Back to the USSR

The invasion of Afghanistan was disastrous for the Soviets, leading ultimately to a humiliating with

The Prime Minister tells us that our aims in Afghanistan are clear, justified, realistic and achievable. Three-quarters of the terrorist plots against us, he says, originate in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He wants the Afghans to deal with this threat themselves, so that we can bring our soldiers home.

So we and our allies are training the army and police, improving "governance", tackling corruption and drugs, promoting education, health care and economic development. We will thus, says the Foreign Secretary, unite "key players behind shared goals - al-Qaeda kept out, the different tribal groups kept onside, and the neighbours prepared to play a constructive role". All this, alas, is management-speak, with no obvious link between cause and effect.

Perhaps Gordon Brown's London conference on 28 January will cast a clearer light on these hugely difficult issues. History is not necessarily a reliable guide to action. Circumstances change, and so do outcomes. But ignorance of history is a bad basis for policymaking. The debate about Afghanistan is contaminated with myth and illusion. One is that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, and that Nato is about to go the same way as the Russians and the British in the 19th century. That is too simple. In a purely military sense, the British won their wars in the 19th century and the Russians won theirs in 1979-89. It was the surrounding politics that went wrong.

For the British, the history of Afghanistan is a compound of jolly stuff about the Great Game and self-righteous stuff about dastardly Russian interference in places that were rightly our exclusive business. The differences are fewer than we like to think. Both Britain and Russia were driven by the same motives: the promotion of trade and the security of their imperial frontiers, justified by ideas of glory and the notion of a "civilising mission". Both gained their ends through diplomacy, bribery, deceit, intrigue, treachery and ruthless force. Each was paranoid about the other: the British thought that the Russians were out to get their Indian territories, the Russians that the British wanted to control central Asia. Neither seriously entertained such unpromising projects, although hotheads on both sides occasionally came up with wild schemes.

To read the full version of this piece, pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, available in all good newsagents.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.