Leader: The London summit won’t bring peace to Afghanistan

The Afghanistan war remains unwinnable. Britain should be making plans to withdraw

On 28 January, foreign ministers from around the world will gather in London for a conference on Afghanistan. The aim is to mobilise international efforts behind a plan for how to deploy military and civilian resources on the ground. The London conference will be chaired by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Writing exclusively in the New Statesman this week (page 25) ahead of the conference, Mr Miliband stresses the importance of a "clear political strategy", and says: "We will be looking to President Karzai's government to show that its intentions on security and governance will be carried through into action."

The Karzai government, however, has much work to do. So, too, do Nato forces. The harsh reality is that Afghanistan continues to lack both effective security and good governance. On 18 January, Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers launched a spectacularly brazen attack in the heart of Kabul, killing five people, wounding more than 70 others and striking a blow at the image that Nato forces and the Afghan government have tried to propagate: of a country heading towards peace, calm and normality.

The truth is that violent attacks of one sort or another are common in the capital. According to one estimate, there is a "security incident" every seven to ten days, on average, in Kabul. Meanwhile, a map published last year by the International Council on Security and Development showedthat the Taliban have a "permanent presence" across four-fifths of Afghanistan - with "permanent presence" in any province defined as one or more insurgent attacks, lethal or non-lethal, a week.

The fighting in Afghanistan has intensified in recent months, but with no real security gains for ordinary Afghans. Figures released by the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan show that civilian casualties rose significantly in 2009, to 2,412 - up 14 per cent on 2008. The rise made 2009 the deadliest year for Afghans since the war began in October 2001. With President Obama's decision to escalate the war by sending in 30,000 extra troops, this conflict will become only bloodier in 2010. The coffins of dead British soldiers will continue to arrive at Wootton Bassett.

Can the Taliban insurgency be defeated on the battlefield? One of the most senior British commanders in Afghanistan is sceptical. "In terms of whether we can defeat them, no," Lieutenant Colonel Nick Kitson told reporters in Helmand this past week. "Anyone who studies counter-insurgency will know that you are not going to win by military means alone, and therefore our focus is on the population, the security of the population, and generating the pre-eminence of the Afghan government."

Yet there is little positive news on the issue of "governance", either. The Afghan government is far from pre-eminent and lacks popular support. Hamid Karzai, after all, was re-elected in a presidential election marred by the discovery of millions of fraudulent votes. He will arrive at theconference in London having failed to fill nearly half the positions in his cabinet after the Afghan parliament rejected most of his nominees. Legislators have rejected the president's picks twice this month; 11 of the 25 seats remain vacant.

Meanwhile, corruption is rampant. According to a new report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghans have paid £1.5bn in bribes over the past 12 months - the equivalent of almost a quarter of legitimate GDP. The report found that more than half the population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official last year.

Corruption, violence, insecurity, political deadlock . . . the problems besetting Afghanistan seem intractable. And the war remains unwinnable. As Sir Rodric Braithwaite, Britain's ambassador to Moscow from 1988-92, writes in his essay on page 22, the British and the Americans have failed to learn the lessons of history in Afghanistan - in particular, the disastrous experience of the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. “In a purely military sense, the British won their wars in the 19th century and the Russians won theirs in 1979-89," he writes. "It was the surrounding politics that went wrong."

If the British government and its allies think a conference in London will resolve the political and military crises in Afghanistan, they are deluded. Listen to the outspoken Afghan MP Malalai Joya (interviewed on page 28): "I don't expect anything positive from the London conference at all. Since 2001, there have been a number of conferences. They have only pushed Afghanistan further into the hands of the occupying forces and their local agents."

She is right: Britain should be making plans to withdraw.

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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It's time for the government to think again about Hinkley Point

The government's new nuclear power station is a white elephant that we simply don't need.

Today I will welcome Denis Baupin, Vice President of the French Assembly, to Hinkley.

His own choice to come and visit the site of the proposed new nuclear power station reflects his strong desire to prevent the UK disappearing up a dangerous dark alley in terms of energy policy. It also takes place as France takes a totally different path, with the French government recently adopting a law which will reduce nuclear energy in the country.

Greens have opposed Hinkley ever since the government announced its nuclear strategy. Hinkley, with its state aid and an agreed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt, has always been financially and legally suspect but it is now reaching the level of farce. So much so that George Osborne is required to be economical with the truth in front of a House of Lords committee because he cannot find anything honest to say about why this is a good deal for the British people.

Mr Baupin and I will join hundreds of protestors – and a white elephant – to stand in solidarity against this terrible project. The demonstration is taking place under a banner of the triple risks of Hinkley. 

First, there are the safety and technological risks. It is clear that the Pressurised Water nuclear reactor (EPR) – the design proposed for Hinkley C – simply does not work. France’s nuclear safety watchdog has found multiple malfunctioning valves that could cause meltdown, in a similar scenario to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US.  The steel reactor vessel, which houses the plant’s nuclear fuel and confines its radioactivity, was also found to have serious anomalies that increase the risk of it cracking. Apart from the obvious safety risks, the problems experienced by the EPR reactors being built at Flammanvile in France and Olkiluoto in Finland have pushed the projects years behind schedule.

Secondly, Hinkley poses risks to our energy security. Hinkley is supposed to produce 7% of the UK's energy. But we now know there will be no electricity from the new nuclear plant until at least 2023. This makes power blackouts over the next decade increasingly likely and the only way to avoid them is to rapidly invest in renewable energy, particularly onshore wind. Earlier this week Bloomberg produced a report showing that onshore wind is now the cheapest way to generate electricity in both the UK and Germany. But instead of supporting onshore wind this government is undermining it by attacking subsidies to renewables and destroying jobs in the sector. 

Thirdly, there is the risk of Chinese finance. In a globalised world we are expected to consider the option of allowing foreign companies and governments to control our essential infrastructure. But it is clear that in bequeathing our infrastructure we lose the political control that strengthens our security. The Chinese companies who will be part of the deal are part owned by the Chinese government and therefore controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. What a toppy-turvy world globalisation has created, where our Conservative British government is inviting the Chinese Communist party to control our energy infrastructure. It also seems that China National Nuclear Company is responsible for the manufacture of Chinese nuclear weapons.

Of course it is the Chinese people who suffer most, being at the hands of an oppressive government and uncontrolled companies which show little respect for employment rights or environmental standards. By offering money to such companies from British consumers through their energy bills our government is forcing us to collude in the low human rights and environmental standards seen in China.  

Research I commissioned earlier this year concluded we can transform the South West, not with nuclear, but with renewables. We can generate 100 per cent of our energy needs from renewables within the next 20-30 years and create 122,000 new quality jobs and boost the regional economy by over £4bn a year.

The white elephant of Hinkley looks increasingly shaky on its feet. Only the government’s deeply risky ideological crusade against renewables and in favour of nuclear keeps it standing. It’s time for it to fall and for communities in the South West to create in its place a renewable energy revolution, which will lead to our own Western Powerhouse. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.