Putting Afghanistan in context

The fragility of our strategy for exiting the Afghan war has been exposed by WikiLeaks.

The underbelly of the Afghan war has been exposed by the war logs recently released through WikiLeaks. Not so long ago, Afghanistan was seen as the "good war", in comparison to the far more controversial adventure in Iraq. Now, light has been shone into the shadows of Nato's conduct in a war that is struggling to find direction.

A reassessment of our presence in Afghanistan must go back to basics to understand the continued failure to settle on an exit strategy from the country.

First, we should be clear in our understanding of conditions in Afghanistan prior to the 2001 invasion. Over a million civilians had died during the ten years of Soviet occupation that ended in 1989. The next 11 years witnessed a fluctuating civil war. US-led Nato forces picked a winner by providing huge amounts of firepower to drive the Northern Alliance in to Kabul (though they were beaten to it by John Simpson).

The Taliban's senior leadership, aided by a two-faced Pakistani strategy and military incompetence on the part of the US (as typified by "Operation Anaconda"), were able to flee into the Pakistani tribal areas in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.

Over the following years, the imported exile Hamid Karzai failed to unite the country behind a top-down central government. Meanwhile, warlords who had switched sides during the invasion cemented their control over various fiefdoms, showing little interest in surrendering power to Kabul.

That the "new Afghanistan" was largely rotten at its core was ignored by an administration in Washington that quickly shifted its focus to invading Iraq, stalling efforts to transform the region. With the return of the realists to US politics came implementation of the "surge", which revived the narrative of success in Iraq, despite that country remaining deeply fractured and suffering a violent political inertia.

High-risk strategy

In Afghanistan, the failure of the Karzai government allowed the Taliban to return. Barack Obama doubled down on reviving the war in Afghanistan, speeding up the withdrawal from Iraq while bolstering Afghan troop numbers under the leadership of General Staley McChrystal.

A new counter-insurgency strategy (Coin) looked to buy off the "accidental guerrillas" in Pashtun areas by incorporating them into an army that the Afghan state cannot sustainably afford, and whose ethnic and tribal loyalties are constantly contested. The critical flaw is with the legitimacy of this effort. In Afghanistan, we should be very clear that we are training an Afghan army to kill Afghans in order to protect Afghans. Incidents such as the killing of three British soldiers by an Afghan soldier they were training are simply tragic reminders of the short-term problems inherent in such a strategy.

Repellent as we may find them, the Taliban appear to have a more coherent ideology than Karzai's government. As the Coin expert David Kilcullen has written, "most Afghans historically had little interaction with the central state". Their anti-occupation rhetoric falls on the ears of a population all too aware of Nato's disregard for their lives, as now exposed by the WikiLeaks documents. How can we say that we are in Afghanistan to protect Afghans, when we don't allow them the basic dignity of an independently verified body count?

The mission in Afghanistan relied on a high-risk strategy which predicted that democracy would bestow legitimacy on a foreign military occupation. And yet, today, the US finds itself fighting the longest war in its history; the most recent two months have been the deadliest since the initial invasion. Unless we realise how we got to where we are today, any future policy is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

James Denselow is a writer on political and security issues affecting the Middle East, and is based at King's College London.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.