Friday, 17 May 2013

With Friends Like These...

The black banner of al-Qaeda flies over rebel-controlled Raqqa
Another foreign policy gaffe this week, as a commander in the rebel coalition which William Hague recognised as Syria's "sole legitimate representative" last year releases film of himself pulling the entrails from a slain soldier, before sinking his teeth into the man's lungs.

In fairness to Abu Sakkar — real name Khalid al-Hamad — he thought the organ was a liver.  So an honest mistake, then.

Sakkar, who commands one of the "Farouq Brigades" implicated in the indiscriminate shelling of Shi'ite villages in Lebanon and the persecution of Syrian Christians near Homs, remains unrepentant: "[A]fter what I did", he told TIME Magazine, "hopefully [government loyalists] will never step into the area where Abu Sakkar is."

Sakkar was not at all shy about his ruthlessness, saying of the Alawite population who subscribe to same Shi'ite sect of Islam as President al-Assad, "Hopefully we will slaughter all of them."

"I have another video clip that I will send to them", he added darkly.  "In the clip, I am sawing another shabiha [government militiaman] with a saw; the saw we use to cut trees. I sawed him into small pieces and large ones.”

Sakkar's antics co-incide embarrassingly with renewed efforts by our government to shore up the faltering insurrection, with David Cameron recently announcing his intention to double British support to the rebels.  Arms cannot yet be sent  the European Union does not permit us to take that decision independently — but "non-lethal" aid can, and the money, body armour and armoured vehicles being shipped are doubtless just as useful as rifles and rockets would be.

Is it wise to tread this path of ever-increasing intervention?  Ministers seem to have made up their minds that we "cannot stand idly by", but has anyone taken the time to perform an audit of previous foreign adventures where we were assured non-intervention was "not an option"?

Iraq, of course, is sliding deeper into the mire every day.  Senior politicians say "civil war has already started".  This has not been without consequence to neighbouring Syria, a popular bolt-hole for Iraq's Sunni insurgents.  Indeed, the Free Syrian Army has accused Prime Minister al-Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government of sending warplanes to attack them and sworn vengeance; a development which could have far more disastrous consequences than Israel's recent headline-grabbing strike against a Hezbollah convoy in the country.
Fighters for the National Army of Cyrenaica, which
declared autonomy from Tripoli unilaterally this March

The uprisings we have sponsored or encouraged in North Africa are turning similarly sour, w
ith political killings in Tunisia, violent persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the desecration of British war graves amid escalating tribal warfare in Libya.

Even in Kosovo, where our decision to back the Kosovo Liberation Army against Slobodan Milošević marked the beginning of Britain's modern love affair with liberal interventionism, our efforts have borne rotten fruit: Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi — alias "The Snake" — has been exposed by the Council of Europe as the the kingpin of an international mafia network dealing in arms, drugs and human body parts.  Tales of the KLA murdering Serbs to sell their organs on the black market, which once seemed fantastic, have proved shockingly accurate.

However, our most extensive efforts have been in Afghanistan, where we have been trying to effect change for eleven long years. If the merits of liberal interventionism can be demonstrated anywhere, it should be there.

Some commentators have indeed expressed a cautious optimism.  The BBC's James Landale
, who has been accompanying prime ministers to operational theatres and hearing them briefed on "how well things are going" for years, hints that "there are straws in the wind that perhaps the mood is changing in Afghanistan."  Senior Afghan commanders tell him the bazaars are "buzzing".  The Taliban have been pushed into the desert.  The new authorities created by the West have "a sense of control".

Could Afghanistan be the success story the Free Syrian Army — and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — so desperately need? 

Well, VICE has just released a documentary examining at the results of our lengthy programme of nation-building in that country. A much-expanded version of the Panorama report Mission Accomplished? Secrets of Helmand, the documentary is presented by British journalist Ben Anderson, and titled This Is What Winning Looks Like:

(A video podcast of Mr Anderson discussing the documentary with Eddy Moretti is available here.)

So, what do we find?

The Afghan National Army is viewed almost as a foreign force of occupation by southern Pashtuns, being comprised largely of the followers of Northern Alliance warlords like the dreaded General Dostum, who massacred up to 3,000 prisoners in the early period of the war.

The Taliban controls villages within walking distance of the Americans' main base in Sangin, though it is described in an ISAF press release worthy oSaeed al-Sahhaf as "transforming into a safe haven".

Worst of all are the National Police: corrupt, drug-addled and predatory; commanded by men who keep young boys as sex slaves while criminals use heroin money to build expansive villas worthy of Mexico's Narco Lords.

Is this the best we will be able to expect from the rebel coalition's cannibal commanders, after paying a price in blood and treasure our depleted armed forces and groaning Exchequer can no longer bear?

Burke warns us that those who do not learn from history's mistakes are doomed to repeat them.  Mr Hague, a historian who has written engaging and insightful biographies of Pitt and Wilberforce, would be well-advised to take a hard look at our more recent past before committing us fully to a Syrian adventure.

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