It's time for the US to rethink its AfPak strategy

The Afghanistan-Pakistan approach: a five point plan for Obama.

Afghanistan is a mess. Pakistan remains a perpetual headache.  The Obama Administration’s AfPak strategy is not working.  It is time for a fresh approach.  

The starting point must be a hard-headed assessment of what kind of Afghanistan can be left behind when NATO forces leave in 2014.  The aim should be to prevent a descent into an all out civil war.  The foundations for a stable regime should be established where all key players feel they have a stake in the future of the country.  

US strategy should be re-focused upon five strands.

First, however much one detests the Taliban and what it stands for, it is clear that its confidence is growing.  The start of its Spring Offensive on April 15 - which saw the targeting of foreign embassies and government institutions - underlined the severity of the situation.  The long-term risk of not directly involving those elements of the Taliban willing to cease hostilities in discussions about power-sharing post-2014 is much greater than the short-term fallout a US President might suffer from doing so.  This is also an issue where the strategic interests of both the US and Pakistan coincide, and where the latter could prove useful in seeking a compromise. 

The Taliban comprehends the reality of its own position.  After 35 years of fighting, it is itself exhausted and appreciates that marching on Kabul post-NATO withdrawal is not realistic given the increasing strength of the Afghan army.  It also realises that all foreign aid would be immediately cut off leaving it facing a disgruntled electorate and millions of mouths to feed.

But the longer the US shuns a political solution in favour of a futile military pummelling of the enemy, the weaker its negotiating position will become.  

Second, a regional track to diplomacy on Afghanistan must be established, involving all countries with strategic interests in the country.  Pakistan has for decades sought pliable government in Kabul to offer “strategic depth” against India for fear of “encirclement”.  But the recent visit to India by Asif Ali Zardari, the first by a Pakistani president since 2005, to promote bilateral trade – currently a paltry $3bn - is an encouraging sign of a potential rapprochement between the two neighbours.  

The Russians, Iranians and Arab states also have a stake.  A multilateral diplomatic initiative needs to begin imminently and be led by a credible third party with no historical Kalashnikov to grind.

Third, the extent of the use of drone attacks should be considered.  There is no doubt that they have brought success in dispensing with a number of unsavoury characters in North Waziristan, the base of the Haqqani Network of insurgents.  However, when innocent civilians are killed, this simply acts as a recruiting sergeant for family members to take up arms against the US to avenge the death of their relations.  Honour and revenge in blood are hallmarks of the Pashtun tribal code.  Such attacks should be used sparingly and judiciously.

Fourth, as a Pew research study conducted last year revealed, only 1 per cent of Pakistanis had a positive image of the US - despite $600m in aid being provided after the floods in 2010.  Of the $20bn the US has given since 2001, over 70 per cent has been taken by the country’s military.  The US must instead focus its aid efforts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan on the development of infrastructure and the provision of microfinance to small businesses starved of credit.  The biggest problem being faced by ordinary Pakistanis is the shortage of gas, and living for up to 18-hours a day without power.  More than 60 per cent of the population is under-25 and only 50 per cent are literate.  Central to solving the security conundrum is helping Pakistan back to a path of economic growth and job creation.

Fifth, with an eye on the Pakistan Parliamentary elections to be held early next year, the US must recognise that the political balance of power within the country may well shift.  The frustrated youth and urban educated elites of Pakistan have been captivated by the anti-corruption message of former cricketing legend turned politician, Imran Khan.  His rallies in Lahore and Karachi have attracted hundreds of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis.  A growing number are yearning for positive change.  They want an end to Berelvi (Sufi) shrines being bombed by radical Deobandi fanatics, economic prosperity, and their nation to be raised from the status of an international pariah state.  The US cannot afford to be caught out as it was, for a time, by the seismic events that took place across the Middle East last year. 

Laying the foundations for a stable Afghanistan by 2014 with Pakistan’s assistance is still achievable.  But it will require personal risk on the part of the President, whatever his political persuasion.  This is no time to be pusillanimous.  The situation demands a leader with the dexterity to strike a deal combined with a strategic vision for the region.  There might then still be one throw of the dice left in the Great Game.  

Ali Miraj was a member of the Conservative Party Commission on International and National Security 2005-2007

Barack Obama with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, September 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.