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.

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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.