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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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