Is the conflict in Afghanistan worse than the Vietnam war?

A great blog post over at the <em>New York Times</em>.

I blogged a couple of days ago about the story of the "Taliban imposter" and the "peace talks" in Afghanistan. It turns out that British spooks played a major role in this humiliating episode. Has anyone asked the Prime Minister about this?

From the Times:

An investigation by the Times can reveal that British agents paid Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour from May this year, promoting him as a genuine Taleban figure of the highest standing who was capable of negotiating with senior American and Afghan officials.

But according to officials in Britain, America and Afghanistan, he was uncovered this month as a fraudster, dealing a blow to the credibility of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Far from being a former Taleban government minister, the individual concerned is now thought to have been a shopkeeper, a minor Taleban commander, or simply a well-connected chancer from the Pakistani border city of Quetta.

A senior Afghan government official said yesterday: "British Intelligence was naive and there was wishful thinking on our part."

One source with knowledge of the affair described it as simply "a major f***-up".

That's a pretty good description of the Afghan war as a whole, which is often compared by its critics to the quagmire in Vietnam four decades ago. But, as the New York Times's Robert Wright points out on the paper's Opinionator blog, Afghanistan is worse.

Wright writes:

Is Afghanistan, as some people say, America's second Vietnam? Actually, a point-by-point comparison of the two wars suggests that it's worse than that.

For starters, though Vietnam was hugely destructive in human terms, strategically it was just a medium-sized blunder. It was a waste of resources, yes, but the war didn't make America more vulnerable to enemy attack.

The Afghanistan war does. Just as al-Qaeda planned, it empowers the narrative of terrorist recruiters – that America is at war with Islam. The would-be Times Square bomber said he was working to avenge the killing of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Major Nidal Hasan, who at Fort Hood perpetrated the biggest post-9/11 terrorist attack on American soil, was enraged by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

And how many anti-American jihadists has the war created on the battlefield itself? There's no telling, but recent headlines suggest this admittedly impressionistic conclusion: We're creating them faster than we're killing them. And some of these enemies, unlike the Vietcong, could wind up killing Americans after the war is over – in south Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe, in America.

Hawks sometimes try to turn this logic to their advantage: It's precisely because our enemies could remain dangerous after the war that we have to deny them a "platform" – an Afghanistan that's partly or wholly under Taliban control; Communists weren't going to use Vietnam as a base from which to attack America, but we saw on 9/11 that Afghanistan can be used that way.

Actually, we didn't. The staging ground for the 9/11 attacks was Germany – and some American flight schools – as much as Afghanistan. The distinctive challenge posed by terrorism is that the enemy doesn't need to occupy much turf to harm us.

He adds:

Al-Qaeda's ideology offers nothing that many of the world's Muslims actually want – except, perhaps, when they feel threatened by the west, a feeling that isn't exactly dulled by the presence of American troops in Muslim countries.

He ends with a plea to policymakers in the west:

So maybe the message should be put like this: Could we please stop doing al-Qaeda's work for it?

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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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