The blood sacrifice in Afghanistan must now come to an end

Our decade-long presence in the country has achieved all it can.

British policy in Afghanistan is now a mess. In May 2010, David Cameron, announced that he would take back control of policy from the generals who had told Labour ministers  that as long as they had  more men, more helicopters, or more armoured vehicles the mission would be successful. But since May 2010 146 British soldiers have been killed, more than one for every week the coalition has been in office.

The main strategic objective justifying British presence in Afghanistan – the removal of al-Qaeda (AQ) from the country has been accomplished. AQ and other linked Islamist Jihadi terror groups have bases in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and off-shoots in Libya and Syria. They don’t need Afghanistan.

The main tactical objective of British policy still being defended by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond this week is for British soldiers to train Afghan soldiers and police. On Monday Hammond was forced to come to the Commons after the Speaker granted me an Urgent Question. I assumed after the murder of two Yorkshire soldiers by their Afghan comrades, the government would want to report to MPs on the tragedy. Hammond thought otherwise and only the Speaker’s summons dragged him to the despatch box.

Even as he was speaking it was clear that policy was being changed by the Americans who announced that henceforth close joint patrolling and common forward bases shared between Nato and Afghan troops was to be ditched.

The New York Times headline from Kabul that the “Coalition sharply reduces joint operations with Afghan troops” captures this change in policy. In the view of the paper’s experienced correspondent the new policy is “potentially undercutting the training mission that is the heart of the Western exit strategy.”

Hammond told the Commons that he had read these reports but did not think they were important. He was facing MPs because in an unprecedented move, the Speaker again granted an Urgent Question, this time to the Tory MP John Barron, a former army officer, who challenged the government strategy. Never before has a senior minister been dragged to the Commons on two consecutive days. It is an unprecedented humiliation made worse by William Hague trying to kid the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that policy was continuing unchanged and unperturbed. MoD briefers have been out in force spinning policy is not altered but not even the loyal Spectator is buying that line.

The Conservative and Labour MPs calling for a rethink of Cameron’s Afghanistan policy are not the usual anti-war suspects. They include former army officers like Col Bob Stewart and ex-Labour ministers. (Oddly LibDem MPs whose ministers have been dumped from both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are being ultra-loyalist as they parrot the Hammond-Hague line.) There really can be no more excuses for further blood sacrifice. MPs are under enormous pressure when British soldiers are engaged in action to toe the Whitehall line. The Opposition front bench rightly backs the military when bullets are flying.

But the decade-long presence in Afghanistan has achieved all it can. Fighting and dying for another 12 or 24 months will make as little difference as staying for a further 12 or 14 years. There is no dishonour to the military if Cameron now takes over the leadership of what Britain is doing in Afghanistan. The nation will heave a sigh of relief that the blood sacrifice is now ending. The modalities –a withdrawal to safer terrain and the urgent need to start talks with the Taliban – are for politicians and diplomats to initiate. But Britain has to end its combat life-shedding presence in Afghanistan. No soldier can say that. The Whitehall military-bureaucracy will not. Ministers and their shadows find it hard to break the consensus. When the Commons returns in October, MPs should do their duty and say our soldiers have done theirs. They can come home with heads held high and leave the history to judge whether the 30-year war of Russian and Nato intervention in Afghanistan has been worth the lives lost.

Denis MacShane is a Labour MP and former FCO Minister. Follow on @denismacshane and www.denismacshane.com

A British soldier walks near the Pimon military camp in Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province. Photograph: Getty Images
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.