Tuesday 19 August 2014

Seeking parallels where none exist

These are either Libyan rebels or it's a Saturday afternoon in New Mexico

I expect I probably won't move off this subject until I have arrived at some answers I am satisfied with. I dislike the term "whataboutery" but I don't like the practice either. To draw casual conclusions between conflict zones is to ignore the layers of nuances, the complexities and the reporting constraints that means we do not have an equal level of information in all circumstances.

For instance, we have a fairly good idea of the number of civilian casualties from the recent Gaza operation, which is partly in thanks to Israeli transparency, but also through the work of various NGOs, some honest, some not. Between these disparate sources we can triangulate an approximate figure that most reasonable people can agree to. This cannot be said of Libya where NATO repeated declined to commit any ground resources to do any kind of post strike surveys, leaving it to Human Rights Watch whose work is sometimes, but not always credible.

Some suspect more sinister motives, but I suspect it's because there simply wasn't the resource, and no politically convenient and safe way of putting such investigators in the field without stepping outside of the original mandate. Looking at the day by day accounts of Operation Unified Protector, as I have previously explored, we see targets engaged in open ground using high sophisticated munitions to accomplish well defined sorties in an ill-defined intervention.

To contrast that with Protective Edge is to compare chalk with cheese whereby we do see the use of Precision Guided Missiles (PGM) but we also see the use of heavy artillery employed for what some call "grid square removal". The intent of this is to ensure that not just the launcher is destroyed but also the rockets as well. Various techniques are employed to inform residents that a strike is about to take place, but given the propensity of Hamas to use human shields and other factors, there is always more than a 50/50 chance that civilians will be killed, and that is an equation the that seems to sit comfortably with the Israelis. Risk averse they are not.

The result of this is always civilian casualties and a great many more made homeless. The morality of this depends very much on how you view the conflict. If it can be said that it is a war between nations then the ethics adds up differently to a counter-terrorism security operation, which we are told is what Protective Edge actually is.

Terms like "collective punishment" and "genocide" are then carelessly bandied about when what we are seeing is a logical tactical approach to taking out a launch site with all the munitions, and unless we reach the era where a guided munition can fly in, have a look round and decide if there are any targets worth hitting or the possibility of collateral damage, then there's really not much else in the weapons arsenal that can be considered effective.

The problem with that is that while it solves a immediate problem, it creates a great many more by adding to an already acute humanitarian problem, likely to create more Hamas recruits as a people are driven from their homes, largely through no fault of their own. Some argue the opposite in that this causes Gazans to hate Hamas more. I don't know. I'm not a Gazan, and nor are the many well spoken individuals who claim to be.

But in either case we have seen more than a decade of this kind of operation to stop rocket fire and it is inescapable that no matter how many apartment blocks are leveled, Hamas does show an extraordinary inventiveness in overcoming the various obstacles. That is the nature of asymmetric warfare. Thus Israel only succeeds in temporarily stopping the rockets while driving international outrage, whether justified or not.

This has international consequences that ripple out and creates diplomatic difficulties, focused on Israel, when there are a great many regional threats that are more grave, and will require a regional diplomatic solution, even between sworn enemies who have just as much on the line. This activity is not in the interests of the region, nor are they in Israel's own interests or those of Jews living abroad.

Criticism can be leveled at the Israeli government for reasons I have already outlined and the timing of Protective Edge was largely of Israels choosing. It was their decision to mount a large scale offensive when the threat could be said to have been equally severe at any time in the months preceding the operation. The kind of low key operations that happen routinely could easily have kept any security operation out of the news. So this is an unforced error.

Unlike the Libya operation, this is a conflict where the propaganda ramifications are much more acute and more eyes are watching. One can complain at the irrationality of such selective attention and engage in whataboutery, but that does not change the reality that this is, and will always be, a focal point, not least because of the regions cultural significance and its importance to three of the world's major religions. There is no escaping it, get over it.

This conflict has a unique context, as do all conflicts, and each must be analyzed and assessed on their own respective properties. To pontificate on Ukraine using the same parameters ignores the political landscape, the wider context, the geographic differences and the broader consequences, in a conflict where confusion and disinformation are the order of the day. We learn today that what is allegedly a refugee convoy has been hit allegedly by Grad rockets. Until the story develops we don't even know who is shooting at who or why, we don't know who the weapons belong to, where they came from or who supplied them (and why). This in a conflict where all are guilty, only some are more guilty than others.

I am quick to heap scorn on our media for misrepresenting conflicts, sometimes willfully, but in the case of Ukraine, it is somewhat forgivable if they have little idea what is going on, because a great many Ukrainians at the epicentre don't either.

Meanwhile in Iraq, we see very simplistic narratives promoted because Western commentators do not fully understand Iraqi politics, nor do they understand the Iraqi constitution which, shamefully, those who pontificate on Iraq still have not read. This bring the likes of Con Coughlin to some embarrassingly wrongheaded conclusions which bare very little resemblance to the realities in Iraq, let alone another unrelated war zone.

In light of this, knowing that we are not in complete command of all the cultural, political and operational facts, even months and years after a conflict has concluded, broad comparisons are neither helpful, useful or accurate - and are used only as a selfish indulgence by journalists and commentators seeking to make disingenuous arguments, which are spurious and corrosive. These people do not know what they are talking about. While there is some merit is discussing contrasts in tactics and military equipment, to paint broader pictures with sweeping abstractions is lazy journalism and should be called out for what it is: incompetence.

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