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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.