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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder