Glimmer of hope: women queue to vote in the recent Afghan elections
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Leader: the lessons of the Afghanistan misadventure have not been learned

It was by accident, not by design, that the UK avoided being drawn into the sectarian vortex of Syria.

For too long, Afghanistan has served as evidence of the folly of western military intervention. The cost, in both blood and treasure, of what Barack Obama once called “the good war” has exceeded all initial forecasts. Over the 12-year occupation, Nato has spent more than $1trn and the coalition has lost 3,430 soldiers. Britain’s involvement has cost the government £38bn, with 448 troops killed and thousands more wounded. At least 30,000 Afghan civilians have died in the conflict.

If the costs have long been clear, the gains have not. Al-Qaeda, the destruction of which was the original intention of the mission, has regrouped in the Pakistani borderlands, spawning murderous affiliates in Iraq, Syria and eastern and northern Africa. The resurgent Taliban have seized control of large parts of the rural south. Afghanistan is now ranked as one of the three most corrupt countries and the world’s biggest opium producer. It is the poorest state in Asia and 175th on the UN’s chart for gender equality.

The presidential election on 5 April, coinciding with the withdrawal of British troops from Helmand Province, was expected to confirm the grim prognosis. The months before the contest were marked by a new wave of Taliban attacks on foreigners and government institutions. The election, it was commonly thought, would succumb to violence, intimidation and fraud.

Yet, against expectations, as William Dalrymple reports on page 32, the vote has provided rare grounds for hope. In defiance of the Taliban, 58 per cent of the electorate turned out, nearly twice as many as in 2009, with women accounting for a third of voters. Such was the desire to participate that polling stations began to run out of ballots by midday. Had it not been for the unexpectedly large queues and the closure of some voting centres in the restive south, turnout would have been even higher. The Taliban, determined to render the election void, planned a barrage of attacks but in the presence of 400,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers, only 140 took place. What was once deemed impossible now appears probable: the first peaceful transfer of power in the tragic history of Afghanistan.

Rather than clinging to office, as many predicted, Hamid Karzai has not just tolerated but encouraged the free and fair election of a successor. Initial results suggest that a second-round run-off (assuming no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote) is likely to be fought between the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, the outgoing president’s main opponent in 2009, and the charismatic technocrat Ashraf Ghani. Zalmai Rassoul, Mr Karzai’s preferred successor, appears to have been defeated but beyond any individual candidate, the president’s loyalty is to the democratic transition on which his reputation depends.

It would be careless to assume that this progress will last. As Mr Dalrymple notes, “There are a million things that could still go wrong: the withdrawal of US military and civilian aid; Indo-Pak rivalry leading to renewed support by Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban; the collapse of the fragile Afghan economy; or a growing Pashtun/Tajik fracture following a disputed election run-off in May.” But in the lead-up to the departure of almost all western forces at the end of this year, those Afghans committed to democracy have a chance to chart their own course, free from the taint of “collaboration” with foreign troops.

There are some who will cite this achievement as justification for all that has gone before – but they would be wrong. In some respects, it was in spite of the occupation, not because of it, that the election was successful.

The calamitous decision not to negotiate with the Taliban and seek a political settlement early in the conflict led to years of avoidable violence. The British, given their imperial history, should have known that occupation and military force would not pacify the country known as “the graveyard of empires”.

Yet, even after more than a decade of war, the lessons of this misadventure have still not been learned. It was by accident, not by design, that the UK avoided being drawn into the sectarian vortex of Syria. The reckless intervention in Libya left that country ungovernable and allowed thousands of jihadists to spill over into Algeria and Mali. As Afghans prepare to fight for their country’s future, the obstacles they face should serve as a permanent reminder that the west must never start what it cannot finish.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.