The EU questions Salmond must answer

The SNP leader should come clean on the euro before lecturing others.

With the exception of Paddy Ashdown, astonishingly few politicians and commentators have made the link between Scotland and Europe. But Cameron's decision to isolate the UK has significant implications for the Scottish National Party [SNP], which has long campaigned for "independence in Europe". As Ashdown wrote in the Observer, "If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?"

From one perspective, Cameron's stance strengthens Alex Salmond's argument that Scotland needs independence to pursue its own policy of European integration. As the SNP leader wrote in his letter to the PM:

Last week's developments in Brussels demonstrate that Scotland urgently needs a voice at the top table when our vital national interests are being discussed, by becoming an independent member state, instead of being shut out of the room.

He followed that up with "six crucial questions" for Cameron on Europe and Scottish interests. But if you strip away the rhetoric, Salmond is avoiding some inconvenient questions of his own.

Until recently, the SNP leader proudly declared that an independent Scotland would join the euro. In 2009, he quipped that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and argued that euro membership was becoming increasingly attractive. "There is no doubt that the plummeting pound and parlous state of the UK economy has caused many people in the business community and elsewhere to view membership favourably," he said. That, to put it mildly, is no longer the case and, consequently, Salmond has changed tact. Like Gordon Brown circa 2003, he now states that Scotland will retain the pound until it is in the country's "economic advantage" to join the euro.

Whether or not that day comes, there is no majority for Salmond's stance. Polling shows that the Scottish electorate is only marginally less eurosceptic than the UK electorate as a whole. According to a recent YouGov poll, 44 per cent of Scottish voters want to leave the EU (38 per cent want to remain) compared to 47 per cent of UK voters. Similarly, 45 per cent of UK voters think that Britain's EU membership is a "bad thing" and so do 41 per cent of Scots.

Even if Scotland were to join the euro, would Salmond sign up to a fiscal union? Having finally won autonomy over spending and borrowing would he happily submit his annual budgets to Brussels for approval? How would he respond if the EU blocked his long-promised cut in corporation tax? Until he answers these and other questions, Salmond has little right to lecture others.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics