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
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School funding: the £3bn problem creeping up on Theresa May

Parents are starting to notice the consequence of schools funding changes. And they're not happy. 

As speculation grew last Tuesday morning that Theresa May would imminently call a snap general election, Kevin Courtney, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, was furiously re-writing the speech he was due to deliver at the union’s conference at noon.

The resulting changes included a pledge to put school funding “at the centre” of the union’s campaigning in the run-up to 8 June. Alongside a call to arms for teachers, he also wrote a message for parents.

“I am talking to the activists in this hall, but I have a wider audience in mind,” Courtney told teachers in Cardiff.

He was, he said, also addressing the “hundreds of thousands of teachers who aren’t here and the millions of parents and children currently engaged in our schools and colleges” and who were ready to mobilise against funding cuts. 

Tapping up angry parents as a campaign resource is nothing new. But the growing disquiet among the wider public as the school funding crisis reaches breaking point means the parents’ voices are now a particularly powerful tool. One the government could do without in the run-up to polling day.

The figures are stark – the Institute for Fiscal Studies says real-terms spending is set to fall by 6.5 per cent by 2020 – that’s the steepest cut in school funds since the 1990s.

Schools must find savings of £3bn by 2019-20, according to the National Audit Office. That’s the average salary of around 100,000 teachers.

The schoolcuts.org.uk website - put together by the unions using government data – shows that 99 per cent of schools will have per-pupil funding cut, and there are concerns the final version of the government’s upcoming new formula for handing out cash to schools will hit those in cities even harder than first thought.

But it is the plight of individual schools that is really getting through to parents. School leaders are increasingly having to ask them for donations, while the curriculum on offer to their children narrows, with creative subjects often the first to go because they do not count towards the government’s accountability measures.

Support services are being cut too. - Stuart McLaughlin, from Bower Park Academy, told the education select committee that he faced having to axe support staff roles, including those of the school’s counsellor and first aid officer. These are things that parents notice.

The impact of the government’s decision not to protect school funding in the face of rising costs from salary increases, pension and national insurance rises and other pressures such as the apprenticeship levy is now very visible on the ground, and parents are increasingly worried.

To an organisation like the NUT, the maths is simple. Its 300,000+ members can shout pretty loudly, but millions of parents can shout louder. With the unions facing a battle on two fronts – grammar schools and funding – they are going to need all the help they can get.

This is why groups like Fair Funding for All Schools are increasingly important. While the complaints of teachers and union members are often – wrongly – dismissed as scaremongering, parents make up a huge chunk of the electorate, and were already starting to organise before an election was even announced.

Jo Yurky, a mum of two from Haringey and founder of Fair Funding for All Schools, told the NUT conference last week that she was confused when she heard the head of her local secondary talk about needing to increase class sizes. She thought funding was protected, and had believed the government when it said it was spending a record amount on schools.

“Teachers and head teachers are trusted by parents – we leave our children in their care each day,” Yurky told teachers.

“They are speaking out publicly about their concerns out of desperation, because they are so worried about the financial situation in our schools. When headteachers speak, parents listen.”

Education funding is also a key campaign issue for Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has accused Theresa May’s government of breaking the 2015 manifesto commitment to protect the money following pupils into schools.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, pledged last week to restore the role of the Local Education Authority and “fully-fund” schools, although the party will now have to explain in detail what this means in its upcoming manifesto (and where the money will come from).

However, this isn’t a partisan issue. Tory MPs Michael Fabricant, Tom Tugendhat, Maria Caulfield and James Duddridge are among those to have spoken out in parliament about cuts faced by schools in their constituencies under the proposed new school funding formula.

The government wasn’t due to publish its final funding plans until the summer anyway, but has rejected calls for it to bring the announcement forward to better inform voters, blaming pre-election purdah rules.

It is admirable to move cash around the system so it is more equitable for people in different places, but without injecting extra cash, ministers are simply moving inadequate levels of funding around, and children will lose out in the end.

It is no longer acceptable to parents, teachers, school leaders and children for the government to peddle its line that there is record funding going into schools. There are also record numbers of pupils in the system, so you’d hope that this would be the case.

Urgent action is needed to properly equip schools for the additional cost pressures they face, and if this doesn’t happen soon, Theresa May is going to see a lot more than just a few union activists attempting to block her road back to Downing Street.

 

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