Archive for December, 2007

Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book on the days of the CPA in Iraq has been heavily praised; showered with awards and links and stuff. So I was pretty keen to get a copy. Just think of the horrible guts that might be in there. Unfortunately, I can report that it is desperately overrated.

To kick off, if you read the newspapers closely during 2003-2005, or kept up with any worthwhile blogs in the same period, you’ll know most of the factual material in the book and most of the anecdotes too. There is not very much new here, which is unsurprising because the whole sorry farrago of stupidity, disorientation, partisan hackery, corruption etc is by now quite well documented, especially due to the excellent work of SIGIR and various newspaper reporters.

Some of the stories are good – I didn’t know the British camp in the Green Zone was called Ocean Cliffs by its inhabitants, because it was in an underground car park in a city in a flat desert, or that the Americans didn’t understand why the Brits would want to park their caravans in an underground car park….until the mortars began coming over the wire. But that is trivial.

More seriously, Chandrasekaran’s book primarily shows the degree to which so many people in US politics and the press are still struggling with the concept that the President might be wrong. Although he clearly believes it to be an indictment that will burst like a 107mm Chinese rocket, it doesn’t pack much of a punch; he is far too weak on the assumptions so many people brought with them to Iraq. He is repeatedly reduced to pearl-clutching incomprehension by the notion that healthcare and education were free in pre-war Iraq (at least in theory). Like the CPA’s Republican bagmen, contract hunters and securigoons, he finds it impossible to separate Iraq from his own assumptions about US politics and political economy. As part of the ill-thought-out healthcare effort, a team of experts from the “Defense Department Pharmacoeconomic Center” are called in; the fact the US military needs a staff of health economists to keep from being ripped off by their healthcare system should tell him something about who exactly can give lessons on national healthcare.

Further, his critique shows some curious cracks. After 172 pages on how the CPA failed to engage with Iraqis, to make use of Iraqi knowledge or resources, or to understand Iraqi realities, he remarks that the task of rehabilitating the electricity grid was “inexplicably handed off” to the selfsame Iraqi engineers he has just on the preceding page credited with restoring power after the 1991 war. Was that really so inexplicable? In fact, we know exactly how the electricity effort failed, thanks to the good people at IEEE Spectrum, who did a superb feature on how the American bigshot contract-hunters the CPA called in made a mess of the job by behaving as if Iraq was very much like the United States. The contrast with the telecoms reconstruction effort, which actually had to restore facilities the US bombed this time around, is shown up by another IEEE Spectrum report.

His choice of John Agresto, president of a small college in the US and sometime CPA education advisor, as an example of a “neoconservative mugged by reality” is wildly uncritical of the man’s maunderings about “introducing the concept of academic freedom”, which turns out to mean “encouraging the universities to suppress students with opinions he doesn’t like”, to say nothing of the fact he is just another political hack; he made his career working with Bill “casino boy” Bennett and Dick Cheney’s wife at the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1980s, or to put it another way, bashing academics Ronald Reagan’s staff didn’t like. Agresto’s remarks about the president of Dohuk University in Kurdistan (“more like the head of a New Jersey truckers’ local than the founder and president of a major university”, and this is a guy he liked) are – well, I’m not sure if they are more racist than snobbish or vice versa.

But like so many, Agresto has got out in time; he moved from the CPA into well-heeled retirement. Another university president whose role was an utter disaster, far worse than anything Agresto could cook up, has surprisingly managed to escape without too much damage to his reputation; and Chandrasekaran here does us all a service by dragging Peter McPherson, once Gerald Ford’s head of appointments (working for Dick Cheney) and holder of a range of Reagan administration panjandrumships and now president of Michigan University, well and truly through the mud. You’ll have to read the book to find out how badly he fucked up as the CPA’s economics boss, but suffice it to say that he decided to reverse normal practice so that if the bank is in trouble, it was the depositor’s problem, thus destroying the working capital of every firm in Iraq with a positive balance at the banks and wiping out the debts of every firm in Iraq with an overdraft. He did this in order to make the accounting easier and save $1bn; a billion here and a billion there and soon you’re talking real money, indeed, but out of the $20bn of Iraqi oil revenues and $18.4bn in US taxpayers’ cash the CPA ran through you would think that a billion to recapitalise the banks would have been easy to find.

He was convinced that a supply-side policy would not only be best in the long run, but would be the fastest way to create jobs in the short run as well; foreign direct investment would pour in to take advantage of privatisation. Of course, you can’t privatise a corpse, and the difference between a business that is trading (even at a loss) and one that is not is the difference between a living person and a dozen stone of dogmeat. Even the accounting problems (due to looting) would have been easier to fix; get them trading and paying each other. Cash is king, right?

Fortunately, he was prevented from throwing an even more egregious cake-and-arse party; he wanted to abolish food rations and instead pay out cash, or perhaps issue special debit cards that would be automatically credited, in a country without cash points or credit-card merchant terminals or very much electricity. Yet another disaster was prevented by one Jim Otwell, a fireman from Buffalo, New York, who had arrived to help with the fire brigade but had eventually become the CPA labour advisor because he was a union convenor (a form of expertise scarcer in the Green Zone than anywhere else on earth). Otwell spotted that, as with UK child benefit, the food was supplied to the women for a reason; he further pointed out that even if only one per cent of recipients didn’t get their money, that would still mean about 250,000 angry hungry people with AK47s.

I seem to have to make similar points about small percentages of really big numbers all the damn time…

But McPherson’s militant stupidity was not to be put off by the prospect of perhaps having a quarter-million-strong armed mob pouring over the walls to eat him. Otwell had to enlist the British army hierarchy (John McColl at the time, I think) to exert influence on the US commander in Iraq to get the thing kiboshed, for which we may all be truly thankful. Involving food as it did, McPherson’s policy had the greatest potential to kill of any of the CPA’s ideas.

So, the CPA was a bunch of hopelessly ignorant rightwing hacks. Ya think? So how did this book, which is OK at best, get so much praise? Well, it had the good fortune to appear just as the notion that Iraq was not a good idea became authorised knowledge; I can think of no other explanation. I recommend and endorse Patrick Cockburn’s The Occupation, which delivers far more facts, useful insights, and punch in considerably fewer pages.


It is quite possible to simultaneously believe that Benazir Bhutto’s career was considerably less perfect than her public image, and also that her assassination is likely to have nothing but bad consequences for Pakistan and quite a few other places. I say this because you’d be surprised; opinion has already broken between uncritical Diana-isation by the mainstream media, politics, and large chunks of the blogosphere ranging all the way from angry feminists to Michelle Malkin, and cynical dismissal from the professionally snarky.

Let’s pause and consider the political dynamics; the PPP was about the only political organisation in Pakistan with real popular support or public participation, and it looks very like it’s going to die. (There’s a rundown of no fewer than eight possible candidates here.) The organisation has declared 40 days of mourning, which can be read as 40 days of desperately trying to work out what to do and fighting over the bloody shawl. Nawaz Sharif is trying to muscle in on the role of popular opponent of the army regime; this is only going to make it worse.

The upshot is that the entire southern half of the country and a significant chunk of the big cities will be effectively disenfranchised; Sharif and Musharraf will be competing for the Punjab, and worse still, for the military. Only Zia was closer to the ISI, the jihadis and the Saudis than Nawaz Sharif; we’re talking about the chap who (despite not being terribly devout) considered declaring sharia law and sent actual troops (rather than secret aid) to help the Taliban hold Kabul in 1998 when the Northerners retook the Shomali plain. An underreported feature of the current crisis is the Saudi lobbying campaign for him.

The elections might not now happen – probably for the best, as with Sharif boycotting and the PPP in a state of collapse, the only possible outcome would be a risibly unrepresentative cocktail of the Musharraf fanclub and NWFP religious nutters. However, the not-general would probably quite like such an outcome – it couldn’t possibly work with 60+ per cent of the population excluded, but it would permit him to indulge his loathing of Nawaz Sharif and politicians generally and also appear to Stand Up For Democracy. Theatre is an under-remarked factor in his career.

Meanwhile, you want fourth-generation warfare? We got it. Just not in the usual form; you know your network’s been disrupted when you ask the telco what’s broken and they tell you the mob sacked the exchange and torched the SDH fibre transceivers.

As far as the assassinology of it goes, I’ll confine myself to pointing out that the M.O. was identical to the first attempt on the day of her return – gunfire, and then a suicide bomb. I’ve not heard of this sequence anywhere else (usually it’s a bomb and then snipers in the smouldering aftermath). There are all kinds of options for “whodunnit?” – both at the level of whichever bunch of jihadis were recruited to do the job, and who recruited them. Obviously, anyone who wants Pakistan to be semichaotic and the special role of the spooks to continue benefited; this includes half the world, as far as I can work out. Meanwhile, the British brigade in Helmand’s main supply route is still via Karachi.

Christmas Ceasefire

The traditional TYR Christmas ceasefire will be in force up to the 27th. Not that you’d have noticed the difference lately; but anyway I’ll be back with some thoughts on 2007, the year of delivery (remember that?) for everything we’ve been saying about stupid government IT all the way back to 1999.

Meanwhile, something from the tape recorder for special music:

Delroy Wilson does the Temptations’ Get Ready. The video isn’t much, but the sound wants to be turned up. And this is post number 1,700…

I’ve been reading old House of Commons Defence Committee reports – I was ill, forgive me.

This one, from February, is likely to spin up to relevance any time now. It covers the Army’s FRES (Future Rapid Effects System) project, which was intended to provide a new armoured vehicle that would be light and handy enough to be deployed quickly by air as an alternative to either tanks, or else Land Rovers and boots.

So far, MOD has spent £192 million on “concept work” since 1998; this hasn’t involved any actual vehicles. To begin with, this work (perhaps this should be “work”?) was carried out as part of a US-UK joint project (TRACER), but then the Americans pulled out. It continued as part of a joint project, BOXER, with Germany and Holland, but then, another group of “concept workers” at BAE came up with a new concept which Geoff Hoon and Jacko bought into heavily, and so the MOD pulled out of BOXER to develop FRES.

Originally, they decided to have another company (Alvis Vickers’ Leeds plant) do the development, so as to have neutral advice; but BAE promptly bought it and its biggest US competitor too, so there ended up being neither competition nor impartiality. And, of course, in this vapourware realm the requirements just kept coming. It would have to replace the CVR(T) reconnaissance vehicle. It would have to replace the Saxon and FV430 APCs, and various utility vehicles. It would have to provide a completely new role for a lightweight vehicle with a big gun. It would have to fit in a C-130; a special request from the Paras.

The upshot was that the project has spent the last 10 years in dancing powerpoint mode, as those involved tried to stuff the mutually incompatible requirements into a vaguely credible design; meanwhile, the Army went to war with lots of Land Rovers. The news from Iraq and Afghanistan caused the vehicle to expand steadily as it got more and more armour; eventually the requirement to fit in a C-130 was dropped, which rather spoiled the point of the whole exercise. Now it’s got to fit in an A-400M, which is probably easier but for the problem that it doesn’t exist yet.

So here we are; the MOD has in the meantime bought a mass of other vehicles, including Mastiffs (MRAP-like trucks with armour), Bulldogs (old FV430s with more armour) and Vikings (BV-206 tracks, with more armour). Incredibly, the ad-hoc vehicle program actually cost less than the “concept work” on FRES. The MOD is now trying to decide between the vehicle that eventually emerged from BOXER, or the French NEXTER; this is despite the fact the Finnish Patria and Swedish SEB fit the requirement more closely and the American LAV III is cheaper. This appears to have been why Lord Drayson quit; nothing to do with Le Mans. (That was, however, the best ever ministerial resignation story; beats “spending more time with my family”.)

There are heavy rumours of more defence cuts next year; nothing should be simpler than terminating this project, which has long become almost proverbially toxic. Clearly, trying to fit four mutually contradictory roles on the same machine is profoundly stupid; type proliferation has already happened, anyway. Even if anything was delivered, it now looks like the recce variant , which was meant to be the top priority, will come a long way after the utility one, and God knows when the light tank one will arrive. The MOD should extend its ad-hoc buy to fill the infantry requirement, and look at some of the vehicles in service elsewhere for the recce and light tank jobs.

It’s yet another case of government scienciness and creationist technology.

Well this is impressive; Polly Toynbee arguing that anyone who disagrees with ID cards is objectively pro-illegal immigrants being beaten up. Seriously; the argument is not that we need ID cards to keep the immigrants out, but that we need to cut the government some slack in order to stop them beating up illegal immigrants.

This really is amazing; let’s see a sample.

Failed asylum seekers who can’t return are deliberately starved with nothing but a £35 voucher to be cashed in one shop, with no change, never mind the price of a bus fare. Meltem Avcil is just one girl caught in periodic sweeps, which at the present rate of removal would take 25 years and £4.5bn to clear the backlog. For real suffering, the treatment of these migrants beats all else – and it’s time for a controlled amnesty after, say, four years. But here is a clash between the citizens’ right to control the borders that define their citizenship versus the human rights of the helpless and destitute living here anyway.

How do you rank the liberties of other extreme sufferers? The frail and lonely are badly neglected with ever less care as councils tighten their criteria. Young children all alone caring for sick parents have their childhood and their future destroyed. Prison suicides, and now prisoners shamefully locked in for 23 hours a day. Abused children suffer silently in direct proportion to social workers’ overburdened caseloads. Thousands dying slowly in agony are denied by parliament the right to go at a time of their choosing. Evidence recently from the Sutton Trust report yet again shows that birth is destiny: poor children stand virtually no chance of escaping poor lives. Meanwhile, exhausted families of disabled children and adolescents struggle to get even the most basic help. Add here all those whose acute suffering can only be alleviated by a kindlier, more generous state. For them a better funded “nanny state” is the solution, not the threat.

But who is deliberately starving failed asylum seekers? Who runs the prisons? Who sets the financial targets for those councils?

Polly, the Cossacks work for the Czar. All of these things, just like ID cards, CCTV and DNA databases, are the work of the government you have been propagandising for as long as I can remember. And every damn time they have done them, you have been the first to say that we ought to put up with it in case they get round to passing the corporate manslaughter bill, or expanding Sure Start, or standing up to George Bush about…well…anything.

And what happened to any of these things? The radical second term still hasn’t arrived. Sure Start was tossed back to the local councils, and then they got ratecapped under the last CSR. The corporate manslaughter bill is still forever delayed; look what just happened. We’re still in Iraq. But Polly is still, incredibly, hoping for the rule of the saints; what more, I wonder, are we expected to give up?

Further, can anyone cite an actual instance of “wrongful convictions” being overturned by “a DNA database”? I cannot imagine how this could happen; in every case using DNA evidence I’ve ever heard of, DNA recovered from forensics was matched against samples from a suspect, and if they turned out not to match, this is considered strong evidence for their innocence. Running it through a database of other suspects is quite another issue; the point of overturning a conviction is that this guy didn’t do it, not we might have someone else who fits the available DNA.

After all, doing it that way would be mathematically certain to produce lots of false positive matches; but, I suppose, they would be happy to sacrifice the illusory individual freedom of not being locked up for the larger group freedom of perhaps maybe having emotional dolphins parenting binge estates sometime in the next parliament. (Well, she is on record as saying anyone who disagrees with this stuff is insane.)

This was, I think, quite the worst piece of writing the Grauniad has ever published. It came along with a grubbily unsourced psychological flaws smear directed at Gordon Brown from Tom Bower and a Simon Jenkins scotch and soda about farmers wanting to shoot badgers and this being the authentic voice of Britain. Frankly, their op-ed page has outlived its usefulness; and let’s not even think of Martin Kettle.

XV230 Update

An extra titbit on Nimrod: XV230 was the airframe that had refuelled from a TriStar the most. In second place was XV235; and on the 5th November, this aircraft experienced a fuel leak from one of those 38-year old rubber seals. In other news, apparently the decision to stop Nimrods air-to-air refuelling had little effect; it referred to “operational” AAR, but all AAR except for training is by definition operational. This means that the restriction is entirely discretionary.

Especially, as last week, when the entire force is following the Admiral Kuznetsov group around.

Why must you record my phone calls? Are you planning a bootleg EP? (thnx, derausqed!) So said the Specials.
Laura Rozen points us to a New York Times story regarding the wider telecoms surveillance effort that led to the great AT&T whistleblower case; it seems as good as certain that they got cracking the moment Bush took office.

What interests me, however, are the exceptions – two carriers refused to take part. One was Qwest – their motto is Spirit of Service, and I recall that at MCI we glossed it as Spirit of Silence, until some nut started sending green-ink emails about how they should be Al Qa’ida Telecom. The other, about which you hear less, was T-Mobile USA. Now, Qwest’s motivations remain obscure; but we can deduce something about the program from T-Mobile.

T-Mobile is, of course, the mobile division of Deutsche Telekom; it bought the former Voicestream assets in the United States, and is now rolling out a UMTS network. The company is the biggest mobile operator in Germany, the fourth-biggest in the UK, and the fourth-biggest in the US. Being a GSM/UMTS operator, it can offer transatlantic roaming; and here is the rub.

When one of T-Mobile’s European customers gets off the plane in the US, their mobile phone will send a CC SETUP message to the loudest base station it can hear whose network ID is in its list of available roaming partners. It will try to get on to T-Mobile’s local network by preference; if it does so, the base station controller (RNC for 3G purposes) will send a signalling message to the switching centre requesting that the subscriber be added to a local database called a Visitor Location Register (VLR), which holds a list of all roamers on the network. This is used to authenticate attempts to make calls from the number, and also to route incoming calls to it.

In order to check if the number is indeed from the network it says it is, and that the subscriber is in credit, a further signalling message is spawned to the home network to look up their Home Location Register (HLR), their master database containing all their subscribers. This will also cause a lookup on the BSS (Billing Support Subsystem), and will amend the HLR so that calls to the number are routed to the visited network.

We’re now in a position to roam. There are two ways in which that works – one has all traffic to or from the roamer routed to their home network’s switching centre, the other delegates the switching to the visited network and merely sends signalling messages to the home network. Yes, it’s complicated.

Now, if (as seems to be the case) the NSA was trying to hoover up signalling data and call-detail records, this all means that whatever they were doing in the US would also absorb information from the German and UK HLRs. Similarly, T-Mobile USA customers roaming in the UK or Germany would be leaving a data trail sent back by T-Mobile UK or Germany. The reason T-Mobile declined is probably for fear of being taken to German or British courts; because not only the local affiliate, but also the European-based networks, would in a sense have taken part, the distinction of jurisdiction could not save them. And such an act would have been highly illegal; either the German legislation on data privacy or the UK Data Protection Act, as far as I can make out, would have been violated comprehensively.

This Brad DeLong post summarises criticisms of the Stern report on the economics of climate change and criticisms of the criticisms. Mostly, it’s concerned with the role of uncertainty; as the tail of the distribution includes some really horrible possibilities, it’s not sensible to assume that we’ll be OK because the middle of the distribution is more likely.

But there is an even more serious issue here. When Stern originally reported, the thing Tim Worstall seized on to defend his priors was the social discount rate, the relationship between costs or benefits in the present and in the future. Stern assumed a low SDR; a pound’s worth of future suffering was similar in value to a pound’s worth today. Worstall, and a million other CEI-funded twerps, argued that this was wrong; perhaps costs to the future should be radically discounted?

In part this was based on the argument that the future would be so much richer as a result of continuing economic growth that the costs would be more affordable then; this, of course, itself rests on the assumption that the future costs of climate change would not be sufficient to imperil economic growth, a nice little logical perpetual motion machine.

More fundamentally, though, any discussion of SDRs has to come down to a choice; in a sense it’s a measurement of how much you care. It has to come down to a choice because, as Dsquared pointed out at the time, it’s impossible to put a real price on costs in the future because the future has no say – it cannot pay the present to change its behaviour. Intergenerational trade is always one-way, and hence there is a huge missing market problem.

But there is something genuinely silly about self-declared capitalists – capitalists! – arguing that the future has no value. Essentially all narratives of the history of capitalism agree that it required a fundamental change in attitudes towards the future; whether you ascribe it to Protestantism, or whatever, you can’t have capitalism without the idea that accumulating capital is good. The notion that wealth should be used to accumulate the means of production, and that businesses have an existence independent of individuals, was a stupendously radical one.

The iconography and culture is full of the notion that saving – or rather investment in the economic sense, the transfer of income from consumption to capital formation – is virtuous. The Fable of the Bees is well-known; the bee and the hive are symbols that recur throughout the history of capitalism, combining the value of investment for the future, the work ethic, and the power of specialisation and self-organisation. Bradford’s 19th-century bourgeoisie, when they found the city needed a coat of arms, chose two bees and the motto Labor omnia vincit. Similarly, the motif of ploughing a surplus back into the business is too common to need discussing.

Marxism, of course, is founded on the idea that the accumulation of capital explains all human history; development economics has always been attracted to the idea that the transition to industrial capitalism (or communism!) requires faster capital formation. The high development theorists thought there was a specific savings rate at which take-off would be achieved, an economic V-1 around 20%; more recently, the school of Hernando De Soto argues that countries that develop successfully do so primarily because of the savings of the poor, and the solution is to reinforce the property rights of the public.

Now, all this stuff assumes that, in fact, profit in the future is at least as valuable – perhaps even more so – than spending today (or saving in the sense of hoarding cash). The social discount rate must be assumed to be low, or even positive. It is certainly strange to find the people who consider themselves to be the perfect capitalists pushing a pre-economic line; let’s eat the stuff we’ve gathered before it goes off, and make sure we get our share.

Our Charming Government

The good, good people responsible for the Iraqi employees’ resettlement scheme have hit upon a brilliant idea. It turns out that if you have completed the canonical 12 months, you are liable to be refused assistance if you stopped working for the British because you were being threatened; this is called “absenteeism”. Even if, as it happened, the absence was on the advice of your superior officer.

I think I’ve already said everything that needs saying here.

So, again. Time to write to them. Be polite, but firm. Insist on the specific; quote individual horror stories rather than windy principles if possible. Demand to know what is meant to happen after the handover of security control in Basra, expected any moment now.

And, of course, blog whatever results you get.

kill lourens horn.

Lourens Horn is a South African mercenary who figured in the 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup attempt, and this post, which is what the homicidal googler landed on.

I’m really not sure what to make of this.