Thursday, 30 July 2009

Israel = Prussia on the Mediterranean?

The title for this post comes from an interesting article by Roane Carey in the online edition of The Nation magazine. Prussia was often described as an army masquerading as a state. It seems that Israel is well and truly far along that road. In his article Carey outlines the extent to which Israel is far removed from the liberal, tolerant democracy that it is portrayed as in the West. As he puts it - "How can a state that imprisons 4 million Palestinians behind ghetto walls, bypass roads and a blockade, and treats another 1.5 million as second-class citizens, be democratic? ....... If Israel continues along its current path, the repression will necessarily intensify, and the avenues for free expression will become ever more constricted." The whole article can be accessed here.

There is in fact much evidence to back up this notion of Israel as an aggressive militaristic state. Recently the Israeli's have even gone so far as to once again commit an act of piracy on the open sea when they boarded, kidnapped the 21 people on board and confiscated the Free Gaza ship which was trying to bring much needed provisions to the Palestinians living in Gaza - still an open air prison strangled by Israel. You can see a Free Gaza video here. For further views on the Israeli action as piracy, see this article.

Of course it is the Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem who suffer the most from Israeli violence and aggression. It is all too common for Palestinian families in the West Bank to find that their houses have been demolished and their olive trees have been cut down or burned. These acts of terrorism are carried out with impunity by Israeli settlers living near-by, often with the collusion and sometimes outright support of the Israeli army. These acts are nearly always in defiance of Israeli court orders - but the settlers, with army support simply ignore them. Where are the reporters and camera crews from the BBC, ITV or Sky when these terrorist acts occur? An example this kind of terrorism can be found in this report from the International Solidarity Movement.

Further evidence of the role of the Israeli army in supporting the aggression of the settlers comes from the ongoing work of Ta'ayush, a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership. The name Ta'ayush is Arabic for "life in common". For the past three months or so members of Ta'ayush have tried to accompany Palestinian farmers from Safa to their lands and help to protect them from attacks from settlers living in the near-by settlement of Bat Ayin. This has proved to be a very difficult and dangerous venture with the Israeli army offering no support for members of Ta'ayush and seeming to take the side of the settlers at all times. Thus despite the area being for a time a closed military zone to all Israelis, somehow the settlers managed to get past the IDF and cut down fruit trees and burn crop fields. For a full report with video, see this article in Mondoweiss. The article's title tells it all - A day in the West Bank shows ‘the soldiers are settlers but in uniform. They both symbolize the occupation.’

The most worrying evidence of Israeli aggression comes however in East Jerusalem. Not because it is particularly violent, but for what it tells the Palestinians and the rest of us about the Israeli mind-set. As the title of a recent post in Mondoweiss puts it - "While the US and Israel spar over settlements, Israel continues ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem." This process of ethnic cleansing proceeds in two stages. The first started shortly after the 1967 war and involved the building of the Jewish settlements that now ring East Jerusalem. The second stage was to try and reduce the number of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. This was to be achieved by controlling the entry of Palestinians into the city and by the restriction of construction permits for Palestinians. The clear aim of Israeli policy is to turn the whole of Jerusalem into a Jewish only city. All these actions are of course completely illegal as East Jerusalem is under international law recognized to be occupied territory. As such Israel is prohibited from either implanting its own population as settlers or in any other way materially changing the lives of the city's indigenous Palestinian residents. Israel is not much interested in allowing for “natural growth” among Palestinians. Only Jewish settlers are entitled to this benefit. Here is a succinct account of Israeli action in East Jerusalem by veteran commentator Helena Cobham.

The Mondoweiss article, which you can get here looks at the Israeli actions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. The writer ends his piece with this despairing call - "What is so perplexing and enraging is that by continually implanting Jewish neighbourhoods in the midst of Palestinian communities, Israel is sabotaging its own determination to be a permanent, Jewish-majority, internationally accepted, democratic state with defined borders." One can leave aside for the moment whether the notion of a permanent Jewish-majority is compatible with a democratic state. The key point for me is that all the actions referred to above are the last desperate actions of a country and its leadership that has lost the plot. Israel's actions are counter productive to its declared aim of achieving a two state solution. So, how genuine is Israel's commitment to achieving a lasting peace?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Secret River

This was the reading group's book for August. I had already read one book by Kate Grenville - The Idea of Perfection - which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this one. While I did enjoy the book, it is not as good a novel as The Idea of Perfection. The Secret River is the story of the Thornhill family's attempt to settle in Australia, New South Wales, to be precise. The main action takes place in the early decades of the 19th century, when Australia was beginning to be settled by British convicts. And William Thornhill was one of these convicts.

After a short prologue which describes the Thornhill's first arrival in Australia the story really begins with Will Thornhill's early life in London. And a pretty miserable life it was, with poverty and violence always a short breath away. Will gradually makes a kind of living for himself as a lighterman on the Thames, but has to rely on stealing in order to make a decent living. Will marries his childhood sweetheart, starts a family and things are looking good when tragedy strikes and he loses his boat and house and the family enter a downward spiral of living in wretched lodgings and Will relies more and more on stealing. Inevitably he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Reprieved, he gets sent to New South Wales as a convict. Luckily for him, his family get to go with him. This part of the book reads very much as a sub Dickensian tale. Perhaps this is inevitable. After all Dickens was a master of this kind of writing. The London section is important though in describing the kind of life from which the Thornhills were to escape.

The rest of the novel is set in New South Wales. At first in Sydney, where Will finds work as a boatman and his growing family begin to settle down. He has steady work ferrying produce between Sydney and the farmers inland up the Hawkesbury river. However Will longs to have a place of his own and sets his heart on claiming a piece of land by the river. This is where the tale gets more interesting as of course the land is not empty, but used by the Aboriginal people. The rest of the novel is the story of how the incoming settlers interact with the "blacks". In the main this interaction takes the form of unremitting racism, hostility and outright violence on the part of the British settlers. One or two settlers try with some success to reach some kind of agreement with the Aborigines, but they are completely outnumbered by the rest. The Thornhills are somewhat in the middle. They are more scared than outright hostile. As neither the settlers nor the Aborigines understand each other's language there is little chance of some common ground emerging. Incidents develop and in the end the settlers decide to rid the area of the Aborigines, which they do by attacking their camp while they are still asleep. The resulting massacre clears the area and the remaining Aborigines are herded into reservations. The Thornhills prosper and Australia as a whole begins to prosper.

This in bare bones is what the novel is about. However the contacts between the Thornhills and the Aborigines are sensitively treated and Grenville does justice to both sides. There are some quite amusing scenes and the Thornhills gradually realise that the "blacks" are in fact sensitive, cultured and very skillful people. One of their sons plays with the Aborigine children and learns many of their ways and skills. Will's wife Sal becomes quite friendly with the women from the Aborigine camp. However there is no mutural understanding on the part of the adults. Will is determined to retain his 100 acres and cannot understand why the Aborigines don't just go somewhere else and leave him alone. Will's involvement in the massacre is in part involuntary and he is more an onlooker at the brutality than an active participant. He knows his wife would be apalled by the massacre and dare not tell her what actually happened. The story is that the "blacks" just up and left.

Grenville paints a vivid picture of life in the early decades of British settlement in rural New South Wales. The isolation, the hardness of the land and the constant fear of death at the hands of the Aborigines. The other characters are all colourful in their own way and all ex-convicts. Some are particularly nasty specimens and there is some rough justice in that two of the worst characters, Spider and the aptly named Smasher both die horribly from spear wounds in the final massacre. Though the Thornhills like the other settlers win in the end, it comes at a price. The son who mixed with the Aborigines leaves home and never returns. His wife, Sal guesses what happened but will not speak about it. Will himself though he becomes a successful businessman always seem to carry around within him the burden of the terrible price that others had to pay for his success.

In many ways this little tale is a microcosm of the birth of Australia - the bloody birth pangs of the new white Australia.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

How many helicopters does it take to defeat the Taliban?

It is getting to sound more and more like the old music hall joke. All these pleading cries about the lack of equipment for our “boys” in Afghanistan. Well, how many helicopters does it take to defeat the Taliban? The answer is always the same – more than we have at the moment. Not much of a joke really. Then again, our military presence in Afghanistan – killing and maiming hundreds of Afghanis – is not much of a joke either.

This constant harping on about the need for more and more weapons and equipment is very much a distraction from the really important question – what the hell are we doing in Afghanistan anyway? The surreal nature of the debate, if one can dignify the pathetic pleas as a debate, was given away by Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence staff, who in an interview said there was "no such thing as enough helicopters in an operational campaign". He expanded on this to more or less say that for the military there is never enough. No matter what you are talking about – weapons, munition, transport – from the perspective of the military there is never enough. Most revealing indeed. A bit of a gaffe I would have thought, if there was a real debate going on, that is. If according to the defence staff there is no such thing an “enough”, how on earth is the government or we, the people to figure out how much equipment to supply? Presumable Sir Jock just wants us to give him lots and lots of everything, never mind the cost.

I wonder if this kind of talk was the centre of media coverage during the second World War, when the British military were almost certainly well short of adequate weapons and equipment for most of the war? Don't think so, somehow. When a country is faced with a real life or death threat, the overwhelming majority of people just get on with fighting the aggressors, with whatever weapons and equipment are at hand. We only get this sort of public squabbling because a) the government is on its last legs and b) no-body believes this to be a life or death threat to the UK. This is manifestly a war of choice and as such it becomes more and more difficult to justify the growing number of British casualties.

The attempts by ministers and their Tory party shadows to claim that this war of occupation is preventing terrorism on the streets of Britain is just plain absurd. Before 2001, other than terrorist action by the IRA there was no terrorism on the streets of Britain. Since our invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq there have indeed been terrorist attacks, but all have been home grown.

Now Nato are getting in on the act with the alliance's Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warning that Nato cannot afford to walk away from Afghanistan however dangerous or expensive the campaign becomes. Bully for him. One thing for sure, he is not likely to get blown up by a roadside bomb. Good of him to volunteer the deaths of others, and I wonder how much money he personally is prepared to give towards the costs?

Mr Scheffer went on to claim that failure would give free run to al-Qaeda. These and similar extravagant claims are pretty preposterous. The Taliban is a political and military organization which wants to regain control of Afghanistan. If they were ever to achieve that aim, and even if Nato troops did withdraw, it is not inevitable that the Taliban would win complete power again. The other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Tajiks, Uzbeks etc, are much stronger than they were when the Taliban were in power. However, even if the Taliban were to return to power in Kabul, why would they want to risk their victory by allowing a free rein to al-Qaida? The Taliban were never that united in their previous links with al-Qaida, according to this article by Simon Jenkins.

And why does al-Qaida need a base in Afghanistan anyway? As Rory Stewart asks in a must read article in the London Review of Books; “And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?” You can access Stewart's article – The Irresistible Illusion – here.

There is of course an alternative answer to the question posed at the beginning – How many helicopters does it take to defeat the Taliban? This alternative answer is none – we shouldn't be in Afghanistan anyway.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Stitches and Things

I finally managed to finish off my Bargello piece to make a wall hanging. I simply glued the top and bottom to pieces of driftwood I had collected from the beach at Broughty Ferry. The bits of rope came from cast-offs I found on the pier at Pittenweem. At the moment it just hangs from a bookshelf in the spare room. Will need to find a more permanent place for it.

My next project was to make inserts for coasters. You can get a packet of ten plastic coasters online and all you have to do is stitch the insert. I did a series of six to begin with. Two were based on ideas from Oriental Collection, a wonderful book of original needlepoint designs by Shelley Faye Lazar. One is called the Sights and Sounds of India and the other is based on Bagh Chal, which is a Nepalese board game.The other four designs are my own. One is a thistle, which I based on a stained glass window hanging which we have in our front room. The other three are all based loosely on designs by Charles Renee Mackintosh.

The coasters are spread around the living room and while visiting Liam and Jamie asked if they could have their own ones. Jamie wanted his own version of the Sights and Sounds of India, while Liam wanted a maze. I found an interesting little site on the internet on Roman mazes and used this to make up a pattern suitable for stitching.

When planning a piece I nearly always make a copy of the design on squared paper using coloured pencils to get ideas for a suitable colour scheme. As the fabric is completely blank I need to have a pattern all worked out in advance. Once a design is completed on paper I can then work out the size of the fabric I need to cut. The transfer to the fabric is all done by counting the number of stitches needed for each section or colour. Most of my work is based on regular repeating patterns which makes it easier to count. Occasionally I stretch out and do a piece with no fixed pattern – the Sights and Sounds of India for example. Even here though I need to think about the overall design while working.

My interest in Palestine led me to searching the internet for Palestinian designs that I could perhaps adapt for stitching and lo and behold I came across a lovely site dedicated to traditional Palestinian embroidery. You can access the site here. Palestinian needlework is all done using cross stitches, so I had to make slight alterations as I prefer flatter stitches. For my first Palestinian design I combined two patterns. Here is the design developing.

The one in green is known as Flower Pot, while the other one does not seem to have a name, although the outer sections are called Feathers. As the designs on the web site are all in shades of black and white I had to make up my own colour scheme which is almost certainly not Palestinian in any way. I have also added my own little border. Now that the piece is completed I am as usual not sure what to do with it. Ideas please!

At present I am working on name plates for the grandsons. My original idea was to stick each one on to a piece of driftwood, but not sure if I can get pieces flat and large enough. May end up just hanging them as with the Bargello piece. So far I have complete one – Liam's. They all need to be done by the end of August as Liam's birthday is on the 29th and Alessio's is on the 3rd of September.

Once they have been completed I intend to do more work using Palestinian and Bargello patterns. I rrecently bought two books on Bargello so I now have plenty of ideas for designs. I will probably to more coasters and bookmarks with the odd larger piece thrown in for good measure. Happy stitching!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Look out - they want YOUR pension

The attack has well and truly begun. The attack on public services and in particular on public sector pensions. Today we had Lord Mandelson warning about a decade of cuts to public services, and this even if New Labour gets re-elected. The Daily Mail has a headline warning about a £200bn crisis hits company pensions. And to cap it all unemployment continues to rise to almost 2.4 million, the highest since 1995. Of course it is most unlikely that any of the top people at the Daily Mail or the companies facing a pensions crisis will themselves face unemployment. While Mandy may lose his job after the next general election, he is not yet worrying about paying the mortgage. The new age of austerity is not likely to affect our ruling elites. Austerity is for the likes of you and I.

The immediate cause of all these fresh attacks on public services is of course the economic crisis. It is interesting to look at the roll call of those calling for cuts. The Institute of Directors, the CBI, the financial sector, the mainstream media and of course, the Tory party. All of them either very rich people in their own right, or the mouthpieces for even richer people or very rich companies and organizations. Not much new there – the rich and the political right have always waged a constant war against public services – especially those that most benefit the poor and middle income earners. What is new and most worrying this time is that the Lib Dems and New Labour have joined in the attacks.

The attacks tend to come in two forms, and the first is a generalised wail that “we”, or “the country” cannot afford to continue the current levels of spending on public services. This is in part simply self-serving pleading. As already mentioned, many of the “we” don't actually use many public services, be it schools, health services or care services, because they are rich enough to pay for their own private provision. The cuts they are after won't affect them so it is a bit rich to be dressing up their own selfishness in a collective “we”. The truth is that “We” simply do not want to continue to pay for decent public services for “you lot”.

In another sense this claim is palpable nonsense in that while it may be true of the current balance of government income and spending, that particular balance is in no way sacrosanct. And if we are to question the current balance then both sides of the equation – income raised as well as money spent – need to be looked at. Of course our elites, including New Labour, do not want us to talk about this, because we, the people, might come up with a different balance – one that favoured us, the majority.

As regards the income side – the moneys raised by the government – this is long overdue a thorough review. As one of the richest countries in the world, raising money for government expenditure should not be a problem. There should of course be an open debate about how much to raise and in particular how to raise this money. Who pays what is the oldest and most bitterly contested question in politics. It is not one that most elites want to raise as the majority of us might well conclude that the well off and the rich should contribute much more to the public coffers. Business, especially financial businesses might also be expected to pay a fairer share to redress the inequities and the social and environmental disasters that they cause.

On the expenditure side, the attack is usually focussed on public services and less often on government spending as such. This is because many of our elites quite like a lot of government spending. Military expenditure is usually regarded as a good thing if not an actual duty. The more and the bigger weapons “we” can have the better it seems. Money rarely seems to be an objection. Spending on the police, security and law 'n order is also well regarded. Our rich and their cronies must be protected at all times. Public spending on bailing out failing businesses is also usually regarded as a good thing, especially by those in receipt of such largesse. Quite what “we” the people get in return is not often very clear. No; government spending is not itself the problem. It is spending on the main public services – education, health and social services – that most annoy the rich and their attendants in the media.

As with government income there is a need for a thorough review of what the state should spend public money on. But this needs to look way beyond public services to encompass all government spending. Just how much of a military do we really need. Will the UK forever be stuck in some Imperial mind set, always seeking a seat at the big table – whatever the costs? When and how should the sate get involved in bailing out industries – and what sort of quid pro quo should “we” the people get in return for our money? These are just some of the questions that should be asked before we even begin to look at public services.

The other attack focusses more precisely on public sector workers and their pensions. As a former public sector worker – in local government – I have an interest to declare about this particular issue. The main focus of the current attack is to try and foment antagonism and hostility within the working population. The hardships of some workers in the private sector – threats of unemployment, short time working, pay restraint or actual pay cuts - are contrasted with the supposed paradise of workers in the public sector. A special venom is reserved for public sector pensions. Apparently we, retired public sector workers are all living a life of Riley with fabulous pensions. No doubt, somebody in the public sector has a fabulous pension, but the overwhelming majority of public sector workers are low paid. Many only work part-time. Therefore most end up with pretty dismal pensions. They may be inflation proof and guaranteed, but if your final salary is peanuts you pension is half a peanut - provided you worked for forty years without a break. Very few women can manage this and not that many men either. This attack on public sector pensions is a pathetic attempt on the part of the directors and managers in the private sector to avoid facing up to their own responsibilities for not ensuring a solid financial base for their companies' pension schemes. How many company directors and top managers are likely to miss out on a decent pension? If there is a problem in providing decent pensions in the private sector the answer would seem to be to nationalize the whole pensions system and not set off one worker against another. Divide and rule has always been a good call for the rich. The vast majority of working people should instead start campaigning for a decent state pension for all – no-one should need a company pension. Do away with all occupational pensions schemes and create one state pension scheme for all – this can be based on final salary, as the more you earn the more you pay into the scheme.

These attacks on the public sector are just part of a strategy to prevent the public from demanding justice from those who got us into this economic crisis. In other words the self same people who are demanding cuts in public services. And as far as I can see, none, absolutely none of them has so far been punished. True, some well know bankers have lost their jobs – but with massive pay outs and pensions, mostly funded by you and I. The guilty people run far beyond the financial sector. They include the government ministers who presided over this collapse and failed to put in place a solid regulatory framework; the officials in the Bank of England, the FSA and other so-called regulatory bodies, who did nothing to prevent this crisis; the opposition and their cheerleaders in the media who not merely failed to oppose, but egged on every further deregulation.

To misquote someone – never have so few caused such a disaster for so many. And still they refuse to admit their responsibility for any of this. “We”, the people, should be on the attack against them.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Opera Chic

Opera Chic is a wonderfully funny blog written by a young American woman who lives in Milan. She is a classically-trained musician and obviously the blog is mainly about opera. Though La Scala in Milan features a lot, she does cover opera from all over the world. And as the title of the blog suggests this is not your standard opera critique. The focus is more on the performers – the singers, divas, directors, conductors etc.

Even if you are not much interested in opera, or even if you are not interested at all you will still enjoy Opera Chic for its barbed and witty comments and the glamorous and sometimes not so glamorous photos of the jet set of the opera world. For opera lovers the site keeps us informed of all the latest gossip about the professional and private lives of the stars. For a typically bitchy piece on Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, try this.

The blog is not all photos, OC (as she refers to herself) also includes some fascinating video clips. This piece features Elena Glurdjidze, a senior principal dancer with the English National Ballet. She was at a Chanel salon and gave an impromptu dance of the Dying Swan for Karl Langerfeld which he filmed. Unfortunately according to one of the comments it is the wrong music – Debussy's Clair de Lune – and the dancing and music don't equate. Looks lovely though. Another very funny clip is found in this post about how not to teach children to love classical music. OC suggests letting them watch the Muppets instead.

Opera Chic is not just about opera though. OC herself for some reason supports Inter Milan and she frequently puts up posts and photos of her favourite players, not always with the regulatory kit on. She is also mad about ballet dancer Robert Bolle who features even more regularly on her blog. This is obviously one for the girls, so here is the man himself in all his glory and you can make up your own mind about OC's infatuation.

Monday, 6 July 2009

hurting distance

This was the reading group's book for July and to tell the truth I was not particularly looking forward to the read. The jacket of the book describes the novel as a creepy, twisty thriller about psychological torture. Now I'm not much into torture and even less into psychological torture. As it turned out what it said on the tin was not what was inside, bearing out the old adage of not judging a book by it's cover. Hurting distance by Sophie Hannah is an enjoyable read and a well crafted tale.

It is a thriller of sorts and as it deals with rape, the main women characters have suffered quite brutally and traumatically. It starts off with an account by the central character, Naomi Jenkins of her visit to the house of her married lover, Robert, who failed to turn up for their usual weekly tryst. Told in the first person, Naomi is clearly very worried that something bad has happened. She wanders by the house and falls into a panic attack on seeing something inside the house. As she leaves she is accosted by her lover's wife who calls her by her name and aggressively warns Naomi off. Worried by what she has seen – we do not know what this is – she decides to go to the police with her worries. We are thus straight into the mystery – what if anything has happened to Robert? Naomi also gives glimpses into her unusual relationship with Robert, one in which she is clearly in awe of the man.

Thereafter we gradually learn more about Naomi and the other characters – Robert, his wife Juliet and the woman police detective, Charlie. We also find out what did happen to Robert and what Naomi did see in his living room. As all this emerges we are led into a pretty horrific and sordid world of men's violence, both physical and psychological, to women. The novel builds up a fairly thrilling and violent climax as the guilty people are revealed. All the main action takes place over eight days, though there are frequent references to action earlier on.

However this is no edge of the seat chiller. In fact it is very funny at times and could almost be a black comedy, though it is not really black enough, despite the subject matter, for this accolade. A lot of bad and nasty things happen to the main women characters, but they all seem to be or to become if not in control at least not merely subservient oppressed victims.

An interesting feature of the novel is the use of the first person for Naomi. Every alternate chapter is Naomi's own story in her own words. It is never clear what this is meant to be – a diary, a tape recording, or what? The other chapters are all straightforward third person narrative. I am not sure what the purpose of this bifocal approach is. I've come across it before, in Stef Penney's the Tenderness of Wolves, and I didn't understand its use there either. While the first person does give an intimacy to the accounts, why only for one character? While she is the central character it still doesn't explain why only her. It is quite common for novels to use different perspectives, but I am still not convinced of this use of one character in the first person and the rest as the author's narrative. Still, all in all this is a good read.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Afghanistan – the good war?

I am constantly amazed at how often when the issue of our military presence in Afghanistan is raised the starting assumption is that this was, unlike Iraq, a good war. That our invasion of Afghanistan was the correct thing to do. Even the blessed Liberal Democrats support our action there. But why?

The assumption has always been that the invasion of Afghanistan was in response to the murderous attacks on 9/11. However, as far as I am aware, the Afghan government was not responsible for these attacks. Nor were any Afghan citizens involved in the attacks. On the other hand the organizers and fifteen of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and one from Lebanon. So the Americans with our docile support decide to bomb and invade Afghanistan? And the connection? Our old friend and enemy, Osama bin Laden, who is alleged to be the instigator and the brains behind the attacks was at the time based in Afghanistan. As the Taliban, the ruling faction in Afghanistan, refused to bow to American demands the US with our support decided to invade and occupy the country.

As later proved to be the case in Iraq, invading and defeating a third world army and regime is pretty small beer. The real difficulty is what to do next. Coalition forces are still in Afghanistan and still fighting and killing. In February of this year the UN reported that 2,118 Afghan civilians had been killed in 2008, the highest number since the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. Of these deaths, over 800 were killed by coalition forces, mostly due to air strikes. Remember, these are Afghan civilians. This seems to be what our troops are especially good at – killing civilians. Not that the coalition forces get away scot free. According to Wikipedia, as of July 02 this year there has been 1,205 coalition deaths since 2001. As for the UK, as of July 01 there has been 171 British deaths and upwards of 2,300 combat injuries.

All in the name of what? By all accounts Osama and his little band are alive and well somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan. The US forces never seemed to make much of an effort to catch him anyway. Perhaps it suits the US and their allies to have him still alive to be rolled out as a bogeyman every now and again. The subsequent islamist terror attacks in Spain and in the UK for example, do not seem to have relied much on Osama and his al-Qaeda group. In the UK it seems to be UK citizens who are sufficiently disaffected to want to kill their fellow citizens. Not sure how occupying and killing muslims in Afghanistan is going to help us win the hearts and minds of muslims living in the UK.

As for Afghanistan itself it is hard to see how that country has benefited from our attention. True the Taliban no longer rule the country, but who does? By many accounts outside the capital, Kabul, the rest of the country is under the control of regional warlords. Very few of whom seem to place much value on Western style democracy and civil liberties. Afghanistan seems to be an even more fractured country than Iraq. The Pashtun make up the largest ethnic group in the country, comprising around 40% of the population. Afghanistan is essentially the kingdom of the Pashtun. Interesting to note that the word Afghan is apparently an alternative to Pashtun. The other large ethnic group is the Tajik who make up 30% or more of the population. Uzbeks, Hazara, Turkmen and many other smaller ethnic groups make up the rest of the population. Given that most of the Taliban supporters are Pashtun, we seem to be involved in supporting one side in a civil war. Not quite sure what this has to do with UK security.

As far as I can see none of the mission statements from the Americans or the British amount to much of an achievable objective for the coalition forces. We're there because we're there and since we're there we might as well do something to help create a prosperous, stable, democratic and freedom loving country. If that means killing thousands of civilians well what the hell – they're only Afghans. Nobody seems to have bothered to ask the Afghans if this is what they want and if the continued occupation and slaughter of their fellow citizens is the best way to achieve it. Once again not sure why the UK should be paying for (in the lives of our soldiers as well as in money) this attempt to create a little Finland in the Middle East. Not our business at all.

If we want to reduce the likelihood of future terrorist attacks by muslims then this can be better and more cheaply achieved if our government were to: 1) stop invading and occupying muslim countries; 2) stop giving carte blanche support to Israel in its continuing bloody occupation of Palestine; 3) stop using islamophobic rhetoric in the UK.

At a time of economic crisis when some politicians and commentators are calling for the retirement age to be raised to 70 and for public services to be cut back, all on the grounds that the country cannot continue to find the funds – it is nothing short of scandalous that we continue to waste lives and money on an ill-fated war.