Britain’s Boot Sale: Desperate Measures for Desperate Times

2.2bn Army Boot Sale Funds Iraq and Afghanistan War"shouted the headline in The Daily Mail, a British tabloid left on the seat next to me by a debarking fellow passenger during a recent trip.

"What?" I thought. "The Brits, having lost their shirts trying to realize Blair’s neo-imperial dreams, are now reduced to having their men walk barefoot into battle?"

As it turned out, things had not reached such dire straits, and the headline meant that the British Ministry of Defense had held the equivalent of a "car boot sale" in order to finance Britain’s military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Daily Mail noted that Lord Trefgarne, a Conservative peer, learned "from snippets in the press that famous and historic buildings in which [British] armed forces have been based for centuries were being sold to property developers." Lord Trefgarne was "staggered" by the discovery.

The sold assets included "[military] accommodation, airstrips, sports fields, military hospitals, and firing ranges." However, as the paper pointed out, despite these asset sales to generate funds, "[the] troops have been forced to buy their own items of kit such as sleeping bags, boots, and rucksacks because they felt the Army issue was inadequate."

The People, another tabloid, recently featured the headline "Famished Squaddies Facing Rap." The sub-heading: "Famished British troops in Afghanistan are being threatened with charges – if they eat U.S. food."

The article continued:

"Squaddies fighting the Taliban claim they are forced to sneak into American canteens because their own rations are so stingy.

"One private in Kandahar told his mum in a letter: ‘We eat in the Americans’ cookhouse even though we are not allowed to. They say if we get caught we will be charged. But our cookhouse is proper s*** and theirs is quality.’

"He added bitterly: I’m not surprised they are fat.’ And the mother of another hungry squaddie said: ‘My son gets American soldiers to help them. It’s the only way he and his comrades can get anything proper to eat. He described the British canteen food as slop and said the rations were never enough.’

“‘It’s a disgrace – I hope Gordon Brown reads this and feels ashamed enough to do something.’ Soldiers on active service should get 4,000-calorie food packages every day.

"But many Brits rely on food parcels from home.

"U.S. personnel have a 24-hour mess with a choice of nutritious grub or Burger King and Pizza Hut meals."

How sad – there must be a quiet hum emanating from Wellington‘s tomb.

These revelations confirm that Tony Blair’s Britain may initially have had the will to relive a colonial past, but certainly lacked the wherewithal to achieve Blair’s immature "School Boy" dreams. It clarifies why Britain has been begging its NATO allies to meet at least some of the financial costs and equipment shortfalls of its military operations in Afghanistan, even if they were not prepared to engage their troops in battling the Pashtuns.

Also, it explains why the British embassy in Kabul is being reinforced with the arrival of 250 "diplomats," headed by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, presumably to try and recoup Britain’s military failures and consequent loss of influence, through some good old-fashioned British skullduggery – as the hapless Gen. David Richards must now regret ever saying, "it’s in the blood, you know."

Sir Sherard is an interesting cove, as the P.G. Wodehouse character Bertie Wooster was wont to say. I have used the term because it suits Sir Sherard, who has gone to great lengths to affect the double-barrel moniker and idiosyncratic behavior of 1920s Wodehouse World – while Her Majesty’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, he invariably sported a bowler hat and carried a rolled-up umbrella, and his official car was a London taxi cab. A monocle would have completed the caricature. However, the clown’s façade masks a darker persona, for Sir Sherard is a "spook."

Even if Cowper-Coles had not been "outed" by a disgruntled former MI6 colleague, anyone acquainted with the writings of John Le Carre would have noted that Sir Sherard fitted the profile of a typical MI6 recruit: the bright product of a little-known secondary school and a minor Oxford college, where he read "classics," his modest family background and part foreign ancestry (Dutch), leavened with cleverness and naked ambition, would have brought him to the notice of the Oxbridge "talent spotters."

Robert Fisk, in his usual amusing style, relates that when he was Middle East correspondent for the Times in the ’70s, a young British diplomat tried to convince him that he should sack a competent local "stringer" and instead hire a young Englishwoman, who later turned out to have close contacts in the Foreign Office. Fisk says the young British diplomat was Sherard Cowper-Coles, and that he "refused this spooky proposal." Clever allusion.

A friend and admirer describes Sir Sherard as "a big, ballsy character who’s always believed he should be shaping policy rather than just implementing it." It remains to be seen how the U.S. Ambassador William Wood deals with "ballsy" Cowper-Coles and his future policy "suggestions"; perhaps that is why Ambassador Christopher Dell has been reassigned from Zimbabwe to join Ambassador Wood in Kabul and reinforce him – after all, Balliol, Dell’s Oxford College, trumps Cowper-Coles’ Hertford. But, badinage aside, it is more probably to deal with the British-supported Robert Mugabes of Afghanistan.

Since the advent of Sir Hamid Karzai’s kleptocracy, Britain’s "informal" representation has also dramatically increased. The young Rory Stewart, who recently made spooky suggestions regarding Afghanistan in an article in the New York Times, is a good example.

First, the 34-year-old Stewart’s provenance: he was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Malaysia and Vietnam, countries where his father occupied a series of diplomatic posts, before returning to England to attend Eton College, then Oxford University, where he read history and philosophy. While still at Oxford, he tutored Prince William and Prince Harry during the summer holidays.

Stewart’s career, after leaving Oxford, was fast-tracked, suggesting that it owed much to being mentored and groomed for a purpose and very little to any exceptional innate abilities: parentage, and services to a cheapened, scandal-ridden royal court, still confer some benefits in 21st-century Britain.

So, after a brief stint as a military officer, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Foreign Office, serving in Indonesia, Montenegro, Kabul (as part of the UN team that included Ashraf Ghani and his protégé, Clare Lockhart), and finally Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, where he held the very colonial position of deputy governor of Maysan province in British-occupied southern Iraq.

Ostensibly, he left the Foreign Office in 2004 to travel in Asia and write books about his experiences. He subsequently resurfaced in Kabul, as the representative of the Prince of Wales Trust, to reconstruct the Murad Khani Shia district of Kabul, a project partly funded by the Agha Khan Foundation.

Thus, in the space of 10 short years, the young Rory metamorphosed from a callow youth, staring soulfully with tilted head into the camera lens, to the sauntering Scot with a clipped accent delivering opinions on what should be U.S. policy in Afghanistan and how to deal with Pashtuns – quelle audace!

Being preoccupied with mundane matters like facts about the evolving local, regional, and global dynamics that affect the situation in Afghanistan, I have not yet had time to read any of young Stewart’s travel books. But if his recent pedestrian New York Times article is an example of his depth of knowledge and elegance of expression, then I haven’t missed much.

The New York Times article, "Where Less Is More," shows Stewart as an inept sophist. The fabric of sophistry he weaves in it has glaring holes of contradictions, omissions, and clumsy shading of facts. It is a feeble effort to try and garner support for the British policy of punishing the Pashtun ethnic majority of Afghanistan, for the benefit of the British-sponsored Tajik ethnic minority, using American blood and treasure.

The age of the Internet, which enables information and analysis to be quickly and widely disseminated throughout the world, has made Stewart’s task difficult – he cannot peddle lies as truths. So, he compensates by disjointedly conflating a series of known facts and widely accepted analyses, and he slyly inserts factual distortions to underpin his conclusions. Consequently, at a glance, the article appears an informed and accurate portrayal of the situation in Afghanistan. However, a perusal of the article quickly shows the traps young Stewart has set for the ill-informed and unwary reader.

For example, he states, "given its history, Afghanistan is doing relatively well … national wealth has nearly doubled in the last five years; Kabul’s population has expanded from less than a million in 2001 to almost four million today."

"It seems ground is broken on another huge blue-glass commercial building every week. The wage for an unskilled laborer in Kabul is now $4 a day, four times that in neighboring Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Millions of Afghan refugees have returned home at a time when Iraqis are fleeing Iraq. The central regions of Afghanistan are safe enough for foreigners to travel alone unharmed."

My goodness, dear boy, what achievements – obviously the local journalists at IWPR and the foreign journalists in Kabul are either purblind or refuse to report the realities that you note. But what are we to make of the widely circulated UN and foreign government reports asserting that Afghanistan’s GNP almost wholly consists of drug-generated funds, and that the buildings you proudly note are erected by internationally renowned warlords-cum-drug-barons with drug money?

Is the venerable BBC mistaken in showing endless queues of people outside the Iranian and Pakistani embassies in Kabul, begging for visas to leave the halcyon precincts of Kabul, or when reporting that the unemployment rate in Kabul is close to 70 percent? Are these people unemployed because they insist on being paid more than the $4 per day you vaunt?

You mention the peace in the small central province, but what is one to make of official reports of increasing violence and insecurity in the northern and western regions of the country?

Why are we hearing widespread international criticism of Sir Hamid Karzai’s totally corrupt and ineffectual regime, and yet you make no mention of it?

Regarding the last point, the wily young Scotsman makes a feeble effort to appear honest: there is corruption, but it’s all in the Pashtun heartland, where the doughty British Tommies are battling the uncivilized Pashtun hordes:

"In Helmand Province, the government is associated with kidnapping, murder, and theft. Thirty-five highway policemen were arrested this month, accused of robbing vehicles. This province alone produces 50 percent of Europe’s heroin. The Afghans are justifiably angry."

Ah, I see, so the central government is honest and popular but it’s only the provincial authorities in Helmand who are corrupt, thieving murderers. Obviously, the subliminal message conveyed here is that the authorities in Helmand are Pashtuns, and therefore genetically prone to cruelty and corruption, whereas in fact the authorities and police are predominantly Tajik and other minorities. Moreover, by omitting to mention where the remaining 50 percent of Europe’s heroin comes from, he conveniently absolves the Tajik north of contributing to Europe’s drug problem.

Further into the article, when trying to explain Britain’s indisputable failure in Helmand, which to his credit he admits, he proposes the reasons for the failure:

"[Failures] were inevitable for fundamental structural reasons. Many Afghan officials are simply not committed to state-building in southern Afghanistan, and many are connected to the drug trade. Narcotics make up more than half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, and there is no sufficiently appealing alternative crops for farmers."

What? You just spent several paragraphs, dear boy, explaining how swimmingly things were progressing in the benighted Karzai’s Kabul mayoralty, so where did these non-cooperative, drug-peddling Karzai officials spring from?

"Most important, none of the factors that led to success in history’s classic counterinsurgency campaigns are present in the fight against the Taliban. In British Malaya in the 1950s, for example, success depended on direct imperial control of the government, a powerful and cooperative local administration, large numbers of troops, active support from much of the population, a detailed understanding of local culture and politics, control of the borders, and strong political support at home."

This is the most coherent and cogent paragraph in the whole article, probably because he’s heard it ad nauseam, listening to his father while the old boy regaled him with tales of his imperial derring-do. Unfortunately, this is a bad example, even if one discounts the total lack of similarity between the gentle Malays and the fierce Pashtun warriors.

For a start, the insurgency in Malaya resulted from communist suborning of Malaya’s Chinese ethnic minority. Moreover, the Muslim Malay majority supported Britain’s counter-insurgency because of their rejection of atheistic communism. Better examples are France’s experiences in Vietnam and Algeria, or Britain’s experiences in Palestine, Aden, and Cyprus – in all these cases the counter-insurgency campaigns ultimately failed and the foreign occupiers were driven out. Of course, the most apposite examples are Britain’s experiences during the first, second, and third Anglo-Afghan Wars, and the Soviet Union’s more recent bitter experience of Afghan ire.

As for "direct imperial control," how much more control of Karzai does this Lawrence of Arabia "wannabe" want? When the first secretary of the British embassy in Kabul can shout at Karzai, thus reducing the British-ennobled stooge to tears, I call that imperial control. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… Karzai’s fervent hope must be that he doesn’t end up a dead duck!

Stewart of Afghanistan plagiarizes policies that were all tried by the Soviet Union but to no avail, including the mischievous idea of concentrating all reconstruction aid to the benefit of the "grateful" inhabitants of the north – code words for ethnic minorities, especially Tajiks – while letting the situation in the south fester, thus allowing it to "remain as wild and unstable as the tribal areas of Pakistan," where Osama and his friends presently reside.

The stupidity of this suggestion is breathtaking, when placed in the context of the United States’ continuing expenditure of blood and treasure to try and uproot foreign religious extremists from the adjoining border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. And Stewart lacks the knowledge and experience to imagine the reaction of 50 million Pashtuns, straddling the British-drawn Durand Line, to being "marginalized" in their own land.

There have been British scholars-statesmen who, having spent a lifetime dealing with the Pashtuns, wrote about them. Sir Olaf Caroe, Sir William Kerr Fraser-Tytler, and Sir Francis Humphrys spring to mind, and their erudite works are as relevant today as when they were written. These were great men who, despite suffering the trials and tribulations of dealing with Pashtuns, not only understood their adversaries but also admitted to affection, admiration, and respect for them. They were men of character who did not have to compensate with pomposity for a sense of inferiority and frustrated ambition engendered by Britain’s reduced circumstances, which plagues the current products of Britain’s great learning institutions. For Eton and Oxbridge have given way to the likes of Groton and the Ivy League as the "new" Western elite’s likely paths to influencing world affairs.