This interview originally appeared on the Parliament Street website.
As an Arabic speaker hailing from a family with Muslim, Hindu and Sikh ancestors, Afzal Amin has been able to bring a unique perspective to his service in the British Army and, as PPC for Dudley North, hopes to do so again in Parliament. Following his recent trip to Bosnia, Paul Nizinskyj speaks with him about history repeating itself in the Middle East.
“Those who do not learn from history,” the old adage goes, “are doomed to repeat it.” Since the systematic murder of six million European Jews in the Second World War and the Allies’ vow of “Never Again,” there have been major genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as attempts with degrees of success of this barbaric practice elsewhere.
Now the world watches almost paralysed in horror as the very same process plays out in Iraq through the Islamic State (ISIS)’s attempts to wipe out the country’s Christian and Yazidi minorities in the name of a twisted, brutal and uncompromising Islamic fundamentalism.
For former Army captain Afzal Amin, who only last week returned from a visit to the mass graves and killing fields of Bosnia, watching these horrors unfold holds a particular sting. As a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the only British captain to brief US General John Allen, he knows defeating ISIS would be a walkover for allied forces – if they chose to engage.
“From a military perspective, ISIS is a very simple threat. Any British brigade could defeat them”
“What’s so sad for me,” he says, ” is, as someone who left the Army only one year ago and served in southern Iraq, I know if there’s one military operation that NATO would be very good at, as it turns out, is taking on ISIS in the north of Iraq. Unfortunately, war failures have shaken our confidence in dealing with anything in the Middle East.
“But, from a military perspective, ISIS is a very simple threat. Any British brigade could defeat them – these are people forcing themselves on a reluctant and hostile population, they’re nothing like the militias we were dealing with before that embedded themselves in the social fabric.
“I think western intervention in this instance would be welcomed by the population who are suffering under ISIS – tens of thousands of people killed, particularly minorities. We can’t go on with this rage-by-hashtag but, unfortunately, the same generals, colonels and brigadiers who were struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan ten years ago are now making the decisions at the top now.
“They don’t have the confidence to say ‘this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it.’ But the lessons from Bosnia are, saying ‘never again’ at the end of the Holocaust was just a phrase, it’s happened again and again when people haven’t acted.”
Since we spoke, President Obama had somewhat gingerly ordered air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, which appears to confirm Afzal’s suspicions about NATO forces’ timidity over any renewed ground offensive. The question no doubt dogging politicians and generals alike is, once ISIS has been defeated, then what? Would a permanent NATO presence be needed to prevent these fanatics from regrouping?
“People who live in Israel are very different culturally to people who live in the Palestinian Territories – and that’s not just a distinction between Jews and Arabs”
These are questions Afzal may well be called to answer if the conflict continues into next year and he is elected to Parliament – defence and international affairs certainly being an area in which he has much to offer. Not only is he a Sandhurst graduate and an experienced veteran, but he has also visited 44 countries including Israel, where his background was able to give him another unique insight into the conflict.
“I was in Israel for six days and Palestine ten days to get a balanced view,” he says. “I had studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history from the eighteenth century to the present day as an undergraduate and for my masters looked at leadership in war, with a case study on the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006.
“It was very good to see the Israeli side of things, particularly the wall or security fence. Seeing the level of care the Israeli military take in handling conflict was also interesting and meeting government people and opposition party people in the Knesset was fascinating.
“Meeting the Palestinian side was very interesting, too, to see how frustrated they are with the international community but it also deepened my appreciation that there’s more than two sides in this conflict. People who live in Israel are very different culturally to people who live in the Palestinian Territories and that’s not just a distinction between Jews and Arabs.
“Israeli people are from all over the world and have a much more cosmopolitan Mediterranean culture, while in Palestine, the culture is much more monolithic and Arab-orientated – although it’s by no means homogeneous – there are Christians, Jews and Muslims there and even synagogues in Gaza. The narrative of occupation runs through all those communities, not just Muslim Arabs, but the tragedy is they are never interviewed. Christians have their own view of what’s going on.”
“One tragedy of our governmental system is the people put in charge of making decisions are not given time to appreciate the enormity of the task in hand”
For there to be any progress in the conflict, he says, the media and politicians need to move away from oversimplified reductions of the situation and be willing to analyse and present information in more depth, even when the facts do not fit the established narrative. The second-in-command of the Bosniak Army during the Yugoslav Wars was a Serb Christian he notes, which did not fit the narrative of the conflict at the time, and a similar reductionism has plagued reporting of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in recent months.
“One tragedy of our governmental system,” he says, “is the people put in charge of making decisions are not given time to appreciate the enormity of the task in hand. It’s a legacy of the Cold War when the what was wanted was for people to have a wide range of skills but, for problem solving, we want people with niche skills.”
A cynic may conclude Afzal is creating a job which just happens to fit his skills and experience but it can certainly be no bad thing to have another MP with a solid and varied career under his belt (he is now 40), a set of niche skills and strong ties to his constituency in the House of Commons. He would no doubt serve the country and Dudley North with distinction – with the added bonus that the seat is a marginal currently filled by a man David Cameron once described as one of Gordon Brown’s ‘boot boys.’
“My entry to politics is not because of a search for a job,” he says. “It’s primarily because, as someone who grew up in a very deprived area of the Black Country, who left school with very poor GCSEs and failed A-levels, working as a menial labourer before going to university as a mature student, I have an experience of Britain which is unusual for politics.
“Many communities here who have always voted Labour are now finding they have a candidate from the Conservatives with a great deal in common with them”
“Smethwick was where Enoch Powell did a lot of his campaigning and where the phrase “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” was used in elections. It was a very nice community but still a focus for the National Front and BNP when I was growing up, unfortunately, but overall a wonderful small town.
“My father’s family was half Hindu and half Muslim and my adopted great-grandmother was a Sikh but we ourselves were raised as Muslims, though both the schools my children went to were strongly Christian schools, so I think I’ve been to more church services than I have mosques in recent years.
“The MP here in Dudley (Ian Austin) is one of Gordon Brown’s closest advisors and very close to Ed Miliband but he holds the seat with a majority of less than one per cent – 649 votes. I think he’s very worried about his electoral chances because, in the last five elections, Labour have gone down by a few thousand votes and the Conservatives have gone up by 2,000.
“Many communities here who have always voted Labour are now finding they have a candidate from the Conservatives with a great deal in common with them but who has done something extraordinary. In the Black Country it’s unheard of for someone to go to Sandhurst because, although it’s changing, there are lots of institutional barriers. When I applied to join that was just before 9/11 and, four months later, I was at Sandhurst.”