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Make no mistake, this imperial war in Afghanistan cannot be won

We warned in 2001 that this conflict could put Britain and the US on the wrong side of the moral arg

In March 2006, only five British service personnel had been killed in Afghanistan during the previous five years of conflict. This was before British troops were deployed to Helmand Province by the then defence secretary, John Reid, who hoped that their mission could be completed "without a shot being fired". Today, the death toll stands at 184, and has surpassed the number of our personnel killed in the occupation of Iraq.

The British and Americans seem to be intent on re-enacting the follies of imperial misadventures in Afghanistan, and, as the conflict in Helmand intensifies, the parallels with the mid-19th century become more resonant. Indeed, throughout their martial history, the Afghans have had the resolution to force out foreign occupiers, in the most violent of ways, no matter how superior the military force they face happens to be - as the Soviet army discovered in the 1980s.

Today, politicians argue over the number of helicopters and Land Rovers at the disposal of British troops serving in Helmand, labouring under the misconception that superior firepower will eventually win the day. It will not - and it is fanciful to suggest otherwise.

There is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, which pits not only Afghan insurgents against foreign occupiers, but also Afghan against Afghan, and Pashtun against Tajik. Nor are we "winning". Independent observers, from army generals and diplomats to aid workers, acknowledge this. In fact, an Atlantic Council of the United States report, chaired by the former supreme allied commander of Nato, bluntly stated over a year ago: "Make no mistake, Nato is not winning in Afghanistan."

In our interview with the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander (starting on page 30), he twice evades the question of whether we are winning or losing, only loosely referring to the "progress" that has been made.

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 atrocities, there were few who denied the western alliance the right to some form of armed response. This magazine advocated launching commando raids with the specific aim of capturing Osama Bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda camps. The public lined up behind politicians of all parties in agreeing a policy that would allow us to invade, occupy and then rid the southern region of terrorist bases. Eight years on, the number of terrorists there has multiplied, suicide bombings are on the rise - and Bin Laden and his followers remain at large.
To criticise the war, or the conduct of the war, is not to criticise the performance of the brave men and women of our armed forces deployed in Afghanistan, nor to understate it. As the former platoon commander Patrick Hennessey powerfully states on page 15, while politicians bicker, the ground "units are galvanised by loss, bonded even more closely by the shared experience and more determined to fulfil the mission".

But what is the mission? Ask a different British minister, get a different answer. Gordon Brown echoes the hawkish, neoconservative, Blairite line that the conflict in Helmand is about making "the streets of London safe" from terrorists - even though his own intelligence agencies tell him the opposite is the case. In the past, Tony Blair also cited the war on drugs as a contributing factor, as well as the need to tackle Afghanistan's heroin trade. In his interview, Mr Alexander seems more comfortable discussing the humanitarian and reconstruction case for the continuing British presence in that ravaged, impoverished country and, like Harriet Harman, the Leader of the Commons, he talks passionately - and surely with some justification - about the need to provide education for young girls.

Yet there is an undoubted element of mission creep here, not to mention incoherence and confusion on the part of our leaders. While we happily praise our soldiers for their bravery, our shameless politicians must enjoy no such luxury.

We warned in 2001 that this conflict could put Britain and the US on the wrong side of the moral argument, firing missiles and dropping explosives from a safe distance and risking civilian lives, rather than those of their own professional soldiers on the ground. The tragedy is that the deaths
have been indiscriminate, costing the lives of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and hundreds of British soldiers alike. Where will it end?

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.