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 shadow justice minister and Labour MP for Barnsley Central.

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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