Liam Fox: Afghanistan is a “broken, 13th-century country”

Defence Secretary causes controversy in Afghanistan with “colonialist, orientalist” remarks.

The new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has got off to a flying start in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Times on Saturday, he said:

We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.

Understandably, this hasn't gone down too well in Afghanistan. The Times today quotes a senior Afghan government official:

His view appears to be that Afghanistan has not changed since the 13th century and it implies that Afghanistan is a tribal and medieval society.

The source adds:

We see Britain as still a colonial, orientalist and racist country that they should have this view.

Fox's response has been somewhat inadequate. He clarified that his point was that national security was more important than nation-building, but on the insulting tone of his comments, his office said only:

Hamid Karzai has used similar words himself, describing what the Taliban left behind as 13th- or 14th-century.

There are several problems here. First of all, his comment overlooks the fact that a stable Afghan state is central to the interests of our national security.

As my colleague Mehdi Hasan has pointed out, it is estimated that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. We are no longer fighting terrorists in the country. Therefore, the only way to "serve the British interest" is by ensuring that a government is in place that is strong enough to fend off the Taliban, who, if back in government, could allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists once more. It's tenuous at best.

The second point, which Fox has declined to address, is the patronising, colonial overtones of his comments. Perpetuating an existing perception of a conquering western power that views Afghanistan as primitive and inferior is hugely damaging. Fox can think whatever he likes in private, but he cannot afford to alienate the Afghan people any longer.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.