Monthly Archives: March 2009

Pinn illustration

Europeans have long worshipped Barack Obama from afar. Now the beloved one is paying his first visit as US president to the old continent. Yet there is every indication that Europe’s leaders are about to stiff him. Read more

Here in London, everybody is going G-20 crazy. Understandable, of course, since this is the biggest gathering of world leaders that has Britain has hosted for many years. But the G-20 is just the first leg of a four-stop tour by President Obama. First there is the London meeting, then the Nato summit in Strasbourg, then the US-EU meeting in Prague and then a two-day state visit to Turkey. In fact, my guess is that it will probably be a five-legged tour – with Obama going on to Afghanistan for a surprise vist, after Turkey.

The assumption here in London is that it is the G-20 meeting that matters most. But I think that could well be wrong. If you look at Obama’s four stops, I think the most important could well be Turkey.

The G-20 summit brings together the most high-powered group of leaders and is all about the economic crisis. But, as the FT reports today, the communique is already pre-cooked – and looks like it will be pretty meagre fare, with a boiler-plate call to resist protectionism as its centre-piece. There will be plenty of hoopla at the Nato summit. But, once again, the big decisions – in particular about Afghanistan – have already been taken elsewhere. Mr Obama is likely to enliven the US-EU summit by making a big speech on arms control. But whilst these occasions are always taken desperately seriously by the Europeans, they are not terribly important to the Americans who find them unwieldy and baffling.

So that leaves Turkey. Read more

Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, announced today, is much as expected: more troops, more training for the Afghan army and police, more reconstruction and more of a focus on terrorism and Pakistan, with less emphasis on democracy-building.

The whole exercise suggests that the distinctions between the Bush and the Obama approaches to foreign policy may be less hard-and-fast than we thought. In the caricature version, it was Bush who was obsessed with the “global war on terror”, while Obama pushed idealistic ideas about democracy and human-rights. But here we have Obama ramping up the emphasis on terrorism and downplaying the liberal nation-building.

So will it work? Obama emphasised the necessary diversion of troops and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. And indeed the US troops I met in Logar province a couple of weeks ago had been re-directed at short notice from Iraq to Afghanistan. The US will end up sending roughly 21,000 more troops – which is pretty much the same number that were sent for the surge in Iraq. Even so, there will still be only 60,000 US troops in Afghanistan – compared to 140,000 at the height of the Iraq war. And, as Nato briefers were at pains to point out, Afghanistan is a larger and more populous country with much more inhospitable terrain – and with a safe haven for Taliban forces right next door in Pakistan. Read more

Like many people in Britain, I much enjoyed the BBC’s recent adaptation of Dickens’s “Little Dorrit” – particularly since a lot of the action takes place in FT-land. There is a scene shot under Southwark Bridge and key locations like the Marshalsea and Bleeding Heart Yard still exist – and are just a few minutes walk from our offices.

But the best bits took place in the Circumlocution Office – a government department invented by Dickens that has raised baffling bureaucracy and pointless form-filling into an art form. I had assumed that, with our endlessly modernised, bench-marked and streamlined UK government, this kind of thing was safely consigned to Victorian England.

However, I have now discovered a genuine government department with a title straight out of Dickens – it is the Department of Sensitive Words. This excellent institution has been brought to my attention by a man who is trying to establish a think-tank and to use the word “Institute” in its title. Since my friend is still involved in sensitive negotiations with the Department of Sensitive Words, I have promised not to reveal his identity. Read more

As diplomatic gaffes go, it will be hard to surpass Hillary Clinton presenting Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, with a “Re-set” button. This was meant to signify a fresh start in US-Russian relations. But unfortunately the Russian words next to the button actually translated as “Self-Destruct” – which more or less confirms the most paranoid Russian views of what the Americans have in mind for them.

Still – translation problems aside – America’s intent is clear. The Obama administration wants a new and better relationship with Russia. They want Russian help on all sorts of tricky issues, in particular Iran. If at all possible, the Americans want to cool down old arguments over issues like missile defence – and Georgia. Read more


The world’s finest diplomats will spend weeks drafting and redrafting the communiqué that will be issued at the end of the Group of 20 summit in London next week. But why do they bother? Read more

I stood about five feet from John McCain last night, as he gave an after-dinner speech at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels forum.  It was odd to see him wandering around the hotel lobby alone and sitting quietly in seminars, and to think that if things had turned out differently … As for the speech, it was about Afghanistan – and a pretty standard, if well-delivered, version of the case for sticking it out. According to McCain, Nato’s credibility is on the line, we can’t afford to lose, if we do then the Taliban will come back to power, terrorists will roam wild and free. But we need to level with the public or there will be a backlash. This is going to take years, there will be an upsurge in fighting initially, it’s going to be really difficult. Or as Winston Churchill once put it, “I have nothing to offer you, but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Except at the Brussels forum, there is also a rather nice pastry desert.

Standing in the front row while McCain spoke was none other than his pal, Misha Saakashvili, the president of Georgia. In fact, it was something of a coup for the organisers to have both Saakashvili and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at the same event. Lavrov was brusque, aggressive, confident and even funny – in a sinister sort of way. As for Saakashvili, he was more relaxed than I would have imagined given the external and internal assualt he has recently been under. And he certainly still has firm supporters. McCain is a long-time backer. But I was struck that Richard Holbrooke, now very senior in the State Department, also spoke very warmly of him. Read more

A blog-reader recently e-mailed me, asking to know what books I was reading. I am happy to oblige with an answer. In return, I would like some suggestions for further reading matter.

On the long plane-trips to Afghanistan, I read Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos – How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia”. As the title suggests, this is not the world’s most cheering book. But it is gripping, fast-paced and full of insider detail. Rashid is justifiably hard on the suicidal policies being pursued by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, and their cultivation of Islamist nutters. I found what he had to say very convincing, but fear it is very much a minority view-point in Pakistan.

I’ve also been reading a fascinating and fun new history book – “Scandal and Civility, Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy” by Marcus Daniel, published by Oxford University Press. Daniel’s book has a deliberately contemporary edge to it. He takes as his starting point modern lamentations about wild and irresponsible journalism (the blogosphere, Fox etc) and shows that there never was a golden age. Even at the very birth of American democracy, things were pretty rough. Tom Paine called George Washington “a cold hermaphrodite”, which makes Rush Limbaugh on Barack Obama seem positively mild. Read more

There is a fascinating and slightly alarming story in the New York Times, suggesting that the Obama administration is thinking of extending US military action in Pakistan – in a bid to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda. The idea is that bombing by pilotless drones could be extended beyond the tribal areas of Pakistan and into areas that are directly controlled by the central government, such as Baluchistan. These could be supplemented by commando raids into the area around the city of Quetta – which is believed to be the residence of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban.

I can see the temptation. But this still strikes me as a bad idea. Of course, I don’t have the intelligence – so I cannot know how successful the current strikes have been. And if Obama thought he could get Osama, I can see it would be hard to say No. (That would be worth at least 10 points in the polls.)

But the whole thing has an uncomfortable Vietnam-era ring to it. This is the process whereby a liberal Democrat (JFK or LBJ) gets steadily sucked further into a war he doesn’t really want to fight: more troops for Vietnam/Afghanistan; raids on the enemies safe havens in neighbouring Cambodia/Pakistan – resulting in the wholesale destablisation of another country. Read more

Troops at Nato headquarters in Kabul can buy T-shirts with a blunt message for the folks back home: “While you were chilling, we were killing.” Read more

The Nato people here are very keen to drum home the message that “Kabul is not surrounded”. Still, if you want to visit the “forward operating base” of the US troops based forty miles south of here, in Logar province, you most definitely do not drive. We took a Blackhawk helicopter out there (as in the movie “Blackhawk Down”). Half-way through the journey, our machine-gunner began to fire bursts of bullets into the deserted-looking mountains below us. It was too noisy to ask him whether he had spotted some “bad guys” as the Americans like to call them. But it later transpired that he was just having a laugh, or rather “testing my weapon” by shooting at barren ground.

General David McKiernan, the head of Nato forces here (or Com-ISAF as I have been taught to call him) stresses that foreign troops do their utmost to respect the local population and to avoid civilian casualties. But they are also doing their utmost to avoid casualties themselves – and the two needs sometimes clash.

You can see the problem in the way that Nato forces drive around Kabul. They are so worried by the threat of suicide attacks or roadside bombs that they travel only in full body-armour and in armoured vehicles. They are also under instructions never to stop, since that makes them vulnerable. As a result, they are the worst road-hogs you have ever seen. Getting a lift back from Kabul airport with the British, our vehicle got held up in traffic. So we simply drove across the central reservation into the opposite lane and straight into the oncoming traffic, scattering vehicles and pedestrians as we went. I told this story to a western civilian, who sighed – “great way to win hearts and minds.” Some diplomats here argue that the military are misapplying “Baghdad rules”, to a situation that is actually less perilous. Read more

I don’t know whether Napoleon was right when he remarked that “an army marches on its stomach”. But the Nato forces deployed here in Afghanistan seem to be taking no chances. If you eat in the American canteen at Camp Alamo near Kabul, as I did yesterday, you could be in a decent diner anywhere in the States - there is fried chicken, ribs, chilli, fresh fruit and six flavours of ice cream. I would guess it is all flown in from overseas.

A friend who visited the Italian army in Herat, up near the Iranian border, had a similar experience. Despite the fact that they were in a military camp in the middle of nowhere, the Italians still served him gnocchi, washed down with an excellent Chianti. When he complimented the officers on the standard of their catering, they explained that they had sent a local Afghan back to Italy to be trained as their chef. Read more

Well, I may have been a litte too sanguine in my suggestion that Obama was now prepared to face down the Israel lobby over the appointment of Chas Freeman. He’s gone.

Still, I did get one thing right. Freeman retains his talent for flamboyant invective. His withdrawal statement charged that “the tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonour and indecency.” Read more

The sign over the front gate at the main training centre for the Afghan army reads – “Unity starts here.” The future of Afghanistan may depend on whether this slogan can be turned into something more than a pious hope, in a country that has traditionally been deeply divided along tribal and regional lines.

Nato’s exit strategy depends on an eventual handover over to the Afghan army. So a massive training effort is underway. The aim is to increase the size of the Afghan army from 82,000 to 132,000 troops over the next two years. But Ali Ahmad, the Soviet-trained Afghan general in charge of the training centre, admits that the army is having huge trouble recruiting in the heartlands of the Taliban rebellion – Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south. Potential recruits are either too hostile or too scared to join up.

As a result, the ethnic balance of the new Afghan army is liable to get out of whack. Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north of the country will be seriously over-represented and the largest and most rebellious ethnic group, the Pashtuns, will be seriously under-represented. It sounds more like a a formula for civil war than national unity.

General Ahmad’s American colleagues were rather alarmed by his revelations and one attempted to suggest that there had been a “translation problem”. But the general was happy to elaborate. He told the story of a recruit from Kandahar, whose family had come all the way to Kabul to appeal to their son to pull out of the army – for fear that they would become the victims of Taliban reprisals. Read more

My flight into Kabul this morning was absolutely packed. I was slightly surprised to discover that there are so many regular flights into the Afghan capital, given the security situation here. But there are, in fact, three or four connections a day from Dubai. (I also noticed that there are now several commercial flights plying the Dubai-Baghdad route.)

I flew in on Kam Air – a new Afghan carrier. The name made a French journalist travelling with me laugh – she pointed out that Kam (spelled differently) is French slang for drugs. The people on the flight were almost all foreigners – I spoke to an Irish security contractor, a Gambian aid worker and an American military man, returning to Bagram air base. Coming through the arrivals hall (a rather grandiose description), there was also a big sign for employees of Blackwater, the notorious US security company. Read more

She appeared at Barack Obama’s inauguration in a magnificent hat. She even sang a song. But who would have guessed that Aretha Franklin would be such an acute guide to the new US president’s foreign policy? Read more

President Obama’s decision to nominate Charles Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council is really interesting. Freeman is an experienced diplomat, a “realist” with particular experience in China and the Arab world. He is also willing to criticise Israel openly and is a brilliant, polemical writer – neither of which are qualities that usually mark you out for promotion in Washington.

Freeman has attacked Israel for its “efforts to bomb Lebanon into peaceful co-existence and to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle.”

In 2006, he wrote a savage and rather brilliant attack on the neo-cons, which I quoted at the time. In the light of the current controversy about his appointment, it’s worth reading again: “It was before we panicked and decided to construct a national-security state that would protect us from the risks posed by foreign visitors or evil-minded Americans armed with toenail clippers or liquid cosmetics. It was before we decided that policy debate is unpatriotic and realized that the only thing foreigners understand is the use of force. It was before we replaced the dispassionate judgments of our intelligence community with the faith-based analyses of our political leaders. It was before we embraced the spin-driven strategies that have stranded our armed forces in Afghanistan, marched them off to die in the terrorist ambush of Iraq, and multiplied and united our Muslim enemies rather than diminishing and dividing them.” Read more

Two of my former colleagues at The Economist have just started blogs. It is quite funny to see The Economist struggling to reconcile this most personal of mediums (egocentric, if you are being uncharitable) with the magazine’s obsession with maintaining the anonymity of its journalists.

Why, I am sometimes asked – is The Economist still anonymous? I think there are three possible reasons. First, it keeps the place more collegiate. Second, it allows the paper rather than the journalists to keep all the “brand value”- and this is a bargain,the journalists are increasingly happy to accept, in return for a regular salary and a warm place to sit, neither of which can be taken for granted elsewhere in the media. Finally, there is the “if it ain’t broke” principle – The Economist has been a huge success story over the past thirty years, so why change?

Still, now that I have left the place, I feel no compunction to respect their silly rules on anonymity. So whilst directing your attention to the new blogs by Charlemagne and Bagehot, I would also like to take the opportunity to blow their covers. Charlemagne’s name is David Rennie. I’ll say that again: DAVID RENNIE. Bagehot’s name is ANDREW MILLER. Read more

Maybe I am hyper-sensitive, but I always find these set-piece speeches by British prime ministers in Washington a real cringe. Unlike many regular commenters of this blog, I feel very warmly towards the US. But the sycophancy of the Blair and Thatcher speeches was just too much for me.

Gordon Brown also laid it out on with a trowel yesterday. There was one genuinely moving passage in his address to Congress, I thought, which was actually not about America but about the Rwandan genocide – (unfortunately it’s not in the text that Downing Street released, which suggests Brown added it at the last minute.) But for the rest, it was mostly gush – with a bit of G20 policy-wonkery thrown in for good measure. Read more

Human-rights groups will be cheering the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. And why not? There have been appalling crimes committed in Darfur – since 2003 some 300,000 people have been killed and over 2m displaced.

This is certainly an active time for the cause of international justice. On Sunday a special tribunal opened in the Hague to investigate the assassination of Rafiq al-Harari, the former Lebanese prime minister. Charles Taylor, the former Liberian dictator, is already on trial in the Hague before a special tribunal on war crimes in Sierra Leone. The case against Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, is also underway at the ICC. And last month a hybrid UN-Cambodian court began the prosecution of “Duch”, a former Khmer Rouge commander.

But the arrest warrant for al-Bashir is the big one.

Not everybody, however, is convinced that it will serve the cause of either peace or justice. Alex de Waal, an very knowledgable Darfur watcher, has posted a devestating indictment of the ICC case on the “Making Sense of Darfur” blog. Read more