China and Iran vie for the subcontinent

Iran’s destabilising influence in Afghanistan is just the tip of a geopolitical iceberg.

It emerged this week that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has been accepting "bags of money" from Iran, reportedly as transparent aid to help cover palace expenses. Although Iranian money and weapons for use against Nato forces have been pouring for many years into Herat, in western Afghanistan, the nonchalance of President Karzai's response to Iranian cash in Kabul raised eyebrows in the media.

Perhaps they weren't looking far enough afield. The worry is that Iran has similar designs on Pakistan and that the methods will be the same – drip money into the Pakistani Taliban in a long-term effort to destabilise the state. Even if the tactic doesn't work – and there are strong arguments that it will not – it may make things more complicated.

For one thing, it is not known the extent to which Iranian money is swishing around in Pakistan, though much of it will be linked to drugs. From an Iranian point of view, too, their neighbour to the east may look vulnerable.

India's bulwarks

Sectarian and political violence has reared up over the summer in Karachi – both the starting point of Isaf supply lines and the region's major drugs port. Pakistan is also dealing with the aftermath of catastrophic flooding; much of the agrarian economy is destroyed for this year. And the government is constantly portrayed as weak, even if things may not be quite as bad as they seem.

The fragility of Pakistan comes with caveats, something that the Iranians may not have observed. AP reported in September that there had been 3,600 deaths from extremist Taliban attacks in Pakistan since 2007 – the majority of them chronicled in the western press – a relatively low figure, given Pakistan's population of 175 million. In Karachi this year alone, the city's sectarian and political violence has claimed 1,100 lives.

However, the country is resilient. David Pilling wrote perceptively last week in the Financial Times (registration required) that it's a country that refuses to fail. It is unlikely that Iran will be able to further their ambitions for aggrandisement this year or next. But, as with China, which has invested $248m in Balochistan's Gwadar port to protect its oil and gas supply routes in central Asia, the Iranians are in situ.

The concern is that, over the next decade, they will continue to stay there and that the western and eastern regions of the subcontinent – India's bulwarks – will find themselves under pressure.

Reversing the hostility of decades, India began negotiating with Bangladesh in 2009 to wrest the country out of China's insistent clutches. Delhi cannot budge on Kashmir, of which Arundhati Roy spoke bitterly this week, not because it fears Pakistan, but because it has long-term territorial concerns about China.

The building of an empire

Kashmir is India's land corridor to the borderlands of the Himalayas and there are four disputed areas, three of which border Tibet. The fourth, Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east, next door to Bhutan, is claimed by China. India's state security headache prima inter alia is the Maoist/Naxalite rebellion in the north-east, which quite possibly receives funding from Beijing.

Historically, the Persians and the Mongol Chinese have been at it before, because the subcontinent is fertile, and has abundant land as well as the advantage of prosperous seaports. The ancient tribal and Dravidian people of the subcontinent had to put up with wave after wave of Arya peoples from central Asia over 3,000 years ago. Colin Thubron in the Lost Heart of Asia states – wrongly, I think – that five million died in India as a result of Tamerlane's incursions from 1398.

At the start of the 16th century, Babur, the quasi-Persian prince from Transoxiana, began his progress into the rich and properous lands of northern India which heralded the Moghul empire.

The subcontinent has a habit in the past of splintering under outside pressure. However, this time, in the 21st century, if Pakistan, India and Bangladesh can recognise the external threats, they might see that their future is bound up with each other.

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.