OUR TRIUMPHANT RETURN (sort of)

13 Apr

So as a site we’ve been out of action for quite some time (all the posts prior to this were just experiments really), but that’s about to change!

From the end of May this blog will be fully operational, featuring lots of guest posts as well as those from our regular – Dazzle Paint. So feel free to get in touch if you fancy being one of our guest posters, and do spread the word to any military/politics/feminist types you may know.

In the meantime, you can follow us on Twitter @DazzlePaint while obviously waiting in huge suspense…

On Music Festivals

8 Jul

Tis the season…

Just a very brief post to say I’ll be away for a while at a music festival, but fear not! I’ll surely blog about it afterwards (Voice of Reason will be there too actually) and it did get me pre-emptively thinking about the state of British music festivals.

Admittedly my experience isn’t too broad; years ago my first festival was a very small, low key affair, just as it should be, shortly followed by a much larger dance music fest.  Since then I’ve been to a fair few, but never one of the biggies: Reading, Leeds etc. due to the prohibitive cost.  And with no Glastonbury this year, the Isle of Wight festival hitting the news for all the wrong reasons and Bloc being a complete disaster, it seems that the age of  the mega-festival is coming to an end…

If the 1990s were the rave years (or so I’m told, I wasn’t there) then the 2000s were the massive hip hop infusion years, culminating in Jay-Z headlining at Glastonbury. But as is always the case, while these events were being cleaned up and becoming increasingly ‘mainstream’ i.e. with wall to wall coverage on TV, something else was growing.

Frequently called ’boutique festivals’, smaller music events are everywhere across the country, but it’s not their frequency or geography that I find interesting, it’s their content. As well more and more genre specific festivals there are the intriguing genre-crossers: hosting music, literature and comedy events together. While this is not an entirely new concept, it is a fairly recent trend to see big comedy and music acts granted equal billing. Latitude is surely the grand-daddy of this ‘family friendly’ format, and when you think about it, it totally makes sense.  

When you’re epically hungover and either soaking wet or just enjoying the sunshine, all you want to do is relax, not get fucked up again. So…
being hurled into a mosh pit in front of an 80s naff-rock band on a desperate revival tour,
or…
lounging around watching stand up comedians, having your face painted and tasting different tequilas while watching fancy dress ballet (a particularly good way to start the day). 
 
Plus, when a weekend in a muddy field up the road from your house can cost as much as a proper package holiday to sunny Spain, why would you stay? The few young people who do have cash to spend at the moment understandably want to go abroad, and that’s also what’s trend (a result of the rise of the Gap Year and so on). 
 
Radio 1′s Big Weekend is the exception to all this of course, retaining a high level of coolness, though I think this probably due to the fact that it’s bloody impossible to get tickets!) 
 
See you all next week!
 

NB. Clearly this isn’t a proper post so I didn’t do research, but even some basic googling showed me that a handful of broadsheet journalists have expressed similar thoughts this year. And as we all know, if it’s in the papers it must be right!

VoR on The Taliban

7 Jul

This is a guest post by Voice of Reason 

The Taliban who had been governing Afghanistan were driven out of the country and into Pakistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. They lost about 20% of their total fighting force but almost the entire leadership remained intact thanks to being able to hide out in Pakistan.

Following the removal of the Taliban from power, the Bonn Agreement signed on the 6th of December 2001 appointed Hamid Karzai as the interim President of Afghanistan. The 2001 Bonn Agreement however was not a peace treaty: the vanquished Taliban were not represented and it made no provisions for a cease-fire or demobilisation of forces. Karzai was shrewd statesman who initially supported the Taliban when they came onto the political scene in the early 1990s, but broke away when he became suspicious that they were being infiltrated and controlled by foreigners including Pakistanis and Arabs. He had been groomed for leadership by the Americans by the time of the Bonn Conference. However, his critics have accused him of being an American puppet and his political ‘horse-trading’ has tarnished his image with some Afghans. His government has also more recently been tarnished with rumours of corruption including the stuffing of ballot boxes in the 2009 Presidential election and the loss of western aid money.

It soon became apparent after the ousting of the Taliban that the US had no desire to rebuild Afghanistan or provide sufficient troops for its security and recovery. Within weeks, attention had been turned to the training and preparation for the invasion of Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was without doubt one of the biggest mistakes of the Afghan campaign. Afghanistan had fallen victim to the Bush strategy of preserving American resources, money and troops for Iraq. To make sure some kind of control was maintained, the Americans cut deals with local warlords to keep the peace, despite them being hated by locals. The lack of attention and strategy meant that the promises made to the fledgling Afghan government and the Afghan people were not kept, creating a sense of disillusionment and low expectation – fatal for a counterinsurgency operation.

In June 2002, the euphoria created around the election of Karzai as President never translated into improvements on the ground because of a lack of resources and funding available to the new Afghan government. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was created but operated only in Kabul. The mission of ISAF according to their website (www.isaf.nato.int) is divided into three parts: security, reconstruction & development and governance. (OK, four if you want to be picky.) Their mission statement is: “In support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, ISAF conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.” This makes me think that they should have been spread across the country from the outset, not just in Kabul.

In Pakistan, elections in the provinces bordering Afghanistan were rigged in favour of parties that supported the Taliban. The Taliban leader Mullah Omah began gathering support and funding for a new Taliban Shura (the Arabic word for ‘consultation’ – the Quran encourages Muslims to decide on things in consultation with those who will be affected by the decisions made) in winter 2002 from Karachi, Quetta, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Pakistani President Musharraf had assumed the US would leave Afghanistan when they invaded Iraq and so had kept the Taliban in reserve as a proxy fighting force for Pakistan. It is said by some that the lack of trust between the Pakistani military and the US government helped to fuel the revival of the Taliban.

The Taliban launched their first guerrilla attacks in January 2003 in Kandahar, Zabul and Helmand provinces. The reality of the Taliban threat was realised by March – they had no qualms with killing innocent civilians. By autumn, they had established almost complete control over Zabul and Helmand and had set up supply lines from Pakistan.

With the return of the Taliban in the south came the return of opium production. In 2001 and 2002, farmers had waited for alternative crop seeds from the US that never appeared. They had no choice but to grow opium again. A clear counter-narcotics strategy was not adopted until 2008; four years after the Taliban had regained control. Drugs undermined formal work by development agencies because the opium trade provided better jobs, income and security that the state was unable to give.

By late 2004, US and NATO intelligence concluded that the Pakistani Intelligence Services (ISI) were running a full training programme for the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan. Around the same time, the Presidential election (held in October 2004) showed that although the Taliban posed a threat in some southern provinces, they were far from being popular or widespread. Yet the US refused for several years to deploy sufficient troops in the critical southern provinces or acknowledge Musharraf’s double game. NATO troops were deployed in the south in 2005 but the US were unable to provide any intelligence because they had turned their satellites onto Iraq and hadn’t bothered gathering any intelligence on Afghanistan.

Summer 2005 saw the Taliban demonstrating new tactics, weapons and prowess. They had dramatically improved ambush tactics and had increased their use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers. But the US continued to target al-Qaeda rather than the Taliban who were threatening the government. As the US had become bogged down in Iraq, the Taliban had gained power in Afghanistan. To try and counter this, from 2004-2006, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs are groups of up to 100 soldiers assisted by trainers and development workers to provide back up for development and training to police and officials in the provinces) were expanded along with ISAF (who were now under NATO control) which expanded outside of Kabul. In the summer of 2006, the Taliban in the south began to set up a parallel administration and justice system to woo locals which then spread east. They also began to target Afghan government officials and police force who were already demoralised and disorganised.

A lack of troops and helicopters for Afghanistan operations because of the Iraq War led to a reliance on excessive air power by the US which antagonised locals as the bombs were killing as many innocent civilians as they were Taliban.

In 2009, with a new American President came a new strategy. President Obama appointed General David Petraeus as head of US Central Command in Afghanistan with General Stanley McChrystal as his commander on the ground. It was General McChrystal who shifted the focus of US strategy on the ground from enemy-centric to population-centric in order to reduce the number of civilian casualties which was continuing to alienate the Afghans from coalition troops. There was a big increase in the numbers of US troops thanks to the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq with 21,000 US Marines poured into southern Afghanistan including 4,000 trainers charged with speeding up the build-up of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF – the police and the army). NATO also promised more troops. Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, former commander of the SAS, was recalled by McChrystal to mastermind the ‘reintegration’ policy aimed at persuading middle- to low-ranking Taliban (who were less likely to have ideological ties and simply be in it for the money of out of fear) to switch sides.

Despite these positive moves, the Afghan Presidential elections that saw Karzai elected for a second term had no credibility. Supporters of Karzai had stuffed the ballot boxes and the Taliban had scared people into not voting. The turn out was about half that of the previous election. Yet despite this, the US, NATO, the UN and the EU all congratulated themselves and the Afghans on a ‘successful election’. This was seen by Afghans as hollow and deceitful.

From studying the Taliban and the counterinsurgency efforts of the US-led coalition, I can’t help but think that the wrong approach was taken from the outset. Counterinsurgency should not be military-led as military forces are not suitable for building states. It is about making sure the insurgency doesn’t take over the governing of the country, which means the government must be strong and popular amongst the locals. A small military contingent, ideally special forces, should have been dispatched to tackle the Taliban (with co-operation from Pakistan to help nip the Taliban resurgence efforts in the bud – a vital factor in suppressing wider Taliban support) around the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) areas on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan while the largest effort should have been concentrated on establishing the institutions needed to help sustain a credible Afghan state, such as an education system and a justice system. The time lost (due in larger part to the Iraq War) has mean t that the support of ordinary people has been significantly depleted.

In terms of the future, I personally think that the current target of a withdrawal at the end of 2014 is too soon. I think this target is a result of continuing political and public pressure and war-weariness and is not in the best interests of the Afghan people or government. That said however, the defence cuts including another 2,900 from the Army, 900 from the RAF and 300 from the Royal Navy in the round of redundancies announced on the 12th June mean that continuing operations in Afghanistan would stretch and already stretched British armed forces. Perhaps the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the new-look of smaller British armed forces will spell the beginning of a new chapter in British defence and foreign policy. I just hope that any change in policy will match our revised capabilities…

As for the Taliban, it appears that all they have to do now is wait for December 2014 when they will most probably be able to re-establish themselves as the rulers of Afghanistan, unless the current government there gains enough support, credibility and capability to hold on to power.

Sources:

ISAF mission: http://www.isaf.nato.int/mission.html

Karzai profile: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3135938.stm

POSH: Review

6 Jul

*Spoiler Alert* If you haven’t seen Posh at the Duke of York’s Theatre, just off Trafalgar Square, then what the heck are you doing reading this?

Having read what feels like tonnes of stuff about the satire of Posh and the burgeoning (crucially female) talent that is Laura Wade, I had been meaning to go see it for months. And finally, on a very rainy weeknight that’s exactly what I did. Oh and their website says Sold Out but we easily got tickets from tkts on the day and they were damn good seats.

What struck me first and foremost was that the audience this play really should be reaching weren’t in the theatre (but my guess is the people who voted the Bullingdon Club alumni into government were…) and this was only compounded by the fact that my friend and I seemed to be laughing for different reasons to those all around us. For example, the Acapella singing was so on the money, just about bang on trend, but while we were laughing at the contrapuntal song choices (the Labyrinth number was particularly good) everyone else just seemed to appreciate their talent. This begs the question, is this gimmick funnier when you’ve danced in a nightclub to those songs? And that’s using the term ‘danced’ very loosely indeed…

Moving swiftly on! Wade slaps you in the face with an utterly amazing opening (which I don’t want to ruin for you) but I do feel like I should warn you that this is a play of 2 very different halves. Initially we’re led along a merry song and dance by these absurd rogues, but by the end we’re faced with something deeply unsettling. I have to say, the sexual politics of Posh are just bonkers; both of the two relatively minor female characters are subject to sexual abuse/assault, but there seemed to be a sense that as it was written by a woman that made it ok? This half-formed thought will germinate into a blog of its own someday soon. 

As well as this, and the violence, there’s a lot of intense swearing throughout, which I thought added to the realism (they are meant to be teenagers after all). However it was clearly unexpected by many, and probably why the older couple sitting next to me didn’t come back to their seats after the interval. That said there were some magnificent speeches which made me desperate to get my hands on the script (lamenting it’s predominantly male cast somewhat) but it was a little clunky when trying to turn the mirror on the audience – who apparently think they’re great ‘just because they read a big paper, eat asparagus and pretend not to be racist’.

Nevertheless Wade has created something surprisingly funny, and its one-room setting succeeds in creating a heady sense of boozy confinement, while staving off any claustrophobic boredom with the timely appearance of the 18th Century Lord Ryott (I’m still not quite sure how that piece of theatrical trickery was done).

So undeniably enjoyable then but this is at its heart a piece of satire, and in considering its subject matter and its timeliness the key thought Posh provokes is: Do I feel depressed for having seen it? Well as a politically-engaged lefty it told me nothing I didn’t know (or thought I knew) already, so perhaps the more pertinent question is: have they seen it..?

 

Whether you’re a former member of the Bullingdon Club or not, I heartily recommend Posh, just don’t come out feeling too downhearted! 

Climbing at The Biscuit Factory

3 Jul

In the London climbing community (just go with it) there’s been alot of chatter lately about The Arch’s new indoor climbing centre, The Biscuit Factory. So inevitably heading over I had quite high expectations. On reflection though I think this is in large part just a result of overall excitement at general developments in the world of indoor bouldering.

For the record I do think bouldering is the future of climbing in this country. It doesn’t require a load of equipment, or even skill particularly; you can do it on your own or with your mates and it can be super affordable, not to mention not being disrupted by rain- the perfect London sport! But back to The Biscuit Factory…

If they’re going for the edgy, undiscovered hidden gem thing then they’ve certainly cracked it. Although it’s really conveniently close to Bermondsey station, there are no signs anywhere at all along the route. As well as this it’s tucked away in an industrial estate, which is fine if you use your intuition but if I hadn’t drawn a map from the internet beforehand I would have been utterly screwed trying to find it.

Inside it’s alot like the London Bridge centre but much brighter and palpably newer. The staff who dealt with me were fine, and in the middle of the week, in mid-afternoon there were only a handful of people climbing, leaving plenty of space for me to check the place out. Of course, most of the small crowd were guys (including the obligatory topless ones) but for inspiration it’s all about the women. Sat on the floor, legs tucked underneath them they gaze up at their routes, calmly planning ahead before dashing up like spider monkeys. Incredible.

I myself haven’t really climbed properly since before Christmas, so I wanted to start on some nice easy routes, and this revealed the big problem. The routes at The Biscuit Factory aren’t properly labelled (especially compared to North London’s Castle) so it’s entirely up to you to try and figure them out! I’ve no idea how beginners would manage. Despite enjoying having such a big, roomy space to boulder in, the lack of clearly graded routes was seriously frustrating.

Partly due to this I didn’t stay too long, not stopping to sample the wares of shop/coffee counter (which are inexplicably located right in the entrance while there’s a massive area of wasted space at the back with a few lockers in it). The bathrooms and changing rooms were really handy by the way, a tad small but a big improvement on London Bridge. None of that stuff matters though when the climbing’s not right.

What the good people of The Arch are doing is absolutely admirable and I so want the Biscuit Factory to do well, but its walls really need finishing off. So as it stands this place is a work in progress, but with a hell of a lot of potential. Regardless, it was great to be climbing again.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: Review

24 Jun

Gosh, wouldn’t it be handy if I could access the trailer for this film right now? Oh wait… 

Well I have to say I was really looking forward to seeing Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Why? Well I’m a bit of a Lincoln nerd, having made a study of his politics a couple of years ago (which is far too long to post on here), but fear not! This familiarity with the subject didn’t leave me stewing over all the historical inaccuracies (obviously everywhere) but actually added to my enjoyment. i.e recognising bits of Lincoln’s famous speeches or chuckling over the casting (the historical loser that I am).

In addition to this I had also previously read Seth Grahame-Smith’s book, it being bought for me as a gift in the midst of the aforementioned study (didn’t make its way into my bibliography though…). What makes the book better than most in the horror-history-mashup realm is its cheeky sense of satire, and that’s what appealed to me. There was clearly a level of affection/knowledge of the history interwoven with the vampire madness, and I was curious to see if this would come across on screen.

On the whole your opinion of ALVH will be greatly determined by how you go into the cinema feeling and what you’re expecting/hoping for. I saw it on a Friday evening with some good friends, all of us in what one might call a giggly mood, and that’s the ideal. If you take it all with a pinch of salt and assume it’s intentionally tongue-in-cheek (as was the book) I think you’ll have a good time. Clunky lines such as ‘Come along Abe or we’ll be late for the theatre’ simply must be humorous, as is pretty much every scene with Mary Elizabeth Winstead (everyone in the audience of our particular screening was in stitches over the barking-basket courting scene: just us?).

In between this absurd, historical humour are the many, many Timur Bekmambetov CGI fight scenes. Seeing Benjamin Walker dressed up like Lincoln, swirling an axe around in slow-motion is baffling once, amusing twice and boring any more often than that. While some of these grandiose fight scenes work better than others, it’s the utterly ludicrous stampede which really stood out for its stupidity and pointlessness. It’s no spoiler to say that the moment someone threw a live horse at Abraham Lincoln was the moment pretty much everyone in the room accepted that at best this would be a so-called ‘guilty pleasure’.  (It was also the point at which a somewhat tipsy lad behind me turned to his fellow lads to ask: ‘what are we actually watching here boys?’)

(As per usual) I thoroughly recommend you see ALVH in 2D, as even then much of the film is very dark and blurred (and I’m getting increasingly sick of scenes made purely for ’3D moments’, with all manner of stuff lunging out at the screen. They’re in every blockbuster, aren’t clever and need to be got rid of sharpish. Grr!). That said it’s the structure that’s this film’s real weakness, taking far too long to get going (it felt like Lincoln was a child for ages) and the sudden jump from ‘hmmm I might go into politics’ to ‘oh look he’s old and the President now’, was unsettling to say the least (in the real world, if like me you are interested in how Lincoln became president just read Team of Rivals, it really is the best). Thankfully though all this absurdity was just about carried off by the able Dominic Cooper as Henry Sturgess; sadly the only performance worth singling out.

On leaving the cinema there was a collective sense of bemusement, albeit accompanied by laughter. I’m aware that I liked this film more than most people, more than is logical and more than I can hope to justify. In terms of a recommendation: if you enjoyed the book you’ll have no surprises but will take similar pleasure from the film.

And god knows how we’ll ever be able to take Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln seriously now…

Why you should probably know more about Operation Weserübung

17 Jun

The Second World War in Europe and the actions of the Wehrmacht continue to provoke a uniquely high level of interest, among professional and hobbying military historians alike. Nevertheless there remain various aspects of this conflict which are neither widely discussed nor understood, and the German invasion of Norway is just one of them.  Hopefully this post will provide some insight into the events of the spring of 1940, which most Britons know nothing about. And if not there are a few facts which could always prove useful in a pub quiz!

Firstly, the strategic importance of Norway needs to be understood, which to my mind can be broadly simplified into 3 main points:

1. Norway’s long coastline, with its deep fjords, provided ideal bases for the Kriegsmarine from which they could unremittingly provide a threat of invasion to the British Isles.

2. Capturing Norway would secure Germany’s own coastline as the Skagerrak Strait between Denmark and Normandy lead to the Baltic Sea (remember the Battle of Jutland in 1916?).

3. Norway possessed considerable natural resources; prior to the outbreak of war 77% of Germany’s iron ore was imported from Norway, making its control a matter of heightened importance in wartime.

Launched in the early hours of the morning of 9th April 1940, and code-named Operation Weserübung, this invasion well-planned and seamlessly executed. Secrecy was maintained throughout the planning and so the German landings were a complete surprise.  In addition to the benefits of a successful deception the Luftwaffe had complete air superiority, supporting the invading ground forces with overwhelming force (Norway didn’t even have any operational anti-aircraft guns!)

As the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill had advocated pre-emptively occupying the neutral Norwegian iron-ore port of Narvik and the iron mines in Kiruna, but as Chamberlain and the rest of the War Cabinet didn’t see the value of such action, the operation was delayed until the Germans had already captured Norway.

German landing sites during the initial phase of Operation Weserübung.

After the invasion Churchill was confident that the qualitative and numerical superiority of the Royal Navy (with 107 warships to 13 in the Kriegsmarine) would lead to a victorious response, but once the British ships had actually deployed the Germans had the upper hand (British ships were needed elsewhere round the Empire, while the Germans were able to concentrate their force). Indeed, Britain was so focused on the prospect of a triumphant naval battle that it neglected other military objectives (see below). In preparing for the invasion German intelligence had broken Royal Navy SIGINT, allowing them to provide the Kriegsmarine with accurate British ship movements. (The Kriegsmarine were also shrouded in the foggy weather, adding another layer of deception).

British counter-operations were launched optimistically but ultimately failed due to hesitation, inadequate gear and the influential presence of the Luftwaffe. Allied forces lacked both intelligence and firepower; so much so that the soldiers who did land had to march up to 200 miles in the snow, then suffering a surprise Wehrmacht attack with artillery, full air cover and even some tanks, and eventually being forced to retreat. This disaster in Norway contributed to the momentum that culminated in Chamberlain’s resignation on the 10th May 1940.  (On coming to power Churchill tried once again to liberate Norway, but after Dunkirk in June 1940 all available troops were needed for defence purposes).

But why does any of this matter? (Aside from the fact that the Nazis went on to occupy Norway for the rest of the war of course)

Well just for starters Operation Weserübung was the first amphibious operation of the war and it saw the first ever use of military paratroopers.

Also, in fighting off the Royal Navy the Kriegsmarine took proportionally severe losses, making them too weak to force the Wehrmacht across the Channel as planned in Operation Sealion, and making Hitler increasingly reliant on the Luftwaffe (a habit that would worsen as the war went on). However the utilisation of the Luftwaffe in this operation did show that air power needed to be integrated with both land and sea power, lest they lose their respective fighting values.

Yet despite these wide-reaching effects, arguably the main results of this invasion were not strategic, but political and psychological. Germany’s military prestige was heightened enormously as a result of their comprehensive success, and in Great Britain Winston Churchill was now in power…

Respective losses in Operation Weserübung:

Kriegsmarine:

  • 1 heavy cruiser
  • 2 light cruisers
  • 10 destroyers
  • various U-boats, transports and smaller warships

Luftwaffe:

  • 1,130 air crew
  • 341 KIA
  • 448 MIA

Total German Losses:

  • 5,636 KIA or MIA
  • 341 WIA

 Royal Norwegian Navy & Army:

  • 1,335 KIA
  • Unknown MIA

Allies:

  • 6,100 KIA
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