Kim Howells sees sense on Afghanistan

The former Foreign Office minister calls for withdrawal

As the New Statesman has long argued, and continues to argue, it is time to bring our boys home from the killing fields of Helmand. We are not "winning" the war in Afghanistan; nor is the war "winnable". The corrupt and illegitimate Karzai government is not a credible partner, and the Taliban cannot be wished away.

It is therefore refreshing to see this analysis endorsed by a one-time supporter of the war and former Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells:

It would be better, in other words, to bring home the great majority of our fighting men and women and concentrate on using the money saved to secure our own borders, gather intelligence on terrorist activities inside Britain, expand our intelligence operations abroad, co-operate with foreign intelligence services, and counter the propaganda of those who encourage terrorism.~
....
Sooner rather than later a properly planned, phased withdrawal of our forces from Helmand province has to be announced. If it is an answer that serves, also, to focus the minds of those in the Kabul government who have shown such a poverty of leadership over the past seven years, then so much the better.

Howells focuses his argument on the central flaw in the case for staying in Afghanistan, i.e. to deny al Qaeda a so-called safe haven:

Seven years of military involvement and civilian aid in Afghanistan have succeeded in subduing al-Qaida's activities in that country, but have not destroyed the organisation or its leader, Osama bin Laden. Nor have they succeeded in eliminating al-Qaida's protectors, the Taliban. There can be no guarantee that the next seven years will bring significantly greater success and, even if they do, it is salutary to remember that Afghanistan has never been the sole location of terrorist training camps.

If we accept that al-Qaida continues to pose a deadly threat to the UK, and if we know that it is capable of changing the locations of its bases and modifying its attack plans, we must accept that we have a duty to question the wisdom of prioritising, in terms of government spending on counter-terrorism, the deployment of our forces to Afghanistan. It is time to ask whether the fight against those who are intent on murdering British citizens might better be served by diverting into the work of the UK Border Agency and our police and intelligence services much of the additional finance and resources swallowed up by the costs of maintaining British forces in Afghanistan.

Will Gordon Brown take onboard the criticisms of his former minister, who also happens to be the current chair of the Prime Minister's Intelligence and Security Committee? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, as Patrick Wintour points out in the Guardian, "his remarks may also provide political cover for one of the two main opposition parties, probably the Liberal Democrats, to go into the general election calling for the withdrawal of British troops."

Iraq was a vote-winner for Charles Kennedy; Afghanistan could be a vote-winner for Nick Clegg.

 

 

 

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

Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.