31 October 2006

An exercise in self-indulgence

Despite the febrile predictions of a rebellion in the government ranks, the vote on the Iraq debate, at 298 to 273 in favour of the government, was certainly not close enough to worry Blair.

It cannot have harmed his case that the debate was led by Adam Price, a man who has been trying since the dawn of time to have Blair impeached. Even by Plaid Cymru standards, Price - the Welsh Nationalist MP for Carmarthen East, is a pretty nasty piece of work. Previously, he has even incurred the wrath of the Speaker and got himself expelled from the Commons after refusing to withdraw comments that the prime minister had "misled" the house over the war in Iraq.

That was back in March 2005 but here he was again today, leading the debate, using time allocated to the minority opposition parties. But, although ostensibly aimed at forcing the government to hold an inquiry into the Iraq war, it was in fact an exercise in self-indulgence by a dysfunctional obsessive determined to pursue his own personal vendetta against Tony Blair.

For entirely tactical reasons, the Conservative Party threw its lot in with Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Shadow foreign secretary William Hague (pictured) put the obvious but irrelevant point. "None of us can credibly argue that there will not be lessons to be learnt of huge importance for this government and future governments, and ministers should have no hesitation in acknowledging that," he proclaimed.

"This is not the time…" said foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, her objection that such an inquiry could undermine troops' morale, leaving SNP leader Alex Salmond to disagree. "The idea is to restore parliamentary accountability over a war which has obviously gone badly wrong," he declared. "We are stuck in a bloody quagmire in Iraq with no end in sight."

Having watched the debate from start to finish (there is a brief report on the BBC website), one has to say that the Commons did not cover itself in glory. Far too many MPs, like Salmond, are obsessed with the past, playing out a grotesque "groundhog day" as they revisit, over and over again, the reasons for going to war, totally unable to move on.

What is hugely more important is ongoing evaluation of the way the war is being prosecuted at the moment – the mistakes, the unforced errors and the seeming inability of the government to get to grips with even the basics of fighting a counterinsurgency. In many instances, we do not need to be looking at new lessons so much as asking why the old lessons seem to have been forgotten.

But far from needing a laborious inquiry, this should be the daily fare of the House, exerting precisely the pressure it did over the "Snatch" Land Rovers, the helicopters and the many other issues. These are the things that matter – the issues that can help us win the war. In fact, these are the only things that matter. The rest is self-indulgence.


No, this was not a revolution, not even an uprising

I had two communications from Budapest just after the riots were over. One, from a man whose political opinions I know well, said that the troubles were over and Orbán lost (as usual) and this was utterly predictable. The other, from someone who has strong anti-socialist feelings but is, perhaps, less involved in Hungarian life, said that this was just the beginning. Thousands of people demonstrated in Budapest and tens of thousands in the rest of the country. As it happens I have doubts about both communications but neither do I believe the government line that it is immensely popular with only a few fascist extremists opposing it.

If I have doubts about the government line, the Western media apparently does not, though finds it hard to understand what or where Hungary is. (I was amused to see Kate Connolly of the Daily Telegraph reporting about the riots from Bucharest. Wrong country, dear, though the two places do sound the same.)

Yesterday’s International Herald Tribune had an article that tried to sum up what has gone wrong with the various East European countries that so many hopes were attached to. Alas, the article did not seem to think that inappropriate tax and regulatory structures imposed on relatively weak economies and even weaker political systems could just result in problems. I have been saying this since 1998 and take no pleasure in seeing most of the predictions we made with Bill Jamieson at the time coming true.

The New York Times journalist who was responsible for the rather incoherent article did seem to take the Hungarian government’s analysis for granted:
That pattern [backlash to radical reforms] was on full display last week when rightist, nationalist demonstrators clashed with the police, hijacking what was to have been a solemn commemoration of Hungary's failed 1956 uprising against Soviet domination a half century ago.
Since the article later says that there were tens of thousands of demonstrators (without explaining where) one begs leave to doubt that all of them were rightist nationalists. Also, one rather wonders about that hijacking of the celebrations. Did they really belong to the Socialist government and its foreign pals, such as the former Maoist Barroso? Did it not belong to the Hungarian people, who were banned from Kossuth Square, outside the Parliament building? Could it have been that feeling of frustration that motivated some of the rioters?

Why do I have problems with the two accounts? In the first place I do not believe Orbán lost though he has not managed to capitalize on Gyurcsány’s behaviour. FIDESZ did very well in the recent local elections and is still the most popular party around. Its boycott of ministerial speeches and of the Socialist government’s appearance with crocodile tears at the ready at anniversaries of the 1956 uprising plays quite well in many parts of the country, even in Budapest, which, as most Central European cities, tends to be more left-wing than the rest of the country.

The trouble with Orbán is that he is not quite a good enough politician, in which both he and his opponent, the present Prime Minister, follow a historical pattern. With one or two exceptions, Hungary has not been well served with politicians, though there was a certain amount of talent at the disposal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Orbán became leader of FIDESZ there were high hopes that he would turn it into a western style right-wing party, perhaps on the model of the British Conservative one (when it exists, that is). Alas, those hopes have not come to much. In the West he often talks the talk of free trade, liberalism, small government and low taxation but back home he has thrown in his lot with the more nationalist, protectionist, statist and welfare-oriented sections of the political spectrum.

On the other hand, I am not impressed by the implied (and sometimes overt) comparisons with the actual 1956 uprising. There seems to have been some very unpleasant behaviour by the police and even the European Commission is asking questions about it. This must gall the Commission more than somewhat as they had supported Ference Gyurcsány against the “nationalist” and supposedly eurosceptic Viktor Orbán.

Still, nobody was killed, which already makes it different and, more to the point, there was no real focus to the riots. After all, Gyurcsány had been re-elected and the opposition together with the media ought to have made certain that those lies were exposed in the election campaign. A referendum on the proposed reforms might sound like a good idea – and FIDESZ is heavily banking on that – but how would it be achieved in practice? A referendum has to have a yes or no answer. Would there be just one question for all reforms or several questions for different reforms? What of alternatives to the government’s proposals?

So, Orbán has not lost but neither has the government, particularly as it is well in control of the Parliamentary deputies. We are not seeing another uprising, which is just as well, since a good deal of it was very nasty, indeed, even before the Soviet tanks rolled back and it was put down with great brutality. There were many scores settled in an unpleasant fashion and the overwhelming majority of people hid in shelters, hoping that there would be no searches for those who had any kind of an official job, however lowly.

Those who have real memories of those events may well find that these are somewhat more ambivalent than present accounts are to be believed, though the astonishing courage and achievement of those almost insanely brave men and women does need to be saluted.

Not a revolution, not even an uprising. But, maybe a sign of times to come. It was always on the cards that the European Project would founder in its expansion so far eastwards.


Serial incompetence

In defence questions in the House of Commons yesterday, David Laws, the MP for Yeovil, asked what action was being taken to deal with the shortage of helicopter lift capability.

Surprisingly, the defence minister Adam Ingram responded that, "there is not the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes." He then continued: "We have looked into this. Commanders are not asking for more helicopters."

Clearly, that was not the answer expected as Ingram noted: "The hon. Gentleman looks quizzical…" adding, "but we have to listen to what is required on the ground."

If it is indeed true that commanders "on the ground" are not asking for more helicopter lift capability (in Iraq and Afghanistan) then we have a serious problem … with incompetent commanders. They should be sacked and replaced with better officers, who understand the role of helicopters in modern warfare.

It would have been better, however, if the question had been addressed in terms of overall helicopter capability as it is not just the transport fleet which is inadequate. We are especially deficient in light attack / reconnaissance helicopters, with only six Lynx to cover the whole of the British zone in Iraq.

It is that inadequacy as much as anything which has contributed to the humiliating inability of the Army to deal with the mortar and rocket threat on its headquarters in Basra, which has led to the decision yesterday to withdraw civilian staff from the Basra Palace complex.

And humiliating it is – an enormous blow to British prestige. What possible confidence can the population of southern Iraq have in the ability of the British Army to protect them when it cannot even protect its own headquarters from attack?

To do so, as we pointed out yesterday is not impossible nor even difficult. It just needs the application of resources. In particular, as Viscount Brookeborough observed in the defence debate in June, you need helicopters:

If there are heli hours, eagle patrolling reduces the risk immediately. If helis are at risk, the use of helis in pairs enhances safety yet again. One helicopter operates while the other one watches. Two helis in the air can virtually freeze terrorist movement in a 2 kilometre-square area.
To maintain two helicopters in the air at all times, however, needs about sixteen machines, and twice as many pilots, which is nearly three times more patrol helicopters than we have in the whole of Iraq. Such is the measure of the lack of resource available to our troops.

But, instead of doing something about it, such as buying "cheap and cheerful" off-the-shelf helicopters, with a range of good options available, including this MD Explorer (illustrated left), the MoD is going for jam tomorrow, with deliveries of the hideously expensive "Future Lynx", scheduled for some time after 2011. Even then, the load could be reduced by using UAVs but, as with the helicopters, we are opting for "jam tomorrow".

Here, it was particularly significant that the Americans use the Shadow UAV, a system which is turning out to be particularly successful and remarkably cheap. Each unit comprises four advanced air vehicles, two ground control stations, associated components and support equipment, which can maintain continuous coverage for 12 hours, at a price of approximately $10 million.

Why the Shadow is so interesting is because it is directly equivalent to the British Phoenix system which, as we recalled recently has so far cost £345 million and, having been introduced in 1998 with a supposedly minimum 15-year in-service life, has never functioned effectively and has been withdrawn from service.

Instead of making up the shortfall now – perhaps buying into Shadow - the government is embarking on a replacemment programme, committing another £317 million to build 99 Israeli-designed Elbit Systems WK-450s, known as the Watchkeeper, the total contract running to £700 million. Yet the system is not due to come into service until 2010 while the need is today, with the British Army currently unable to protect its own headquarters.

We have actually noted before what we have called this "defeatist attitude", calling in aid the incident on 3 October when a British soldier was killed and another seriously injured after three mortar shells landed inside the Shaat al-Arab Hotel base in Basra.

For sure we cannot protect every soldier against every incident but the insurgents ability to harass our forces seemingly at will is making a mockery of our presence in Iraq. That we are not able to deal with it is not an accident or unavoidable. It is serial incompetence - the result of many poor decisions, right up to this very day, which must be remedied. Instead of grandiose plans for new helicopters and UAVs in the future, we need the capability now.

Continued failure should not be tolerated.


30 October 2006

Taurus excretus

Sometimes you have a piece of information which is highly relevant to a particular subject but it doesn't "click" and you don’t put two and two together.

But ever since this morning, reading about the evacuation of civilian workers from the British consulate in Basra, the mind has been working overtime – and it has come up with this.

The link is to an undated extract from the Defence Management Journal extolling the virtues of an interesting piece of kit which has been in Iraq since 2004 – the Mamba counter battery radar (pictured left). What is particularly interesting though is the gushing tone of the extract:

It may be brand spanking new but already the Royal Artillery's futuristic Mamba radar system has saved the lives of countless British troops based at Camp Abu Naji, Iraq. The system, which is mounted on a Alvis Hagglunds BV206 tracked vehicle, can detect virtually any airborne missile launched within a 20km radius and provide an early warning of exactly where and when it will impact.

This is good news for the battle-weary soldiers of Abu Naji, near Al Amarah, who have been mortared on an almost daily basis. Sitting in the cool, air-conditioned cab of his Mamba, Sgt Patrick Murray, K Battery, 5 Regiment RA, heaped praise on the vehicle. He said: "Make no mistake this is the future of warfare. Not only can we give our men on the ground a warning of incoming fire but the Mamba will also tell us exactly where the missile or round was fired from and where it will land. In normal circumstances that would allow us to strike back at the enemy firing party almost immediately. But because of the risk of civilian casualties in Iraq we have to pass on the map coordinates to a patrol who will deal with the attackers."
As we now know, of course, Camp Abu Naji was abandoned in August 2006 for precisely the reason that it was so often targeted by mortar attacks, viz Lt. Col. David Labouchere speaking to the Washington Post :

Almost every night for months, rockets and mortar rounds had pounded Abu Naji, the outpost where British forces made their home outside Amarah, Maysan's provincial capital. In the base's last five months of use, 281 rockets or mortar rounds hit Abu Naji, Labouchere said. Young soldiers would slip out of base at night to try to find the attackers. They would return in the morning as frustrated as when they left, he said. "The boys felt they were powerless," Labouchere said. So the British forces packed up. The night before they left, mortars gave Abu Naji a farewell pounding.
Interestingly, there is no mention here of the Mamba equipment yet, by all accounts, it was technically highly successful. So what went wrong?

Well, the pictures above illustrate the problem – mortar equipment is both lightweight and highly portable. Terrorists can arrive in a van on a vacant lot, set up their mortar, fire off four or five bombs and then pack up their kit and drive away, all within the space of minutes, long gone before any ground patrol could reach them.

However, with the help of radar location, hit-and-run mortar teams can be can be beaten, as graphically documented by Michael Yon. But to do so requires the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), helicopters and fast response ground units. The technology makes it possible so it is a question of resources.

There is the problem. As we know, our government simply has not provided the resources. So, with only five Lynx helicopters in the whole theatre, no UAVs and no suitable patrol vehicles, there is simply nothing that can be done except suffer the hits or run away.

But, to read the MoD hype, you could easily gain the impression that everything in the garden was rosy – until we get news like we did this morning. Then we know that it is all taurus excretus.


Run away… run away!

So cried King Arthur's knights on meeting the deadly killer rabbit, immortalised by the Monty Python team in the eponymous 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But, with the news this morning that civilian employees are to be evacuated from the British consulate in Basra, this now seems to be official British foreign policy.

About 200 civilian workers are based at the Basra Palace complex and the Foreign Office says the move is "in response to increased threats from mortar and rocket attacks". However, the site is also the HQ for the Army's 7th Brigade and, as the photographic composite shows, it is eminently defensible. That the Army has been unable to prevent nuisance attacks on its own headquarters says a great deal for its lack of grip on the city.

Furthermore, the fact that staff are now being evacuated has, according to The Times, military chiefs "concerned" that this will encourage the insurgents to think that they are winning the battle to push British forces out of the southern city.

But, if the military are now complaining, they started the rot with their retreat from Al Amarah in August, allowing the militias to strip Camp Abu Naji within hours of it being abandoned by the military. Since then, the British battle group has been playing with its toys in the desert while the militias have been running riot in the city, torching police stations and cars.

Then, on the back of the weekend’s news that British troops have been confined to barracks (and here) because of the inability to deal with the suicide bomb threat in Afghanistan, we now read in the Times that the withdrawal from Musa Qala this month as part of a deal with Afghan tribal elders is simply allowing the Taleban to return.

Day on day we hear and read news of how the authorities in Britain are retreating before the tide of "multiculturalism", allowing ethnic – primarily Muslim - groups to challenge our way of life, but we hear less of what seems to be a similar retreat by the British overseas. Yet the two are inter-related. Our inability to stand up to the insurgents abroad sends a strong, clear message to the ethnic communities in the UK that the British are spineless and, when challenged, have but one policy… to run away!

What sort of signal does that send the rest of the world, to say nothing of our European Union "partners"?


So what do we do?

In developing our series of posts under the general heading of "Give war a chance", we need to offer some specifics in terms of how our government should prosecute the war against terror.

As we know, the main effort of this "war" is focused on the two shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which are classified as "counterinsurgencies" rather than conventional wars. The aim, therefore, in theory at least, is to defeat the insurgencies in each country, the word "insurgency" being defined as "an organised rebellion aimed at overthrowing a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict."

But therein – as always – lies a huge problem. How do we define defeat or, turning that around, how do we define victory? In a conventional war, this is easy. We simply take the surrender from the government or representatives of the opposing forces, on the back of a cease fire. But there is no such seminal moment in an insurgency. We know when we have lost it – the government dissolves or collapses. But at what point is it won?

Here, there seems to be some general agreement to a level that might possibly approach a consensus. The answer is simply, we don't know and the best overall expression I can find is here:

In the global war on terrorism, conclusive victory in the classic sense is probably unattainable. This sentiment was rarely expressed outright, but was implicit in the frequent use of such terms as "war of unlimited duration" and "war of uncertain outcome." The sentiment was also present in the view of those who regarded the best attainable result as a gradual rapproachement between the haves and have nots of the world. Here, economic integration and equality, with a consequent dissipation of alienation and mutual hostility, offered the best chance of ultimately nudging the two camps to a peaceful modus vivendi.
Ergo, in the pursuit of a counterinsurgency, we have to commit to as long as it takes. But, if success cannot be clearly defined in positive terms, it can in a negative way, as a very simple injunction: "don't lose".

Arguably, in order to win, we simply must avoid losing. And, in order to avoid that, we can follow the instruction given by the harassed mum to a sibling: "find out what Johnny is doing and tell him to stop it". Find out what we must do to lose, and stop doing it.

Clearly, the one way we can guarantee to lose is to sustain a level of deaths in our armed forces above that which the public will tolerate. That, inevitably, cannot be precisely defined but it can be said that the tolerance for unnecessary deaths will be – or must be assumed to be – very low indeed. Hence, one can set out an unbreakable principle: minimise "unnecessary" deaths.

In Iraq and potentially in Afghanistan, the biggest killer is the roadside bomb and/or the suicide bomb, both targeted against vehicle-borne troops. Therefore, dealing with these should be a very high priority, requiring both passive and active defences.

Passive defences, one might expect, should be easiest to define, in terms of armoured vehicles that are capable of protecting their occupants: there is a group of so-called "mine protected vehicles" which have been shown to be especially suitable which include the Australian-built Bushmaster, the German Dingo II, the Canadian-built RG-31, and now the RG-33, and the US-built Cougar (and Mastiff). That the MoD and the British military are quite evidently reluctant to adopt these vehicles has to be one of the great puzzles of our time but, it should go without saying that their use should be maximised.

The better defence, however, is to avoid ground transport in high risk areas, wherever possible and tactically desirable. As much movement as possible should be by air, using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

As to active defences, coincidentally this weekend, there have been two good articles, one syndicated and the other in the Washington Post, extolling the virtues of going out hunting for IEDs. The first article is actually headed, "Engineers ensure freedom of movement", which demonstrates their value.

Unlike the British, who are changing their tactics to avoid contact – which includes skulking in barracks or or playing at being David Stirling out in the desert, the US forces are mounting an active campaign to seek out the bombs and thus reclaim the streets and their own mobility. Simply to retreat from the threat is not the answer – it concedes victory to the insurgents.

What is evident here is the variety of vehicles being used by the US (see above), with a combination of RG-31s, on "point", the Buffaloes to investigate possible IEDs and the Cougars to follow up with the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officers to dispose of the bombs. The British Army has absolutely no equivalents and is reliant on the same combination of Land Rovers and unarmoured trucks that it uses for everything else. This has to be unacceptable and must be addressed.

Defence, though, is only half the battle, and even then there are many other issues which need to be considered. We will deal with those in later posts. But it is also necessary to bring the battle to the enemy, something which the British Army has been very poor at doing, especially in Iraq. This we will deal with in our next post.


28 October 2006

Give war a chance...

"And even if Iraq, by some miracle, is able to sort itself out, the ability of the Western alliance, or what remains of it, to confront global security threats has been seriously, if not irretrievably, damaged."

That is the opinion of Con Coughlin, bien pensant defence correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and self-acclaimed author of the book, American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror. And he is wrong.

Coughlin's real thesis, however, is highlighted by the headline, How the neo-cons lost the war, to be found in a puff in the Saturday newspaper.

A somewhat tendentious assertion, it is nevertheless shared by many of the chattering classes who hold that if only Bush and Blair had listened to the wisdom respectively of the State Department and Foreign Office, the situation in Iraq would by now be well on the way to normality and stability.

Instead, the crass, uncouth and naïve Bush, with the support of his poodle Blair, went for the wholly unrealistic dream of trying to establish Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. He give the "neocons" of the Pentagon their head, disbanded the Iraqi Army, fired the Baathists, cleared out the Sunnis and started afresh, trying to rebuild civil society on the basis of full participation of the majority Shi'ites.

Needless to say, the result was an unholy alliance between the displaced, secular Baathists and the dispossessed Sunnis, together with a ragbag of crooks, opportunists, foreign adventurers and religious fanatics, who have fuelled an insurgency of unprecedented ferocity which is fast drifting into civil war.

But, whatever one's "take" on the root causes of the insurgency might be – and whether it was preventable - the fact is that it is there, it is happening and it must be dealt with. And, unless one is going to counsel that the US, the British and the rest of the coalition should turn tail and run, it is not lost. Thus, the insurgency must be addressed actively by coalition forces, with a view to defeating it.

This is not a question, as Coughlin puts it, of Iraq being able to "sort itself out" and we should not be looking for "some miracle". Nor should we accept the dicta of the bien pensants who grandly declare that there is no military solution to an insurgency, that the military can only "hold the line" while the politicians do their work.

Instead – as an antidote to the flood of negativity, despair and defeatism – we should be looking to dealing with that insurgency first and foremost at precisely the level they say is impossible, the military level, addressing it as a technical, military problem.

That the military solution has so far (but only so far) failed is because – we would argue - the full range of technology, weapons and tactics has yet to be deployed. Should a properly equipped military, using effective tactics and technology, be allowed to take on an enemy which is by no means all-powerful or even particularly astute or effective, the outcome could be very different and very positive.

Over the next few weeks – starting today – therefore, we are going to be producing a series of linked pieces, arguing the case for war – an effective and seriously prosecuted war against the Iraqi insurgency as the only way to achieve a lasting peace without massive loss of life. In the final analysis, war, fought properly and effectively, is the most humane way of sorting out the immediate problems of Iraq and it should be given a chance.

As we did with the "Qanagate" exercise, we have opened a file - this one - with an associated forum thread, which we will then build on over term until we have a complete report, which we will then publish as a single entity. By this means, we hope to re-shape the debate and bring some sanity to an issue which has too long been dominated by the nay-sayers, the weak, the ignorant and the defeatist. But, in order to win, we must first decide that the war is winnable.

The winning has just started.

Stryker photograph courtesy of David Earney.


27 October 2006

When France lost the propaganda war

French historical memory tends to be even more selective than that of other European countries with the exception, possibly, of Russia and Serbia. (I am stretching the adjective European as far as it will go.) In other countries different memory lapses occur on different political sides and, somehow, one can put evidence together.

In France there tends to be an agreement as to the national memory lapse, inspired all too often by the state-controlled media (though the newspapers, not controlled by the state, gleefully join in).

Those old enough will recall the appearance of Marcel Ophüls’s “Le Chagrin et la pitié” in 1969, the first attempt to look at the truth of the Nazi occupation of France, the reality behind the carefully constructed myths. There was an explosion of officially orchestrated wrath. The film was banned from the state-controlled TV and various cinemas that displayed an inclination to screen it received unambiguous warnings.

Eventually the film was shown to great acclaim, in France and elsewhere, and a shocked discussion followed, especially among the younger generation, who felt, rightly, that they had been brought up on lies.

For all of that, the national amnesia over France in World War II has not yet been overcome to any great extent. (Come to think of it, Eric Rohmer’s recent film that attempted to show the truth about the French Revolution, "L'Anglaise et le duc", was attacked ferociously by les biens pensants. Do not criticize our revolution.

The biggest memory hole is French decolonization, in particular the two ferocious and catastrophic colonial wars: Vietnam and Algeria whose after-effects are still with us.

Of the two, Algeria is more important and more shocking in many ways, as well as more harmful still. When the Algerian war started on All Saints’ Day 1954, the French government or military were not very worried. There had been other uprisings and rebellions, all easily put down.

This one turned out to be different. The war lasted till 1962, caused massive losses on both sides, was the cause of terrible cruelty on both sides, ended in effective defeat for France and came close to provoking a civil war in that country. As a result of it President de Gaulle became the western politician with the largest number of assassination attempts against him.

This is not a posting about the Algerian War of Independence as such but on some particular aspects of it. As a background, one ought to point out that the French authorities seriously underestimated the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), its ability to mobilize forces and its roots in the Algerian population; they also seriously underestimated the hatred for the French that was still seething in Algeria as a result of French behaviour there at the end of World War II and immediately after it; finally, they seriously underestimated the whole process of decolonization and its popularity in the Third World in the fifties and sixties. (By and large, the British did not make that mistake, though they made others, notably in India and Palestine.)

Decolonization had been taken up by the Soviet Union as a cause, which, in turn created many problems in the newly independent countries. The Soviet interference in the Middle East and North Africa made a difficult situation much worse, leading to what amounts to an impasse now.

Soviet support meant, however, that there was one more aspect to the Algerian War of Independence or as the French saw it, the struggle for l'Algérie Française, that the French seriously underestimated. Curiously enough, this is something the West continues to underestimate: the strength of concentrated propaganda.

Of course, the Soviet Union was good for something else as well: arms and ammunition. And thereby hangs an interesting tale, one that I heard today when I attended a talk given by Mathilde von Bülow, a research student from the University of Nottingham who is working on West Germany’s role and involvement in the Algerian War.

By 1955 the newly formed Armée de Libération Nationale in Algeria found that it was heavily outmanned and outgunned by the French army. By 1957 there were 450,000 French soldiers in Algeria and that does not include police and security officers or, one presumes, the ill-fated harkis, the Algerians who fought for the French. The ALN could raise 20,000 mujaheddin who did not have the most up-to-date arms exactly.

So, having exhausted supplies in Algeria, they went shopping, in the first place to other Arab countries that could supply rather old arms, from World War II dumps. The key person in this was Gamal Nasser and his support for the FLN was the main reason why the French were considerably more anxious than the British to go after him when the Suez Canal was nationalized. (But that’s for another posting.)

Then the FLN expanded to Western Europe and the French became seriously alarmed while remaining convinced that all they had to do was to asphyxiate the supply of arms and the FLN uprising would fold. The ALN, they reasoned would be physically weakened without large arms supplies and would lose a certain psychological advantage if their international support was seen to dry up.

West Germany’s role became crucial, as Ms von Bülow argued. Although the country’s own arms industry had been dismantled and forbidden by the allies; although the post –1955 laws forbade the sale abroad of Kriegswaffen (weapons of war) the actual situation was not unpropitious to the FLN.

For one thing, Germany resumed production of Relativwaffen (light weaponry, not primarily intended for warfare but for hunting and sports) and this could even be exported. While this was not heavy war weaponry, it was exactly what the Algerian insurrectionists wanted. Still, the production was slow and inadequate.

On the other hand, there were other countries that produced arms and these could be traded and transported through Germany. It seems that the 1955 abrogation of the occupation status left something of a legal void for some months, during which various temporary measures were introduced with the inevitable loopholes. In this environment, arms dealers such as Otto Schlüter or Georg Puchert could flourish.

The FLN moved in and established a network of contacts though, to be fair, they did so in Belgium, Switzerland and other countries as well, not to mention their growing dealings with East European countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Many of the agents were, it seems, Arabs of other countries or Algerians with passports from other Arab countries. Thus, some of the more respectable firms, such as Telefunken were not always aware who the ultimate client was. For, inevitably, arms was not the only thing the FLN was after – radio transmitters and receivers were desperately wanted.

Ms von Bülow’s account of what follows lived up to the astonishing hype she was given. It seems that her academic researches have uncovered some completely new material and, even when the material is old, she has managed to put it together to show some fascinating new insights. I can’t wait for the book.

Well now, in September 1956 the offices of Otto Schlüter in Hamburg were bombed with casualties, though he escaped unharmed. In June 1957 there was a bomb in his car, which killed his mother. Herr Schlüter was a well-known arms dealer.

In October 1958 the West German cargo vessel, Atlas, was bombed in Hamburg harbour. In November of that year there was an attempted assassination of the FLN representative in Bonn. In March 1959 a car bomb killed the arms dealer Georg Puchert in Frankfurt. In December of that year a parcel bomb maimed an FLN negotiator in Frankfurt. In January 1960 the West German cargo vessel Marmara was bombed at sea. In September of that year Frankfurt merchant Helmuth Müller survived two attempted assassinations. In October 1960 a car bomb maimed Wilhelm Beissner in Munich. In June 1961 Walter Heck, another arms dealer, was assassinated in Karlsruhe.

These were the successful or more or less successful events in West Germany. There were others that had been prevented or foiled such as the assassination of the arms dealer Ernst Wilhelm Springer in Hamburg in the autumn of 1961.

Understandably, there was uproar in the West German media and parliament with demands for a full investigation and punishment of the perpetrators. A group, calling itself La Main Rouge or Die Rote Hand apparently claimed responsibility. This criminal organization purported to come from the various rather unsavoury clubs and gambling dens of the Maghreb, particularly Algeria and Tunisia.

At first, the group excited some interest. A film was made about them and even the Daily Mail interviewed a supposed member of it, one Durieux, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the young Napoleon.

However, it became clear very soon and has since been confirmed through hints and admissions in memoirs that the group, if it existed, was not much more than a convenient smokescreen, though there seems to be some indication that there was such an organization of the pieds noirs, of the French Algerians actually in that country and some of the OAS, the subsequent terrorist organization in France grew partially out of that (and partially out of the many disgruntled army officers).

So who was responsible for all these covert actions (as well as for others in North Africa, Belgium, Paris, Rome and Switzerland)? There can be little doubt – they were carried out by Service Action, the covert operations division of the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionage (the French Foreign Intelligence Service). There can be even less doubt that these actions were empowered by governmental directives from 1955 onwards. It seems unlikely that successive presidents, including Charles de Gaulle could have been ignorant that this was going on.

A good deal of the talk and subsequent discussion revolved round the roots of this particular French activity and why the intelligence service thought that this would be effective in the war against the FLN. But what interested me was the fact that such operations were being carried out in a supposedly friendly country at a time when ever closer links were being forged between the two and the Paris-Bonn (now Paris-Berlin) axis was being created.

It seems that the French intelligence service was reasonably certain that they could get away with all this. In itself, that is quite surprising, as other covert activity, by the KGB and, sometimes, the Stasi was punished whenever possible with strong protests going to the governments in question. Yet, not once did Chancellor Konrad Adenauer protest despite the pressure that the foreign ministry, assorted parliamentarians and public opinion tried to exert.

It would appear that, at the height of the Cold War, with West Germany slowly being readmitted into the “family of western nations”, Adenauer did not want to sabotage the new partnership that was developing between the two countries. Whereas, Soviet and East German covert activity was seen for what it was: illegal undermining of West German sovereignty, as well as criminal activity.

In the end, none of this helped the French. Covert activity in the West drove the FLN further east and they established themselves as clients of the Communist states: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, even China, under the benign gaze of the Soviet Union. Not only could not those deals not be prevented, they were not even known in time. French intelligence lost its advantage once the negotiations moved behind the Iron Curtain and to the Arab states.

Worse, as the story became known or, at least, suspected, the French lost the propaganda war. To be fair, they were already losing it because of the FLN and the ALN being seen as fighters for independence from wicked colonialists. The French argument that Algeria was an intrinsic part of France held little attraction outside the country and the French Algerians themselves.

The stories of sabotage and assassinations as well as those of mass executions and torture turned that famous world opinion against them. (And who can tell how much Soviet manipulation was responsible for that?) In the process the truth about the FLN and its appalling behaviour was lost as was the fact that the Germans who were assassinated and on whom attempts were made, were arms dealers who were probably bending, if not breaking their own laws and ignoring international agreements. As a result of French covert activity and skilled propaganda by Algerians and by many on the left in France, they became martyrs to official French brutality.


Totally out of their depth

Having spent so much time and effort condemning the MSM for its lack of attention to defence issues, a casual reader might have thought that the new-found interest displayed by some newspapers would be welcome. But not a bit of it.

Detailed, factual coverage of defence issues is always welcome and more so would intelligent commentary. But, when the coverage is highly selective and the commentary fatuous and misguided, one really does wonder what is being achieved.

In the category of "factual coverage" comes a piece in The Daily Telegraph today, recording the launch of an investigation into claims that dozens of civilians were killed in Nato bombing raids on suspected Taliban positions this week in southern Afghanistan.

The indications are that the death toll could be the largest among civilians in a single incident since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan officials are cited as stating that the believed up to 60 Taliban and 85 civilians died in the bombing. Nato officials have confirmed at least 12 civilian deaths following "rolling clashes" between joint Nato and Afghan forces and groups of Taliban fighters in Punjwai district, which lies 10 miles south-west of Kandahar city.

The piece is worthy enough but the paper then spirals into the stratosphere with an ill-considered leader headed: "Afghan setback". To the ill-informed, it might actually look plausible, starting as it does with a series of apparently factual assertions:

Operations in Kandahar this summer led Nato to believe that it had broken the back of the Taliban in the province. There were claims of between 500 and 1,000 guerrillas having been killed, raising hopes that the way was open to winning over the local population through reconstruction. That success makes all the more galling the deaths of a shocking number of civilians in bombing raids during the night of Tuesday/Wednesday. They are a severe psychological blow to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan.
Indeed, the Nato line is that the operations in Kandahar were a success, but other commentators think otherwise, with apparently good reason. There is no similarly good reason, therefore, why the Telegraph should slavishly follow the Nato line.

But then the newspaper follows a line of its own, picking up a reference to the use of "precision strikes" against insurgents. It argues that "such accuracy" is impossible when the enemy blends so easily into the civilian population. Mortars, artillery and aircraft are blunt instruments that inevitably cause collateral damage. The paper then argues that heavy reliance on these weapons "stems from lack of Isaf manpower", from which it concludes:

Isaf's front line against a resurgent Taliban is being held by too few troops from too few countries. That paucity makes tragedies such as this week's civilian deaths more likely. Thus, previous advances are annulled in a trice.
That these tragedies undo the good work done is made with force by The Times as well, and with some considerable force – as one might expect – by Aljazeera but it is only the Telegraph which uses the situation to argue for more troops.

On this blog we are not going to argue that more troops are not necessary but the point we have made is that the issue is far more complex than is allowed for than the simplistic bleating for more "boots on the ground" in which the Telegraph indulges. As we argued over the weekend, more soldiers in theatre without the requisite equipment and structures, and the appropriate tactics, could simply provide the Taliban with more targets and thereby increase the pressure for Nato's withdrawal.

Such an argument is not overly complicated and we are not the only ones to make to make it, so it cannot be said that it is entirely without merit. But it does seems beyond the intellectual capability of the likes of the Telegraph, and indeed the politicians – especially the Conservative front bench, which seems totally devoid of ideas of how our forces should be structured and equipped.

It is actually almost too easy tilting at the Conservatives for their inadequacies and their inability to define the issues. But, while we complain about a lack of clarity and absurd decisions, what also must be picked up is the media's tendency to act as a propaganda organ for the MoD.

For the second time of late, we are seeing an account of the British Army operations in Maysan province, most recently by BBC's Newsnight and now by The Telegraph, which offers an uncritical account of what may in fact be an extraordinary example of displacement activity.

It is all very well the boys and girls pounding through the desert emulating latter-day David Stirlings in their cut-down Land Rovers, and trying out their cross-country driving skills (illustrated) – so avoiding insurgent attacks – but when this is at the price of deserting al Amarah and leaving it to the tender mercies of the militias, one might think that a grown-up newspaper would question the use of resources.

Once again though, if we start to confront the issues, it is evident that the British Army simply does not have the equipment to do the job. Thus it is safer for it to play with its toys in the desert than to do a real job, equally safe in the knowledge that the media (much less the politicians) are not going to give it a hard time.

And, if the media cannot cope with such a simple level of criticism, you just know that, when it comes to looking at the forthcoming Defence Committee FRES inquiry, they will be totally out of their depth.


What is important?

In the 30 months that this blog has existed, the world has changed more than we believed it ever could in such a short period. Many of the changes have been triggered directly by the cataclysmic events leading to and following 9/11 but, of more relevance to this blog, by the failure last year of the EU constitution.

Strangely though, while the damage caused by that failure was obvious and public, less so has been the more serious damage done to the whole of the European ideal by its main actors, France and Germany, ruling themselves out of key parts in what has been called the "war on terror", and specifically the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, while individual European countries have been represented, "Europe" as a political entity has been a mere spectator and, as a result, almost entirely lacking in influence and importance.

Strangely, therefore, what we saw in the run-up to the constitution now no longer exists, even as a dream. Then, there was the prospect of a political Europe, which seemed to be on the verge of creating an independent entity with its own foreign policy and eventually its own armed forces. But this was not to be.

Because in what are essentially shooting wars, what brings influence to the table is military power – boots, guns, aircraft and all the other paraphernalia of war – EU influence has waned to the extent where, as an actor on the world stage, the organisation is no longer important. It may still preen and posture but, in any of the recent major events in the world, from Darfur to the current crisis in Afghanistan, no one has been beating a path to Brussels.

This has very much been reflected in our coverage of events. When we changed our strap line, which became, "To discuss issues related to the UK's position in Europe and the world", the EU was still an important part of that world. But, as time has passed, it has become less and less so. Important it might still be in the internal affairs of the UK – something which still affords us great irritation – but, in Britain's "position in the world", the EU is possibly less important than it has been since we joined the Community in 1973.

Contrary to the hopes and expectations of the Euro-enthusiasts, it is not Britain's membership of the EU that has brought it power and influence on the world stage, or enabled it to keep its position on the world stage. To the chagrin of many, it is the fact that our government is prepared to put men with guns in key hot-spots, with instructions to kill people. It is for that reason alone that the UK - with its now minuscule and dangerously over-stretched armed forces - has been able to punch above its weight.

But, if the gains made are real, they also look like being temporary. It is becoming increasingly likely that our armed forces will have to beat an ignominious retreat, first from Iraq and then, quite possibly, from Afghanistan.

If these retreats come to pass they will, to some considerable extent, have been occasioned by the failure to devise, structure and equip armed forces which are capable of dealing with the very special and difficult conditions of a counter-insurgency against an enemy that has very different moral and cultural values.

The truth of the matter is that those forces were originally geared to fighting a battle against the might of the Soviet Union, across the plains of northern Germany. Latterly, they also acquired some skill and experience in dealing with low-level and restrained terrorism, as in Northern Ireland, while also dealing with public order and other issues throughout the world. But the fact is that the forces went to war against terror equipped to fight a conventional war against a conventional enemy.

It has to be said – and has been argued closely on this blog – that the failure to equip the forces for the actual war they were to fight is responsible for their lack-lustre performance and will be – if it happens – largely responsible for their ultimate failure. And there is no shame in that. No army can be expected to prevail when given the wrong equipment for the wrong war.

Now, if it is too late to do anything about this state of affairs – at least in sufficient time to have an influence on immediate events – there is both time and the opportunity to do something about the way the armed forces are equipped (and structured) for future conflicts.

And no one who has followed this blog - or who has otherwise acquired even the vaguest understanding of the relationship between the performance of the armed forces and they way they are equipped – will be in any doubt that this is important. In many respects, it could well be far more important than our membership of the EU, not least because, long after the EU has ceased to be, we could still be having to live with the decisions made that affect our armed forces.

What brings this to the fore, however, is our own parliament or, to be more specific, the Defence Select Committee. Under the chairmanship of the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP, it has decided that it is to hold an inquiry into the MoD's FRES programme.

This, as we never tire of saying, is – at £14 billion - the largest single procurement programme in the history of the Army, representing a complete revolution in the way the Army is equipped and structured. It will define for the next twenty years or more the capabilities of the Army and, crucially, what it will not be able to do. Thus, it is absolutely essential that we get it right – and that includes asking whether FRES is the right system and whether it should go ahead at all.

Unfortunately, the odds are already stacked against an impartial or effective inquiry. The Committee is describing FRES as a programme "to provide the Army with a medium-weight armoured vehicle capability" yet, as we know, it is much, much more than that – as the price tag of £14 billion indicates. It will be the British entry into the arcane and still untried world of net-centric warfare.

Further, from the notification of the inquiry, it does not appear as if the Committee is prepared to look anew at whether FRES is the right move. It tells us that it will focus "on progress in delivering the FRES programme." It will examine "the operational requirement for FRES and how the MoD and industry plan to meet it", and it "will consider how the programme has been managed so far, its current status and the anticipated in-service-date."

Additionally, we are told, the Committee "will explore how other nations are seeking to meet the requirement for medium-weight armoured vehicles and what lessons could be learnt from their experience." And then it will also consider how the MoD will manage any capability gap between now and the FRES In Service Date including any implications for the FRES programme of the MoD's recent announcement to procure additional armoured vehicles for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (such as the Mastiff, pictured above).

What makes this so worrying is that, although FRES has emerged as the MoD's favoured option for re-equipping and re-structuring the Army, the concept has never been tested or debated in the Houses of Parliament and thus, the government is committing massive expenditure and the whole future of the Army to an untried concept which has never even been discussed, much less approved, by MPs.

This cannot be right and it cannot be right that the Defence Select Committee is so restricting the scope of its inquiry. It must look at the system anew and it must give a lead to both Houses and the nation as to whether we should embark on this potentially dangerous experiment.

And that, unlike the EU, really is important.


26 October 2006

Suffer ye children

If there was ever an image which was calculated to turn people off politics, it is this, culled from a national newspaper today – illustrating the merriment of the Tory front bench at the prime minister’s discomfort over the "cash for honours" issue.

It was precisely this sort of "Punch and Judy" politics which the Boy King pledged to leave behind. Yet here are three senior members of his shadow cabinet, Alan Duncan, George Osborne and Oliver Letwin, behaving for all the world like schoolchildren.

The chaps may have come away from yesterday's Prime Ministers' Questions feeling terribly pleased with themselves but they should be aware that the rest of the nation looks upon their puerile antics with a mixture of loathing and contempt.

And this, incidentally, is the same day that we hear that a Tory MP and close political ally of the Boy King has left his wife and two children for a man.

When a nation is at war and its troops are in harms’ way, masculine values usually come to the fore. But, it seems, we are wasting our time expecting these from our current parliamentary opposition. We must look elsewhere.

25 October 2006

Lightning II strikes

You can follow the ins and outs of the Turkish accession negotiations for all you are worth but, as we have remarked several times on this blog, the real bellwether is the military. If you want to know where sentiment lies, watch what the military does.

And the military have just spoken. Against the heady days last year when the "colleagues" were looking to a quick sale for the Eurofighter, Turkey's Air Force has just selected the US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), now called the Lightning II. They are expected to commit around $10 billion to buy about 100 new-generation fighter aircraft.

The Air Force, as the user, is not the sole authority for a final decision, but its position is dominant and backed by the powerful General Staff. "Although this decision is not official yet, we can say that Turkey's JSF move is almost final, after the Air Force has clarified its position," said one defence analyst in Ankara.

As a sop to the Europeans, there was a possibility of going for a mixed buy of the JSF and the Eurofighter, but the Air Force, whose fighter fleet is exclusively of US design and which follows a strong American tradition, has opted for an the all-JSF solution.

And the Europeans can put their Eurofighters where the sun doesn't shine.

Time to press the panic button?

When Michael Yon writes, it is always worth reading. But his latest piece in the Weekly Standard is more than a little worrying. Mark this on your calendar, he writes:

Spring of 2007 will be a bloodbath in Afghanistan for NATO forces. Our British, Canadian, Australian, Dutch, and other allies will be slaughtered in Afghanistan if they dare step off base in the southern provinces, and nobody is screaming at the tops of their media-lungs about the impending disaster. I would not be surprised to see a Nato base overrun in Afghanistan in 2007 with all the soldiers killed or captured. And when it happens, how many will claim they had no idea it was so bad and blame the media for failing to raise the alarm? Here it is: WARNING! Troops in Afghanistan are facing slaughter in 2007!
If that was a piece in isolation or from a different person, it could be ignored. But it is from Michael Yon, and it meshes with the piece over the weekend that had Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge warning that British forces risk defeat in Afghanistan.

This, we thought, might be overwrought - but we cannot be sure. But, while we cannot rule out a major push by the Taliban, as Yon argues could happen, we do know that the effect of air power on concentrations of fighters can be decisive. Should a Nato base be seriously under threat, it is almost certain that the full weight of air assets would be mobilised and disaster would surely be averted.

What seems to be of more concern, however, is that very different messages are coming out of the theatre. From The Telegraph today, for instance, we get a highly downbeat report of how America's ambassador to Afghanistan is expressing deep unease over the British ceasefire with the Taliban and subsequent withdrawal from the town of Musa Qala in north Helmand.

The source of unease is Ronald Neumann, who is saying that there is "a lot of nervousness" about who the truce was made with, who the arrangement was made with, and whether it will hold – and not a little concern about whether the area will become a sanctuary governed by the Taliban. "If you have an area that is under the Afghan government flag but is not under the actual authority of the Afghan government then you are losing in a very big way," says Neumann.

But what is also of concern is Nato's supreme commander Gen James Jones. He – also according to The Telegraph – is saying that the mission to subdue the insurgency was at a turning point. He is predicting that insurgents will not continue to confront coalition troops in pitched battles but turn instead to the car bomb tactics that had proved so devastating in Iraq. His view is: "Militarily we will not be defeated … Their strategy is that we suffer a loss as a result of 1,000 IEDs [roadside bombs]."

That ties up with another report which suggests that Taliban militias have taken control over key border areas of Pakistan, where they are effectively running the civil administration. With the withdrawal of the Pakistani Army under the so-called "Waziristan accord", a power vacuum has been filled by mullahs and their long-haired, bearded, AK47-toting militants.

Then, from David Loyn, writing in The Independent, we get an account of how the Taliban army is highly active and visible in Helmand province, clearly in control over a wide region - the same Taliban that Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of British forces in the region, said were "practically defeated".

Loyn claims that they are "confident and well-armed, all with AK-47s, and many of them carry rocket-propelled grenade launchers." Their communications equipment and vehicles are new and they have a constant supply of fresh men from the madrassas, the religious schools in Pakistan. And the "Waziristan accord" has made it even easier for the Taliban to manoeuvre.

Furthermore, Loyn has it that the Taliban commander predicts that suicide bombing would be employed far more intensively in the future. "There are thousands waiting at the border," he says. "We are trying to stop them because they would cause chaos if they all came at once."

What is also clear, Loyn asserts, is that the Taliban are now far more numerous than previously believed. Thousands of young men now see them as a resistance force against international troops who have had five years and are not seen to have delivered results.

Meanwhile, he writes, the scale of institutionalised corruption practised by the Afghan National Army is shocking. They demand money at gunpoint from every driver on the main roads in the south. It was to stop just this kind of casual theft that the Taliban was formed in the first place in 1994. For the first time since then, the Taliban are now being paid again to sort out the problem.

So, what do we have here?

Putting it all together as we so often do, it seems that the Taliban is far more numerous, better equipped and organised than is being suggested officially; Nato forces – specifically the British – have been forced to give ground; and cohorts of suicide bombers are waiting in the wings, ready to unleash a reign of terror.

All-in-all, things are no better than when we wrote in September about this issue while, in many respects, things look significantly worse.

Yet… are these just words? Do they have any meaning? If they do, and the situation is anywhere near as dangerous as it appears to be, then our troops are in very grave danger. One can begin to see why Dannatt is so keen to pull troops out of Iraq in order to beef up the forces in Afghanistan.

And, if we are actually in danger of losing – or taking such serious casualties that we are tempted to pull out – has anyone really thought through the global implications? Has anyone even thought how it would affect the morale of people back home, and the behaviour of domestic Muslim communities?

Methinks that, if there is a panic button, someone should be pressing it.


Those murderous French

There has been a French parliamentary inquiry, which – predictably – cleared its own government. But now a former senior Rwandan diplomat has told a tribunal in his own country that France played an active role in Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

The Rwandan tribunal is hearing from 25 survivors of the genocide, who claim to have witnessed French involvement and will rule on whether to file a suit at the International Court of Justice. The panel is headed by former Justice Minister Jean de Dieu Mucyo and its proceedings, which began in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on Tuesday, are being broadcast live on local radio.

France has denied playing any role in the 100-day frenzy of killing in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died but Jacques Bihozagara, the former Rwandan ambassador to Paris, claims otherwise. He argues that the French were heavily involved at all stages, driven by concerns about their diminishing influence in Africa.

And, for a country in denial, it has also failed to express any regret. In fact, claims Bihozagara, French involvement continues to this day – its government has still not apprehended genocide suspects living in France. Furthermore, it is also alleged that French soldiers provided escape routes to militia escaping to the Democratic Republic of Congo after the massacres.

This was under the guise of a United Nations mandate known as Operation Turquoise, ostensibly to set up a protected zone. But French soldiers were actually deployed to protect the genocide perpetrators, allowing Hutu extremists to enter Tutsi camps and continue the slaughter even in the protected zone.

From other reports, we learn that French soldiers are accused of training and arming some of the Hutus that carried out the massacre, and some 50,000 people are reported to have been killed after French forces brought Tutsis out of hiding under the false pretext that they had secured the peace.

After hearing the testimony, the panel will have the next six months to determine its findings which, if the earlier testimony is any guide, should prove to be explosive.

Any such findings, however, will not be just of academic interest to the British government. As my colleague has remarked, France is a country which has yet to come to terms with its post-colonial legacy yet which, through the European Union common foreign and security policy, is binding Britain tighter and tighter into its sphere of interest.

Even now, we are still committed to further military integration driven largely by France, which raises the spectre of British troops in the not too distant future being deployed in pursuit of French foreign policy objectives.

Given that the continuous and expanding threads of evidence point to France as a country that has, from Vietnam through Algeria and a succession of African colonies up to and including the Ivory Coast, exercised a wholly malign influence, we really do have to ask ourselves whether this is a country with which we can afford to be associated.

For so long we have heard all manner of jibes and accusations against the United States but, if we are to choose between allies, the murderous history of the French would seem to make them a very poor second-best.


23 October 2006

"Never glad confident morning again"

It seems that I have used that quotation before, though not in the title, when writing about Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. Still, it can be repeated, for it was that speech that started the chain of events, which culminated in the Hungarian Revolution that began 50 years ago today.

The celebrations in the country have been marked by ferocious disputes and worse; angry accusations of bad faith then and now. Some survivors, like General Béla Király is filled with some gloom; others like the former student leader, quoted by the BBC, appear to think that the fight against globalization is the same as the fight against Bolshevism. At best, that shows certain lacunae of knowledge.

David Rennie spoils his good deed of bringing General Király to the attention of the readers of the Spectator by his almost inevitable arrogant silliness. The suppression of the Hungarian Revolution could have triggered off World War III. Oh really? Between whom and whom? Exactly who was going to move in there to help the Hungarians? Apart from anything else, there was the little matter of the Suez crisis going on and it absorbed most of the energy and attention of the Western powers.

David Pryce-Jones, who has written a book about the Hungarian Revolution says this on his blog today:
Help Hungary. Help!” was the final appeal on the radio, put out by Gyula Hay, the playwright and in his day a veteran Communist too. In sad fact, the United States did nothing, making it plain that the Soviets could do their worst. On hearing that a revolution had broken out, President Eisenhower limited himself to saying, “The heart of America goes out to the people of Hungary.” Heart is all very well, but what about muscle? Robert Murphy, then undersecretary of state and an experienced trouble-shooter, summed up Washington’s failure: “Perhaps history will demonstrate that the free world could have intervened to give Hungarians the liberty they sought, but none of us in the State Department had the skill or the imagination to devise a way.
Could the West have helped? Who can judge that fairly now? But we do know (well, most of us do but David Rennie has special information): it was not going to. As Professor Jeremy Black writes in his latest book, “The Dotted Red Line”:
Indeed, appeasement was as much inevidence over Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, as over Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938.
With the difference that Hungary in 1956 showed herself willing to fight unlike either of the victims of Nazi aggression in 1938.

In the Wall Street Journal Europe today the novelist Péter Nádas writes about his memories of that fateful day. He was fourteen, in his last year at elementary school or, even first year of gymnasium and he could, when released from his classroom, join the crowds that thronged in the streets of the capital and around the Parliament building. My options were more limited as I was considerably younger.

1956 was a great year in my life even before the events of October as that was when I went to school. It was all rather exciting, all that readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. On the other hand, there were incomprehensible dark eddies and waves swirling around all of us, children. I did not know, of course, that my father was active in the various Petöfi Circles where furious discussions about the state of affairs in Hungary were going on. I did not know till many years later that he had got hold of a copy of Khrushchev’s speech and read it out at one of the meetings. But then, neither could it have occurred to me that with a family that had links with the Soviet Union, and my brother and I half-Russian, we could well be at risk if nationalist feelings got out of control.

All of us at school, however, had noticed a previous event: the flying of black flags on October 6. Before the Soviet liberation of Hungary and the subsequent establishment of the Communist system, this had been the day of mourning for the 13 generals of the 1848-49 War of Liberation who were executed by the Austrians. The black flags had always flown. In 1956, as the system began to disintegrate, that day was chosen for the reburial of Lászó Rajk, the main defendants in the 1949 show trial, which had destroyed the last possible rivals to Matthias Rákosi. It was a grey day of the kind one sometimes gets in Danube basin as it was preternaturally clear. The moisture droplets in the atmosphere clarified the greyness in the air. And the black flags flew everywhere.

My parents went to the reburial together with all their colleagues from the university. The talk at home became more strained and more difficult. Speaking from my own childish memories I’d say the events of October 23 were no surprise to anyone.

On that Tuesday I was at school in the morning (the post-War baby boom had not been catered for adequately by schools and classes had to double up – one week we went in the morning, another week after lunch). I came home to find my parents out and, astonishingly enough, my grandmother in charge of the flat. She was there to look after me and my baby brother as my parents, having joined the demonstration, were not expected back till very late. (By the time they did get home we were in bed, some of the crowd had got hold of guns and had run to take over the radio broadcasting station. There was shooting in the streets and my grandmother was stuck with us for the next five days. Wisely, she never volunteered to child mind again.)

The crowds marched in all the streets. The traffic stopped and there were simply crowds of people marching and shouting slogans. There were many different ones. They were demanding that the Russians go home, that the star be removed from the national flag, that the Kossuth emblem be restored, that Transylvania be given back to Hungary. (Romania is coming into the EU next year. That should be fun.)The star above the Parliament was put out and some of the demonstrators, sped to the various barracks where the soldiers opened the gates, enthusiastically burned flags or cut out the star from the middle, handed over rifles and joined the crowds outside. What had started as a student and workers’ demonstration with one of the best known actors reciting Sándor Petöfi’s famous poem “Arise Magyar” written for the 1848 Revolution, had, also, become a revolution.

For me it became obvious next morning when I was allowed to sleep in as school had clearly been cancelled. "What's happening?" – I asked when I found my mother in my room and the sun streaming in (which it never did at 7 o'clock). – "Is there a war on?" "No, a revolution." What a very odd idea, I thought. Revolutions happened in history. The rest of the day was spent in the hall/dining room that had no windows. My father tried to reach the radio, by first walking, then crawling across the sitting room to his study. The first attempt failed because an artillery gun was fired into the courtyard of the block of flats and the windows all shattered. The second attempt failed because another bout of firing caused the breaking of the chandeliers above him as he was crawling across the floor. The following morning we went down to the bomb shelter together with our neighbours from all the flats and stayed there until the 28th with my mother occasionally nipping upstairs to get some food or some clean clothes. Needless to say, the children thought it was great fun.

Then we went back and stayed in the flat with only my parents going out occasionally, including my father taking my grandmother eventually home. In the meantime we listened to the radio. The news consisted largely of speeches by Imre Nagy and, increasingly, by János Kádár, of no real interest to a young child. Much more enthralling were the messages from various people to their families and friends, trying to find out where everyone was. And the constant playing of the Kossuth Radio tune, the Kossuth Song.

My father told stories afterwards of the people he met and spoke to in those days before the tanks came back. There was a young lad, he remembered, who was hanging around the street with a rifle in his hands. My father stopped to chat and ask what he thought would happen. “Nothing to worry about,” – said the boy. – “We just have to hold out for a few days and then the UN will come in.” Every now and then I think of that boy and what might have happened to him. Did he survive? Did he go to prison? Did he escape to the West? Is he around now, gloomily surveying the present?

Then it was all over. One morning we were woken up long before dawn. My parents, who had clearly not slept at all, were fully dressed. My mother was busy dressing my brother and hurrying me into my clothes. My father was standing there in our room, carefully checking that he had all the right documents in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. We went back to the bomb shelter.

The Soviet tanks with many reinforcements were rolling back into the city.