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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.