Hard News by Russell Brown

Grim reality

A couple of people have asked me who "Gordy" is - and Gordon Dryden was, understandably, concerned that people might think it was him. No. Gordy is Gordon King, aka NZ Pundit, leading local representative of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Gordy can be worth reading sometimes - when he manages to get himself off the message of the day from Neocon Central - but he seems to think about me a lot. He's even running a competition inviting parodies of a paragraph from Monday's Hard News post, which had exercised him earlier in the week. (The offending lines were: "I saw some Iraqi teenage girls gathering before the march set off, and I was struck by how much they had the look and the body language of any teenage girls; just with headscarves.")

I confess I actually couldn't see why the paragraph should have provoked such excitement. I even had to look up "terzain" and "aporia". It was purely an observation: apart from the headscarves they looked and acted just like any other teenage girls. I wasn't particularly trying to make a point, but clearly a nerve was struck. Perhaps my thoughts are more banal than I could ever understand. Or perhaps they all doth protest too much.

It seems quite popular. I can only take such a degree of enthusiasm as a compliment (they seem to read me remarkably closely), but some of the entries say a lot more about their authors than they say about me. Some seem unduly personal, even a bit nasty. (And penis jokes? Please.) I'm having a trying week, and to be honest, I could do without this. Still, I suppose if they're obsessing about me they're not out scaring children or something.

Anyway, the security situation in Iraq appears to have deteriorated still further with the grotesque attacks in Basra. Is it al-Qaeda? Who knows? The intent - if any clear one can be divined - would seem to be to further deter the locals from having anything to do with the Iraqi police, or to foment civil war, or both. Sixty eight people were killed including at least 17 children. Horrible.

But it is surely worth noting that multiple sources have put the Iraqi death toll in a week's fighting in Fallujah at 600, at least half of them women and children. There are multiple eyewitness reports of people being shot driving ambulances, digging graves and sometimes, apparently, at random. Cluster bombs appear to have been used. This interview with a temporary paramedic in Fallujah is extremely disturbing, as is this report on Electronic Iraq.

Local people have reportedly been warned to flee Fallujah or be killed - and then stopped and turned back at checkpoints a mile down the road. Families have been obliged to leave behind their 14-year-old boys. A 620-strong battalion of the new Iraqi army simply refused to fight in Fallujah (the US Army major-general in charge of training the battalion admits to "problems with a lot of security functions right now".) Another 200 Iraqi soldiers (including former Peshmerga) are apparently being held as mutineers as after refusing to enter Fallujah.

And through all this it has remained profoundly unclear what the goal of the assault actually is. Local US command has been negotiating some sort of truce at the same time as Rumsfeld has scorned the idea. Other US officials have admitted they have no idea who the perpetrators of the murder of the four security guards are, or how they might be found. It's a horrible shambles.

Certainly, most of the reports from Fallujah are coming from people who opposed the war in Iraq in the first place - for the very simple reason that the mainstream media simply hasn't been allowed near the place. Okay then, let's look at the new Village Voice story based on a leaked memo written by a US official. Now, this guy is thoroughly down with the program - he slings off at John Kerry and the UN, and speaks highly of Ahmed Chalabi - but is largely despairing of the management of the occupation, its prospects and the "corruption" of the hand-picked governing council. (Speaking of which, the UN needs to act swiftly and firmly to address evidence that senior UN officials took bribes during the oil-for-food programme.)

Is this just 20-20 hindsight? Well, some people saw it coming. I highly recommend Planning for a Self-Inflicted Wound, a paper by Prof Anthony Cordesman of the conservative Washington think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which was completed months before the war began:

A little self-honesty about our past mistakes in nation building and occupation would help; especially when we perpetuate the myth we did so splendidly in Germany and Japan. Things eventually worked out in Germany and Japan because we enforced minimum change and took advantage of existing institutions. We only adopted this approach under duress, however, and because the Cold War forced us to reverse many of our initial plans and policies. Economic recovery took five years. For the first year, people died for lack of medical attention, starved, and suffered. We could get away with because most of the world was suffering and because of the legacy of anger towards Germany and Japan coming out of the war. We cannot possibly expect such tolerance today.

Some of his fears have not been realised, but much of what he says is remarkably prescient. Ironically, his report has more to say about the present situation than almost anything written after initial combat. Read it.

The response in parts of the right, especially in the US, has been to swiftly redraw the Iraqi people as ungrateful savages, rather than fine folk who needed liberating. Steve Adams drew my attention to the website of Bob Lonsberry, whose NY Post column I noted last week. This comments column suggests his readers are even creepier than he is: "Declare marshall [sic] law and shoot everyone who leaves their home. Period … Isn't it better to throw a little nuclear bomb on a foreign country than it is to put an American soldier in his grave … etc" No shame at all, apparently.

Anyway, I suspect Gordy will respond to anything I say by energetically changing the subject. He recently spent God knows how long digging out references to Afghanistan in pre-weblog radio versions of Hard News, the last time I dwelt on Iraq; most of which, oddly enough, I'd be happy enough to stand by.

Gordy did feel bound to note that I am reportedly "a hell of a nice guy", but I'd rather he'd actually noted that I thought the US had to go into Afghanistan, I just didn't approve of the way it was done, and subsequently of the potentially disastrous diversion of resources away from Afghanistan (where the terrorists were) to Iraq (where the terrorists, at the time, were not).

And no, Afghanistan is not, as some people seem to believe, done and dusted. News stories from last week include Taliban loyalists murdering Karzai supporters in the Taliban controlled border region; Taliban killing a district police chief and his nine bodyguards; Taliban killing US troops; Taliban making credible death threats against Afghani women who dare to vote in September's elections; the warlords given a security role by the US now declining to play nice; complaints from the Afghani government to the same effect ("A lot of these warlords, before Sept. 11, did not exist or had no power. They were created by the United States after 9/11, and it is their responsibility to deal with them."); and now, weirdly, the US discussing an amnesty for most Taliban fighters, over the objections of Kabul.

And now, it appears that the US is running short of troops - a clearly dangerous situation. Tensions are growing between the US and British forces, as acknowledged in the past 24 hours by the British army's most senior officer. What next? Send boy scouts? No, apparently: some US lawmakers are contemplating a return of the military draft. Yet if Sistani decides to pull the pin in Iraq, it's over. Go home. Iran has a new best pal. What a bloody mess.

Do I have a quick fix? Of course not. But I don't own the problem. And it would be nice if some people stopped shouting slogans and acknowledged a little reality, however grim.

PS: Reports all are saying that nine of the 10 men arrested in what could have been an act of terrorist mass murder at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground are "Iraqi Kurds". Is this something new? Weren't the Kurds on our side?