Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Remember Fallujah?

In March 2004, four Blackwater men went into Fallujah and never returned.
Their convoy was undermanned and under-armed. They did not even have a map. Yet they went into the most dangerous city in Iraq regardless, on what sounds to me like a non-critical assignment (kitchen equipment was involved) never to return alive. We all remember. Who can forget the image of the charred bodies swinging from the bridge?

It has taken their families four years to even be able to sue Blackwater for what they and many others perceive as their loved ones’ wrongful deaths, but now a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed the legal battle to begin. Blackwater will be held to account over the lack of maps, equipment and adequate training. It’s a start. But it’s not enough.

What came after the horrible deaths of the Blackwater men was the April 2004 siege of Fallujah by the US military during which more than 600 Iraqis died.
If Blackwater are found guilty of putting their men in harm’s way due to inadequate preparation, intel and equipment, then will they be also charged with being the catalyst that led to the April siege? And while we are at it, will accountability extend to the US authorities that put Blackwater in this position in the first place?

If Blackwater are found guilty of the death of 4 men who knowingly agreed to take on the danger that working as a hired gun in Iraq entails, then what of the 600 Iraqis who had no choice in the matter?
Deplorable collateral damage, I hear you say? I think not. More of a monumental lack of foresight on behalf of decision-makers.

Blackwater are paid to provide security. Policy is not their domain.
They provide security for politicians, reconstruction workers, humanitarian aid agencies, diplomats, facilities and the armed forces themselves (it’s called force protection and it allows the soldiers to take a nap while private guards pull sentry duty). The maths behind this is simple: more contractors = fewer soldiers = less political discomfort around body bags, as dead contractors are not included in the official death toll.

So, Blackwater’s business is security.
But as a commercial entity, their main business is more business.
So security in Iraq is placed in the hands of private businesses that above all else want more business. And I am not suggesting that the security personnel or their bosses sabotage the war. I am suggesting that they have no reason, incentive, interest, ability or authority to carry out their duties in a way that will go beyond security provision and towards peace-keeping and peace-building.
Keeping someone or something is a very different kettle of fish to keeping the peace.

So. Do we see the flaw in the plan yet?

We have neglected peace-keeping in the name of fragmented security provision, contracted out bit by bit to disparate corporate entities that sell security and have a vested interest in sticking around to provide more of it.
Sustainability is not a problem. These companies have shown themselves capable of swift expansion whenever needed. And as each bit of infrastructure, each army base, each UN agency, each high-ranking diplomat is protected under a different contract, security becomes a very narrow concept in Iraq.

If you are paid to keep someone safe that’s what you do. That's all you do. If you are paid to keep something safe that’s all you focus on. Everything else is assumed to be someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s problem.

So more security provision ends up meaning, by default, less safety for those not under contract, those who (even if not targeted) happen to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. It so happens that most of those are Iraqis.

So more security provision in Iraq ends up meaning less peace for Iraq.

We may have just shot ourselves in the foot there, right? Only our failed policy is someone else’s ravaged homeland. Right?
Right. And so very wrong.

The magic of accountability

When Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw a shoe – and then another – at G.W. Bush many people thought ‘oh man, I wish I had done that’.
If only.
But if we threw a shoe for every mistake the Bush administration made in Iraq, the White House would drown in an avalanche of footwear simply over the review of the disastrous first weeks when the wrong people were given the wrong jobs, the wrong tools and no clear instructions or leadership.
By the time we start looking at the failures of post-invasion reconstruction efforts, I suspect we’ll be running out of shoes.

But now things will change, right?
Even though we know that Obama is inheriting the biggest US-made mess both at home and abroad, we still hope he has a charisma-infused magic wand that will allow him to fix things so we can all live happily ever after.
In reality of course, Obama will be constrained by what is already there and may not actually have the luxury of his convictions when it comes to Iraq.

That much was obvious when he failed to publicly denounce the privatisation of the war – a trend that has become coterminous with the Bush administration but was actually gathering momentum already under President Clinton – and promised a focus on accountability instead. Obviously, with no magic wand at his disposal, things can't be fixed overnight. But there may be magic hiding in this statement all right.

Since Paul Bremmer’s Memorandum 17, private contractors have been pretty much exempt both from Iraqi and home jurisdiction (wherever that may be). Although the tide is turning and lawsuits are currently being filed in Iraq and in the US against both individual contractors and the companies that employ and deploy them, private security firms remain a prime example of power without responsibility. Unsurprisingly, private security spokesmen dispute this, pointing out that the market has its own standards and, as commercial entities, it is in the private security firms’ interest to ‘get the job done’ as doing so gets them repeat custom. What these spokesmen fail to dwell on is that not getting the job done simply loses them a client, while it loses other people their sovereignty, their dignity, their life.

‘Get rid of them’ is obviously the simplest solution to all this.
Simple but not practical.
Limiting the use of private contractors would entail withdrawing from Iraq and/or Afghanistan or replacing them with more soldiers on the ground. With private contractors carrying out security and training operations on behalf of the US across the globe, 'getting rid of them' would also entail a radical re-think of US interventionist politics worldwide. Courtesy of Donald Rumsfeld, privatisation has gone so far, that reversing the trend will take years.

So wand-less Barack Obama promises us accountability rather than miracles.

And we all know that accountability could be an empty word and a series of committee meetings. Hardly the stuff of magic.

Yet accountability could also represent a first step towards regulation, so that the likes of Blackwater don’t get away with murder; control over the tendering process and a closer look over the complex nexus of interests served by the current arrangement.
Accountability could actually allow us to ask ‘what is it we are trying to achieve in Iraq and are these guys helping or hindering us?’.

Accountability could be an empty word. Or it could mean brining the whole force of democratic process to bear on the problem. And that would be magic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Athens riots - The politics of despair

A teenage protester in Athens was asked by a French journalist covering the riots of recent days whether he’s an anarchist – the European press oscillating between incredulity and fits of giggles at the idea that self-professed anarchists still exist. In such numbers. In Europe. In 2008.
Of course, ‘anarchist’ represents a romantic label for those who don’t know what to think but still feel angry. For those who absolutely loathe every power structure around them even if they can’t think of an alternative.
Of course ‘anarchist’ is the most convenient label for those who want to dismiss protest, violence and disagreement as an extra-systemic nuisance one cannot reason with. Not a social issue. Not a political challenge. Just an ugly fact of life best not spoken of, like an embarrassing relative.

‘So are you?’ the French journalist wanted to know.
No, was the answer, I am just despairing in and rebelling against the situation I am forced to live in.

How do you like them apples?

The dispossessed have hit the streets: immigrants; the unemployed; youngsters who want more of a future than what they know is in store for them; youngsters who have a safe future ahead but still would like a world they can actually believe in. Everyone has hit the streets. Some have thrown stones and Molotov cocktails. Some have protested with great dignity.
Either way, the only ones still at home are the powers that be. At least we know where to find them, right?
Wrong, because they have managed to become so irrelevant, the protesters are not even thinking of attacking them or their symbols.
Naturally, if the symbols of power were attacked, the police – currently under strict orders to stay shtum – would magically find their voice, clubs and the rest of their kit and would rapidly remember what they are there for: to protect, safeguard and safe-keep.

But for now nothing is safe and least of all words and concepts.
The vandals speak of revolution. The students speak of retribution and justice. The politicians accuse the protesters of pursuing ‘selfish aims’, whatever that means. And the prime minister appeared on TV asking the hooded vandals to show restraint and responsibility. But, even though the revolution was televised, the revolutionaries were not watching, so nobody heard him. Not that it would have made a difference, as no one seems to be using words to mean what they actually mean. No one seems to have the right words for what they want to say. No one is addressing anyone anyway. Shells of words and empty slogans from all sides.

And the toll of destruction is rising with pushing 400 small businesses destroyed.
Meanwhile what?
The police are afraid to act for fear of causing more deaths. And this was intended as a statement of restraint.

So the first calls came, even within Greece, to get the army out. To get the army back onto the streets of Athens. The Army. A mere 34 years after the tanks crushed the resisting students in the Polytechnic school.

Why shouldn’t the government call the army out?
Because a government that does not even try to maintain order should resign, they shouldn’t be calling in the cavalry.
Because a police force that cannot police without fearing it may hurt the innocent should be replaced with a body that can fulfil its intended purpose.
Because they army does not hit the streets to restrain its own people unless the dictators are back in town. And the memories of the last time that happened are way too fresh in Greece.

The ‘Polytechneio’ generation, is what they are called, those youngsters who stood up against the junta of 1967-1974. They stood up to be counted. They stood up to die, if that’s what it took. And die they did, as the junta drove tanks over the protesters, into the Polytechnic university buildings.
34 years on, the protesters who survived sit in parliament. They hold positions of power. The Polytechneio generation is now running the show.
And it would be a dark day indeed if the soldiers were back on the streets of Athens on their watch. Because if they forgot that, they’ll forget this. And if they didn’t learn then, what chance do we stand of them learning now?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Athens is burning

If you have managed to miss the fact that Greece has been the scene of violence and destruction over the past 4 days, stop reading now, this won’t interest you.

So what do we know?
We know a 15-year-old kid was shot in cold blood by a policeman for no good reason, and some would say for no reason at all.
We know that a wave of violence and destruction has swept a number of cities, towns and villages all over Greece, allegedly in reaction to the wrongful death.
We know that this violence is targeted against things and not people but people suffer nonetheless as their livelihoods are destroyed and fear enters their homes.
We know the government has done nothing so far.
We know no state structure has risen to the challenge presented by those last few days.
We know the opposition has not even pretended to offer solidarity to the government.
We know the police have been told to let the whole thing exhaust itself and avoid risking further castigation over heavy-handed tactics.
Too little, too late and too far off the mark, but there you have it.

That’s what we know. And it’s a lot. But it is not enough.

With violence erupting in unlikely small places alongside the big cities, the ‘anarchist’ groups that seem to be an accepted given of Greek political life seem to have proliferated and grown.
Who are all these people? Do they even know who Bakunin is? What are they after? What do they want? Where did so many vandals come from? How many of them are jumping on the bandwagon and what is the bandwagon in question anyway?
Why do they feel breaking things is the only form of political/social/public expression that will do in the circumstances? And is this the only path left open to them? And if it is, how did it get to that?

No doubt there is enough to be upset about in Greece. Unemployment, economic stagnation, venality, scandal upon scandal and a terrible voicelessness for those not born into the right family or social strata.
But as people often say, in Greece it’s never about what it’s about.
So what is it about?
And how will we find out what it is about when the people on the left join voices with those shouting ‘violence to the violence in power’ and those on the right shout for the policemen to ‘get the little punks destroying our homes and properties’. Meanwhile a substantial minority just shrugs and says ‘it’s not near where I live yet’…

Obviously while cities are burning what I am about to say is just semantics, but if only civil society was an idea Greece had toyed with a little sooner. If only, the idea of community existed outside the family and public reaction existed in a constructive not just a destructive way.

Civil society is when people get together to work towards their idea of the common good in a way that shares benefit outside the immediate circle of family and friends. If civil society existed in Greece now, maybe some fires would have been put out. If civil society had existed in Greece before, maybe some of the despair driving people to vandalism would have been lifted, softened, removed, channelled and transformed; maybe police reform would have been debated and change would be underway, maybe just maybe change would have taken place before a young boy got shot in cold blood.

But ‘civil society’ is not ‘them’. It is everyone. And it starts with accepting responsibility for the world we all live in.
And civil society is essentially non-violent.
It goes beyond the non-existing state and the useless government, it says no to the senseless violence and destruction of these last few days and gets people together, building a future for themselves, bit by bit.
Now there’s a thought.

This was a long time coming

Not that you care.

But I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging for years. For one, because I have a lot to say about a lot of things. But mostly because I am secretly (ok, not so secretly) revelling in the information revolution that is giving established channels the finger.

But things got in the way. This that, never had enough time. Never chose to spend my time this way. And last night it happened. While on the phone to my dad, I mentioned a blog he may find interesting. Unknown term. So, while trying to explain to my father what blogging is and why following blogs is a good idea on many levels, he said: What? These people do it for free? Don’t they have jobs? Don’ they have friends, families, a life to keep them busy?

That was it. The time has come to stake my claim with my generation. And yes, I do have a job. And I do have friends and I do have a life. I also have a voice and now I am about to use it.