According to the respected American dissident Noam Chomsky: “The responsibility of a writer is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.”
Historian Mark Curtis has been doing just that since he wrote The Ambiguities of Power in 1995. Bypassing the establishment-friendly analysis of mainstream media and academia, Curtis argues “the basic fact is that Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world’s suffering and horrors” carrying out brutal military interventions, large-scale human rights abuses and opposing economic developments that would benefit the poor.
Previously the director of the World Development Movement and a research fellow at Chatham House, Curtis has continued his evidence-based critique of British foreign policy with Web of Deceit in 2003 and, more recently Unpeople, in which he maintains Britain “bears significant responsibility” for around 10 million deaths since 1945.
Now in Secret Affairs he turns his attention to Britain’s relationship with the politics of radical Islam. Both Labour and Conservative governments have, he argues, “colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organisations. They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them.” Why? To help promote Britain’s two main foreign policy objectives – “influence and control over key energy resources” and “maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order.” Whether it is working with major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, or non-state players such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Britain has consistently attempted to undermine secular, nationalist forces in the Arab world.
As with Curtis’ previous work, the first part of this historical overview makes extensive use of declassified government documents. For example, in 1957 the British ambassador to Jordan makes British policy plain in a letter to the Foreign Secretary: “I suggest that our interest is better suited by an authoritarian regime which maintains stability and the Western connection than by an untrammelled democracy which rushes downhill towards communism and chaos.”
Presumably because of the 30-year rule the more recent chapters on Britain’s involvement with radical Islam during the wars in the Balkans rely more on newspapers and Hansard. The picture is therefore far from complete, and Curtis seems less sure of the terrain. However, there is no doubt that the claim of “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo in 1999 is seriously undermined by the fact that Britain trained the Kosovo Liberation Army, an outfit who worked closely with al-Qaeda and who were openly described as a terrorist organisation by British ministers at the time.
Turning to the present conflict in Afghanistan, Curtis notes that Britain is now fighting the Islamist forces it had previously supported in the 1980s against the Soviet Union in what he calls “Whitehall’s most extensive covert operation since the Second World War.” The media have followed the government’s lead, forgetting inconvenient facts like the visit of the brutal insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to London in 1988. Or, as a former literary editor of Tribune famously wrote: “Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”
As for Pakistan’s continuing support for the Taliban, highlighted by the recently leaked Afghan war logs, published on WikiLeaks, he simply says “the situation is absurd: in order to defeat the forces of the Taliban, Britain is dependent on their main ally.” Bang up to date, comprehensive and clearly written, Secret Affairs is a work of great importance and sobering conclusions. Curtis remains essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand Britain’s real role in the world.