Does Gordon Brown want to attack 100 countries?

Nonsense from the PM on Afghanistan.

Of the three candidates aspiring to be prime minister, NS readers will be aware that I believe Brown is the best - well, um, er, the best of a mediocre bunch.

But on Afghanistan he is wrong. Plain wrong. He is the one who needs to "get real". In the first debate, Cameron seemed to imply that Britain might go to war with China. In this second debate, Brown seemed to imply that he'd be willing to go to war with around 100 nations on earth.

Don't believe me? Here's the killer quote from the PM:

We've got be to be clear: we cannot allow terrorists to have territory in the world that then they use as a base for attacking the United Kingdom.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, "Al Qaeda has autonomous underground cells in some 100 countries". So how does Brown plan to deny them their "territory", their "base", in each? God help us all if Afghanistan is the template.

This is a serious point. The idea of engaging in foreign wars to deny al Qaeda safe havens or bases is as impractical as it is pointless. Again, don't take my word for it. Check out this analysis from pro-war policy wonk Stephen Biddle (who has been a civilian adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan):

The Taliban movement in Afghanistan is clearly linked with al-Qaeda and sympathetic to it, but there is little evidence of al-Qaeda infrastructure within Afghanistan today that could directly threaten the US homeland. If the current Afghan government collapsed and were replaced with a neo-Taliban regime, or if the Taliban were able to secure political control over some major contiguous fraction of Afghan territory, then perhaps al-Qaeda could re-establish a real haven there.

But the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn't much different [from] the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa. And of course Iraq and Pakistan could soon host regimes willing to put the state's resources behind al-Qaeda if their current leaderships collapse under pressure.

Many of these countries, especially Iraq and Pakistan, could offer al-Qaeda better havens than Afghanistan ever did...We clearly cannot afford to wage protracted warfare with multiple brigades of American ground forces simply to deny al-Qaeda access to every possible safe haven. We would run out of brigades long before Bin Laden ran out of prospective sanctuaries.

Oh, and one final (key) point. Do you know how many members of al Qaeda are believed to be in Afghanistan right now? Does Gordon Brown? "The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country. No bases. No ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies." That's the verdict of President Obama's national security adviser, General James Jones.

 

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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.