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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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”


Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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