The evidence given to the Chilcot enquiry has shed new light on the twin follies of Afghanistan and Iraq,in spite of the lack of intensity and rigour in the questioning of the witnesses.
I reprint below my piece on Afghanistan from Novemebr 2009 in the hope that it has new relevance in the light of the subsequent witness testimony.
Saturday, 7 November 2009
Corruption in Afghanistan - and Brown's folly
Gordon Brown spoke for half an hour yesterday (6 Novemebr 2009) about his government's commitment to the futile Afghanistan conflict. He mustered as much passion and rhetoric as an innately dull man can in a bad cause. There was nothing in it that spoke of the man himself, because only a leaden mass now exists where that man once was, a man whose true destiny was to be the minister in an undemanding rural kirk, or an accountant in an old-fashioned company, or a worthy lecturer in a redbrick university.
He existed for ten years in the reflected glow of Tony Blair, longing for the day when he could radiate alone, unaware that he was a dead satellite, with no inner furnace to generate the his own light. Now he is polluted ground, contaminated by the nuclear waste of Blair's deadly polluted policies. He has only a half life, his power ebbing away at exponential speed. But he continues to play the old Blair and Bush tunes as his motor runs down and the tune becomes more distorted and the lyric incomprehensible.
And those who dance to that tune stumble and twist in confusion, trying to follow a music without rhythm and words without meaning.
His entire case for remaining in Afghanistan rests on a lie - that we are there to prevent terrorism threatening Britain.
We are there, as Obama is there, as the 43 countries of the coalition are there, because of a profoundly mistaken instinct by a right-wing group of American Republicans and their puppet, George W. Bush, to lash out at something after the tragedy of 9/11 and the appalling loss of life and blow to American prestige. We are there because enormous profits are yielded to armaments manufacturers, and to contractors of services to the military, and because a shadowy enemy, a perpetual threat, and inducing paranoia in the population have always been a prime recourse of failing regimes.
Britain is there, and the coalition is there because Europe does not yet have the cohesion to stand up to a flawed American foreign policy on the Middle East and the Israel/Palestine question. We are there because Pakistan worries us deeply, because it is an unstable ally with a nuclear capacity, with a religion and a culture the West has never begun to understand, and it, together with Israel, forces us to recognise the weaknesses of the West's self-serving nuclear policy - committed to retaining its own weapons of mass destruction while engaged in a vain attempt to stop others from following the same route.
The vacuum at the heart of Brown's position yesterday was starkly exposed by the threat to pull out if the Karzai regime did not root out corruption. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that a significant proportion of the corruption is induced by the activities of foreign contractors, something made clear in an aside by a commentator from the region last night, what this says in effect is this -
"We are are here to prevent Afghanistan from being a seed bed for attacks on Britain, but if you - the 'democratic' puppet government that we have put in place - don't behave, we will abandon the whole misconceived enterprise and let the region revert to where it was before, thereby allowing the threat to Britain re-establish its potency."
Brown - and Britain's - behaviour over Afghanistan reminds me of the behaviour of directors and senior managers in a private company or large public enterprise who have mistakenly committed themselves to a project or policy that is manifestly going to fail. A marked distaste for re-examining the fundamental premises of the enterprise emerges, and a growing hostility to critics however rational.
The old accountant's motto, that sunk costs are irrelevant in reviewing a flawed project, is speedily abandoned, and the accrued costs to date are used as a justification for continuing.
It's like the gambler's fallacy at roulette - that if you keep doubling your bets, you must win eventually, a fallacy that ignores the sum of what has already been lost, ignores the possibility to long runs of bad luck, and and ignores the exponential growth in losses of doubling up.
Those opposed to the lunatic project are increasingly characterised as enemies, not as loyal employees trying to pull their company back from disaster.
When the Emperor has no clothes, who will speak out, except the naive child?
I am also reminded of a fable recounted by an American academic (I have forgotten his name) to illustrate this dilemma.
THE PEANUT STORY
The Chairman of a giant company calls in his favourite guru, a management consultant, and tells him of a problem he is facing.
"Gerry," he says to the consultant "I've got a big problem in the Minnesota plant, the one now devoted to developing a process to make high-octane jet fuel out of peanut oil ..."
"Fascinating! Can that really be done?" asks the consultant, Gerry.
"Hell, no! It's impossible - initially we thought it might have a chance, but it's been evident for years now that it can't. We're sinking millions of dollars into it, and it's doomed."
"Why not pull the plug on it, Glenn?"
Glenn the CEO, looks uncomfortable. "Well, you see, Gerry, it's like this - the plant director in Minnesota, Charlie, has committed his whole reputation to this project, and I just can't bring myself to pull the plug on it, because I'd be pulling the plug on his whole career. I just tell him to hang in there - that he can do it. Get down there, Gerry - see if you can talk some sense into him..."
Gerry arrives at the Minnesota plant, and is greeted by Charlie, the plant director.
"I guess I know why you're here, Gerry. It's about the big project - the peanut oil project."
Gerry nods. "I understand you're working on a process to make high-octane jet fuel from peanut oil, Charlie. Can than really be done?"
"Hell, no, " says Charlie ruefully, "but I can't pull the plug on it for two reasons. One, the CEO, Glenn, is totally committed to it, and when he comes down here he says 'Hang in there, Charlie - you can do it.' And my research director, Joe, has committed his whole reputation to this godammed project, and I just can't bring myself to destroy his career. Have a word with him, Gerry - maybe he'll take it from an outsider."
So Gerry meets Joe, and the pattern repeats itself. Joe knows the project is doomed, but it's the CEO's baby, it mustn't be questioned, and Charlie, his boss keeps telling him he can do and to hang in there.
The pattern repeats all the way down the management pyramid, except in the lower echelons, there is a growing contempt for those above them for their pursuit of a manifestly impossible objective.
This consultant's fable is playing out as a nightmare in our world, except the price is not only being paid in money - it is being paid in lives - in blood.
Call a halt, now.