The fight for peace

We live in a volatile region — that much is known. What’s not known is how to deal with the wide variety of issues developing across the Middle East. Many UAE residents may sound knowledgeable, relaxing at dinner parties, lecturing all about how the US needs to pull out troops, or how The Arab League must take a firm stance against the West, but it’s rare that armchair politicians know the full picture.

By Charlie R Neyra

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Published: Fri 26 Nov 2010, 9:34 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:27 PM

One Dubai resident who’d be able to set the record straight is Chris Parker, a former British army officer who’s experienced the region’s combat zones up close and personal.

It’s been an interesting decade for Parker, who was Chief of Staff for the Desert Rats, part of the British Army, during the build up and start to the Iraq invasion in 2003, overseeing the deployment of 8,000 troops into Kuwait and beyond. Since then, the former Lieutenant Colonel — the youngest for a decade at the time of promotion — left the army for life on ‘civvy street,’ and has worked as project director on the Burj Dubai site (as it was then known), along with turning his pliable skill set to the oil and gas industry.

But it’s his insight into the region’s conflicts that has brought him the most media attention. He’s often seen commentating on Sky News, BBC News, Al Jazeera English and other outlets on military issues. And now he’s out of the army he’s able to be open about conflicts in which the British Army is involved, and the major one of the past seven years has to be Iraq; it still evokes passion around the world — was it legal, was it just, was it a mistake… For Parker, on the ground with 8,000 troops before the invasion order went through, there were many questions.

For starters, there was the issue over the 45-minutes that Tony Blair claimed was all that Saddam Hussein needed in order to attack London. Parker says, “I thought, as a professional, it was highly unlikely they’d get some sort of missile to London in that time. We saw they could only get one as far as Israel in the first war — they don’t have ICBMs like the Russians and even the Russian ones, I’m told, take up to six hours to crank up to launch level. There were a lot of raised eyebrows in the military community about this 45-minute thing. We could only assume there must have been some sort of undercover threat or suitcase bomb threat that no one knew about.”

Regardless of the “raised eye-brows” over Tony Blair’s claims, the order to go to war was given. The next issue was the legality of the order. “The first night we had radio service come on line for the troops [in Kuwait] was coincidentally the same day Robin Cook resigned in a speech in crystal clear FM radio. To hear that the British Foreign Secretary had resigned over whether we go to war slightly challenged me as to whether we were in the right place. I was then facing a lot of questions from soldiers and officers... What happened was Lord Goldsmith gave us a written undertaking that the war was legal; therefore the military, covered by the highest legal power in the land, the Attorney General, was told the war was legal.”

After the troops went in the rest, as they say, is history, leaving us with a war torn, but Saddam-free, country. Only yesterday, after eight-months of political deadlock, Iraqi president President Jalal Talabani asked incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a new government. It’s another step in the country’s renaissance, hinting at hope for the future. Unfortunately for Afghanistan, things are not looking so rosy. Parker is well aware of the British Army’s long — and unsuccessful — history in the country.

“My own regiment lost thousands of men at the turn of the last century, so we’re repeating history again by putting people into, what some people call, the mincing machine, the meat grinder. I’ve been to Afghanistan and I think the problem is very different to Iraq. Iraq has billions [of barrels of oil] below the surface, but Afghanistan has not a lot of anything. It’s very difficult to see what economic hope there is, now that corruption has been exposed in the government.” Be that as it may, Parker is able to draw on his experience to at least offer a potential way forward.

“There’s the need for an Islamic solution, not a Western one, and my view is that Afghanistan needs to be a unified, decent nation in the Islamic sphere, lead by Saudi, presumably, imposing a form of Islamic, robust decency on those people that are detracting from Islam’s ways and peaceful manner… It is happening. The UAE’s armed forces have been there assisting; there’s been lots of good help from Arab countries, but it needs to be on the increase, not the decrease, as the Americans and Brits pull out.” He says it’s not easy, though, as “the big problem is that consensus is very difficult in the region.”

Another crucial step to bringing peace to the region is, according to Parker, opening a dialogue with terrorist organisations, notably Al Qaeda. He says it’s something his time in Northern Ireland (NI) taught him. “You have to look at what are the ideals and desires of the insurgents. There’s no point in just fighting people. Like in NI, we realised if you give people a chance, a hope at a job, at social reform, they will lay down their weapons — and they did.”

Wanting to open a dialogue is one thing, but actually getting people to talk is another. Again, Parker is hopeful. “I think there’s always people who’ll talk. Everyone has a son or daughter, mother or wife; everyone has a care for the future for their family, and most people, when you pin them down, don’t want that future to be a violent one with bombs. They want it to be something peaceful.” The key, he says, is to find common ground with the insurgent, which is inevitably something all humans care about — family, children, and their safety and security.

“The stress level in an Al Qaeda commander’s family must be quite high. The wives can’t be that happy. I have a policy for judging it. When the bedroom door shuts, or the tent flap is closed, or the corner of a cave is withdrawn to in the evening, the terrorist leader and his wife have a few words, and what those words are, they are critical to the future of that terrorist organisation, because if those words are, ‘what the hell are we doing living in this stinking environment with drones overhead trying to kill you, me and the children, is this worth it?’ then ultimately the ideals of that man to be a terrorist are worn down.”

The simplicity of the approach is striking, but whether or not it would work in Afghanistan and with Al Qaeda is hard to say. Parker thinks the way to try would be to offer a ceasefire. “I believe it needs to be us saying we’ll go to a voluntary ceasefire and we’ll give two weeks to show the goodwill of us doing none of this, then you must see out of goodwill what you can do for us. So you’ve got to start giving. Someone’s got to blink first, and I believe the Western governments have a duty to be the ones to do that.” With so many strategies having failed, it would be a shame not to try such a simple approach, but will NATO blink first? There is talk of compromise, so it is possible.

Parker, with 17 years experience in the British Army, offers solutions where many just fixate on problems. He says, at the end of the day, that “an army officer is a professional negotiator.” In Dubai these days, he no longer has to worry about tours as an army officer to conflict zones, but he’s still able to comment for the media on subjects that are close to his heart. Next up will be new major projects to oversee and, who knows, maybe — sometime in the future — jobs in the potentially settled countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.

(For more information, or to contact Chris, please write to

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