30 July 2007

Cynicism and modernization

From the moment we all became aware of the Tory jaunt to Rwanda, some of us have been engaged in furious altercations about it. Inevitably, whenever I raised such questions as what can one actually build in two weeks and do these people have any building skills, I was told that I was a cynic, as if that were the worst kind of accusation in politics.

As it happens, I do have my fair share of cynicism, much of it to do with politicians and their shenanigans. It does not seem to me to be particularly sensible to go around pretending to be like the mushy Madeleine Bassett created by the incomparable P. G. Wodehouse, who was given to pronouncements on the subject of stars being God’s daisy chain and babies being born every time a fairy blew its wee nose. She was, needless to say, an idealist, who would not even understand cynicism, let alone experience it, and a considerable pain in the neck to all those around her, especially Bertie Wooster.

The main character in the recent excellent German film “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”), Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played by the superb Ulrich Mühe, whose death, alas, was announced a couple of days ago, is an idealist in Felix Dzerzhinsky’s mould. He sees himself and the secret police as the “sword and shield of the revolution”. Idealism is not necessarily an unequivocal good in politics or anything else.

However, I would never, never be cynical enough to try to further my career or get publicity for myself (same thing as far as MPs are concerned) by exploiting the needs of a poor country, which is, moreover, still recovering from the traumatic experience of just over a decade ago. For that is what this cynical exercise in attempted media manipulation is.

As it happens, I exempt Iain Dale and the small 18 Doughty Street team (I am sure he will be very happy to hear that). Apart from the odd bit of gushing here and there, he did what he was supposed to do and what he does for a living – report. His accounts of organizations within Rwanda, set up by Rwandans to deal with the genocidal massacre – finding out the truth, helping survivors and their families, prosecuting the guilty – are extremely useful. We need to know these things and the people there need to feel that the world outside is, at least, interested.

But what about the others, the Cameroon groupies, the Tory MPs who do not seem to know how to handle planks of wood, the Tory wannabes, who are busy blogging in the manner of not very bright gap-year students? What exactly are they hoping to achieve?

When the subject came up during a programme on 18 Doughty Street, the journalist next to me suggested that they could have collected all the money that they were going to spend on their flights and given them to the people there to build whatever they want. That sounds promising except for the fact that we know what happens to money that is just simply handed over to African countries.

Here is a better suggestion: why not use all the money, including whatever does not need to be spent on tropical outfits and new cameras to hire a building firm? You know the guys who can actually construct those schools and hospitals and whatever else is required. This firm would take its own materials if needs be and tools, and, again if needs be, employ local workers (who could do with the money, let’s face it) and train them as necessary.

I can hear it now. That is such a cynical suggestion. What do you think the purpose is - to make sure that the Rwandans are helped along in their desire to reconstruct their country, construct some new buildings and retain their local economy? Certainly not. It is all about warm and fuzzy feelings in the hearts of Tory politicians and wannabe politicians, not to mention former actresses, now contributing editors on the Spectator. And stars are God’s daisy chains.

The Boy-King himself did not pretend to do any work, as far as I can make out, remembering perhaps the gusts of laughter that went up in Britain when he appeared in his clean gloves, clutching a paintbrush. He met lots of people and made encouraging noises. Then he invited President Kagame of Rwanda to address the Conservative Party Conference.

There were immediate cheers from the faithful but, sadly, critical noises were heard equally quickly. President Kagame stands in danger of being indicted for complicity in that unfortunate event, when a plane carrying both the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down in 1994, that triggered off the subsequent Rwandan genocide.

President Kagame and his supporters point to the fact that these accusations come from French sources, which are not particularly reliable when it comes to the Rwandan events of a decade ago. Nevertheless, there is enough doubt surrounding this personage, under whose rule Rwandan forces have become heavily involved in the appalling and never-ending war in DR Congo with all its massacres.

The Boy-King seems not to have heard of any of these matters although, supposedly, one of the reasons for his wondrous trip to Rwanda was to commemorate the ending of the genocide ten years ago. It would appear that none of his advisers have realized that President Kagame is a dubious figure both politically and morally.

The truth is that being ever so chummy with doubtful African politicians, trying not to know about their activity, is sooooo last century. Actually, it is behaviour that belongs to the sixties and early seventies when left-wing African dictators were feted in Britain by both parties, regardless of what was happening in their countries, and all criticisms were ignored or not even published.

What on earth is the lad doing reviving those days? Sadly, one must point out that all he ever does is revive old-fashioned ideas. One hears a great deal of his modernizing zeal and his firm intention to modernize the Conservative Party. He was repeating this mantra again last week at the 1922 Committee meeting, which, unfortunately, did not point out any home truths to the arrogant little twit.

He will not give up on the task of modernizing the Conservative Party and regaining the centre ground whence all elections are won. Except for the ones like many past Conservative victories that are won from positions of ideological rectitude but let that pass.

This idiotic mantra is being repeated on the latest Cameroonian platform, a website named Platfrom 10 that is possibly indulging in a nod and a wink to the Harry Potter readers. Then again, it may be reminding readers of the Glenn Miller number “Chattanooga Choo-choo”.

This new effort, we are told, has been put together by Conservative supporters who are not part of the Conservative Party. They just happen to be fascinated by details of what goes on in that Party.

Among their cutely entitled sections there is one called “What’s the big idea?”. This tells us that the creators of Platform 10
… are a group of Conservative supporters, campaigning for the modern, liberal Conservative agenda that will lead to a Tory victory at the next General Election.

We support the changes David Cameron is making - and must continue to make - to the Conservative Party so that it remains firmly in the centre-ground of British opinion. We will hold him to his pledge that under his leadership the Conservatives must look, feel, think and behave like a completely new Party.
All of that is questionable but takes the view that all you have to do is mention modern and modernization and the world starts laughing with you rather than at you. This reminds me of the days, back in my youth, when the theatres of London performed something apart from endless musicals (no, they don’t bring in the money either but that is another story) and I saw a number of plays by the gloomy Norwegian Henrik Ibsen.

One and all, they seemed to consist of people nattering about the importance of new ideas as opposed to old ideas. The worst example of this was “Rosmersholm” where Pastor Johannes Rosmer and the idealistic, forward looking, modern minded Rebecca West spend a good deal of time praising new ideas and lamenting the strength with which people have clung on to the old ones.

Just as with Conservative modernization, those new ideas are never really spelled out and given the sort of ideas that were swirling round Europe and Scandinavia at the end of the nineteenth century, the concept does not fill one with any sort of joy. As it happens those new ideas in “Rosmersholm” seem to have achieved one thing only and that is drive the Pastor’s wife to suicide. Eventually, he and Rebecca West follow the wife into the mill stream to the great satisfaction of that part of the audience that had not lost the will to live.

So what is this modernization that everyone keeps talking about but nobody can define? In the end, it seems to boil down to the question of picking candidates and trying to make the candidates’ list to extend beyond the usual Tory-boy of varying physical and same mental age.

While, in principle, one supports the right of local associations to choose their own candidates, in practice they come up with complete losers a lot of the time. Tony Lit, whose name will undoubtedly will be mentioned in the discussion, did nothing terrible. He did not win but Ealing Southall was not there for the Conservatives to win and it was not his fault that the spin insisted this could be done. I believe, he actually increased the Tory vote.

Bob Neill, on the other hand, picked by the Bromley and Chislehurst Conservative Association to great gusts of triumphant giggles and despite guidance from the top, nearly lost one of the safest Conservative seats to the Lib-Dims. It is now a marginal seat that may or may not stay in Tory hands at the next General Election. So much for the local associations’ acumen.

Apart from the arguments about the list what is there about the Cameroonian vision that is modernizing? Does he really believe that the Conservative Party has had no tradition of social policy until he, the first left-wing toff since Harold Macmillan, came along? Does he not know about Disraeli, the debates around the Corn Laws or the concept of property-owning democracy?

It seems not. Apparently, he believes that the moment he mentions social problems, he becomes a modernizer. The question is, surely, how he intends to deal with those problems and the answer is that all his ideas, far from being modernizing are actually a drift back to notions that were considered to be sort of revolutionary about fifty or sixty years ago.

The one thing the Cameroonies are terrified of is genuinely modern ideas that are trying to break away from the mess of the last half century and more.

Think about it. Aid, which is to be pushed up on the Conservative agenda? A failed policy that anyone with any sense and without any vested interest is trying to discard with even a few Conservatives like Peter Lilley trying to look for alternative policies. Incidentally, when I made these points about aid in the presence of one very nice Cameroonie young lady she argued passionately that aid would be all right if there were an international organization that would control the flow of money and ensure its efficacy. Appointed by the UN, I asked. Guess what? She accused me of cynicism. I believe she went to Rwanda as well.

What else? Education? No choice for the people with the gentleman and lady in Whitehall and the local town hall knowing best. How very old-fashioned, almost quaint, except for the danger in it.

Public sector? To be run by the state - an idea that takes us back to the halcyon days of the beginnings of the welfare state.

High taxation to pay for all this is hardly a modern idea. In fact, let’s face it, Cameron is a latter day Butskellite.

Environmentalism? There are some very interesting modern ideas out there about the need for private property if we are serious about dealing with environmental and conservation issues. They have all passed by the Boy-King and his coterie.

Foreign policy? All that blathering by Hague and Dame Pauline indicates that the Conservative Party leadership has managed to miss out on the most exciting modern idea in international affairs – Anglospherism.

Above all, his and his chums’ clear allegiance to that most outdated idea of all, the old-fashioned, sclerotic European Union shows that all that talk about modernization is piffle. A true modernizer would by now have started looking for ways out of the quagmire and subsequent alternatives.

Would it be possible to have a little less talk about the Boy-King’s modernizing tendencies? Let us call it by its real name – a return to the pre-Thatcherite dark ages of British politics; a complete refusal even to contemplate modern ideas that are needed if we are to drag this country to its rightful position in the world. Cameron, the anti-modernizer, is not the man to do it.

08 July 2007

Have you noticed ...

… that news of British activities in Iraq and Afghanistan has all but dried up since Gordon Brown became prime minister? "Blair's wars", it seems, are no longer of interest, as they cannot be used with the same effect in attacking the current administration.

That is not to say, of course, that nothing is happening in either theatre, although today's report of a major operation in Basra, involving 1,000 troops, undoubtedly hit the media only because a British soldier died after his Warrior had been hit by an IED – the third such fatal attack in so many weeks.

Equally, the tempo of operations in Afghanistan is not slackening – the MoD website reports continuing operations near Sangin as the Royal Anglians, working alongside Afghan, Danish and Estonian soldiers, keep up the pressure on the Taliban.

But the most significant news of the week – not that we got anything more than perfunctory reports of it from the British media - was the death of six Canadian soldiers and their Afghan interpreter in their RG-31 mine-protected vehicle after being hit by an IED which left a crater 10 feet wide and three feet deep.

This is not the first time an RG-31 has been completely destroyed (see video grab above, taken from an Iraqi insurgents' training film - click to enlarge) but this is the first time it has happened in Afghanistan. Thus, the event, widely reported in the Canadian press (as you would expect) is of some considerable concern to British forces as it signals several important developments. Firstly, it points up a long-heralded shift in Taliban tactics, from outright confrontation with NATO forces to the hit-and-run attacks favoured by Iraqi insurgents.

Secondly, it marks the debut of large IEDs – which have been used to such deadly effect against British Warriors in Iraq – planted specifically to take out well-armoured vehicles like the RG-31, suggesting a transfer of tactical information from one theatre to the other.

Thirdly, it suggests that we have witnessed the end of the "honeymoon" for mine-protected vehicles, which have been credited with saving many lives, having so far proved resistant to the ordnance deployed by the Taliban – just at a time when the British Army is introducing mine-protected Mastiffs (example pictured, right) into theatre.

All of this re-opens a debate which has been rehearsed extensively on this blog and the accompanying forum, the latter having hosted numerous serious and well-argued posts and two interventions from the current minister for defence procurement, the Lord Drayson.

Central to the debate has been the type and quantity of armoured vehicles that should be supplied to the Army, but we have always argued that armour itself is only one of the measures needed in the battle against IEDs. It was always the case that, as better protection was made available, the insurgents would simply use bigger bombs – as has proved to be the case.

As Brigadier-General Tim Grant said in response to the Canadian incident, "Every time you build a shield that is stronger, someone will come up with a spear that is better or longer. It's the old Roman principle."

The most puzzling thing about the whole episode, though, was that the RG-31, travelling as part of a small convoy, was driving over a gravel road which was used frequently by NATO forces and by local Afghans. While there had been IEDs found in the past, none had been discovered in recent months.

That points to one (or a combination) of several things. It could be that the forces using the road had become complacent in the absence of a recent threat, or it could be that route surveillance has been insufficient or, simply, that detection techniques were not adequate.

But, on the principle that armour on its own will never be sufficient, it is here that one needs to look to minimise the risk. The technique of route clearance and subsequent proving, so effectively demonstrated by British Forces in Bosnia, needs to be fully implemented, using the best possible equipment and tactics, some of which we sketched out in a recent post.

Tragically, the Canadians had anticipated this need, having ordered five Buffalo, and five Cougar 6x6 vehicles for Afghanistan – all to deal with mines and IEDs. Additionally, they have ordered six Husky mine detection systems, a system which would undoubtedly have found the buried IED that destroyed the RG-31, had it been available and used.

We have also argued for satellite monitoring, high altitude electronic surveillance from aircraft platforms, and low level monitoring by UAVs and light surveillance aircraft, and have made the case many times for the purchase of light tactical helicopters. With a judicious mixture of assets, it should be possible to keep key routes under 24/7 surveillance. And, given that the primary aim of the insurgent is to maximise the death toll of the security forces, what is possible should be done. Already, we have seen Canadian politicians questioning the validity of the war, with the recent death of two British soldiers in Afghanistan(one from an IED) also triggering ritual wailing from The Independent. Allowing the continual attrition of deaths from IEDs is simply not a war-winning option. Every death is a propaganda victory for the insurgents.

In the realms of the possible now come systems which, even a few years ago, lay in the realms of science fiction. One such is Automatic Change Detection, using UAV platforms now in service as the Buckeye system. Described in detail here, with more here and here, the bones of the system are a frame camera with an electro-optical sensor, and software for processing the imagery.

Typically mounted on a UAV, Buckeye takes pictures of a given territory to produce 3-D images. The UAV then later flies over the same territory to allow the system to take pictures again. These are then compared, pixel to pixel, see what kind of changes have occurred during the intervening time. If an IED is suspected, the location can be inspected in order to confirm the presence of one.

The deployment of the full range of anti-IED assets, however, requires considerable investment, a large number of specialist personnel and, as importantly, creates a completely different force structure. US forces, for instance, tend to mount IED patrols comprising one or two Meerkats, RG-31s, a Buffalo and Cougars, all working as independent units which are able to fight their way out of ambushes without calling for routine escorts. Thus, many of the patrols are not the infantry units which the British use, but specialist units discharging specialist functions.

This is actually what is at the heart of the FRES debate. It is not really about which type of armoured vehicle that should be chosen, but about the force structures needed, respectively, for high-end warfighting and counter-insurgency operations. While the former will major on infantry, with conventional support arms, the counter-insurgency force will rely more on specialist units and major on units dedicated to surveillance and intelligence gathering. It is not simply a matter of procuring a few new, better-protected vehicles and inserting them into the existing force structures, but a completely different way of fighting, requiring a wholly different approach.

On that basis, the idea that a force designed (and structured) primarily for high-end warfighting can then, with a few modifications, be used for counter-insurgency operations – as the Lord Drayson clearly intends - is a dangerous fallacy. And, given that the MoD intends to invest much of its land forces procurement budget in the FRES project (which is, of course, primarily designed for high-end warfighting) it is very hard to accept that there will be the funds necessary for effective counter-insurgency operations – especially as there are no signs that the MoD is even considering funding all the necessary technologies and equipment.

Furthermore, the blinkered thinking that pervades the MoD and the British military establishment seems to prevail elsewhere, not least in the US. Even there, rather than treat counter-insurgency as a very specialist form of warfare, with its own unique requirements, there is a tendency to employ assets designed for another form of warfare, simply because they are available.

This phenomenon comes over with some clarity in a commentary on an LA Times story about the high level of civilian casualties from airstrikes in Afghanistan. Under the heading, "Counterproductive Counterinsurgency", Philip Carter writes:

To be sure, the Air Force brings something to the fight. But we can't just use the Air Force because we have it, or try to apply its overly kinetic forms of firepower to the sensitive problems of counterinsurgency, just because we've paid billions of dollars for these airframes and bombs. If the choice comes down to sidelining the Air Force or winning the war, we better damn well choose the latter.

Letting force structure, procurement considerations or service parochialism drive operations is flat-out stupid. That is the point of this Los Angeles Times article is to remind us that there are limits to the utility of the American Way of War, and that we should be wary of solutions for this kind of war which emphasize firepower or technology.

Counterinsurgency is, at its core, a human endeavor. It requires careful discrimination, targeting and calibration in the use of force. In Afghanistan, we have started down a dangerous path of error towards losing the support of the people. These airstrikes may succeed in killing a few suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters. But 'twould be a shame to see these strikes result in us losing the war.
Even today, service rivalry in the US UAV programme is rampant, indicative of a more general problem. The forces employed in both Iraq and Afghanistan are, without doubt, dictated to a very great extent by considerations of force structure, procurement and service parochialism, instead of being designed, ground up, for the tasks in hand.

Yet, vital though it is to our national interest that we should prosecute the campaigns successfully, nothing at all of the ongoing debate about how it should be done reaches the MSM. Once again, it is being left to the blogs and the forums to make the running. The MSM might not have noticed what is going on – but we have.