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.

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.