David Aaronovitch’s own “magical thinking” on Afghanistan

The Times columnist has, as usual, his hawkish head in the sand

Uber-Blairite and leading liberal hawk, David "Bomber" Aaronovitch, takes a potshot at the New Statesman's leader last week in his Times column today.

Accusing those of us who oppose the war in Afghanistan, and advocate withdrawal, of retreating "into the dopey bubble of magical thinking", Aaronovitch writes:

The New Statesman magazine a week ago reminded its readers that it had opposed the invasion of Afghanistan back in the autumn of 2001, but failed to remind them of what it had advocated instead.

Perhaps a mythical surgical strike to take out bin Laden somehow but otherwise leaving Taleban-ruled Afghanistan alone? Perhaps nothing at all other than a change in Western policy is sufficient -- as if by magic -- to placate the forces now rising in the region?

For others the implication is that we could have gone in, done for al-Qaeda and come out again -- almost precisely mirroring the policy of neglect that followed the Soviet defeat, when we countenanced the country's descent into warlordism, followed by the Taleban, followed by al-Qaeda.

First, there is nothing "mythical" about taking out bin Laden with a "surgical strike". As Michael Scheuer, retired chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit has repeatedly pointed out, "his agents provided the U.S. government with about ten opportunities to capture bin Laden before Sept. 11, and that all of them were rejected. One of the last proposals, which he described to the 9/11 Commission in a closed-door session, involved a cruise missile attack against a remote hunting camp in the Afghan desert, where bin Laden was believed to be socializing with members of the royal family from the United Arab Emirates."

Second, Aaronovitch's own proposed solution involves carrying on with the current doomed military campaign in Afghanistan. He proposes no new tactics, no new strategies, no new ideas - and, as I blogged earlier this week, this will not do. The burden is as much on the supporters of the war, as it is on its opponents, to justify and explain the consequences of their policies, proposals, actions and arguments. Every sane observer of the conflict in Afghanistan - from diplomats to generals to aid workers - acknowledge that the war in Helmand is not being won, so "more of the same" pro-war propaganda from Aaronovitch and co is simply not good enough. Does David perhaps think he is playing the role of General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth? He talks repeatedly of "we know it's hard" and "we may not succeed" and "we have to do it" - but which "we" is he referring to? Has the Times columnist suddenly joined up with the British army, which is losing so many of its brave young squaddies in the Afghan quagmire? Are his own kids preparing to ship out to Helmand? Which "we" does he refer to from his armchair in London?

Third, Aaronovitch shows almost total ignorance of actual events on the ground in Afghanistan. He reminds us, rather predictably, of the Taliban's "reduction of women to the status of slaves" while convieniently overlooking the status of women in Afghanistan today: Senator Humaira Namati, a member of the upper house of the Afghan parliament, says it is now "worse than during the Taliban". He accuses doves of advocating a "policy of neglect" towards Afghanistan when it is in fact his own beloved war in Iraq, in 2003, which led to post-Taliban Afghanistan losing the much-needed attention, support and resources of the international community. He points out that Canada "has lost a third more soldiers than we have", in relation to population size, but forgets to inform his readers that the Canadian government, unlike our own, has set a date for full withdrawal of its troops - 2011.

Incidentally, Aaronovitch and his fellow "Blitcons" often claim to be driven by a desire to spread democracy at home and abroad - but, on this particular issue, he curiously ignores the will of the people, at home and abroad. The most recent poll suggests that the majority of the British public wants our troops home by the end of the year; the majority of the Afghan public, in a 2007 poll, wanted all foreign troops out of their occupied country within three to five years. Afghans, unlike Aaronovitch, don't want, nor can they afford, a war without end.

Finally, in his piece in the Times, Aaronovitch says the New Statesman, in our leader last week, failed to remind readers what we had advocated as an alternative in 2001. Our position on the eve of invasion is spelled out here in great detail but, since we're reminiscing, here is David Aaronovitch's own position in 2003 on that other Blairite war - Iraq - in which he famously declared:

If nothing is eventually found, I - as a supporter of the war - will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.

Remember those words, David?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era