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.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

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

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.