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?"

 

Sign up to the New Statesman newsletter and receive weekly updates from the team.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.