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Leaving Afghanistan: is it finally time to be positive about this blighted nation?

The Afghan presidential election has been declared a success – but as the west finalises its pull-out, what the country's prospects?

There is seldom an excess of good news coming out of Afghanistan, but until the triumphant success of the presidential election on Saturday 5 April, optimism was in notably short supply among the Kabul-based foreign press corps. There were good reasons for this. As the election drew closer and the number of attacks by the Taliban increased, Kabul was particularly badly hit and institutions associated with foreigners or the foreign-backed government were targeted with remorseless precision. In January, a suicide attack on a popular restaurant, the Taverna du Liban, killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. The Serena Hotel was hit on 20 March, killing nine; and, in what could have been a bloodbath of about two dozen foreign (mostly American) aid workers and their children, an attack apparently aimed at a guest house followed on 28 March. The Independent Election Commission was attacked the following day, just two weeks after four of its staff had been kidnapped in the eastern Nangarhar Province. The interior ministry was hit by a suicide bomber on 2 April, killing six more.

In all, three foreign journalists have been shot in the past month alone: Nils Horner on 11 March and, on the day before the election, Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Many expats in Kabul fled, the government closed several restaurants and guest houses used by foreigners, and the foreign press corps seemed understandably and uncharacteristically rattled. Their reporting at times reflected that sense of panic.

The steady crescendo of attacks added to the growing sense of exhaustion with the apparently interminable conflict: 13 years after the west went in to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, to destroy al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban, the troops were now withdrawing with neither objective wholly achieved. What remained of al-Qaeda had moved to the Pakistani borderlands and elsewhere, while the Taliban now control swaths of rural southern Afghanistan. Casualties among Afghan regiments on the front lines are reaching levels that are said to be unsustainable: as many as 800 police and army are being killed every month and some regiments have lost 50 per cent of their fighting troops; a few in Helmand have desertion rates approaching a similar level.

If the Afghan troops were exhausted, their American backers increasingly seemed to have lost any remaining interest in the bloody complexities of the Afghan conflict that they had fought so long and with so little obvious gain. “No one is talking about Afghanistan in Washington any more,” says Mark Mazzetti, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times security correspondent based in the US capital. “There is deep fatigue in DC and across the US over America’s longest war. It is no longer high on anyone’s priorities and in addition the White House feels a deep animosity against Karzai.”

This all matters very much, because the western-installed government in Kabul relies almost entirely on western financial support: without sustained backing it can’t pay for elections, the army, the civil service, medical and educational facilities or tele­communications. If the funding stops, or is significantly reduced, the government is unlikely to be able to defend itself – just as happened to Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which fell to the mujahedin in 1992 after Mikhail Gorbachev cut off the money and the arms supply from the Soviet Union. “The changes which have taken place in Afghanistan since 2001 may be irreversible,” says Barnett Rubin, who recently stepped down as an adviser to Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But they are also unsustainable.”

There were many other fears – the stuttering economy, the increasing reliance of the economy on aid and narcotics, government corruption, the poorest and most illiterate population in Asia – but looming over them all was what one Afghan official described, mixing two English metaphors, as the white elephant in the room: Afghanistan’s age-old ethnic divisions, which many observers feared could be exacerbated fatally by an indecisive election outcome.

If no one succeeds in gaining a 50 per cent majority in the election (as seems likely) there will be a run-off on 28 May, and in all likelihood it will be between a Pashtun and a Tajik candidate. That could in turn put huge stress on the principal fault line that has divided the country ever since it assumed its modern borders under Dost Mohammad Khan from the late 1850s onwards.

Afghanistan has always been, like Lebanon, a country built less on any geographical or ethnic logic, and more on the contingencies of 19th-century imperial politics. Indeed, considering its ancient history, Afghanistan has had only a few hours of political unity. More often it has been “the places in between” – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours.

For much of its history its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival empires. Only very rarely have the parts come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right; and as the more gloomy commentators have pointed out, it need not take much to rip the country apart again and exacerbate tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures in Afghan society: the old rivalry between the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes and the blood feuds within lineages. After all, Afghanistan briefly splintered in a patchwork of warlord-controlled ethnic fiefdoms in 1993-94, between the collapse of the mujahedin regime and the rise of the Taliban.

Just before this month’s election, some of the more perceptive observers noted that despite the bomb attacks there were huge queues forming to register voters across the country and excitement at the well-attended rallies; but still, caught up in the fear generated by the Taliban assault on Kabul, few predicted what was to come on election day. For, in just 12 hours on 5 April, the general mood changed from anxious and frightened to jubilant and triumphant. The scale of participation in the election was unprecedented – so vast, that all over the country ballots began to run out as early as midday.

More than a third of all Afghan provinces reported shortfalls, so unstoppable was the enthusiasm of the electorate. Despite heavy rain, nearly twice as many people – an extra two and a half million Afghans – voted in this presidential election as in the previous one in 2009: seven million out of a total electorate of 12 million. There were the odd attacks on remote polling stations and 1,200 complaints about fraud. But this was nothing compared to the mess that had been predicted, or the fraud that took place in 2009. For the first time in its history, Afghanistan was going to witness a relatively peaceful transfer of power by the ballot box in a remarkably unflawed election.

By the evening of 5 April, few could disagree that the political landscape had changed in a fundamental way. “Despite the cold and rainy weather and possible terrorist attack, our sisters and brothers nationwide took in this election and their participation is a step forward and it is a success for Afghanistan,” said a relieved President Karzai in a televised official statement.

Most excited of all were the Kabul elite, who had worried that all they had built up was about to disappear. “Huge huge day for Afghanistan,” tweeted the media mogul Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s biggest channel. “A historic event ends peacefully with millions casting their votes. A massive victory for our people . . . and a massive kick in the face for the Taliban . . . Politically, this is the beginning of the end for [them].”

One reason for the unprecedented turnout at election rallies and in the election itself was the exceptional quality of the presidential candidates. They are, by any standards, an unusually smart and talented group. According to all the opinion and exit polls, there are three front-runners among the eight candidates who have just stood for president. The most brilliant is Dr Ashraf Ghani, or, as he renamed himself for the election, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The new nomenclature is important: Afghanistan is still a semi-tribal society where clan and ethnic allegiance means a great deal and can bring in block votes from rural areas.

The Ahmadzai are one of the two leading clans of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe; their only rivals are the Hotaki Ghilzai, among whom the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is the clan elder. The Ghilzais as a whole are the rivals of the Durrani Pashtuns, whose two leading clans are the Popalzai and the Barakzai. Hamid Karzai is the chief of the Popalzai and his preferred successor – and Ashraf Ghani’s main rival for Pashtun votes – is Zalmai Rassoul, who is a Barakzai from the royal family. Behind the sophistication, sharp suits and cosmopolitan CVs of all three leading candidates for president lie the tribal blocks that have defined Afghan politics for a century and a half: Ahmadzai Ghilzai v Hotaki Ghilzai; Ghilzai Pashtuns v Durrani Pashtuns; Pashtuns v Tajiks.

According to the polls, at the time of writing, Ashraf Ghani leads the race; and there is little doubt that he is the best qualified of the three contenders. A PhD from Columbia University, former World Bank official, former chancellor of Kabul University and minister of finance, Ghani has a quick wit and a formidable brain. When I was researching my book on the first Afghan war, Return of a King, Ashraf was one of the first men I visited in Kabul and the hours I spent with him in his austerely beautiful library house, filled with books, good rugs and Nuristani furniture, were probably the most revelatory of any in the whole five-year research project.

Although his specialisation in history lies well down his list of interests, coming far behind anthropology and economics, in a two-hour tutorial he gave me a long list of all the principal Persian sources for the war, many of which he was able to take down from his own shelves.

On my subsequent trips to Kabul, Ghani sent round any other books or snippets he had found, always refusing any sort of payment. Yet the same straightforward frankness and lack of dissimulation that makes him such a generous host and dedicated scholar can also cause him to be irritable and irascible. When he disagreed with some remarks I had made at a lecture in Delhi last year, he steamed straight up to the podium at the end and told me I was talking “bullshit! Bullshit!”

A Farsi video of him describing the writer and Tory MP Rory Stewart as the “son of a donkey” is still doing the rounds in Kabul. It dates back to a feud Ghani embarked on a decade ago when he accused Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation of lifting furniture designs from those developed by his wife, the Begum Rula Ghani, a formi­dable figure in Kabul society and a force in her own right.

An old friend of Ghani’s told me he feared his temper almost as much as he admired his mind. “I’m very fond of him – he’s a smart guy,” he said, “but he can be super-temperamental and is capable of totally losing the plot. I can’t even count the number of times he has thrown me out of his house. I can understand how frustrated such a bright man must be by all the idiots in Kabul – but it does worry me. If he doesn’t have the right handlers if he gets to power, he is the sort of man who could easily order an execution in a fit of anger one evening, and deeply regret it when he calms down the following morning – by which time it will be too late.”

When Ghani first stood for election in 2009, he lost so badly that the media dismissed him almost as a joke candidate. But he learned from his campaigning errors and has worked hard to make himself more appealing. As he already had strong support among the new urban youth, he concentrated on winning over rural areas. As well as adding the tribal suffix to his name, he has made himself look more tribal and less of an urban technocrat: he has grown a rather elegant salt-and-pepper beard and in his campaign photographs is usually seen wearing a mountainous Ghilzai turban.

Ghani’s most controversial – and arguably cleverest – move was to form an alliance with the Uzbek warlord and alleged war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls huge vote banks in the north. In 2009 Ghani had denounced Dostum as “a known killer”. This time he offered him the chance to become vice-president. “We need to come to a politics of inclusion, not exclusion,” he explained to Christiane Amanpour of CNN. “We must have people in the system who fought each other; without bringing these elements to genuine reconciliation and peace, we will not move towards stability.”

Like Ghani, his Tajik/Pashtun rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah is fluent, sophisticated and intelligent; but he is a smoother, suaver, less academic figure than Ghani. Ghani wears immaculately pressed white shalwar kameez; Abdullah Abdullah prefers bespoke Savile Row suits. Ghani’s home is full of low Afghan wooden chairs; Abdullah has beautiful Italian furniture. He also owns an extremely rare and valuable collection of Company School paintings of life in Afghanistan by the Delhi artists brought to the country by the British Elphinstone mission from 1808 onwards. His most recent wife, a gifted young analyst, half his age, is described by those who have met her as “the Penélope Cruz of Kabul – only much more beautiful than Cruz”.

Of the three candidates, Abdullah is the most engaging company: witty, charming and irreverent. When I last paid him a visit, he expressed irritation that Tom Ford, the then creative director of Gucci, had declared Karzai to be “the chicest man on the planet”. “I liked what Tom Ford did at Gucci,” he said, brushing a speck of dust off his cuffs. “But I would dispute that judgement.”

Abdullah rose to power as the adviser to the Tajik war hero and “Lion of the Panj­shir”, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and his house and election posters are covered with images of his former boss and hero. In the winter of 2000, a few months before Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda on 9 September 2001, Abdullah Abdullah was part of the secret meeting at which Massoud and the then almost unknown Hamid Karzai met on an island in the middle of the Oxus river to discuss how they could co-ordinate political action against Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

At the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, which followed the US defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, it was Abdullah and his Tajiks who supported Karzai for the post of provisional president. “Never before had someone from one part of the country asked someone from another part to rule in their stead,” Abdullah remembers. “It was a historic moment. I played my part. But I was very naive. I thought under his leadership we would build Afghanistan into a modern state, step by step. It was
doable, had we not missed so many opportunities. Many of those opportunities will not be repeated.

“For me, it is even more sad that I was part of this from the beginning. We had so much hope for a new start, and so many worries today. Now a new generation is looking
forward rather than looking to the past. But the great golden opportunity of 2001 will never be recovered.”

Abdullah was Karzai’s minister of foreign affairs from 2001 to 2005. They soon fell out and have had a difficult relationship ever since, especially after Abdullah withdrew from the 2009 election when it became clear that the polls were hugely rigged in Karzai’s favour. Abdullah chose not to take part in the run-off, citing his lack of faith in the ability of Karzai’s administration to hold a “fair and transparent” second round. “I have great respect for his father,” Abdullah told me, “but Hamid? Let’s just say he is one of the greatest actors that Afghanistan has ever produced.”

It was partly to thwart Abdullah that Karzai encouraged a third major candidate to stand. Zalmai Rassoul is a bespectacled former nephrologist who was chief of staff to his cousin Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, when he was exiled in Rome. Rassoul was fast-promoted by Karzai to be his minister of foreign affairs. A nephew of the great king Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) and a senior member of the royal family, which the Karzais have served faithfully for three generations, he is described by one of his friends as “a shy, moderate, blue-blooded, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking aristo”. He is widely said to be Karzai’s preferred choice as successor.

Rassoul is the oldest, greyest and least charismatic of the three presidential front-runners: on the two occasions I have met him – once at an audience in President’s Karzai’s office and the other at a dinner party thrown by the French ambassador – he was almost completely silent. On campaign, he reads prepared speeches and looks ill at ease having to kiss babies and perform all the usual idiocies of electioneering. Yet he is also said to be intelligent and urbane, an able administrator, and fluent in French, Italian and English, as well as most of the regional languages. It is also said he warms up slightly over a glass of cognac at the end of dinner.

The intelligence and polish of the candidates, and the enthusiasm with which Afghans have embraced them, are not the only reasons for the uncharacteristic optimism in Kabul. The election took place without accusations of large-scale rigging or any Taliban “spectaculars” to disrupt voting. This reflects the fact that security, though far from perfect, has not collapsed since Nato troops withdrew from front-line combat roles at the end of last year. For nearly a year, Nato has been doing almost none of the actual fighting in Afghanistan and its role has been limited to training; yet there has been no clear change in the battle lines between the government and the Taliban: security may have got worse in northern Helmand, where few from the government now venture at all, and also in Badakhshan; but to balance that it has improved notably in and around Kandahar. In July last year I travelled in complete safety to the Karzais’ home village of Karz, several miles outside Kandahar, a journey that would have been impossible a year earlier.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Afghanistan has changed beyond recognition since 2001. It is the fastest-urbanising country in Asia. Its cities have grown exponentially – Kabul alone has 20 times the population it had in 2001 – and people are travelling much more widely. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds. Schools are opening everywhere, and while there is much that still needs to be done, literacy is growing fast. The Taliban may be capable of causing widespread disruption but few believe they can roll back over the country and retake Kabul or the north. They remain a rural Pashtun force, with few supporters north of Kabul.

Afghanistan’s regional relations are also a cause for some optimism. Karzai success­fully balanced the role of its important neighbours and manipulated India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, as well as the US and UK, to advance Afghanistan’s geopolitical and economic objectives. Just as the Ottoman empire survived for a century because none of the powers that surrounded it could allow any of their rivals to benefit from its collapse, so Afghanistan is likely to survive intact because a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in the interests of all of its neighbours.

The one anxiety is Pakistan, whose army has long been fixated on the idea that it cannot allow a pro-Indian government in Kabul and, because of that, has long turned a blind eye to the Taliban operating from bases in its territory. Nevertheless British diplomats in Islamabad take the view that the Pakistani army has changed its views and policy in the past couple of years and now fears internal jihadi instability more than it fears India.

Certainly Pakistan’s terrible self-crucifixion seems to be consuming the country at the moment, and there is hope that who­ever wins the election in Afghanistan may be able to improve relations and persuade Pakistan finally to crack down on the Quetta Shura and take out the Afghan Taliban bases within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

What then of Hamid Karzai? There were many predictions that he would never give up power without a fight, and would find some pretext to delay or rig the election. But Karzai is acutely aware of his pivotal role in his country’s history and has become much more concerned with his legacy than anything else. He lived up to all his promises to oversee a peaceful transition of power.

However much he may be disliked by US officials, he remains popular as a unifier in Afghanistan and he will be remembered as a historic figure.

At our last meeting, I was able to ask him about his rule and hopes for the future. It was Ramadan and we were sitting at the desk in his office, eating our way through a huge platter of Afghan fruit: melons, grapes, figs and mountains of tiny Afghan cherries. Due to the fast, most business in Kabul had come to a halt and Karzai, having more time on his hands than usual, had agreed to spend three evenings with me talking about Afghanistan’s future.

I asked him first if he had any regrets.

“No,” he said. “I think I’ve done well. I stood up to foreign powers. Which I would do again. I did my best with the neighbours. Which I would do again. I established good relations with India, China, Russia, the Arab world. Managed, against all odds, relations with the west.”

And what of his own future?

“I will stay here. I am building a place just over the wall, near the French embassy. I am looking forward to taking a few days off. To have my own time. To relax. So I can recuperate fully.”

You feel this has aged you?

“People tell me it has aged me a lot. Just today, during the prayers, a friend of mine told me I look like an old man.

“I do look like an old man. I look much older than 55.”

So what was he most looking forward to, leaving the prison of this palace?

“I don’t feel imprisoned – not at all. I feel responsible, not imprisoned. And when I no longer have this responsibility, I’ll be free like a bird to go around this lovely country. I will visit people, go to bazaars . . .”

Could he really do that?

“Security is a fact of life all over the world, not just Afghanistan. The US president has much more security than I do when he goes out on to the streets of America.”

Did he really think he could stay in Kabul safely?

“Why not? I am optimistic.”

Wasn’t it delusionally optimistic to be so hopeful? Didn’t he think civil war was a possibility?

“This idea is just part of the American psychological warfare against me,” he replied, launching into what is now an obsession of his: the ill-intentions of the US “Deep State” to weaken and fragment Afghanistan.

“They keep telling the Afghan people that if they are not here after 2014, Afghanistan will collapse, Afghanistan will go into civil war, and all that. It’s complete rubbish.”

And he thought the future was bright? Even with the Taliban controlling so much of the rural south? Even with the economy in such a bad way?

“I am very optimistic,” he repeated. “Let me be clear. As long as the west has nothing bad up its sleeve for this region, Afghanistan will do very well. Mark my words.”

Afghanistan has been through so much in the past 40 years – the 1973 coup d’état, the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the 1.5 million deaths and six million refugees in the decade of resistance that followed, the collapse of the mujahedin government and the civil war of 1992-96, the seven long years of Taliban medievalism and Arab Afghan/al-Qaeda encroachment, and most recently the 100,000 casualties of the past 13 years of fighting between Nato and the resurgent Taliban. In that war, the US alone has already spent more than $700bn, enough to build every living Afghan a luxury apartment serviced by world-class health and education facilities – and to throw in a top-of-the-range Land Cruiser for each and every citizen, too. Instead, at the end of this, Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia, the joint most corrupt country in the world, boasting the highest illiteracy rate and worst medical and educational facilities outside a few war zones in sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take it several decades even to approach the living standards of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Against this background, it may seem mad to share Karzai’s optimism. Certainly, there are many reasons to hesitate to do so. Every Afghan I know well, however patri­otic they may be, has an exit strategy in place: a second passport, a secret bank account far away, a small apartment somewhere safe and relatively peaceful, just in case Kabul does go belly up.

Equally, 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 this month, for the first time in many years, it has been possible to suspend disbelief and to imagine a happy ending to this long and tragic tale. With foreign troops in Afghanistan, it was always possible for the Taliban to portray themselves as a legitimate, patriotic resistance movement fighting for freedom from foreign rule. With those foreign troops now either withdrawn, or locked up in their barracks, and with a free vote having taken place across the whole of Afghanistan, without systematic rigging, and with unprecedented public support and swaths of the population standing up to be counted as democrats, that legitimacy of resistance is now over. It is possible to hope that a new era of Afghan history might have just begun.

William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan” is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)

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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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