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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.