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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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