The new Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has got off to a flying start in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Times on Saturday, he said:
We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened.
Understandably, this hasn’t gone down too well in Afghanistan. The Times today quotes a senior Afghan government official:
His view appears to be that Afghanistan has not changed since the 13th century and it implies that Afghanistan is a tribal and medieval society.
The source adds:
We see Britain as still a colonial, orientalist and racist country that they should have this view.
Fox’s response has been somewhat inadequate. He clarified that his point was that national security was more important than nation-building, but on the insulting tone of his comments, his office said only:
Hamid Karzai has used similar words himself, describing what the Taliban left behind as 13th- or 14th-century.
There are several problems here. First of all, his comment overlooks the fact that a stable Afghan state is central to the interests of our national security.
As my colleague Mehdi Hasan has pointed out, it is estimated that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. We are no longer fighting terrorists in the country. Therefore, the only way to “serve the British interest” is by ensuring that a government is in place that is strong enough to fend off the Taliban, who, if back in government, could allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists once more. It’s tenuous at best.
The second point, which Fox has declined to address, is the patronising, colonial overtones of his comments. Perpetuating an existing perception of a conquering western power that views Afghanistan as primitive and inferior is hugely damaging. Fox can think whatever he likes in private, but he cannot afford to alienate the Afghan people any longer.