Why die for Karzai?

The question Brown and Miliband can't answer

In his Guildhall speech last night, Gordon Brown made the case (again!) for the British military presence in Afghanistan, arguing that the western alliance would "never succumb to appeasement". This morning, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, addressed the Nato Parliamentary Assembly in Edinburgh in a speech entitled "The war in Afghanistan: how a political surge can work". Miliband said that, "having driven al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, we do not want to leave only for them to return". The Prime Minister agrees, claiming in his own speech:

We are in Afghanistan because we judge that if the Taliban regained power, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups would once more have an environment in which they could operate.

"If the Taliban regained power"? Are our troops fighting and dying for a hypothetical proposition? And when did the war in Afghanistan become a "preventive war", in the style of Iraq? Wasn't the ostensible reason for the initial invasion in October 2001 "self-defence"? Brown, Miliband et al would argue that self-defence still remains the primary motivation for our military presence in Helmand, but they gloss over some important points: 1) the Taliban are not on the verge of regaining power; 2) there is no evidence that the Taliban continue to host al-Qaeda; and 3) al-Qaeda is no longer based in Afghanistan.

Don't believe me? Here's General James Jones, national security adviser to President Obama and Nato's former supreme allied commander in Europe, speaking on CNN:

Obviously, the good news that Americans should feel at least good about in Afghanistan is that the al-Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country. No bases. No buildings to launch attacks on either us or our allies.

Now the problem is, the next step in this is the sanctuaries across the border. But I don't foresee the return of the Taliban and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling.

So why are we risking this nation's blood and treasure in the mountains and valleys of Helmand? To shore up the corrupt and crooked Karzai regime? There are those who claim that President Hamid Karzai has "got the message" and, according to the Guardian:

In a sign of some of the pressure being put on Karzai, the US and British ambassadors in Kabul yesterday flanked Karzai at a press conference at which he promised to clean up his corrupt government through a new tribunal . . .

Our man in Kabul may have been by Karzai's side on Monday but, as this video shows, a fortnight ago the Afghan president chose to give his first speech after being "re-elected" flanked by his vice-president, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim. Fahim is a notorious Tajik warlord who has, according to Human Rights Watch, "the blood of many Afghans on his hands from the civil war". He has also been implicated in corruption, a UN-appointed independent rapporteur accusing him in 2003 of conducting illegal land-grabs in Kabul.

Is this the man we're fighting to keep in power? Is Karzai, with his million or so fraudulent ballots, a legitimate occupant of the presidential palace? Or is the Afghan government, in the words of one US official cited in the Guardian, "like a criminal syndicate"?

During the Vietnam war, President Lyndon B Johnson was often taunted by draft-dodging college students: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Barack Obama and Gordon Brown may have their own rhyming question to answer in the coming weeks: "Why die for Karzai?"


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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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.