“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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.