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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Leave campaigners are doing down Britain's influence in Europe

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in the EU.

Last week the Leave campaign's Priti Patel took to the airwaves to bang on about the perils of EU regulation, claiming it is doing untold damage to small businesses in the UK. Let's put aside for one minute the fact that eight in ten small firms actually want to stay in the EU because of the huge benefits it brings in terms of trade and investment. Or the fact that the EU has cut red tape by around a quarter in recent years and is committed to doing more. Because the really startling thing Patel said was that these rules come to us "without the British government having a say." That might be forgivable coming from an obscure backbencher or UKIP activist. But as a government minister, Priti Patel knows full well that the UK has a major influence over all EU legislation. Indeed, she sits round the table when EU laws are being agreed.

Don't take it from me, take it from Patel herself. Last August, in an official letter to the House of Lords on upcoming EU employment legislation, the minister boasted she had "worked closely with MEPs to influence the proposal and successfully protected and advanced our interests." And just a few months ago in February she told MPs that the government is engaging in EU negotiations "to ensure that the proposals reflect UK priorities." So either she's been duping the Parliament by exaggerating how much influence she has in Brussels. Or, as is perhaps more likely, she's trying to pull the wool over the British people's eyes and perpetuate a favourite myth of the eurosceptics: that the UK has no say over EU rules.

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in Europe. We have the most votes in the EU Council alongside France, Germany and Italy, where we are on the winning side 87 per cent of the time. The UK also has a tenth of all MEPs and the chairs of three influential European Parliament committees (although admittedly UKIP and Tory sceptics do their best to turn their belief the UK has no influence in Europe into a self-fulfilling prophecy). UKIP MEPs aside, the Brits are widely respected by European counterparts for their common sense and expertise in areas like diplomacy, finance and defence. And to the horror of the French, it is English that has become the accepted lingua franca in the corridors of power in Brussels.

So it's no surprise that the UK has been the driving force behind some of the biggest developments in Europe in recent decades, including the creation of the single market and the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe. The UK has also led the way on scrapping mobile roaming charges from next year, and is now setting the agenda on EU proposals that will make it easier to trade online and to access online streaming services like BBC iPlayer or Netflix when travelling abroad. The irony is that the Europe of today which Eurosceptics love to hate is very much a British creation.

The Leave campaign like to deride anyone who warns of the risks of leaving the EU as "talking down Britain." But by denying the obvious, that the UK has a major role in shaping EU decisions, they are the ones guilty of doing our country down. It's time we stood up to their defeatist narrative and made the case for Britain's role in Europe. I am a proud patriot who wants the best for my country, and that is why like many I will be passionately making the case to remain in the EU. Now is not the time to leave, it's time to lead.