The era of generals deciding policy in Afghanistan is over

Even trigger-happy MPs are calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The hi-oratory debate on the Murdoch family and their phone-hacking epigones over-shadowed a debate on Afghanistan in the Common yesterday which also repudiated core beliefs of the ruling elites.

One by one loyal Tory MPs got up to say the era of generals deciding policy in Afghaniistan was over. If the debate decided government policy no more British blood would need to shed as Tory MPs urged talks with the Taliban, a retreat to fortress bases, and reaching out to Russia, China, Iran and India to shape an international treaty to make Afghanistan a neutral state.

Economic help for Pakistan was urged along with an appeal to India to end the occupation and oppression of Kashmir - the main cause of Islamist violence in Pakistan.

Both government and opposition front benches were left with prepared speeches and had little idea of how to respond to a game changing mood shift amongst MPs who want an end to soldiers' sacrifice in what MPs kept calling an "unwinnable war."

Rory Stewart was the most scornful of the MPs criticising the dominance of the generals over ministers. "I have been in and out of Afghanistan 57 times since 2001, and consistently every general has said, "It's been a tough situation but we have a new strategic plan requiring new resources, and this year will be the decisive year.

"When a politician meets a general with a row of medals on his chest saying 'Don't drop the troop levels, and we can guarantee that we will reach a situation where the Taliban will never be able to come back,' it is difficult to disagree.

In a striking metaphor Stewart added "We do not honour dead soldiers by piling more corpses on them." This from an Old Etonian ex-army officer close to Cameron's OE ruling clique was remarkable.

Stewart's Tory colleague, John Barron, refused to sign off on a bland, muddled Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on Afghanistan. He argued that "not one of the preconditions for a successful counter-insurgency campaign exists in Afghanistan. The time has come for the British Government to press the Americans to have non-conditional talks with the Taliban."

Julian Lewis MP is no shrinking violet on defence but told the Commons: "It suits al-Qaeda to embroil us in Muslim states, as it did most calculatedly in Afghanistan in September 2001." Lewis criticised the the "micro-management" of the war with its "need to send service personnel out on vulnerable patrols, along predictable routes, which can be easily targeted."

The veteran Tory foreign and defence grandee, Sir Malcolm Rifkindn said "there is no long-term rationale for the presence of combat troops" in Afghanistan.

My own speech was in the same vein as I argued that "stopping a war is, perhaps, as great a military art as starting one."

Long term peacenik MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Paul Flynn rubbed their eyes and ears in disbelief as the Commons echoed arguments they had been long advancing.

There were only junior frontbenchers on duty. Liam Fox was speaking for the Government at the launch in the Victoria and Albert museum of the Polish presidency of the EU. To send the most viscerally Europhobic member of the cabinet to hail the pro-EU Poles is proof that satire is not dead in No 10.

But he and William Hague should read the debate. Tory MPs and the Commons want to bring down the curtain on Afghanistan. It is time for our soldiers come home. It is also time to reinstate at the FCO the great British diplomatist, Sir Sherard Cowper Coles. Hague allowed him to quit after he was Ambassador in Afghanistan and began expressing concern on the Brown-Cameron war strategy. His book "Despatches from Kabul" saying politicians had to win back control of policy from generals is a masterpiece exposing a flawed and now failed political-diplomatic-military strategy.

Cowper Coles is now vindicated. The Commons agrees with him. Policy should change and Cowper Coles' wisdom should not be lost to the state.

 

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was No 2 at the FCO until 2005

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses