Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bush & Blair: The Iraq And Afghan Fantasies

Bush & Blair: The Iraq fantasy

Neither will admit that Iraq is a disaster. But while their state of denial may cost votes in Washington and London, on the frontline in the Middle East, it continues to cost lives

By Patrick Cockburn Published: 05 November 2006

"When does the incompetence end and the crime begin?" asked an appalled German Chancellor in the First World War when the German army commander said he intended to resume his bloody and doomed assaults on the French fortress city of Verdun.

The same could be said of the disastrous policies of George Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq. At least 3,000 Iraqis and 100 American soldiers are dying every month. The failure of the US and Britain at every level in Iraq is obvious to all. But the White House and Downing Street have lived in a state of permanent denial. On the Downing Street website are listed 10 "Big Issues" affecting the Prime Minister, but Iraq is not one of them.


Hostility to the American and British troops has a direct and lethal consequence for the soldiers on the ground. The same poll shows that 92 per cent of Sunni and 62 per cent of Shia approve of attacks on US-led forces. This is the real explanation for the strength of the insurgency: it is widely popular.

For the past three-and-a-half years in Iraq, one needed to close both eyes very hard or live in Baghdad's Green Zone not to see that the occupation was detested by most Iraqis. At places where US Humvees had been blown up or US soldiers killed or wounded there were usually Iraqis dancing for joy.

Supposedly, the centrepiece of American and British policy is to stay "until the job is done" and hand over to Iraqi army and police who will cope with powerful militias like the Mehdi Army. But in police stations in many parts of southern Iraq, photographs pinned to the wall include one of British armoured vehicles erupting in flames, beside a portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army.


But the refusal to admit, as the British army commander Sir Richard Dannatt pointed out, that the occupation generates resistance in Iraq, means that no new and more successful policy can be devised. It is this that is criminal. And it is all the worse because the rational explanation for Mr Bush's persistence in bankrupt policies in Iraq is that he has always given priority to domestic politics. Holding power in Washington was more important than real success in Baghdad.


In each case reality was always different. Nobody in Iraq thought Saddam was the leader of the resistance, and his capture had no effect on the insurgency. The return of sovereignty had little meaning: last week the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, admitted that he could not move a company of Iraqi troops without US permission.

Fallujah was very publicly stormed by the US Marines in November 2004, but a few days later the insurgents, in an operation hardly mentioned by the administration, captured the much larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, seizing arms worth $40m (£21m). The elections and referendum in 2005 deeply divided Iraq's communities along sectarian and ethnic lines, and led directly to civil war in central Iraq.


I used to think how absurd it was for me to risk my life by visiting the Green Zone, the entrances to which were among the most bombed targets in Iraq, to see diplomats who claimed that the butchery in Iraq was much exaggerated. But when I asked them if they would like to come and have lunch in my hotel outside the zone, they always threw up their hands in horror and said their security men would never allow it.

The fantasy picture of Iraq purveyed by Mr Bush and Mr Blair is now being exposed. The Potemkin village they constructed to divert attention from what was really happening in Iraq is finally going up in flames.

But it is too late for the Iraqis, Americans and British who died because they were unwitting actors in this fiction, carefully concocted by the White House and Downing Street to show progress where there is frustration, and victory where there is only defeat.

Full text of article can be found here:

Bush & Blair: The Afghan fantasy

Neither will admit that Afghanistan is a struggle. But their denial is costing the lives of civilians and troops on the frontline

By Raymond Whitaker Published: 05 November 2006

"Some of the guys think we shouldn't be here, but most of us support it," a Royal Marine told me as we patrolled near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan's Helmand province. A huge sun was setting behind the mud walls of Mukhtar, a desperately poor village outside the town which houses refugees from less stable areas.

"We know what we're doing here: supporting the Afghan people," the marine went on. He did not say it, but the implication was that this was different from Iraq, where British troops must be wondering about their mission after the chief of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said they should leave "soon".

British officers in Helmand, from the commander, Brigadier Jerry Thomas, down, are relentlessly on-message about the purpose of their deployment, now six months old. They have not come to this hot, dusty southern province to fight the Taliban, they say, though if the insurgents want a fight, they will get it. Instead the measure of the mission's success or failure will be whether hearts and minds can be won in the "Afghan development zone". This is a triangle in the centre of Helmand whose points are Lashkar Gah, Gereshk, the main commercial centre, and Camp Bastion, the main British base.


In Camp Bastion I passed a group of emaciated members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who had just been brought out of Now Zad, a town in the north of Helmand where British troops were never originally intended to go. Their hollow-eyed stares were a testament to the bitter fighting in which they and the Third Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, were engaged during the summer, when small detachments in places like Now Zad, Musa Qala and Sangin fought off wave after wave of Taliban attacks.


A recent ICM poll for the BBC found that 63 per cent thought they were there to help the Afghan government fight the Taliban. Nearly half, 46 per cent, believed the purpose was to stop the flow of drugs - Helmand is not only the largest province in Afghanistan, it is responsible for 42 per cent of the country's opium production. Half the heroin on British streets comes from Helmand.

These are not the primary purpose of the deployment, however. And the poll found that 53 per cent of respondents opposed British military operations in Afghanistan. But 26-year-old Marines Cpl Ross Jones, of 42 Commando, took issue with the findings. "When you get around here and see what a difference you could make, you see it very differently," he said. "We get the full picture: it's very hard for people back home to imagine what it's like."


Any Taliban fighter who could see Camp Bastion, with its Apache attack helicopters and hundreds of fighting troops, would be daunted. But Bastion was deliberately sited out in the desert, and has never been attacked. The British presence in Lashkar Gah and Gereshk is much more modest. In both the troops are based in heavily fortified compounds no larger than the grounds of a Home Counties hospital.


The plan masks many uncertainties, however. On the way to a meeting at which Governor Daud was due to address mullahs and village leaders to urge them to discourage opium poppy planting, we passed a blackened hole by the side of the road. This was where Gary Wright, the only Marine lost so far, was killed by a suicide bomber in the first such death suffered by British forces in Helmand.

This sinister new threat has caused the Marines to maintain a lower profile in the centre of the two main towns, where the aim is that Afghan security forces will be in control, though officers admit the police in particular are "a disaster".

And the next big test for British forces might not be far away. The Afghan government is shaping up for a new poppy eradication campaign, possibly as early as next month, and despite the desire of British commanders to avoid losing local support by being associated with destroying farmers' livelihoods, they could be drawn in.


"To those looking for a fight, I always say: 'Be careful what you wish for,'" said the head of 42 Commando, Colonel Matt Holmes.

Full text of article can be found here.


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