In Afghanistan, the death toll continues to rise, says Mehdi Hasan

The number of US military fatalities has remained virtually unchanged, year on year.

In this week's New Statesman, we take a look at the quagmire in Afghanistan, in the wake of President Obama's recent announcement of a "drawdown" in US forces from the so-called graveyard of empires. My own piece, not yet published online, asks why Obama, as well as David Cameron, is intent on keeping combat troops in action in Kabul, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and the rest when the war is lost and negotiations with the Taliban have begun. Why not bring them home sooner? I remind the readers of John Kerry's famous 1971 statement regarding Vietnam in front of a congressional committee:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Four decades on, the same point applies to the war in Afghanistan.

According to a new report from Associated Press:

Despite US reports of progress on the battlefield, American troops were killed in the first half of this year at the same pace as in 2010 -- an indication that the war's toll on US forces has not eased as the Obama administration moves to shift the burden to the Afghans.

While the overall international death toll dropped by 14 per cent in the first half of the year, the number of Americans who died remained virtually unchanged, 197 this year compared with 195 in the first six months of last year, according to a tally by the Associated Press.

Americans have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting as the US administration sent more than 30,000 extra troops in a bid to pacify areas in the Taliban's southern heartland and other dangerous areas. US military officials have predicted more tough fighting through the summer as the Taliban try to regain territory they have lost.

President Barack Obama has begun to reverse the surge of American forces, ordering a reduction of 10,000 by the end of the year and another 23,000 by September 2012. But the US military has not announced which troops are being sent home, or whether they will be withdrawn from any of the most violent areas in the south and east.

. . . According to the AP tally, 271 international troops, including the Americans, were killed in the first half of the year -- down 14 per cent from the 316 killed in the first six months of last year.

With the American deaths virtually unchanged, the decline reflects a drop off in deaths of troops from other contributing nations. In the first half of the year, 74 of these troops -- from countries like Britain, France and Australia -- died compared with 121 in the first six months of last year.

In the most recent deaths, Nato said two coalition service members were killed in roadside bombings -- one Saturday in the west who was identified as an Italian, and another Friday in the south whose nationality was not available.

It is also worth noting that there is an obsession in the west with the number of deaths and injuries related to "our boys" -- and I suppose it could be argued that my own piece in this week's magazine is a part of this phenomenon -- while civilian casualties of the conflict -- Afghanistan's "unpeople", to quote historian Mark Curtis -- go unnoticed and largely unreported by western governments and the media, despite the number of civilian deaths being far higher than the number of military fatalities.

The AP report says:

[A] recent UN report found that May was the deadliest month for civilians since it began keeping track in 2007 and it said insurgents were to blame for 82 percent of the 368 deaths recorded. The UN does not usually release monthly civilian casualty figures but said it was compelled to do so in May because of the high number.

Before you get too excited: if the Taliban and their allies are responsible for four out of five innocent deaths in Afghanistan, that means "our side" is responsible for one in five of those deaths (18 per cent).

The sooner we stop killing people in Afghanistan, innocent or otherwise, the better.

 

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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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.