McChrystal overruns the civilians (updated)

The McChrystal Rolling Stone article is a fascinating read.

Sure, there are plenty of insults – the piece opens with the General being forced to dine with a French minister (“It’s fucking gay,” complains an aide), while McChrystal’s team is brutal about how underwhelmed their boss is by Obama and his administration.

But there’s meat too – the mismatch between military and civilian power is a recurrent theme:

While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side… This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal’s team to call the shot and hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan.

Most interesting is the tension between counter-insurgency (slow, messy, only likely to ever deliver a partial result) and more aggressive forms of war fighting, especially as they play out among troops on the front line.

“This is the philosophical part that works with think tanks,” McChrystal jokes at one stage, “But it doesn’t get the same reception from infantry companies.”

I assume McChrystal will now be forced out – if not immediately, then after a few months or so. Can’t see that will resolve much though. It’s Obama’s war now (Cameron’s too, soon enough) and it’s hard to see him winning it.

Update: McChrystal was picked by Gates (Robert, not Bill) and I suspect it will be Gates who determines whether he survives. This is not exactly a rousing vote of confidence:

I read with concern the profile piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the upcoming edition of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine.  I believe that Gen. McChrystal made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case.  We are fighting a war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies, who directly threaten the United States, Afghanistan, and our friends and allies around the world.  Going forward, we must pursue this mission with a unity of purpose. Our troops and coalition partners are making extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our security, and our singular focus must be on supporting them and succeeding in Afghanistan without such distractions.

Gen. McChrystal has apologized to me and is similarly reaching out to others named in this article to apologize to them as well.  I have recalled Gen. McChrystal to Washington to discuss this in person.

Update II: Well, well. Turns out McChrystal was just one more victim for Eyjafjallajökull:

Hastings says he stumbled onto unprecedented access with McChrystal. After McChrystal’s press advisers accepted a request for the profile, Hastings joined McChrystal and his team in Paris. It was supposed to be a two-day visit, followed up with more time in Afghanistan.

The volcano in Iceland, however, changed those plans. As the ash disrupted air travel, Hastings ended up being “stuck” with McChrystal and his team for 10 days in Paris and Berlin. McChrystal had to get to Berlin by bus. Hastings says McChrystal and his aides were drinking on the road trip “the whole way.”

“They let loose,” he said. “I don’t blame them; they have a hard job.”

After Eyjafjallajökull – time to end NATS secrecy

I had always assumed that NATS – the UK’s air traffic control organisation, which was at the heart of the volcanic ash crisis – would be covered by Freedom of Information legislation.

After all:

The company… holds a monopoly of air traffic control for aircraft flying over the United Kingdom and, with its Irish counterpart, the North East Atlantic. It also provides air traffic control at most of the large airports around the country.

NATS was once a public body, but was converted into a public-private partnership in July 2001. The government maintains a 49% shareholding, with 46% held by a consortium of airlines, and 5% by employees.

It still provides a quintessentially public service, however, but because it’s not 100% government-owned, it’s not covered by the 2000 FOI Act (nor are any other public-private partnerships).

The public has a right to see information held by the British Potato Council, the Horserace Betting Levy Board, or the Architects Registration Board – but none at all to understand how NATS handles flights on which 200 million passengers travel every year.

The Act, however, gives the relevant Secretary of State the power to “designate as a public authority for the purposes of this Act any person…who appears to the Secretary of State to exercise functions of a public nature.”

Surely that clause should be used to bring all or most of NATS’s work under the act, especially as we try to understand the organization’s highly controversial role in the Eyjafjallajökull crisis.

Wonder if the new government will commit to making this change as soon as it takes office…

Eyjafjallajökull: all a con, or not. Who knows?

It is often in the aftermath of a crisis that the government definitively loses control of the agenda – it moves on, while the media cements its narrative on who was to blame, and why.

So it is with the ash cloud. We are told that the Met Office plane that should have been up in the air monitoring the ash cloud was undergoing a refit. As a result, many journalists are now convinced the whole crisis was a con. “Remember that ash cloud?” asks the Daily Mail. “It doesn’t exist, says new evidence.”

Jim McKenna, the Civil Aviation Authority’s head of airworthiness, strategy and policy (great combo), appears to admit the decision to close British airspace was a cock up:

It’s obvious that at the start of this crisis, there was a lack of definitive data. It’s also true that for some of the time, the density of ash above the UK was close to undetectable.

Head to the CAA website, however, and you won’t find anything on these claims. The most recent item on the ash cloud is a highly-defensive op-ed from its chairman [sic], Dame Deirdre Hutton, written three days ago. There’s nothing at all from Jim McKenna – either to explain what went wrong, or to place his quote in a broader context.

NATS stopped updates on the volcano on Friday, while the Met Office’s website is a car crash, and its latest update typifies the jargon-heavy style that the UK’s weathermen and women have made their own. Here’s a defence of the Met’s predictions in the nearest the Met comes to using plain English (more detail here):

We use multiple dispersion models endorsed by the international meteorological community. The output from the Met Office volcanic ash dispersion model has been compared with our neighbouring VAACs in Canada and France since the beginning of this incident and the results are consistent.

The results from our model have been verified by observations of volcanic ash from a variety of sources, including from instruments carried by Met Office, FAAM and NERC research aircraft, balloon and land based LIDARS.

So did the cloud exist? Was Jim McKenna the source of newspaper claims that “the maximum density of the cloud was only five per cent of the safe flying limit”? Who knows? And there seems to be little chance of the UK’s public sector telling you.

Update: Just because it’s wonderful, have a butchers at this superb video of Europe’s airports coming back to life.

Eyjafjallajökull – finally (we hope) farce

So the UK’s airspace is open again after the Civil Aviation Authority issued this rather plaintive statement:

The CAA has drawn together many of the world’s top aviation engineers and experts to find a way to tackle this immense challenge, unknown in the UK and Europe in living memory.

Current international procedures recommend avoiding volcano ash at all times. In this case owing to the magnitude of the ash cloud, its position over Europe and the static weather conditions most of the EU airspace had to close and aircraft could not be physically routed around the problem area as there was no space to do so.

We had to ensure, in a situation without precedent, that decisions made were based on a thorough gathering of data and analysis by experts. This evidence based approach helped to validate a new standard that is now being adopted across Europe.

The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash. Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas.

The no-fly zones – if they are the same agreed by Eurocontrol – are a few tiny patches of sky, leaving the media increasingly convinced that the past week has been a to-do about nothing (cf. BSE, swine flu).

With the crisis seemingly ending in farce, let’s hope there’s not a final tragic act (a plane loses an engine or falls out of the sky) or sequel (Katla erupts). If that happens, journalists will swiftly execute a U-turn – to complain that governments have been reckless in putting passengers’ lives at risk, or have failed to equip the world’s aircraft with the sensors that can keep them flying when ash is in the air.

It’s still not clear to me how a few test flights – which one expert yesterday derided as evidentially useless – have allowed a safe level of ash for jet engines. According to the Guardian, however, there has been a tussle over the issue that long pre-dates this crisis, with industry (afraid of legal action) previously arguing for a rigid application of the precautionary principle.

When the inevitable enquiry is announced, I hope it is given a broad remit to look at how European society responded to the crisis, and not just be charged with focusing on technical issues.

As I have argued on Saturday morning, governments allowed themselves to get behind the curve on the crisis and never recovered; the media was always uncomfortable with the issue (until it settled on someone to blame); while the public response (including widespread use of social media) tells us a lot about how we are and are not resilient in the face of crisis.

All these aspects should be studied by the enquiry team.

In the UK. a lot of attention will quite rightly focus on how three organisations worked together – the CAA, NATS (the air traffic controllers), and the Met Office. While it is hard to know what went on behind the scenes, in public, the relationship between the three seemed increasingly strained.

At the start of the crisis, NATS was very happy to be in the lead. Over time, it became increasingly keen to pass the buck, underlining that it was only following advice given it by its fellow members of the ‘no fly’ triad.

Communication from the three organisations was woeful, in marked contrast with the much more proactive approach of Eurocontrol. I fail to understand why Ministers did not force them to run regular joint press conferences – and to establish a shared web portal (backed up by a Twitter feed) to provide regular and comprehensive updates.

Here’s a thread I think the enquiry might like to pick at, taking it into the opacity and vagueness of official communications. What on earth happened to the mysterious ‘second cloud’ that NAS was warning us about only the night before last?

Since our last statement at 1530 today, the volcano eruption in Iceland has strengthened and a new ash cloud is spreading south and east towards the UK.  This demonstrates the dynamic and rapidly changing conditions in which we are working. Latest information from the Met Office shows that the situation is worsening in some areas.

I never saw any other evidence that this new cloud really existed (though perhaps it did) – but its existence was unquestioningly reported by media on both sides of the Atlantic. How, if the situation was worsening, could airspace be reopened just 24 hours later?

For all Global Dashboard coverage of the crisis – click here. Plus some risk management lessons from the Economist. Also, John Kay. And Sue Cameron gives Lord West a pasting for deploying the navy.

The leaders’ foreign policy debate gets interesting

What a fascinating occasion this Thursday’s election debate between the three party leaders on foreign policy promises to be. No-one expected foreign policy to be any kind of election battleground: Ipsos MORI’s election scene-setter (pdf), published on 1 April, had not one foreign policy issue in the top 10 voter concerns. (Afghanistan, climate change, Iraq and defence all scored 5% or less; instead, it was the economy, health, education, asylum and tax that former the big five, followed by unemployment, crime and benefits – see slide 24.)

But given the extraordinary Liberal Democrat surge following Nick Clegg’s performance in last week’s debate on domestic affairs – the party is now up ten points in a week – a lot is suddenly riding on what happens this Thursday night. Gordon Brown and (especially) David Cameron will be desperate to take Clegg down. But how?

Over at FT.com’s Westminster blog, Alex Barker reckons the five key issues for Tory/Lib Dem skirmishing will be Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe, Trident and Iran. Of these, he reckons the Lib Dems’ generally cautious positions on the Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran will give Clegg the upper hand.

He reckons that Trident is a vulnerability for the Lib Dems,though he allows that the ace in Clegg’s hand is the fact that General Sir Richard Dannatt – a Tory adviser – supports the Lib Dem line on the issue.  (Also worth noting that the Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey used yesterday’s debate between foreign affairs leads to stress the Lib Dems’ opposition to unilateral disarmament). I suspect, though, that Lib Dem opposition to Trident might in fact play to their advantage. This isn’t the SDP in 1983. The Cold War is over, and Obama and Medvedev just signed a nuclear deal. Moreover, as Barker notes, Trident looks awfully expensive as public sector cuts loom ever larger. If Clegg plays it right, he ought to be able to use this as another issue on which to position himself as the insurgent, in contrast to more ‘establishment’ positions from Labour and the Tories.

So that leaves Europe out of Barker’s five issues. Barker observes that most people disagree strongly with Lib Dem policy on Europe, but that Cameron’s dilemma is over how hard to push it, given that the Conservatives’ obsession with Europe has backfired in past elections. I’d go further than that. The problem for the Tories isn’t just that Europe was toxic for the Tories under Major, Hague, Howard and Duncan Smith. There’s also the more current issue of the Conservatives’ withdrawal from the EPP in Europe – which is starting to look like an albatross around the party’s neck (David Cameron must have assumed that no one except Eurosceptics would even notice their withdrawal from the bloc, much less care – heaven knows how he must have felt when the Obama Administration started briefing their annoyance).

So this is an issue on which Brown and Clegg can comfortably unite for another “I agree with Nick” double act. (Note that this was the very first issue on which Hague was pressured in yesterday’s foreign policy debate.) Perhaps the best defence for David Cameron will be to try to focus the debate’s Europe section instead on entry to the Euro – an area where he and Gordon “5 economic tests” Brown will be much closer, and where past Lib Dem enthusiasm for entry looks questionable given the ongoing drama [or should that be drachma?] of the Greek bailout.

So what’s missing from Alex Barker’s list?

Well, one area where Labour sense Tory vulnerability is David Cameron’s misstep in last week’s debate in which he suggested that China could potentially pose a nuclear threat to the UK – a position seized on with glee by David Miliband, who accused Cameron of behaving with “appalling immaturity” towards a fellow member of the P5 and strategic partner for the UK.

Then there’s the whole area of international development. The Conservatives have sought to erode Labour’s electoral advantage on this issue by committing to 0.7%, leading to Labour attempts to renew dividing lines on the issue (as for example in this Labour co-ordinated letter published in Sunday’s Observer). Perhaps the most substantive such dividing line is on the potential diversion of aid to climate finance, where the Tory position is genuinely weaker than that of Labour or the Lib Dems. But while that dividing line matters a lot for the small group of voters who put development in their top 10 issues, it might backfire if it become too conspicuous to wider voters – who may already be wondering why aid spending is protected, but their local SureStart centre is not. (See this from the ONE Campaign for more on what parties are promising on development.)

But the most striking omission from Alex Barker’s list is the question of Brits stranded abroad as a result of the ash cloud. As David has already noted here on GD, governments have been behind the curve on this story since it kicked off. And as every Foreign Secretary learns sooner or later, consular assistance stories can become big news, very fast. (Nor are they usually as tough as this one – when was the last consular emergency when the Brits in trouble were everywhere, rather than concentrated in one place?)

The ash cloud presents two wild cards for Thursday’s debate. First, Cameron and Clegg will need to compete over who would be better in a crisis – which may come down to who has more experience of government. Cameron was a special adviser at HM Treasury during the last Tory government. But Clegg also has more experience than is widely recognised: as well as being an MEP, he spent five years in the Commission, including in Leon Brittan’s private office – where he led Europe’s negotiating team on Russian and Chinese accession to the WTO.

But at the same time, neither Clegg nor Cameron can really point to many examples of real crisis management experience on their CVs (unless David Cameron wants to count Black Wednesday). Gordon Brown, on the other hand, does have this – though see Andrew Rawnsley’s new book for a cogent critique of some of Brown’s crisis management credentials.

But then there’s the other ash cloud wild card: who will end up getting the blame, given that UK media outlets are determined to make this someone’s fault (rather than what it is – a risk management challenge in conditions of uncertainty and imperfect information). The European Union, viciously criticised for yet another co-ordination snafu in the New York Times? The poor old Met Office? Or the government (and especially the PM) – as the Times, for one, is already warming up to argue?

The ash cloud story has already proven itself to be totally unpredictable – even just in the last few hours, during which stories about Europe’s airspace reopening have been superseded by newer oh-no-it-isn’t stories. Who knows where things will have got to in another 60 hours’ time…

Eyjafjallajökull: What happens after airspace re-opens? (updated x2)

My take (1, 2, 3) on complex emergencies such as the Eyjafjallajökull crisis is that governments have to get ahead of the curve, or be steadily choked by competing pressures from scientists, industry, the media, and public.

So what’s coming up on the horizon? At some stage, UK airspace is going to reopen – and there’s going to be an almighty battle for scarce landing and take-off slots. What I want to know is:

  • Is anyone working with the airlines to make sure that priority is given to helping Brits stranded abroad or non-Brits stuck in the UK?
  • Are there plans to ensure that non-essential flights (e.g. internal flights, commuter planes to Brussels etc.)  are the last to be given the chance to take off?
  • Can anything be done (sharing flights between airlines, running bigger planes on key routes) to maximize the speed with which schedules return to normal?

I don’t know how long it is likely to take for things to get back to normal – but it’s worth remembering that there could be only brief windows when travel is possible. And that a fresh eruption could quickly make things worse again…

Update (20/4 09.15): Doesn’t sound as if there’s been much coordination as yet.

Frances Tuke, spokeswoman for Abta – The Travel Association… warned that as attempts are made to restore order to travel plans, some of the Britons currently abroad could find those on scheduled flights are allowed to fly before those who have been stuck at airports or hotels for days.

“I don’t have the detailed logistics of what is going to happen,” she added. “I know that some of our bigger members are planning to have conference calls to talk about logistics.”

Update II (20/4 10.15): Another issue to start planning for: travel companies that start to go to bust once they begin paying out refunds. Will the government be forced to step in? Or will it take the heat generated by consumers losing out? And how does the decision get taken during an election campaign?

Hey FCO – tell us what you’re doing on Eyjafjallajökull (updated x3)

Yesterday, I warned that governments were losing control of the Eyjafjallajökull crisis:

In the UK, it doesn’t help that there’s an election on. But Lord Adonis, the Secretary of State for Transport, is not running for office. It would be good to see greater signs that he – or someone else – is being much more decisive about taking charge.

Apparently, there are more than a million British citizens still stranded abroad and the MET Office has said there will be no flights on Monday 18 April (no confirmation from NATS on that as yet).  Both the media and airlines are clearly getting restless. A new narrative is crystallizing: that the threat from the ash cloud has been substantially exaggerated.

Albeit belatedly, British ministers have finally shown they are now more fully engaged with events, with five lining up in Downing Street for a press conference. COBRA will meet tomorrow morning.

In my opinion, however, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should be much more specific about what its consular staff are doing. I’m talking about concrete and detailed briefing for the media.

How is it using its consular surge capacity (the Rapid Deployment Team)? How many extra staff have been deployed? In which airports does it have staff dealing directly with passengers and airlines? How, practically, are these staff managing to assist people?

The generalities on the FCO website are not nearly enough… [Relatedly: KLM masters social media. Air France fails.]

Update [19/04 9.30 am]: A few other thoughts. The UK government social media response has – so far – been distinctively unimpressive, despite the fact that many government departments, the FCO included, have very good social media team. (Good this morning, though, to see the gov Twitter feeds finally starting to use the Twitter #ashtag and #ashcloud tags)

In contrast, Eurocontrol – which oversees European airspace – has emerged as a model of best practice. Whoever it behind its Twitter feed is doing a stellar job – detailed factual updates, numerous responses to people’s questions, and all in an identifiably human voice.

Also, the pressure is clearly building on governments to downgrade the threat, based on test flights. But, say, a plane had a 1/1000 risk of getting into trouble (e.g. hitting a slightly thicker patch of ash during its flight), then you could run a dozen or so tests and have a very slim chance of hitting trouble. So you open Heathrow, which has 1300 flights every day…

Once again, the complex risk calculations at the heart of this crisis are making Anthony Giddens’s 1999 Reith lecture look very prescient:

There is a new moral climate of politics, marked by a push-and-pull between accusations of scaremongering on the one hand, and of cover-ups on the other. If anyone – government official, scientific expert or researcher – takes a given risk seriously, he or she must proclaim it. It must be widely publicised because people must be persuaded that the risk is real – a fuss must be made about it. Yet if a fuss is indeed created and the risk turns out to be minimal, those involved will be accused of scaremongering.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the authorities initially decide that the risk is not very great, as the British government did in the case of contaminated beef. In this instance, the government first of all said: we’ve got the backing of scientists here; there isn’t a significant risk, we can continue eating beef without any worries. In such situations, if events turn out otherwise – as in fact they did – the authorities will be accused of a cover-up – as indeed they were.

Things are even more complex than these examples suggest. Paradoxically, scaremongering may be necessary to reduce risks we face – yet if it is successful, it appears as just that, scaremongering. The case of AIDS is an example. Governments and experts made great public play with the risks associated with unsafe sex, to get people to change their sexual behaviour. Partly as a consequence, in the developed countries, AIDS did not spread as much as was originally predicted. Then the response was: why were you scaring everyone like that? Yet as we know from its continuing global spread – they were – and are – entirely right to do so.

This sort of paradox becomes routine in contemporary society, but there is no easily available way of dealing with it. For as I mentioned earlier, in most situations of manufactured risk, even whether there are risks at all is likely to be disputed. We cannot know beforehand when we are actually scaremongering and when we are not.

When dealing with risk, governments are almost always going to emerge at least somewhat discredited. The question is how badly

Update II [19/04 16.30]: The FCO website is still maddeningly unspecific. For example:

Meanwhile, here’s Marcus Fairs with some information that’s (i) much more specific and helpful; (ii) directly covers what named FCO consular staff are up to.

Also, it is increasingly clear that NATS – the UK’s air traffic control organisation – is floundering. No Twitter feed. A website that is still in emergency mode. And, worst of all, official updates on their site, but leaks to other news organisations with different information. Not good.

Update III [20/04 14.30]: Finally: