Where now for the west's mission in Afghanistan?

Cameron meets Obama for talks after US soldier massacres civilians in Kandahar.

David Cameron could not be travelling to Washington in grimmer circumstances. The shocking news that a lone US soldier killed at least 16 civilians, nine of them children, in a shooting spree on Sunday means that US-Afghan relations have reached a new low.

The more one hears about the story the worse it gets. According to the New York Times, "The man gathered 11 bodies, including those of 4 girls younger than 6, and set fire to them". He may have been acting alone but that will not reduce the risk of reprisal attacks. For many, the massacre will confirm their view that the occupation is irredeemably brutal. It was only three weeks ago that US troops were found to have burned copies of the Qur'an at the main Nato base, an act that led to protests in which six American soldiers were killed.

The dry commitment by General John Allen, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, to ensure "that anyone who is found to have committed wrongdoing is held fully accountable" is unlikely to dampen tensions. In a statement on its website, the Taliban has vowed to "take revenge from the invaders and the savage murderers for every single martyr".

It declared:

A large number from amongst the victims are innocent children, women and the elderly, martyred by the American barbarians who mercilessly robbed them of their precious lives and drenched their hands with their innocent blood.

The American terrorists want to come up with an excuse for the perpetrator of this inhumane crime by claiming that this immoral culprit was mentally ill.

If the perpetrators of this massacre were in fact mentally ill, then this testifies to yet another moral transgression by the American military because they are arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against the defenceless Afghans without giving a second thought.

Coming so soon after the deaths of six British soldiers last week, there is understandable concern that UK troops may be caught in the fall-out. All of which means that the onus is on Cameron to restate the case for Britain's continued presence. As the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, notes in today's Guardian, the PM came to office promising that Afghanistan would be his "number one priority", but it is now eight months since he made a parliamentary statement about it. He writes: "As the prime minister heads to Washington my concern is that he has an end date, but still no end state: no realistic vision of what will be left behind. And in these critical months the scale of military sacrifice does not appear to be being matched by diplomatic effort."

With the fighting likely to intensify in the run-up to the 2014 withdrawal date, the question confronting western leaders is what sort of country they will leave behind. For now, it is likely to be one even more blighted by violence, corruption and the drugs trade. Consequently, a growing number of voices on the left and the right contend that the benefits of remaining are outweighed by the costs. It is up to Cameron to persuade them otherwise.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.