UK's top general says Afghan victory in sight but... only in ten years

The biggest question, of course, is how you define "victory": now or in a decade.

Remember Barack Obama's speech on 1 December 2009, in which he announced his troop surge for Afghanistan? The US president was mocked and derided by neoconservatives for failing to use the word "victory" even once.

In an interview in today's Times (£), General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the UK's Defence Staff, has no such reservations. He doesn't use the word "victory" either but makes it very clear that he thinks we'll be triumphant in Afghanistan and "come out of it with our heads held high".

But, he adds a rather important if bizarre caveat:

At the end of the day, we won't know [if it has succeeded] until 2018, '19, '20.

Well, that's that then. A nice get-out. The war in Afghanistan may look, feel and sound like a disaster right now, with soldiers dying on a weekly basis, but - hold on! - wait 10 years, it'll all look fine then. Can you imagine Winston Churchill telling the British in 1940: "We will fight them on the beaches and I promise you, come 1950, it'll look like a victory?"

The biggest issue with Afghanistan, of course, is how you define victory. Is it the obliteration of the Taliban? An end to the threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? The protection of women's rights? The elimination of the drug trade? Liberal democracy from Kabul to Kandahar?

I'm always reminded of how the late Richard Holbrooke once compared the difficulty in defining success in Afghanistan to recognising pornography. Addressing a panel in August 2009, Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan was asked about how he saw victory occurring in Afghanistan, and what he would do to bring about such a victory.

Holbrooke replied that the US had to be "clear about what our national interests are" but that, ultimately, success would require taking "a 'Supreme Court test': we''ll know it when we see it".

Holbrooke's reference was to a famous line attributed to US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about how to identify pornography!

 

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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Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.