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
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.