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.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.