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Leader: Killed in the name of crooked Karzai

The tawdry spectacle of Karzai's "re-election" should shame western leaders

On 2 November, it emerged that a British soldier had died as he tried to defuse a roadside bomb near Sangin, in Helmand Province. Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of the Royal Logistic Corps, had been about to end his tour of duty after five months in Afghanistan.

Also on 2 November, the supposedly independent national electoral commission declared Hamid Karzai president of Afghanistan. It scrapped a planned second round of voting after President Karzai's sole challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the race, citing continued concerns about fraud.

Did Sergeant Schmid sacrifice his life so that Hamid Karzai could be "re-elected" unopposed in this tawdry spectacle? The British death toll in Afghanistan is still rising. As we went to press, the Ministry of Defence announced that another five British soldiers had been killed in a single gun attack, also in Helmand, by a "rogue" Afghan policeman. The latest killings brought the death toll for 2009 so far to 94, making it the bloodiest year for the British armed forces since the Falklands war in 1982.

The British government's U-turns on Afghanistan have been brazen. Back in August, our ambassador in Kabul, Mark Sedwill, said he was "pretty satisfied with how these elections have gone". Then, a fortnight ago, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, conceded that there had "clearly been attempted fraud on a large scale". Now the Prime Minister rings to "congratulate" President Karzai on his "re-election" and "welcomes the decision by the Independent Electoral Commission" to cancel the run-off. President Obama has performed similar contortions, welcoming the initial result in August, then condemning it in October, and now describing President Karzai as the "legitimate leader" of Afghanistan at the start of November.

Legitimacy, however, is precisely what President Karzai - who raked in more than a million fraudulent votes - lacks. It is therefore difficult to disagree with a recent Taliban statement: "What is astonishing is two weeks ago they were arguing that the puppet president Hamid Karzai was involved in electoral fraud . . . but now he is elected as president based on those same fraudulent votes, Washington and London immediately send their congratulations."

These elections do nothing to address the Taliban challenge. It is the insurgents, and not Dr Abdullah, who are the real opponents of the Karzai government, and of the western alliance. Whether we like it or not, they have support across southern Afghanistan and represent millions of ethnic Pashtuns. In his first remarks since being declared the winner of the fraud-marred election, President Karzai, a Pashtun himself, called on his "Taliban brothers" who have been fighting an insurgency against him to "embrace their land".

Meanwhile, brave British soldiers continue to fight and die on the roads, mountains and valleys of Helmand in an unwinnable battle against those same guerrilla fighters.

On both sides of the Atlantic, officials previously involved in the conflict have begun to express concern, and even opposition. In the UK, the former Foreign Office minister Kim Howells now thinks "it would be better to bring home the great majority of our fighting men and women", arguing that the "present balance of territorial control is at best likely to remain, or more likely to shift, in favour of the Taliban".

Last month, Matthew Hoh, a diplomat who had been stationed in Zabul Province, became the first American official to step down in protest over the Afghan war. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy," he wrote in his resignation letter, "but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why, and to what end."

To what end, indeed.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.