Tag Archives: Britain

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The Syrian Conflict: Time to Start Thinking Outside the Box

As the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n end to the violence and conflict in Syria is not in sight, far from it. The UN estimates that around 100,000 have died in the conflict so far and the number is set to rise as both the Assad regime and the rebel movement refuse to end the bloodshed. Many suggestions have been put forward which aim to bring an end to what has been the bloodiest out of all the Arab Spring uprisings. Some believe that arming the rebels is the answer. The supporters of this claim are the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the French President Francois Hollande and the USA. Russia, on the other hand, has put forward a diplomatic solution which aims to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. Britain, France and the USA favour a diplomatic solution as well, however they claim that Assad will never join the negotiations when he is winning on the ground, thus the need to arm the rebels to create a stale-mate.

However in this article I will argue that both of the above proposals are unlikely to reap any substantial results and therefore out of the box thinking is required.

An argument against arming the rebels

There seems to be a consensus among many, that if President Assad was removed from power, Syria would go back to normality and a start of a new and bright era could begin. However, such a view is obscured by a shallow thinking: Assad is bad, rebels are good. Over the last few months, such a view has suffered a great dent, due to the grotesque and vile actions by some of the rebels- atrocities against the Syrian minorities, such as Christians, inhumane treatment of enemy soldiers, harsh treatment of civilians in rebel held areas, among other despicable incidents. Some argue that these actions are only committed by an extremist minority who do not represent a more liberal faction fighting Assad.

Such a claim in itself provides two reasons for why arming the rebels would not work. Firstly the claim correctly points out the fact that the rebel movement is deeply fractured. There is a civil war, in the civil war. There have been many reports of rebel groups fighting each other and murdering fellow generals. Secondly, this leads to the natural conclusion that if Assad were to fall right now, the conflict in Syria would not end. It would simply shift from rebels fighting Assad and fighting each other, to rebels fighting each other to a greater extent. If weapons were provided to the opposition, these would eventually be used to kill fellow opposition groups, thus leading to more bloodshed. Even if the Arab Spring in Syria began with Syrians wanting more democracy and freedom, right now the conflict has become a sectarian and religious war, between Shias, Sunnis and hardened Islamists. Iraq should be the perfect example of how getting rid of a dictator for its own sake does not lead to positive results. Despite over 10 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still plagued by sectarian violence, almost on a daily basis. Syria is even more diverse than Iraq, therefore there is a grave possibility that the violence would be enhanced.

Further reason to doubt the appeal of arming the rebels are claims that the people living in rebel held areas are deeply dissatisfied with the opposition movement, mainly due to the implementation of strict Sharia laws, which the majority of Syrians are not in favour of. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that, if these rebels were to win, they would initiate mass atrocities against Assad supporters as part of their revenge. This has happened in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

Diplomacy as an end in itself is unlikely to work

Undoubtedly supporting Assad in this conflict would also be unthinkable, given the scale of destruction and deaths that have endured over his watch. For this reason some suggested that negotiations ought to take place where both sides agree to a ceasefire and a transitional government, eventually leading to proper democratic elections where the Syrian people will be able to decide how and who should govern the country. In principle this is a viable idea, certainly more so than the plan to arm the rebels. In practise, diplomacy is unlikely to work, since the rebels and their Western backers have set a pre-condition that Assad should step down. Understandably Assad and his support will never agree to such a condition, firstly because he is winning on the ground, and secondly because the rebels and the West have no political legitimacy to ask him for such a move.  Only the Syrian people have the legitimacy to remove their current leader, yet, as well documented, many Syrians continue to support Assad. To have a legitimate transitional government and legitimate future elections, Assad has to be a part of them, to allow the people the chance to once and for all decide whether they want Assad in or out. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the opposition will agree to this move, therefore breaking down any prospective positive outcomes from negotiations

Partition Syria

Unless either the West or Russia decide to end the conflict with a comprehensive victory for their respective sides (a move which is unlikely to occur), the stalemate between Assad and the rebels looks to continue. There is a dangerous possibility that Syria may turn into a new Afghanistan and Iraq, with violence and bloodshed continuing for decades. To prevent such an outcome, Syria may have to be partitioned into some parts that will be governed by Assad, and other parts governed by certain factions of the opposition. For now, Assad will never agree to such a plan when he is winning on the ground, when Russia continues to show undisputed support and when the West is so indecisive. Even if Assad were to win the civil war (which is unlikely as it is hard to see the Western powers allowing this to happen), the extremist rebels would continue to cause a nuisance as they would continue to receive financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Partitioning Syria would look similar to the Russia and Chechnya situation, where technically Chechnya is part of Russia, but has a status of a republic and some limited independence, with their own leader.

Heavy negotiations would need to take place among the Syrian players to arrive at a common outcome and nobody is suggesting that this would be a simple procedure. However, as the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.

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Photo Credit: World Shia Forum

Mali Islamist Militants

Mali: Intervention, Invasion, and Invention

Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.

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Mali Islamist Militants

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Ten years since the West’s intervention in Iraq and in the midst of a new French and British presence in Mali, it is right to emphasise that failing to appreciate the complexities of any international conflict is always costly. Deciding whether or not to commit to military intervention requires extensive deliberation and patience. Whatever one decides, there must be no doubt as to the seriousness of the implications, no question as to the responsibilities assumed as a consequence. Interventionists are often urged to keep these warnings in mind before they choose to support a foreign military conflict, but it should be remembered that this counsel must also apply to those opposed to intervention.

Not long after the French intervention in Mali, a number of voices on the left denounced what they saw as a provocative invitation to Islamist violence and a failure to learn from the West’s intervention in Iraq ten years ago. However, it is arguably these voices that appear to be repeating past mistakes. Opposition to the Iraq War, while vociferous, never received the scrutiny and interrogation it truly deserved, and since it so frequently characterised itself solely in terms of what it was against, it is crucial to keep in mind what the anti-war movement was for.

Broadly speaking, we can infer that many of those opposed to the Iraq war would have preferred the continuation of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Western intervention. There was little and remains little to suggest that his regime could have been toppled from within the country, and in any case, this was not a hope articulated by some within the anti-war movement at the time. In particular, we should note that George Galloway, one of the most prominent members of the Stop the War Coalition, openly praised the dictator and the operations of insurgent forces in Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition’s erroneous unease around efforts to thwart fascism in Iraq and elsewhere have been disappointing, but by failing to offer a credible approach to the tangible dangers of the Islamist influence in Mali, some are perpetuating the notion that to be anti-war is to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of non-intervention. The impact of intervention is important and deserves continuous scrutiny, because this impact is severe and often bloody, but the potentially destructive impact of inaction in the face of the dangers present in Mali are not receiving the attention they deserve.

It would be in error to say that alternatives to intervention do not exist. Here at The Risky Shift, Alex Clackson has identified a number of suggestions, including the provision of development aid and increased support for domestic governments. However, a deeper misunderstanding often characterises opposition to intervention. There is a tendency among many, particularly on the left to locate intervention by the West in general and, in the case of Mali, France and Britain in particular, in a neo-imperialistic/colonialist narrative. Journalist John Pilger has gone so far as to say that ‘A full-scale invasion of Africa is under way,’ which he compares to the Scramble for Africa of the nineteenth century. This is a limited and ultimately ahistorical view of the kind of Western intervention we have seen in the region.

The sovereignty of Mali is not under threat from ‘the West’ but from several Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which demand the imposition of Islamic law throughout the country. It is also worth noting that it was Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore who requested military aid from France in January of this year to counter these groups. Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.

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Photo Credit: Magharebia

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A ‘War On Terror’ Or A ‘War On Chaos’?

The European deployments throughout Africa are an entirely different creation to the US-led “War on Terror”. The European “War on Chaos” is one of pragmatic national interest but also of support for those states who play by the rules and protection for the millions under constant threat of violence.

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Two and a half thousand French forces are being deploying in Mali in the largest European military deployment by any EU state since 2001. Supported by British and then American logistics in under a week the French have advanced against both columns of the advancing AQIM affiliated fighters, halting them completely in the East and beginning a counter-attack in the North. Bombing raids have struck Islamist positions behind the front lines as West African forces begin to arrive to double the foreign troops fighting to defend Mali’s capital.

The situation in Mali is the most significant action by western forces since the NATO operation in Libya, another in which the French military lead the way, flying 35% of the total offensive foreign air missions of the conflict and 90% of the helicopter missions. But even that is a fragment of French military involvement in the last year. They are the most active western state in the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia, formed the bulk of the force which ousted Ivory Coast dictator Gbagbo and are a primary contributor to the European army, the CSDP.

France has never been a passive military power. Ever since its founding as the western branch of Charlemagne’s German Frankish Empire it has been at almost constant war. From its constant conflicts with the British of the medieval period it went on to dominate continental Europe with its huge military and financial strength. Napoleon, perhaps the greatest European tactician in history, conquered the entire continent before his army was struck down by disease. In fact if it wasn’t for this disaster and the allied tactic of attempting to avoid ever facing Napoleon’s genius directly in battle he may have created the first truly European state. It went on to build an empire to challenge that of the British and Spanish, fighting stoically through the First World War and ferociously in the Second, though not always on the same side. As the empires of Europe collapsed France fought over the remains of its global power, only admitting defeat after the disasters of Vietnam and Algeria. Now, after years of struggling to regain its place at the forefront of European military strength it is by far the most active of the Western powers outside America.

Much as this may surprise many, fueled by the completely misplaced British-propaganda stereotype of French as the white-flag-wavers of Europe, it’s not quite as surprising to most as the mere idea of European military action, let alone a dedicated EU military force. The mere thought seems alien to American audiences still unused to their new supporting role in conflicts and horrifying to the eurosceptic English. However, the European CSDP (Common Security and Defense Policy) military has grown from a mere token force to the largest coalition army outside the ISAF in Afghanistan. The European force is now significant enough that it has involved itself in twenty-five foreign operations, all separately from NATO. Presently well over 5,000 European forces operate under the EU flag of the CSDP as well as four naval warships. Alone this is a larger force than any of the militaries involved in Afghanistan other than the United States and Britain.

There is a key difference however between the armed forces of the French and EU compared to that of the USA and Britain, none of these forces have been involved in the reputational suicide of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The unilateral invasion, without international support (unlike Afghanistan or any French missions of the last decade) ruined the international status of the two Atlantic powers as supporters of international order and made them as much pariahs to the developing world as the “Axis of Evil” they fought against. Instead European forces, and 4,500 French forces fighting under the tricolour or the twelve stars, represent a force of stability in conflict-torn areas. They come on invitation and international support and yet lack the need for the sometimes crippling restraint forced on UN peacekeepers.

The European deployments throughout Africa and in potential conflict zones across Europe and Asia are an entirely different creation to the US-led “War on Terror”. The European “War on Chaos” is one of pragmatic national interest but also of support for those states who play by the rules and protection for the millions under constant threat of violence. The French-led war for military stability across the world is mirrored by the German-led battle for economic stability at home in Europe. Together they form two arms of increasingly powerful demands for a unified Europe bringing stability to both its own citizens and those of the world at large. The Germans have expressed their support for the new European military and the French are aligned with them in the push for a new centralised European economic system. A new Europe is being born, one regaining the pride and prestige it had lost for almost a century. The US was forged in the fire of the British Empire, states forced to band together into Union to guard against the return of the world’s most powerful force. The Union of Europe may well be forged from the threat of Eurozone collapse and Islamist terrorism breeding from every failed state and unstable region.

The result may well be a split in the Western world. The liberal continental Europe, one built upon consensus and cooperation, is radically different from the relatively conservative United States, swinging violently between neoconservative interventions and proud isolation, too sure of its own exceptionalism. Between them stands Britain, unsure of which road to take. However, as the Atlantic divides the west and the US turns to the pacific, a lonely island may not have the clout to strike fear as its empire once did. As the French fight in Mali and Somalia, and Germany grants the keys to economic power to the European Union, the European War on Chaos will proceed with or without royal Britannia.

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Photo credit: Jerry Gunner

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What Noughties Labour Left Behind

Ed Miliband sometimes sounds like he’s running against Tony Blair for the leadership rather than against David Cameron for the premiership; Miliband’s speeches should emphasise the persistent values at the heart of his party and the principles on which it was founded.

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One of the key defences used by both Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg is that obstacles such as the deficit have been left behind by the Labour Party and must be ‘cleaned up’ by the Government. Cameron used his first House of Commons speech as Prime Minister to emphasise this argument, and it has remained a frequent response to criticism from the opposition during Prime Minister’s Questions. However repetitive this argument might be, the coalition’s desire to emphasise the inherited failings of its predecessor is politically understandable. What is more curious is Labour leader Ed Miliband’s apparent enthusiasm for doing the same thing.

Upon assuming the role, a new party leader might be expected to give a speech or two in which, by criticising old policies or established members of the party, they attempt to create a sense of renewal and innovation. But Miliband has repeatedly introduced Labour’s record – and, in his view, its failings – into the discourse on numerous issues over the course of his leadership. There have been frequent admissions by the Labour leader regarding the mistakes he believes were made by his party’s government. According to Miliband, Labour was wrong on issues such as the economy, immigration and Iraq. Leaving aside what one may thinking about Labour’s previous approaches to these and any other issues, it seems reasonable to wonder why Miliband is so keen, insistent even, on reminding everybody about his party’s failures, real or perceived.

It has been suggested that Miliband’s recent remarks to the Fabian Society, which took a similarly apologetic approach, are part of an ‘attempt to distance himself from elements of the last government’s record considered toxic by many strategists.’ While it is important for Miliband to be honest and self-critical about his party’s shortcomings, there is something self-defeating about his constant referral back to New Labour’s record if his aim is to disassociate himself from it. These kinds of apologies can be useful in the first year or so of opposition as a way to rebrand, but after three years out of power, Labour needs to focus on establishing its new approach and produced a clear pitch to the electorate about its policies. Labour’s Policy Review should eventually shed more light on the tangible elements of the party’s approach, but Miliband should nevertheless emphasise the future rather than dwell on the past in the meantime.

Of course, Labour has already made policy suggestions on various issues, but these often focus on ‘learning lessons’ and accepting hard truths about Labour’s past efforts. For example, on immigration, Miliband told the Fabian Society that during the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ‘high levels of migration were having huge effects on the lives of people in Britain – and too often those in power seemed not to accept this. The fact that they didn’t explains partly why people turned against us in the last general election.’ And on the economy: ‘One Nation Labour has learnt the lessons of the financial crisis. It begins from the truth that New Labour did not do enough to bring about structural change in our economy to make it work for the many, not just the few. It did not do enough to change the rules of the game that were holding our economy back.’ In these remarks, Miliband is trying to demonstrate the heightened self-awareness and self-improvement of ‘One Nation Labour’ in contrast to the old and often mistaken ‘New Labour’. Yet this ploy, along with the attempt to play down Labour’s record by giving it extra attention in speeches, treats the electorate with little respect. Voters remember New Labour, favourably or not, and they will not be convinced that there are no similarities at all between the brands ‘New’ and ‘One Nation’ any more than they will forget the successes and limitations of Blair and Brown.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is that Miliband and his strategists seem to have assumed that the argument over New Labour’s record was lost along with the 2010 election. Indeed, Miliband’s tone contains none of the positivity exhibited by his predecessor in the last days of the 2010 campaign, during which antipathy towards the party was exceedingly high. Despite Labour’s damaged image at the end of thirteen years in power, Gordon Brown retained a sense of pride in his party’s accomplishments in this speech, without any of the obligatory qualifiers and ‘howevers’ that seem to accompany the current leader’s reminiscing monologues. Both the content and the delivery of Brown’s speech demonstrate that celebrating New Labour’s record is politically credible and potentially convincing. Even if Miliband feels morally or politically obliged to remind everybody of how poor he believes Labour’s performance has been in the past, he should also feel more confident about celebrating such political events as the minimum wage, the renovation of thousands of schools or the cancellation of developing world debt.

Ed Miliband sometimes sounds like he’s running against Tony Blair for the leadership rather than against David Cameron for the premiership. To correct this, Miliband’s speeches should emphasise the persistent values at the heart of his party and the principles on which it was founded. Crucially, he should not be afraid ask David Cameron what the coalition is doing to maintain and build on the progress in healthcare and education left behind by the Labour government.

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Photo credit: Policy Network

Euro Crisis

The Euro: A Threat To Europe’s Peace?

The preservation of the Eurozone is fast becoming the greatest source of tension between European citizens since the Second World War. To preserve the unity that guaranteed European peace for the past half-century, it may soon be necessary to abandon the doomed attempt at monetary integration in its current form.

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At a press conference that European Union officials held earlier this year just after the union received the Nobel Peace Prize, a journalist with a sense of humour asked if Brussels also expected to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. The journalist might have been joking, but he touched on a key point which has been illustrated again this week as a wave of demonstrations, strikes and riots roiled the continent. For it is the failure of the European Union’s economic policy which is now the greatest threat to Europe’s peace.

Since the Second World War, the two greatest guarantors of peace in Europe have been NATO and the growing integration of Western Europe’s economies. What we now know as the EU started life in 1950 as the European Coal and Steel Community, an ambitious project to create a single market in coal and steel.

The point of the ECSC was to make France and Germany so dependent on each other for these vital resources of war that it would be inconceivable for them to fight one another again. A country cannot fight a modern war against its main supplier of steel. Gradually, this principle was extended to other sectors of the economy across Europe as well.

This not only helped to drive Europe’s post-war economic boom, but also helped to solidify Europe’s peace. Economic competition within the framework of European institutions could sometimes fuel resentment, but it also provided a common set of rules within which conflicts could be resolved peacefully. It also made all of Europe’s economies so dependent on one another that war became inconceivable.

When the Eurozone was formed, the principle of integration expanded to include the financial sector as well. Even though banks within the Eurozone were guaranteed only by their national sovereign, and that sovereign itself was responsible for its own debt, the financial myths that a euro was as safe in a Greek bank as it was in a German bank, and that it was just as safe to lend to either of these nations, took hold.

The debt crisis has decisively shattered this myth, and in so doing has dealt a huge blow to the principle of deepening economic integration across Europe. Financial integration has collapsed as banks in safe countries back away from the periphery, and banks in peripheral countries find it impossible to fund themselves on the open market. As the easy money that flowed before the financial crisis has dried up, under-capitalised banks have to rely on their national governments to bail them out. When those governments themselves become unable to fund themselves, they must submit to humiliating bail-out agreements.

On the other hand, the continued existence of the Eurozone has also required enormous sacrifices from Irish, Greek, Spanish and Portuguese citizens. While German taxpayers view themselves as stoically handing over hundreds of millions of euros to beach-loving Greeks, citizens of the peripheral nations are chafing at the savage cuts in spending and social services that are being imposed in return. Posters on the streets of Athens and Lisbon in recent months depicting Angela Merkel as a Nazi catch the flavour of their complaints.

The architects of the Eurozone overreached themselves. By trying to take economic integration in Europe too far, they created an economic situation which is now driving Europeans apart. And the remedial measures now being applied by European leaders could well make things worse.

Preserving the Eurozone requires large transfers of wealth from some countries to others, and will probably require them for a long time to come. Even proposals such as the banking union which European leaders are fleshing out agonisingly slowly, whatever their other details, involve at their heart the creation of a mechanism that will allow banks in the weaker countries to be rescued by the taxpayers of the rich countries. This at least breaks the destructive cycle of bust banks forcing bust governments even further into penury, but by institutionalising wealth transfers it risks sparking widespread protest when taxpayers cotton on. Whether voters in the rich countries will allow this situation to persist indefinitely is far from clear, meaning the whole edifice is only ever one election away from collapsing.

By creating an economic situation that causes so much resentment, the preservation of the Eurozone is fast becoming the greatest source of tension between European citizens since the Second World War. Not just anti-Eurozone sentiment but anti-European sentiment is on the rise across the continent, and it could yet lead to Britain or other countries leaving the union altogether. To preserve what we can of the economic and political unity that guaranteed European peace for the past half-century, it may soon be necessary to abandon this doomed attempt at monetary integration in its current form altogether.

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Photo Credit: EuroCrisisExplained.co.uk

 

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Are Protests A Complete Waste Of Time?

As the NUS prepares for another round of protests on the 21st of November, one can only ask whether it is a waste of time or a vital action that may lead to positive results.

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20th October 2012 saw one of the largest protests in recent years. Titled “A Future That Works”, around 150,000 students, activists, politicians and other members of the public filled the streets to voice their disapproval and anger at the public cuts, welfare budget cuts and against austerity measures put forward by the Coalition government. Additionally the protest aimed to change the way politics works in Britain. Their objective is to create a nation which pays workers a living wage, where bankers do not get high bonuses, where the government ensures the inequality between the rich and the poor is shrunk.  These objectives are not new and throughout the years citizens have demonstrated against their government’s policies in hope of change. But does change ever come?

Undoubtedly some protests can have devastating effects on the governments. The Arab Spring is a perfect example of small scale marches turning into full-blown revolutions which resulted in regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Protests have also had a positive impact in America where slavery and segregation were abolished thanks to the protests and marches organised by Martin Luther King. Finally, Gandhi had an innovative idea of protesting – peaceful non-violent civil disobedience which led to the independence of India from the British Empire.

However, recently a large number of people have claimed that protests do not achieve anything and looking back over the last few years it is understandable why that is the case. Almost a million marched against the war in Iraq in 2003, yet the march did not prevent the invasion. Thousands of students marched against the rise in tuition fees, yet once again the results were unsuccessful. One has to also ask what the Occupy Movement has achieved over the last year except media coverage.

Evidently some protests and marches achieve their aim and some do not. Perhaps one explanation for this could be the cause of the protests. While most marches have some validity, one can argue that marching against authoritarian regimes and against slavery and segregation is far more important than marching against a tuition fee rise or austerity measures. In addition, some of the causes which have been successful are quite objective. Anyone with any sense of morality would agree that racism, slavery and life under a dictatorship is wrong and thus it was inevitable that change would eventually come. Austerity measures, education cuts and even the invasion of Iraq are issues which are less clear cut and can be viewed as rather subjective.

Does that mean that less important matters should be left untouched by activists and protesters?  Absolutely not: the secondary aim of marches is to illustrate the dissatisfaction of citizens against a particular policy and additionally to spread the narrative among the public who may not be aware of the damage these policies may be causing. This is exactly what the protests against the invasion of Iraq, against the tuition fee rise, and the most recent austerity march has achieved: the illustration of anger at the government and widespread media coverage attracting others to the cause.

Let us also not forget that student demonstrations can be very effective. For example, thousands of students took over the university as part of the uprising of the Polytechnic University of Athens. As a result the military junta stormed the university gates using tanks. The outcome was the killing of many students by the dictatorship, however, a few days later a nation-wide uprising took place against the junta. This demonstration resulted in the creation of the famous legislation known as the Students Asylum or Academic Asylum. This law was introduced to protect freedom of thought and expression on campuses in 1982, when memories of Greece’s repressive military dictatorships of the late 1960s and early 1970s were still raw.

So where does this leave modern day protests and marches? As the NUS prepares for another demonstration on the 21st of November, one can only ask whether it is just another waste of time or a vital action that may lead to positive results. From the examples given in this article it is clear that many marches do create change, regardless of whether it takes weeks or years. In addition these marches can achieve much more than transformation of the society. They can ensure the government is well aware that their citizens are not prepared to stand back and let the establishment make unpopular choices. Demonstrations keep the government on their toes and ensure politicians are always accountable for their actions. For these reasons, protest and demonstrations are vital ingredients of our political system and have an intrinsically important role to play in society.

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Photo credit: Selena Sheridan

Edinburgh, Scotland

Scottish Independence: Battle Lines Drawn

London has many other pressing issues on its agenda whereas the SNP can devote the entirety of their resources and political capital to the independence campaign – a luxury which they would do well to enjoy while they can.

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The respective governments of Scotland and the United Kingdom have formally agreed upon the terms and the technicalities of the referendum on Scotland’s independence. In so doing, they have drawn the lines of the battle that will take place between them until the referendum in the autumn of 2014.

The ‘Edinburgh Agreement‘ was signed on 15 October by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and is the result of months of negotiations between the two governments, essentially centred on two main points.

The first of these was to determine through which mechanism the referendum would be rendered legal. Through Article 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 (which established devolution), London will confer legal authority for the referendum to Edinburgh and, consequently, the result will be legally binding.

London arguably had little room for manoeuvre when negotiating this point as the slightest indication of obstinacy would have been exploited by the Scottish nationalists to maximum political effect. The trade-off comes in the shape of the very question to be posed by the referendum and this was the second sticking point of the negotiations.

The British government made clear that they would only devolve legal authority for the referendum if Scottish voters were presented with one single, and very simple, question: independence, yes or no? The Scottish government argued that a second question should be included on the ballot paper, the so-called ‘devo max’ option. This would have allowed Scottish voters to vote against full independence but in favour of maximum devolution of powers to Edinburgh while remaining within the United Kingdom (basically full autonomy over everything except defence and foreign policy).

Unionists claim this demonstrates that Scottish nationalists don’t believe they can secure a majority in favour of full independence. As things stand, it is likely true that ‘devo max’ would have been the most attractive option to many Scottish voters but much can still happen between now and late 2014.

A third important point of the Edinburgh Agreement is that 16 and 17 year olds will be entitled to vote in the referendum, even though normally the minimum voting age in Scottish and British elections is eighteen. The theory, or so nationalists believe, is that the younger generation are especially likely to vote in favour of independence. While that has yet to be definitively proven, the inclusion of this point in the agreement represents a tactical victory for the SNP and means that Scottish residents currently aged 14 and upwards will be entitled to vote in 2014. We can therefore expect Scottish nationalists to devote considerable attention to these young people for the next two years.

There are still some important aspects of the referendum to be finalised, not least the exact wording of the question on the ballot paper. However, the agreement between Salmond and Cameron is a highly important milestone in the process and essentially marks the real beginning of the political battle between nationalists and unionists.

It could be argued that the agreement itself represents an important political triumph for Salmond as he heads into the SNP party conference in Perth from 18 to 21 October. With the (arguable) exception of the ‘devo max’ option, Salmond and the nationalists have obtained almost everything they wanted from the agreement. At the very least, that’s how they will present it in public.

The timing of the agreement could hardly be better for Salmond. It allows him to re-energise the campaign for independence still further and, at least temporarily, side-step problematic areas of disagreement within the party. For example, the ongoing debate about dropping the SNP’s traditional opposition to NATO could potentially have caused problems at the party conference but, while the issue has not disappeared altogether, Salmond must now be more confident of presenting a united front in Perth.

The SNP have an important strategic advantage over their unionist opponents in Scotland, who are simply not of the same calibre as Salmond (widely regarded as one of the most capable, or at least canniest, political operators in Britain) and who have been consistently outplayed by the SNP during the latter’s two terms in office.

As for the British government, the unpopularity in Scotland of the Conservative-led coalition and the legacy of the Thatcher era will seriously hamper the anti-independence campaign – and are therefore key elements of the SNP’s political calculation. Moreover, London has many other pressing issues on its agenda whereas the SNP can devote the entirety of their resources and political capital to the independence campaign – a luxury which they would do well to enjoy while they can, for it will disappear overnight if they actually win the referendum.

However, absolutely none of the above helps predict the result of the referendum, which remains simply too close to call. Ultimately the real question is how independence would materially and financially affect Scottish voters in their daily lives. If it is true that the current margin between Yes and No is as little as the price of an iPad then all parties still have everything to play for.

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Photo Credit: James Sheehan / theriskyshift.com

the welfare state is proof of god

George Osborne’s Welfare Cuts: A Necessary Step

There are plenty of opportunities out there to get some form of qualifications and work your way up towards an average salary which is able to support a small family. Not only is having a job beneficial to the economy, but it also creates a positive atmosphere in a particular community and in the nation as a whole.

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the welfare state is proof of god

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During his Party Conference speech on the 8th of October George Osborne has proclaimed that the Government will press ahead with plans to cut £10 billion from the welfare budget by 2016-17 on top of the £18 billion cuts already under way. Osborne has secured the agreement of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, something he said would be necessary in order to avoid additional cuts in other Whitehall departments. The announcement, made in Osborne’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, will set the Tories on collision with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners.

Nick Clegg told his party’s conference last month that he would not allow “wild suggestions” of a £10 billion cut in welfare, while Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said, “We simply will not allow the books to be balanced in a way that hits the poorest hardest.”

The rhetoric by George Osborne will undoubtedly create new tensions between the political right and left, between the supporters of cuts and the supporters of spending to kick start the economy. It is perhaps too easy to claim that George Osborne is taking a typical Conservative means to end the deficit – cut the funding to the poorest while the rich are left unscathed. I am going to lay down all my cards on the table and truthfully say that I am personally not a fan of the Conservatives. In fact I am a member of the Green Party therefore in theory I should despise any policies put forward by the Tories. However, George Osborne and his team are onto something with their idea on cutting the welfare budget and in this article I will explain why.

When I immigrated to Britain in 2001 from Russia, I was surprised to learn that thousands of people in this country are able to be unemployed yet still live fairly comfortably. In Russia, if a citizen does not have a job, chances are he may end up on the streets. Even as a young child back then I was proud that a country like Britain looks after their citizens who were unlucky enough to be jobless. But as I grew older I realised an uncomfortable truth, that many of these jobless citizens chose to be unemployed and made the jobseekers benefits their life choice. As I studied the whole purpose of the welfare system, I learned that benefits were meant to be a safety net for the society rather than something people jump on in order to escape employment and watch Jeremy Kyle instead. It angered me that some people choose to live their whole life on welfare benefits and I began supporting the Conservative Party for a number of years.

Yet even now, as a centre-left individual, I believe that there should be cuts to the welfare budget. Having watched a programme recently on a council estate in Blackburn and having heard some young people on the programme claim that they are on benefits “because it’s just easier than getting up early every morning” I thought it was time for the government to take some measures.

George Osborne put forward an idea that families who have children for the sake of receiving child benefits will also feel the full wrath of the welfare cuts. Once again, I have to agree that this is a necessary action to take.  In my short lifetime, I have lived in some poor areas and I was saddened to see poor families having children for the sake of having more cash rather than because they genuinely wanted to create a family. Not only am I a believer that it is wrong to bring children into this world if you are not able to financially support them, but I am also a believer that bringing up children without fully understanding the responsibilities it will entail to bring these children up properly will create a nasty vicious circle. This circle goes round as follows: a financially poor mother has a child, the father of the child is long gone, the mother is unable (or does not want to) bring her child up properly, the child grows up with no respect towards society and his country and thus also takes the life of a benefit scrounger and/or a criminal.

Ultimately it is important to change the culture of Britain. Irrespective of my leftward-leaning ideology, I am happy to announce my belief that some citizens of this country must stop relying on Jobseeker’s Allowance and child benefit to get through life. There are plenty of opportunities out there to get some form of qualifications and work your way up towards an average salary which is able to support a small family. Not only is having a job beneficial to the economy, but it also creates a positive atmosphere in a particular community and in the nation as a whole.

Having said all of that, I undoubtedly understand that the current economic situation in Britain is dire and the rate of unemployment is high. Of course citizens who genuinely cannot find a job must receive benefits in order to support themselves while they search for employment. Nevertheless, there are far too many people who see benefits as “free money” rather than a safety net, and against all odds, I am therefore supporting the policies by George Osborne to cut the welfare budget.

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Photo credit: Bettysnake

afghanistan military landscape america strategy

Has The Surge In Afghanistan Worked?

As the surge in Afghanistan ends it is legitimate to ask to what extent it has achieved its security goals.  It is hardly a secret that the overall picture in Afghanistan encompasses complex economic and political factors above and beyond the security situation.

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afghanistan military landscape america strategy

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The surge in Afghanistan is officially over: the last of the 30,000 additional American troops deployed by President Obama in December 2009 have left the country.

Of course, 68,000 US troops are still there alongside 38,000 from forty-nine nations [accurate to 10 September] and will remain, in gradually reducing numbers, up to and beyond the end of 2014 as per the agreements reached at the NATO Summits in Lisbon (2010) and Chicago (2012) respectively.

Nonetheless, September 2012 represents a noteworthy milestone in the campaign and has unsurprisingly been marked by active debate in the media as to the success, or otherwise, of the surge. Equally unsurprisingly, the debate has been coloured by the current security situation in Afghanistan, particularly the worrying increase of ‘green-on-blue’ incidents and the US death toll reaching 2,000 (3,195 ISAF fatalities overall)

However, the intrinsic link between security, economics and politics is fundamental to the situation in Afghanistan. At this point we’ll avoid the temptation to insert the usual quotes from Sun Tzu or Clausewitz so suffice to say that improvement in one area will never be achieved without improvement in the others, even accepting that security will never be perfect in Afghanistan.

This has always been the case but is especially pertinent today as we assess the impact of the military surge. As stated by the outgoing NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan, Ambassador Simon Gass, on 19 September:

“[T]he biggest uncertainties about the future of Afghanistan are much more about politics and economics than they are about the security situation.”

On the economic and development side, there have long been questions as to why greater tangible success has apparently been so elusive in Afghanistan, despite the huge amounts of western money that have been thrown at the problem. A simple, even simplistic, answer is that too much money has been haphazardly thrown at a complex range of problems which have never been properly defined or understood.

For example, last week it was reported that British development efforts in Helmand province have in fact gone too far, meaning that many new schools and clinics will be closed because the Afghan government cannot afford to sustain them in the medium- to long-term.

This disclosure will not surprise those with experience of reconstruction and development in Afghanistan but it does serve as a strong reminder, if that were even necessary, of the fundamental need to ensure sustainability and genuine Afghan ownership up to and beyond 2014.

That said, the mistakes admitted to by the British presence in Helmand should not detract from their achievements there. More importantly, they should not undermine the continued international support for development in Afghanistan. Referring to the Tokyo conference in July, Ambassador Gass highlighted the relevance of that support for the future of Afghanistan.

“It gives a high degree of assurance that when our countries say that we will support Afghanistan we mean it, because we have put figures to our promises.”

In short, while uncertainties remain in security, economics and development, the international community does have the means to positively affect the situation, although that depends on the Afghan government assuming its responsibilities, notably in seriously tackling corruption. So improvement will primarily be driven by the Afghans themselves but with a tangible international commitment to support them long-term. In the political sphere, in contrast, the solution lies entirely with the Afghans.

Great challenges and uncertainties lie therein, especially in the context of the Presidential elections to be held in 2014. Since President Karzai cannot stand for a third term, this amounts to the first democratic transition of political power in decades. Aside from the obvious need to at least limit (i.e. greatly reduce) the levels of electoral fraud which marked the 2009 elections, the legitimacy of the next government, and by extension its effectiveness, will depend on the political settlement that will emerge over the next two years.

Partly that will likely require some kind of agreement with the Taliban, or factions within it, but this also requires outreach to all ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan. A general acceptance of the political order – firstly through (relatively) fair and legitimate elections – will be just as essential to long-term security and development as the Afghan security forces and international assistance.

In conclusion, as the surge ends it is legitimate to ask to what extent it achieved its security goals but it is hardly a secret that the overall picture in Afghanistan encompasses complex economic and political factors above and beyond the security situation. That being the case, and contrary to what many commentators would have us believe, even now it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions concerning the future of Afghanistan and certainly not when those are solely based on security incidents.

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Photo Credit: The U.S. Army

Mohammed Siddique Khan

Security & Multicultural Integration In The UK: A Conflation Of Agendas

The UK’s approach to multiculturalism has contributed to homegrown Islamist terrorism in the UK. Do you agree?
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}

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Mohammed Siddique Khan

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This essay forms part of our series on multiculturalism.

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There is a terrorist threat in the United Kingdom (UK) that comes not just from foreign nationals, but also from its own citizens.[1]  In an attempt to understand and counter this threat there has been a conflation of the integration and counterterrorism agendas, this has resulted in multiculturalism being identified as the barrier to both.[2]  The assertion that multiculturalism has contributed to homegrown terrorism in the UK is incomplete and simplifies the complex process of radicalisation and how that might translate into violent action.  Multiculturalism may create an environment that is favorable to the development of risk factors associated with radicalisation, namely a crisis in identity leading to the adoption of extremist ideology; but this does not fully consider relevant social drivers.  Also, it cannot be empirically shown that holding radical views will necessarily lead to committing or supporting acts of terrorism.

Multiculturalism means that ethnic minority groups require unique treatment and support from the state in order to fully exercise their citizenship.[3]  In the case of the UK, the policies which shaped multiculturalism came out of the 1960s when there was a realisation that many immigrants who had initially come to Britain for work did not plan on returning to their countries of origin.[4]  These policies were further developed in the wake of the 1981 riots, focusing on the needs of specific ethnic groups and moving towards a more racially equitable society.[5]  In recent years there has been significant criticism of multiculturalism in the UK, some have argued that it has decreased cross cultural dialogue and that it has driven communities to live separate lives from one another.[6]  These recent criticisms have also taken the form of security concerns, as articulated by Prime Minister David Cameron, who has argued that a lack of national identity in the UK has opened the door to extremism for young Muslims.[7]

The revised Prevent Strategy, the UK’s community based approach to stopping extremism, is critical of multiculturalism, placing an emphasis on integration, democratic participation, and greater dialogue between communities as essential in fighting extremism.[8]  This assessment makes a significant assumption that the key to fighting terrorism is a strong, common identity.  There is evidence to suggest that an identity crisis can serve as a cognitive opening for individuals to embrace extremist ideology. Many young Muslims in Europe, who are second or third generation, may feel alienated from their parents traditional values but also do not feel welcome in Western societies because of perceived discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantage. [9]  The move towards extremism by young British Muslims is a rejection not only of perceived British or Western culture and values, but a rejection of previously held community values represented by their parents and traditional religious institutions.[10]  The concept of the ummah, or global Muslim community, promoted by Islamists, offers an alternative identity to both the world of their parents and Western society.[11]  The key point, missed by critics of multiculturalism, is that the global ummah is a foreign concept and external force to the communities comprised of ethnic minorities, which multiculturalism supports.  While there are mosques in the UK that have been connected with terrorism,[12] there are also examples of minority ethnic communities showing resilience against extremist views and violence, showing the capacity for self-policing.  The 7/7 bombers were expelled from mosques,[13] and reformed Islamist, Ed Husain, reflects on similar experiences when he was trying to propagate extremist views as a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, in the ethnically Bangladeshi, East London Mosque.[14]  Extreme elements that may exist within a mosque often times have little to do with the officially hierarchy, they are outside elements who are operating under the radar of mosque administration.[15]  It would seem then that the problem is not with the existence of distinct ethnic communities under multiculturalism, but with the capacity of leadership within those communities to confront extremist elements.

Linking multiculturalism to terrorism also looks to ideology as being an important factor contributing to moves towards violent extremism.  Critics of multiculturalism argue that even non-violent extremism can create an atmosphere that supports terrorism and can popularise ideas that terrorists use.[16]  However, to be radical is to reject the status quo of society; this does not always mean violence.[17]  It would be incorrect to think of the radicalisation process as a neat, linear progression from an identity crisis, leading to the adoption of extremist ideology, leading directly to participation in acts of terrorism. In fact, a major debate is whether groups that promote non-violent radical ideas are one stop on a conveyor belt towards terrorism or whether they serve as a firewall or safety-valve, preventing moves towards violence.[18]  Associating homegrown terrorism with multiculturalism misses this critical link, the connection between radicalisation and terrorism.  In comparing these two distinct groups, non-violent radicals and terrorist, there is evidence that both aspire to some of the same ideological points, the concept of kuffar (non-believers), the goals of a Caliphate and Sharia law, exposure to and promotion of similar texts and thinkers, and a belief that violent jihad can be justified.[19]  Ideological differences in these groups are related to context in which religious points are understood.[20]  Perceived discrimination, which could create a cognitive opening for extremist views to take hold,[21] could be a factor in a divided, multicultural society.  However, non-violent radicals and terrorists also experience the same levels of perceived discrimination.[22]  Even if multiculturalism creates an environment which supports the adoption of extremist ideology it still cannot be shown that ideology will necessarily translate into action.

A focus simply on identity and ideology also ignores the social factors that have been shown to play a role in for individuals pursuing terrorism.  The 7/7 bombers were all seemingly well integrated members of British society.  Mohammed Sidique Kahn, the group’s leader, grew up in a religiously lenient household and married a non-Muslim woman.[23]  All of the group’s members experienced alienation and an identity crisis; however their move towards violence did not occur until after they came together.[24]  Groups are helpful in ensuring prospective terrorists that their choice is the correct one.[25]  Supporting acts of terrorism carries significant risk; before someone takes part in such action social relationships are very important.[26]  Social networks present the opportunity for ideas to be translated into action.[27]  Many radicalised individuals watch extremist videos depicting graphic and violent content, but the difference between terrorists is that they often watch those videos in groups ‘creating a culture of violence.’[28]  Other social factors such as personal experiences, friendship, and group dynamics also play a role in influencing an individual to pursue acts of terrorism.[29]  Older men, who speak Arabic and may claim to have links to the global jihad, may be influential over younger, second or third generation Muslims, who have limited knowledge of Islam.[30]  Factors, including an emotional pull, thrill seeking, status and an internal code of honour, and peer pressure might be responsible for the non-violent to violent link.[31]  Furthermore, even if an individual is socialised to commit acts of violence, there is no guarantee that violence means terrorism.[32]

Multiculturalism is a controversial policy in the center of public debate.  Policy makers should have rigorous discussions about what is best for the UK moving forward concerning issues of integration and social cohesion.  There may be many valuable reasons for the pursuit of a stronger British national identity and the reform or elimination of multiculturalism as policy; however what must be avoided is a conflation of the two distinct agendas of integration and counterterrorism.  It cannot be empirically shown that there is a link between multiculturalism and homegrown terrorism.  There are many factors that may contribute to radicalisation, some influenced by multiculturalism; identity and ideology, and some not: social factors.  Even if some factors can be shown to influence radicalisation, radicalisation does not mean violence, and violence does not mean terrorism.

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[1]            HM Government (2011), p. 1

[2]            Meer & Modood (2009), p. 481

[3]            Ibid., p. 479

[4]            Brighton (2007), pp. 5-6

[5]            Thomas (2009), p. 285

[6]            Cantel (2001), p. 9

[7]            ‘State multiculturalism has failed, says David Cameron’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12371994, 9 March 2012

[8]            HM Government (2011), p. 27

[9]            Helmus (2009), p. 81

[10]            Neumann & Rogers (2007), p. 16

[11]            Daalgard-Nielsen (2010), p. 800

[12]            ‘Profile: Abu Hamza’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11701269, 16 March 2012

[13]            Kirby (2007), p. 418

[14]            Husain (2007), p. 115

[15]            HM Government (2006), p. 31

[16]            ‘New Prevent strategy launched’, http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/news/prevent-strategy, 16 March 2012

[17]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 2

[18]            Vidino (2010), p. 7

[19]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), pp. 10-12

[20]            Ibid., p. 10.

[21]            Wiktorowicz (no date), pp. 7-8

[22]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 8

[23]            Kirby (2007), p. 417

[24]            Ibid., p. 423

[25]            Helmus (2009), p. 96

[26]            Wiktorowicz (no date), p. 5

[27]            della Porta & Diani (2006), p. 119

[28]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 14.

[29]            European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008), p. 9

[30]            Sageman (2008), p. 79

[31]            Bartlett & Miller (2012), p. 13

[32]            European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008), p. 5

 

Bibliography

Bartlett, Jamie & Miller, Carl (2012), ‘The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization’, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 1-21

Brighton, Shane (2007), ‘British Muslims, multiculturalism and UK foreign policy: “integration” and “cohesion” in and beyond the state’, International Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 1-17

Cantel, Ted (2001), Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team, (London: Home Office), http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/communities/pdf/independentreviewteam.pdf, 9 March 2012

Daalgard-Nielsen, Anja (2010), ‘Violent Radicalisation in Europe: What We Know and What We Do Not Know’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 33, No. 9, pp. 797-814

della Porta, Donatella & Diani, Mario (2006), Social Movements: An Introduction, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)

European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (2008), Radicalisation Processes Leading to Acts of Terrorism, (Brussels & Luxembourg: European Commission), http://www.ec-ener.eu/views/local/uploads/documents/expert_group_report_violent_radicalisation_final_july_2008.pdf, 19 March 2012

Helmus, Todd (2009), ‘Why and How Some People Become Terrorists’, in Paul K. Davis and Kim Cragin, eds., Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation), pp. 71-111, http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG849/, 19 March 2012

HM Government (2011), Prevent Strategy, (London: Home Office), http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/prevent/prevent-strategy/prevent-strategy-review?view=Binary, 9 March 2012

HM Government (2006), Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005, (London: Home Office), http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc0506/hc10/1087/1087.pdf, 17 March 2012

Husain, Ed (2007), The Islamist, (London: Penguin Books)

Kirby, Aidan (2007), ‘The London Bombers as “Self Starters”: A Case Study in Indigenous Radicalization and the Emergence of Autonomous Cliques’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 30, No. 5, pp. 415-428.

Meer, Nasar & Modood, Tariq (2009), ‘The Multicultural State We’re In: Muslims, “Multiculture” and the “Civic Re-balancing” of British Multiculturalism’, Political Studies, Vol. 57, pp. 473-497

Neumann, Peter & Rogers, Brooke (2007), Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe, (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation), http://icsr.info/publications/papers/1234516791ICSREUResearchReport_Proof1.pdf, 19 March 2012

Sageman, Marc (2008), Leaderless JihadTerror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)

Thomas, Paul (2009), ‘Between Two Stools? The Governments “Preventing Violent Extremism” Agenda’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 2, pp. 282-291

Vidino, Lorenzo (2010), Countering Radicalization in America: Lessons from Europe, (Washington: United States Institute of Peace), http://www.usip.org/files/resources/SR262%20-%20Countering_Radicalization_in_America.pdf, 18 March 2012

Wiktorowicz, Quintan (no date), Joining the Cause: al-Muhajiroun and Radical Islam (Rhodes College research paper), http://insct.syr.edu/uploadedFiles/insct/uploadedfiles/PDFs/Wiktorowicz.Joining%20the%20Cause.pdf, 19 March 2012

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FSA fighters in Aleppo with dead Assad militiaman

Aleppo & The Shift Of Killing Power

Unlike in the Iraq War, where modern British and US armour tore apart the ageing tanks of Saddam’s Iraq, in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria the death of armoured forces lies in the humble RPG and landmine, both of which are cheap in a war-torn region, cheap as the rifles wielded by the men who besieged the Bastille.

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FSA fighters in Aleppo with dead Assad militiaman

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The battle of Aleppo continues to rage in Syria, as tanks, helicopters and jets have not alone been enough to displace a rebel movement armed with cheap automatic weapons and shoulder-mounted rockets. Although this may still change, the amount of manpower Assad has dedicated to the battle of Aleppo has left tracts of land across Syria fall into rebel and Kurdish hands. The tide of the battle is turning, and the battle of Aleppo may yet decide the fate of Syria.

As tanks roll into the outskirts they are being faced with far more resistance than expected. Mines have claimed many lives, with others incapacitated or destroyed by an onslaught of RPGs wielded by rebel forces. Far from rolling through in the style of the French liberation of Paris, Syrian armoured forces are barely able to have an impact on the battle so afflicted are they by the repertoire of explosive weapons in the hands of defending militias. Helicopters and aircraft, although effective at handing out destruction, are limited by the distance they must keep between them and counter-attacks by such rocket-propelled explosives, ever more dangerous as evidence of heat-seeking rockets have been found in the hands of the Free Syrian Army. But this is a battle that has happened all ready. It happened in Mogadishu, Somalia against US forces in 1993, it happened in Sirte, Libya in 2011. Armoured forces have, for the first time in their history, been faced with amateur, poorly equipped forces which have still managed to defeat them. It is a shift of power, but not one the world has not seen before.

At Agincourt, 1415, the first major and decisive victory of peasant bowmen over armoured cavalry occurred, an event which shocked Europe. It is a battle still celebrated by the British as one of the greatest battles in their history, alongside their victories over French forces at Trafalgar and Waterloo, and against the Germans in North Africa. Although the British completely ignore the following battle at Patay, where cavalry slaughtered a larger English army of long-bowmen, it heralded a weakness in the nobleman on horseback which had not been questioned for hundreds of years. Something shifted at the battle of Agincourt, not least signified by one of the first known uses of a weapon powered by gunpowder at the battle.

By the time of the late eighteenth century war had become a mess, thousands died in every battle and armies moved so slowly due to their vast size that many wars dragged on for years and ended indecisively. The reason the armies were so large? Gunpowder. It was far easier to give any peasant a weapon they simply point and fire than train them with a longbow or attempt to armour them as a noble. Long gone were the days nobility ruled warfare, now was the time of the peasant armies, and with this power came revolution. Peasants, no longer afraid of nobility on huge horses glad in previously unconquerable plate armour stormed the bastions of the old order. First the French then American revolutions struck, then the devastating Napoleonic wars where a single man of low noble birth conquered almost all of Europe for the first time since Trajan. For a hundred years the revolutions waged on, as the Spanish lost control of South America and Britain’s power waned. Finally the end of noble cavalry as German machine guns manned by factory workers mowed down Russian nobility on the Eastern Front of the First World War.

Things had changed, gone was the monopoly of killing power of the nobility, the old empires collapsing over the new power over death which had been granted to any man able to grasp the trigger of a rifle. But, where the plate armour of the brutal reign of feudal knights had fallen, the power of armour would rise again in the form of tank, plane and helicopter.

When the Germans swept across Europe in 1940 killing power shifted again. The French and Polish armies were smashed by the charge of Panzers in the blitzkrieg, a tactic the West would eventually copy in the Gulf Wars against Iraq. Suddenly the power over death on a great scale was back in the hands of the elite of nations able to afford these giant machines of slaughter, again the nation-state was defended by a monopoly over violence by the rulers of the state.

Why is Aleppo, like Mogadishu and Sirte before it, significant? Because it shows that even the new era of armour can be beaten by the common man. Unlike in the Iraq war, where modern British and US armour tore apart the ageing tanks of Saddam’s Iraq, in these cities the death of armoured forces lies in the humble RPG and landmine, both of which are cheap in a war-torn region, cheap as the rifles wielded by the men who besieged the Bastille. That armour can be defeated at all by non-armoured elements of amateur militia forces aught to shock the modern powers just as much as Agincourt shocked the French.

These decisive battles, won by ill-equipped and poorly-organised militia forces may be one of the defining features of the beginning of the turn of the century for years to come. Along with the shift of conflicts to irregular forces and terrorist attacks, the capability of such forces to bring down the armoured elements of national militaries is a major change from the past century. The days may be gone where Russian tanks easily overran Chechen, Georgian and Hungarian rebel forces, or when a single US helicopter can swing the course of a battle in Afghan highlands. Even as notable advances such as reactive and active armour systems improve the abilities of modern armour, mines and IEDs are now so easy to produce with tremendous power that such defences may never be enough.

This is not to say that armour will not continue to be a decisive feature of warfare, especially that which remains between national militaries, but the fear which once gripped any populace faced with a tank column may be gone. In a world where irregular forces and civil wars are the dominant feature of conflict, the shadow of armoured forces no longer instils such fear where any man can build the road-side bomb capable of reducing such armour to a burnt-out husk. The balance of power has shifted from the national military back to the common people yet again, and this may have consequences far beyond Aleppo.

The increasing vulnerability of tanks to cheap, easily accessible weaponry spells the end of an era of armour dominance. Larger militaries may no longer be able to rely on such weapons of war to secure their dominance over rebellious regions and militia forces. Smaller elite infantry unites already are showing their use in Israeli, British, French and US military forces as long range, low risk, forms of heavy support such as missiles and drones are beginning to dominate national funding. But these forces are expensive and elite, out of the reach of even medium-sized powers and still developing forces. With the fall of armour comes the second end of dominance by national military forces outside the global north, and maybe the Arab Spring will mark a series of revolutions just as the French had done over two hundred years ago.

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First published at A Third Opinion.

Brick Lane Multiculturalism

#2: Multiculturalism & The British Dream?

In this episode of Debrief, part of a week-long series on multiculturalism, Jamiesha Majevadia is joined by David Goodhart, Director of the London-based think tank Demos.

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Brick Lane Multiculturalism

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You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes.

David & Jamiesha discuss issues of multiculturalism, racism and extremism in Britain. Is Britain, to use Trevor Philips’ words, sleepwalking into segregation? Is there a ‘Muslim problem’ in the UK? Is Islamophobia as rampant as we are led to believe?

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David is the director of Demos, a London-based think tank. He is editor-at-large of Prospect magazine, which he founded in 1995 and grew into Britain’s leading current affairs monthly. An established broadcaster, author, commentator and journalist, David regularly contributes to some of Britain’s leading newspapers including the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and the Financial Times.

US and Iran

Why Are The US And Iran Such Bitter Enemies?

With each passing day, the present situation spirals towards greater uncertainty. War, it seems, is a palatable necessity to remove a regime whose existence the US has only ever believed to be temporal.

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wo months ago, a news story slipped under the radar that added a subtle nuance to the current tension over the Iranian nuclear talks. British and Iranian Foreign Ministers William Hague and Ali Akbar Salehi quietly met with one another amid an Afghanistan security conference in Kabul, reported in each country at the other’s request, in attempt to restore the two countries’ diplomatic relations after they were suddenly cut last November after the attack on the British embassy in Tehran.

This meeting contrasts the current negotiation debacle and rising tension due to the recent implementation of the new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran on the 1st July. Whilst the two countries have only agreed upon the establishment of interest sections within friendly embassies, the two states’ relations have followed the vicissitudinous patterns of normalisation and tension within the region. The agreement is a far cry from cordial relations, but at least the two governments are tip-toeing their way towards reconciliation. This development spurs a more important question – why has the United States refused Iran its olive branch?

Diplomatic relations between the US and Iran have existed in a state of limbo for the past thirty-two years. The Carter administration cut off ties after the American embassy’s takeover by revolutionary students in 1980. Since then, diplomatic exchange has been limited to interests sections in the Swiss and Pakistani embassies and there has been no attempt to restore full relations beyond this step.

Iran joins Bhutan, Cuba, North Korea and Taiwan as one of the five countries without diplomatic ties with the US. This curious assortment of countries appears to be a list of teenage rebels (minus Taiwan) written by the disapproving American parent.

The reasons given by the US government for the status quo are shallow, retroactive justifications for a series of offenses that Iran is not alone in committing. Iran is neither the first country to support terrorist groups, have a poor human rights record, oppose the US-led peace process nor have a nuclear programme. There is an extensive amount of news articles, opinion pieces and academic works discussing these denunciations. There are, however, two other reasons that are rarely mentioned that underline US policy towards Iran.

The first is pragmatic. The world is witnessing another arms race between the superpowers. Unlike in previous centuries, however, the race is restricted to the cyber realm. The race for cyber weapons is nevertheless as imperative as it was for nuclear weapons. Indeed, there is no indisputable evidence that proves StutNex and Flame were constructs of the US and Israel, however the sheer amount of manpower and resources not only to create these weapons but also to conceal their production points to the involvement of a government.

In The Diplomat, a recent article discussing the cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities compared the alleged US strike to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Yet StutNex and Pearl Harbour share little in common. Pearl Harbour was a surprise attack by a country that the US had tragically underestimated in order to wipe out the US Pacific Fleet and level the playing field for Japan. StutNex and Flame are a different kettle of fish entirely.

Using the Second World War example, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offer a much more accurate comparison to the cyber attack on the Iranian nuclear programme. In both cases, the US was using a weaker victim as an example to warn its competitors of the arsenal at its disposal. Just as the film Dr. Strangelove famously observed, the whole point of a doomsday weapon is lost if no one knows you have it. The attacks send a clear indication of America’s current cyber warfare capabilities to the competing powers. More worryingly, it marks the beginning of another Cold War era after the past two decades of US global hegemony.

Iran is a good test subject. Its ability to retaliate against US interests is muted, especially when one considers the consequences of a US response if the situation is escalated. The Islamic Republic has few friends and its relations with Russia and China do not greatly balance the threat posed by the US. The regime is universally demonised in the Western press and attracts little sympathy from important international actors. In reality there are no other regimes with a similar level of cyber infrastructure that the US could attack without causing huge international uproar.

The second reason is ideological. The embassy takeover in 1979 was a bitter divorce for the US from its protégé in the Middle East. The intensity of the revolutionary’s hatred for the American influence was difficult to accept after the considerable amount of treasure the US government had invested in the country.

Whilst US politicians will not hesitate to mention Iran’s refusal to accept Israel’s existence when justifying their policy towards the regime, they essentially have the same policy towards the Islamic Republic – calls for regime change, claims of ‘separating the regime from the people’ and trying to somehow speak on behalf of the Iranian people. Iran holds a unique place as an existential enemy to the US and best summarised by the infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ term eternalised in George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.

The US government is trying to undermine the stability of the regime and paints a simplistic picture of how ordinary Iranians view the regime. Its actions show that the underlying assumption of US policy is that the regime is becoming more and more distant from its population – an assumption that cannot be immediately taken at face value. It also shows that the US government does not deem diplomatic relations with the regime as necessary, which removes a vital element in the prevention of war. With each passing day, the present situation spirals towards greater uncertainty. War, it seems, is a palatable necessity to remove a regime whose existence the US has only ever believed to be temporal.

Freedom Monument Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands: Has The Game Changed?

With ‘new players’ on the scene and China’s expansion pushing the international situation ever closer to a bi-polar order, perhaps the most vital question is whether the international community is prepared to accept an Argentinian occupation of the Falkland Islands.

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Freedom Monument Falkland Islands

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was announced this week that the residents of the Falkland Islands will hold a referendum on their political status in 2013. The main focus of which will be their links with the United Kingdom, with 1,600 registered voters on the Islands deciding whether to remain under British rule or back Christina Fernandez’s view that ‘Las Malvinas’ should be a part of Argentina.

Views are mixed as to the seriousness of the escalated tension between the British and Argentine governments over the last few months. Some see the situation as harmless sabre rattling which should have been anticipated given that 2012 is the 30th anniversary of the 1982 War. Others are choosing to read more into the rhetorical exchanges between David Cameron and Mrs. Fernandez. Governments are rarely prepared to answer too many questions on their willingness to enter into global conflict through fear of provoking unnecessary alarm, but what can we divulge from the rhetoric so far, and what are the main areas of concern?

A different kind of Cold War?

Whilst categorically denying that their own country is willing to enter into a new conflict, both governments are doing their best to show that the other one might be. Britain is accusing Christina Fernandez of pandering to the staunch nationalists in Argentina and using bullish language, on the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, to increase her approval ratings. For its part, Argentina has accused Britain of stepping up its military presence on the Islands and viewed Prince William’s recent visit as an obvious sign of disrespect.

Underlying all of this, the Falklands dispute has always involved, to an extent, concerns over natural resources, particularly oil. According to Argentine observers the Falklands are an important strategic asset for the UK and give them an important route into Antarctica, which is seen as a potentially crucial area for future oil extraction. Many Argentines also recognise the cost of allowing the British to seize important natural resources so close to their own shores. Indeed, a significant part of the Military Junta’s reasoning 30 years ago was the possibility of improving their economic situation at home, and turning public opinion in their favour as a result.

The Dangerous Mrs. Fernandez?

Christina Fernandez is not leading a military junta. As a democratically elected figure, she is accountable to the people of Argentina and has historically shown her support for international law. There is also an unwritten rule in International Relations theory that democracies have much more to lose from war, and are therefore less likely to instigate a conflict than, say, dictatorships.

However, recent activity suggests that the President has tapped into a real sense of Argentine nationalism and has provoked criticism from financial institutions and fellow world leaders by her actions. Firstly, she has put aside concerns over the size of Argentina’s debt, and decided to raid state coffers to pay for increased public spending. Secondly, earlier this year she took the decision to nationalise 51% of YPF, thus scuppering a deal between Spanish oil firm Repsol, the previous owners of the YPF shares, and the Chinese. Instead, Fernandez has sold 8% of YPF to Carlos Slim, a Mexican telecommunications mogul.

This is certainly one area of concern the British government would do well to take seriously. The response to increased State intervention in Argentine politics has been insignificant so far, and there is really no way to measure the extent to which public support is capable of pushing an increasingly popular President like Christina Fernandez towards the unthinkable.

It’s now fairly clear that she wants to re open the debate about Britain’s claim to the Islands she insists on calling Las Malvinas. In an emotionally charged speech to the UN’s Decolonisation Committee, she called on Britain to enter into dialogue and to stop abusing its power as a member of the UN Security Council. She also accused Britain of acting as a ‘bully’ and urged David Cameron to act with more intelligence and compassion. Fernandez did not help her cause by refusing an offer for negotiations from the Falkland government, but still has the ability to portray Britain as the stubborn roadblock to peaceful talks.

By refusing to offer any indication that her country wants to enter into another conflict, Fernandez appears to be playing a rather shrewd game. In terms of international politics, calling for dialogue can win you friends, and is more likely to provoke sympathy than Britain’s current stance of ruling out negotiations altogether.

The other slight advantage facing Argentina is the overall political situation in South America, which is unrecognisable from the 1980’s. Thanks in some part to US aid and support, the continent has seen an increase in foreign direct investment, particularly in the north. South American economic growth hit 5.9% in the midst of the economic crisis in 2010. Some countries, including Colombia, have seen growth four times that of the European Union in recent years. The continent is also home to Brazil, who has recently stepped up its trade links with China.

This has gone some way to producing economic and political integration throughout the continent. Political matters, like the Colombian and Venezuelan conflict, are now increasingly dealt with by UNASUR rather than the OAS. Also, the ‘Bank of the South’, a Hugo Chavez inspired project now offers South American nations alternative borrowing options to the IMF.

The last OAS summit in Colombia this year was arguably the most divisive event the American region has witnessed in recent times. Argentina and Brazil felt willing to oppose the USA on matters from Cuba’s involvement in future summit proceedings to the legalisation of the drugs trade. Christina Fernandez also used this summit to bring up the Falklands debate and called for negotiations to take place between the OAS and Britain.

Mrs. Fernandez has certainly recognised this change to the American region. She now describes British claims to the Falklands as outdated clichés and an affront to a world ‘we all dream of’. ‘The world has changed’ she argues, and there are now ‘new players’ to consider.

With these ‘new players’ and China’s expansion pushing the international situation ever closer to a bi-polar order, perhaps the most vital question of all is whether the international community is prepared to accept a 21st century Argentinian occupation of the Falklands. Britain can currently rest assured that the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination is legally backed up by a UN resolution. The referendum in 2013 will undoubtedly return a verdict of support for the status quo, limiting Argentina’s options to regain the Islands through diplomatic means. If the extreme scenario were to occur, the future of the Islands would depend on both Britain’s capability to retaliate, and the willingness of the international community to intervene.

There are certainly enough examples from history to show that a nation’s public are willing to tolerate an increase in military spending, even in times of austerity, if it means protecting an ally and scoring a victory over an old enemy. However, with cuts to defence spending starting to take place already, the British public may not even be able to make this decision whereas the Argentines might. With South America carving out its own identity away from the United States and Europe, and Argentina’s increased economic ties with China, the veto wielding UN Security Council member, Britain cannot rely on the willingness of NATO or the UN to intervene in what would be a relatively minor conflict in their eyes. Argentina may just have enough leverage and motivation to reclaim the islands, and unfortunately, a referendum may not be enough to stop them.