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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.