Leader: After Bin Laden, it’s time to end this unwinnable war

Obama now has the political cover necessary to order an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The death of Osama Bin Laden banishes a spectre that has haunted the west for more than a decade. Successive US presidents vowed to kill or capture the man responsible for the worst terrorist atrocity in American history. Now, just a few months before the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 11 September 2001, Barack Obama has at last succeeded where Bill Clinton and George W Bush failed. The raid by US special forces was a triumph for the president. As his chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, remarked: "It was one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory." Mr Obama's measured response to the news of Bin Laden's death marked a welcome departure from the Bush administration, which crassly declared after the capture of Saddam Hussein: "We got him."

That it took an elite squad of US Navy Seals just 40 minutes to kill the al-Qaeda leader gives the lie to the claim that it was necessary to invade and occupy Afghanistan in order to protect the US from terrorist attack. In a leader published on 1 October 2001, we called for a limited intervention
in Afghanistan, including commando raids with "the specific aim" of capturing Bin Laden and his closest allies. Yet, in his haste to retaliate, Mr Bush launched a deluded global "war on terror", declaring: "You're either with us or against us."

As a result, many with no interest in Bin Laden's quest to establish an Islamic caliphate felt compelled to side with al-Qaeda. The Bush administration compounded this error with the invasion of Iraq - an unnecessary war - the CIA torture of al-Qaeda suspects and the illegal detention of more than 700 people at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

In the hours following Bin Laden's death, apologists for torture rushed to claim that the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", such as waterboarding, had yielded the key intelligence on his whereabouts. Yet were this the case (and the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists that it was not), the US would surely have succeeded in locating the al-Qaeda founder before 2006, the final year that such techniques were used.

Bin Laden's death robs the Islamist group of its symbolic figurehead. But due to the decentralised nature of the movement or franchise, his end is of little practical significance. As Olivier Roy writes on page 22, politically at least, "Bin Laden was already dead before the Americans attacked his compound in Abbottabad." The Arab Spring demonstrated that the people of the region yearn for secular democracy, not theocratic dictatorship. For the protesters of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, preoccupied with corruption, rising food prices and mass unemployment, Bin Laden became irrelevant long ago. Yet, as Mehdi Hasan points out on page 26, the uncomfortable truth remains that he still had the support and trust of, among others, one in three Palestinians, one in four Indonesians and one in five Egyptians. The dismal response of Hamas, which condemned the "assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior", was a reminder of the sympathy that many feel, even now, for him and his cause.

That Bin Laden was discovered not in the caves of Afghanistan or the tribal regions of Pakistan but in a comfortable garrison town offers new evidence of possible collusion between Pakistan and al-Qaeda. However, no country has suffered more from terrorism in recent years than Pakistan. Since 2001, terrorists have killed nearly 15,000 civilians in that disturbed nuclear state.

Mr Obama now has the political cover necessary to order an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan in July. As we have long argued, the US should abandon what has become an unwinnable war and open high-level talks with the Taliban. But, more significantly, Mr Obama has an opportunity to fulfil his original promise to heal the rift between the US and the Muslim world.

A decade of war and occupation has left the world neither freer nor safer. Bin Laden's death provides the US president with a chance to chart a difference course. It is one he must take.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.