Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Britain and the 'war on terror' throughout the ages

A review of the Oxford Literary Festival 2013

Dr Brydon - the only survivor of the 18,000 strong British retreat from Kabul in 1842

There is an unfortunate tendency in this country – including, perhaps especially, on the ‘left’ – to think of the ‘war on terror’ and its attendant horrors as a US crime. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes…all have become bywords for US atrocities; virtually household names. But how many are aware that the modern system of secret prisons, the interrogation techniques used in the prison abuse scandals, and the use of aerial bombing to suppress resistance, were all pioneered by the British, and still used by British governments today? Likewise, US-sponsored coups in Guatemala and Chile are notorious, as is the Vietnam war – but British crimes, in Malaysia, Kenya, Korea and elsewhere remain largely hidden from public discourse (despite valiant attempts by such historians as John Newsinger and Mark Curtis).
                So it is good to see a number of authors at the festival tackling the specifically British role in the perpetration of bloody injustice across the centuries.
                The path that led journalist Ian Cobain to write “Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture” began with his reporting on   a number of ‘terrorism trials’ over the past decade. He noticed that identical accounts about the presence of MI5 officials in between bouts of torture in Pakistani jails began to emerge time and again from the defendants in these trials. Each time, after a bout of torture, two British men would enter the room and introduce themselves. They would question the suspect for ten minutes or so, during which time no physical mistreatment would take place. They would begin by asking the same set of questions as the Pakistani interrogators had done during the torture, but would then move on to a set of new questions, before leaving the room. The torment would then begin again, with these new questions forming the basis of the next session of interrogation and torture. After travelling to Pakistan to meet the lawyer of one of the accused – who confirmed that torture is standard for terror suspects in the country, as is the presence of MI5 officials in the case of British citizens – he began to suspect there might be an official British torture policy. Eventually, he discovered that there was – the “Agency policy on liaison with foreign intelligence service in relation to suspects who may be subject to mistreatment”, created by the Labour government in 2002 to allow British agents to interrogate prisoners undergoing torture. The discovery of this document then led him to look further back, discovering that Britain had run a string of secret prisons during World War Two in locations such as Berlin, Hanover, Cairo and Casablanca, as well as an interrogation centre in Kensington Gardens where not only defendants, but also witnesses, at war crimes trials were regularly tortured. Intriguingly, the wartime organization set up to run these secret prisons – the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre – preceded the establishment of a US organization of the same name, and trained its staff. Not surprisingly, the techniques of torture were then honed during the brutal suppression of rebellions in the colonies. What became known as the ‘five techniques’ – hooding, sleep deprivation, starvation, stress and noise – the very techniques so familiar to us from recent images from Iraq – were crafted during Britain’s colonial wars in Kenya and Malaya in the 1950s – with the fifth technique being added in 1970 in Ireland. The legal case around the death of Baha Mousa in British custody in Iraq revealed that these techniques are still being used today.  

Victoria Brittain’s latest book “Shadow Lives” also deals with the British role in the war on terror, not so much its impact on British citizens abroad, as on foreign citizens in Britain - specifically, the families of people placed under ‘house arrest’. Initially, in the weeks following September 11th, the British government decreed that foreign citizens could be detained without charge indefinitely. This policy was ended by the House of Lords, and the government’s response was the introduction of “control orders”, a form of house arrest whereby the victim of such an order must stay in their house – indeed, often in only one specific portion of their house – for almost the whole day, with just a short window for leaving the house to travel only in the immediate surrounding area. Any visitors to their house must have gained prior approval from both the Foreign Office and the security services. As Brittain pointed out, when one member of a family is under ‘house arrest’, in effect “the whole family is put under house arrest”. Since these laws, however, only apply to foreign nationals, the British government ingeniously passed a law in 2003 to allow the government to strip British citizens of their citizenship. Theresa May has been particularly keen on using this law, and as the Independent exposed recently, has used it 16 times since coming to office. Two of those stripped of citizenship went on to be killed in drone strikes abroad, but as they were no longer ‘British citizens’, the government was able to wash their hands of any responsibility. Brittain discussed in particular the example of Mehdi Hashi, a young Somali-British man who grew up in Kentish Town, who was stripped of his British citizenship last June and has now very likely been subjected to ‘extraordinary rendition’ in Somalia.

The novelist William Sutcliffe, sharing the panel with Victoria Brittain, noted that this model of turning people into ‘non-citizens’ in order to strip them of their rights, is precisely the Israeli method of dealing with Palestinians. Palestinians are not citizens of any state, and therefore have access to neither the minimum wage, nor to civilian courts, subject only to Israeli military law, where they are not allowed to see the evidence against them, and the conviction rates are more than 99%. Sutcliffe’s novel ‘The Wall’ is set in a “mythical version” of the West Bank, where Joshua, a Jewish boy living next to the apartheid wall, who has grown up being told the other side is full of unimaginable horrors, one day finds a tunnel underneath, and ventures down it. Thus, Sutcliffe explains, the novel is an inversion of the classic ‘fantasy portal’ plot – rather than the portal (tornado, wardrobe) providing a way out of mundane reality and into a world of fantasy, the tunnel provides an escape from his fantasy life and into a world of brutal reality. Sutcliffe said he was drawn to the Wall as a setting for his story as it epitomized the “division between haves and have-nots [which] seems to be the story of our times”.

The other story of our times – and one similarly symbolized by the apartheid Wall – is the story of occupation, imperial hubris and the illusion of military security. As Michael Burleigh explains, in a discussion of his latest book “Small wars, far away places”, the “conceit” of the British is that “we think we know how to fight counter-insurgency wars”. The British love to contrast their supposed ‘success’ in Kenya and Malaya with French and US failures in Algeria and Vietnam, but, Burleigh reminds us, this was not so much down to technique as luck. Whereas the French were up against genuinely national mass movements in Vietnam and Algeria, the British were fighting movements rooted in a particular ethnic minority (the Kikuyu and the Chinese Malays) – and even then, it still took them twelve years to achieve victory in Malaya. The British delusion remains, however, that victory was actually due to success in ‘winning hearts and minds’, combined with superior intelligence and special services. The other delusion, of course, surrounds the reasons for the war. Burleigh notes that the Malayan war (1948-60) was a war to maintain the exploitation of Malayan tin and rubber, pure and simple. The dollar-earning capacity of these industries was necessary “to build the New Jerusalem, whilst retaining a ‘place at the top table’ in foreign affairs – and Attlee and Bevin shared that goal as much as any Tory imperialist”. Likewise, Burleigh notes, “one is struck by the air of self-congratulation that surrounds decolonization”. The reality is that decolonisation was forced on Britain, who then proceeded to make a mess of it, “screwing up” the partitions of India and Palestine, leaving “legacies that haunt us to this day”. These things matter, says Burleigh, because our failure to understand the reality of the disasters created by our past colonial wars, means we remain deluded that we have the ability to impose military solutions on “faraway places” today.

William Dalrymple’s latest offering “The Return of the King” – a new history of Britain’s doomed occupation of Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842 – suffers from no such delusions. Based on meticulous research - referencing no fewer than nine previously untranslated contemporary Afghan accounts of the war – Dalrymple offers a blow-by-blow account of the biggest British military disaster of the nineteenth century. He explains how, just as in 2002, the relative ease with which the ‘fall of Kabul’ was accomplished lulled the imperial troops into a fatal complacency. A fort was established in a completely indefensible valley, such was the “smugness” of the British occupiers. Things started to go wrong, however, when austerity started to bite. As Dalrymple explains, it is not the conquest of Afghanistan that is difficult – “The Greeks, the Turks, the Mughals, Nadir Shah, all conquered Afghanistan”, he reminds us. “What is impossible is paying for the occupation of Afghanistan.” Unlike Iraq, there are no oil wells to loot; and unlike India, there are not enough productive farmers to tax: the army of occupation cannot be paid for by the exploitation of native people and their resources. It drains money. The East India Company, in charge of the operation, was making a fortune selling India-grown opium to China, but its entire profit ended up being poured into the Afghan adventure. So, then as now, the British began training an Afghan army “to keep the puppet in place” – and then expropriated the local nobles to pay for it. In addition, they cut the subsidies being paid to local tribes in order to keep the passes open. The last straw was when the occupying army began “turning Kabul into a brothel”. If they are not stopped, wrote one Afghan chronicler, “the English will ride the donkey of desires into the field of stupidity”. Armed insurrection followed - and the rest is history. Within 24 hours, the British army’s supplies and ammunition stores had been captured. Under bombardment from the surrounding hills, the garrison ate “first the beagles, then the horses, and then the rats” - and then surrendered. Of the column of 18,000 who embarked on the long retreat out of the country, only 1 reached their final destination (Dr Brydon), the rest having either been shot, frozen, starved or kidnapped en route. Al Qaeda’s chilling warning to the latest generation of occupiers – that “this time, there will be no Dr Brydons” was universally understood by all the Afghans who heard it. Zawahari, the Al Qaeda leader who made the comment, well understands the link between occupation and the draining of resources, and drawing the West into expensive and unwinnable wars is the key tenet of his strategy for bringing down the infidels and their Empire. He is certainly familiar with the lessons of the 1842, as expressed so succinctly by Mirza Attah: “The English love gold and money, but what did Afghanistan bring them other than the exhausting of their Treasury and the disgracing of their army?”

Dalrymple finishes his talk on a salutary note: he reports that China has just bought up the mining rights to Afghanistan, and thus “by doing business without sending in a single soldier, I think the Chinese will succeed where Britain has failed four times over”. The question is - will the British learn the lesson?

An edited version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star

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