“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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.