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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I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left