Postcards from the edge: Wish you were here, Mr Blair?

Last night's draft UN resolution on Lebanon is a 'first step', says the PM, who delayed his holiday to secure it. But as he heads for the beach, a Middle East ceasefire remains a long way off, and the death toll rises daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Francis Elliott and Raymond Whitaker consider his position as our reporters on the ground offer him some grim holiday reading
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The Independent Online

It is an emptier Downing Street than usual. Many staff, anticipating that Tony Blair would be on holiday, are themselves on leave. Indeed, most of Mr Blair's family are waiting for him in the Caribbean, leaving even the Prime Minister's private quarters strangely silent. He will have heard all the more clearly, then, the shouts and chants of yesterday's demonstration against his handling of the Lebanon crisis.

Mr Blair's decision to delay his holiday in Barbados was, say senior Downing Street officials, because "he didn't want to spend nine hours incommunicado". The implication, that the weeks of telephone diplomacy are reaching a particularly critical phase, helps smooth the embarrassment of the holiday U-turn. The emergence of a draft UN resolution last night appeared to vindicate Mr Blair's decision to put off his vacation.

But even he admitted the draft was only a "first step" and questions over his handling of the Lebanon crisis and wider analysis of the causes that underlie it remain as acute as ever.

The poignant mound of children's shoes beneath the Cenotaph provides, for many, a far more eloquent commentary on the week's events than Mr Blair's equivocations. For yesterday's demo ended a week that began with the world waking to the horrors of Qana. The Prime Minister, on a tour of California, was asked for his reaction as he left his San Francisco hotel to go to church. Later, when he returned, he said the deaths of at least 34 children in the basement flattened by an Israel air strike showed the "situation must stop".

But still there was no call for an immediate ceasefire from the British Prime Minister, nor any suggestion that Israel might be using a disproportionate degree of force. Later that day, in a speech to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp executives down the Californian coast in the luxury resort of Pebble Beach, Mr Blair laid the blame for the conflict firmly at the feet of Hizbollah.

Two days later, before an audience of Los Angeles burgh-ers, Mr Blair spelt out his latest foreign policy thinking. It was an extraordinary speech. Admitting Britain and the US were not winning the war on terror, at least in the short term, he called for a "complete renaissance" of the strategy and a recognition that military force alone would never prevail. There was his familiar exhortation that the Middle East peace process be pursued with renewed vigour, and a gentle rebuke to the US for failing to do more on world trade and climate change.

But he also sketched a world-view that many commentators found puzzlingt. "There is an arc of extremism now stretching across the Middle East and touching, with increasing definition, countries far outside that region," he said. He divided the Islamic world neatly between "moderate mainstream " and "reactionary", lumping together in the second category al-Qa'ida and the Taliban with the secular government of Syria and that of Iran.

Mr Blair also stated: "There is a host of analyses written about mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of it made with hindsight, but some with justification. But it all misses one vital point. The moment we decided not to change regime but to change the value system, we made Iraq and Afghanistan into existential battles for reactionary Islam." The conflicts "widened the definition of reactionary Islam", uniting previous enemies against the threat posed by democracy. To empower moderate Muslims against this new alliance of extremism would require removing all sources of legitimate complaint against the West, starting with Palestine, said the Prime Minister. It was Mr Blair at his most messianic, albeit tinged with recognition of mistakes made. The speech had been largely written before the events of Lebanon, but Mr Blair's aides say the crisis only added definition to his words. Many in the Labour Party, including some in the Cabinet, think Mr Blair's position is vainglorious at best.

They wonder, with Jack Straw, why he cannot condemn Israel's tactics, and they fret privately that he will add achieving peace in the Middle East to his lengthening list of "must-dos" before leaving office. But if the Prime Minister does imagine he has such a role to play, a fellow Briton, Mark Malloch Brown, sought to disillusion him.

Mr Malloch Brown, the UN Deputy Secretary General, suggested after the Los Angeles speech that Britain's involvement in Iraq precluded it from having a public role in the Middle East negotiations. Mr Blair began his address last week with a reference to the previous day when British soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. His audience in California would have seen this as a reminder that America had at least one steady ally in both conflicts, but those opposed to US policy would have viewed it differently.

To them, it emphasised how much the Prime Minister has mortgaged his future to that of President George Bush, with Lebanon adding a fresh twist. If Britain's foreign policy is hostage to America, in this view, on the Middle East America is in thrall to Israel.

Mr Blair first appeared complicit as Ehud Olmert's government lashed out at Hizbollah and Lebanon, then helpless to restrain it. But that is the price of signing up for the "war on terror", a phrase he wants to abolish; you may find yourself unable to influence your allies, but blamed for their actions.


Dear Prime Minister,

Whether or not we are seeing genuine progress towards the UN resolution you have cancelled your holiday in the hope of advancing, it is a safe bet that more lives will be lost before it bears fruit.

Friday's air strike near the Syrian border brought total Lebanese casualties to anything between the 567 - including 489 civilians - counted by Associated Press and the 909 total announced yesterday by the Lebanese Higher Relief Council.

After a pause, the Israeli air force launched further attacks on the southern suburbs of Beirut. This is a bombing strategy which, while directed at Hizbollah strongholds, is sufficiently controversial for it to have required a decision by Ehud Olmert's government to sanction its resumption.

And in a daring naval commando operation aimed at rocket-launching sites in Tyre, the success of which has still to be gauged, Israeli soldiers were wounded, two of them seriously; this on a day that another soldier, the fourth in 24 hours, was killed when Hizbollah mortars hit two vehicles in southern Lebanon village of Taibeh.

All this brought to an end a week which failed to see the ceasefire that Condoleezza Rice, speaking in the wake of the wholesale slaughter of dozens of civilians in the southern Lebanon village of Qana, said she believed could have been concluded by now. Her statement was closely followed by Mr Olmert's repeated declarations that the fighting would continue - declarations which in the words of Nahum Barnea, Israel's most influential newspaper columnist, "publicly humiliated" the US Secretary of State.

With Simon Shiffer, Mr Barnea wrote the most authoritative record yet of the Secretary of State's trip. They suggest that a furious Ms Rice was only talked down when she dined, on her return to Washington, with President Bush, who seemed a lot less in a hurry for a ceasefire than she was. As Barnea/Shiffer remarked: "Ehud Olmert beat Condoleezza Rice... She came with suppressed anger and left with suppressed bitterness. Time will tell if this was not a pyrrhic victory."

So far at least, both sides are seeking to maximise whatever military gains they can during the painfully slow diplomatic process that has followed Ms Rice's unhappy trip. There is increasing talk, promoted by the office of Amir Peretz, your fellow Labour leader and Israel's Defence Minister, of a major ground push north towards the Litani River. There is a distant echo of the famous advance ordered by his early 1980s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, when he dragged the Menachem Begin government and the Israeli people into what eventually became the most unpopular war in the country's history.

Israel's cabinet, it's true, would have to approve such a further escalation. And there is little sign that the Israel Defence Force's commanders are ready for it. But the IDF has made clear its determination to keep up both the bombing across Lebanon, and the ground operations against Hizbollah in the south, until finally ordered to halt. The stated purpose of the latter is to create the kind of "security zone" that the famous - and presumably French-led - multinational deployment would then enforce. If and when it gets there.

One of the themes of your big speech last week was the need to reinforce the "arc of moderation" in Islam at the expense of "reactionary Islam". As Dr Rice seems to have seen a little more clearly than the President - or perhaps you yourself - events like Qana are almost certainly having the opposite effect. And although Israel's war against Hizbollah remains, according to the opinion polls, well supported by the Israeli public, there are voices in Israel that have made this point as vigorously as anyone else.

As someone who wants to "re-energise" the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis, you can also imagine that the daily scenes from Lebanon on al-Jazeera are not exactly widening the "arc of moderation" in Gaza and the West Bank either. And this raises another point. You say, correctly, that Israel had a right to defend itself after the raid in which two of its soldiers were abducted. The need for a military response was unquestionable. But even without the civilian death toll in Lebanon, there is a further question about whether the present campaign is achieving its objectives.

The ground operation is taking a mounting toll of Israeli soldiers' lives, but Hizbollah not only keeps firing rockets into Israel, it also keeps reminding Israelis of its threat - whether fulfillable or not - to hit Tel Aviv, with who knows what consequences. On Friday night, after a day in which three Israeli citizens - all Arabs, as it happened - were killed by Katyushas, rockets landed at Hadera, 50 miles south of the border.

It's easy to understand why Mr Olmert is finding this operation more politically difficult to stop than it was to start, and why he feels an overriding need to show a victory first. When the choice is "double or quits", the political temptation to go for double is almost irresistible. But the outside world is not caught in the same trap. Indeed, the international community may actually be able to provide the Israeli PM with the justification he would need for ending the war without ending his political career: irresistible international - and particularly US - pressure to call a halt before "reactionary Islam" is reinforced still further, and before even more Lebanese and Israelis are killed.

The UN Deputy Secretary General, Mark Malloch Brown, suggested last week that you should refrain from huge public statements on the Middle East because your credibility in the Arab world had been compromised by Iraq. Instead, he thought you should use whatever influence you still have to persuade George Bush to call a halt.

As it happens, Israel has a strong point when it says the international community should have done more to reinforce UN resolution 1559, seeking the disarmament of Hizbollah. The counter-argument - that Israel does not keep to UN resolutions either - does not alter the fact that it would have been far more in Western interests to disarm Hizbollah by political means than to quietly sanction Israel's "proxy war".

You could have played your part in getting such implementation before it ever came to this. In the meantime, Mr Malloch Brown's advice is good. Even Condoleezza Rice might be grateful if you took it.


Dear Prime Minister,

Among the letters I receive about Iraq, a few are clearly written by demented people. Their paranoid style is easily recognisable. They use capital letters to distinguish the forces of darkness and the forces of light in Iraq.

They have a simple-minded, conspiratorial explanation for the war. They are ignorant of well-substantiated facts and openly contemptuous of critics who do not share their crystal-clear vision of events.

I was astonished and horrified, reading your speech on the Middle East delivered to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on 1 August, to find all the traits of those insane writers. There is even the same mad person's obsessive capitalisation. In the complex crises in the Middle East and beyond, you say you see primarily "a struggle between what I will call Reactionary Islam and Moderate, Mainstream Islam".

Your vision is an apocalyptic one. You see "an elemental struggle about values", and it turns out that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq " were not just about changing regimes but changing value systems. The banner was not 'regime change', it was 'values change'."

Some of this is syrupy guff, much along the lines that Private Eye's fictional Tony Blair, the Vicar of St Albion's, often utters. But, if taken seriously, it means that the US and Britain intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq to interfere with the Muslim religion and to support those Muslims who agree with Tony Blair's interpretation of their faith. In other words, the claim by the Islamic fighters in Iraq that their religion is under attack by new crusaders from the West is, by your admission, entirely correct.

As with so many paranoid, single-cause explanations of the world, your speech shows blindness to other, often fundamental, developments. In Iraq this means not only that the US and British governments have no idea what is going on but, because they can never admit error, they are unable to devise policies to replace those that have failed. This has been the pattern of the last three years since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

For instance, you say that it is Muslim religious extremism alone which causes violence in the region, and their actions have nothing to do with the occupation. But all evidence is to the contrary. A poll by the Ministry of Defence last year showed 82 per cent of Iraqis want US and British forces out.

I have been visiting Iraq since 1978, and have spent half my time in the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was evident from the summer of 2003 that the five million-strong Sunni community supported armed resistance. Whenever I went to where a US soldier had been killed or wounded, people were dancing with joy. This strengthened extreme Islamist groups. They had a friendly environment in which to work.

Al-Qa'ida had no base in Iraq before 2003; its few adherents' only base was in the Kurdish mountains, beyond the control of Baghdad. It was entirely the doing of George Bush and yourself that they have now established themselves in Iraq, and grow stronger by the day. Instead, you suggest that the real problem is that "Syria allowed al-Qa'ida operatives to cross the border".

Reactionary Islam, as you call it, does not fear elections - it wins them. The victors in the last election in Iraq in December 2005 were the Shia and Sunni religious parties. The main secular group under Iyad Allawi, despite strong support from the US and Britain, did poorly. Traditional Islam is growing stronger in Sunni Iraq because it has shown it can fight the invader in a way that secular nationalists, like Saddam Hussein, failed to do.

Among the Shia it is the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric, who won 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament. The political success stories in Iraq are of those who combine Islam, nationalism and an ability to fight. The US, with Britain trotting along behind, may soon find itself embroiled in a war with the 15 to 16 million-strong Shia community in Iraq, as well as with the Sunni.

Your speech is essentially a "neo-con" view of Iraq. It is frighteningly unaware of reality. Your own departing ambassador, William Patey, wrote in a memo to you, leaked last week, that a civil war was more likely than a democracy. Some 3,000 civilians were killed in June. General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee on Thursday that: "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war."

In the eyes of most Iraqis, however, the civil war started six months ago, if not before. There are now two wars in Iraq: one between Shia and Sunni, the second between insurgents and occupiers. Iraq is splitting apart. The country may survive as a geographical expression, but not more.

Twice in the last century, British prime ministers claimed they had discovered the source of all evil in the Middle East. Lloyd George wanted to fight Ataturk and Turkey in 1922, and lost office immediately. Anthony Eden went to war to overthrow Nasser in 1956, with equally grim consequences. Your intervention in Iraq has been even more disastrous.

I only hope al-Qa'ida, Hizbollah or Hamas do not translate your speech into Arabic, since every paranoid paragraph confirms their claim that they are battling a Western crusade against Islam.


Dear Prime Minister,

A "renaissance" in the West's approach to the "war on terror" is not before time. But will it be too late to save the war's original project? The first reaction of America and its allies after 9/11 was to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and deprive al-Qa'ida of its base. There seemed to be hope for this country, for the first time in decades. But Britain followed America's charge into Iraq, and the consequences for Afghanistan are plain to see.

Just yesterday it was revealed that Canadian Nato troops in southern Afghanistan had narrowly escaped a suicide bombing on Friday, the day after four Canadian soldiers died in attacks by resurgent Taliban. It was also a day after another suicide bombing killed 21 Afghans, many of them children. That too was a failed attack on a Nato patrol passing nearby, the Canadians believe. In the past week Nato has lost one soldier a day in the south, of whom three were British.

Altogether, as many as 2,000 people have died so far this year in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban threat in the south is still described as tactical rather than strategic by military commanders, but each year the movement is growing.

The result is that while 27 Western soldiers were killed in action in Afghanistan in the whole of 2004, 68 have died in combat so far this year. Suicide bombings, all but unknown in Afghanistan until late last year, are now common: there have been more than 30 this year.

John Reid, then your Defence Secretary, must be regretting his airy words when it was announced in January that British forces were being dispatched to Helmand province. He expressed the hope that they would leave within three years "without a shot being fired". Since then they have fought more than 120 firefights, and their commanders have begged for reinforcements.

Excluding their logistical tail, the British force is less than 1,000 " bayonets", spread thinly. Instead of their mission of protecting reconstruction - a central pillar of the new strategy you outlined this week - they are fighting a war. The sum of redevelopment in Helmand thus far is two canvas awnings, which have been erected over markets in the capital, Lashkargar, and the town of Gereshk. It falls some way short of DfID's plans to spend £20m a year on building roads and digging 1,000 wells.

That cannot happen until security improves, but not only is insecurity chronic, it has undone much of the progress that had been made in areas such as education. Taliban attacks against schools have increased sixfold since the start of the year.

President Hamid Karzai's government is seen as both corrupt and incompetent. Mr Karzai can afford to pay his country's 280,000 civil servants only an average of $50 a month, but when the rent for a modest flat in the capital is now several hundred dollars a month, it is little wonder that corruption is endemic.

Despite four years of reconstruction, the city still doesn't have a steady electricity supply. Kabul's diesel generators give it a few hours of power every other day. Last week the energy minister announced an impending crisis that will leave the capital without power for most of the winter. In the rural areas, there is no electricity at all.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan does not have an existing oil or gas industry to generate income. In 2005 the government's legal revenues, excluding foreign aid money, were a minuscule $330m. Set against that is a drugs economy that is generating $2.7bn annually.

In the Afghan government, known drugs barons continue their criminal activities. But reform of the Afghan justice sector has yet to produce an effective judiciary. Ironically the only access to the rule of law for many are the courts run by the Taliban. They are brutal in their punishments, but swift and non-corrupt, and highly popular for it.

So where did it all go wrong? In 2001 the overwhelming majority of the Afghan people were happy to see Western troops and were full of wildly unrealistic expectations. The subsequent four years have seen steady disillusionment.

The Afghan government estimates that it needs $4.5bn a year. The actual delivery of aid since 2001 has so far been approximately $10bn. Much of that has disappeared into rebuilding the country's shattered infrastructure from scratch, and trying to create governance where in many areas nothing but warlords and tribal structures existed.

Afghan ministers and parliamentarians routinely accuse the aid community of inefficiency and corruption. A report written for the Overseas Development Institute by the country's former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, earlier this year calculated that 90 per cent of $1bn spent on 400 UN projects in 2002 was wasted.

Afghanistan was held up as a mission accomplished. But it wasn't, and Nato is now attempting to achieve what might have been possible three years ago, when Afghans were far better disposed to the foreign troops in their country. It looks perilously like too little, too late.