“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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.