Afghanistan is going down, down, down

Deaths up. McChrystal out. No end in sight.

Afghanistan continues to morph into "Chaosistan". The Ministry of Defence confirms that another four soldiers were killed in Helmand in a road accident on Wednesday evening, taking the British military death toll since 2001 to 307.

Meanwhile, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan, "known for his scepticism about the western war effort and his support for peace talks with the Taliban", has stepped down from his post and gone on "extended leave", only a month before a critical international conference in Kabul.

And the Americans, even before their commander-in-chief sacked their top commander on the ground, ain't doing so well, either. As Sahil Kapur writes over at Comment Is Free:

This month, Afghanistan became America's longest-ever war, and the US death toll crossed 1,000. June is also set to be the deadliest month for Nato forces since the war began in 2001. Last year was its deadliest, and this year is on pace to set a new record. President Hamid Karzai's top advisers say he's lost faith in the coalition and even his own government to turn things around. His perceived illegitimacy after last autumn's disputed election diminishes his clout.

Far from quelling the bleeding, the situation has further deteriorated since the Obama administration's troop surge this year. The recent offensive to oust the Taliban from the stronghold of Marjah was a disaster -- McChrystal himself called it a "bleeding ulcer". Critical operations in Kandahar have been postponed. And in case all this isn't bad enough, Afghan private contractors are using US taxpayer money to bribe Taliban militants to fuel the violence, the New York Times reports.

So forgive me if I don't get all teary and misty-eyed over the enforced departure of General Stanley "Badass" McChrystal. As the US media critic and anti-war activist Norman Solomon notes: "When the wheels are coming off, it doesn't do much good to change the driver." He adds: "The latest events reflect unwritten rules for top military commanders: Escalating a terrible war is fine. Just don't say anything mean about your boss."

The furore over Team McChrystal's rather ill-advised, if not plain stupid, remarks to Rolling Stone magazine about Vice-President Joe Biden ("Who's that?"), the national security adviser, James Jones (a "clown"), and President Obama himself ("uncomfortable and intimidated") has distracted the press and public from an important revelation in the piece itself.

Team McChrystal -- or "Team America", as they call themselves -- don't think the war is going too well.

A senior adviser is quoted as saying the war is going worse than the politicians and the public realise:

If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.

And Major General Bill Mayville, McChrystal's chief of operations, tells Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings:

It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win . . . This is going to end in an argument.

Great news. Tell that to the parents and partners of the four British soldiers who died yesterday evening. Or to the thousands of Afghan civilians killed in Nato-led air strikes, bombings and shootings at checkpoints. ("We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force," admitted McChrystal in March.) They all died for "an argument".

The Runaway General may indeed be gone. But this pointless, runaway war is still going.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.