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.

Photo: Getty
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Why gay men love this photo of Prince George looking fabulous

It's not about sexuality, but resisting repressive ideas about what masculinity should be.

Last week’s royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provided the most intimate view of the young family to date. Throughout the five-day visit to Poland and Germany, it was the couple’s adorable children who stole the spotlight.

As George and Charlotte become better acquainted with a world in which everyone recognises them, this level of public scrutiny is something that will no doubt have to be carefully managed by the family.

But there is one particular image from the trip that has both captured people’s hearts and prompted debate. On the eve of his fourth birthday, Prince George was invited behind the driver’s seat of a helicopter in Germany. Immaculately dressed in a purple gingham shirt neatly tucked in to navy shorts, the future King is pictured staring out of the helicopter in awe.

As a man who was visibly gay from a young age, the distinctly feminine image of George smiling as he delicately places his hands on his face instantly struck a chord with me. In fact, an almost identical photograph of five-year-old me happily playing in the garden is hung on my parents' kitchen wall. Since the photos appeared online, thousands of other gay men have remarked that the innocence of this image reminds them of childhood. In one viral tweet, the picture is accompanied by the caption: “When mom said I could finally quit the soccer team.” Another user remarks: “Me walking past the Barbies at Toys ‘R’ Us as a child.”

Gay men connecting this photograph of Prince George with their childhood memories has been met with a predictable level of scorn. “Insinuating that Prince George is gay is just the kind of homophobia you’d be outraged by if it was you," tweets one user. “Gay men should know better than that. He is a CHILD," says another.

Growing up gay, I know how irritating it can be when everyone needs to “know” your sexual orientation before you do. There are few things more unhelpful than a straight person you barely know telling you, as they love to do, that they “always knew you were gay” years after you came out. This minimises the struggle it took to come to terms with your sexuality and makes you feel like everyone was laughing at you behind your back as you failed to fit in.

I also understand that speculating about a child's future sexual orientation, especially from one photograph, has potential to cause them distress. But to assume that gay men tweeting this photograph are labelling Prince George is a misunderstanding of what we take from the image.

The reaction to this photo isn’t really about sexuality; it’s about the innocence of childhood. When I look at the carefree image of George, it reminds me of those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly. The time before boys are told they should like “boy things”, before femininity becomes associated with weakness or frivolity. Thanks to a supportive environment created by my parents, I felt that I could play with whichever toys I wanted for those short years before the outside world pressured me to conform.

Effeminate gay men like me have very specific experiences that relate to growing up in a heteronormative world. It is incredibly rare to see anything that remotely represents my childhood reflected in popular culture. This image has prompted us to discuss our childhoods because we see something in it that we recognise. In a community where mental illness and internalised homophobia are rife, sharing memories that many of us have suppressed for years can only be a good thing.

People expressing outrage at any comparisons between this image and growing up gay should remember that projecting heterosexuality on to a child is also sexualising them. People have no problem assuming that boys are straight from a young age, and this can be equally damaging to those who don’t fit the mould. I remember feeling uncomfortable when asked if my female friends were my girlfriends while I was still in primary school. The way young boys are taught to behave based on prescribed heterosexuality causes countless problems. From alarmingly high suicide rates to violent behaviour, the expectation for men to be tough and manly hurts us all.

If you are outraged at the possibility that the future king could perhaps be gay, but you are happy to assume your son or nephew is heterosexual, you should probably examine why that is. This not only sends out the message that being gay is wrong, but also that it is somehow an embarrassment if we have a gay King one day. Prince William appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine last year to discuss LGBT bullying, so we can only hope he will be supportive of his son regardless of his future sexuality.

Whether Prince George grows up to be heterosexual or not is completely irrelevant to why this image resonates with people like me. It is in no way homophobic to joke about this photograph if you don't see a boy being feminine as the lesser, and the vast majority of posts that I’ve seen come from a place of warmth, nostalgia and solidarity. 

What really matters is that Prince George feels supported when tackling the many obstacles that his unique life in the spotlight will present. In the meantime, we should all focus on creating a world where every person is accepted regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because clearly we’ve got some way to go.