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

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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.