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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage