from Kabul, London, or Washington should be trusted.
You don't have to go all the way out to Afghanistan to find that out. We worked that out all for ourselves. But you can now see why Yon was kicked out of Sangin.

UPDATE: Yon's post reviewed here.

More on Defence of the Realm.

The battle of the corporates

A glorious little spat is developing between James Murdoch and sundry vassals of the BBC empire, faithfully recorded by The Guardian.

This follows a speech by the son and heir to the Murdoch empire on Saturday evening at the Edinburgh festival, when he launched a "scathing attack" on the BBC, describing the corporation's size and ambitions as "chilling" and accusing it of mounting a "land grab" in a beleaguered media market.

"The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country," claimed Murdoch junior. "Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling."

Murdoch added that the BBC's news operation was "throttling" the market, preventing its competitors from launching or expanding their own services, particularly online.

"Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it," he said, then adding: "We seem to have decided to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market, and get bigger to compensate."

Needless to say, the great monolith was not impressed. BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, immediately countered with a broadside of soothing platitudes, declaring that: "British broadcasting is admired around the world". Speaking from a well-honed corporate crib-sheet, long ago committed to memory, he then extruded yardage of verbal material of a width (if not quality) that only a time-served BBC executive could produce.

"Its diversity of broadcasters and their variety of funding methods is a strength and not a weakness," he trilled. "The public tell us that they ... trust the BBC and value the wide range of services we provide. The BBC Trust ... is here to strengthen the BBC for the benefit of licence fee payers, not to emasculate it on behalf of commercial interests."

Not having a dog in this fight – regarding the BBC and Murdoch output equally detestable – it is at least entertaining to see the corporates slugging it out over the same bone. With his dad hankering after charging for online content, Junior knows full well that the moment he tries it, users will migrate to the "free" Beeb and other free content providers, leaving his websites sucking thin air.

However, the Murdochs (both dad and junior) have a point. As long as there is a BBC imbibing at the tit of public finance, jailing people for not paying a tax on owning a television, it is going to be very hard to develop a paying model for online journalism. But, if the alternative is a Murdoch-dominated media, some might say that the Beeb is worth having, even if its only role is to spike News Corp's guns.

The public could, of course, be the deciding factor, if it so wished, simply by ignoring the BBC's increasingly dire output – as we tend to do. But then there are so many people who do genuinely believe the BBC is "wonderful" that it ain't going to happen in a hurry. We will just have to be content with seeing the Murdochs stuffed and take what little enjoyment we can out of the battle of the corporates.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

1997 was not Year Zero

There are few things more infuriating than Conservatives who pretend that there were no problems at all before 1997, that everything that is wrong with this country is entirely to be blamed on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown plus the bozos in their governments. It is all, all, all their fault. Nothing went wrong before 1997. In fact, nothing happened before 1997, which was Year Zero.

Grrrr. A rant over on Your Freedom and Ours. Enjoy.

Old allies die unnamed

The Ministry of Defence is quick to give us personal details of the British soldiers who die on its behalf in Afghanistan (207 to date), writes Christopher Booker. It is more reluctant to explain why many of them are being killed in a nasty little insurgency war which, too often, they haven't been given the proper equipment to fight.

Last Sunday, however, the MoD remained silent about the deaths of two young Estonian soldiers, Eerik Salmus and Raivis Kang, although they were clearing a road of explosives alongside British troops as part of a unit integrated into British command, performing tasks which otherwise would be putting our own men at risk.

Britain is still honoured in Estonia for the crucial part the Royal Navy played in 1918 in helping that gallant little country to win its independence from the Bolsheviks. Several dozen British sailors lie in a Tallinn cemetery where their graves are still lovingly tended. The MoD should give our Estonian allies similar respect.


Those light bulbs

Booker is hot on the case of the disappearing light bulbs in this week's column, the bulbs that supposedly become "illegal" on 1 September, when all we will be able to buy are the energy-saving compact fluorescents.

What Booker has done, by the simple expedient of asking Defra for details of the "legal base" on which authority the incandescent bulbs are banned, is discover a bizarre situation where, despite assertions to the contrary, there is actually no legal power in place to prevent these light bulbs being imported or sold.

The story starts with EU's 2005 directive on Eco-Design of Energy-Using Products directive, Directive 2005/32/EC which, for some unaccountable reason, the Defra official referenced as 2005/31.

This little gem sets up a system which requires member states to implement domestic law which prohibits the "placing on the market" of certain "energy-using products" (EuPs) unless they conform to specific technical specifications, as defined by current (and subsequent) EU regulations.

For this "framework" directive to become law, therefore, it must be transposed into UK law, which Defra tells us it has done, under the Eco-design for Energy Using Products Regulations (S.I. 2007 No.2037). Reference to these Regulations, however, is more than a little bit interesting.

Regulation 3 (Part 2) does prohibit the placing of a "listed product" on the market unless it complies with certain technical criteria. Reference to the definition of a "listed product" (Regulation 2), though, yields a list in paragraph 1 of Part 1 to Schedule 1. And there, one finds just three products: (a) a boiler or an appliance; (b) a refrigerator appliance; (c) a ballast for fluorescent lighting.

Perspicacious readers will immediately discern that there is a curious omission. There is no reference to lighting products – of any description. On the face of it – and certainly relying on Defra – there is no law in force which can be interpreted as banning the sale of incandescent lamps.

What gets even murkier, however, is Defra's insistence that the specific "Implementing Measure" banning the placing on the market of incandescent bulbs takes the form of a directly applicable Commission Regulation (EC) 244/2009.

Sure enough, this makes mandatory conformity with the ecodesign requirements set out in the regulations for any "non-directional household lamps", these being products which "are designed essentially for the full or partial illumination of a household room, by replacing or complementing natural light with artificial light, in order to enhance visibility within that space."

Being a Commission Regulation, this has "direct effect" which means it comes into force the moment it is "done in Brussels", without coming anywhere near our provincial parliament. BUT – and it is a very big "but" – as an EU law, it specifies neither enforcement provisions nor penalties. These must be set out in UK law and, so far, we have not been appraised of any such law which applies to the sale of these products.

On this basis, the response of any retailer to being told that the sale of such products contravenes EU law should be "so what?" Without enforcement powers or penalties, there is nothing any official can do.

Even if this hurdle was surmounted, there is another problem. The prohibition applies only to "household lamps", although the Regulation does extend the prohibition to include "when they are marketed for non-household use or when they are integrated into other products."

There is no prohibition, however, on selling any "special purpose lamp", which is defined as a lamp "not intended for household room illumination because of its technical parameters or because the related product information indicates that it is unsuitable for household room illumination." Thus it would seem that as long as incandescent lamps are marked with the labelling "unsuitable for household room illumination", it is perfectly legal to sell them.

Such is the mess in which we now find ourselves that, as Booker observes, in its desire to bend over backwards to meet the wishes of the EU, our government has made a total Horlicks of trying to understand the laws it is so eager to comply with.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

It's a catastrophic success

Read this Boys Own tale of derring-do by Sam Kiley, and then this, followed by this. Hard though it is to believe, the first writer is describing the same war, in the same place as the writer of the two following pieces.

Kiley is described as "one of the most intrepid foreign correspondents of our generation" and he has his own views on the war, set out in The Times yesterday.

There, he tells us, "The government is wrong to think that we can prevail with what we have got in Helmand — we cannot," adding: "But we cannot leave either." He then declares: "To refuse to send more troops and aircraft is not only mad and stupid, it is a waste of lives; and if my experience is anything to go by, it will lead to failure."

Interestingly enough, today's piece from Kiley bears the title: "The Taleban enemy has been smashed: it's a catastrophic success." If my experience is anything to go by, we have a confused little bunny here.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Super-Europe no more

An interesting article about the EU in the Canadian Globe and Mail. It's the sort of article we might have once got in the British media, before it became part of the entertainment industry.


Use them and lose them

The MoD is planning to spend £207 million a life extension programme for its Tornado GR4 fleet because the aircraft are being worn out too fast.

There is a way of avoiding this ridiculous expenditure and the USAF is actively considering it. In this country though, there is no debate. Short on detail and long on rhetoric, it seems our media – and indeed our politicians and military – would rather complain about shortfalls than do something constructive about them.

More on Defence of the Realm.

Netherlands calling ...

With a message for our Irish friends.


Tactically effective

Brigadier Tim Radford, the head of British forces in Afghanistan, has said more helicopters and surveillance aircraft would make his troops "more tactically effective". But then, so would bulldozers - and they are considerably less expensive.

Interestingly, I had an e-mail from a serving US officer who had experienced the use of D-9s in Iraq. He describes how his infantry had surrounded a house in which insurgents had holed up. Instead of storming the house or calling in airpower, they whistled up the D-9. Because its armour kit had been made in Israel, the troops called it the "the Zionist Monster". Oddly enough, the Israelis call it the "Doobie" – the teddy bear.

The great advantage of the D-9, he said, was that it is very slow and noisy. You can hear it coming for miles – call it "dramatic effect". On this occasion, long before it could be seen, the growling and clanking could be heard, growing in intensity, the tension rising all the time.

When it hove into view, it trundled up to the front door of the house, impervious to AK-47 fire and RPGs. Then stopping, the driver actuated the blade lift, raising the 18-ton steel blade to its full height. He let it drop, free-fall. When the ground had stopped shaking, the insurgents came out with their hands up.

In IED country, lightly armoured Humvees would often form up in convoy behind a D-9. It took them longer to get to their destinations – but at least they got there, unharmed. Now that's "tactically effective".


Political footballs

One of the most frustrating – if not distressing – aspects of the defence debate is the way the issues are being over-simplified and used as political footballs, with the heavy emphasis on the cult of the personality.

The Sun is playing its usual dire games in this respect, picked up by that revered politician, John Redwood, who treats them with some approval.

What is distressing in this context is the willingness of so many to take what they read in the newspapers (and hear or watch on on the broadcast media) at face value. Our more sanguine readers will always assert that they never believe anything the media tells them, but a surprising number of people still slavishly follow the lines they are fed from this source.

Never more has this been so obvious than in the defence debate. The media would have us believe that the issues can be boiled down into the simple "Punch 'n' Judy" pastiche, where "wicked", idle and incompetent politicians are contrasted with "Our Brave Boys" and their upright, forthright and courageous leaders.

Life is never that simple, but the media would have it that way. But its simplistic approach does "Our Boys" no favours. We are dealing with complex problems here, and this playground approach to life-and-death matters confuses rather than illuminates the debate. The Sun says that "Our Boys" deserve better. Indeed they do - not least from the media.

More on Defence of the Realm.

Bending the rules

It is not only Ryanair that is playing the money game. The US multinational Intel took out a full page ad in the Irish Times to promote a "yes" vote. Intel’s move is designed to curry favour with the EU commission as it is currently facing a fine of over €1 billion under EU anti-trust legislation.

The way the referendum rules have been stitched up is, of course, another scandal. While campaign groups must adhere to strict limits on donations, companies or individuals can spend as much as they like promoting their views. Vested interests from Ireland and abroad can therefore spend millions attempting to influence how Irish people vote on 2nd October.

The "colleagues" are pulling no punches on this one – they are determined to have their treaty. When they finally get it, we are going to have to shoot them. Failing that, download this.


Another reason to dump Ryanair

According to Euronews, Europe's biggest budget airline, Ryanair, has "climbed on board the campaign to give the Lisbon Treaty wings."

We are told that the airline's chief executive Michael O'Leary has "dismissed what he called a lot of mumbo-jumbo in it" – whatever that means. But, for him, the "clincher" is concern over Ireland's economy. Presumably, he thinks that ratifying the treaty is going to make Ireland's economic woes evaporate.

More detail, however, comes from the Irish Times which tells us that Ryanair is to spend €500,000 on advertising and cheaper airline seats in its campaign for a Yes vote.

O'Leary says that "Ireland's (i.e., his airline's) future success depends on being at the heart of Europe and our membership of the euro." His company plans to spend €200,000 on newspaper and internet advertising and posters, and €300,000 on "deeply discounted seats", to emphasise that "the EU'’s policy on lower air fares was one of the reasons for Ryanair's existence."

This is the man, of course, who in October 2005 was telling us "We should shoot EU regulators…", an instruction with which we would be happy to comply.

But, when the chips are down, self-interest prevails and O'Leary has thrown in his lot with the "colleagues". But, of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with Ryanair's long-standing bid to take over Aer Lingus. It is thus a complete coincidence that the ailing airline is softening its stance towards a possible deal with Ryanair, having already rejected two bids.

Ryanair, in fact, is barred by EU takeover rules from making another bid for Aer Lingus until January but O'Leary's current enthusiasm for the project will surely do no harm when the EU commission comes to consider whether it approves the bid. Then, as they say, money talks.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Let them speak English

With thirty-seven years membership of the grand project behind us, all we have to show for it is the news that state schools are slowly abandoning modern foreign languages.

Less than three in 10 teenagers are now taking French GCSE, having dropped 6.6 percent on last year, to 188,688. German fell by 4.2 percent to just under one in 11 pupils. It is the seventh year in a row that French and German entrance numbers have slumped.

Teachers are now pressing ministers urgently to review their "totally mistaken" decision five years ago to make foreign languages optional at the age of 14. The trouble is – certainly to judge from the output of the BBC – learning the English language is optional as well.


More cut and paste

It was only yesterday that we were complaining of the "stock merchants". They are not getting down in the weeds, picking up raw data or attempting systematically to collect data and analyse it, building their views and crafting their phrases on the basis of what the evidence tells them.

More on Defence of the Realm.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hidden in plain sight

More insight as to why the MoD pulled the plug on Michael Yon. There are things happening in Sangin which the MoD definitely does not want us to know about. The man was getting too close to the truth – over on Defence of the Realm.

Letter from Ireland

We have received an e-mail from Dr Anthony Coughlan of The National Platform in Ireland, whom we have mentioned once or twice before on this blog. (Well, a few more times than that.) Dr Coughlan thinks the battle for Ireland, a.k.a. the second Irish Referendum, scheduled for October 2, can be won and suggests some ways in which supporters from other countries can help:
So anything that you can do in or from your own country to show soldiarity with the Irish No-side over the five weeks to our referendum and to bring home to voters here that Ireland would not be isolated or "punished" if they dare to vote No to Lisbon again, could be very helpful to us in our democratic struggle.

Such actions could take the form, for example, of delegations to Irish Embassies abroad to hand in letters congratulating Ireland for being the only EU country whose people are being allowed to vote on the "Lisbon Constitution" ... Or demonstrations outside the EU Commission offices in your country, protesting at the Commission's outrageous and unlawful interference in the Irish referendum campaign, something that has been sanctioned by Commission President J M Barroso and his Secretary-General, the Irishwoman Catherine Day.

Any such actions would of course need to be brought to the attention of the Irish media, so far as possible, if voters in Ireland are to be made aware of them. Details of the Irish media can be got on

Or people outside Ireland could send letters in English to the Irish national and provincial newspapers making various points about the Lisbon Treaty, showing thereby that people in other EU countries are against the Treaty too. Or they could write privately to friends and acquaintances they may have in Ireland, or to Irish people at addresses taken from our phone book. Or use the internet, blogs and e-mail, especially social networking sites, to send messages to people here.

Or if people had the resources, they might consider putting advertisements in the Irish newspapers. These should not of course entail "telling" Irish people how to vote, or be hectoring or patronising in any way. They should rather make factual points about the Treaty, point out that people elsewhere in Europe are being denied a chance to vote on it, that Ireland would not be isolated if it votes No again, and appealing to Irish voters to "bear us in mind" when they vote on 2 October.

And friends outside Ireland will be able to think of other ways to show their concern and solidarity.
We get many, largely justified, complaints that there is nothing any of us can do. Well, here are many ideas of things people can do to further the cause. Go, go, go!


More to the man than that

There was more to Senator Kennedy than his curious driving habits, his support for terrorists, his hypocrisy over health care and education and his strange private life. He also thought it was a good idea to negotiate with this country's enemy for his own and his party's good. Over on Your Freedom and Ours. Enjoy.

Ted Kennedy dies

Mourned by some - but not by many.


The vocabulary of war

"The bloodshed is likely to prompt further questions about the international mission in Afghanistan ... ". That happens to be in The Times today, but that partial sentence, or something very like it, probably resides within virtually every journalist's toolkit, ready to be pasted in whenever deaths are now recorded.

More on Defence of the Realm.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Blessed be the peacemaker

Re-reading Michael Yon's latest despatch for the umpteenth time, my own thinking hardens into a single question: why are we messing about?

The heaviest piece of kit used in the entire operation to clear Pharmacy Road is an armoured JCB (pictured left) – with all the substance and presence of a Tonka toy. It is not even an HMEE.

The dangerous work is done by unprotected troops and ordnance clearance teams driving nothing more lethal than the absurdly expensive, unarmoured Tellar Disposal and Search Explosives Ordnance Disposal vehicles.

What we should have been using were these (pictured below) – the Mantak D-9 Armoured Bulldozer. There is even a remote-control version.

There are more pics here (about eight-tenths the way down). One of the captions reads:

Talk About Intimidating. You do NOT want to be anywhere around this monster when it is barrelling towards you with several tons of mines scooped up from your locally laid minefield, otherwise you might be eating a lot of dirt and body parts for dinner.
Procedure-wise, what should have been done is equally straightforward. A straight line should have been drawn on a map, between FOB Jackson and FB Wishtan. The route should have been published well in advance, with warnings to keep clear. On the appointed day, the D-9 is started up, put into gear and driven from A to B, in a straight line. This is the engineering solution.

Michael Yon writes about these baked mud walls stopping 30mm cannon rounds and being left standing when 500lb bombs drop in compounds. They would not last two minutes in front of a D-9.

Then, you open up a compensation office and pay a fair price for the damage. The cost would still be cheaper than a brace of GBUs and the delivery charges – much less the compensation you have to pay to the relatives of dead soldiers and limbless servicemen.

But what about "hearts and minds?" I hear you cry. Well, there is nothing benign in permitting the Taleban to kill Afghan citizens. Yon writes that two civilians were killed by IEDs after the road clearance operation.

One was killed when he tried to strip one of the blown-up vehicles left by the British engineers. The other died on a route he had thought cleared by the British. It had not been. "The Taleban blows up a lot of local people in Sangin," Yon observes. Where is the "hearts and minds" in allowing that to happen?

The Afghanis, we are told, want security more than anything. That is how you give it to them. Sending out our own young men to die in narrow alleys, surrounded by high walls, prey to the IED and the bullet, is not. It achieves nothing.

Blessed be the peacemaker – it is called an armoured D-9.


Yes, the City of London is beginning to suffer

When the City suffers the rest of the country will suffer, as well. Those much derided bankers, traders and hedge fund managers bring in a lot of money. And they do not like what is coming from the British government and, especially, the European Union.

The Wall Street Journal has now noted what has been discussed in various corridors for some time: the hedge funds are beginning to move to Switzerland. (And no, the Swiss are not stupid enough to make their lives difficult.)
Lawyers estimate hedge funds managing close to $15 billion have moved to Switzerland in the past year, with more possibly to come. David Butler, founder of professional-services firm Kinetic Partners, said his company had advised 23 hedge funds on leaving the U.K. in the 15 months to April. An additional 15 are close to quitting the U.K., he said.
As it happens, this subject has been raised in the House of Lords a couple of times by Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

On July 2 he asked a question in the Chamber:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of how the powers granted to the new European Union financial institutions will develop in future; and whether they will affect the independence of the United Kingdom and its financial institutions.
The response was, unsurprisingly, rather bland so the Noble Lord followed up with two supplementary questions that the rules allow, one of which he specifically asked:
Secondly, have Her Majesty’s Government made their own assessment of the damage to our economy caused by firms leaving the City in droves, which they are already starting to do?
Pshaw, said the Noble Minister, Lord Myners.
I am unaware of firms leaving the City of London in droves—quite the opposite. The City of London is continuing to grow in global significance, as underlined by the recent Bischoff report.
Well, Lord Pearson was not going to leave matters there and, unlike his former party, he did something about it. On July 20, he tackled the subject again in a Written Question that asked
Her Majesty's Government further to the answer by Lord Myners on 2 July (Official Report, House of Lords, col. 329) saying that firms are not leaving the City of London, whether they discussed with the Swiss authorities the number of firms leaving the City of London for Switzerland.
HMG was having none of it. Well, to be quite precise, HMG was not going to admit either to ignorance or to panic.
Treasury Ministers and officials have discussions with a wide variety of organisations in the public and private sectors as part of the process of policy development and delivery. As was the case with previous Administrations, it is not the Government's practice to provide details of all such discussions.
I trust Lord Myners read the WSJ article with his toast and marmalade this morning.


Michael Yon

Free-lance journalist extraordinaire Michael Yon, having published a number of gripping accounts of our troops activities in Sagin, has now been kicked out of the town by an anal MoD, for writing this report.

Obsessed with OPSEC (operational security), the MoD "minders" have taken exception to the candour with which Yon writes. Yon himself gives us a clue as to how his material is being viewed.

"We set off down the market road," he writes. Then, in an oblique reference to those "minders", he adds: "Some folks believe such reports are 'security violations', as if the thousands of people living here do not know exactly where the bases are, or do not know exactly where we came from and went to. Operations take place here every day. Civilians are everywhere."

We have summarised part of his report over on Defence of the Realm to give a clearer narrative line on the operation he describes, which we call The battle for Pharmacy Road.

The operation is a success – through the skill and ingenuity of our troops. It is difficult to see what the MoD is worried about. But then it is not OPSEC they are really concerned with – it is controlling the message. And they would sooner have no message at all than allow someone else to tell the story in their own way.


Monday, August 24, 2009

A force for good

We hear so much about the good intentions of the trans-national EU and how much it helps Africa – like when it steals its fish in highly dubious deals on fishing rights. What African littoral states need though, more than anything, is practical help in policing their own waters, better to protect their fish from predatory fishing fleets and to support artisan fishermen.

In small measure, that help is there – not enough, but it is something. But it is not the EU that steps up to the plate ... it could not and, even if it could, it would not. No, the help comes from another nation state, the United States.

Pictured is the Yu Feng, a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing activity, moves through the water off the coast of Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 17 August, before being boarded by US Coast Guardsmen from USCGC Legare (WMEC 912) and representatives of the Sierra Leone armed forces maritime wing, Fisheries Ministry and Office of National Security.

Legare is on a three-month deployment as part of Africa Partnership Station, an international initiative developed by US Naval Forces Europe and Africa to work with U.S. and international partners to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. (DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Eggert, US Coast Guard/Released.)


Not unrelated

A piece in The Guardian today (yes, another one) has our Mandarins launching an attack on Labour, criticising the party's record on cabinet government.

Doubtless, there is an element of special pleading here as the Sir Humphries are complaining that Labour has abandoned cabinet government during its time in power and routinely bypassed the civil service to exert greater political control over Whitehall.

So concerned are these "Rolls Royce" minds that four former cabinet secretaries – who served three prime ministers over 26 years – have warned that the presidential style of both leaders is a threat to Britain's constitutional settlement.

In particular, they complain that Britain's "great institution" of joint cabinet government is threatened by the growing power of the prime minister. Both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, they say, have shown little understanding of cabinet government; they operate as a "small unit" and hold "cards rather close to their chest". And, last but not least, Whitehall has been politicised with Blair and Brown presiding over a "massive increase" in special advisers.

Read alongside the interview with Lord Salisbury, which we summarised in late July, this paints an interesting if disturbing picture of the breakdown of our fundamental structures of government.

Salisbury, you will recall, was worried about the "parliamentary muscle" having atrophied, leaving us with "a vast, complicated, self-referential bureaucracy." He warned that, when Cameron tried to implement his own agenda, "He will go into Whitehall and pull the levers and find that nothing works." "I don't think he realises how Whitehall has become so broken," said the noble Lord.

When the civil servants are also complaining, there is clearly something amiss – especially as, with the growing power of the European Union, it is the bureaucrats who have gained most, at the expense of both ministers and parliament.

Probably, what is happening is that, in the areas dominated by EU policy – such as agriculture and environment – the civil servants are left to run their affairs alongside our masters in Brussels, with very little interference from ministers or MPs. On that, the Mandarins are silent.

Of those policy areas where there is less interference from Brussels, however, ministers seem to be taking a far greater managerial role, cutting out the traditional structures, hierarchies and lines of demarcation, leaving many of their senior civil servants in the dark as to what is going on.

On the other hand, though, in by-passing the Mandarins, ministers are clearly finding it more and more difficult to enforce their wishes and diktats, as the two sides are no longer talking to each other freely, or working together. And while even senior civil servants cannot make and enforce their own policies, they have an endless capability to sabotage anything a government might wish to implement, should they be so minded.

This may be one of the dynamics affecting defence, about which we have so recently written, where ministers (and the prime minister) are no longer in the thrall of their civil servants but are increasingly finding it difficult to impose their collective wills. The levers of power have indeed become disconnected.

If the dysfunctional performance of the current administration is not unrelated to these developments, then this further reinforces the view that there are serious repairs to the system required, before government can begin to function effectively again – if indeed that is possible, given how much power has drained elsewhere.

The retired mandarins, however, want to see a return to the tradition in which the cabinet office and the cabinet secretary acted as "guardians of collective responsibility of government" with the prime minister not a presidential figure but first among equals. This may be the civil services' ticket to restoring some of its own power over government, but since so much of that power is simply now exerted on behalf of Brussels, this will not necessarily improve matters.

Short of that, though, we are left with a situation where, increasingly, no one is really in control and the machinery of government will continue to deteriorate. That which has been so easily broken cannot be so readily mended.


I can't wait

John Prescott has landed his most bizarre job yet - as professor of climate change at a Chinese university. Prezza (pictured) has confounded his critics with his new role at Xiamen University on the south east coast of the country where he will give occasional lectures on global warming.

The honour is seen as recognition of the former Deputy PM's role in negotiating the 1997 Kyoto Treaty to combat climate change. A friend said: "He's delighted. These professorships are awarded only to senior statesmen and Nobel prize-winners." On Wednesday, he will launch a New Earth Deal campaign to highlight the impact of climate change ahead of a key conference in Copenhagen.

Prezza, who failed his 11-plus, will accept his professorship in China on 9 September and deliver his first lecture. He is also working on an eco-film along the lines of ex-US vice president al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.


Stop whining and love Europe

It is relatively rare for The Guardian to take up cudgels on behalf of the British population against the over-arching might of the Socialist Republic of the European Union, but even this revered newspaper seems to think there is a limit to how far European integration should go.

Its focus here is the dark case of Dr Daniel Ubani (pictured) who in February killed David Gray, 70, by giving him an overdose of a painkiller. As a citizen of Germany, and a registered medical practitioner there, Ubani was entitled to practice in the UK under EU law, without the General Medical Council or the Royal College of General Practitioners being permitted to test his competence.

Now, it appears, the two professional bodies "are on a collision course with the government and the EU commission" after calling for all doctors coming to work in Britain from Europe to face tests to prove they are fit to practice in this country.

Both the heads of the respective bodies, Finlay Scott and Steve Field, want a rewriting of the rules for recognising medical qualifications across the EU. They say all doctors from the EU and other European countries must face tests on their knowledge and skills before working in Britain, "just like doctors from other parts of the world."

However, they are all wrong. The benefits of the current system are manifest – as Booker recalled a couple of years back.

We are, for instance, protected from Australian and New Zealand doctors, who claim English as their mother tongue. With their impenetrable accents and arcane slang, they are rightly required to prove their proficiency in English before they can practice in the EU – of which the UK is an enthusiastic part.

That foreign nationals of EU member states – totally unable to speak English - can "waltz in and waltz out of this country without appropriate safeguards for the public," is neither here nor there. That is our own fault for not being good Europeans and learning German ... French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Serbo-Croat ...

The system, of course, is vitally necessary to prevent Germany invading France – or vice versa - and therefore, as you might expect. ministers have rejected pleas from Gray's family for a review of the out-of-hours system and "seem satisfied with the pan-European system of recognition for medical qualifications."

As troops mass on the German border, we can see their point – after all, it was only 70 years ago (nearly) that they were doing it for real – and it is quite obvious that, unless we let the Germans over to slaughter our patients, they will be storming into Paris to kill Frenchmen in their stead. To lose a few old-age pensioners and sundry others is but a small price to pay to avoid such a catastrophe.

It is thus a shame that The Guardian cannot point out those huge benefits of European integration and stop giving publicity to a few dissident doctors whining about patient safety.


Speaking from ignorance

Inward groans have to be suppressed as we read more ill-informed opinion, dressed up as analysis – this later helping from William Rees-Mogg in today's Times. Thus does he reach down to us lesser mortals to deliver ex cathedra pronouncements on the Gray report, offering nothing but the most profound ignorance.

Fortified by this ignorance, the Great Man identifies "three collisions" in the core debate over defence planning. The first is the collision between the wars started in the Blair-Brown regime and Mr Brown's refusal as Chancellor to spend money on fighting them. The second, he says, is also financial – the "defence black hole" created by Labour.

For his third "collision", Rees Mogg chooses "inter-Service rivalry", accusing the MoD of being more concerned to find huge funds for two aircraft carriers and a replacement for Trident. This, he avers, would give priority for expenditure on weapons systems we are unlikely to use rather than the weapon systems we are actually using in combat in Afghanistan.

We could, of course, ignore Rees Mogg and his vapourings, except that his formulaic analysis reflects the general tenor of the debate, in the media, amongst the political classes and elsewhere. Each time the monster lifts its head, therefore, it must be slain.

For convenience, if we accept Rees Mogg's three "collisions" at face value – which we do not as they are far too simplistic – his huge error is to stop with three. No one can even begin to understand the defence issue until they appreciate that there are many more.

Firstly – about which we and so many others have written before, so many times – there is the "collision" over the very nature of warfare, the tension between the need to fight the present, low intensity wars – which we expect to be fighting for the foreseeable future – and the "future wars", defined as inter-state wars against technologically equivalent enemies.

It is that "collision" which has in fact dominated the defence debate, and it is one that is not only reflected in inter- but intra-service rivalry, with strong differences of opinion, within the Army especially, as to the shape of future requirements.

Overlaying that is yet another "collision", the tensions between the requirements for the core of the "liberal intervention" ethos, manifest in the air-portable rapid reaction concept from which FRES evolved, and the need for this to be able to assume a multi-function role, also fighting the low intensity and the inter-state wars.

At the heart of the defence debate, therefore, lies confusion and disagreement. Parroted by Rees Mogg, Gray asks: "How can it be that it takes 20 years to buy a ship, or aircraft, or tank? Why does it always seem to cost at least twice what was thought? Even worse, at the end of the wait, why does it never quite seem to do what it is supposed to?"

The answer is actually quite simple. Neither the successive defence chiefs nor their governments could never quite make up their minds what they really wanted and, more, importantly, have evaded coming to terms with the singular fact that we are no longer a major global power and cannot afford everything.

In those terms, there is not so much a procurement as a definition problem. We end up with massively expensive kit which never seems to do what it is supposed to do because no one can quite decide what is required to do. Then, by the time it comes into service, the goal posts have moved, as indeed they have done throughout the project developments.

To make matters worse, in the context of the operations in Afghanistan, there is yet another "collision", the doctrinal conflict between the role of mobility and armour in securing protection, visible in the distinction between the Jackal on the one hand and the Mastiff on the other. With the government trying to please advocates of both schools, it succeeds in pleasing neither.

If one then adds and stirs well in portions of bureaucracy, corporate inertia, incompetence, pork-barrel, graft and plain stupidity, one begins to get close to understanding something of why defence spending is in such a mess. Sorting the mess has, as we have been wont to observe, defeated the best and some of the worst minds since the war, and long, long before that.

Turning the issue into a political football, therefore, helps no one. Nor does the trite, formulaic analysis offered by Rees Mogg. There is going to have to be a much better-informed and honest debate than we have seen so far.

In that, again as we have previously observed, defence is very much a litmus issue. The difficulties encountered here are by no means unique and lessons learned could so easily be applied across the broad spectrum of government. In this case though, there is more than usual pressure to get it sorted. This is too important for games. We need to get a grip.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

They were in a Mastiff

In The Observer today we find published extracts from the diary of a soldier engaged in Operation Panther's Claw. As well as recording his experiences, the account provides a valuable insight into the thinking of one soldier as he grappled with the news of colleagues terribly injured and killed by the growing menace of IEDs.

More on Defence of the Realm.

The Taleban within

I suppose that, if we heard tales from Afghanistan of officials bursting into a family home accompanied by armed police, abducting the children and taking them in front of a bent judge for a rigged hearing, then to send the children for adoption, their natural parents prohibited ever from seeing them again, no doubt the human rights/feminist lobby would be in full flow, waxing indignant about the standards of justice in these third world countries.

That is its happening in rural Sussex, however, is even more bizarre, as Christopher Booker points out, where our own domestic brand of Taleban abducted a seven-year-old girl two years ago, on the slender grounds that her home had been left in an appalling mess after a raid by RSPCA officials and 18 policemen.

They had ransacked the premises looking for non-existent guns, and released into the house a pack of dogs kept in kennels outside by her father, a professional dog-breeder. The parents were arrested for protesting at what was happening (the mother suffering a miscarriage while in police custody) and the social workers were summoned to remove their daughter.

Everything about this case is bizarre, writes Booker, not least the apparent complicity of social workers, lawyers and the courts in determining that the child should not be returned to her parents, as she wishes, but rather, after two years in foster care, sent for adoption.

Booker has read through many papers relating to the case, including the judgments resulting from the 74 hearings in which the parents attempted to get their daughter back.

What stands out, he tells us, is the startling contrast between the two totally different versions of the case given by the social workers and the courts on one hand and, on the other, that presented by the parents themselves and by many who knew them. The latter include their GP, who recently wrote that he had never "encountered such a case of appalling injustice".

The most impressive document was a report by an independent social worker, based on many interviews with those involved, including the child herself and the chief social worker in charge of her.

In measured terms, this made mincemeat of the council's case. Nothing about it is more suspicious than the contrast between descriptions of the "clean and tidy" home reported by those who knew the family well and the mess allegedly found by the policemen who burst into it mob-handed on the day in question.

The report found an equally glaring contrast between the social workers' insistence that the child was quite happy to have been removed from her parents, and the abundant evidence, observed at first-hand, that the little girl had an extremely good relationship with her parents and wants nothing more than to be reunited with them.

The courts seem to have totally ignored this report, whose author last month expressed astonishment that the child had not been returned home.

What has also come to light is a remarkable judgment by Lord Justice Thorpe and Lord Justice Wall in the Appeal Court last year, in another case which also involved the apparently ruthless determination of East Sussex social workers to send a child for adoption.

The judges were fiercely critical. The social workers' conduct, said Lord Justice Thorpe, could only reinforce the suspicions of those who believe "councils have a secret agenda to establish a high score of children they have placed for adoption".

Lord Justice Wall described East Sussex's conduct as "disgraceful – not a word I use lightly" and also as "about the worst I have ever encountered in a career now spanning nearly 40 years". "The social workers in question," he said, appeared "not only to have been inadequately managed, they do not appear to have been properly trained".

As for the barrister who represented East Sussex (and who also appeared in most of the hearings in the "dog-breeder" case), Lord Justice Wall said "her attitude came across, to me at least, as – in effect – so what?" She had demonstrated, he said, "profound misunderstanding" of the council's legal position vis à vis adoption. He ordered his comments to be circulated to family courts and adoption agencies across the land.

Though the circumstances are different, Booker notes, anyone reading the documents could not fail to be struck by how many of the judges' comments are relevant to the case I reported.

The same council's social workers have again pushed for a child to be adopted in a way which prompts the family's GP to say "the destruction of this once happy family is, in my opinion, evil". And that barrister who was involved in both cases is now – a family court judge.

In the Sussex case, one can only admire the fortitude of the family concerned – but there are many, many more who have suffered the depredations of the social service Taleban. Had it been me, I suspect, murder would now have been committed. If this continues, murder will be committed.


Bogged down

In an exchange with a military expert today, one who describes himself as having made a good living critiquing UK MOD programmes, we agreed that the MoD – and the military generally (it is hard to draw a clear line between divisions and responsibilities) – is "essentially incompetent".

You have to look no further for confirmation of this than in today's Sunday Times, which has been able to get hold of a full copy of the 296-page Gray report on defence procurement.

Featured briefly by Channel 4 earlier this month, with the benefit of far more detail the paper is able to tell us that the scale of MoD bungling is so severe it "is harming our ability ... to conduct difficult current operations".

More on Defence of the Realm.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The EU say "yes"

As the witness accounts continue to pour in from diverse sources all attesting to the sham of the Afghan election, in leaps the European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) to declare the holding of elections "a victory for the Afghan people".

"These were the first Afghan-led elections, and the process seems at this stage to have been largely positive," the EUEOM statement said. Philippe Morillon, a former French general heading the EU mission, then insisted that they were "fair". "Generally what we have observed was considered by our observers with our methodology good and fair," he added.

This, of course, is part of an organisation which believes that a "no" response to a referendum on the constitutional Lisbon treaty is simply a signal to have another referendum, making sure the people get it "right" the next time round, as it is seeking to do in Ireland in just over a month's time.

But, in lending its voice of approval to the charade – where the "people" are crying out for the world to take notice of their fake election - the EU is simply joining the chorus of voices from the international "community", governments and institutions such as Nato which have invested far too much in the process to allow it to fail.

Thus, when by any normal measure the election should be declared void, in the fullness of time, Karzai or some other malleable puppet will be found to have garnered enough votes him to be installed in the dung heap of the presidential palace in Kabul, guarded by phalanxes of stern-faced CIA agents.

The "community" will roll over and declare the result "valid" – allowing some mild reservations to be expressed about "irregularities", which will be judged not sufficiently grave as to have affected the result - and the charade will continue on to its pre-ordained conclusion.

Some clues as to the real agenda are given in an interesting article in the Asia Times, which discusses the "seven steps to peace" in Afghanistan, the first step being to "engage the Taleban and bring them into the mainstream political process."

Actually, this article sees this as the first step of the process but, while there may be a seven-stage process, we have already seen two of them rolled out. The first was the sham "surge", orchestrated by Obama with the maximum of publicity – of which Operation Panther's Claw was part - in a showy but wholly ineffective and ultimately futile attempt to "pacify" the country ahead of the presidential elections which were held on Thursday.

The second step was the high profile decision to build up the Afghani security forces – army and police – except that this is as much a sham as was the surge. Numbers may be increased – although only nominally, never matching the desertion rate – but the forces will never be properly equipped, trained or organised.

For one, the last thing the Western powers – and indeed the puppet government in Kabul – want is a powerful, effective army that can, on the lines of Pakistan, form a separate power base for ambitious generals, and challenge the status quo.

Then, there is always a fear that the Kabul government might break away and use the army to further its territorial squabbles, fighting neighbouring Pakistan – as it has done even in the recent past – rather than the Taleban. Crucially, also, no one wants an army that is actually capable of taking on and defeating the next government of Afghanistan – the Taleban.

The third step was, of course, to allow the elections to proceed, then to declare a "success" come what may, with the installation of a puppet president, preparatory to the next step, which is already in its opening stages – mounting high-level negotiations with the Taleban.

In this fourth step, attempts will be made to prevail upon the Taleban to adopt a more "moderate" face, ridding itself of its obvious "hard liners", who must be either sidelined, retired or murdered. The services of the CIA and its armed UAVs, or the special forces, may be offered to help remove any obstacles to "peace".

Thus re-branded, the Taleban will be invited to join – in fact, take over – the government in Kabul, fortified by generous bribes masquerading as international aid. Part of the deal will be an agreement that the Taleban should scale back its attacks on coalition forces and the more obvious outrages such as suicide bombing, sufficient to give the appearance of normality.

Step five will then involve coalition forces ceasing aggressive operations, handing over security responsibilities to the Afghan forces who, with an unofficial cease-fire in place, will appear to be coping.

Foreign troops will progressively retreat to their bases and assume the passive and largely ineffective role of training the Afghan security forces – those that have not already deserted to the Taleban. Large numbers of coalition forces, including British and US troops, can then be withdrawn, leaving token forces and a strong air force presence, as a deterrent to a premature Taleban take-over.

The sixth step probably brings us to the next presidential elections, in five years time, when the rebranded Taleban will be allowed to win the elections and take overt power.

The Western powers will pay them another shed-load of money and implement the seventh and final step - declaring a victory for "democracy" and an all but complete withdrawal. That will leave the Taleban free to take its country back into the Stone Age of Islamic fundamentalism, unmolested as long as it is not too blatant in running its terrorist training camps.

The success of these seven steps will, of course, rely on us being able to bribe the Pashtuns and their staying bribed – something which is difficult to achieve. But with the glittering prize of a nation on offer, with a multi-billion dowry and a promise of more to come, the "moderates" may be prevailed upon to slaughter their own hard-liners and play ball.

Failing that, we are in for a torrid time. We have neither the will nor the capability effectively to prosecute the war and install a stable, democratic state. Neither has the United States, nor any of our coalition partners.

Initially, there was probably a belief that we could prevail, but as the stalemate took hold, the realisation dawned that the war was unwinnable – at least, at the piece the Western powers were prepared to pay.

Thus, the name of the game is to devise an exit strategy, dressed up as a victory, which will hold long enough for no one to notice – or care – that it was a defeat. Here, having already practiced in Iraq, the British are ahead of the game and, no doubt, we are acquainting the Americans with our skills at "repositioning".

In the meantime, the military must hold the line, dying in sufficient numbers to make the whole process look credible, without losing so many that it will force a precipitate departure - keeping the population distracted with its tales of derring do, its parades and its funerals.

When the whole shebang is over, the Army can go back to playing with its toys without getting them bent, the RAF will not have to let grubby little brown jobs into its wokkas without them wiping their feet first, and the admirals can take turns driving their new (and only) boat, while listening to their iPods. The service chiefs can then resume planning their pretend army (which they never really stopped doing) to fight their future wars, freed from the inconvenience of an enemy which does not play by the rules.

Our masters may then dream of their bright, shiny European Rapid Reaction Force, garlanded with rings of stars and, this time, they may succeed. The EU may well get the last laugh, when it say "yes".

Pic: Elmar Brok MEP, then Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the EU Parliament, and Abdullah Abdullah, then Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, signing the EU-Afghanistan Partnership Treaty in Strasbourg, 16 November 2005.


Coming together

A strong feeling of the need to apologise for the obsession with Afghanistan on this blog is somewhat tempered by the realisation that, this week, we have had near-record hits, albeit that an increasing number are directed at Defence of the Realm.

Fortunately for the government, the Lockerbie affair has dominated the front pages this week, with the repatriation of Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed Megrahi and the faux indignation directed at the Scottish Executive for releasing a "mass murderer" to die (or not) with his family.

Since a huge number of people are convinced of Megrahi's innocence, including many of the relatives of the victims of the bombing, this affair has all the hallmarks of one of those grand political stitch-ups where no one in the corridors of power is particularly keen that the truth – much less the whole truth – should be known. We are but pawns in a bigger game.

Nevertheless the affair has had the merit of squeezing the train-wreck of the Afghan election out of the headlines, limiting analysis of what is turning out to be another of those grand political stitch-ups, as the Western powers manoeuvre themselves into a position where they can extricate themselves from an unwelcome commitment, without making it too obvious that they have been roundly defeated.

The additional merit of the affair is that, at a the tail end of the "silly season", it is keeping the political classes and their claque occupied and diverted. One notes that Cameron is demanding a statement from Brown on the release of Megrahi, but is seemingly uninterested in the fate of the peoples of Afghanistan and their "stolen election" - peoples who, like our troops, are mere cannon fodder in the greater game.

The strands here are beginning to come together, and one really must admire the way the governments of the coalition nations are keeping in the dark their own public – and the Afghan people – while the deals are stitched-up behind closed doors, preparatory to handing over the nation to a re-invented Taleban and declaring yet another grand victory for democracy in the style of Iraq.

It is going to take a few more posts to work this through, so we'll continue with the reporting and analysis, as we gradually put the pieces together.


They mock themselves

In the aftermath of the Operation Panther's Claw, on 28 July, David Miliband, our current foreign secretary was full of himself, telling us that several hundred British troops will remain in the area to provide ongoing security. "Hopefully," he said, "there will be a credible turnout at the Afghan elections in August."

He then cited Brigadier Tim Radford, Commander Task Force Helmand, who had said: "We are creating the conditions, as we have done in many other campaigns, so that a political process can take place above us, and that security at the moment is going extremely well."

Radford went on to say that which has only recently been repeated by Nick Gurr, the MOD's Director of Media and Communication, viz:

As a result of our forces' efforts, around 80,000 more Afghans in Helmand now live in areas under government control, giving around 20,000 more the chance to vote, with 13 additional polling centres becoming useable. That does not mean that turnout in Helmand will match that in less troubled provinces. Helmand is at the heart of the insurgency and that is bound to have an effect. But more people will be able to exercise their democratic choice than was the case before Panther's Claw.
Now cut to The Times of yesterday, and we read: "... fewer than 150 people actually cast their ballots in Nad e-Ali (at the heart of the Panther's Claw operation) out of about 48,000 registered voters, according to Engineer Abdul Hadee, the local head of the Independent Election Commission.

Then we read: "Mullah Ghulam Mohamamd Akhund, a Taleban commander in the district, said: 'Everything was fine. There were no polling centres and no voting. We didn't face any problems.'"

That this might be empty rhetoric is not borne out by other reports. For instance, here we read that only one of the three polling stations in Babaji was open (the other area on which Panther's Claw concentrated), and in Nad-e Ali voting only took place in the centre of town, with outlying stations remaining closed.

The situation, however, is perhaps even worse than that. Kim Sengupta reports for The Independent that, at one polling station in Nad-e-Ali, just over 400 people had voted by 1pm.

Three hours later, he writes, the figure had apparently surged to some 1,200. This [was] despite the fact the streets were empty, all shops and businesses were shut and an Afghan army officer saying his men standing guard had hardly seen any civilians heading to these particular voting booths.

Heedless of the so-called "security envelope" provided by Panther's Claw, the largest election monitoring group had refused to come to the district, deeming it still too dangerous. On the day there were rockets, machine-gun fire and mortar fire, roadside bombs, deaths and injuries.

Thus, at the conclusion of the poll, Sengupta tells us that election officials were seen counting piles of ballot papers, without even checking the choices, simply declaring the votes had been cast for incumbent president Hamid Karzai.

Still we have the twittering of the ghastly Caroline Wyatt and the attempts of the BBC to downplay the violence, yet in Kandahar province, 122 Taleban rockets were fired, with 20 falling on the city. Four people were killed and 12 wounded. This has not stopped the BBC presenting the election as a success.

In the real world, such has been the effect of the Taleban that, despite the ballot stuffing and rigging, in the disputed provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul, turnout is estimated to be as low as 5 to 10 percent. That is half of what it was in those regions in the first presidential election five years ago – the last three of which have seen intensive fighting and repeated claims of how the Taleban has been beaten.

The uncertainty has allowed Karzai and his leading rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, to claim victory but the official results will not be declared until 25 August, but there are no bets as to who will actually come out on top. Karzai will "win", coming out with a clear majority, even if the ink is still wet on the ballot papers.

The farcical and corrupt nature of this election - with Gerald Warner suggesting that an Afghan ballot box with an untampered seal would probably fetch a fortune at Christie's for its rarity value - puts into perspective Nick Gunn's spin on behalf of his masters. In the words of one of our forum members: "Quite how our troops in Afghanistan would manage without the Herculean efforts of Nick and his team I just don't know. We're obviously very lucky to have him. The only remaining mystery is how the bastard sleeps at night."

What applies to Gurr, however, must apply to the whole sorry crew. Either Operation Panther's Claw was grossly oversold and the stated objectives were unrealistic, or they simply were not attained. Either way, the hopes of Mr Miliband were not fulfilled, even though 13 men had died in the effort to bring them to fruition – with many more injured. As for the election itself, rather than a move closer to a solution, it looks to opening wide the divisions in Afghanistan and reducing still further the legitimacy of the central government.

Says The Times, the credibility of the election "hangs in the balance". But, for their exaggerated claims, the credibility of Mr Miliband and the rest of those who trot out their glib phrases is already shot to pieces. You do not have to mock them. They mock themselves and, sadly, those who died for their witless posturing.


Friday, August 21, 2009

The Brussels Taleban

Nearly two years ago, I wrote about the EU's proposed "e-call" system, in-car technology linked to GPS (and in time Galileo) which could automatically alert the emergency services in the event of a crash, when the driver is incapacitated or rendered unconscious.

The US has a similar system, funded as a private-venture enterprise, which is attracting thousands of subscribers. The difference here, though, is that the Socialist Republic of the European Union wants a state-run system, controlled by its gifted bureaucrats in Brussels.

Its ambitions, however, have been stalled by the unwillingness of enough of its vassal states to cough up the dosh, which means that it is having difficulty meeting its proposed roll-out target of 2014.

Undismayed, however, we now learn that the Brussels Taleban are flexing their muscles, and have decided that, unless the member states play ball, they will make the system compulsory.

"If the eCall roll-out does not accelerate, the Commission stands ready to set out clear rules obliging governments, industry and emergency services to respond," says Mullah Viviane Reding. "I want to see the first eCall cars on our roads next year."

So there if have it – if you do not volunteer, you will be volunteered. And the difference between the EU Commission and the Taleban is?


Back in the mincer

It is with great sadness, says the Ministry of Defence , that it must confirm that one soldier from 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's) and one soldier from 2nd Battalion The Rifles have been killed in Afghanistan.

The soldiers died as a result of an explosion that happened whilst on a routine foot patrol, not connected to election security, near Sangin, northern Helmand province, on the morning of Thursday 20 August 2009.

The mincer of Sangin again ... bringing the total deaths in this area to 57 – nearly a third of all British KIAs, and this year to 22, with nineteen of them arising from IEDs.

More on Defence of the Realm.

It's a good day for us

An honest reporter Michael Yon certainly is. I do not know how well the elections turned out in other parts of Afghanistan, he writes, but here in North Helmand Provence, near Sangin, I am told that less than 300 people voted.

In this area the day was marked by serious fighting, he tells us. Apache attack helicopters were firing their cannons throughout the day. The howitzers fired many times. The mortars were firing. Various bases were attacked. On the mission I accompanied the snipers were firing. We got into a firefight, and the soldier beside me had his antenna shot off.

Much the same story comes from Anthony Loyd, stationed in Sangin itself. Streaked with sweat, caked in dust and stinking of cordite, he writes, British soldiers in Sangin spent Afghanistan's election day defending their main base in the town from almost ceaseless Taleban assaults.

By the time polls closed and the final echoes of air strikes, artillery and gunfire died away, he tells us, barely 500 Afghans had managed to vote in a district of 70,000 people, a number signifying victory for the Taleban's power of fear and intimidation.

"It’s a bad day," Sangin's governor told Loyd. This was Haji Faisal Haq, glowering in anger as the polls closed to the rattle of machinegun fire. "My people were not able to come out and vote. I would never wish a day like this upon them again." "I can't say how they feel about it," he adds, as the deep-throated rip of A-10 cannon fire cut the sky above him. "I don't even know how I feel about it yet."

Nevertheless, Yon refuses to characterise this as a failure of the elections. It was a local setback. We saw the same in Iraq in early 2005, where some people boycotted the elections. The situation here is not good, but this is only one area of Afghanistan. I do not know what happened elsewhere, he concludes.

No such doubts trouble the BBC's Caroline Wyatt, based in Lashkar Gah. Although part of a convoy transporting Helmand governor Gulal Mangal, which suffered an IED and rocket attack, she happily reports: "Violence fails to deter Afghans", adding to the earlier, ludicrous report proclaiming: "Afghan poll hailed a success".

These bizarre reports from the BBC, topping up its refusal to publish any details of the shot-down Chinook – a story to which The Daily Telegraph adds – puts the state broadcaster out on its own in the British media.

The Guardian tells us that the Taleban's campaign of violence to disrupt the elections "appeared to have succeeded in discouraging voter turnout in the militant south." Throughout the day, the paper says, Taleban fighters launched sporadic rocket, suicide and bomb attacks that closed scores of election sites. Other polling stations saw only a trickle of voters.

As election officers began the formidable task of counting votes, Afghan government officials said the Taleban had "launched 73 attacks in 15 provinces during the voting, killing at least 26 Afghan civilians and members of the security forces." Only then are we told that, "Despite the violence, president Hamid Karzai – who is hoping for re-election – declared the poll a success."

It seems that Kandahar, the country's second largest city and the Taleban's spiritual home, was one of the worst affected locations: turnout there was estimated to be down 40 percent on the numbers seen voting in 2004's election. Constant rocket attacks had largely discouraged voters. Across the country election officials suggested turnout could be 40-50 percent of the country's 15 million registered voters.

Ben Farmer, based in Kabul, writes for The Daily Telegraph, citing a "western diplomat" who estimated turnout in some parts of the south as low as 10 percent though "average to good" in the north.

A colonel in the Afghan army said voting in the southern border province of Paktika had been confined to town centres. In Helmand, an observer said voting was well below levels seen in the previous presidential election. Zabul, another Pashtun province, was described as "eerily quiet" by one monitor.

Another eye witness, Norine MacDonald, was live blogging for the Afpak Foreign Policy website. She had spent a day touring polling stations. In each she had asked the officials whether the turnout had been at the level they were expecting. All said no, they were overstaffed. Disastrously, the number of women voting was only 25 to 35 percent of the male count, and – confirming the accounts of other witnesses - she conveyed the view from her staff, that in the south that voter turnout had been low and female turnout very low.

Of course, we weren't "there", so we cannot possibly vouch for the truth of what has been going on. But it is also true to say that no one was "there" in the sense that they were able to be physically present in every city, town and village. We are all relying, to a greater or lesser extent, on second-hand reports in order to assess the big picture.

From these emerge a picture totally odds with that presented by the BBC, its view shared only by an increasingly delusional officialdom, stretching from Kabul to London and Washington.

And it is far from over. Andrew Wilder, an Afghanistan expert at the Tufts International Center in Medford, Mass, cautions that it's too early to judge if the elections were a relative success or failure.

Wilder sees the security questions as secondary to the fraud finger-pointing likely to come. "Election day is not really when we should expect the most problems," he says.

He points out that most of the fraud that marred the 2005 presidential election occurred after the polls had closed. "In 2005, parliamentary election day went really smoothly but the real delegitimisation of the election happened during the counting process," he reminds us.

Yet still, on this flawed process, the Western states of the coalition are basing their optimism about the future of Afghanistan. That view can be about as reliable as the BBC reports, which have sunk to a new nadir of corrupt, biased inadequacy. Caroline Wyatt and her fellow BBC hacks may delude themselves that they are reporting "fairly and accurately" but they, like our government, are only deluding themselves.

The last word, however, must go to an artilleryman in besieged Sangin, interviewed by Anthony Loyd. "It's a good day for us," he remarks happily. "It's what we became soldiers for - to shoot at people shooting at us. Beats getting blown up anyway."