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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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.