Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Silk Road, Iron Horse, Copper Wire

. . . or connectivity in Afghanistan.

Having read today’s New York Times article about China’s copper mining project in Afghanistan, a project to develop not just a copper mine, but a power station, a coal mine, and a railway line from the country’s northern border with Uzbekistan to its southeastern border with Pakistan, I had an appetite for more background, and found Railways of Afghanistan. What ever did I waste my time on before the internet?

Will China build the railway? Maybe. Will they be first to build a moon base? That might be just as likely.

Sunday, 27 December 2009


Some posts on the continuing violent suppression of opposition in Iran.

Tehran Bureau: Ashura 101


The New York Times News Blog: Updates on Protests and Clashes in Iran
Andrew Sullivan: The Day of Ashura

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas No.1

Here at Amazons H.Q. the top hit of the season is John Dog
singing It Could Be Christmas Outside (I Don’t Know).

Bells are ringing, or so somebody said,
Angels are singing alright, in my head,
Manhattan could be a mountain of snow,
It could be Christmas outside, I don’t know.

I’ve got all I need, I don’t have to check twice,
You may wonder indeed, if she’s naughty or nice,
Wrapped now in neither a ribbon nor bow,
It could be Christmas outside, I don't know.

I suppose we could go for a walk in the park
And watch as 5th Avenue twinkles and glows
But I’d rather stay here where it’s warm and it’s dark
And replay that night where you stepped on my toes
On Amsterdam Avenue . . .

Hear the song on John Dog’s MySpace page.

Lyrics copyright © John Dog.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Dan Turèll and Donald Duck

Donald Duck and the Ghost of the Grotto
An excerpt from a Danmarks Radio interview with Dan Turèll, for the TV programme Rubrik, 1976:

You have written an essay about Donald Duck, and a poem to Uncle Scrooge.

Yes, Donald Duck is a great man. I have said it with the words that in these times where so many offer gurus, and where so many of my own generation suddenly sit on street corners and chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, or run joyous and happy after the plump Maharaji, or go for tests with Scientology, in these times the only anti-guru that we can sensibly use to vaccinate ourselves against all that guru devilry, that must be my great guru, the man who taught me all I know and can do, my personal Maharaji Ji, Donald Duck.

I think Donald Duck is the best example we can take in our everyday lives today, where so many sigh after new and fresh inspiration, because what characterises Donald Duck, and it has characterised him since he came to Denmark in the late ’40s, that is that Donald Duck is always ready every tuesday.

Donald Duck is always being beaten down, Donald Duck gets knocked down by The Beagle Boys, his nephews laugh at him, Gladstone Gander always wins the old sofa at auction where there’s a treasure map hidden away, Uncle Scrooge just orders him about, and tells him that now he has to go over and check on some old railway or other, long derelict and far out in the desert, which hasn’t paid a dividend on its shares in more than thirty years, Daisy Duck laughs at him and is always on the lookout for another better duck, and all the same, despite all this, Donald Duck is ready, and comes down the road, merrily whistling a fresh tune, every tuesday. This time he knows, this time everything will work out, this time he’ll manage it, Uncle Scrooge will admire him, appoint him as sole heir, Daisy will say “Oh, Donald,” and the nephews will look at him with eyes wide with wonder, and tell their friends just what a fantastic uncle they have.

And it doesn’t work out that way, and we all know that it won’t, because by now we’ve known Donald long enough, we know quite well that it will go in the usual way. He gets a job in a bakery and what happens, he happens to mix concrete in the dough ... he gets a job in the zoo as a night watchman, and all the animals escape, and we know it, and he ends up in the Foreign Legion again, and the nephews get a postcard in the final panel, and all the same there he is again next tuesday.

And that’s why I think that Donald Duck is a magnificent example for people of today, who also must be ready to start over with the same indomitability every morning, even though the day before has been so full of violence and loathing, as practically everyone’s days are.

My Translation. Original film copyright © DR.

For more along these lines, read Michael Barrier on The Mystery of Donald Duck, and see his follow up, and to hear Dan Turèll preach the duck faith in Danish, listen to Anders And Evangeliet.

Image: Cover art by Mike Royer, based on an oil painting by Carl Barks. It illustrates the Carl Barks story Donald Duck and the Ghost of the Grotto, first published in 1947. Copyright © The Walt Disney Company.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The cultural levelling of modernity

space colony
This 1995 drawing was for a book review in the Times Higher Education Supplement, where Ivan Tolstoy and Mary Midgley laid into Marshall T Savage’s The Millenial Project: Colonising the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps. The drawing tried to make a point separate from the review, one that my friend John Dog picked up on in a song. Here’s Space is so Expensive:

Of course, despite all the kvetching, both Mr Dog and I would be on that flight if only we could afford the ticket.

Wake up, Kitty Admiral!

Another drawing of the Kitty Admiral for Bo.

Our young cat comes from a long line of admirals. Here for example is Admiral Purry, who appears in one of the illustrations from Little Golden Book No. 1, Three Little Kittens, from 1942, with art by Masha.

Three Little Kittens art copyright © 1942 by Simon and Schuster, Inc., and Artists and Writers Guild, Inc.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Code Pink’s misfire on Afghan women

That’s the headline on a piece by Wazhma Frogh And Lauryn Oates. An excerpt:
In October, the women's antiwar organization, Code Pink, went to Afghanistan. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the pink T-shirted women were surprised to learn the overwhelming majority of women do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops from their country. Expecting their counterparts - Afghan activists fighting for peace and gender equality - to support their demands, they were confronted with the problem that perhaps their position has been counterproductive to the Afghan women's movement, or even wrong.


Code Pink's modus operandi is symptomatic of a western feminism that is not rooted in values of global solidarity, but is self-interested, insular and shamefully relativist. It is based on tribalism and rejects internationalist values. In this feminism, emancipation is only for western women - not for women in places like Afghanistan.

On Oct. 12, the New York Times reported that Code Pink would stick to its position of calling for troop withdrawal. Even when the shrillest "antiwar" pseudo-feminists are caught in a direct confrontation with facts exposing the moral bankruptcy of their demands, they recoil from the duty of solidarity with Afghan women in struggle.
Read the rest. Via Terry Glavin, who has much more on the topic.

And here’s an account from Sara Davidson who joined the Code Pink trip to Afghanistan.

We were a group of eight women and one man organized by Code Pink, Women for Peace, and we arrived in Kabul believing the U.S. should withdraw its troops and spend more money on development.

After eight days, our presumptions were turned upside down, splitting us into camps with conflicting opinions. Some still wanted an exit strategy, but one woman who’s spent 40 years in non-violent peace work reversed her lifelong stand, believing the military should stay and more troops might be helpful. “It shocks me to admit this,” she said.
The UN director has to stop to compose herself. “Her husband called his neighbors to hold his wife down while he chopped off the tips of all her fingers. Then he told his son to punch her in the eyes. When we found her, she was unable to see.” The director shakes her head. “If your neighbors witness something like that, they’ll think twice about going to a hospital.”

We’re subdued as we ride away from the UN office. We’re hearing numerous stories like this, which makes us probe and question our assumptions. Ann Wright, 63, a former army colonel and State Department officer who has kind blue eyes and speaks with a Southern lilt, says, “I have changed a little bit. Before this trip I was leaning toward: let’s get the hell out! Accept the inevitable! Now I feel we have a responsibility—to be part of a security strategy and help provide education and jobs. That’s a far better way to deal with terrorism.”
One of the guests, Anand Gopal of the Wall Street Journal, says the party is the equivalent of “hanging out with Jeb Bush during the Bush years.” He’s not surprised that we’re hearing people say they want U.S. troops to stay. He says there are two Afghanistans: Kabul, with 5 million people, and the provinces with 25 million. In Kabul, people enjoy more freedom than they did under the Taliban and want the U.S. here as a buffer. But in the south, where shooting and bombing are destroying homes and killing civilians, they want the troops out. “Under the Taliban, they had order and peace,” Anand says.

A woman reporter cuts in, “It was the peace of the oppressed.”
Norine adds, “I’d like to see the troops go into Pakistan and rout out the insurgents.” There’s silence at the table. (After the meeting, Ann would say, “Norine lives here and that’s reality. We represent the ideal, and somebody has to hold that.”)

Norine continues, “Here’s another controversial proposal but you’ll like it better: Give all the aid and development money to Afghan women. It will empower them. The men will have to go to them if they want a new well.”

Jodie says, “That’s what we fight for, but we want to do it without troops.”

“You need both,” Norine says.

“If you had to choose between troops and development?” Jodie asks.

“Had to choose? I’d put money on development.”

“Yay!” Jodie says.

This kind of questioning divides our group. Some are upset that the Code Pink leaders are leading people to get the answers they want instead of listening without bias.
Medea and Jodie say the soldiers they talked with want out of Afghanistan fast. “They told us, ‘We hate them and they hate us.’”

I say I didn’t hear anyone speak like that.

“Must be the way we ask questions,” Medea says.

“Must be.”

The death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri

Robert F. Worth writes in The New York Times: Ayatollah Montazeri, Iranian Cleric, Dies at 87
Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the plain-spoken senior Shiite cleric who helped forge Iran’s system of religious government and went on to become a fierce critic of its hard-line rulers, died Sunday morning at the age of 87. He died of heart failure while sleeping in his home in Qum, his son Ahmad told Iran’s official IRNA news agency.

The ayatollah, who was once designated to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader, stepped away from the country’s hard-line path in the 1980s. He later embraced the reform movement, which has come to view him as the spiritual father of its cause.

In the months since Iran’s disputed June presidential elections, he has issued stinging denunciations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, saying the Islamic Republic is neither Islamic nor a republic, and that its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lost his legitimacy. Only two weeks ago, he warned that the Basij militia - which has brutally suppressed opposition street rallies - was forsaking the “path of God” for the “path of Satan.”
Read more.

From BBC News: Crowds gather to mourn reformist Iran cleric Montazeri
Crowds of mourners are gathering in the Iranian city of Qom following the death of leading reformist cleric Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri at 87.

Some pro-reform websites say thousands of people are travelling to the city ahead of Monday’s funeral.

Other unverified reports say opposition supporters are also gathering in some squares in Tehran, fuelling government concern of increased political tension.

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, one of Shia Islam’s most respected figures and a leading critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself said in August that the turmoil following the election “could lead to the fall of the regime”.

He said Iran’s clerical leadership was a dictatorship and issued a fatwa condemning the government after the election.

This is a loss the Greens will mourn in all their courageous glories ... And this is perhaps a death that Khamenei and his ilk should fear most ... without people like Montazeri, the entire religious establishment becomes vulnerable to the Greens fed-upness with clerical rule.
Read more.

More updates from Tehran Bureau.

Background from Pedestrian: Ayatollah Street.

Background from the BBC Radio 4 series, Analysis, October 25th: Ayatollogy
The programme contains an exclusive email interview with one of Shia Islam’s most senior and respected clerics, Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri, who calls on Iran’s clerics to work with political activists to bring about reform and “be in step with the people”.

Background from The New York Times, November 21st: Cleric Wields Religion to Challenge Iran’s Theocracy.

Background at Khordaad 88:

Earlier related post: Iran’s dissenting clerics.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Iranian opposition embrace headscarves

. . . headscarves for men that is. More at Neo-Resistance, Azarmehr, and The Poor Mouth.

Friday, 11 December 2009

In the pink

ice skating robin redbreast
A painting for Pat and Piper.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Monday, 7 December 2009

Friday, 4 December 2009

Paw prints

Much as I’d like to, I’ve no time to ramble on about great issues of the day, such as that speech on which I’ve read this and that complaint, but am myself satisfied. I might say why later, or I might not.

So instead you can listen to John Dog sing Fabulous Girl, watch Oscar Grillo with Rolf Harris, or read Unemployed Dad’s comics. For love, see Pedestrian.

And now back to painting.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Mary Wollstonecraft

I’m too busy just now to read or write much, but am listening to the radio as I paint.

On BBC Radio 3 this week, there has been a short series of essays on Mary Wollstonecraft, the last to be broadcast tonight. You can catch up with the series online, but only for the next couple of days.

They’re all good so far, and the fourth in the series deals with her observations and reactions to the French Revolution, which perhaps makes this a sort of follow up to an earlier post below.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

London Lions

From Messrs Potts and William comes a survey of London’s lions in comic strip form. The Londonist is serialising it, starting here.

More from the pen of Aidan Potts at professorpotts.com.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The BBC on Neda Agha Soltan

Aired in the US under the title A Death in Tehran, as part of the PBS Frontline series, the BBC film on Neda Agha Soltan was broadcast on BBC 2 yesterday and is available online for the next few days, until Tuesday Dec 1st.

I recommend it. (Via Azarmehr.)

Naj of Neo-Resistance places Neda’s death in a longer history of struggle. She writes: Iran’s female icon of resistance was born 193 years ago.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Howard Hawks’s advice to the lovelorn

This is a story from Hawks on Hawks, Joseph McBride’s book of his conversations with the man. Hawks talks of Lauren Bacall, and how before appearing in her first film, To Have and Have Not, she trained her voice for months to deepen it, under his direction.

As well as concerning himself with her training as an actress, Howard Hawks also gave advice on her love life:
We used to have a party out at the house on Saturday night. While she was waiting around, she came out, and when it was all over, she was standing there. I had to give her a ride home. And I said, ‘Can’t you get a ride yourself so that I can get tight and not have to drive you back? She said, ‘I don’t do too well with men.’ I said, ‘What do you do, are you nice to ’em?’ She said, ‘Nice as I can be.’ And I said, Maybe that’s wrong. Why don’t you try not being nice? Why don’t you try to insult them?’ So the next Saturday night she came over kind of like the cat who’s eaten the canary and said, ‘Well, I got a ride home.’ I said, ‘What happened?’ and she said, Oh, I insulted the man.’ ‘What’d you say to him?’ ‘I asked him where he got his tie. He said, “What do you want to know for?” And I said,“So I can tell people not to go there.” ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘who’s the man?’ She said, ‘Clark Gable.’

And now for your listening pleasure, here’s John Dog singing Lauren Bacall:

Monday, 23 November 2009

Zone 5300 Winter Sale

Rotterdam’s the place this weekend, for original illustration art, prints, t-shirts, signed books, and other bits, bobs and doodles. All at the Zone 5300 Winter Sale, 28 & 29 November, 11am to 6pm, Studio Hergebruik, Coolsingel 53, Rotterdam.

I’ll have a few things on offer there myself, including these paintings rendered for a set of baby books published by Sandvik of Norway.


Friday, 20 November 2009

Kitty Admiral again

More drawings for Bo.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Monday, 16 November 2009

The short of it

Copyright © Chris Riddell.

The above cartoon by Chris Riddell from Sunday’s issue of The Observer was picked out by Flesh is Grass. She writes, Abandoning Afghans doesn’t mean ‘peace’, and points to a post at Harry’s Place, Abandoning Afghans: Not in my name.

She also mentions watching for what I have to say.

The short of it: I agree. Some fighting is necessary. Failure is not an acceptable option. A more terrible war awaits if this one ends badly.

The last couple of Afghanistan posts here have been links to rather long videos of discussions on how to work towards political progress and reconciliation. I’ve been doing more listening than writing on this, partly because of work pressure, but also because the complexities are such that it seems more interesting to point to people with direct knowledge.

That said, it should still possible to form a view on basic principles despite not having personally grown a beard and walked the length of Afghanistan drinking tea with the tribes.

There is an old chestnut that never goes away about there being no military solution in a conflict like this, only a political one. And it’s half true.

The problem is with the other half, the half made up of an enemy which believes very much in a military solution, or a terror solution. Before anyone can negotiate with them, this enemy has to actually recognise that there is no military solution available to them, and to reach that point they will have to be fought. Fighting them isn’t the solution in itself, but it’s a necessary part of creating the conditions for a political solution, or as may be more likely, the multiple political solutions necessary in a conflict this complex.

There are many things that can go wrong, but the worst would be for leaders of the 42 countries contributing to ISAF in Afghanistan to lose heart. Some of those leaders are of course more vital than others. Many are facing a hostile press and a doubtful public. The response by UK and US leaders has been to emphasise the terrorist threat. But as Steve Coll of The New Yorker spells out, a repeat of past terrorism isn’t the half of what we may face if we fail.

Now more links:

First, here’s another long video, David Kilcullen and Andrew Wilder speaking at the United States Institute of Peace on Theory Meets Practice: Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, from the beginning of August. There is particular detail on problems in the aid effort, problems in political structures, and of course corruption, corruption, and complexity. More recently David Kilcullen appeared on BBC World Service Radio’s The Forum. (Via AM.)

And finally The Canada-Afghanistan Blog on Malalai Joya, and Ghosts of Alexander on Biden Plan in inaction in Nuristan. Speaking of which, may I suggest the Biden Plan be renamed the Gaza Plan for Afghanistan? Y’know, abandon the ground and the population to the enemy and then try to contain them with air strikes and hit and run operations. No fence though, so no tunnels. And a much bigger territory. Oh boy.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Thursday, 12 November 2009

More on talking to the Taliban

Following on from an earlier post, here’s Michael Semple again, this time together with Gilles Dorronsoro and Joanna Nathan, Afghanistan specialists all, talking at the Center for American Progress on the topic of Reconciliation and Insurgency, Political Strategies in the Afghan War.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


pogo by walt kelly armistice day 1953
For the day that is in it.

See also The Poor Mouth on the casualties of the last day, the last few hours and minutes.

From the collection Phi Beta Pogo by Walt Kelly.
Copyright © The Walt Kelly Estate.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Beatles’ London

Next week, on Thursday 19th November at 7pm in the National Portrait Gallery, London, there will be a talk on London Beatles photos and the locations where they were taken. Details here.

It will be presented by Piet Schreuders, Mark Lewisohn and Adam Smith, co-authors of the book The Beatles’ London. Mr Lewisohn and Mr Smith can bee seen above engaged in their meticulous researches.

There is more to be found on the many interests of Mr Schreuders in these posts.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Sadie at The Illustration Cupboard, London

ski plane
This year’s Winter Show at The Illustration Cupboard, London, will include a number of original paintings from my picture book.

The show runs from 19 November 2009 to 31 January 2010 at The Illustration Cupboard, 22 Bury St, St James’s, London SW1, with late night openings until 7.30pm every Thursday until Christmas.

There are some rather fabulous artists included in the show, for example Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne, Angela Barrett, Babette Cole, Lauren Child, Nick Park, Hergé, and also rare prints by Maurice Sendak to be had. For more details, visit the gallery website.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Today is 13 Aban

Coverage of today’s protests in Iran on The Guardian News Blog, Tehran Bureau, Raye Man Kojast, Azarmehr, Revolutionary Road, BBC News, and at Enduring America.

In The New York Times today, From Heroes to State Enemies.
Mohsen Mirdamadi had been applauded as a hero by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for helping to lead the takeover of the United States Embassy in Iran 30 years ago Wednesday.

Today, he is in prison, accused as an enemy of the state.

Mr. Mirdamadi’s crime was working as a leader of the reform movement, specifically as the general secretary of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party.

But he is hardly alone among former hostage-takers who now find themselves under suspicion and siege by the authorities. As Iran marks the anniversary of an event that helped define its political identity, many former hostage-takers and their allies are committed to the political opposition, and therefore pose a credible threat to the leadership’s legitimacy, analysts said.

“The fact that so many of the students of ’79 eventually came to a reformist position in Iranian politics is not such a mystery when you remember that the reformist position in Iranian politics is not necessarily a pro-Western position,” said Michael Axworthy, a former British diplomat and Iran expert who lectures at the University of Exeter.
Read the rest.

See previous post for more background.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Tomorrow is 13 Aban

At Tehran Bureau, Tara Mahtafar explains:
To the outside world, street protests in Iran appear to have died down since summer ended. Yet the opposition movement, driven underground, has strategically slated mass turnouts for calendar dates such as September’s Qods Day, which turned the government’s annual tradition of anti-Israel rallies on its head. By targeting dates of historic significance to the regime, opposition supporters aim to ‘subvert’ ideological symbols touted for 30 years by the Islamic Republic and thereby re-brand that date as an ideology-free ‘green’ day, the trademark color of the country's burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

Far from being “spontaneous” as some in the Western media described the last instance when, by many estimates, hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets, anti-government demonstrations are laboriously planned and promoted a month beforehand, originating online, as ever, and transmitted on the ground by word-of-mouth, leaflets, and other creative ways.

The next major rally date is November 4, known as 13 Aban on the Iranian calendar, which marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran.

At Rooz Online: Be Present on November 4, by Hamed Irani:
In his statement number 14, Mir-Hossein Mousavi invited people to turn November 4 into the greenest day of the year with their presence. Various reports also point to the issuance of a statement by Mehdi Karoubi inviting people to participate in the November 4 rallies.

November 4 is the anniversary of the U.S. embassy takeover in Tehran. The opposition seeks to turn the day into a day of protest against the regime. Meanwhile, police have declared that opposition protesters cannot take part in rallies “without a permit,” and the Basij organization has announced that it will send three million of its members to the streets to “foil the enemies’ conspiracy.”

Also interesting reading: Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s statement for 13 Aban (scroll down). For more on Montazeri and other clerical dissenters in Iran, see this earlier post. For more comment on the context of Montazeri’s statement, see Neo-Resistance.

Pedestrian has some details of leaflets and other preparations for protests here and here.

Raye Man Kojast has a number of videos of today’s buildup amongst students in preperation for 13 Aban, and Enduring America has more links than I can handle.

The regime has prepared for the protesters by creating their own ersatz version of the Green Movement: see Pedestrian here and here, and Azarmehr here.

Solidarity protests will be taking place outside Iran. Harry’s Place gives details for London, 6-9 pm Wed 4th Nov, outside the Iranian embassy, 16 Prince’s Gate, London SW7.

Historical background: at Tehran Bureau, The Hostage Crisis 30 Years On, by Muhammad Sahimi. And linked to in an earlier post, part one of the BBC’s Iran & the West also deals with the hostage crisis.

All Iran posts here.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Don’t open that door!

This month’s song from John Dog is
When There Was A World Outside.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Three from Arja Kajermo

arja kajermo in dublin
After a recent morbid exchange on an issue of blame, I was reminded of the above strip, my favourite of many by Dublin’s leading Finnish cartoonist, Arja Kajermo. (Click image to enlarge.)

Regarding God and his mam in the last panel, as Iraqi Mojo will explain, America is God now.

arja kajermo in dublin
In the hunt through back issues of In Dublin magazine for the first strip, I also found this one, on terrorists infiltrating RTE television programmes.

From 1977 to 1993 Ireland’s national broadcaster was explicitly prohibited from broadcasting statements by spokespersons for Sinn Féin, the Provisional IRA, or other proscribed terrorist organisations under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act. There were a number of breaches of this, as explained in a snippet from The Irish Emigrant, March 27 1988:

The young reporter who compiled the report that had Martin McGuinness speaking on the air was dismissed by RTE on Monday. Jenny McGeever has now taken the matter to the High Court and has been given leave to apply for a judicial review of her dismissal. No action is being taken against the editor and assistant editor of the programme. McGeever was a freelance reporter on contract to RTE. She is claiming that she could not report effectively if she did not tape interviews with various people. The fact that one of these interviews went out on the air was simply an oversight caused by the pressure to have the story ready for transmission.

This news item gave rise to a couple of related stories. The Gay Byrne morning radio programme was investigating the impact of emigration on families. He invited to the studio a woman whose husband had emigrated because he could not find work. After the programme was broadcast it was discovered that the woman was a member of Sinn Fein. The other programme under the eye of the press and politicians is “Questions and Answers.” This programme goes out on television on Sunday nights and is hosted by Olivia O’Leary. The format consists of a panel of politicians and other personalities giving their opinions on issues raised by individuals in an audience drawn from members of the public who apply for tickets. Members of Sinn Fein appear to have been particularly successful in obtaining tickets.
RTE’s Questions and Answers programme used the same format as the BBC’s Question Time, so there’s topicality for you.

arja kajermo in dublin
Finally, the perfect portrayal of Dublin life as I remember it from those days. For more, have a look at Arja’s place.

All comics copyright © Arja Kajermo.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

“I rang up the Taliban in Quetta and complained”

Video: Talking Helmand, the Political Officer’s advice for armies campaigning in the Pashtoon heartland.

Ghosts of Alexander points to this very interesting talk by Michael Semple last month at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Abu Muqawama picks up on it too.

Michael Semple received a degree of press attention when working in Afghanistan as the acting representative for the EU. In December 2007, along with a UN official, he was arrested and expelled by the government of Hamid Karzai because of talks he was conducting with Taliban-linked elements in Helmand. From The Guardian:
Semple told the Guardian that he and the UN official Mervyn Patterson, who was also expelled, were victims of local politics. He said a local leader in Helmand province falsely blamed them for talking to what he described as “one of the irreconcilables” in the conflict. They had, he said, opened no such channel to al-Qaida-linked Taliban.

“There is a critical difference between what is discreet and what is covert,” Semple said. “What we were doing was simply discreet because that was what was required. But it was totally in line with official policy to bring people in from the cold.”
In the Carr Center talk, Michael Semple gives a glimpse of his long and colourful past in Afghanistan, then talks about a recent attack in Ganjgal, and how it illustrates the local political complexities that need to be navigated in order to understand events.

He looks back at the success and failure of the political officers of Britain’s Victorian forays into Afghanistan, particularly Mohan Lal. He goes on to compare their actions with the work of the current day equivalent of the political officer in Afghanistan, and discusses the wide range of topics that a political officer needs to cover in briefing military units on their way to a place like Helmand.

At this point Rory Stewart of the Carr Center, who introduced the talk, challenges him on why he would want to work for the military, why he would want to help bring about a military victory, and what his wider aim is. Michael Semple responds as follows (edited for repetitions/clarifications):
Why I think it’s interesting today is partly because of the difference between the J2 [intelligence officer] and the political officer. For me the attraction of the political officer is that although inevitably nowadays, because there is a military component in the intervention in Afghanistan, they have some kind of relationship with the military whether they’re working directly with the military as a POLAD, or whether they are meeting with the military like a UNAMA political officer like in my days as a political officer with UNAMA, that for the political officer the military is one small part of our intervention and the preference is for civilian forms of action, and there is an assumption that such goals as we’d like to achieve [..] the political officer believes that it is possible to pursue that through political means, through a process of reconciling rather than pursuing conflicts, of cutting across all different sides in a conflict, and relying on the military for specific tasks.
I feel that with the spread of counterinsurgency doctrine it’s as if the political officer is being squeezed out of existence, and is being turned into this POLAD who’s never really going to be able to get things done. If a political officer really just were a J2, somebody who both is a good intelligence analyst, a reasonable field operator, and can give a few bits of good advice to the commander, I don't think i would have wanted to be one. If I was happy to be one, it’s because the idea that we can pursue politics [while] keeping counterinsurgency sort of intellectually at bay with the idea that an integrated approach to achieve legitimate ends does not mean subordinating all civilian action, either politically or intellectually, to the demands of a counterinsurgency doctrine or the command of the military, but actually in an integrated approach we primarily do politics with political officers giving some ideas on how it should be done, and co-ordinate with the military action.
Incidentally, Rory Stewart of the Carr Center who asked that question, and also introduced the talk, is not short of ground level experience in Afghanistan either. He is a sceptic when it comes to General McChrystal’s plan for US-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, primarily because he views it as unsustainable over the long term due to American domestic politics, and his main concern is that whatever action is taken, it needs to be long term as the problems in Afghanistan are deeper than deep.

I think Rory Stewart’s analysis as outlined in this interview has a couple of problems.The idea that domestic political resistance is directly related to the scale of deployment seems to me over-simplistic. Factors such as the electorate’s understanding and support for strategic aims, confidence or otherwise in success, perceptions of the effect on the local population, and of course military casualties; all these would seem more important in deciding the strength of domestic opposition.

As well as that, his use of troop number figures seems somewhat selective, leaving out the number of troops already deployed.

Rory Stewart’s colleague at the Carr Center, Tyler Moselle, also argues against McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan in this opinion piece for the Financial Times, maintaining that a counterinsurgency strategy would increase resistance by serving as “a rallying call for global jihadists” and arguing instead for a counterterrorism campaign based on drone strikes and special forces raids. But drone strikes are not the surgical cost-free option they seem, and can also lead to increased alienation and support for insurgents in the population.

As for special forces raids, that is of course General McChrystal’s speciality, and he doesn’t see it as a route to resolution, only to endless killing. The insurgency in Iraq wasn’t subdued by the killing of Saddam’s sons, nor by the capture of Saddam himself, nor by the killing of Musab al-Zarqawi.

Where Tyler Moselle’s argument is harder to dismiss is on the current government of Afghanistan. The military’s purpose cannot be to prop up Hamid Karzai. Hopefully US and NATO leaders understand this. The question is whether they can muster political resources to match the military ones proposed by McChrystal so as to advance beyond the current position.

And this brings us back to Michael Semple’s talk.

The next question to Michael Semple from the audience is on the corrupted first round of the presidential election. He discusses this at length, covering the role of UNAMA, both its leadership and its leading dissenter, the role of the US, the actions of Karzai, legitimate as well as illegitimate, as well as the history of elections in Afghanistan, and what needs to happen next.

He argues that the US has not shown sufficient political understanding of Afghanistan, is “not good enough at applying the non-military tools of influence,” and he argues for more of a political officer approach.

So counterinsurgency in itself will not be enough. Increased political sophistication within the military will not be enough. Kabul-centric deals will not be enough. The challenge will be to find political solutions that reach down to ground level: to implement a population centric political strategy to go beyond the military’s population centric COIN strategy.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Send in the women

As noted earlier, Tom Ricks has been writing on the particular value of women soldiers in counterinsurgency warfare. He received a response from Corporal Nicole M Zook, a US Marine deployed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, who wrote of her experiences with Female Engagement Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. An excerpt:
These young ladies understand that through the FETs, they are being given the opportunity to make a connection and make a difference with Afghan women. Many times I see male Marines come to the Middle East with the attitude that everyone here is an enemy, and killing is the only answer. The FET volunteers care about the people of Afghanistan, and Iraq, as individuals, on a human level, with no preformed prejudice. That is why the program works so well. FETs go in with the right attitude, and the people know this. They are instantly welcoming, and we can see the difference we make among the women and children of Afghanistan firsthand - and we know that, in turn, they are making a difference among the nation's men through their family connections.

The powers that be are calling for more troops in Afghanistan. I agree, wholeheartedly. But let them be the right kind of troops. What we need, more than just bodies, are EOD technicians, able-bodied interpreters, counterintelligence specialists, and FET volunteers. Lots and lots of FET volunteers.

The topic is now receiving coverage elsewhere. On October 13th, The Takeaway discussed women in counterinsurgency with Army Reserve Maj. Paula Broadwell, researcher at the Center for Public Leadership; and retired Army Sgt. Genevieve Chase, founder of American Women Veterans, and today the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Paula Broadwell.

Those last two items found via Akinoluna’s blog on military women. She adds her own comments on the New York Times article.

Meanwhile, over on The Helmand Blog, there was a recent story on Sergeant Isabella McManus, MoD police, and her successful work mentoring policewomen in Afghanistan. Which leads to another thought. Last spring it was reported that Iran’s national police chief had stated his force’s readiness to help in training police in Afghanistan. Could he perhaps be persuaded to send these women officers?

Iran’s dissenting clerics

Yesterday’s broadcast from BBC Radio 4’s Analysis series, Ayatollogy:
Edward Stourton asks if a battle over theology could help bring about the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The demonstrations have been suppressed and the president is still in power, so has the storm that blew up in Iran after this summer's elections been stilled? Far from it, and now the opposition is coming from where you'd least expect. Some of the country's top theologians and clergymen think that President Ahmadinejad is doing grave damage to the standing of Islam and they want him out.


Below are some background links on clerical dissent mostly collected from earlier Iran posts.

Translations from the words of dissident cleric Mohsen Kadivar: On the Role of the Leader, and Where are the Ayatollahs? An excerpt:
Which Islam? The Black Islam or the Green Islam? The Islam of Ayatollah Montazeri or the Islam of Ayatollah Khamenei? the Islam of Mousavi or the Islam of Jannati? The Islam of Mesbah Yazdi or the Islam of Sanei?

There’s a world of difference here, do not put everything under one category. The ruling system in Iran has behaved tyrannically in the name of Islam, that’s a correct assessment and those who have suffered the most are these Muslims themselves.

Consider this: Iranian Christians in Tehran have their own churches, but Sunni Muslims in Tehran, in Mashad, in Qom, in Tabriz, … they are not allowed to have their own mosques. Dervish Iranians are not permitted to have places of worship in religious cities in Iran, like in Qom, in Mashad. These are Muslims. We have Jewish synagogues, but as a Sunni Muslim or Dervish Muslim, we can not have our own places of worship.

Or consider this, I have the same religion and same faith as these gentlemen [Shia Islam], but I don’t agree with their stance on anything. If I want to go for the Fetr or Ghorban prayer, if I want to go for Friday prayer, I have no place to go in Tehran. In the Shah’s time, Ayatollah Taleqani had his own mosque, Hedayat Mosque. In the Islamic Republic, we do not have an inch of space for ourselves. They’ve turned all mosques into government and state mosques.

This is the way this system treats the Muslims, the Shi’a Muslims, the Sunni Muslims, the dervish Muslims.

Defending the Islamic Republic by Any Means?! Translation of an article by cleric Mohammad Motahari.

Iran Arrests Children of Dissident Clerics, New York Times, 15 September.

Christopher Hitchens on the connectivity between Shi’ite dissent in Iran and Shi’ite clerics in Iraq.

Reject the rule of the dead, on Iraqi cleric and parliamentarian Iyad Jamal Al-Din.

The Ayatollahs Love to Write Letters, and Pedestrian runs to keep up.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Charlie Bone et le château des Miroirs

charlie bone jenny nimmo
Copies arrived in the post today of this, the French edition of Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors, with cover and 21 interior line illustrations by yours truly. Available at Amazon France.

For all Charlie Bone posts, click here.

charlie bone jenny nimmo

Friday, 16 October 2009

Once so important and fiercely contested

In the LA Times, Iraq’s plan for referendum on U.S. pullout fades.
Sunni Muslim politicians had wanted the referendum on the U.S.-Iraqi security pact to be conducted in January, at the same time as national elections. But with the clock ticking on preparations for the elections and the parliament still deadlocked over a new election law, there no longer is time to also draft and approve the legislation required to simultaneously hold a referendum, legislators say.

Perhaps more significant, the political will to hold a referendum appears to have evaporated amid the realization that U.S. troops are leaving anyway, and that it may not be in Iraq’s interests to have them pull out even sooner.

“The political blocs are no longer interested in this issue. They want to ignore it because they are busy with the elections. They don't see it as something they could use to their advantage,” said Salim Jabouri, spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, which previously insisted on a referendum.


“We still have concerns that Iraq does need American forces to be on the ground. The challenge of Iran still exists, and also the people are not confident in the performance of the Iraqi security forces,” Jabouri said. “I can’t say we want the Americans to stay [until the deadline] because that could cause some misunderstandings. But I will say that if they stay, it will have its advantages.”
More at the LA Times, via the SWJ.

Previous post on this topic: Signals and noise 3.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Pilger links

Reading this, I felt it necessary to gather together links on a few John Pilger stories that had stuck in the mind over the years:

Martin Shaw, Research Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, on Pilger's downplaying of Saddam Hussein's responsibility in the suffering of the Iraqi people.

BBC special correspondent John Sweeney on the same topic.

Historian Marko Attila Hoare on Pilger's denial of genocide in Kosovo.

Martin Shaw on the same topic. (Also here.)

Ian Black, diplomatic editor of The Guardian, writing on Pilger's conspiracy theories about NATO action in Kosovo in 1999. The column by Pilger that he was responding to is here.

Pilger's support for those deliberately targeting civilians in Iraq.

Pilger's defence of the deliberate targeting of civilians in Israel.

Added, Pilger misrepresents the views of Independent Jewish Voices. (Thanks to Flesh is Grass.)

Added, 1 March 2010, Oliver Kamm on John Pilger’s approval of Gilad Atzmon:
“I’d like to know - and I invite him to comment on it - why Pilger is citing this bigot as a voice of conscience and an advocate of justice.”
More on Pilger and Atzmon at Engage and the CST blog.

Added, 10 June 2010, Michael Ezra takes on just one paragraph from  Pilger’s latest cornucopia of conspiracy theory. This is on the Vietnam War, though the Pilger New Statesman piece it comes from, The way to lie about another war, also raves on about Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Japan, and Oxbridge, all sites of “master illusions” and “black propaganda”. Oh yes, the quotation marks come thick and heavy in this piece of “journalism”. See also Mick Harley’s comments.

Another collection of Pilger links can be found on David Thompson’s blog, including one to a post by Tim Blair in 2004 reproducing Pilger’s declarations that American, British and Australian soldiers in Iraq were “legitimate targets”, and that:
“I think the situation in Iraq is so dire that unless the United States is defeated there that we’re likely to see an attack on Iran, we’re likely to see an attack on North Korea and all the way down the road it could be even an attack on China within a decade.”

Oliver Kamm collected criticisms of Pilger’s documentaries on Cambodia and on nuclear weapons in his 2006 post, Celebrating John Pilger.

Added, 19 December 2010, lawyer David Allen Green provides a legal commentary on Pilger on Assange. (Via Shiraz Socialist.)

Added, 5 June 2011, Denying Rwanda: An Open Letter to John Pilger, by Adam Jones PhD, author of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Publishers 2010. (Via Max Dunbar.)

Added, 16 September 2011, Decline and Fall, Peter Ryley on Pilger and Libya.

Added, 30 October 2011, “Most egregious” competition, Gene of Harry’s Place compares comments by right wing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and John Pilger, on the Obama administration’s intervention against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

A commenter responding to that post helpfully links to a 2008 article by Sunny Hundal, The racist flip side of anti-imperialism, which begins:
What do Ralph Nader, John Pilger and Ayman al-Zawahiri have in common?

Before Barack Obama has even taken office or signed a single bill, all three have dismissed him as a sellout by using racial slurs. One might be tempted to say, “at least give the guy a chance,” but that would be a futile exercise.

The activist Ralph Nader and documentary filmmaker John Pilger both referred to him as an “Uncle Tom”, while, more recently, al-Qaida No 2 al-Zawahiri said Obama was “the direct opposite of honorable black Americans” like Malcolm X, and lumped Obama together with Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as “house slaves”.
The Pilger column referred to is here.

Kitty Admiral

A drawing for Bo.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Counterinsurgency on the screen

Above, broadcast on PBS yesterday, a Frontline documentary on Afghanistan, Obama’s War. There’s a discussion on the programme at Abu Muqawama.

Below, from 1961, counterinsurgency in Sicily: Salvatore Giuliano, directed by Francesco Rosi. Available on YouTube, but watch the DVD to do it justice.

I also highly recommend Rosi’s Hands Over the City on politics and corruption in Naples. (Thanks to HJ for suggesting them.)

salvatore giuliano

salvatore giuliano
salvatore giuliano
salvatore giuliano
salvatore giuliano
salvatore giuliano

Update: the SWJ has started compiling a long list of COIN-related films.

Financial frolics

The personal finance pages are not the most amusing section of a newspaper even in good times. These drawings were an attempt to give levity to such dull care, all commissioned for the Sunday Telegraph around the turn of the century.

With a couple of them, I’ve happily forgotten what the point of it all was.

These were all rendered in ballpoint pen and liquid watercolour washes.

Something to do with balancing risk and reward, I guess.

Even on a nice country walk there is no escape from financial worry.

Always consult an independent financial advisor, like this one.

More financial advice in this earlier post.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Women in COIN

Tom Ricks on the advantages of deploying women soldiers in counterinsurgency operations, via the SWJ.

Added: Akinoluna, a female US marine, posts regular round-ups of military women in the media, the latest here. (Also via Alec.)

Earlier related posts:

Saturday, 10 October 2009


At Tehran Bureau, My Uncle’s Wife by Noah Arjomand, one of his Stories from Away.

Drawing from StairCaseNotes, copyright © Susanna Jacobs.

Friday, 9 October 2009


Alec and Mick on the Nobel Prize for Good Intentions.

And in the comments at Harry’s Place, Mesquito responds:
Meanwhile, his government at this VERY MOMENT is bombing the shit out of the fucking MOON!
But Norm sees justification for the award.

Added, Yoni Brenner in the NYT: Norwegian Word.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Code Pink rethinks Afghanistan

‘Code Pink’ rethinks its call for Afghanistan pullout
In Afghanistan, the US women’s activist group finds that their Afghan counterparts want US troop presence – as well as more reconstruction.

By Aunohita Mojumdar, correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 2009

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - When Medea Benjamin stood up in a Kabul meeting hall this weekend to ask Masooda Jalal if she would prefer more international troops or more development funds, the cofounder of US antiwar group Code Pink was hoping her fellow activist would support her call for US troop withdrawal.

She was disappointed.

Ms. Jalhal, the former Afghan minister of women, bluntly told her both were needed. “It is good for Afghanistan to have more troops – more troops committed with the aim of building peace and against war, terrorism, and security – along with other resources,” she answered. “Coming together they will help with better reconstruction.”

Code Pink, founded in 2002 to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, is one of the more high-profile women's antiwar groups being forced to rethink its position as Afghan women explain theirs: Without international troops, they say, armed groups could return with a vengeance – and that would leave women most vulnerable.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A cup of tea

cup of tea
I’m feeling much better now, thank you.

Walking forwards, looking backwards

Amongst all the hundreds of opinion pieces on Afghanistan that attempt to draw lessons from some snippet of history, this post by Steve Coll of The New Yorker is unusual and interesting: Gorbachev Was Right.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

On the NATO Channel

Via The Helmand Blog, three films on Afghan women in business:

More video from the warmongering western imperialists: Women of Hope, and A Clinic Called Maryam.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Bob’s Iran linkorama

Bob from Brockley keeps the focus on the fight for democracy in his Iran linkorama. Highly recommended.

On the nuclear issue, visit Arms Control Wonk for all the detail you can handle on technologies and legalities. There are a whole run of posts on Iran, and it’s ongoing.

Some guy with a fancy title argues in the Telegraph for sanctions based on human rights violations rather than the nuclear issue. Not via the UN Security Council you don’t, Russia and China would never agree to it.

Comment on why supporting political change within Iran seems the only realistic path forward right now comes from Eliot A. Cohen in the WSJ. (Ignore the headline and sub-head, the opinion editor can’t have read the piece to the end.) How to effectively support political change is another question.

As well as being very clear on the downsides of military action, Mr Cohen is very skeptical on the efficacy of economic sanctions. Certainly when dictatorial regimes endure economic sanctions for years on end, you start to wonder whether they actually help a regime to contain and control their population, rather than help the population overthrow the regime.

Might not dropping economic sanctions in some cases actually be more of a disruption for a repressive regime than continuing them?

The need for the Security Council to take into account the welfare of Iran’s population in considering sanctions has already been publicly raised by Bernard Kouchner and others. As well as carefully weighing new sanctions, existing economic sanctions should be reassessed, and where ineffective in promoting change they should be dropped, not through negotiations with the regime (which would make it a win for the regime), but without conditions in a display of solidarity with the people of Iran.