Our failure in Afghanistan

Western leaders have not been realistic about what "winning" means. On the ground, it's clear that

Ismael is drinking tea in the dusty yard of the police station in Kajaki. The job has its advantages - such as meals of bread and rice twice a day - but the pay of $60 a month barely covers the price of his cigarettes. Nor has he been home for months - though his family lives only a few miles away. Kajaki is guarded by Royal Marines, but is surrounded by insurgents. "I will be disappointed if the British are beaten and leave," he says with some understatement. "The Taliban will kill me."

Spring will be crucial for him, as it will be for Afghanistan, for the 30-odd states engaged in rebuilding the country and, of course, for the region as a whole. Last year's fierce violence gave Nato countries a very nasty shock. The next few months will show if their hastily formulated plans to make up for the ground lost since the invasion of 2001 will work - or whether the violence will continue or worsen.

Few expect the 35,000 Nato troops - newly reinforced with American and British soldiers - to be defeated in the coming months; nor is President Hamid Karzai's government likely to collapse. But the fact that the Taliban are far from beaten is widely acknowledged. The outgoing head of the Nato forces, General David Richards, says the threat from the insurgents in Afghan istan has been "contained". Like Tony Blair, he insists that the war in Afghanistan is "win nable". Is it?

First, blame where blame is due. We are fighting a war that did not need to be fought. Travelling around the south and east of Afghanistan in 2002, I found much support for the western troops who, locals believed, had come to help them. Even in late 2003, in the small village south of Kandahar, where the Taliban had been founded nine years earlier, people had yet to turn against the coalition. But the west left the south of Afghanistan to rot. In 2004, three years after being invaded by an alliance of the richest countries on earth, there were malnourished children in Kandahar hospital. Apart from being a moral disgrace, the failure to keep, not win, the famous "hearts and minds" that are now so talked about, was criminally negligent.

But, despite all the mistakes, I am still optimistic. First, much of the country away from the south remains stable, relatively secure and shows considerable evidence of, albeit patchy, economic progress. This is a testament to the resilience and initiative of the Afghans.

Second, while the constant reliance on airpower remains a major problem - partly because of civilian casualties and partly because if the insurgents get hold of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles the whole operation will fall apart - at least the nature of the enemy has finally been recognised by the British army and many of its allies. The UK's strategy of trying to separate the "irreconcilable" Taliban hardcore from the "reconcilable" bought, coerced or merely disgruntled foot-soldiers is the right one. Some of the more enlightened soldiers have also grasped that "Taliban" is not necessarily the best label for the varied range of actors that comprise the rebellion, narco-war, jihad, jacquerie, fronde and revolt that is the war.

Third, it is now understood that progress in Pakistan - where an effective "state with no name" based on the Deobandi religious school network and attached political, commercial and military elements has been allowed to flourish over the past 30 years - is critical. And finally, most now see that the only people who can sort out Afghanistan are the Afghans, and that building Kabul's ability to deliver security and basic services and a form of democracy is better than getting foreign contractors to build bridges with other nations' flags painted on them.

Be realistic

So, five years too late, the west is getting a handle on what needs to be done. But recent summits aimed at getting more support for Afghanistan have been miserly affairs. Keeping the support and the interest of western populations is vital if Afghanistan's development is to be put back on track and then sustained.

For this, our leaders need to be realistic about what "winning" means. They need to jettison half the rubbish spouted by the government in 2001. That conflict was never about liberating women, developing Afghanistan or solving refugee crises - all of which could have been tried at any time over the previous decade - but about eradicating a security threat. We are not going to "liberate" women in Afghanistan for a generation or so, because trying to do so will play into the insurgents' hands. Every rash attempt to "reform" the ultra-conservative Afghan rural population in the past 100 years has sparked violence. Nor are we going to eradicate heroin. We are not going to stabilise the south rapidly either.

Instead, we can contain the insurgency while the rest of the country makes slow progress. But we need to be prepared to commit very considerable resources for a long time. And we need to have sensible expectations. In 20 years, if we are really lucky, Afghanistan will still be a fairly unstable, desperately poor, horribly unequal, often repressive and violent place - just less so than now. However, it will also have the chance to be none of those things a few decades further down the line. And that is the least we owe Ismael.

Jason Burke is European correspondent for the Observer and author of "Al-Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam" (Penguin)

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times