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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.