Leader: There is no good reason for our troops to remain in Afghanistan

The longer we stay in Afghanistan, the worse things will become.

The murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue US soldier, in a house-to-house rampage across two villages just 500 metres from a US base in Kan­dahar Province, has led to much soul-searching. The dead included nine children and three women. A Pentagon spokesman described the 11 March shootings as a deplorable but "isolated" incident. They were not. In 2010, a group of US soldiers killed three Afghan civilians "for sport" and posed for pictures with the corpses; in January this year, a video emerged of US marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans.

We cannot ignore such crimes. On page 11, Frank Ledwidge, a former military intelligence officer and author of the acclaimed book Losing Small Wars, argues that the soldier accused in the most recent case "must take personal responsibility for his actions". The rest of us, he adds, "must reflect on our own willingness to send young men and women into wars such as this, time after time".

Why are we still in Afghanistan? Does anyone believe in the cause? The inconvenient truth is that most al-Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan long ago. US officials estimate that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters left inside Afghanistan; the Pentagon has conceded that the last time US troops killed an al-Qaeda fighter in the country was in April 2011.

Whether or not the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was justified following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 is irrelevant now; few imagined Nato forces would still be fighting the Taliban more than a decade later in an intractable conflict that has dragged on twice as long as the Second World War.

The New Statesman has repeatedly called for a full withdrawal of British forces from the killing fields of Helmand. In August 2009, in a leader, we called on the previous Labour government to "set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Our military presence is part of the problem, not the solution." We pointed out then that our heavy-handed military presence had become a recruiting sergeant, both for the anti-infidel Taliban insurgency and for al-Qaeda sympathisers in the UK. Since then, 208 British troops have died in Afghanistan, the killing of six soldiers in a roadside explosion on 6 March taking the death toll to 404 - more than twice as many as were killed in Iraq.

What of the blighted civilians of Afghanistan, so often forgotten? Tens of thousands of innocent Afghans have been killed since 2001; a recent UN study claimed that the number of civilian casualties had risen for the fifth year in a row.

Our Afghan misadventure has been a humanitarian and political disaster. And yet, writing in a joint editorial in the Washington Post of 13 March to coincide with David Cam­eron's visit to the US, the Prime Minister and President Barack Obama said that Afghanistan "remains a difficult mission. We honour the profound sacrifices of our forces, and in their name we'll carry on the mission."

This is wilful blindness. Soldiers will continue to kill and be killed; the UK's humiliating pull-out is merely being postponed. The year 2014 has been agreed as an end date for military operations but, as the Conservative MP Rory Stewart, one of the west's shrewdest observers of Afghanistan, wrote in the London Evening Standard on 12 March: "It is only a deadline: we are not obliged to stay till the last day."

The western allies could once have negotiated with the Taliban from a position of strength. That time is long past. The violence and bloodshed will continue, whether we stay or go. However, as Stewart wrote: "The longer we stay, the worse things will become."

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide