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Commons confidential: Balls tweet auction, Lib Dem caution and Dafydd Cameron in Wales

Plus: could Gloria De Piero be a future culture secretary?

The US ambassador to London, the Democratic Party fundraiser Matthew Barzun, likes to tell of how he learned a few words of Welsh in the lead-up to the 2014 Nato summit in Newport, only to find that the locals spoke English. Dafydd Cameron took a different route on a recent foray to lecture the Welsh Tories in Cardiff. A copy of the speech he delivered was punctuated by phonetic translations. He was advised to say that the Wales minister Alun Cairns is from “Ysgol [pronounced Usgol] Pontardawe” and that he’d tell Labour’s Stephen Kinnock “da iawn” [pronounced “dye yown”, meaning “very good”] on 7 May when he comes second to the Tory candidate for Aberavon, the China-born “Edward Yi He [pronounced Yee Hay]”. Labour used to do the same with the word-mangling John Prescott after he stumbled over Slobodan Milosevic.

Disloyal of Danny Alexander to exclude Nick Clegg from Talk of the Glens, the eight-page glossy magazine given out to his Highlands constituents. There’s a recipe for Danny’s sausage and butternut squash stew, a crossword, an approving reference to Harriet Harman’s “ginger rodent” gibe, photos galore and an interview with his dad, Di, a former fireman. But no mention of Clegg. Indeed, all references to the Lib Dems are restricted to the back page. It seems the man who styles himself “Our Champion” is going it alone. Danny will have only himself to blame if he loses.

The Great British Battleaxe, Christine Hamilton, is selling cereal bars. Christine will soon appear on television fronting an ad campaign for the weight-loss range Slim-Be. The larger-than-life (though she claims to have dropped a dress size by eating what she’s flogging) Tory-turned-Ukip activist is, like her husband, Neil, the ex-MP, increasingly disillusioned with the Purple Shirts. Farage made it clear there’s room for a solitary ego in the party and his own is insatiable. At the rate the party is falling in the polls, it could yet win Political Slimmer of the Year.

To Leeds, and Morley’s magnificent, colonnaded old town hall. The Grade I-listed Victorian masterpiece boasts a bust of Herbert Asquith, a local lad who for eight years in the Edwardian era was Liberal prime minister. The current MP is Ed Balls. A copy of his notorious tweet (of his own name) was auctioned for £250. The fundraiser was split with Dewsbury, where Labour’s Paula Sherriff (younger sister of Lee Sherriff, standing in Carlisle) hopes to overturn the Tory barrister Simon Reevell’s vulnerable 1,526 majority. The talk in Dewsbury Labour ranks was of a Conservative action day to flood the former mill town’s streets with activists. They couldn’t fill a taxi.

From breakfast TV to culture secretary? That’s the word on Gloria De Piero if Labour wins the election.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics