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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496