Why the Afghan surge will fail

The Taliban will bide their time and emerge undefeated.

As the "surge" begins in Afghanistan, we are told that there are early signs of success in the Nato coalition's final attempt to defeat the Taliban. But while it is true to say that in some areas -- such as the town of Marjah, in Helmand -- the Taliban appear to be giving up land without a fight, the weaknesses of the US military plan remain clear.

As the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, pointed out in leaked cables to President Obama, the sanctuaries that matter most to the Taliban are not in Afghanistan at all, but just across the border in Pakistan. So long as they can hold on to these strongholds, the Taliban will bide their time and regroup once US troops begin to withdraw in 18 months' time.

The group's oft-quoted boast that "Nato has all the watches, but we have all the time" rings truer than ever.

The Taliban have learned from experience to avoid costly hand-to-hand combat, but as the assault proceeds they are likely to return and target the new Afghan security forces with roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

The surge in Afghanistan is closely modelled on that in Iraq, but is unlikely to meet with similar success. The key factor in the success of the Iraqi surge was the US recruitment of Saddam Hussein's old Sunni militias to police some of the most violent enclaves. After several years of vicious sectarian warfare, Iraq's Sunni minority had come to fear Shia militias and Iran more than the US occupation forces, and formed the "awakening councils" in response.

Yet such conditions and incentives do not exist in Afghanistan, where the Pashtuns, who dominate the Taliban, are by far the largest ethnic group and face no major sectarian or regional threat to their interests. Any attempt to "buy off" the insurgents is likely to fail, as anti-occupation sentiment shows no sign of diminishing.

At best, the surge will provide the political cover necessary for Barack Obama to withdraw with some semblance of dignity. In the meantime, the Taliban are content to sit this battle out, aware that they can strike back at a more opportune moment.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.