B-72: Chaos? Yes. But a fair, consensus Brexit deal is possible.

May’s plan has been defeated; politics is all at sea. But a solution stares us in the face, if both Conservatives and liberals re-think their approach.

The right Brexit plan stares us in the face. The only question is: will the Government and the Labour Leader put the interest of the country above the unity of their parties?

Yesterday, I watched the debate in the British parliament carefully and went also to Westminster and chatted to several MPs. Based on those observations, it seems  obvious to me there is a clear consensus in parliament and the country on the best form of Brexit. If Brexit must go ahead, a clear majority would accept a customs union.

A customs union will allow, just as in Switzerland, some key business regulations to be set in Brussels (without a UK say or vote) but most key areas of national policy to be set at Westminster.

A customs union avoids the need for a hard border in Northern Ireland, thus cancels the ‘backstop’ problem. It trades a loss of sovereignty on a few matters with a wider return of sovereignty over much else.

May has wrongly prioritised Party unity by spending two years preventing parliament from agreeing and ratifying a vision for what relationship Britain wants with the EU. Even now, the so-called ‘agreement’ is still to a large extent a ‘blind Brexit’ where key decisions are – dangerously – delayed until after we have left.

May has also wrongly prioritised Party unity with her ‘red line’ that rejects the European Court of Justice competence over policing the single market. Parliament could live with ECJ competence.

If May and parliament choose the customs union approach, some Tory rebels may quit the whip and she will lose her majority. At this point, she (or her successor) should attempt a government of national unity to exist only to agree the Brexit deal; if that fails, an election will be needed. As I observed, there is a clear Labour + Soft Tory majority for a soft Brexit; but perhaps not a majority within Tory ranks.

Liberals in Labour and Conservative and LibDem ranks meanwhile – hellbent on stopping Brexit — have been wrong to obfuscate and delay the creation of consensus plan for Brexit. (I count myself guilty on that score).

Liberals are right to campaign for a second referendum but their approach has been disingenuous and poorly calculated. Their approach needs to be reframed so that ardent Brexiteers themselves are begging for a second plebiscite. I’ll explain how and explain how it could be timed.

The public expect leaders to do their job and come up with a workable plan. People don’t want some ‘dogs dinner’ failed plan thrown back to them in a cynical ploy to cancel Brexit.

So if there is a second referendum (and there should be), it should put to the people the best possible plan for Brexit that already has consensus in parliament, namely a customs union.

Referenda work in democracies, for example in California and Switzerland, where they present clear fully-formulated propositions. The mistake of the first Brexit referendum was to offer Brexit without defining what it should mean.

The reason a second referendum is justified and necessary is that we simply do not know if a majority exists in the country for any Brexit solution; or if a majority would prefer the status quo (continued EU membership) over any particular Brexit plan.

So that nobody feels cheated, the correct referendum could ask two questions:

  1. Should Britain continue to exit the European Union? YES/NO
  2. If Brexit continues, do you approve of the plan approved by Parliament to leave the EU and remain in a Customs Union? YES / NO

On this basis, hard Brexiteers can campaign for a YES-NO, on the basis that if Parliament’s deal is rejected, Britain will opt for their clean break solution; soft Brexiteers can campaign for a YES-YES; and Remainers can campaign for a NO-YES, confident that even they lose on the existential Brexit question, a soft landing can occur.

Having wasted so much time without building a consensus in Parliament, it will be hard to make a deal before March. However, the Brexit ‘agreement’ is little more than a transition agreement that kicks the can of fundamental issues down the road. And most people can only really judge the merits of Brexit once those fundamentals are agreed.

On the timing, here I’d welcome the advice of technical experts but the correct approach maybe to go ahead with Brexit on the basis of two changes: 1) hardening the political agreement to build a clearer vision on the basis of eliminating the backstop on the basis of customs union; 2) establishing a ‘cooling off’ principle, that could allow Britain to think again on Brexit within the transition period.

The cooling off approach may seem novel, but since Britain will be fully compliant with EU rules during the transition period (and EU countries fully compliant for trading with Britain) a Brexit reversal would not come at a huge cost; most EU countries would also support the notion of the British people being given a chance to think again. Within the cooling off period, it seems to me would then allow a second vote to be put to be put to the people after a new trade deal / customs union had been negotiated, so that people could finally judge on what Brexit means.

One alternative approach – again seeking a vision that does not cheat people — is to delay Brexit in order to negotiate a much more fully-formed agreement, incorporating the customs union and thus removing the need for a Northern Ireland backstop, but, at the same time, shorten the transition so that full exit from the EU, if it goes ahead, is not shortened again.

Either way, there is an approach to go ahead that cheats nobody, slows down nothing, but still gives the people a final say.

B-DAY-80. Democracy is never over

There are fears our country may be rather divided. Many suggest it is time to ‘heal the wounds’, and to reconcile.

That’s piffle.

There is a battle in progress – a legitimate struggle to decide the UK’s future – and until the issue is decided, until Britain leaves the European Union irrevocably or cancels its exit, any priest, doom-monger or heckler that tries to block your participation in that debate is denying your right to have a say in your future.

Democracy is never over. Voters don’t dispatch their decisions to the political elite like ‘fire and forget missiles’ to be interpreted and re-interpreted ad infinitum by its leaders. Legitimacy is subject to constant refresh, directly through regular elections or plebiscites, and indirectly through the judgement of elected representatives.

Only in a dictatorship does one vote settle all.

When the Labour Party scored less than 5% of the vote in the 1906 election, it wasn’t some signal to abandon it struggle – no less than defeat at Dunkirk meant it was time to quit fighting Hitler.

Should a referendum result on an important constitutional question be binding? That’s indeed a debatable question. Don’t believe anyone who thinks there is clear answer, because Britain has no fixed constitution to consult.

But it is fair to say  that in many democracies, making a major decision, such as – to name one minor example — the Brexit plan to strip European citizenship from millions of people without their agreement, would typically involve jumping through several more hoops than just a single vote. An amendment to the US Constitution, for example, requires the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and two-thirds of all states before it can proceed.

If anything is divisive, it is to base a really import change to a country on one single narrow vote, and to rip up one key arrangement (EU membership) without securing any agreement (in any forum, whether in the cabinet, parliament, or the country) of what should replace it.

I just handed in my notice, to myself

Well, it looks like after years and years of working as an independent freelance, I’m off to join Reuters as a special correspondent, which is a roving role within Europe and the Middle East as part of a wider global enterprise team. It’s an exciting time to join the organisation as they’ve decided to give a real boost to long-form explanatory and investigative work. Serious journlism, in other words, of the sort that is often in short supply. Details announced today in Press Gazette. I’ll start there in December.

Man’s conquest of Space

As the Space Shuttle carries out it’s final mission, here is a look at the result of decades of space flight – the debris of missions and the clutter of so many satellites.
This view – from 8700km – is a visualisation in Google Earth with data from the Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database and the US Space Track record catalog, pulled together here.  (Click on the picture to enlarge)

Peace talks need a strategy

On another moonlit runway every month these days, another bearded man is hustled aboard a military jet. He is an ‘intermediary’ from the Taliban and  is about to be flown many hours before sitting down for another chance to talk about ending this war.

As Spiegel reported this week, Germany is one country that his hosting very preliminary “peace talks” in a hope of ending a war in Afghanistan that has cost so many lives. It’s not the only show in town. According to intelligence officials and senior diplomats I’ve interviewed, various “representatives” of the Taliban movement have also been flown to Norway and to Turkey in parallel tracks.

Fresh impetus to this process has been given by President Obama. As terrorism analyst Peter Bergen reports, a little-noticed shift of US policy has all but abandoned pre-conditions for talks to start.

Bergen is sceptical the Taliban is ready for talks – or, citing Pakistani truces with the Talban in its tribal areas, he argues they cannot be trusted anyway.

But while I judge the Taliban is becoming ever more extreme (despite attempts to argue the opposite by former Taliban ambassador Mullah Zaeef and indeed by Mullah Omar himself), if the White House is serious about a peace process, as I believe it is, then the critical question is what path could be chosen that could firstly make the Taliban less extreme and therefore an acceptable partner in a future accord and secondly make the peace process acceptable to the Taliban itself. Continue reading Peace talks need a strategy

Winners of the 2010 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism

I’ve just been informed of this very great and thoroughly undeserved honour. Thanks to all involved – and most particularly to all those who are assisting me with my reporting, often at huge personal risk to themselves:

Winners of the 2010 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism

Adrian Mogos (Romania) – Local journalist category

Stephen Grey (UK) – Freelance category

London, 19 October 2010

This year’s jury selected two outstanding candidates whose fearlessness and journalistic excellence represent the overall mission of the Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism.

Kurt Schork Memorial Fund The 2010 Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism will honour freelancer Stephen Grey (UK), and local reporter Adrian Mogos (Romania). The awards ceremony at Thomson Reuters headquarters, Canary Wharf on Wednesday 3rd November, will be followed by a reception and panel discussion.

This year’s Schork jury included Jeremy Bowen of the BBC, John Burns of The New York Times, Sir Harold Evans, author and former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times, Rana Husseini, author and human rights activist, and Michela Wrong, freelance journalist and author.

The jury was particularly impressed with the quality of Stephen Grey’s articles on Afghanistan, saying that they represented some of the best coverage anywhere, combining maturity with excellent analytical skills, and making a complex war more understandable.

The jury said Adrian Mogos provided an excellent in-depth investigation into issues of compelling importance. They felt that he showed great initiative, persistence and ingenuity, backed up with excellent research to expose human rights violations.

About the Winners

Adrian Mogos – 2010 Winner, Local journalist category




Adrian Mogos was born in the town of Cluj – Napoca on 1974. He graduated from the Faculty of Journalism at the West University of Timisoara, following up with postgraduate studies in European Studies in Slovakia. Since 2004, Adrian has worked for the Bucharest-based daily newspaper Jurnalul National. At the same time, he was accepted as a member of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. In 2009, Adrian was made a fellow of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, and this summer he was awarded the CEI – SEEMO award for outstanding merits in investigative journalism. Adrian is often invited to share his experience with young journalists in Romania and Moldova.

Winning Stories

Stephen Gray – 2010 Winner, Freelance journalist category




Stephen Grey is a freelance writer and reporter based in London, covering security issues for both newspapers and television and radio. A former foreign correspondent and Insight Editor of the Sunday Times, he has continued to work for the paper as a freelance, covering most recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has also written regularly for publications including the New York Times, Guardian, Prospect magazine and Le Monde Diplomatique. He is best known for his work on reporting the CIA’s rendition program, which resulted in his first book, Ghost Plane. Since 2007, he has been reporting on the war in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar, where he reported in the spring and early summer of this year. His account of the battle for Musa Qala – Operation Snakebite- was published last year by Penguin. He has made several films for Channel 4 Dispatches, BBC Newsnight, Radio 4’s File on Four, and is currently working on assignment for the PBS documentary series Frontline. Stephen is married with two children.

Winning Stories

IN THE VIPER’S NEST published in the United States

Zenith Press have just released the USA edition of my book on the battle for Musa Qala and the war in Helmand, Afghanistan. THis is an updated version of Operation Snakebite, published in the UK, and includes new material on operations by the 82nd Airborne Division in Helmand.

It can be purchased on Amazon here

The Tribal Path : the winning solution may be classified.

I had a phone call from a long- retired senior CIA operative in the Middle East (station chief in three continents, commanded major covert paramilitary operations, and managed Near-East desk at Langley). He prefers to go these days by the pseudonym Eric Jordan, so that’s what I’ll call him. Jordan was boiling with a kind of frustrated anger.

“It makes me so damn angry to see those constant pictures of young soldiers working through all those damn fields of Afghanistan being blown up by IEDs left and right. I’m angered that this generation hasn’t learned any of the basics of how to fight with tribes.”

Jordan’s contention that flooding in tens of thousands of conventional troops into the fray in southern Afghanistan is a “wholly inappropriate” response to the current crisis. “Let the tribes fight the tribes. It’s the only system that has historically worked all over the world.”
If nothing else, Jordan suggest the US is failing to pick up any of the lessons of “the monumental exercise of CIA covert support to drive the Soviet Union superpower forces into an ignominious defeat without the use of any US military ‘boots on the ground’”; nor even Lawrence of Arabia’s stirring of Arabian tribes, not to mention the marshalling of irregular revolutionary forces in the American war of independence (I was less convinced on his latter point; my family fought on the other side!). His remarks came as a series of influential voices point out that we’re not getting it quite right.
As CNN’s Zakaria has pointed out: “Obama says the mission in Afghanistan is the defeat of Al Qaeda. The CIA director says that there are at most 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. This means that the US will spend $1 billion to fight each remaining Al-Qaeda member there this year alone. Do we need to be fighting such a MAJOR war there for so few Al Qaeda?”
Jordan added:

“How can, he asked, the current US and NATO generals believe that putting “boots on the ground” – the boots of young inexperienced soldiers – generally unfamiliar with such irregular combat is a good strategy?”

Jordan followed up his call with an email in which he wrote: “I vacillate between anger and sadness as I watch TV, seeing young NATO troops being sent out on foot or in vulnerable vehicles on dirt tracks in the Afghan countryside to be killed – easily – by IEDs or snipers. OK, that could happen in the towns or cities also, but let the Afghan fighters do the countryside and mountain tracks, with a few grizzled covert veterans who know best how to protect themselves and their men while providing some modern support to the cooperating tribal fighters.“
“These tactics and strategy should lead to eventual tribal settlements among the Afghans that leaves the “good guys” (NATO’s side) in charge in this ancient nation with NATO troops gone, but with some covert support to keep the “good guys” fully equipped and funded.  After all, although there is no such thing as “unconditional surrender” in this part of the world, and al-Qaeda no longer has their main base there.”

Talking earlier, Eric had his own memories of tribal warfare in Yemen in the 1960s. In those days, while the British and French were covertly working with tribes in the hills, when two American USAID officers were imprisoned, the Pentagon’s knee-jerk response was to propose at a Washington meeting a parachute-drop of a Green Beret team to raid the prison to free the two Americans. The operation was killed when Eric, asked to comment on the plan, told the mulit-agency gathering that the bright young Colonel and all his men would likely return in body bags. Eric suggested there was indeed a much simpler solution – parachute a smaller team to the nearby desert camp of a notorious tribal chieftain and get his men, with gold coins and a few of the latest automatic weapons to win their attention, to perform the mission on America’s behalf.

The Incas
Eric also pointed out that recent archaeological evidence showed most of the Incas were killed by other Peruvian tribes, not by Francisco Pizarro’s invading Spanish. (Most Incas were eliminated with big stones and clubs, not with swords or spears). “So the Spanish had worked out tribal warfare strategy and tactics hundreds of years ago.”

Afghanistan 2010
In Afghanistan, Eric suggests, it is “criminal” for young NATO soldiers to be told to patrol through fields and villages arranged perfectly for deadly ambushes among a population that will never learn to a) like them, or even b) tolerate them.
The problem is the total failure to cultivate the continuing covert capability to handle and manage this kind of irregular combat, least of which is learning the relevant languages.
In the early 20th Century, British political officers working the north-west Frontier came to their jobs with generations of experience. Now, as an intelligence reports to the Washington Times, “commanders still have not found the key to shifting the loyalties of Pashtun tribal leaders away from the rigidly Islamic Taliban and toward the democratic government of President Hamid Karzai.
“We’re fighting a cultural battle we have yet to come to grips with,” the official said. “We don’t get the Pashtun mindset. We can’t figure out how to work through the system of corruption.”
In other words, this stuff is hard ::: all the more reason to mean it is primarily a job for a small  group of elite operators – committed to very long term engagement with this problem.

Special Force experiments.
Of course, as many have reported, many experiments are underway in engagement with tribal forces, not least of which experiments with Green Berets with the Local Defence Initiative.
Among the most powerful arguments for this approach are contained in Major Jim Gant’s One Tribe at a Time Paper” and an essay called The Tribal Path by a group of former Royal Marines, including some members of the UK’s Special Boat Squadron.
The danger is that doing these wrong is worse than doing nothing – for instance arming local tribes works only if the resulting militia can be made to represent the entire community, not a local warlord whose domineering is precisely the reason so many support the Taliban (as I reported in my film from Kandahar) . In other words, there has to be a micro political process, dealing with tribal differences, that goes ahead of any kind of military work.

Jordan summarises his approach as follows:

  • Adjust to a historically-proven successful strategy of dealing with tribal warfare, with them against regular or irregular forces, namely the outstanding US example of providing major covert support to the Afghan tribes, resulting in the humiliating defeat of the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan in 1989;
  • Relieve the US military of its severe over-extension and fatigue and allow our regular forces to regroup as a major reserve at home. This will significantly reduce the US defense budget at a critical budgetary time and give our military a break from non-stop combat in the South-Central Asia for the past 9 years;
  • Radically reduce the cost of support for Afghanistan to keep al-Qaeda out of that area;
  • Eliminate most of the Afghan military, political, and budgetary pressures on the U.S. and its NATO allies;
  • Reduce Middle East tensions by eliminating our large military presence in another Muslim country;
  • Free up small groups of US/NATO covert action teams and Special Forces to support counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere; and satisfy the desire of the US public to reduce US military combat commitments abroad and thereby gain fuller public support for less costly and less visible irregular (covert or not) support for tribes and regular foreign forces to fight terrorism.  This should win an improvement in general American political support for this move from both left and right, although there will always be a small percentage who oppose any US role in combat.