BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for June 2010

PR blunder costs 'Runaway General' McChrystal job

Mark Urban | 10:33 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

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The dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal has left many of his colleagues deeply shocked. Many had assumed, as I did implicitly when writing on Tuesday, that either president or general would blink before it came to a sacking.

Some think that this has happened simply because of the feature on McChrystal in Rolling Stone, others that there must be another agenda.

"He was badly let down by his people, allowing that clown from Rolling Stone anywhere near him", says one Washington political/military insider.

His argument is that the magazine's journalist set out to turn over the general and the PR minders should have spotted it.

Others assume the disrespectful remarks in the article - attributed mainly to McChrystal's staff, not the man himself - cannot be the reason for his ouster.

"The punishment simply does not fit the crime", says one of McChrystal's former special ops officers from Iraq.

Certainly the general was regarded with awe by many of those who served with him in the 'black' world of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq.

When researching my book Task Force Black, I heard many stories about 'Stan': that he went on raids against al-Qaeda hide outs as a two star general; that he pursued a relentless policy of raids against that organisation that caused it to collapse; or that he ran eight miles every morning before starting work.

"The only people who didn't get on with him", one senior US special operator told me, "were the ones who weren't good enough".

Arriving in Afghanistan, MChrystal had to change his game dramatically. This was war in the full glare of publicity, and having to accomodate the sensitivities of a great many different coalition partners.

Even so, he galvanised Nato headquarters in Kabul and managed to forge a good working relationship with President Hamid Karzai - whose quirks have wrong-footed many other westerners.

With doubts growing about what Nato forces can achieve before President Barack Obama's deadline of July 2011 for the start of a US withdrawal, it will hardly help having a new commanding general, even one as widely admired as Gen David Petraeus.

"It's a crucial time with an awful lot of chips on the table", says one senior Washington figure, "and Stan had the greatest knowledge of what's going on".

Those who believe the dismissal cannot be explained by a magazine article alone feel that the power struggle between Commander in Chief and military may be part of a blame game in which each side seeks to blame the other for failure in Afghanistan. Perhaps.

Sacking a general because he wants to invade another country (China in the case of Gen Douglas MacArthur, fired by Harry Truman), or because he has shown gross military incompetance (like those Union generals sent packing by Abraham Lincoln in the civil war) is one thing.

But it is a strange thing for a man of Gen McChrystal's record to be fired for what is essentially a PR blunder.

What's behind McChrystal Obama 'Rolling Stone' row?

Mark Urban | 16:00 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


General Stanley McChrystal has been summoned back to Washington for a face-to-face meeting with his Commander in Chief. The cause of this recall, which will be widely seen as a carpeting, is not the rising toll of Nato casualties in Afghanistan or tensions with Afghan leaders, but a profile in Rolling Stone magazine that has angered the White House.

The magazine reports critical remarks - particularly by the general's staff - about the president and other senior members of the Administration. National Security Adviser Gen James Jones is lampooned as 'a clown' by one, Vice President Biden as 'Bite me' by another.

Perhaps the most sensitive passage is one in which one of Gen McChrystal's aides describes a meeting between commander and CinC one year ago: "Obama clearly didn't know anything about [McChrystal], who he was... he didn't seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed."

General and president have had their differences before. Mr Obama admonished McChrystal after a speech in London last October. The president thought his Afghan commander was lobbying too hard and too publicly.

Now the Rolling Stone profile, titled "Runaway General" has caused fresh tension.

The general himself is not quoted being critical of the president. His gaffes (as opposed to those of his staff) consist of saying - possibly joking - that he couldn't bear to open an e-mail from Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke and a criticism of the US ambassador in Kabul.

McChrystal has apologised for the article, implying that he should never have gone along with it. One of his press aides has resigned.

This spat has echoes of another two years ago when Admiral William Fallon, then head of Central Command, cooperated with a profile for Esquire magazine, and ended up having to quit. The admiral considered that the writer had misrepresented his views about possible military action against Iran but resigned anyway on a point of honour.

If McChrystal is to be criticised it should be for allowing similar access to someone who was bound to quote selectively (as all journalists do...), and for allowing a frat party atmosphere among his staff.

Even if other reporters might not have quoted critical remarks about administration officials verbatim, it is hard to imagine that any honest writer could have ignored the critical comments made by the Kabul headquarters team.

The critical difference between this and the case of Adm Fallon though is that Gen McChrystal has not himself been quoted being critical of the president or his policies. And while criticism of the Commander in Chief is a serious misdemeanour in the American set up, the general cannot fairly be accused of doing that.

So why such a tough reaction from the White House? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the president would like to keep his commander in Afghanistan on the back foot. The latest carpeting, just like last October's may well be designed to stop McChrystal from becoming too assertive in public about the future direction of Afghan strategy.

These tensions are bound to increase as the president's deadline for starting a withdrawal of US forces (July 2011) approaches. Senior Nato officers have been privately critical of the deadline, arguing that it gives them too little time to demonstrate success, and causes influential Afghans to doubt the future US commitment to their country.

If my suspicions are correct about the motives for summoning his general back to Washington, then it is quite possible that Gen McChrystal will offer his resignation.

He may consider it a point of honour to take responsibility for his staff, or he may just wish to deny his president the psychological leverage he seeks to gain by this recall.

That the two men may go to the brink over such an apparently trivial issue is, however, symptomatic of the increasingly fraught differences over Afghan policy, particularly the president's timetable for withdrawal.

What has been achieved in Afghanistan?

Mark Urban | 18:21 UK time, Monday, 21 June 2010

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The loss of the 300th member of the British forces in Afghanistan comes at a time of soul searching about the mission and its direction. Talking to Brigadier James Cowan, who commanded 11 Brigade, recently returned from 6 months in Helmand, he remarked that the 300th fatality shouldn't be treated any differently to the 134th, "it matters to each and every parent, but what I'd like to show is the progress, I believe we made huge progress in our time".

It is a good argument - there are plenty of examples of democracies accepting casualties if they believe the war they are engaged in has a point and is going well. Conversely, if the public thinks a sacrifice is futile it is very hard to retain their support.

Brig Cowan says that since his troops launched Operation Moshtarak in February violence has decreased by 75% in areas of central Helmand where the British have established more security bases.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) says that public support, for example in the Nad e-Ali district, has recently resulted in six improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or bombs being found for each one set off, a similarly significant figure.

Elsewhere, in the Sangin District, where British troops face their hardest fight, there are figures produced of a trebling of the number of shops open in the bazaar, or of the success of primary education in attracting thousands of children. These indicators, reflecting a kind of return to 'normality', for some people at least, are much favoured by Nato's commander, US General Stan McChrystal.

They are also the subject of some controversy.

The United Nations for example has recently reported that the number of IEDs encountered in Afghanistan increased by 94% during the first four months of 2010.

Meanwhile the losses of British personnel have risen from 39 in 2006, to 42 in 2007, 51 in 2008, and 108 in 2009. The total so far this year is 55 which may mark a levelling out, it's too early to say.

So which indicators do we follow? If the establishment of hundreds of security posts across southern Afghanistan brings greater stability but costs the lives of more western or Afghan soldiers is that progress?

Perhaps the biggest question is whether foreign troops in greater numbers simply stimulate more opposition in a place like southern Afghanistan? Certainly one UN official has asserted that is precisely what has happened.

This has now become a contest in which Nato attempts to impose its counter-insurgency template on one of the world's most traditionally lawless areas. If it can suppress the unrest and turn areas over to Afghan forces from July 2011, then success will be declared just as it was in Iraq.

If, however, the White House orders a draw-down in just over one year and things are still getting worse, then Nato will have suffered defeat. There are some other options, including, of course, that violence will start to reduce as the foreign forces leave particular areas, allowing both sides to insist they prevailed.

It is apparent though that the generals and politicians are already deploying their final arguments. Privately many officers fume that President Barack Obama's withdrawal date is cutting the ground from under them and politicians have started blaming the generals for getting them into a full scale insurgency.

Increasingly, during the coming months, the soldiers' appeal to both the White House and Downing Street will be 'give us more time'. They may get it, but with each passing month the indicators of 'success' are likely to receive increasingly tough scrutiny from the politicians and public.

Careful use of language over easing of Gaza blockade

Mark Urban | 18:17 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010


The devil in the Middle East is not so much in the detail as in the delivery.

Thursday morning's headlines about Israel "lifting its blockade of Gaza" immediately set me wondering what exactly had been promised, how it would be delivered, and for how long.

Sure enough, on the first issue, eagle-eyed Israeli journalists soon spotted that the government press releases announcing the move read differently in their Hebrew and English versions.

The English version reports an Israeli cabinet decision on Thursday morning: "It was agreed to liberalize the system by which civilian goods enter Gaza [and] expand the inflow of materials for civilian projects that are under international supervision."

The Hebrew version did not report any specific agreement or vote among the ministers, leaving Israeli reporters to conclude that the old policy concerning banned items was still in force.

Construction materials

However, other Israeli government sources insist that a change is already under way to allow a much larger flow of food, household goods, toys, and educational materials into the Gaza Strip.

Middle East old hands are all too familiar this kind of imprecision. It has occurred before in relation to freezes of Jewish settlements, removal of movement restrictions or, during the Second Intifada, ceasefires.

In each case a miasma of statements from different sources left reporters wondering why is this happening? Who decided? And how long will it last?

Even on its most optimistic reading, today's announcement falls short on many areas that would help Gaza - for example allowing the free import of construction materials (which Israel says is restricted because of their use in making rocket launchers).

Many Gazans complain they cannot re-build the damage done during Israel's 2009 Operation Cast Lead offensive because of the shortage of cement and other items needed by builders.

One Hamas official has denounced the announcement as "window dressing".

Room for manoeuvre

There are many reasons why these odd or imprecise announcements appear. Of course announcing one thing in the vernacular and another in English is something many Middle Eastern governments do when they wish to soothe domestic and global constituencies at the same time.

This tendency to give mixed messages is amplified by Israel's fractious coalition politics.

Another reason to remain vague about what the Cabinet has or has not formally agreed to is that it makes it easier to reverse any concession in future.

If there is a barrage of Palestinian rockets on a southern Israeli town, the cabinet may wish to re-visit the issue of what gets imported into Gaza.

No declaration of victory

It is the Palestinian experience of the vicissitudes of daily life that leaves them so cynical about the removal of checkpoint or lifting of other restrictions.

They know that if things get bad again, so will these bugbears of daily life.

Perhaps it is because of their experience that neither Hamas nor the Turkish organisers of the aid flotilla, on which nine lost their lives, declared victory today.

If after all, the blockade had been lifted it would be a major coup for both groups.

But both sides in the Middle East conflict have learned to measure their concessions carefully, and leave themselves free to revise them when the spotlight of publicity has moved elsewhere.

West Bank development strategy begins to bear fruit

Mark Urban | 17:38 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010

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NABLUS: Talking to people in a park here on a quiet Friday afternoon you really get the sense that the West Bank is moving forward under the prime ministership of Salam Fayyad and his Palestinian Authority (PA).

The progress does not get reported much, firstly because it is a slow incremental business and secondly because hemmed in Gaza, under its Hamas leadership, has produced all the spectacular news of late.

Nylam Koudoura, enjoying the early evening cool of Friday in the park told us, "things are much better today", following a security crackdown by Mr Fayyad's government.

"I can see the Palestinian state is there, it is coming along. We feel it in the street," she added.

Mrs Koudoura seems to echo the policy of the Palestinian Authority, that rather than waiting for diplomacy to produce the long awaited state, they should start building it themselves.

Clampdown on the militants

There could be no doubting Mrs Koudoura's sincerity - she spoke passionately, her eyes ablaze.

Everyone else we talked to in the park said similar things.

Anan Fahed for example remarked that "things are so much better now the Palestinian Authority has taken control".

The place where we spoke is just half a mile from Balata, a refugee camp long regarded as one of the West Bank's epicentres of militancy.

Journalists used to tread there with trepidation, because masked gunmen from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the al-Aqsa Brigades could appear at any moment.

It is clear, talking to many in Nablus, that while the gunmen claimed a shroud of patriotic legitimacy, many of them combined crime with their political activism.

When Mr Fayyad sent his re-built police force into Balata last year to disarm the militants they were killing two birds with one stone - bringing better order to the streets of the town and cutting down to size those who regard the PA as collaborators with the Israelis and US.

Indeed the success of the PA in the West Bank marks the fruition of a Western strategy started three years ago when, following Hamas' strong showing in parliamentary elections, the Islamist movement seized power in Gaza and the two parts of the Palestinian Occupied Territories veered apart under different leaders.

Limits on investment

The flipside of tightening the Gaza blockade and refusing to talk to Hamas was a determination by the US, Israel and EU to turn the West Bank into a showcase for those who did want a two-state solution.

To a considerable extent that strategy has worked - but of course it can only get so far without a peace process that yields serious results from Israel.

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Awash with donor cash, projects and the zeal of Palestinian entrepreneurs, the West Bank economy has grown substantially since Mr Fayyad became prime minister three years ago.

But with access to Palestinian centres via Israeli ports or checkpoints still subject to the vicissitudes of the security situation, foreign investment is distinctly limited.

"I do believe we are fast approaching those limits", Mr Fayyad told me in an interview in his office in Ramallah, alluding to the point where economic growth would stall without a political solution.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair who, in his role as Middle East peace envoy, has been painted by some as the midwife of the future Palestinian state is sanguine about how much further progress can be made without a diplomatic breakthrough:

"I think the next year will be pretty crucial to be frank," Mr Blair told me, adding that the Israelis have to see the creation of the Palestinian state as "a strategic objective for them [Israel] and for their security".

There are some painful ironies in what Mr Fayyad, aided by Mr Blair and the international community, has achieved in the West Bank.

The White House mantra that spreading democracy would bring peace in the Middle East actually helped trigger the schism between Gaza and the West Bank.

But now the Palestinian Authority is bringing improved security and economic conditions in the West Bank, it is actually behaving more like those old style Arab governments frowned upon by American neo-cons a few years ago.

Mr Fayyad's forces have arrested dozens of Islamic militants and his nominal boss, Mahmoud Abbas, declines to hold presidential or parliamentary elections despite his mandate having expired.

Need to heal rift with Hamas

So, the PA may have climbed a couple of rungs towards statehood, but further progress up that ladder is now conditioned not just by the long-term question of finding a productive way to negotiate with Israel but by the split with Gaza.

Israelis sometimes call the alternative government that governs that coastal territory "Hamas-istan".

With its policy of defiance towards Israel and close relationship with Iran, that Hamas alternative appeals to many Palestinians or Arabs more widely.

Now somehow there has to be reconciliation with the PA for the project of statehood to move further.

"There is only ever going to be one Palestinian state not two," explains Mr Blair on why this schism marks such a difficult challenge, "it's got to include Gaza and the West Bank together".

So the achievements of Mr Fayyad's government may have won the approval of people in Nablus or elsewhere, but the road to statehood is still daunting.

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