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The Iran Deal – Ultimately a Matter of Hit and Hope

Iran Talks

Events in Tunisia and Kuwait seem to have demoted one very important event from the headlines in the western media. Though you don’t see much coverage right now about the negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 negotiators – the US, Russia, Germany, France, China and the United Kingdom – very soon we will know the outcome. If a deal is struck, there will be much trumpeting on both sides of the game-changing implications.

Implications, yes, but not necessarily outcomes. Through no fault of Iran and its negotiating partners, constructing a deal that’s worth the paper it’s written on depends on much more than the clauses, sub-clauses, schedules and attachments that will be presented with much ceremony for signature.

I’m not privy to the issues they’re currently haggling about, but common sense suggests that if they’re following the classic strategy of focusing on mutual interests, the negotiators will have started by addressing the driving interests of all parties that lead ultimately to the small print – the needs rather than the wants. Not so simple when you bring future interests into the equation.

If you’re sitting on the P5+1 side of the table, first you will have calculated what are the interests of the current power elite. That is, if you can work out who holds the power – Khamenei and his religious establishment or the Revolutionary Guard. Are their interests aligned? To what extent?

Then you will need to work out what those interests might be with or without a treaty. What happens if Iran continues to be economically isolated from most of the world’s economic power bases, and how the balance of interests might change if the financial taps start flowing again.

Once you’ve done that you will need to think about the variables that might change strategies and attitudes over the next decade. Khamenei will most likely not be around. Each of the negotiating parties with the possible exception of Russia and China is likely to have a new set of politicians in the driving seat.

Will the entity on Iran’s borders with the current state of Iraq be subservient, friendly or hostile? Will the Islamic State be defeated? If so, will its full-on aggression be replaced by a low-level Sunni insurgency? Who will be in control of Saudi Arabia? How will Egypt’s present instability pan out? Will the Taliban be in control of Afghanistan, on Iran’s eastern border?

If those questions aren’t enough to be getting on with, what of Israel? Will Netanyahu still be in power? If not, will he be replaced with another paranoid, hardline leader determined to hold the line on settlements and willing to press whatever buttons are needed to assure the country’s future as the region’s only nuclear power?

Further afield, what will a post-Grexit EU look like, its borders under increasing pressure from the have-nots on the other side of the Mediterranean and its integrity threatened by malcontents among its members? Will Russia continue to pursue its desire for influence and possible territory in Eastern Europe?

It is all these questions and more that will have a bearing on whether an Iranian deal will deliver what the negotiators intend and desire. And of course few of them are remotely predictable unless you’re prepared to construct and update a huge number of scenarios, which no doubt teams of game theory nerds at the foreign ministries of many of the players are doing all the time. One hopes.

Which goes to show that the detailed negotiations currently taking place about the mechanisms of the treaty are the tip of a very large iceberg of calculation. Many of those mechanisms will be designed to satisfy the needs – and probably the obsessions as well – of the political elites and the neighbouring stakeholders. But maintaining face and being able to sell the deal to interested parties is one thing. Making it work over the long term is quite another.

The parties clearly hope that the treaty itself will help to re-shape the dynamic of the region, and thus put the optimum scenarios into play. This was certainly the case initially with the arms limitation treaties between the US and the Soviet Union. Yet Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t foresee how rapidly things would change after the collapse of the USSR, and not to the benefit of either countries. Did the US maintain scenarios that predicted that outcome? Quite possibly. The Soviets almost certainly did not.

The reality is that while politics is indeed the art of the possible, it also conforms to an old golfing term: hit and hope.

So if Iran and the 5+1 do manage to concoct a deal, it will be, as the US State Department claims, an event of consequence. But let’s not kid ourselves that any deal will be guaranteed to deliver the intended results. For that you need goodwill as well as satisfied interests. Plus a large dose of luck.

And unfortunately there’s not much goodwill flowing around the Middle East at the present time. That said, would a successful deal make the world a safer place? There’s only one way to find out. For sure there will be millions of Iranians – a hospitable, charming, inventive and smart people – who will be on the streets cheering. Whether they will still be cheering in ten years time is an unanswerable question.

But for their sake, I hope the negotiators can work it out.

Snuff Movies, Death on the Beach and Slaughter in the Mosque: Humanity is Better than That

Tunisia attack

A few days ago I watched the ISIS video that showed the execution of three groups of people – one by incineration in a car, the second by drowning, and the third by simultaneous decapitation. To admit to watching such material feels like confessing that you have a pornography habit. Which corrodes the soul more? It depends on the watcher, I suppose.

What shocked me was not the screaming of the people trapped in the car as the executioner fires an RPG at it, or the sight of one of the drowned men exhaling foamy water from his lungs as he is lifted out of the swimming pool in a padlocked cage, or the moment when the explosive cable rips the heads off the line of kneeling men in their orange jumpsuits.

What shocked me was how unshocked I was. I am not a snuff movie addict. But images of dead and wounded people from places of conflict are so easily available both on the internet and even in the mainstream media that I, and I suspect many others, have become desensitised. These days what was previously only visible to those who fought on battlefields or experienced acts of violence against civilians is available to anyone with an internet broadband connection.

Even if we don’t browse the web, we only have to look at the front page of a newspaper to find pictures of a shattered man in a bloodstained thobe on the pavement outside the mosque that was bombed in Kuwait. Or the image of a woman in a bikini on a Tunisian beach with two clearly visible bullet holes in her arm.

I come from a culture in which death, like sex, used to be the great taboo. If our parents (other than those who fought in wars) witnessed the moment of death or the days and hours preceding it, the context would be the passing of a loved one. After death, the body, for those who wished to view it, would be neatly laid out, and, thanks to the mortician’s craft, as close to a representation of the living person as it was possible to be rendered. Those who were disfigured, mutilated or dismembered at the moment of their death would not be on view.

That’s still the case today, except that anyone wanting to know what violent death looks like only needs a few mouse clicks for their imagination to be replaced with reality.

So I wasn’t shocked by the ISIS video. But I was struck by the demeanour of the condemned men. A number of them were featured making “confessions” of complicity with the Iraqi government apparatus. Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, they looked almost relaxed as they spoke – as if they were being interviewed for a job. Had they been assured that their cooperation would save their lives? Perhaps, but even at the point of death they seemed calm and resigned. Afraid, yes, but strangely under control. What was going through their minds? Had they given up the struggle and made their peace with God? That was the obvious explanation.

While the destruction of a human being, whether by violence or natural causes, is no longer a mystery for those who wish to witness it, the behaviour of the mind is a different matter altogether. It’s hard to imagine the onset of death unless you have gone to the edge and lived to tell the tale. Unless you have been on the battlefield – or are terminally ill – it’s hard to imagine how it feels to know that you have a good chance of dying in the following minutes, hours, days or months – just as those ISIS prisoners did.

Those who died in Kuwait and Tunisia will not have been able to come to terms with imminent death. Like most of us, they probably thought about their end far less than the vital processes of living – eating, drinking, hoping, struggling and making love.

Hundreds of years ago, in the age of plagues, primitive medicine and brutish lives, death was all around us. We consoled ourselves with belief in the afterlife, and in our notional relationship with God. Today, in that half of the world where religion is losing its grip on our lives, is the resurgence of death as a pervasive feature in our lives changing our attitude towards dying? Are the snuff videos, the awful images of suffering humans in boats on the Mediterranean, of bodies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya forcing us to re-examine the meaning of life? Turning us back to religion perhaps? Or channelling us into a myriad of spiritual outlets evident at Glastonbury and other summer festivals?

I can only speak for myself. As someone in my sixties I’m closer to the end of my natural span than most of the world’s population. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about death. Not obsessively – just the occasional reflection that mortality is closer than it was. That said, I’m not at the point where I might be tempted to hedge my bets by reaching out to the god I moved away from many decades ago. Nor do I look for some emotionally comforting alternative to the god of Moses.

But I still draw inspiration from the Christian values I grew up with. With more time for reflection than was once the case, I find myself feeling more compassionate, more easily moved by the plight of others. Also less judgemental of human failings, including my own.

At other times I’m swept away by tsunamis of rage at cruelty, stupidity and pig-headedness, especially on the part of individuals and institutions in certain parts of the world where life seems to be of less value than ideology. But when the rage passes I find myself reflecting that even the worst of men and women have some redeeming features, or at least some potential for redemption. If it were not so would we not go through our lives blind to our own faults because we can’t accept that we are beyond redemption?

And if human life is simply a matter of  biological computers with varying degrees of malfunction, whose programming – designed to sustain our species – unravels catastrophically when subjected to certain stresses, surely the hardware and software would have evolved more efficiently by now, such that we don’t produce suicide bombers, polluters, child abusers, torturers and people who devise methods of decapitating six people simultaneously?

With apologies to Mr Spock, I can only make sense of the mystery by concluding that there’s divinity out there, but not as we know it. Or at least not as I know it.

So even if Richard Dawkins would reduce us to atoms, molecules, bits and bytes, I  – whatever the mechanics of my existence – still rejoice in what others might see as evidence of divinity:  compassion and care, laughter and sadness, the endless cycle of the seasons, the joy of birdsong and the freshness of things in the early summer.

I’m moved when Barack Obama sings Amazing Grace at the funeral of the pastor gunned down by a racist shooter in South Carolina because of the embracing sense of communal humanity that shines out from the video; I wonder at acts of selflessness and love where none should logically exist. I marvel at the works of man and nature, even if I find it hard to attribute them to some all-seeing entity that sits apart and orchestrates from another plane.

And when I think about that ISIS video, about the worshippers in Kuwait, the decapitated man in France and the bodies on the Tunisian beach, I wish I could reach out to those who carried out such acts and convince them that they are better than that, that humanity is better than that, and that goodwill in this life should never be subordinated to rewards that might be granted in whatever hereafter awaits us.

Postcard from Portugal – Golf and the Greater Jihad


Sesimbra, Portugal

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in Portugal – yet another episode in my quest for golfing perfection that becomes ever more futile as age and decrepitude encroach. The time was when I sought the perfect round. These days I have to content myself with the perfect hole, or – failing that – the occasional perfect shot.

There are some people for whom golf is an amiable stroll through the countryside punctuated by the occasional swing at a golf ball. The trouble is, the more inept your swing, the more likely you are to find yourself where you don’t want to be. Depending on where you are in the world, you might also encounter hostile flora and fauna. In England, where I live, the worst you are likely to tangle with would be gorse, rabbit holes and impenetrable rhododendrons, plus the occasional adder lurking in the long grass. In other parts, cacti, scorpions, poisonous spiders and alligators await the unwary. And in these times of climatic volatility, you also risk falling into a sinkhole or disappearing down a cliff along with half of the undergrowth.

So sensible golfers leave their wayward balls where they lie, or better still, hit straight and, if necessary, often. That way they enjoy the view without disturbance to mind and body.

And therein lies an analogy which as yet I’ve failed to exploit. I could turn it over to my sister, who is a Church of England priest, for use as the centrepiece of a tasty sermon. Or broadcast it over the social media in preparation for our imminent incorporation into the Islamic State.

For, as aficionados know well, golf is a moral game – much more up IS’s street than that of the CofE, which seems to have gone rather soft on morals of late. No wishy-washy thinking among the jihadis of the Caliphate, where the threat of punishment and retribution is ever-present. Their scholars will tell you that in Islam, there are two kinds of jihad. The lesser one, surprisingly enough, is the external struggle: holy war. The greater jihad is the mental struggle to stay on the path. Hence the floggings, amputations and flights off buildings without parachutes for those who fall off the wagon of righteousness – just to keep the mind focused.

Golfers would recognise the concept of the greater jihad. We are constantly battling with ourselves. To clear our minds of unwanted distractions, some of us engage in bizarre rituals before taking a shot. These are usually prescribed by golfing equivalents of imams, otherwise known as coaches, golf professionals or psychologists. In the hands of amateurs, such rituals morph into compulsive tics. Facial twitching, hyperventilation or long periods of silent meditation over the ball, usually with the same disastrous result. And then there are the rules – hundreds of them, written by generations of golfing mullahs. More than enough to gladden a jihadi’s heart.

The golfer’s greater jihad is to avoid temptation and impulse. Temptation to give the ball we find nestling under a bush a little kick into a more playable position – thus risking being cast into the outer darkness for cheating. The impulse to wrap your club around the nearest tree – or your opponent’s neck. The desire to curse, screech, blaspheme or collapse on the fairway chewing the grass and foaming at the mouth.

All these things are regularly to be seen on a golf course near you, although homicide and lapses into long-term insanity are relatively rare. But in unfamiliar surroundings, the risks of personal implosion are greater.

Which brings us back to Portugal. Golf tours are a lucrative business for any country that offers a pleasant climate, doesn’t prohibit alcohol and has a reasonably advanced transportation system. A seaside location, decent restaurants and reasonably-priced hotels complete the proposition.

Sesimbra, where we stayed, ticks all the boxes. It’s a fishing port that dates back to Moorish times. Our hotel was on the sea front. It was a treat for people watchers – an endless parade of joggers, walkers, families old and young, lovers, bathers and jousting dogs. The promenade is clean and well-maintained. It’s seemingly safe, judging by the throng of people passing back and forth until late in the evening.

It was hard to imagine that you were in a country that had received a massive financial bail-out only four years ago. But then if you can’t afford to keep your prime tourist locations in good shape, no bail-out can save you.

I got chatting with a local wine producer about the economy. I asked him how Portugal had avoided the fate of Greece. With barely perceptible sniff, he told me that his compatriots had a “different work ethic than the Greeks”. When times were hard, he said, the Portuguese never hesitate from finding work abroad.A little unfair on the Greeks, perhaps, but he has a point. According to Portugal News Online, 30,000 Portuguese nationals came to Britain seeking work in 2013 – an increase of 47% over the previous year.

I asked him how his wine sales had held up. Pretty well, he said, except that the locals are not going for the premium wines as much as before the bailout, so they have had to adjust their production. Volumes, though, are the same as before the crisis. He also mentioned that because Portuguese wines are not so well-known in Europe (apart from the eponymous port), they have looked elsewhere for export markets. As a result they sell 30% of their wine to China. As you would expect from the homeland of the great navigator, Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese have always set their horizons beyond the shores of Europe.

As for the golf, our collective greater jihad was as usual sorely tested by an infernal twist introduced many years ago by my old mate Shôn, who organises the annual jaunt. Primarily as a means of raising funds for the evening festivities, we have to endure a penalty system known as “animals”. Just about every mishap on the golf course incurs a one euro penalty. Hit a tree, and that’s a squirrel. Land in the bunker – a camel. Slap your ball into a lake – a frog. There are wallabies, snakes, lambs, and so on ad nauseam.

To make matters worse, there are penalties for cursing, as well as for displays of uncontrollable rage, such as chucking your club into the nearest forest, or beating the mobile phone in your golf bag into a pulp. Each group of players has its own Stasi-style informant, whose job is to note down infractions. The experienced sneaks have the ability not only to spot the infractions but to provoke fury in the process, thus doubling the penalty.

At the end of the round the person who committed the last instance of each offence picks up the accumulated penalties in that category. One year I ended up with 83 euros-worth of animal fines in a single day. So failure to perform the greater jihad has dire financial consequences. Not surprising that one or two of our number are reduced to gibbering wrecks over the last few holes as the prospect of impoverishment gets closer. The artistry of the perfect swing gives way to crab-like animal avoidance.

After four days of relentless struggle against deviation and sin we hauled ourselves back to England courtesy of Easyjet, an airline that has turned waiting into an art form. 30 minutes to drop bags, a 30-minute departure delay, two hours in a packed terminal whose only food outlet was a MacDonald’s, 30 minutes in a seat-free cattle pen waiting to board, followed by a 30-minute wait to show our passports to a computer at Gatwick Airport. So much for the time-saving capabilities of online check-in and electronic passport readers.

But hey, the days were warm, the nights were balmy, the seafood a delight, the locals were friendly. We enjoyed our usual mixture of cacophonous mirth, crocodile tears and a strong dash of the obsessive-compulsive. Golf tours beat working any day.

Were we better prepared for the coming of the Caliphate after four days of internal struggle? I think not. Perhaps we shall have to wait for the black flag to fly over Wentworth and St Andrews before we finally start behaving ourselves.

UK: From Dewsbury to Raqqa – Coming to Terms with Radicalisation



Dewsbury. Photo: Wikipedia

Last night I listened to rather a confused debate on Newsnight, the BBC current affairs programme.

In amongst the incoherent arguments put forward by the three guests, a single idea came over loud and clear. The speaker who articulated it suggested that if the UK wished to stem the tide of young people going to Syria to live in the lands controlled by ISIS, it should change its foreign policy. He claimed that foreign policy – presumably the UK’s interventionist actions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan – was the number one reason why British Muslims are flooding to Syria.

Technically, he may or may not be right, but in terms of the big picture, I think he’s dead wrong.

ISIS will use any argument to persuade people to accept its ideology. If convincing people that the UK is controlled by godless aliens from the Planet Zog produced an abundant supply of new recruits to its cause, it would use that argument.

As I contended some time ago in ISIS – Religion, Politics and the Yearning for Identity, the Islamic State is a political organisation. It is using religion, sectarianism, idealism, sexual temptation, the lure of adventure and just about any other tool it can think of to consolidate its caliphate, which, contrary to its claims, is a political entity. So it makes no sense using the “Islam is a religion of peace” argument to counter its interpretation of Holy Quran and the Hadith. You might just as well argue about the length of a piece of string.

It also makes little sense engaging with the Muslim “communities” for the specific purpose of stopping people from going to Syria. The United Kingdom is a secular nation. Although Church of England occupies a privileged position in our constitution, purely in legal terms religious groups exert no influence on the governance of the country except through the ballot box.

Imagine a situation where a fundamental Christian movement took power in Syria and Iraq instead of ISIS, and started persuading young Brits to join them in their crusade to create a Kingdom of God. Not so hard to imagine, if we remember that it was a Christian leader – Pope Urban II – who kicked off the First Crusade, and inspired thousands to go to the Holy Land, where they committed unspeakable atrocities against the indigenous Muslim population.

But that was then, and this is now. Would the British government engage with the Catholic Church, the Church of England – or the Jehovah’s Witnesses for that matter – to prevent our citizens from leaving to fight in the crusade?

In most nominally Christian countries it would be seen as a civil matter. There would be no “reaching out” to the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other prominent Christian leader, because someone motivated enough to wage holy war would be highly unlikely to listen to bishops and popes in any event.

The very fact that a young white Muslim convert goes off to join Al-Shabab and gets himself killed in Kenya, while a 17-year old ethnic Bangladeshi from Dewsbury does the same thing in Iraq, and three sisters of Pathan origin disappear with their children, seemingly towards Syria, illustrates the blindingly obvious. Which is that those who disappear into the ranks of ISIS or Al-Nusra don’t pay the slightest attention to their parents, husbands, wives, imams or any other members of their “communities” except those who encourage them in their new-found convictions. And those who encourage them do so in ways difficult to detect without the security forces bugging every house, mosque, room and individual in the country. And we all know that that will never happen….don’t we?

So what’s to do? From my limited perspective, here are a few suggestions:

We should understand that British Muslims are as diverse in their beliefs, aspirations and behaviour as Christians, adherents of other religions and those who have no religious belief. So we should stop thinking of them as “Muslims”, as though they were a single homogeneous entity. They are not.

We should refrain from clumsy attempts to win hearts and minds by “reaching out to communities”. Promoting inter-faith tolerance and understanding is fine if the motivation is to create a more coherent society. Even better if those doing the reaching out have more than a superficial knowledge of those to whom they are trying to connect. But as long as such activities take place as part of an underlying agenda to prevent radicalisation, they will be met with suspicion and limited cooperation.

We should form a more rounded view of what is happening within ethnic and religion-based communities. If a study was carried out of Muslims between the age of thirteen and thirty, I suspect that for every “radicalised” person there would be at least as many who reject the values of their parents and their communities in other ways – by marrying the partner of their choice, by embracing lifestyles prohibited under Islam or by creating lives for themselves away from the areas where they were born and grew up. Jihad is not the only road out of Dewsbury and Bradford.

We should recognise that we are in a generation game. Every generation in one way or another moves away from the previous one. Will jihadis beget jihadis? Probably not, unless they happen to be born within a domain similar to that of ISIS. The offspring of the current crop of radicalised young people will most likely see the world in a different way from their fathers and mothers. We need to wait for that to happen of its own accord.

We should recognise that social engineering is futile unless carried out in a totalitarian state. Attempts to force values on groups of people by dictating behaviour and attitudes tend to result in conflict, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. There is no place for thought crime in a democratic society.

We should not attempt to stop people going to Syria. The issue is not where they go, but for what reason. It’s whether or not they have been radicalised. If they have been radicalised, we should focus on the level of threat their beliefs pose to the society in which they are living. Is it more in the national interest that radicalised people go to Syria if they wish to or are forced to remain here in the UK? That’s a debate worth having.

We should focus on finding out who has gone to Syria (or Iraq, Somalia or wherever), with whom they are aligned and what they are doing. If we know this, then we have the opportunity to assess whether or not those who return pose a threat to law and order. We should not make it impossible for them to come home without facing prosecution – not everyone who goes there ends up decapitating people, and of those who have taken up arms there will be some who deeply regret having done so. Each situation should be judged on its own merit. If that means doubling the size of the security services to gain the necessary intelligence, and tightening up border control procedures, then so be it.

We should stop focusing on the symbols of faith. If we ban burqas, why not stop Sikhs from wearing turbans? Why not stop people from wearing long beards and shaven upper lips? Why not stop Christian clergy from wearing dog collars? The only grounds for insisting on specific modes of dress and appearance should be when those modes interfere with civil process and the rule of law.

We should accept that we are going through a period when successful acts of terrorism involving injury and loss of life are inevitable. We should stop carrying out witch hunts against the police and security services when they happen. If incidents occur because of incompetence, that’s one thing, but no security service in the world can stop the “one in a hundred” from getting through.

We should treat plots and conspiracies as potential or actual breaches of the law, not as battles in a “war against terror”. If individuals become radicalised, it is the responsibility of society as a whole to prevent them from committing crimes in the country. Yes, there is a role for families and ethnic or religious communities, but we should no more be pointing fingers at them than we should be blaming other communities if one of their number ends up robbing banks, raping or murdering. If our actions discourage Muslims from feeling that they are part of British society – rather than cases for special treatment – we will encourage them to become ever more insular in their attitudes and behaviour.

We should not apologise for our values. By “we” I mean any ethnic, religious, cultural or geographic stratum of society. It would be nice if everyone shared the same core values. But it has never been the case in Britain, nor is it likely to be in the future. Values emerge from the bottom up, not top down. They change with time. So any attempt to articulate – let alone impose – values will end in failure, because the target is moving.

I’m not suggesting that the solution to jihadi radicalisation is accept multiculturalism any more than to reject it and seek to promulgate common “British values”. We are what we are.

What I am saying is that there are no quick fixes. That we need to re-examine our attitude towards terrorism, and start seeing it a crime like any other prohibited activity. That we should come to terms with the idea that our society has become a melting pot in which the ingredients are taking time to congeal. That if we accept diversity instead of marginalising it, any malignant consequences of that diversity will slowly but surely dilute, as will the diversity itself. And that when present diversity in our society fades, it’s likely to be superseded by more diversity.

Finally, we are not an island any more, and barring a natural or man-made catastrophe we never will be again. We are living in dangerous times, and we can’t afford to have little islands in our midst. Seductive as it may be, an island mentality reflects the past, not the future.

Book Review: Christina Lamb’s Farewell Kabul


When I was last in Saudi Arabia, I encountered a guy from Pakistan in his early thirties. Good-looking and well-educated, he communicated with consummate ease. He had the bearing of someone who comes from the Pakistani elite, of which the late Benazir Bhutto and her family were also members. It turned out that he does. The clue was in his name, which I shan’t disclose for reasons of confidentiality.

Thinking that, like Benazir, he must have been educated at Oxford, the London School of Economics or some similar high-status western university, I was surprised to learn that he’d never studied outside Pakistan. Instead, he holds a master’s degree from one of the top business schools in his home country.

A clear example of my western filter – a perception garnered from several decades of following global politics that Pakistan, a state teetering on the edge of failure, couldn’t possibly still have institutions capable of turning out people of the calibre of this perceptive, intelligent and widely-read individual.

My friend was the first to admit that Pakistan is not in a great state these days. Perhaps that was why he was in Saudi Arabia rather than back home trying to help repair his fractured country.

He had one talent that could never have been burnished at Oxford or Harvard. He had the ability to think of a story – not a case study – to illustrate a point. In that respect he reminded me of Tariq Ali, another upper-crust Pakistani. Like my new friend, Tariq Ali has lived most of his adult life outside his country of origin. For me, notwithstanding his huge output of political commentary since he was a leftist firebrand in the Britain of my youth, Ali is the author of the Islam Quintet, five exquisite historical novels set in Muslim lands. A reminder that there’s another tradition in Pakistan, a love of devotional music and poetry – typified by the Sufi qawwali and the Urdu ghazal – that tends to be forgotten when we think of the country today.

When the world outside the subcontinent thinks of modern Pakistan it is often of a nation with hundred nuclear warheads at its disposal. Where howling mobs lynch people accused of apostasy from Islam, and stone adulterers in remote villages where the government’s writ does not extend . A country in which terrorists think nothing of gunning down 134 pupils at an army school. Whose army intelligence service, the ISI, is a state within a state, as pervasive as the Stasi were in East Germany, and just as ruthless. Whose politicians are corrupt and duplicitous. Where 20,000 madrassas are busy turning out the Taliban of the future, nourished by funding and extremist ideology exported from the Middle East. Whose government has allowed its intelligence service to train and aid the Afghan Taliban while it simultaneously receives billions of dollars a year in military and other aid from the West, most notably the US. Whose economy and foreign policy has since its establishment in 1948 been dictated by a visceral hatred of India, its southern neighbour. And whose unfortunate population is often cursed by earthquakes, flooding and poverty.

Few journalists have provided a more coherent portrayed of this Pakistan than Christina Lamb, whose recently-published book, Farewell Kabul – From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, is a very personal account of the western intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11. Her notional end point is the departure in December 2014 of most of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) contingents, including the those of the US and Britain. Between 2001 and then, she spent much of her professional life in Afghanistan covering the conflict and its byzantine military, social and political dimensions.

Though the book is nominally about Afghanistan, it’s as much about Pakistan, because it’s almost impossible write about the former without reference to the role played by the latter.

To be a successful war correspondent you need the bravery of a soldier and the curiosity of a detective. Christina Lamb has both qualities in abundance. Apart from risking her life on a regular basis in Kabul, Herat, and the Pakistani border cities of Peshawar and Quetta, she survived a vicious fire-fight while with a company of British soldiers in Helmand under attack by the Taliban.

As a personal friend of Hamid Karzai, she watched him develop from an urbane Pashtun tribal luminary into an embattled and seemingly paranoid president, raging against the innocent casualties inflicted by indiscriminate American air strikes while being sucked into tribal politics, condoning endemic corruption and ceding much of his authority to regional warlords.

She describes the naivety of the British commanders and politicians who deceived themselves into thinking that their counter-insurgency experience in Northern Ireland would stand them in good stead in Helmand. Men and women with good intentions whose scant knowledge of the culture and politics contributed to a hopeless and bloody deployment with few results beyond the destruction of lives, the alienation of the local population and the quadrupling of the opium poppy harvest.

The Americans fared little better. Just as in Vietnam, they were drawn into the conflict, and proved as incapable as the British of coming up with a winning strategy against the Taliban. Attempts to gain hearts and minds were trumped by ham-fisted military tactics. Failure to understand the dynamics on the ground allowed factions to dupe the Americans into wiping out rivals who had been falsely identified as Taliban. Billions of dollars handed out for development ended up in the offshore bank accounts of the warlords.

The chain of command within the multinational ISAF was frequently fudged, and to make matters worse, a separate force tasked with hunting Al-Qaeda roamed around the country, unaccountable to the ISAF commanders.

And as the conflict raged through the country, Kabul stood alone and isolated, a fortress frequently penetrated suicide attackers from the Taliban and the Haqqani network, another group allegedly supported from Pakistan. The city was flooded with aid workers and foreign consultants, most of whom rarely ventured beyond its fortified perimeter. And in his heavily guarded palace was Karzai, an increasingly lonely and bitter figure. The Mayor of Kabul, as Lamb called him.

Karzai’s most consistent theme was the duplicity of Pakistan. Throughout the years of conflict, the Taliban would come and go across the border with ease, encouraged, aided and abetted by the ISI. The intelligence service created the Taliban in the 90’s with the purpose of ending the fighting between rival mujaheddin warlords and installing an Islamist government that posed no threat to Pakistan. After the defeat of the Taliban in 2002 and throughout the subsequent insurgency, elements of the ISI continued to regard them as “our boys”.All the while Pakistan’s political and military leaders would deflect Afghan and American protests by claiming that these were the actions of “rogue elements” and “retired officers”. ISAF’s reliance on supply routes through the country, and concern that abandoning Pakistan as an ally might lead to her nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, ensured that the US continued to bankroll the military despite the duplicitous activities of the ISI. And according to Lamb, Pakistan’s generals did very nicely out of the kick-backs they received as the result of controlling the supply infrastructure.

As the conflict ground on, both India and Pakistan had their 9/11 moments. In India the attack on Mumbai carried out by an Islamist group in Pakistan and allegedly orchestrated by the ISI took them close to war with their neighbours. In Pakistan a home-grown Taliban insurgency threatened both the military and political establishments. Thus Pakistan was able to say to the Americans that they too had suffered huge civilian and military casualties in their war against terror. Yet while this was going on the “rogue elements and retired officers” continued their campaign against the foreign forces across the border.

To this day Pakistan remains an ally of the United States, dependent on American dollars yet harbouring a deep reservoir of hatred for the world’s faltering policeman.

Great journalists are more than reporters of great events. Men and women like William Russell during the Crimean War, Vasily Grossman, who reported on the Red Army campaigns in the Second World War, John Simpson in Iraq and Marie Colvin in Syria have all been infused with a sense of morality that is inseparable from, and informs, their work. Christine Lamb is no different. Her love for the two tortured countries she describes in Farewell Kabul shines out from the narrative. She writes as a human being, not as a reporter so numbed by the bad things she has witnessed that she is no longer capable of being shocked. The book is her story as much as it is a tale of cynicism, brutality, deceit, incompetence and greed.

She’s written a sad tale that is far from its conclusion. As she points out, the influence of Afghan conflicts continues in Iraq and Syria, where the spiritual heirs of Osama bin Laden are achieving success beyond his wildest dreams with tactics that even he would not countenance.

She finishes the book on a deeply emotional note as she prepared to leave Kabul:

“At the entrance to the plane I stopped, and unbidden tears ran down my cheeks. ‘you are scared of the Afghan plane?’ asked the young Afghan woman at my side who I’d shared biscuits with in the terminal, and who was headed back to Turkey with her sister. ‘No,’ I shook my head.

‘Are you scared of Ebola?’ She asked.

‘No!’ I replied, smiling through my tears. ‘I am just sad.’

She looked confused, and I shook my head. It would take a whole book to explain. Sad because I really believed that things didn’t have to be like this. Sad for all the hopes there once were, and for the lessons we did not learn from our ancestors and others who had tried to tame these lands before. Sad for all those lives lost or damaged. For the soldier Luke McCulloch, for Wais ‘the Fonz of Kabul’, for Nadia the poet, for Benazir, for all the tens of thousands of people killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11, and the hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Syria.

Sad that I didn’t know how to help the women we left behind. Sad that thousands of schools were still being blown up in Pakistan, which despite everything had not stopped allowing the snakes in its garden. Sad that no Western leader took on Saudi Arabia, which had funded many of these jihadi movements, exported the Wahhabi ideology through madrassas, and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11. Sad that the poppy fields of Afghanistan had become an unstoppable tide, poisoning the world’s streets in even greater numbers. Sad that $1 trillion had been spent in Afghanistan, yet its children still went to school in tents. Sad that because of what had happened we wouldn’t intervene again even when hundreds of thousands were killed. Sad that those sixty words drawn up in the White House in haste after 9/11 had indeed, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee feared, led to open-ended war. Most of all sad because I wasn’t sure we had learned anything.”

Farewell Kabul is an important work because the agony of Afghanistan and Pakistan still goes on. To understand the chapters to come it helps to know the story so far. And a thousand miles to the west, another violent progeny of 9/11 is raging. The politics of the Middle East are no less tortuous, and no less devastating. They are closely linked to the Afghan conflict. I hope for Christina Lamb’s sake that she is not tempted to immerse herself in Syria and Iraq as she did in Afghanistan. I reckon she deserves a rest.

Pity the obese – the fatter they are, the harder they fall

Chuck Blazer

Ever since the FBI’s nuclear strike against Fifa, I’ve been eagerly devouring the coverage of the unfolding story of Sepp Blatter and his cronies as they try and fail to hold the line against the rising tide of disgust at the organisation’s institutional corruption.

As I was reading an article in this week’s Sunday Times by Tony Allen-Mills about Jack Warner, the Trinidadian Fifa executive at the heart of the allegations, one passage sent me in a completely different direction:

“For much of the past two decades, Warner has been shimmying his way largely unscathed through endless corruption allegations, media exposes and Fifa scandals.

Aided for years by Blazer, his obese but cannily creative American partner, he turned a once-moribund Fifa federation…… into a money machine.”

Obese but cannily creative. Are we to take that phrase to mean that Chuck Blazer was cannily creative despite his obesity? And that the natural default of the obese is not to be cannily creative?

When I was a kid, I delighted in stories about Billy Bunter, the Owl of the Remove. He was a monstrously fat 14-year old who stopped at nothing to get hold of the things that made him fat.

His entry in Wikipedia sums him up:

“Bunter’s defining characteristic is his greediness and dramatically overweight appearance. His character is, in many respects, a highly obnoxious anti-hero. As well as his gluttony, he is also obtuse, lazy, racist, inquisitive, deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited. These defects, however, are not recognized by Bunter. In his own mind, he is an exemplary character: handsome, talented and aristocratic; and dismisses most of those around him as “beasts”. Even so, the negative sides of Bunter are offset by several genuine redeeming features; such as his tendency, from time to time, to display courage in aid of others; his ability to be generous, on the rare occasions when he has food or cash; and above all his very real love and concern for his mother. All these, combined with Bunter’s cheery optimism, his comically transparent untruthfulness and inept attempts to conceal his antics from his schoolmasters and schoolfellows, combine to make a character that succeeds in being highly entertaining but which rarely attracts the reader’s lasting sympathy.”

A pretty good archetype for society’s prejudice against fat people, even if he is characterised within the unique environment of the English boarding school. You will see similar traits in books, TV shows and movies that portray fat people as stupid, sly and even evil. At best, weak-willed – unable to resist the jam doughnut, the second helping of cake and the super-size burger. Figures of fun, even when, like Hitler’s sidekick Hermann Goering, they epitomised the dark side of human nature.

These days political correctness prevents us from being rude about fatties, except presumably when the fatty has confessed to corruption on a massive scale. That doesn’t stop journalists from making subtle references to their subject’s corpulence, as though the very obvious physical evidence of the person’s “weakness” was more reprehensible than that of someone whose insides are rotted by alcoholism, smoking or drug abuse.

So poor Charles Kennedy, the recently-deceased former leader of the Liberal Democrats, attracts our sympathy because he was an alcoholic, whereas wicked Chuck Blazer only has himself to blame for the fact that he’s apparently dying from colon cancer at the age of 70. Must be all the eating, right?

Of course stupidity has nothing to do with the size of your girth. Nobody ever accused Henry VIII, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Marlon Brando of lacking brain cells. Or creativity for that matter. But, as Rob Broomby argued in a recent article on the BBC website, there’s an ethical dilemma facing us when we argue in favour of accepting obesity as “normal”. Because although it’s for the individual to choose what they look like, obesity can kill.

So can anorexia, yet we don’t seem to pour scorn over people who starve themselves to death as we do with the monstrously fat

Whatever the public health concerns, society’s disapproval is rarely based on the damage fat people are doing to themselves.

Over the ages people have looked down on the obese on moral grounds. Gluttony, after all, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins that were dreamed up by the early Christian Church to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Even before Christianity, excessive eating was frowned upon by ancient Greek and Roman society. Hence Vitellius, one of the three Roman emperors that followed Nero in AD69, who was best known for his herculean eating habits, earned the contempt of Suetonius, the author of the Twelve Caesars.

The idea that overeating is sinful remains with us to this day, as Salman Rushdie, in his early career as an advertising copywriter, realised when he coined the phrase “naughty but nice”.

Not for nothing is guilt the universal instrument of control and manipulation.

I sometimes find myself at the receiving end of society’s implicit disapproval of fatties. Like the majority of middle aged men who have the means and the time for self-indulgence, I’m a few pounds heavier than I should be. I frequently find myself being complimented by people I may not have seen for a while with the words “you’ve lost weight haven’t you?”

This is actually a ritual. The person is usually looking to say something nice, even if they don’t mean a word of it. The obvious opportunity is to focus on one’s appearance. I’ve done it myself, so I know.

I also freely confess to an innate prejudice against the fat – in other words those fatter than me. I look at people waddling down the street and feel righteously horrified at how deeply unattractive they are. If, in the days when I employed people, someone as wide as they were tall turned up for a job interview, they would have a very hard time convincing me that their obesity wouldn’t affect their attendance and their energy levels. Last year I went on a Baltic cruise and was so stunned at the number of seriously fat people who were on the ship that I wrote about it in All Aboard the Good Ship Fatso.

These days the lessening grip of religious belief has resulted in there being fewer people who consider that eating too much will send you to hell. Instead we tend to blame obesity, along with just about every other human failing, on psychological root causes.

Thus there’s the assumption that if you’re fat you must have some underlying problem. “Does he eat because he’s unhappy?” That was the consistent refrain from my mother. “No”, my wife would reply, “he’s just a greedy sod!” Or, as I would prefer to explain, I just love my food. Not because someone abused me as a kid, or because I was labouring under the shadow of an elder brother or famous father, or because I was abducted by aliens as a teenager. I just love my food – too much for my own good.

So is it wrong to make snide remarks about the horizontally challenged? Does “fattism” belong in the same class as ageism, racism or sexism? Wrong question perhaps. There are enough laws against prejudice. They can moderate behaviour and expression, but not what lies in people’s hearts.

The real issue surely is human kindness. We don’t publicly mock people with long noses, knobbly knees or tiny chins. Nor should we mock fat people. And generally we don’t, at least to their faces. And when our prejudice accidentally slips out, the result can be mortifying. My wife and I still remember the occasion when she took our four-year-old daughter to the supermarket. The little one pointed at a large woman nearby, and said, in a very loud voice, “Mum, why is that woman so fat?” Maternal toes curled in embarrassment.

Sadly, the possibility that people might be fat for any number of reasons, just as the causes of suicide, violent behaviour, obsessions and compulsions are many and varied, doesn’t stop us from inwardly frowning at the sight of a grotesquely obese person waddling by. We can and usually do control the words that come out of our mouths. But it’s more difficult to regulate what lies in our hearts.

So should we lay off Chuck Blazer and his voluminous girth because he clearly has enough on his plate? Does the capricious cruelty of Kim Jong Un, the tubby tyrant of North Korea, give us licence to mock him for his treble chin? It seems that the bad guys are fair game, even if innocent people in supermarkets aren’t.

If we happen to be fat ourselves, do we use “proud to be fat” as a coping mechanism that masks deep unhappiness, or are we genuinely OK with not being able to see anything below our bellies when we get on the scales? Do we point out that in some parts of the world to be fat means you’re wealthy, and therefore worthy of respect? And that three centuries ago artists like Rubens portrayed fat women as the idealised essence of femininity?

Are we right to blame society’s disapproval of obesity on the wave of anorexia afflicting our kids? Is the fashion industry creating a generation of body fascists by insisting on using size zero models? Or did body fascism drive the fashion industry?

You would think that we had more important things to worry about, and you could argue that our obsession with fat suggests a self-obsessed, narcissistic society. The diet industry is worth billions. The celebrity industry, packed with physical perfection – whether real or the result of the airbrush – billions more.

Despite the supplements, weird eating regimes and the influence of god-like role models in Hello Magazine, western societies are getting fatter and less fit by the decade. Mother Nature, it seems, has her own way of limiting the world’s population. Whereas once she would send us the Black Death, these days she rewards us for our physical prosperity by clogging our arteries.

Personally, I couldn’t give a damn about the moral dimension. If I’m on my way to hell it will be for far more serious transgressions than a love of cream cakes.

As for the health issue, there are as many expert opinions on the effects of obesity as there are religions in the world. So who and what do you believe? Best to let your body tell you when you’re pushing things, and take whatever action seems sensible rather than be dictated to by some quack in California.

And if you think you will help yourself by lying on some therapist’s couch and delving into your darkest closets, fine. Just be careful that you don’t open some new can of delicious, sugar-coated worms in the process.

I’m guided by one principle, that it’s not the length of your life that counts. It’s the quality – and more specifically the use that you make of your time. And that, it seems to me, has little to do with the size of your belly.

For that reason I will not mock Chuck Blazer, as he trundles around on his mobility scooter and looks wistfully at those photos showing him with the great and the good, who these days will be avoiding him like the plague. When you’re surrounded by kleptocrats, surely the greatest hazard is that you lose your sense of right and wrong.

And that’s a moral dimension far more harmful than gluttony, which is why he deserves a little sympathy in his present plight.

Smart Phones: The Helper Turned Tyrant

St Pancras Sculpture

Detail from Paul Day’s Meeting Place sculpture at St Pancras Station, London

The other morning, I set out from home on my way to the golf course. After about a mile I made a discovery that would have caused 90% of the adult population of the UK turn back. I’d forgotten to bring my mobile phone.

I considered going back home for about five seconds, and then continued on my way. If the world can’t do without my being available for five hours, then to hell with the world, I thought.

Later that day we had our two daughters home to celebrate a birthday. One of them was unable to spend more than five minutes in conversation without anxiously glancing at her phone. She spent a good 50% of her visit browsing, texting and making calls.

Barely a day goes by without someone – usually a psychologist or some other type of health “expert” whose opinions hold sway for about ten minutes before they’re discredited by the latest thinking – droning on about the dangers of smart phones. How people are expected to be on-line and available 24/7/365. How work-life balance for billions of people has shifted in favour of work.

Once upon a time the worry was that mobile phones gave you brain tumours. These days, it seems, they make your head explode. They turn you into obsessive checkers of status. They destroy your ability to concentrate on one thing at a time. The little electronic node becomes the centre of your life, not the people around you, not the air you breathe, not the ground you stand on.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. For a lover to text you. For deal to be done. For a plane to land or a taxi to show up. For good news, for bad news. For any bloody news.

Is this good or bad? Neither. It just is.

I’m lucky. I do a job in which I get to ask people to switch off their phones, or at least to leave them silent. If I see them browsing or texting I can embarrass them by asking them a question, or transfix them with the death stare.

For hours every day I’m unavailable to anyone but the people I’m working with. I don’t carry my phone from room to room. Horror of horrors, I don’t use it for email. Nothing, but nothing, can’t wait a few hours for my attention. And if something’s really urgent, what’s wrong with a text?

Am I a dinosaur? Well, I might look like one of those pot-bellied sauropods these days, but I do know how to use a smart phone. I just don’t choose to very much, because I prefer to be the master of my own time rather than the slave of everybody else’s.

Perhaps that sounds sanctimonious. But I don’t feel superior to phone addicts because I have my own addictions to deal with. I do however feel sorry for people who can’t live without their electronic heartbeat, just as I feel sorry for alcoholics and cokeheads whose atrophied livers and arteries are slowly leading them to an early grave.

The sad thing is that while there’s plenty of help available for people who drink too much or shove industrial quantities of white powder up their noses, phone addiction isn’t even recognised as a problem in most circles. On the contrary, it’s seen as a badge of honour. A person married to their work. Drunk on success. Wired, connected, all-seeing. A person of (electronic) action.

But if I were such a person I would worry that should the reason for all that manic activity disappear, a great hole would take its place from which I might never emerge. Silence and inertia instead of all the sound and fury signifying nothing. The same kind of silence that afflicts all those members of the British parliament ejected by the voters last month. The silence of loss and loneliness rather than contemplation.

It’s said that when you die, the last thing to fade away is your hearing. Since the coming of the smart phone you could argue that your last trace of life ends when the battery runs out.

Just something to think about when you sit with your family lost in your smart world, or you curl up in bed with your electronic best friend. You may not see it this way, but in my little bubble, nothing is more important than the world you see, feel, hear, taste and touch. There is no other reality, even if Apple, Samsung and Facebook would like to convince you otherwise.


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