Does fighting the Taliban require funding the Taliban?

My conversation with a Nato brigadier general

Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, the soft-spoken and thoughtful Canadian spokesman for Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan, happened to be visiting Nato's headquarters in Brussels yesterday. So did I.

A close ally and adviser of General Stanley McChrystal, Tremblay told me that he had great confidence in the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces, including the underequipped Afghan National Army (ANA) and the corruption-prone Afghan National Police (ANP), to step up to the challenge of fighting the Taliban, and that the "clear, hold and build" counter-insurgency, or Coin, strategy -- which I have critiqued here -- could help stem the violence and turn things around in Afghanistan.

Overall, after my day at Nato HQ, my impression is that he and others within Isaf are optimists on the military/counter-insurgency front and realists, if not pessimists, on the political/reconciliation front. Can you blame them? As I have pointed out, on several occasions, "Why die for Karzai?"

Tremblay is a straight-shooter and refreshingly blunt and honest. I put to him the allegations in a recent Nation piece by Aram Roston, reprinted in the Guardian on 13 November. Do the US military's contractors pay suspected insurgents to protect Nato/Isaf supply routes into Afghanistan? Is the US government funding the very forces American (and British) troops are fighting?

Roston quotes a US army spokesman who said that international forces were "aware of allegations that procurement funds may find their way into the hands of insurgent groups, but we do not directly support or condone this activity, if it is occurring". But here is Tremblay, speaking yesterday:

Afghanistan is vast and landlocked . . . but, at the end, what the [Isaf-contracted] suppliers need to do to get the material [into the country] is . . . their responsibility. We don't dig too deep.

So are Isaf forces and, by extension, the governments of the US, Britain, Canada, et al funding the Taliban, I asked?

We could be.

Bizarre, eh?

More on my discussion with Tremblay to follow.

 

Update: Will Straw, over at Left Foot Forward, has also blogged on the trip and on comments made by the Nato spokesman James Appathurai. So, too, have Sunny Hundal and Luke Akehurst.

Full disclaimer: My visit to Nato HQ in Brussels was organised by the Atlantic Council and funded by Nato's public diplomacy division. I was part of a delegation of British bloggers, including Will Straw, Sunny Hundal and others. We were, according to Nato's assistant deputy secretary general for public diplomacy, Dr Stefanie Babst, the first group of bloggers to visit the headquarters in Nato's history.

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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Labour tensions over pro-EU campaign grow

Andy Burnham warned Alan Johnson of danger of appearing part of the "establishment case". 

Compared to the Conservatives, Labour is remarkably united over the EU, with the entire shadow cabinet and 214 of its 231 MPs backing the party's In campaign. Only a handful have joined the rival Labour Leave group, though sources are confident that more, potentially including shadow ministers, will do so when David Cameron's renegotiation concludes. 

But there are notable tensions within the In campaign. At this week's shadow cabinet meeting, which received a presentation from pro-EU head Alan Johnson, Andy Burnham warned of electoral damage to Labour if it was part of the "establishment case" for staying in. Burnham emphasised the need for the party to differentiate itself from Cameron and business leaders, I'm told. Angela Eagle also spoke of her concern at the number of eurosceptic Labour supporters. 

Just as the SNP surged following the Scottish independence referendum, so some shadow cabinet members believe Ukip could do so after the EU vote. One told me of his fear that those Labour supporters who voted Out would make "the transition" to voting for Farage's party. Ukip finished second in 44 of Labour's seats at the last election and helped the Tories win marginals off the opposition. 

Among Labour's pro-Europeans, the fear is that the party's campaign will be "half-hearted". Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing eurosceptic (who some believe would have backed withdrawal had he not become leader), struggles to express enthusiasm for remaining In. Speaking to the New Statesman, former shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds warned: 

"The British public will expect the Labour Party to have a clear position. And we do have a clear position and that's that we're going to campaign to stay in the EU. Trying to fudge the issue or hedge your bets is not going to go down well with the British public. Of course we need to talk to people about all aspects of the EU, and that will involve talking to people about immigration, but there isn't a 'maybe' on the ballot paper it's a binary choice between remain and leave. We have to be clear with people where we are because they won't thank us for being wishy-washy."

Labour's Brexiters draw comfort from the dearth of MPs campaigning for EU membership. Kate Hoey told me: "I have been genuinely surprised how few supposedly 'pro-EU' Labour MPs have been prepared to come out and speak publicly of their support for staying in. They know, as those of us campaigning on the Leave side know, that thousands and thousands of Labour supporters, all over the country, want to come out and they are not going to receive a great reception on the doostep". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.