Friday, 28 September 2007


‘Time to learn and move on’?

Sukant Chandan*

This weeks annual national Labour Party conference is witnessing the party’s leadership doing all that they can to distance themselves from the Blair years which are synonymous with Islamophobia, war, lies and deceit, known as ‘spin’ in modern British political parlance, all of which has alienated wide sections of the electorate from Labour. If anyone might have been in doubt that such a grand exercise was taking place Prime Minister Brown initiated proceedings with a speech, usually scheduled at the end of the conference, for over an hour long which gave one sentence each to Iraq and to Blair. The primary reason for this public relations stunt is that Britain under Blair failed to make a success in its aims, the most infamous now being the invasion of Iraq based on ‘dodgy’ intelligence, i.e., a war of aggression conducted on the basis of lies. If Iraq had gone smoothly with the Iraqis welcoming the US and Britain, then Blair may still have been in charge and continuing to be at the forefront of the US and UK’s plan for a ‘New Middle East’ and much more beyond. Why a people would welcome those countries which were responsible for dilapidating UN sanctions and intermittent bombing raids for a decade and a half can only be known to the policy makers in Whitehall. It has been left to the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure that the world knows loud and clearly that the occupation is not welcome and that Blair’s name has gone down in history as one of the most brutal, cynical and utterly failed military adventures in modern history.

Additionally, the US and UK’s agenda for the region was aborted due to the continuing defiance of the Palestinian people, who to much of the world’s surprise elected Hamas, seen by most in the West until very recently as the archetypal reactionary Islamist terror group. Hamas won the election and engaged the West in a successful media and diplomatic campaign to show that they are a legitimate and reasonable mass movement for national liberation. Playing one last desperate card before his time was up, Blair gave full backing to the bloody Israeli assault on Lebanon last summer, which ended in the historic defeat of Israel, or at the very least gave a hard and fast lesson to Israel that it could not invade a neighbouring Arab country with impunity.

These failed campaigns have led to the alienation of considerable sections of the British electorate towards the Labour administration, be it from the Muslim community or the liberal political classes. The opposition Tories and Liberal parties took their advantage of Labour woes and Labour lost many council and parliamentary seats up and down the country, while losing all of Scotland to the Nationalists. Hence the panic in Labour circles and the operation to extract what Labour saw as the primary and on-going cause of the problem – Tony Blair. The ever-so-smooth handover of power from Blair to Brown was a barely disguised attempt to manage and contain any further fall-out from the political disasters that had plagued Labour.

Labour has now moved away from Blairite out-right and open aggressiveness of the last decade and reverted back to its political style of the late 1990s, choosing its targets for foreign meddling a little more carefully and aiming at countries which the political classes in Britain would find much more agreeable, such as Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sudan, all causes for a veritable ‘white mans burden’. As a result Brown’s speech at annual Labour conference this week was noticeable, apart from its vacuousness, for barely mentioning Iraq and Afghanistan or his former boss’s name.

On the second day Foreign Secretary Miliband then tried to present Labour, not as a government trying to dominate the Muslims, which is what some ‘very educated’ Pakistanis told him, but a champion of their rights. With the intention of coming across as a liberator of Muslims, he spoke in favour of including Turkey in the EU, resolving the Kosovo issue and also helping the people of Darfur in Sudan. The message was reinforced by the politically correct photo opportunity of a Muslim woman complete with headscarf from Darfur who delivered a speech preceding Miliband’s. He gave assurances that there were mistakes made vis-à-vis Iraq; what they were we were not told but we assured us that it was ‘time to learn and move on’. It is expedient for Labour to ‘move on’ from their former debacles in Iraq, but what lessons have they learnt? If the public are ignorant as to knowing what all this really means, if it means anything at all, is it right that we should forget the fact that it was these very same people who were leading ministers in the Labour government under Blair and as such politically leading the charge into Iraq. Surely the Iraqi and Afghani people deserve of a lot more than a momentary reassurance that some mysterious lessons have been learnt.

It was left to Defence Secretary Des Browne to expand on what lessons Labour have possibly learnt from the past ten years in office. Echoing Karzai and the UK ambassador to Afghanistan, he talked of engaging the Taliban in a peace process as like Hamas, the Taliban are not going away. He also argued that Afghanistan is unlikely to be able to sustain a western style democracy and that its legal and political system will have to be rooted in Islamic law. At first sight this seems to be encouraging as undeniably peace cannot be reached in Palestine or in Afghanistan without nationalist forces which reject the occupation being engaged in a process towards independence. Unfortunately Browne’s subsequent comments made clear that there is no real desire on part of the British to leave in Afghanistan in peace; he argued that Britain will have to remain there for ‘at least decades if not generations’, and that the campaign was one of the ‘noblest causes of the 21st Century’.

In fact Browne’s comments about engaging the Taliban are not dissimilar to what the occupation forces are attempting to do in Iraq; a counter-insurgency tactic to divide the resistance off from one another so as to weaken and strategically defeat it. During the Vietnamese war this was known as the ‘Nixon doctrine’, or put more simply ‘getting Asians to fight Asians’. It has often been the case in armed conflicts that when an occupying army is unable to win by outright brute force other political means are used to attempt to weaken the insurgents, this is what is partly taking place in Iraq today and what is being attempted in Afghanistan. History has shown that in a context of an occupation by a big nation of a small one, the forces of national resurgence are often stronger than that of those who succumb to the enticements of the occupying forces. This was recently and infamously exemplified by the assassination of Iraqi Sunni tribal leader turned US ally, Abu Risha. As for the NATO cause in Afghanistan being one of the noblest of this century, Labour seems unable to learn the lessons from experiences of over one hundred and fifty years, let alone the last ten. The nineteenth century in Afghanistan is replete with examples of the British failing to subdue a people who in response harassed and chased them away time and time again. Many Afghanis are adamant that this too will be the fate of the NATO occupation of their country.

The Labour Government seems to be coordinating its tactical approach with the US, as witnessed by Bush’s address at the UN General Assembly where he hardly mentioned Iraq or the Middle East and focused instead on Myanmar, a thinly veiled attempt by the West at pushing the Chinese around in the lead up to the Olympics. This avoidance of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is due to the insurgents in these countries having made these military campaigns by the West an embarrassment, something to be avoided at all costs in the media and at diplomatic conferences, rather than any noble cause to be paraded in public which they hoped it would be. Labour has returned to its humanitarian populist rhetoric of the late 1990s, but remains deeply involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its honeymoon period in government in the late 1990s was followed by a period in which it dropped more bombs than all previous British governments combined since the Second World War. Today US and UK standing in the world is a great deal more shaky than it was in the 1990s as a result of the moral and military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and only a person betraying a profound sense of naivety can say that they will not resort to aggression once more to shore up their precarious position in the world.

*Sukant Chandan is a London-based freelance journalist, researcher and political analyst. He runs two websites: and and can be contacted at

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