Leader: We must talk to the Taliban and end this war

The Americans and British must seek a negotiated political settlement immediately.

Announcing the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghan­istan, and his replacement by General David Petraeus, President Barack Obama said: "This is a change in personnel, not a change in policy." But the president is wrong. There needs to be a change in policy before it is too late and while the coalition forces are still able to negotiate from a position of relative strength and influence.

The Americans and the British cannot win their war in Afghanistan; the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. The Afghan people have demonstrated throughout their long history that they will resist all attempts to be ruled from abroad or to have western-style puppet governments imposed upon them. Occupying forces from the British in the 19th century to the Soviet Union in the 20th century have demonstrated similarly that they do not have the patience or stamina to win a war and then secure a lasting peace in that blighted country.

There is widespread recognition among the lesser coalition partners that this latest Afghan war cannot be won on the battlefields. One by one, our allies are withdrawing or announcing their intention to withdraw. The Dutch will leave by the end of the year; the Canadians and Danish will follow in 2011. President Obama himself has signalled his intention to begin drawing down troops from as early as July 2011, and David Cameron has said that he would like Britain to have left altogether by 2015.

On 29 June, the bodies of the latest British soldiers to have died in the conflict were brought home. Once more, the crowds were out on the streets of Wootton Bassett to honour the fallen. More than 300 British troops have died in Afghanistan since the war began in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. Over 100 have died in the past year alone - an intensification of losses that bespeaks the failure of the policy of counter-insurgency.

Britain has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan; the Americans have roughly 100,000. The US has lost 1,000 troops; thus, the British losses, proportionally, are greater. Yet there is little recognition in American society of these British sacrifices or of the role that our troops are playing. In Michael Hastings's controversial profile of General McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine, revelations from which led to the general's sacking, there was no mention of the British presence. The implication was that the Americans are in this on their own.

That may be the perception in the US, but the reality for the British troops on the ground is starkly different. The question that is being asked - even by those who once supported the occupation and its aims - is why our soldiers are continuing to die in a war that cannot be won. There was much bluster from Gordon Brown and others, to the effect that we were fighting in Afghanistan so that our people could walk safely on the streets of Britain, free from the threat of Islamist terrorists trained there.

This is nonsense. Before the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent illegal Iraq war, Britain was not under threat from al-Qaeda and even less so from indigenous terrorists. Rather, Tony Blair's wars radicalised young British Muslims, just as the educated, middle-class American citizen Faisal Shahzad, who failed in his attempt to launch a car-bomb attack on Times Square, New York, in May, was radicalised by deaths of civilians in US Predator-drone attacks on north-western Pakistan.

Our political leaders remain in denial. Listening to Harriet Harman, the hawkish acting leader of the Labour Party, discuss Afghanistan is to be reminded of the calamity that befell Labour during the years of Mr Blair's foreign policy misadventures. At least Ms Harman has not displayed the spectacular ignorance of the new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, who said recently: "[We are] not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country." In fact, what is required of the coalition in Afghanistan is precisely more investment in development projects, in education, road construction, irrigation, energy and health.

Afghanistan has been ravaged by war for more than three decades. The country has been under occupation of US-led Nato forces for the past nine years. The western-installed government, led by Hamid Karzai, is corrupt. The Taliban are barbaric and reactionary. Yet the Americans and British must not cut and run in despair. They must seek a negotiated political settlement immediately - and that means talking to and negotiating with the Taliban. The alternative is defeat for the allies and perpetual war for Afghans.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.