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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.