Thursday, 27 June 2019

The US-Iran standoff - whose responsibility?

                                                                              Video version
          One of the less attractive aspects of political argument these days is to remove responsibility from those who commit crimes and transfer it to the victims. 

          In the latest flare-up in the Gulf of Hormuz, this is the approach deployed by the European Union. Which nation used limpet mines on a Japanese oil tanker? Which nation destroyed a US unmanned drone flying over international waters? In both cases, despite vehement denials, the strong evidence points to Iran. Yet the inherently anti-American EU firmly assigns blame to the Trump administration. Its line is that Iran cannot be blamed for the increase in tension, because it is all due to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

          None among the Iranian leadership, however, could have been in any doubt that incoming President Trump viewed the whole deal as flawed, nor greatly surprised when he withdrew the US from it. In doing so he made clear that what he wanted was to renegotiate a deal more likely to ensure the desired result – a permanently non-nuclear-weaponised Iran. Indeed, that remains Washington’s position, the only obstacle to resolving the dispute being Tehran’s absolute refusal to return to the negotiating table.

          Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, has never concealed his total opposition to the Western democratic way of life, to the United States as leader of the Western world, and to Israel’s existence, all of which it is his aim to eliminate. Allied to this is the ultimate objective of the Iranian Islamic Revolution – to displace Saudi Arabia’s Sunni hegemony over the Muslim world and replace it with their own Shi’ite interpretation of Islam.

          US president Barack Obama chose deliberately to ignore these basic building blocks of Iran’s regime. The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility. In the event the opposite was the case. Obama’s placatory approach resulted in no softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”. “Even after this deal, “ proclaimed Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.” And indeed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard spent the billions of dollars they acquired as a result of the deal in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression since the deal was signed.

          By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. This is why Obama’s US lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist. It has taken Trump and his administration’s tough approach to Iran and its pretensions to restore America’s standing in the moderate Arab world.

          The Iranian nuclear deal was regarded by the EU and like-minded nations as a guarantee against Iran developing nuclear weapons. This sidesteps the basic flaw in the deal – that it expires after 15 years, at which time there is nothing to prevent Iran from continuing with its full-scale nuclear program.

          Meanwhile, it persists in its disruptive activities throughout the Middle East and beyond. It is Iran that is providing arms to groups like the Houthis in Yemen, who are firing Iranian-made missiles directly into Saudi Arabia, and to the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq that recently launched a rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, and to the Revolutionary Guard Corps on active duty in Syria, propping up the president, Bashar al-Assad.

          Yet the EU’s foreign policy establishment is so determined to portray the Americans as the villains, that they remain committed to upholding the nuclear deal, no matter how provocative Iran's actions might be. In pursuit of this ill-considered policy the EU is still striving to establish its own trading mechanism – the so-called special purpose vehicle – to by-pass US sanctions and enable European businesses to continue trading with Iran.

          Trump’s economic pressure has caused Iran’s leadership major domestic difficulties. Rallies and street protests, centered on the worsening economic situation and the ever-rising food and commodity prices, keep bursting out spontaneously across the country. Some morphe into opposition to the government. A major cause for complaint are the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.

          But as for the danger of outright war, both Washington and Tehran, in the midst of the blood-curdling threats they utter against each other, have indicated that they have absolutely no desire for military conflict.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 June 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 30 June 2019:

Saturday, 15 June 2019

The state of Iraq

          The years of internal conflict that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq in 2003 have at last been succeeded by a degree of precarious stability. 

          Iraq is a federation of three elements held in uncertain balance – the Shia majority, the Sunni minority and the Kurds in their northern autonomous region of Kurdistan. But it also faces the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) caliphate that dominated large areas of the country for more than three years. In addition the government has to cope with the presence of two competing power brokers lodged within their body politic – the US and Iran. 

          Iraq’s political parties, mirroring the balance of politico-religious power underlying the Lebanese constitution, have reached an informal agreement under which the presidency is reserved for Kurds, the premiership for Shia Arabs, and the post of speaker of parliament for Sunni Arabs. Accordingly, in October 2018 the veteran Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih was elected by parliament to serve as president for the first of a maximum of two four-year terms. In line with the political agreement, Salih appointed Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shi’ite, as prime minister.
          Mahdi, with a wealth of ministerial experience under his belt. is faced with a formidable agenda. The defeat on the ground of IS, the result of a united effort by government and Kurdish forces backed by support from the US and its coalition, leaves Mahdi with the task of rebuilding the infrastructure of large parts of the country. 

          Yet although all the territory previously part of the IS caliphate has been reclaimed, the organization’s destructive activities have not been effectively quelled. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report for 2018 condemns IS for dozens of explosive attacks on civilian-populated areas, and the capture and extra-judicial killing of civilians. 

          In February, UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a report to the Security Council that IS has already "substantially evolved into a covert is organizing cells at the provincial level, replicating the key leadership functions." Despite its losses, said Guterres, it still controls between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria. Cells "appear to be planning activities that undermine government authority, create an atmosphere of lawlessness, sabotage societal reconciliation and increase the cost of reconstruction and counter-terrorism."

          These activities include kidnappings for ransom, targeted assassinations of local leaders, and attacks against state utilities and services, including setting fire to crops in bizarre imitation of Hamas’s attacks on Israeli farmers close to Gaza.

          A severe humanitarian problem also faces the authorities. The newly elected US senator for Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, recently visited Iraq and found that some 30,000 widows and children of dead IS soldiers had been interned in camps in the desert, including 10,000 children under the age of 5. She was not able to discover what, if anything, was planned for them.

          In a recent interview with President Salih, journalist Christian Caryl elicited a frank appraisal of the difficulties facing the nation. Salih himself pointed out that Mosul, its second-largest city, had been recaptured from IS more than a year ago, yet the city remains in ruins. Discussing the effectiveness of Iraq’s administrative machinery, the president admitted the need to fight a deeply entrenched culture of corruption in the bureaucracy, the government’s failure to provide basic public services such as water and electricity, and the challenge of preventing a full-scale IS revival.

          Taking all its problems into account, however, a vital factor affecting Iraq’s current, as well as future, prospects is that it is the second–largest crude oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after Saudi Arabia. 

          During the first half of 2018, Iraqi crude oil output stood at about 4.5 million barrels per day (b/d), including oil produced in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Disputes between the government and the KRG flare up from time to time, but an innovative “swap deal” with Iran involving northern crude production seems to be functioning very effectively. 

          Iraq abuts Iran right along its 900-mile (1450 kilometer) eastern border. Accordingly, in the far north Kurdish Iraqi crude oil is trucked to Iran, while in the far south Iran ships the equivalent volume of crude oil from its Kharg terminal to Basra. Iraq plans to double the amount swapped with Iran in this way to 60,000 b/d of crude oil.

          In this, and in many other ways, Iran is intent on retaining Iraq within its sphere of influence. Washington believes Iran’s aim is to destabilize the country. US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently accused Iran of financing and training militia groups and promoting Islamist politicians, including followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric who controls a militia known as the Mahdi Army. 

          Deeper analysis suggests the main motives for Iranian involvement are to push out coalition forces and Western influences; to keep Shi’ites in power, since Shia Iraq is a useful support for Iran’s much wider “Shia Crescent”; and to maintain Iraq as a federal state, minimizing Sunni influence and optimizing the Shia regions. 

          Iraq is slowly emerging from the trauma of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the turmoil that followed his overthrow. There is a long road yet to travel, but there is reason for hope. Iraq may yet develop into a democratic and prosperous island of stability in a chaotic Middle East. 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 June 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 June 2019:

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel

This review appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 24 June 2019
          The title chosen by Jerold S Auerbach for his new book, “Print to Fit” is a deliberate inversion of the slogan invented by the first owner of the New York Times (NYT), Adolph Ochs, which has appeared on the front page ever since – “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” Auerbach subjects the New York Times to a meticulously researched analysis of its attitude over the years 1896 to 2016 towards Zionism and Israel, and comes to a firm conclusion. With some notable exceptions, the paper’s coverage has consistently been skewed against both. In short, what the NYT has printed has often, perhaps usually, been designed to fit the profound anti-Zionism of its original owner, passed on to succeeding generations of publishers, all of whom have been family members.

          At least part of this indictment has very recently been acknowledged as valid by the NYT’s editorial board itself.

          On Thursday April 27, 2019 the NYT international edition published a deeply anti-Semitic cartoon. As a tsunami of adverse criticism from around the globe engulfed the paper, the cartoon was withdrawn, the editor responsible was disciplined and several apologies appeared in its pages. Then, on April 30, in an editorial denouncing its “appalling political cartoon”, the editorial board acknowledged its own historical contributions to the rise of anti-Semitism.

          “In the 1930s and the 1940s,” it wrote, “the Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper.”

          In Zionism’s early days political cross-currents motivated Adolph Ochs, and Auerbach examines them in some detail. In the very year that Ochs acquired the Times – 1896 – Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, published “The Jewish State”, while in the following year the first World Zionist Congress was held in Basle, Switzerland. From it emerged Zionism’s fundamental objective: “To establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law."

           Most old-established and well-assimilated Jewish families in the States, mirroring the same type of families in Britain, were profoundly opposed to the concept, arguing vehemently that there was absolutely no need for a sovereign Jewish state with all the trappings of nationhood, since Jews were not a race, a nation or a people, but merely adherents of a religion. Many wealthy American Jews, deeply anxious not to be suspected of entertaining the idea of a dual loyalty, proclaimed themselves unreservedly American by nationality and Jewish by religion. They were patriotic Americans of the Jewish faith. Their Zion was America.

          Ochs and his family belonged to the Reform wing of Judaism, where these beliefs were strongest, and it was from this source that the NYT drew much of its opinion journalism on the issue of Zionism. As Auerbach illustrates with chapter and verse, published comment turned largely on the thesis that Zionism was wrong in principle and in any case impossible to realize. The NYT covered only briefly the appearance in November 1917 of the document that eventually led to the fulfilment of the Zionist dream – the Balfour Declaration, which announced that the British government favoured the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

          Although Zionist achievements in Palestine were occasionally lauded in the pages of the NYT – for example, the inauguration of the Hebrew University in 1925, the rapid development of Tel Aviv and the agricultural successes of the young pioneers – adverse criticism of Zionism as a principle remained a persistent feature of its coverage during the Mandate years. The violently anti-Jewish Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was the subject of laudatory articles, and the deteriorating situation between Arabs and Jews was at first laid firmly at the Zionists’ door. Although its coverage later became more nuanced, the NYT’s balance always tilted away from the requirement laid on the British government by the Mandate to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was the doomed attempt to realize this, the NYT often argued, that lay at the root of Palestine’s ills. In short, the problem in Palestine was Zionism.

          Auerbach maintains that the greatest dereliction of its journalistic duty, however – as the editorial board itself acknowledged in 2019 – was in how it handled the rise of Nazism, its adoption of anti-Semitism as state policy, the discrimination and indignities heaped upon Jews in the 1930s, and the deliberate attempt to exterminate the whole Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1940s.

          In addition to that innate anti-Zionism that marked the NYT’s editorial policy from the beginning, Auerbach identifies a second factor at play over the years. Each of the successive publishers, acutely aware that they themselves were Jewish, were one after another determined to ensure that the Times was never perceived as a “Jewish” newspaper lest it be devalued “in Gentile circles”.

          Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Ochs’s son-in-law and immediate successor, insisted that Jews were not to be identified as a distinctive group in stories run by the NYT. So in describing the plight of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930s, the Times deliberately ignored the fact that they were Jews. By-passing the fact that the prime reason for their predicament was the institutional anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, it described thousands desperately seeking places of refuge as “a problem of mankind.” Auerbach quotes an NYT editorial which, describing the fate of 500 Jewish refugees stranded in a riverboat on the Danube for months, does not mention that they are Jews but identifies them as “helpless and terrified human beings.”

          The fact that Jews were major victims of the Nazi regime was consistently downplayed – a deliberate editorial policy instituted in order to avoid the NYT being perceived as too pro-Jewish. Even at the end of the war in Europe, Auerbach notes that the horrors of Auschwitz never made the front page. “The liberation of Dachau did,” he writes, “without any indication that most victims were Jews.”

          The New York Times never lost its basic distaste for Zionism and thus, more often than not, for Israel. The reaction of its Jewish correspondent to the Six Day War was disappointment that Israel had not used its military triumph “to offer the Palestinians honorable terms.” In the 1970s the policies pursued by Israel’s first right wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, mostly infuriated the NYT. It had no time for the Greater Israel concept, and deplored the extension of settlements. Even coverage of the Begin-Anwar Sadat peace treaty of 1979, although given an approving nod, was the subject also of an admonition. Israel had to “distinguish its security needs from territorial ambitions on the Arab populated West Bank.”

          Following the first intifada and the terror bombings inside Israel, voter opinion strengthened on the right; the NYT’s stance on Israel hardened accordingly. During the second intifada, which witnessed some of the most horrific suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians, the Times, as Auerbach puts it, “resolutely held ‘both sides’ responsible.”

          In essence that remains the NYT’s editorial position to this day. Extraordinarily, the convictions and attitudes that dictated Adolph Ochs’s editorial approach to Zionism and Jewish affairs as he published his first edition in 1896 were maintained over the years. Auerbach asserts that the NYT’s reporting from Israel was consistently dominated by journalists “whose evident liberal bias constricted and distorted their coverage.” The Times, he maintains, remained faithful to Ochs’s concept that Zionism challenged American Jews’ loyalty to the United States. Accordingly, the NYT came to believe that criticism of the Jewish state somehow affirmed American patriotism. Somewhere along the way, Auerbach affirms, all the news “fit to print” became news “printed to fit New York Times discomfort with the idea – and since 1948 the reality – of a thriving Jewish democratic state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.”

          “Print to Fit” leads the reader through Israel’s story along an unfamiliar route. The New York Times is one of the world’s leading newspapers. It is regarded as a “journal of record”. For more than 120 years it has been shaping American opinion. Jerold S Auerbach argues convincingly that, as far as Zionism and Israel are concerned, the paper has consistently been far from objective in its editorial policy, has fallen short of its own high standards, and has consequently failed in its journalistic obligations to the public.

          On November 14, 2001, in The New York Times' 150th anniversary issue, former executive editor Max Frankel wrote that before and during World War II, the Times had maintained a consistent policy to minimize reports on the Holocaust in their news pages. Laurel Leff, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, concluded that the newspaper had downplayed the Third Reich targeting of Jews for genocide. Her 2005 book Buried by the Times documents the paper's tendency before, during and after World War II to place deep inside its daily editions the news stories about the ongoing persecution and extermination of Jews, while obscuring in those stories the special impact of the Nazis' crimes on Jews in particular. Leff attributes this dearth in part to the complex personal and political views of the newspaper's Jewish publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, concerning Jewishness, antisemitism and Zionism.

Published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 24 June 2019:

Monday, 10 June 2019

Islamic State - the British connection

This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 24 June 2019
          In 2006 the trenchant British political commentator Melanie Phillips published a volume that quickly became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Titled Londonistan, it was the first major attempt to explain how and why the UK had become what Phillips termed “the epicentre of Islamic militancy in Europe” – a hub for recruiting, financing and promoting Islamic terror and extremism.

          The incentive behind the book, and the urgent need Phillips felt to arouse the public’s awareness to the major problem facing it, was probably the London bombings on 7 July 2005, the worst terrorist attack to take place on British soil.

          At 8.50 on that morning explosions tore through three trains on the London Underground, killing 39 people. An hour later 13 people were killed when a bomb detonated on the upper deck of a bus in central London. In addition more than 700 people were injured.

          It was subsequently established that the attacks were carried out by four suicide bombers with rucksacks full of explosives. The investigation characterized the four as “ordinary British citizens”, but the British public was forced to recognize that these relatively unassuming young men, living what appeared to be quite normal lives, had been radicalized by extremists living freely in Britain and operating from institutions functioning legally on British soil.

          For decades Britain’s laissez faire attitude towards immigration had meant that centres of extremist Muslim thought had been established across the UK without any effective system of control.

          Professor Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University, an expert on Islamism in Europe and North America, has explained in detail how, since the early 1960s, Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organized network of mosques, charities and Islamic organizations”. By way of an often stealthy, but steady and sure, expansion of influence and activity the Brotherhood now has active branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria and numerous other European countries. 

          Before becoming the leaders of IS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of al-Qaeda), all belonged to the Brotherhood. Its basic principles lie at the heart of both IS and al-Qaeda. In founding the Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, Hassan al-Banna declared: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

          The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its strategy, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. “The presumption,” said Professor Bernard Lewis in his book “The Crisis of Islam”, “is that the duty of jihad will continue … until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule.”

          This ruthless obsession with imposing its version of Islam on the entire globe is, in the view of its adherents, of such paramount importance that its achievement justifies the use of any means, however excessive. The more confusion, dissension and terror created, the better. Those willing to sacrifice their own lives in pursuit of these ends are martyrs.

          These were the teachings promulgated in Britain from the 1980s by radical Muslim preachers to willing or vulnerable young Muslims. In November 1999 a UK newspaper reported that Muslims were receiving weapons training at secret locations in the UK. The report identified Anjem Choudray as a key figure in recruiting for these training centres. Choudary was convicted of soliciting support for a proscribed organization, namely Islamic State (IS), and in 2016 imprisoned.

          Finsbury Park is a district in the north-east of London. In 1994 a new 5-storey mosque was officially opened in a ceremony attended by Prince Charles and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who had contributed funds for the building. Three years later a fanatically radical cleric named Abu Hamza al-Masri became its imam, and soon the mosque was being described as "the heart of the extremist Islamic culture" in Britain.

          One of his disciples was Richard Reid, born in London in 1973, a young criminal who had been in and out of prison from the age of 16. During his incarceration in 1992 for various street robberies, he converted to Islam, and on his release in 1995 began attending the Finsbury Park Mosque. Here he fell under the sway of terrorist talent spotters and handlers allied with al-Qaeda, including Djamal Beghal, one of the leaders of the foiled plan for a 2001 suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Paris, and then of Abu Hamza.

          On December 22, 2001 Reid boarded an American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami, wearing shoes packed with explosives, which he tried unsuccessfully to detonate. Passengers subdued him on the plane, and in 2002 he pleaded guilty in a US federal court to eight counts of terrorism. He was sentenced to three life terms plus 110 years in prison without parole.

          By the end of 2014 Islamic State had reached its physical apogee. Spread across Syria and Iraq, it covered more than 34,000 square miles and controlled millions of people. At the same time it was claiming responsibility for a succession of horrific terrorist attacks across the world, causing the deaths of thousands. At its high point, IS was attracting thousands of young Muslim recruits, both male and female. Britain was an especially fruitful recruiting ground. In November 2014 Labour MP Khalid Mahmoud told the media that he believed as many as 2,000 British citizens were fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.

          One such UK citizen who achieved worldwide prominence was a young man described by a former schoolfriend as “a typical north-west London boy.” Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait, but moved with his parents to the UK aged six. He attended a good school, and went on to university where he graduated in computing. In late 2013 he joined IS on the Turkey-Syrian border.

          In August 2014 IS issued a video capturing the horrific death of US journalist James Foley by beheading. Just before the gruesome murder, a man standing beside Foley, dressed in black, wielding a blade and speaking in a British accent, delivered a warning to the US government. He then appeared to start cutting at his captive's neck before the video faded to black. The next screen showed James Foley’s body on the ground.

          Over the following months a series of similar videos were issued, showing further beheadings. In at least two of them the masked figure himself appeared to kill his victim. The man in black with the British accent was later positively identified as Mohammed Emwazi.

          On November 12, 2015, US officials reported that Emwazi had been hit by a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria. His death was confirmed by IS in January 2016.

          Bethnal Green is a district in east London. It sprang into sudden prominence in February 2015, when three schoolgirls attending the Bethnal Green Academy suddenly disappeared. CCTV equipment located at Gatwick airport caught the three – Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana – leaving the country. Another image showed them several hours later at a bus station in western Istanbul.

          The three were following their friend – confusingly named Sharmeena Begum – who had fled to join IS the previous December. Media reports suggested that Sharmeena had been targeted for recruitment by a group known as the "Sisters Forum", affiliated to the Islamic Forum of Europe, that met at an east London Mosque.

          When the three teenagers reached the Syrian border, they were picked up by smugglers working for IS and taken into the group's territory in northern Syria. Once there, they were each married off as “jihadi brides” to foreign fighters, three of the thousands who had flooded in from across the world. In Nazi fashion, Islamic State aimed to raise a new generation of children supporting its so-called caliphate, and grooming young women to the cause was key to that plan. A month later, five other girls from Bethnal Green Academy, all aged 15 or 16, were barred by the High Court from travelling abroad.

          In February 2019 a heavily pregnant Shamima Begum resurfaced at the al-Hawl refugee camp, along with 1,555 other women and children who had travelled from abroad to join IS. Her two Bethnal Green companions were believed to be dead. Shamima and her Dutch-born husband had retreated with IS to their final stronghold of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and when the caliphate faced final defeat by US-backed Kurdish-led forces, they had fled.

           In interviews with the British media Shamima begged to be returned to the UK, but when questioned she said she did not regret joining IS, and that she was “OK” with the beheadings she had witnessed. Her story initially was that she had been nothing but a Muslim housewife, but later, after she had given birth and this baby had died like her previous two, reports emerged that Shamima had played an active role in the caliphate’s reign of terror. It was claimed that she had been a member of the “hisba”, the IS morality police, a feared group which enforced the organization’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. There were also allegations that she had stitched suicide bombers into explosive vests, so they could not be removed without detonating.

          As a result the UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, stripped Shamima of her British citizenship and debarred her from returning to the country – a decision currently being appealed in the British courts which, in a typically British gesture of tolerance, have granted Shamima and her supporters legal aid with which to pursue their case. Londonistan is living up to its reputation.

Published in the Jerusalem Report issue dated 24 June 2019:

Impasse in Afghanistan

                                             Video version      
          Certain areas of the world, simply on account of their geographical location, seem destined to be perpetual trouble spots. One such unhappy country is Afghanistan. Because of its position plumb in the middle of central Asia, Afghanistan is a prize that has been fought over and won by foreign occupiers many times in its long history. Its domestic story is equally turbulent, with warring tribes battling it out over the centuries for power and control. In 2019 the basic pattern persists.

          Britain gained control over Afghanistan in the 19th century as part of its imperial expansion, but after it granted India independence in 1947 the political dynamic in central Asia changed. Afghanistan became a client state of the Soviet Union, and when a military coup by the hard-line Islamist Mujahadeen seemed about to remove the country from the Soviet sphere of influence, the USSR invaded.

          Soviet forces were soon mired in continuous and unproductive guerrilla warfare, and in 1989 the USSR admitted defeat and withdrew. But the turbulence had left its legacy – first, the jihadist group al-Qaeda, set up by Osama bin Laden, and then the rise of the hard-line Islamist organization calling itself the Taliban. From the mid-1990s until 2001 the Taliban ruled Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, imposing an oppressively strict version of Sharia on the population.

          It was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 that focused the world’s attention on the Taliban. It was soon established that the events of 9/11 were the responsibility of the al-Qaeda movement, and the US accused the Taliban of providing sanctuary for its master-mind, Osama bin Laden. Shortly afterwards a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban were driven from power.

          President Barack Obama authorized an annual spend of some $5 billion on the Afghan security forces in an effort to raise their efficiency to a level that would enable the United States and its partners to reduce support, and eventually withdraw.

          It hasn’t worked. The Taliban have actually gained ground since 2017, in part because of increased support from Pakistan, Russia and Iran. According to a December 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the “insurgents are now in control of or contesting more territory today than at any point since 2001.”

          Coming into presidential office promising a quick win against the Taliban followed by the withdrawal of American troops, Donald Trump changed tack in 2017. Explaining that his policy was to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge, he announced that he would raise troop levels from 9,000 to 14,000. What he did not disclose was that he was prepared to open negotiations with the Taliban to try to reach a deal leading to US disengagement from Afghanistan.

          In December 2018 the Taliban announced that they would meet with American negotiators in Qatar to find a peaceful solution to the 17-year armed insurgency in Afghanistan.

          On 25 February 2019 peace talks began, with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Barada, at the table. They got off to a surprisingly productive start. Agreement was actually reached on a draft peace deal which involved the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country.

          Deadlock soon followed. After no less than six rounds of talks the Taliban negotiators were demanding an American troop withdrawal within six months of any agreement, and were refusing to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regard as a puppet regime.

          American negotiators, on the other hand, were unwilling to withdraw US troops until the Taliban had reached a deal with the Afghan government, believing that an early withdrawal without peace would leave the country open to civil war, or a swift Taliban military takeover.

          At this point Russia stepped in, and invited the Taliban to peace talks in Moscow to be attended by “senior Afghan politicians” planning to challenge President Ashrat Ghani in this year’s presidential election. The talks were held between 28 and 30 May, and a Taliban official reported that “decent progress” had been made, though there had been no breakthrough and further talks would be necessary. Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Taliban delegates reiterated their position that no ceasefire could be possible while foreign forces remained inside Afghanistan.

          Trump caused alarm within the Afghan government earlier this year when he appeared to signal he would pull out troops unilaterally from a conflict he considers a costly failure. The prospect of such a withdrawal seems to have receded, but the mere rumour was sufficient for some Taliban delegates to think they can wait out America.

          “They still think the Americans are going to leave en masse,” said one US official. “They are waiting for the Trump tweet.”

          Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, chief US negotiator, will be meeting the Taliban envoys in June for a seventh round of talks, as he tries to clear away the obstacles to an agreement.

          Success, he said, “will require other parties to show flexibility.” But the Taliban show little signs of doing so. Even Khalizad’s call for a ceasefire has fallen on deaf ears..

          “No one,” said Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, “should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of jihad, or forget our forty-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives.”

          An impasse indeed. 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 June 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 June 2019: