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Events in Turkey are becoming extremely interesting with the EU, as usual, flapping on the sidelines. It was always clear to anyone who managed to think about it for two consecutive minutes – which means not the EU foreign policy makers – that Turkey needs to be treated quite carefully. Otherwise, we may find ourselves facing the choice of either an Islamist government or a military dictatorship. Well, that time may have come.

This week-end saw another enormous demonstration in Istanbul of opponents of political Islam. According to the police there were well over a million people there.

A couple of weeks ago there was a smaller demonstration of only 300,000 also in favour of retaining Turkey’s prized secular status. At the time there were dark mutterings of the demonstration having been organized by the army and possibly it was not entirely untrue. Developments this week-end show that the support for secularism is more widespread than just in and around the military.

The immediate cause of this excitement is the forthcoming presidential elections and we have written about this before. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Islamist AK Party was thought to have been eyeing the presidency for himself but was put off by the first demonstration. Instead he promoted the present Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, a close ally and also an Islamist. One of the complaints against Erdogan and his decision was that he did not consult the opposition parties as is customary over the question of presidential candidates, relying, one assumes on his majority in parliament to get his man in.

The opposition Republican People's Party has presented the Constitutional Court with a petition to suspend the presidential election, claiming that Erdogan had acted unconstitutionally and that putting someone like Gül into the presidential palace would undermine the secularist state of Turkey.

Prime Minister Erdogan, on the other hand, has claimed that far from introducing political Islamism, his government has been very pro-Western and reformist. Though, as he did not add, this may well have been because of the barely hidden threat by the army to overthrow any government that pushes Turkey towards an Islamic state and because of a secularist President who managed to control or overrule many of the proposals.

There have been various attempts to criminalize adultery, restrict the sale of alcohol and lift the ban on the wearing of headscarves in government offices. The fear is that with an Islamist President and an Islamist Prime Minister these attempts will be successful.

In fact, Abdullah Gül is finding it more difficult to achieve the presidency than it had been expected. In the first round he failed to win the necessary number of votes and, it is expected, that he will not get in till the third round, due to take place (Constitutional Court permitting) on May 9.

The army, which considers itself to be the guardian of Atatürk’s settlement, has quite openly threatened to deal with the situation if the government moved towards political Islamic structures and this has caused an immediate flap among the great and the good in Europe.

One effect of the crisis was almost predictable:
The turmoil unsettled traders in Istanbul, where the benchmark index, the IMKB-100, was down 4.01 percent at 44,984.45 points by closing, after opening down 7.99 percent. Turkey's currency, the lira, slid against foreign currencies and was trading at 1.36 against the U.S. dollar, compared to Friday's close of 1.33.

Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership, has been steadily recovering from a financial crisis in 2001, curbing inflation and pushing ahead with banking reform and other initiatives backed by the International Monetary Fund. The country has huge foreign debt but is attractive to foreign investors.

Analysts said the markets will likely recover if the government defuses tension by agreeing to early elections for Parliament, a move that could appease critics and clear the way for more vigorous implementation of economic reforms once a new government is in place. But they warned that sustained political uncertainty would take its toll.
The Turkish press, as Deutsche Welle reports, is not taking sides but calling on both the government and the military to sort the problems out for the country’s sake. The point several journalists make is that, while the military may be there to protect the secular structure, the idea that it should do so by overruling a democratically elected government (as it has done on several occasions in recent years) is not all that appealing either.
The Turkish press on Sunday was unanimous in calling on the government and the army to resolve their differences democratically and said early elections were the only way to prevent the country from plunging into chaos.

"Turkey either giving up on secularism or suspending democracy are two doomsday scenarios impossible to choose between," the popular daily Vatan said.

The liberal daily Milliyet said the army's warning had "cast a shadow on the credibility and respectability of civilian institutions."

"The latest developments show that the current term of parliament has reached the end of its natural life. Elections should be held at once," it added.

Prime Minister Erdogan has addressed the nation, appealing for unity and calm. However, it seems that, although the address was broadcast today, it was actually recorded on Saturday, that is, before the mass demonstration. Earlier the government’s spokesman, Çemil Çiçek, said this:
It is inconceivable in a democratic state based on the rule of law for the General Staff, which is under the orders of the prime minister, to speak out against the government. The primary duty in protecting the basic tenets of the state falls on the government. The Chief of the General Staff is answerable to the Prime Minister.
It is a difficult situation to understand and the EU having not helped matters by creating endless difficulties over negotiations for Turkey’s membership of the EU (while not making it clear that this is an impossible idea, either) and having behaved with less than total honesty in Cyprus, is now making grandiloquent statements.

Both the European Union and the Council of Europe have rushed in to demand that the army stay out of Turkish politics, an impossible notion, given modern Turkey’s history. Terry Davies, the Council of Europe’s Secretary General said:
I am very anxious about this statement from the Turkish military. It sounds like an explicit attempt by the armed forces to influence the outcome of the presidential election.
Then again, these days the Council of Europe has members like Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation, so its attachment to human rights may not be as strong as it used to be.

For the European Union Ollie Rehn, the Enlargement Commissar opined:
It is important that the military leaves the remit of democracy to the democratically elected government. This is a test case if the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularism and the democratic arrangement of civil-military relations.
He is quite wrong. The test case will come if Turkey, the only more or less democratic secular Muslim state is taken over by political Islamism. What will all the great and the good say then? The European Union, one assumes, will heave a sigh of relief. All negotiations with Tukey can be abandoned. The Council of Europe will bleat on. But a reliable Western ally will disappear.

Of course, the crisis may pass and Erdogan may stay on a secularist path, not least because he still has some hope that the EU will open its doors to Turkey. The most likely reason for that, however, will be the threat expressed by the army and a large part of the populace.

COMMENT THREAD

We did it a little while back but now The Times has picked up that Mars is being hit by rapid climate change.

Writing for the paper, Jonathan Leake says it is happening so fast that the red planet could lose its southern ice cap. This is according to scientists from Nasa, who have noted that Mars has warmed by about 0.5C since the 1970s. This is similar to the warming experienced on Earth over approximately the same period.

Since there is no known life on Mars, adds Leake, it suggests rapid changes in planetary climates could be natural phenomena.

Meanwhile, Telegraph correspondent Melissa Whitworth in her clog (corporate blog) on the paper's site, equates scepticism about the human role in global warming with holocaust denial.

I kid you not.

COMMENT THREAD

Could the story of the Bronze soldier and his peregrinations together with the Russian deliberate over-reaction be coming to an end? One can but hope, though, if past history is anything to go by, President Putin or his ministers will find some other excuse to try to stir up trouble in the former Soviet republics.

Both the BBC Russian Service and RIA News have reported that the statue would be open to visitors today in its new place. The latter is ahead of the Beeb with a photograph (it looks real) of the Bronze Soldier in the new position though the wall has not been reconstructed behind him. The official opening will be on May 8, VE Day or the eve of Victory Day, depending on where you are.

Meanwhile, the accusations have started flying back and forth. The Estonian Foreign Ministry has accused the Russian government of deliberately fomenting the protests in Tallinn and Narva and has protested against the continuing picketing of the Estonian embassy in Moscow, in the process preventing the Estonian ambassador from leaving the building.

The same news item on the BBC website tells us that the coffins of 12 Soviet soldiers have been found near to where the memorial had stood until this Friday.

Meanwhile the Russian parliamentary delegation has arrived in Tallinn. According to the Estonians discussions will centre around the scores of Russian citizens who were arrested during the riots and the one Russian citizen who has died of knife wounds.

The delegation seems to have a different view:
The Russians will call on Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip to resign, delegation chief Nikolai Kovalyov told the Baltic News Service before leaving Moscow.

They also want the statue of the Bronze soldier at the centre of the row to be returned to the central Tallinn site from where it was removed last week, he added.
Since neither of these things are likely to happen, they might as well discuss what to do about the various Russians from Russia.

The EU has finally noticed that something is going on around its eastern border. Chancellor Merkel has spoken to President Putin about the Estonian problem among other matters and Ilkka Kanerva, the Finnish Foreign Minister has called for the maintenance of a joint line on the subject. Of course, that begs the question of what that joint line might be and, it would appear, that the attitude of the new intake, especially the Baltic States and Finland could be somewhat different from that of other member states. But that’s just attitude.

When it comes to the joint line, it seems to consist of a general agreement that this is a bilateral problem (aren’t they all?) and the EU need not interfere. So much for a common foreign policy though the German Foreign Minister is desperately warning about a renewed Cold War. Given what has been going on in the last few weeks and months, the words horses, bolting and stable doors spring to mind.

The oddest reaction came from Javier Solana, though this seems to have been reported only by RIA:
The EU's leading foreign policy and security official said Saturday he was concerned by the use of force against protesters following the removal of a WWII statue in Tallinn Friday.

In a telephone conversation with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana urged Estonia to avoid violence and defuse tensions, Solana's press secretary said.
Apparently, Solana confirmed that he did not think this was an EU issue but a bilateral one between Estonia and Russia (just as he thought Poland’s problems with Russia were no concern of his). The question is why Solana? If the story is true he was commenting on something that is not part of his portfolio. He deals with the EU’s foreign policy while the behaviour of the Estonian police is internal EU policy.

Is Solana making noises because this is, after all, a matter for the Common Foreign Policy Supremo, there being the problem of Russia interfering with the internal matters of an EU member state? If so, why not say so? Or, perhaps, he did but RIA did not report it. Then again, no-one else seems to have reported him either.

COMMENT THREAD

Given that the MoD has been savagely attacked, not least on this blog (most recently here, for its failure to adopt in both Iraq and Afghanistan the widespread use of what the US are now calling the Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAP), you would think that it would be quick to make a public announcement when it responded to the criticisms and actually did something that could be applauded.

But this is the MoD we are talking about here, so it is to the European Defence Agency Website that we must go to find that the Ministry is planning to order 180 of what it terms the "Medium Protected Patrol Vehicle" (MPPV).

With a contract value of between £20-100 million, it is specifying wheeled vehicles for likely delivery into service in early 2009 with an approximate gross vehicle weight of 14 ton, capable of carrying up to seven crew members. It should provided protected mobility and offer very high levels of protection against a number of known and emerging threats of a varied nature including Ballistic, Blast, Mine and Fragmentation.

Says the MoD, MPPVs are principally required for a wide range of patrol tasks and are normally expected to operate on roads and rough tracks in urban, semi-urban and rural environments; however they need to be sufficiently agile to provide a degree of cross country mobility.

Furthermore, the requirement is considered to be "Warlike" in nature and hence the contract will not be subject to the normal EU procurement directives. And, although the programme is currently unfunded, the initial stages of selection have the necessary financial authorisation and the programme is expected to be formalised under normal procurement procedures.

This is actually seriously good news, bringing into the inventory a vehicle of the size and range of the RG-31, Bushmaster or Dingo II types. The betting is, however, that it is more likely to be the four-wheel version of the Cougar (pictured) – the six-wheel version forming the basis for the Mastiff – in order to ensure commonality and to simplify maintenance.

Furthermore, this is not the only good news. An otherwise unpublished announcement from the Defence Procurement Agency asks for bids for what it terms "Indirect Fire Locator, Alarm and Intercept System" (IFLAIS) equipment, for delivery to Basra, Iraq, at a total cost of £9 million.

This sounds like, by another name, C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) equipment, the guns based on the naval Phalanx system, which can shoot down incoming mortar bombs, thus substantially enhancing base protection. At that price, it looks like possibly three systems are on order. At last, troops in Basra are going to get the protection they deserve.

There is, of course, a security element to the ordering of this equipment but the information on both orders is in the public domain, with the information on the MPPVs now published Defense-aerospace website.

Why the MoD should not thus publish the same the same details on their website is, frankly, incomprehensible.

COMMENT THREAD

Though the Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey is down, he is not out. Here is a fascinating interview with Atlas Shrugs, in which he talks about developments in Egypt and the Middle East in general (not good), the lack of Western pressure that means even less likelihood of democratic development and, hilariously if it weren't so sad, the effect of Nancy Pelosi's ludicrous road to Damascus with the aftereffects. Read the whole piece.

We did not really want to revisit the "Great Dustbin Debate" so soon, but Janet Daley’s return to the country, after a brief sojourn in the USA, and her own entry into the debate, in the op-ed page of the The Daily Telegraph, makes it almost compulsory.

The debate, she says, "exposes flawed politics", bemoaning the fact that, while in the States they are discussing "big arguments, big issues, big world out there…" here, everybody is "talking rubbish."

She then ruminates on "how on earth would I have explained to any visiting American first, how an apparently slight matter of domestic convenience had become a national issue of tremendous electoral magnitude". Secondly, she asks, "how on earth central government was implicated in a policy that in the US would be determined at a level so local as to be microscopic on the political spectrum?"

This, though, is a cue for several yards of extruded opinion. Rubbish, it occurs to the great Daley, "is a totemic symbol of the Great Public Services Scam in which you are consistently charged more and more for less and less." In this way, rubbish becomes, "the final straw: it is the ultimate outrage which captures the essence of what people feel to be wrong about the way they are governed."

Thus does she continue in this vein:

It should seem absurd that Whitehall has any influence (except perhaps in enforcing broad public hygiene standards) on how and when your bins are emptied. It should be risible that national party leaders are pronouncing on the practices and policies of day-to-day refuse arrangements. These things should be entirely in the hands of locally accountable officials who may be free to engage directly in as much debate with their communities over environmental vs public health priorities as they wish.
But, you have guessed it – not a single mention of the "elephant in the room". EU diktats have so inflated the cost of waste collection and disposal that, in the run-up to a major local election, councils are seeking ways of economising and keeping down the headline level of the most sensitive of all taxes, the local council tax.

Thus, while Daley thinks that it "should be risible that national party leaders are pronouncing on the practices and policies of day-to-day refuse arrangements," she has no opinion on the fact that our supranational masters in Brussels have created the situation where rubbish collection has become the issue it has.

Nor thus, does she pronounce on the extra £3 billion in taxes and fines it is going to cost local taxpayers – no small issue – or the £12 billion infrastructure costs that it is going to cost local councils to conform with the broader requirements of the Waste Framework Directives.

By now, though, the EU link is hardly a secret so the refusal to recognise what is staring them in the face absolutely typifies this type of London-centric "chattering class" columnist that Daley really is.

I don't suppose they care one whit how they invite the utter contempt of many of their readers. In their self-referential bubbles, they can continue to hold sway at the fashionable dinner parties and that is all that matters to them. But there is a political cost. From the Daley tendency comes the vapid, shallow "doctrine" of Cameronism and, come this Thursday's local elections – outside the magic M25 circle – we can at least give him a kicking.

COMMENT THREAD

In entirely good faith, yesterday, we published a commentary on the US activities in the Helmand province of Afghanistan – an area under British responsibility - suggesting that our own High Command is blighted by a lack of aggressive spirit.

Today, however, we learn that more than 2,000 NATO and Afghan troops began an operation before dawn "to drive Taliban fighters from another swath of their opium-producing heartland in southern Afghanistan".

It turns out that this is a British-led operation, code-named "Silicon" involving some 1,100 British troops, 600 U.S. soldiers and more from Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and Estonia. More than 1,000 Afghan government troops are also taking part.

We also learn that the troops are targeting Helmand's Sangin Valley, an area near Afghanistan's strategic ring road that has "for too long been under the semi-control of the Taliban." This latter statement is a quote from Lt.-Col. Stuart Carver, "a British commander", who then says: "It is all part of a longer-term plan to restore the whole of Helmand to government control."

But, incredibly, we learn this not from the MoD website but from the Associated Press via the Canadian Globe and Mail.

The latest item from the MoD is the unfortunate death of a soldier from 2nd Battalion The Rifles but, before that, the last two entries, both on 27 April, are about – respectively – "An Armed Forces Muslim Community Conference and an Armed Forces Buddhist Community Conference" and a firefighting simulator. On the front page, there is not even a link to our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is simply not good enough. At one level, it is grossly unfair to our troops who are putting their lives on the line. What price morale when their own MoD cannot even recognise their efforts and post details of what they are doing on the web site?

At an equally important level, this represents a complete failure to understand the nature of the war we are waging. As we have written so often on this blog (most recently in relation to the Israelis), there are, in fact, two wars: the shooting war and the propaganda war. We have to win both, which means that we must show our own people and the world that our forces are making progress and securing real gains.

Not least of the problems is that, in the absence of real information about the activities of our Armed Forces, the MoD website ends up dangerously unbalanced. By far the predominance in the coverage is on casualties, which reinforces the Independent newspaper's agenda – that we are taking pain for no gain.

Inevitably, too much "gung ho – derring do" on the site would lead to charges of propaganda, but there is a balance to be struck. No coverage at all – or a very little, very late – is not an option. The site must reflect properly what we are doing in these vital areas.

On the other hand, the MoD cannot complain about the venality of the media if it, itself, cannot publish, sober, well-written (and illustrated) accounts of our own forces' achievements. And neither can we, who broadly support the government's aims, act as a counter to the incessant triviality of the media if we ourselves are unable to obtain information from authoritative sources.

After the debacle of the handling of the Iran hostages, this is yet another example of how the MoD media operation is letting down our armed forces and the nation. As a matter of urgency, it must up its game. We are losing the propaganda war and it is a war we cannot afford to lose.

COMMENT THREAD

Today's Wall Street Journal has another interesting editorial about the players in the Wolfowitz saga. The ad hoc committee that was supposed to decide whether Wolfowitz has acted unethically is dominated by Europeans most of whom are former politicians and they decided before hearing either him or Ms Riza that he was guilty, despite the evidence, and had to go.
On Saturday, the Washington Post cited "three senior bank officials" as saying that the committee has "nearly completed a report" concluding that Mr. Wolfowitz "breached ethics rules when he engineered a pay raise for his girlfriend." The Post also reported that, "According to bank officials, the timing of the committee's report and its conclusions have been choreographed for
maximum impact in what has become a full-blown campaign to persuade Wolfowitz to go." So there it is from the plotters themselves: Verdict first, trial later.
The timing is crucial in another way. President Bush is about to meet Commission President Barroso and Chancellor Merkel in a summit. He will, presumably, be put under some pressure from them to rid the World Bank of Wolfowitz and let it lapse back into its cosy, corrupt cronyism.

The article is scathing about certain Dutch politicians in particular:
The "ad hoc" chairman is Herman Wijffels, a Dutch politician who has his own blatant conflict of interest in the case. One of the main "witnesses" against Mr. Wolfowitz is Ad Melkert, another Dutch politician who had previously run the bank board's ethics committee that advised Mr. Wolfowitz to give the raise to his girlfriend that is now the basis for the accusations against him. Whom do you think Mr. Wijfells is going to side with: His fellow countryman, or an American reviled in Europe for wanting to depose Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Melkert has played an especially craven role by running from his own responsibility in the case. As head of the ethics committee in 2005, he refused to let Mr. Wolfowitz recuse himself from dealings with Shaha Riza, who had been long employed at the bank. Then Mr. Melkert advised him to ensure that Ms. Riza got a new job that included some kind of raise or promotion to compensate for the disruption to her career. Now, however, Mr. Melkert claims he was an innocent bystander who knew nothing about Ms. Riza's raise.

How very European. This is the same Ad Melkert, who on October 24, 2005, after Ms. Riza had been told of her new job and salary, wrote in a letter to Mr. Wolfowitz that "Because the outcome is consistent with the [Ethics] Committee's findings and advice above, the Committee concurs with your view that this matter can be treated as closed."

And it is the same Ad Melkert who absolved Mr. Wolfowitz after inspecting two whistleblower emails from an anonymous "John Smith" that circulated around the bank in early 2006 and charged malfeasance. A January 21 whistleblower email included a reference to Ms. Riza's "salary increase of around US$50,000" and was sent to the entire bank board.
Oh and one more point. Ms Riza, details of whose employment and salary were leaked to the media against all rules, has not had a chance to give her side of the story. Until now.

COMMENT THREAD

They're not only milking the taxpayer to the tune of £8 million a year to finance their second pensions, they're also trying to prevent the public knowing who they are.

And who are "they"? The Daily Telegraph has the answer.

COMMENT THREAD

On my last visit to Moscow some years ago I went with a friend to a church and the nearby graveyard. It was explained to me that the graveyard was now minute because of the huge construction efforts throughout the Soviet period but before that it had been a large military cemetery where many of the Russian and allied soldiers and officers were buried during the First World War.

In the post-Soviet years attempts had been made to put up monuments to various Russian officers of that period. It was an interesting experiment since the fate of the various men had been different. Some had joined the Red Army and some the White; some went abroad and died there or, possibly, were handed over for belated settling accounts at the end of the Second World War; some disappeared in Stalin’s purges in the thirties and some actually survived to die in bed to be buried with honour.

This applied to a few senior officers only. For the most part no trace was left of the several hundred Russian and allied soldiers who had been buried in that military cemetery during World War I.

This does bear some relevance to the present problems that surround the question of the Bronze Soldier and the Soviet soldiers buried in the nearby graves (though there is some talk of there being older burials there) and this rather peculiar picture supposedly of the desecrated memorial, though it is obviously photoshopped.

Graveyards and cemeteries do not remain untouched for ever. Anyone who has ever worked on an archaeological dig would know that the dead had been dug up and unceremoniously reburied or simply dumped in the past. One may argue about the rightness of it but not about the facts.

The problem is not so much Estonia as Russia. As I have pointed out before, there was never any suggestion that the Bronze Soldier should be destroyed or that the exhumed soldiers should not receive proper re-burial. It would have been perfectly possible for the Russian government to insist on full military honours for them. Instead, this seemed like a good opportunity to stir up hatred against the West and particularly against the countries that have definitely got away, the Baltic ones.

A longer piece on what has been going on in Russia and Estonia can be found here.

COMMENT THREAD

"Killing people and breaking things". That, as one Army officer engagingly put it, is the primary role of the armed forces. Everything else is secondary.

It is those functions which the current opposition defence spokesman cannot seem to get his head round which is why his speeches on defence seem to convey the impression that he regards the MoD as a cross between a branch of the NHS and a social services department – a fully paid-up component of the welfare state. Never once has he got to grips with the efficiency of the forces in their primary role, or asked how that efficiency might be improved.

The piece in The Sunday Telegraph today, therefore, comes as a salutary reminder of that role, at which it seems, US Apache crews are excelling in Afghanistan.

Written by Gethin Chamberlain - and for once a good piece of journalism – the title certainly conveys the flavour of what is going on: "US aircrews show Taliban no mercy", the story telling us how a Taliban ambush team had been caught in the open by a pair of Apache gunships and systematically exterminated. And, to prove the point about "breaking things", in another action when the helicopters had finished with the men, they went about destroying the equipment the fighters had been using.

This more aggressive stance is almost certainly the work of General Dan McNeill, who recently assumed command of Nato forces in Afghanistan, taking over from Gen David Richards, the British officer who – notoriously – saw the way forward as making local peace deals with tribal elders, to keep the Taliban out.

This much is affirmed in another piece by Gethin Chamberlain, who has the American forces claiming they have blocked the Taliban's planned spring offensive by overriding British deals with the insurgents and launching an aggressive air and land campaign.

We are told that American officers have said they could no longer stand by and watch as the Taliban picked off British soldiers who had been left "isolated" in their bases in Helmand province. Chamberlain thus cites Lt Andrea Anthony, the intelligence officer for the 82nd Airborne Division's Task Force Corsair - which includes the Apache helicopter gunship force – who says that American commanders had adopted a more aggressive approach, out of concern for what was happening on the ground. Writes Chamberlain, citing the officer:

"It was difficult for the Brits to have the support they needed," she said. "The ground elements in Helmand were so isolated that they would get shot at and mortared.

"That has changed now. It was a case of having friendly guys there, and we needed to go out and take care of them. You can only lose so many guys before you say, 'This is ridiculous, we are going to do something about it'."
What also comes over from the first piece is the high morale of the US aircrew. Although they have lost 50 helicopters since the start of the war in Iraq, they are not losing any sleep over it. Says one pilot, Lt Jack Denton "When you are on top of the enemy you look, shoot and it's, 'You die, you die, you die' … The odds are on our side. I really enjoy it. I told my wife, if I could come home every night then this would be the perfect job."

The Americans at least have come to terms with the objectives of fighting an insurgency. You do not negotiate with your enemies. You kill them.

This makes such a contrast with the defeatist whingeing from Private Paul Barton, to whom most of the daily newspapers have given space, after he telephoned his local newspaper, the Tamworth Herald to give vent to his feelings.

Interestingly, none of the newspapers picked up the fact that Barton was by no means the first soldier to have aired his woes to a local newspaper. Back in December last, Lance Corporal James Larsen, recently returned from Basra after serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, gave his account to the North West Evening Mail.

Having, like Pte Barton, been based at the Shatt al Arab Hotel, his account was eerily similar to that of Barton’s, he claiming that he had survived more than 1,000 bomb attacks on his base and had been just 70 metres from a colleague who was killed by a mortar bomb. He added:

My friends have been thrown on top of me and I have been mortared from 25 metres away when the tent got hit. We had breeze blocks going round our beds. I would roll off the bed and go under it next to the breeze blocks. I soon stopped sleeping on the bed and just lay with the breeze blocks.
Perhaps the seminal difference between Lt Denton and the Barton/Larsen duo is that Denton was dishing it out while the British soldiers were on the receiving end without, it appears, any (or much) opportunity to hit back.

That is possibly the greatest indictment of the British Army High Command to date - the way they neglected force protection while allowing insurgents to take risk-free pot-shots at our troops.

Frankly, anyone who really knows soldiers, and has talked to them at length, will understand that this lies at the root of the problem in Basra. It is not the danger they fear – there is no lack of serving soldiers volunteering for action, wanting to get "stuck in". Barton put his finger on it when he said: "We were just sitting ducks". Being sniped and bombed when out on patrol and mortared and rocketed when back at base – by an enemy whom they are told to treat with kid gloves - is not what any soldier signs up for.

Effectively, it seems that the High Command of the British Armed forces (with some notable exceptions) is blighted by a lack of aggressive spirit.

That much seems evident in the treatment of the Prince Harry, where there is much beating of breasts over the young man being put at risk or, variously, putting the troops around him at risk as he becomes targeted by insurgents.

Rather than his high profile presenting a problem, however, a more robust – dare one say masculine – society (of which the Army is a part) might look upon this as an opportunity.

Much of the difficulties in dealing with insurgencies is that the enemy is hidden. In order to prevail against it, it must be brought to battle. And, if Prince Harry is up for it, his presence in theatre would be an ideal bait, drawing out the enemy whence it can be systematically slaughtered, much in the manner in which Lt Denton so enjoyed doing.

Therein, however, lies the real problem. With its current array of equipment and tactics, the Armed Forces are probably not capable of baiting a trap and ensuring that the tethered goat is not consumed by the tiger before a shot is fired.

Not least of those problems is the absurd equipment – the Scimitar light tank - which Price Harry is expected to operate. Long obsolescent, its thin armour is proof only against heavy machine gun fire (and then only just), while its ballistic profile renders it highly vulnerable to IEDs. It is hardly a surprise that, on 19 April, a Scimitar was blown up by a roadside bomb, killing two more soldiers and seriously injuring a third. Under current conditions, the Army could not guarantee that Harry would not suffer the same fate.

Here, we are seeing an element of (procurement) chickens coming home to roost.

Introduced in 1971, the Scimitar - or Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) as it is known – was long due for replacement by a more capable vehicle through the TRACER programme, only for that to be cancelled and then, in part, replaced by the utterly useless Panther Command/Liaison Vehicle.

In the absence of any other suitable alternative (although the US Army uses modified Bradleys – equivalent to our Warriors - for the role) this equipment (literally) soldiers on, despite its manifest unsuitability for its current (or any) role and its obvious vulnerability.

Then there are the other inadequacies, not least the lack of airborne surveillance and the lack of assault helicopters. If the Army got its BN Defenders back up in the air, leased a dozen Bell 212 "Hueys" and then started using techniques like environmental exception mapping to detect IEDs and – if need be – drafted a squadron of Challengers into the area, together with a company of Warrior-borne armoured infantry, then we would have the makings of a game plan.

For sure, there are risks. For the Prince to be killed or captured would be a tremendous blow – but there is also the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on the insurgents, which would reflect hugely on the prestige of our Armed Forces and our nation. If our High Command could take a little time out from writing up their risk assessment manuals, they might actually see that there is a game afoot, worth the winning.

COMMENT THREAD

Anyone listening to BBC Radio 4's Any Questions yesterday would not have gained the impression from the panellists, dealing with the question of fortnightly refuse collection, that the issue was anything other than a tussle between central and local government.

Between the patronising Patricia Hewitt, health secretary Hazel Blears, and the braying of the Lib-Dim MP, Susan Kramer, the decision was either local or dictated by central diktat. Not once did any of the panellists mention the elephant in the room – the EU and its framework waste directive.

It thus takes Booker, today, to write that, in all the acres of newsprint devoted in recent days to the chaos engulfing our rubbish disposal system, one crucial ingredient has been almost entirely lacking. This is, he tells us, a proper explanation not only of why we have got into this mess but why it is soon going to cost us billions of pounds, including huge fines to Brussels, which alone, on official figures, will soon total more than £1 billion.

And so we get the story:

When in 1999 the EU decided to phase out the landfilling of waste with its Landfill Directive, this was always going to hit the UK much harder than anyone else, because we have traditionally put much more of our rubbish into holes in the ground than other countries. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with that, since it has been used to reclaim large areas of land which might otherwise serve no useful purpose.

Two main instruments were used to enforce this policy. The first was that, under the directive, each country was set targets for reducing landfill, with hefty fines by the EU for anyone failing to meet them. By 2010 these will amount to £150 for every ton of waste by which each local council exceeds its target.

The second instrument, to encourage us to meet our targets, was the landfill tax, which Gordon Brown has just increased over the next two years to £32 a ton, a rise by next year of 33 percent. The Local Government Association has just released figures showing that, over the next four years, this will cost council taxpayers a staggering £3 billion.

Despite this, however, we will still be so far short of our EU target that, by 2013, the National Audit Office estimates that we shall be paying £205 million a year in fines to Brussels. Within ten years those fines (again payable by council taxpayers) will have amounted to well over £1 billion; in addition to the billions of pounds we shall be paying in landfill tax.

Unlike any other country in Europe, in short, we shall be hit by the Landfill Directive by a massive double-whammy. Hence all the ridiculous measures now filling the newspapers which councils are now taking, in a desperate effort to increase "recycling" and reduce our dependence on landfill. In fact, as I reported last month, much of this is based on bureaucratic humbug and statistical juggling. Much of what is shown as being collected for "recycling" is not being recycled at all. It is either being shipped out to the Far East, or is still being quietly put into tips here in Britain, but in such a way that it doesn't show up in the official figures as "landfill".

If the newspapers currently running campaigns on "bin chaos" really want to do something about it, they could begin by explaining just how this disaster has arisen. It does seem rather crazy that we should all be having to pay £3 billion in the next four years, in a vain bid to avoid having to pay a further £1 billion in fines as a free gift to our EU partners - all because our politicians should never have agreed to this dotty system of waste disposal being imposed on Britain in the first place.
To be fair, Vicki Woods in The Telegraph yesterday wrote a stonking piece, attacking the chaos over refuse collection, under the title, "Recycling? Admit it, it's all just rubbish".

It's the EU that tells Gordon Brown to increase the price of every ton (or is it a "tonne"?) of household rubbish dumped in landfill sites, she writes. Gordon Brown says OK, sure, why not? and promises to fine councils up to £150 per ton (or tonne) if they go over their EU-arranged landfill-site allowance. So we must, must, must recycle, d'you hear?

The EU, she observes, hates landfill. Woods lives in the countryside and likes landfill. She prefers it to incinerating rubbish, and well she might. The pictures in this piece are a collation of landfill practice, from lining the pit to spreading and in-situ compaction. The final picture shows the cell structures and the covering of the refuse with inert material.

It's modern, sanitary, environmentally friendly and produces large quantities of methane which is used to produce electricity, helping us meet our renewable energy quota. Furthermore, there is more than enough capacity in this country to meet any foreseeable need. But – courtesy of the EU - we must pay a ransom of over £3 billion for using the system.

No wonder the politicians don't want to talk about it.

COMMENT THREAD

Shame on all of you who didn't know it was the first ever European Road Safety Day yesterday. We are amazed that the forum wasn't flooded with angry demands for us to do a post on it.

It might also have been European Union propaganda day as well – except that that is every day. The Eurospin médecins were certainly out in force extolling the virtues of the "European Road Safety Action Plan" launched in 2001 with the aim of reducing the total number of deaths from almost 50,000 to 25,000 by 2010.

According to the EU commission press release, Le Plan "continues to deliver results" and the target of saving 25,000 lives on Europe's roads by 2010 is "attainable".

Of course, one is not supposed to look up what they said last year, but it was in February 2006 that a rather subdued EU transport commissioner, Jacques "Wheel" Barrot conceded that the plan was not not likely to achieve its 2010 goal. "At present rate," the commission noted, "road deaths in the European Union in 2010 are likely to stand at 32,500".

Conveniently, the latest set of figures are not available on the EU website but the commission is claiming the last 12 months have seen an eight percent reduction in the annual fatality rate.

In 2006, nearly 12,000 lives were saved in the European Union in comparison with 2001, an achievement, the commission says, which shows clearly the "ambitious objective" of halving the death rate "was justified". "Thanks to the concerted efforts of the European Union we can reach our target in 2010, provided we stay on course,” purrs Barrot.

Now, the programme started in 2001 and is six years in, with four to run and has produced less than fifty percent of the projected reduction. And this means the commission is going to meet its target?

Anyhow, buoyed with his success Barrot is now proposing an EU-wide law for the more serious road driving infringements allowing a culprit to be fined or otherwise brought to justice in one member state when the incident happened in another. Thus, a German driver caught speeding in France could be fined according to French law even after he had returned home. Under consideration are speeding, drink-driving and not wearing a seat belt.

"We need to give a European dimension to the fight against danger on the roads," says Barrot. The Euro-ticket cometh.

COMMENT THREAD

The anonymous Egyptian blogger, who posted on the site Rantings of a Sandmonkey has decided to quit. Well, so what, you might say. Bloggers give up all the time.

Sandmonkey's reasons for stopping are deeply depressing, though. He does not feel that he is safe in Egypt any more. Not that he ever thought he was safe but he is convinced that his anonymity has been pierced what with State Security agents lurking around his street and asking questions about him.

There has been tightening up of control in Egypt and free-thinking people like Sandmonkey were unlikely to escape the attention of the agents (or, for that matter, of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom we are now supposed to take seriously as a force for good).

He also adds an interesting comment about the Egyptian blogosphere, which has become, in his opinion, too inward-looking, engaged, it seems, in perpetual navel-gazing and mutual admiration. This does not surprise me. The same phenomenon could be observed with the dissidents of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Isolated from the rest of their society, they spent a lot of time talking to each other and writing for each other, having better links with Western groups than with others in their own countries. It was one reason why many of them found the post-Communist world more disturbing than one would have expected.

Read Sandmonkey's last post in full (and then go back to his previous ones). The blog will be missed and another scalp can be added to the forces of oppression.

The MoD announced yesterday, the findings of the Board of Inquiry held to determine the cause of the loss of a Lynx helicopter in Basra last year, an event that caused the death of five service personnel – including the first woman to be killed – and triggered a rather nasty riot.

It comes as no surprise to learn that the aircraft was shot down and, to counter any similar incidents, the BoI has made a number of recommendations which, for reasons of operational security, it has not published.

What is remarkable, however, is the BBC's response on its website. It shows a picture of a Lynx helicopter, with the caption, "The Ministry of Defence says the Lynx is a deadly tank killer." But the picture shows not the Mk7 – which is the utility/land attack version which actually got shot down – but the Mk8. This is the naval, anti-shipping/anti-submarine version – a completely different beast, even down to its different colour scheme.

Alright, this may be a small point, which would only be picked up by nerds. But we are talking about our national broadcasting organisation here – with all the inherent authority that that conveys. Its staff should know these things and its lack of attention to small detail strikes of a sloppy, inadequate organisation.

It would be easy to conclude from this (and many other examples) that if you cannot trust the BBC on the small details, that they are equally untrustworthy on the big issues – but that is not necessarily the case. However, such unforced errors certainly do not enhance the credibility of the BBC.

COMMENT THREAD


Did I say I was bored with pics of rubber boats?

I lied.

But then, there are rubber boats, and there are rubber boats - this one is from the Greek Navy. Doncha just love that colour scheme! Eat your heart out, Mr Bean.

COMMENT THREAD

There are two pieces on the op-ed page of The Daily Telegraph today, one from Jeff Randall and the other by Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. Although not apparently linked, read together, they tell a single story.

In the latter piece, Hannan is hyperventilating over a letter written by Angela Merkel, to her fellow EU heads of government. In fact, says the man, "I am clutching in my hot, trembling hands the most extraordinary document I have come across in eight years of Euro-politics. It is a letter from the German Chancellor."

In it, says our Daniel, she proposes a scheme to bring back the European Constitution under a new name - or, as she artlessly puts it, "to use different terminology without changing the legal substance".

Hannan is so excited by this "discovery" that he equates his feelings with how our code-breakers at Bletchley must have felt when a fully operational Enigma machine fell into their hands. After months of guesswork, he quivers, "we finally understand the enemy's intentions… This single providential discovery could represent the turning point of the entire campaign."

It seems our role always to be raining on little Danny boy's parade – likeable fella though he is - but the letter doesn't actually say that. The phrasing to which he refers comes in one of twelve questions which Merkel addresses to her fellow heads of government, in this one asking them as follows:

How do you assess in that case the proposal made by some Member States to use different terminology without changing the legal substance for example with regard to the title of the treaty, the denomination of EU legal acts and the Union's Minister for Foreign Affairs?
This, of course, puts it into a completely different context. With the other eleven questions, it demonstrates no more than Merkel sounding out the "colleagues". And, at this late stage, with only two months to go to the end of the presidency, it perhaps suggests that she is not as far forward as she might have hoped. It might even suggest she is floundering.

Hannan, as you might expect, sees this as a justification for a referendum but, even if he is right about the document, he is but one of a few who can drum up enough energy to be excited about the prospect. In the wider world, there is simply no interest in the machinations of the EU.

By coincidence, it is in the other piece, by Jeff Randall, that the explanation lies. Unlike Hannan, with his day job as an MEP and his equally lucrative writing career, we are, according to Randall’s headline: "Up to our eyes in debt we can't see". And ain't that the truth.

Millions of consumers are shooting for the stars, or going for broke, depending on your viewpoint, he writes. They're borrowing every penny that's available - and then a bit more. Some are deep in debt through necessity: they cannot survive on what they earn. Many are in hock to live the dream: the Chelsea tractor and a Marbella mansion. Others are "eating" their homes, ie, remortgaging to fund essentials such as 50in plasma televisions and sunbeds in the loft. Average interest paid by British households is £3,500 a year, according to Creditaction, a debt charity.

Typical mortgages, these days, are six times the buyers' salary, and house prices keep increasing in price at a rate of more than twice income growth. Some 34 per cent of mortgages taken out in January this year were "interest-only" and buyers are relying on house price inflation to bail them out.

Randall describes the current situation as "hocus-pocus economics" yet, when he raises the prospect of rising interest rates, higher mortgage payments, creeping unemployment and the possibility of falling house prices, "fingers are stuffed in ears, eyes are tightly shut and heads shake wildly: 'No, no, no. Go away!'"

Living in their own unreal bubbles, the majority of people do not really have time for "politics" or any real interest in them – much less EU affairs. Real political issues are, in any case, too close to reality and, when you are in denial, it is much safer to stick to the "soap opera" version of life, populated by Royals, celebrities, tat and gossip.

It is not so much that people are too well off, too comfortable and too secure. Largely, it is the very reverse – we have a population living on the edge of a debt precipice.

In fact, many have gone over the edge, playing out their own version of cartoon physics, akin to Wile E. Coyote forever running off the edge of a cliff, but only plunging to the ground when he notices that he has gone too far. In fact, according to the laws of cartoon physics, he will never fall until he looks down and sees nothing underneath him.

This, of course, cannot last. Recently, I was discussing with Booker whether anyone living in the early 1920s could have predicted that, before the end of the fourth decade of the Century, Germany would be in the grip of a totalitarian regime of monstrous savagery and that the world would be embroiled in another war.

That no one could have made such rash predictions says one thing – that when history moves, it moves very fast. Since the war we have had stability in the western part of Europe for over 60 years – which the integrationalists have exploited for their own ends. But, even within a decade, all that could change. Then, perhaps, we shall take an interest in real politics again.

But, however much Hannan hyperventilates about what is in his "hot trembling hand", the time is not now.

COMMENT THREAD

Long gone are the days when the routine fare of this blog was a diet of edited agency reports and rehashed newspaper stories. We have tried to set our own agenda with our own particular "take" on the world and, where we do deal with current news stories, we try to add value, through offering either more comprehensive coverage or analysis – or both.

The process of writing in this matter, with the discipline of running a daily blog, ends up being an enormously educative experience and, if our readers benefit from our work, we as authors possibly benefit even more. On a whole raft of issues we can count ourselves better informed, arising purely from the process of having to research and write for the blog.

That said, the accumulation of knowledge and information (if these two things are different) does not make the process of writing any easier. If anything, as we follow some issues, more of the underlying complexities become apparent and matters which, initially, looked black and while, assume degrees of ambiguity which make analysis and understanding more difficult as time goes on.

Such is the situation in Basra and the continued presence of British troops, holding the line against what seem – to some at least – overwhelming odds in a futile attempt to bring peace and stability to that corner of a benighted country.

That would certainly be the impression if one was to take at face value the report in The Independent today, which retails the thoughts and experiences of a serving British soldier recently returned from Iraq who, according to the newspaper, "exposes horror of war in 'crazy' Basra".

This is 27-year-old Private Paul Barton of 1st Battalion, the Staffordshire Regiment, who paints a picture of troops under siege, "sitting ducks" to an increasingly sophisticated insurgency. "Basra is lost, they (the militias) are in control now. It's a full-scale riot and the Government are just trying to save face," he says.

What immediately suggests caution, however, are two things. The first is, rather uncompromisingly, that if you were to seek a strategic overview of the situation in Basra, it would be unwise to rely on the testimony of a single soldier, much less a 27-year-old Private. Then, secondly, the account is carried by a newspaper which is totally opposed to our presence in Iraq and is pushing an avowedly withdrawalist agenda.

This notwithstanding, some of the unvarnished details offered by Barton are disturbing. He recounts how, during his recent tour in Iraq, his regiment lost one soldier, Pte Johnathon Wysoczan, 21, but 33 more were injured. "I was the first one to get to one of the tents after it was hit, where one of my mates was in bed," he says. "The top of his head and his hand was blown off. He is now brain damaged."

He then adds: "We were losing people and didn't have enough to replace them. You hear about the fatalities but not the injuries. We have had four who got shot in the arm, a bloke got blown up twice by roadside bombs and shot in the neck and survived." Most, he said, endured at least one "lucky escape" during their tour. "I had a grenade chucked at me by practically a five-year-old kid. I had a mortar land a couple of metres from me."

The regiment was based in the Shatt al-Arab hotel base, which was handed over to the Iraqi army on 8 April. Of the 40 tents in the base, just five remained unscathed by the end of the tour, he said. "We were just sitting ducks ... On the last tour we were not mortared very often. This tour, it was two to three times a day. Fifteen mortars and three rockets were fired at us in the first hour we were there."

He added: "Towards the end of January to March, it was like a siege mentality. We were getting mortared every hour of the day. We were constantly being fired at. We basically didn't sleep for six months. You couldn't rest. Psychologically, it wore you down. Every patrol we went on we were either shot at or blown up by roadside bombs. It was crazy."

To conclude his account, Barton then offers his view that the insurgents appeared to be considerably better trained, funded and equipped than had been the case during their first tour of duty. "Last tour, I never fired my rifle once. This time, I fired 127 rounds on five different occasions. And, in my role [providing medical support], I shouldn't have to fire." He added: "We have overstayed our welcome now. We should speed up the withdrawal. It's a lost battle. We should pull out and call it quits."

What we are to make of this is anyone's guess. One could take with a pinch of salt the Private's view that the battle is lost and that we should pull out, but what does come over clear – and seems reliable – is his account of the "siege mentality". As we have remarked so many times on this blog (for instance here), base protection seems woefully inadequate and has been putting our troops seriously at risk – with the inevitable consequences on morale.

However, Private Barton's former base at Shatt al Arab Hotel has now been handed over to the Iraqis and, while Basra Palace is also taking a hammering, that too will be gone by June. That will leave Basra Air Station, and base protection measures there may be substantially better than have been provided elsewhere.

Whether troops based so far out of town, with limited (and therefore vulnerable) access roads to trouble spots, will perform any useful function remains to be seen but, harrowing though Barton's experience was, it is no longer strictly relevant to the strategic picture. But what exactly that picture is, we could not even begin to say. And that is also disturbing.

COMMENT THREAD

This picture has done the rounds of the Iranian blogs as a symbol of the latest activity by the Iranian government and police. There are more pictures and a video of police rounding up women who are not veiled in a "summer campaign against immodesty".

The behaviour of the police has been such that even conservative Iranians including prominent politicians like Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi have protested (though the latter simply thought the methods were counterproductive).

150,000 women were arrested in the first four days and all but a handful have signed an admission of guilt and a formal apology. 13 will stand trial and an unspecified number has been given psychological counselling.

Unsurprisingly, ministers have been jumping up and down and praising both the idea and the execution of it as right and proper. 203 members of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) have signed a letter to General Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, which praised the police and blamed the United States and Israel for inciting Iranian women to defy what they see as the Islamic dress code.

The courageous Iranian blogosphere (or blogistan) has been running the story in English but, especially, in Farsi with citizen journalists taking photographs and videos.

Oh, by the way, has anyone seen a comment from left-wing feminists of either sex?

COMMENT THREAD

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article on the Wolfowitz saga. Mr Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution (there are two listed on its website, so it is hard to work out which one wrote the article) points out that the recipients of World Bank assistance, particularly if they are interested in reforming their countries want Paul Wolfowitz to stay.

At a press conference during this month's World Bank-IMF meetings in Washington, four of the more progressive African finance ministers were asked about the Wolfowitz flap. Here's how Antoinette Sayeh, Liberia's finance minister, responded:

I would say that Wolfowitz's performance over the last several years and his leadership on African issues should certainly feature prominently in the discussions ... In the Liberian case and the case of many forgotten post-conflict fragile countries, he has been a visionary. He has been absolutely supportive, responsive, there for us ... We think that he has done a lot to bring Africa in general ... into the limelight and has certainly championed our cause over the last two years of his leadership, and we look forward to it continuing.
She was supported by the deputy prime minister for Mauritius, Rama Krishna Sithanen, who pointed out that Mr Wolfowitz had been supportive of reforms in the country.

Zambian Finance Minister N'Gandu Peter Magande said:
We should keep positive that whatever happens to the president, if, for example, he was to leave, I think whoever comes, we insist that he continues where we have been left, in particular on this issue of anticorruption. That is a cancer that has seen quite a lot of our countries lose development and has seen the poverty continuing in our countries. And therefore . . . we want to live up to what [Wolfowitz] made us believe" that "it is important for ourselves to keep to those high standards."
There are one or two interesting points in the article. Paul Wolfowitz, as has been noted before, has demanded results from his staff and has concentrated on the poorest areas of sub-Saharan Africa. (Though some of the countries in that list are extremely rich in resources.)

He has emphasized the need for reform and an end to the culture of corruption. Now, this may be just talk but, clearly, those who have viewed the World Bank as a sinecure for themselves are more than a little worried. So, maybe, this time the talk was going to be translated into action.

After all, it seems to be something of a shock to the system having the President of the World Bank appointing two African-born women as Vice-Presidents. Then there is this problem of results. As the article says about those working for the organization:
the World Bank has always been a sinecure for developed-world politicians. They get handsome salaries, tax free, and their performance is measured not by how much poverty they cure but by how much money they disperse.
The fate of Africa and her people come very low down on their list of priorities. And if the Bank acquires a President who wants to change that situation, a concerted effort is needed to get rid of him.

Imagine how much could have been achieved if the World Bank officials had spent half the time they have wasted on trying to get rid of Wolfowitz on what they are supposed to be dealing with: solving the problems of African countries.

COMMENT THREAD

According to the BBC Russian Service website (usually more reliable than the rest of the BBC) there were 44 demosntrators injured and 13 police officers, most the wounds being caused by flying glass. One man is dead, a victim of a knife fight between two gangs of demonstrators, according to the Estonian authorities. 273 people have been arrested.

At an extraordinary meeting the government decided that the Bronze Soldier needs to be removed immediately as in "police custody". Presumably the excavations will carry on when the situation calms down.

It is not quite clear whether this is what the Russian authorities wanted. At the moment there is a great deal of huffing and puffing, with the Foreign Ministry thundering on about "sacrilege" and "inhumanity" and the Speaker of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, accusing the Estonian authorities of mocking the dead and those who had liberated them from fascism.

On all sides there are suggestions that the President should break off diplomatic relations with Estonia. The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper and it is, kind of, though not as much as it used to be) says that there will be a meeting outside the Estonian embassy in Moscow. No doubt one of those old-fashioned "spontaneous" meetings.

Actually, there is no pretence even that this is spontaneous. It is being organized by the Moscow City Council and the participants will be activists from the "Young Guard" movement (presumably called after the well-known and somewhat turgid novel by the Soviet hack, Konstantin Fadeyev, about a group of youngsters who organized a resistance movement to the German invaders in Krasnodar) and from "One Russia" party.

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Kommersant quotes the Estonian newspaper Postimees, which said that "activists from Russia's Nashi movement have moved into the Meriton Grand Hotel Tallinn (69 euros a night) a few hundred meters from the monument". One wonders (though not too hard) who paid for this indulgence. It would appear that there is considerably less support for the "Night Watch", the self-appointed defenders of the Bronze Soldier, among the Estonian Russians.

COMMENT THREAD

Not so long ago we wrote about the plan to move the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, the memorial to the Soviet Liberators (or, as all these memorials are popularly known, to the Unknown Rapist). The plan seems to be to excavate the nearby grave of 14 Soviet soldiers (we do not know for certain that they are actually Russian) and to move them together with the memorial to a military cemetery.

This has upset the local Russian population and the big neighbour to the East, where Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister and Mikhail Kamynin, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman warned Estonia, no later than today that the dismantling of the monument, excavating of the graves and moving the whole lot will cause serious problems between that country and Russia. Russian newspapers have been writing continuously about the outrageous attitude of the Estonian authorities who are denigrating the great achievements and sacrifices of the Soviet army in the Second World War.

Even the Chief Rabbi of Russia has been roped in:
We know that extremist forces are raising their heads in some European countries, nursing plans to rehabilitate the Nazi ideology. We know that totalitarian regimes, among them the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran, have made the negation of Nazi crimes a central tenet of their propaganda.
One wonders how much of this Rabbi Berel Lazar believes. After all, it is his own government that has been particularly friendly and helpful towards the Ahmadinejad regime.

The problem of the Bronze Soldier illuminates the difficulty of assessing twentieth century history and, in particular, the events of the Second World War in the eastern half of Europe. The truth is that the two halves of the Continent had different experiences throughout the century.

To the Russians (and, let’s face it, some Balts and East Europeans) the various monuments to the Soviet soldier symbolizes the great sacrifices and achievements of the Great Patriotic War and the glory of the liberation the Red Army brought to various European countries. The truth is that the sacrifices were enormous and the achievement was astonishing. It is the liberation that has become problematic.

To many East Europeans and the Balts in particular the monuments are symbols of near-fifty years of oppression afterwards as well as the horrors of that liberation. The Baltic States were invaded by the Red Army in 1940, followed by the NKVD, then by the German Army, followed by the Gestapo, then again by the Red Army followed by the NKVD. All in all, it has been estimated that a third of the three countries’ population disappeared into Soviet prisons, camps and exile.

At the same time one cannot help feeling that some agreement could have been reached on the fate of the Estonian Bronze Soldier, if Putin and Lavrov did not see this as a wonderful opportunity to wind up Russian nationalism in Estonia and to play on that feeling of victimhood that is never far from the surface of Russian thinking. The Estonian authorities have emphasized over and over again that they do not intend to destroy the Soldier, merely move him.

Yesterday, the monument was covered with a huge tent, the square cordoned off and the border with Russia temporarily closed to prevent possible trouble. Work was due to start. Instead the police had to deal with about 1,000 demonstrators who screamed “fascists” at the Estonian police and refused to move, despite accounts in the Russian press of their determination to keep the demonstration peaceful.

The police used tear gas, water canons and stun grenades, eventually having to break the windows of cars in which the demonstrators locked themselves in. It is, as yet, not clear why it was necessary to use all this weaponry against 1,000 people.

Some of the crowd broke away and (accidentally, according to Izvestiya) broke the windows of the National Library, taking their revenge to other windows, shops and cars. Eventually, they were rounded up. One of the buildings targeted was the headquarters of the Reform Party.

There were several arrests and a number of people, including police officers, were hurt. Here is a video of some of the goings on, the general impression being of hooligan behaviour (as the Russians would put it). Interestingly enough those involved seem to be too young to care very much about what happened at the end of World War II.

COMMENT THREAD

The trouble with "global warming" is that it is now a major industry in its own right, forming a huge constituency in support of controls and regulation, from which it is making lucrative incomes.

One of these, what might be called "rip-off merchants" – although the Financial Times is far too polite to use that term – is an outfit called MyCarbonWorld, which has been offering "EU phase one" carbon offsets to industry at £6.40 per tonne.

However, courtesy of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – the organisation which found BSE in sheeps' brains, only to discover it had been testing cattle brains all along – such a cock-up has been made in the allocation of these "carbon offsets" that their price has now plummeted to £0.34 per tonne.

Faced with a profusion of offset schemes on the market, and misleading advice from Defra, however, it seems that many British companies have bought the full-priced offsets, paying far more than needed.

Unabashed, Defra has not admitted any responsibility for this debacle. Instead, it has blithely set about proposing a new set of guidelines for the next phase of the EU-inspired scheme, telling all and sundry that: "We believe that businesses and consumers are looking for increased clarity in the offsetting market".

At least they got that last bit right, although one cannot have much confidence that anybody needing "clarity" will get it from this benighted Department. In the meantime, MyCarbonWorld is happily telling its gullible punters that is system "is regulated by the EU and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs in the UK".

That should surely want to make you run a mile.

COMMENT THREAD

From the defence debate today, Ann Winterton speaking (albeit to a somewhat less than packed House):

I came across a quotation the other day that seemed especially apt for this debate on the UK's defence. In his "The Art of War", Sun Tzu wrote:

"And as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions."

That succinctly describes the dilemma facing those charged with the procurement of arms, vehicles and systems for our armed services on active duty on behalf of the UK.

In order to plan comprehensively for the defence of the UK, one has to predict future difficulties and conflicts that could threaten, directly or indirectly, our nation and its interests. It would seem that the present counter-insurgency challenges facing our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan—part of the war on terrorism—have not been accurately predicted by the military or by politicians. The Home Secretary recently talked about splitting the responsibilities of the Home Office to improve prospects in the war on terror. Perhaps the MOD needs to give a higher priority to counter-insurgency work, and to the necessary procurement for it, because the war on terror will most certainly not go away.

I am often reminded of the phrase "boys and toys" when I hear about the huge expenditure on procurement in the UK's defence budget, not least because I have always believed that it is not what we spend but how we spend it that is more important. For example, the RAF's budget is haemorrhaging because of the Eurofighter—that fantastically expensive creation of European integration—and if we enter into tranche 3, which will provide for ground attack, the aircraft will be too fast to be of any use as close air support in counter-insurgency work.

Similarly, the Royal Navy is besotted with the idea of its two future aircraft carriers, which inevitably absorb most of its funding. However, should not we ask whether those vessels will fit the requirements of the future? They will certainly be of limited value in counter-insurgency work, where the requirement is often as simple as inshore patrol vessels. The Army has been painfully restructured to fulfil the original concept of FRES—the future rapid effect system—to wage war against a conventional army at a distance, as part of the European rapid reaction force, double-hatted with NATO; yet that unattainable pipe dream seems to have been downgraded to the provision of medium-armoured vehicles.

The three examples I have briefly described, with the extra parts bolted on to form the complete packages, are very large funding projects indeed. During the Westminster Hall debate I secured on FRES, the Minister announced that its cost had risen, almost overnight, from £6 billion to £14 billion and I believe that it has now gone up to £16 billion in only a short time. Once again, the question has to be posed: can the UK afford such expensive procurement without compromising lesser but equally important projects with immediate needs, such as those to provide maximum protection and support for our troops on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan? The final question is the $64,000 one: will a future British Government be prepared to continue funding those expensive projects?

The MOD is making great strides in base protection from indirect fire, which includes the introduction of counter rocket, artillery and mortar—C-RAM—about which I asked an oral question on 22 January, following a tragic incident at Basra palace camp. Improved body armour has been supplied. The VIPIR thermal imager is excellent. Mastiff and Bulldog vehicles have been introduced and there are improved electronic counter-measures against improvised explosive devices. As has been said, there are additional medium-lift helicopters: eight mark 3 Chinooks, which are to be downgraded to mark 2s, to ensure that they actually work, and six Merlins from Denmark, which are exceptionally expensive aircraft. In addition, among other items, we now have the underslung grenade launcher and better communication kit.

Where we might be going wrong, however, is that the military, or perhaps even politicians, seem to want advanced technical toys that cover 100 per cent. of all possible requirements. I have already mentioned tranche 3 of the Eurofighter, but there is also the joint strike fighter, the Merlin helicopter and electric armour on new vehicles. Then, on cost only rather than technology grounds, there are the two carriers, Astute submarines, A400M transport aircraft, air-to-air refuelling replacement and the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—programme to replace all the Navy’s ageing supply ships. They are all incredibly expensive, and often need massive logistical back-up, yet we simply do not have the manpower to service them without taking personnel from other duties. Nor could we contemplate their potential loss, because we have insufficient financial resources to replace them, even if they could be procured at short notice, which is nigh on impossible.

Over the past three years, I have consistently pursued the issue of counter-insurgency, where the enemy is unknown and is indistinguishable from the local population. That was the main reason I was so sceptical about the original concept of FRES. It is essential for counter-insurgency work to have aerial surveillance, yet I am not entirely convinced of the reliability of unmanned aerial vehicles, which do not come cheap by any means, especially when the Iraqi air force has at least 12 SAMA CH2000 small aircraft fitted with XM15 electro-optical surveillance turrets for less than the price of one Lynx helicopter. However, the Minister will be relieved to hear that it is pleasing that the Army Air Corps now has four Britten Norman Defender 4S AL Mk1 aircraft, which I trust are still in Iraq. I recently tabled a written question on that point. They operate at a fraction of the hourly cost of other aircraft and are no doubt doing a superb job.

With the correct surveillance equipment, an expensive platform is not necessary to deliver results. With the contraction of UK forces in Iraq to Basra air base, for example, the limited routes into Basra should be under aerial surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as should those routes going south to protect the supply lines from Kuwait. That should not be too expensive, but I wonder if the Royal Air Force and the Army Air Corps would work together and co-operate on such a project.

Moreover, insurgents are upping the ante, as it were, by taking out Warriors and Challengers, but it takes them considerably longer to lay the much larger charges needed than to lay an IED—improvised explosive device—against a Snatch Land Rover. That provides the golden opportunity, if there is adequate surveillance, to catch and deal with the insurgents.

There should not be a shortage of helicopters, as there are plenty of Bell helicopters—commonly known in the American slang as "Hueys"—which can be leased at a 10th of the hourly cost of a Lynx. They can also operate well in the heat of Afghanistan and fly when conditions ground the Lynx.

At present, many of the requirements in the field of defence arise from dealing with insurgents resisting democracy and the UK simply cannot afford to fight that kind of a war by using the most expensive equipment, which is not always the best for the conditions. We can succeed, however, by using practical, cost-effective means such as the electro-optical surveillance turret within a simple platform. We can build vehicles with a balance between protection, speed and manoeuvrability, although it has to be said that reports about the Panther Command and Liaison vehicle have not been all that encouraging. As it seems that many, if not most, future conflicts will have to deal with insurgency, Britain needs a force that is both equipped and trained for insurgency work, which can be achieved at a fraction of the defence budget.

I end my brief contribution by saying that I believe the Secretary of State acted properly and appropriately in announcing an inquiry into the incident involving the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines on 23 March. I trust that the inquiry will have a beneficial long-term effect on counter-insurgency work and that the UK will be better equipped in future to deal with these extremely difficult situations.
I don't know where she gets her information from, but this MP seems remarkably knowledgeable.

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