Time to talk to the Taliban

Lord Malloch-Brown has hit the nail on the head

I have a piece in the magazine tomorrow on Gordon's "goats" - the acronymic offspring of his "government of all the talents", announced with great fanfare by Brown prior to entering Downing Street in June 2007 - who have, in recent months, slipped their ministerial tethers to graze in pastures new. Lords Jones (Trade and Investment), Darzi (Health) and Malloch-Brown (Foreign Office) have all resigned from government. The latter fired a parting salvo at his soon-to-be former bosses, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, in an interview in this morning's Daily Telegraph, in which he claimed British forces in Afghanistan were under-equipped: "We definitely don't have enough helicopters. When you have these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need, above all else, is mobility." He has since been forced to backtrack, issuing a rather embarrassing clarification in which he said that there were "without doubt" sufficient resources in place in Afghanistan.

But whether or not there are enough helicopters in Helmand is a distraction from the bigger issues at stake - for example, why are we still in Afghanistan nearly eight years after 9/11? What is the current mission? What is our exit strategy - if, that is, we even have one? Can we actually 'win' in Afghanistan? Don't expect such questions to be put to ministers, though, as Britain's lobby correspondents have a notoriously weak grasp on foreign policy (in fact, on any aspect of government policy outside of their narrow, Westminster-based, politician-focused remit.)

The media-generated row over choppers for our boys has overshadowed the real significance of Lord Malloch-Brown's frank remarks on Afghanistan in the Telegraph. The Foreign Office minister responsible, and former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, acknowledged that, in the long run, "the definition of victory [in Afghanistan] includes allowing elements of the Taliban support group back into the political settlement".

His controversial admission come hot on the heels of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's own plea to Western governments earlier this month to develop a new strategy for his country which involves talking to the Taliban at the highest levels - even to their top leader, Mullah Omar.

In the past, the Brown government has hinted that it would consider engaging in negotiations with the various insurgent groups across Afghanistan, including the Taliban, but, as far as I can see, nothing meaningful ever came of it. So will we now see a new push for peace? Fat chance. Those on the right and the pro-war left (dare, I presume, my neocon friends over at Harry's Place?), who wrongly argue that to even talk to the Taliban is "appeasement", still seem to sadly dominate this debate. But former U.S. Secretary of State under George Bush Snr, James Baker, said it best: "You don't just talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies as well...Talking to an enemy is not in my view appeasement."

Hawks often provocatively ask those of us who oppose the war in Afghanistan: what would you do instead? It's time to turn this question on its head. As even President Obama's own National Security Adviser acknowledged last year, in a report for the Atlantic Council, "Make no mistake, Nato are not winning the war in Afghanistan". So I ask the hawks: as we sink further and further into the Afghan quagmire, and as defeat stares us in the face, what will you do instead? In order to "win" in Afghanistan? Or even to turn the corner? Simply send more helicopters or finally acknowledge the Churchillian adage that to jaw- jaw is better than to war- war?

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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.