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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.