Liam Fox wages “war among the people” (. . . his own people)

The Defence Secretary is making statements at odds with British strategy in Afghanistan and the natu

While getting my quick politics fix this morning on Politics Home, I saw the bit on the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, getting "slapped down" over Afghan policy. According to the Daily Mail, William Hague gave Liam Fox a dressing-down for describing Afghanistan as a 'broken 13th century' country and for suggesting that troop withdrawal could happen without development.

In the Times, Fox is quoted as saying: "We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened."

The stories in the press focus on the issue of mixed messages coming out from the various ministers, particularly Andrew Mitchell and Fox. And I have just seen that, in the NS, Samira Shackle has picked up on the story, with comprehensive quotations, and works the angle from the perspective of the offence caused to the Afghan government by these "colonialist, orientalist remarks" by a clumsy Dr Fox.

Not surprising, as the Afghans are an intelligent and proud people who are touchy about any perceived disrespect. In the same vein, Hamid Karzai's somewhat "erratic behavior" of late can apparently be referenced to Barack Obama's patronising attitude and "negative body language".

However, what struck me was that Fox seemed to be making brash statements at odds with British strategy in Afghanistan and the nature of the conflict being dealt with. As he is Defence Secretary, this is a glaring concern.

The conflict in Afghanistan is arguably a "New War", or what General Rupert Smith in the Utility of Force might categorise as a "war among the people", which is, he writes:

. . . both a graphic description of modern warlike situations, and also a conceptual framework, in that it reflects the hard fact that there is no secluded battlefield upon which armies engage, nor are there necessarily armies: definitely not on all sides. To be clear: this is not asymmetrical warfare as "war among the people" is different: it is the reality in which the people in the streets and houses and fields -- all the people, anywhere -- are the battlefield. Military engagements can take place anywhere in the presence of civilians, against civilians, in defence of civilians. Civilians are the targets, objectives to be won, as much as an opposing force.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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