“What happens if we leave Afghanistan?”

Selling a pointless war with horrific images and stories.

One of the top stories this weekend has been the horrible murder of ten aid workers in Afghanistan, including the 36-year-old British doctor Karen Woo, who was due to marry later this month.

There are photos of Dr Woo in pretty much every Sunday newspaper and hers is indeed a heartbreaking story. But I do hope she won't be used by the desperate pro-war brigade to make the case for staying and fighting "to the death" with the dastardly Taliban.

Don't get me wrong: I despise the medieval and barbaric misogynists of the Taliban, but let's not pretend that the brutal, corrupt warlords on our side, on Nato and Hamid Karzai's side, are any better. Ever heard of General Dostum? Nor should we be under any illusion that we're "winning" this pointless and bloody war against insurgents, terrorists and gangsters. And let's not forget either that, whether we like it or not, there can be no end to the conflict without talking to the Taliban. Even the US and UK governments now grudgingly accept this.

On a related note, the Independent on Sunday has a rather interesting article from Andrew Johnson on the row over this recent Time magazine cover, which shows the noseless face of an 18-year-old Afghan woman, mutilated by her husband on the orders of a Taliban commander. Johnson writes:

The image is a shocking example of the abuse of women's rights and the medieval attitude to punishment in Afghanistan. It also, however, threw up a storm of controversy.

This was partly because of the headline with the picture: "What happens if we leave Afghanistan". The headline pointedly had no question mark, and opponents of the war saw it as naked "emotional blackmail" in support of a conflict that continues to claim many American, as well as British, lives. It was also criticised by bloggers as "war porn".

"That is exactly what will happen," said Manizha Naderi, an Afghan American whose group runs the shelter where Aisha stayed. "People need to see this and know what the cost will be of abandoning this country."

Critics -- of whom there were many on the internet -- pointed out that the mutilation had taken place despite the presence of Nato forces and argued that women's rights were being used cynically as a justification for the war. Columnist Tom Scocca, on the Slate website, described the picture as "gut-wrenching" but added that "a correct and accurate caption would be 'What is still happening, even though we are in Afghanistan' ".

Such was the row that Richard Stengel, Time's managing editor, was forced to write an article defending the image. "Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban."

Aisha herself -- her surname has been withheld to protect her -- was more circumspect. "I don't know if it will help other women. I just want to get my nose back," she was quoted as saying in the New York Times.

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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.