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

 


Biography

 

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

 


Biography

 

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.”

Yemen
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.