The west must not resort to expediency in Afghanistan

The US and its allies should take a much harder look at our partners against the Taliban.

Last week, more British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan and the Commons international development select committee has said the UK should reconsider its ambition of building Afghan government institutions in favour of more traditional aid targets.

My involvement in Afghanistan goes back to 2004, when, as a Major in the Paras, I was part of a small team which conducted a reconnaissance mission to southern Afghanistan. The UK was considering moving its military effort from the north to the south, but the question was where? I vividly remember standing on the edge of a remote base in Uruzgan province surrounded by mountains, pouring over a map and discussing options with the team leader. Helmand was a key narcotics hub, the UK had the counter-narcotics lead at the time, and there were no other workable options: the only way was Helmand.

So began a commitment that would take me back to Afghanistan twice in 2005 and then again in 2007, when I commanded a company of Paratroopers and a sizeable Afghan force. We fought and lived alongside our Afghan colleagues. For the most part they were committed and brave – sometimes too brave, with a tendency to charge the enemy without waiting for the formality of an order. But it was always clear that while this partnership was essential, it came with significant and deadly risk.

One aspect of that risk has been thrown into sharp focus, with the rise in so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks and new restrictions on joint ISAF-Afghan operations. The fear is that this could undermine the entire effort to train Afghan forces, and with it our exit strategy. It is a very real concern: but it misses a larger danger.  

If the Afghan troops that I served with are not part of a minimally functioning and legitimate body politic, if the men who ultimately command them are not something more than factional leaders vying for their own self-interest, then all the training in the world won’t help. Even if ISAF was able to create effective Afghan National Security Forces, it will only help to the extent it is part of a broader move to address the underlying political problems – otherwise we are just swapping one set of uniforms for another.   

The fundamental problem is that the ISAF partners have never been able to make enough progress on the underlying strategic goal in Afghanistan; a state with enough legitimacy, integrity and capacity to not provoke major conflict, and to be able to provide reasonable levels of security. That’s not some utopian dream of "nation-building" – it’s a statement of our most basic self-interest.

In theory that’s always been the objective. It is there in General Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency (COIN) manual:"“Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule". But in practice the international actors have never resolved the tension between longer-term, more political concerns and shorter-term pressures.

There are some genuine dilemmas here – but it is also clear that expediency has been the rule far too often. While there has been much talk of the dangers of bad governance, too often we’ve witnessed the re-empowering of discredited commanders who went on to abuse the population. The talk has been about democracy, but the constitution provides few checks to presidential power. We’ve witnessed more worries about elections happening than about their substance as a way to mediate political forces. Vast resource has been committed, but often with more regard for getting money out the door than actual impact.

Generals and politicians alike have stressed the governance aspect of counter-insurgency, but that has largely meant technical measures – building courts and training staff. It is in effect an apolitical political strategy: one with little relevance to the way power is distributed, used, and abused. But politics in that sense has been the most important internal driver of the rise of the insurgency.

That is not a mandate for interference: Afghans are rightly sensitive to issues of sovereignty. But it is legitimate to hold ourselves and our Afghan partners to the commitments we have made, and for the international community to have an interest in an Afghan political process that is as healthy as possible. That includes bringing the Taliban into the tent – however uncomfortable that might be for those who have faced them on the battlefield.

But there is opportunity as well as risk in the current situation. Withdrawal in 2014 will undermine a key Taliban argument, make a settlement easier – and increase pressure on the Afghan government to step up to its responsibilities. Fewer actors should make it easier to have a coherent international policy. The peace process, and elections in 2014, are key challenges, but they provide a context to revisit the political contract among Afghans.

At the same time the temptation of expediency is stronger than ever. The scenario we are drifting towards is a clientalist relationship – one where the US and its allies back whoever can fight the Taliban and deliver the international jihadists, giving up on the supposed luxuries of governance and human rights along the way. This would be a mistake. How long will western publics want to back the Afghan government if it loses all legitimacy? How well will such a government avoid civil war? The clientalist model may be the lowest common denominator strategy, but it is far from the lowest risk.

Some might argue it is the best we can hope for given where we are. The alternative is certainly no guarantee of success – which in any case will be messy, and incomplete. But it is clearly worth trying. There are plausible paths to a much better outcome, for the world and for Afghans, and the actions of the US and its allies can help determine whether they are taken. We cannot work with angels, but we can avoid working with devils – taking a much harder look at our partners in the field and in Kabul, albeit I remember from my time there, that often, difficult judgements have to be made, involving what is morally right against what is politically expedient.

We cannot hope to solve Afghanistan’s political problems ourselves, but we can do everything in our power to encourage Afghans to do so. The Labour Party has warned against a lack of progress on the political settlement for a while but the government has now been quiet for some time. We must be sure the Taliban know they cannot win, and we must press forward with the peace process. Above all we should take a longer view, based on a clear understanding of our interests – and of the costs of expediency.

A US soldier of a team protection squad of a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction team) walks along a road under-constuction near Bagram, about 60 kms from Kabul. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

Getty
Show Hide image

How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.