On September 11th 2001, did you fear that London would also be a target?
— Trevor Phillips on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) September 12, 2021
On September 11th 2001, did you fear that London would also be a target?
— Trevor Phillips on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) September 12, 2021
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was Bishop of Rochester for 15 years. He is originally from Southwest Asia and was the first Diocesan Bishop in the Church of England born abroad.
I was born and brought up in neighbouring Pakistan and ministered up and down the land during the first civil war in Afghanistan, when five million Afghans took refuge in Pakistan. I was involved in the Church’s efforts to relieve their sufferings and to provide educational and medical facilities for them.
As Bishop of Raiwind, though, I warned both Pakistan and the West that the arming and training of extremist groups, from within Pakistan and Afghanistan and from the wider world, to fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan would lead to the emergence of groups like the Taliban and would internationalise extremist Islamism.
This is, indeed, what happened. The Soviet threat was contained and, in fact, led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union itself but, since then, extremist Islamism has flourished both in the region and more widely than that.
As General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), I worked closely with the local churches in supporting the vital work of hospitals, founded by CMS, all along the long Pakistan-Afghan border serving the neediest people of both countries. They will, undoubtedly, be needed again.
From such a long association with the region, what has struck me most forcibly this time is the way in which the American-led West has simply abandoned a society it has helped to create. The oft-heard nostrums of politicians, that the West had gone in simply to avenge Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11 and to make sure it never recurred again, ring hollow. The establishing of a culturally appropriate form of democracy, encouraging and funding civil society, female education and much else besides was not extra to the task of eradicating the threat of regional and international terrorism from the soil of Afghanistan, but integral to it.
Will nations, for example in the Indo-Pacific area, even now being garnered to protect the West’s interests there, ever again be able to trust the West? When, they will ask themselves, will they be told that Western self- interest no longer needs their friendship? The unilateral American decision to withdraw all troops is morally irresponsible, as is collusion with it by other Western powers, even if some, like Britain, had reservations about it.
It seems to me, that the least that could have been done was to have made withdrawal conditional on a comprehensive peace agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Without such an agreement, withdrawal is tantamount to handing over large sections of the Afghan people to the whims of a movement known for its past and present brutality.
Sensing blood, the vultures are circling: ISIS is active already, and not only in the remoter parts of country. We can be sure that others like Al Qaeda and the notorious Haqqani Group, for long allied with the Taliban, cannot be far behind.
The resurgence of extremist Islamism on Afghan soil has significant implications for the region. The Central Asian nations, consisting of the former Soviet republics, are terrified of Taliban infiltration, and will become even more draconian in their determination to stamp out what they see as extremism. Most of them remain within the Russian circle of influence and Russia also needs to make sure its own southern flank is not radicalised further.
China, similarly, has become alarmed at what it sees as extremist influence permeating its Western region of Xinjiang and we can expect a further tightening there of the plight of the Uighur ethnic group. The security situation in Pakistan has greatly improved of late, but the Afghan Taliban owe a great deal to safe havens provided by radical groups in Pakistan. There will certainly be ‘quid pro quo’ demands for them now to find hospitality in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. What will be the implications of such cross border bases for security in Pakistan? I am not holding my breath.
Within Afghanistan itself, there is the possibility of civil war with Northern Dari speaking tribal groups and their leaders( sometimes misleadingly called ‘warlords’ in the West) likely to resist the Pashtun-led Taliban and their interpretation of Shari’a. Civil and military chaos, if not Taliban complicity, will surely result in the country, once again, becoming a base for extremist violence not limited to the region. If and when this happens, the West’s decision to withdraw unilaterally and unconditionally will begin to look not just morally weak but strategically foolish.
In the meantime, American female journalists in Afghanistan donning hijab and chador to report is a sign of what is coming for Afghan women and girls. Women have already been told to wear the burqa (the all enveloping veil which covers the face) or to wear the niqab (a face mask) and gloves in any public appearance. They will not be allowed to work with men and their access to education, especially higher education, remains in doubt. All the gains made by them in the professions, in public life and in civil society could be just wiped out as they were when the Taliban were last in power.
The situation of religious minorities is also parlous. The minority, and largely Shi’a, Hazara have already declared that they are facing genocide. My post bag and reports from aid agencies bear witness that Christians, Sikhs and Hindus are desperate to flee and the rich Buddhist heritage of the Gandhara Indo-Hellenistic civilisation is again in jeopardy.
The reimposition of Shari’a penal law could bring us the spectacle of public executions, mutilations and floggings, sometimes for minor offences like violating the strict dress code, petty theft or ‘obscene’ entertainment like mixed dancing, even in private.
Britain, of course, needs to honour its obligations to those who assisted its mission in Afghanistan but, in the face of such an apocalyptic situation, there must be urgent international agreement about the flood of refugees that is likely to result from a Taliban takeover
Europe should not be left to bear the brunt of such a mass movement, as it was with the war in Syria. North America, Australasia and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation must all take their full share of refugees. A condition of any recognition of a Taliban-led government should be respect for fundamental freedoms, especially for women, girls and religious and ethnic minorities. The Taliban should accept UN and other accredited rapporteurs to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan from time to time. Such monitoring and reporting will include not only the condition of groups like women and minorities, but also matters like respect for the person in the application of penal law and the withholding of inhumane and degrading punishments. The rapporteurs must have access to the country and to the groups they are monitoring.
Many of these measures, whilst urgent and necessary, are but bandages for a wound which will take much time to heal. In the longer term, the aim must be the promotion of a culturally appropriate democracy, adherence to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, particularly Article 18 which deals with freedom of belief and expression, and guarantees regarding female access to education and employment. We must ensure, now western troops are home, that the world does not forget the vulnerable in Afghanistan and that may mean a majority of the population.
Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.”
Reviewing Barack Obama’s first term in office, Joe Biden, then Vice President, provided a pithy summary in 2012.
Almost a decade after al-Qaeda’s world-changing 9/11 attack on America, in May 2011 US Special Forces finally got their man. He had been hiding out in Abbottabad, which could be twinned with Aldershot, on the other side of Afghanistan’s often conveniently porous border with Pakistan.
Up there with other great political comebacks are now the Taliban. Ten years after the unlamented passing of bin Laden, history’s most troublesome paying guest, 20 years after being ousted by NATO forces and the local Northern Alliance, the regime is now in power. Or, as the lawyer for ISIS-groupie Shamima Begum tweeted to accompany the image of gun-carrying fighters with their feet under the Presidential desk in Kabul, “The boys are back in town”.
The success of Taliban 2.0 in the past two weeks has made us question the worth of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Or should that be missions?
In his memoirs Tony Blair reflects on his choices after the first Taliban regime was overthrown: “Like it or not, from then on, we were in the business of nation-building.” A Journey was published in 2010 with the benefit of hindsight. Britain joined American military action in Afghanistan in late 2001 under our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations. Back then, there was no plan to set up a liberal democracy or to educate girls.
Keen to keep busy after the end of the Cold War – “Go out of area or go out of business” – in June 2004 NATO members committed to an expanded operation in Afghanistan. Like a bust Monopoly player’s properties, the country’s provinces were divvied up. Outlining the scope of the British military mission in Helmand, in January 2006, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, talked the talk about “a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change” and “finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium”. He added “waging war is not our aim”.
With British forces under heavy fire from the Taliban almost as soon as their boots were on the ground, the current doubts about the quality of Afghan-related intelligence are hardly new. After all, Secretary Reid stated “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.
Stabilisation? Protecting reconstruction? Nation-building? Counter-terrorism? Counter-insurgency? Counter-poppy? Combat? With the Blair-Brown government unsure of its objective in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising the public was baffled about the British role. In October 2006, 64 per cent reported there was no clear strategy. Three years later, 42 per cent did not understand the purpose of the British mission and more than 60 per cent believed the war was unwinnable and all troops should be withdrawn.
Conversely, Service personnel had never been held in higher esteem, approval ratings which continue today. Soldiers’ service and sacrifice – including the preparedness to make the ultimate sacrifice – became especially apparent on the final melancholy journeys through Wootton Bassett. The changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years have come about not least because of the professionalism and commitment of Britain’s Servicemen and women.
Combat operations ended in 2015. To paraphrase Keir Starmer, in the context of Afghanistan most of us in Britain seem to have been on the beach ever since. How many were aware of Operation Toral, the UK’s mission to train local Afghan Forces, not least at Sandhurst-in-the-Sand? Who raised concerns about the Trump-Taliban deal in Doha?
MPs’ semi-detached attitude towards Afghanistan was underlined by the almost complete absence of statesmanship in Wednesday’s Emergency Debate. Of course, given that most of our representatives have not actually bothered to show up for work for 15 months, they are out of practice, but that is no excuse for sanctimony at levels rivalling the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Apart from Tom Tugendhat, Dan Jarvis and a handful of others, most MPs should have stayed at home.
Regime change, which many MPs were in favour of in Iraq, usually involves chaos, bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis. Has the Stop the War movement become Continue the Military Intervention?
Perhaps Washington’s critics should tell us just how much they would like to take from the NHS budget to pay for an increase in defence to cover a unilateral British mission to Afghanistan. For the past half century this country has chosen welfare over warfare, sheltering under an American defence umbrella. US taxpayers have spent $2 trillion; more than 20,000 US Service personnel have been injured and 2,400 killed. With so much American blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan, evincing some gratitude toward our chief NATO ally would have been fitting.
What of the bigger strategic picture? The silence from MPs on this was deafening. The Prime Minister was correct to point out that deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is not an option.
In the rush to judgment over the past week, few have stopped to ask why the Taliban could seize power so easily. So far, the handover has been comparatively orderly. Just as London is not Britain, cosmopolitan Kabul might not be Afghanistan.
And who are the Taliban 2.0? How do they fit into this tribal multi-ethnic country, where mobile phone ownership has gone from about 30,000 to 22.5 million in the past 20 years. Supposing they are less medieval executioners-in-football-stadia and more 21st century smartphone-savvy operators, mindful of optics seen globally and instantly?
If Britain has a problem doing business with an Islamic regime with dubious attitudes towards women and civil rights, there goes most of the Middle East. As yet there are no evacuation helicopters hovering over the embassies of China and Russia in Kabul: perhaps staff are too busy drawing up deals over mineral rights and infrastructure.
This week President Biden declared that “we” could not provide “them” with the will to fight. A young British Army officer might well have disagreed. The Malakand Field Force describes a short military campaign in 1897 in a tribal area near the Durand Line, the newly-drawn border between British India and Afghanistan, specifically designed to protect Britain’s imperial interests.
The author, Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill, admired the enemy Pashtu tribesmen: “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer… Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”
Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for Defence, and is MP for North Somerset.
Recent days have seen depressingly numerous examples of history being selectively interpreted and rewritten in relation to Afghanistan. At the same time, numerous commentators and politicians have claimed to have anticipated an outcome, a rapid Taliban victory, which they clearly did not.
So how do we make sense of where Afghanistan is today, a tragedy backlit by defeat? Even the name, Operation Enduring Freedom, already exudes a sense of irony. The most obvious place to start is to remember why we went there in the first place.
It was not out of a sense of philanthropy or concern for the well-being of the people of Afghanistan themselves. It followed the 9/11 attacks on the United States by Al-Qaeda who had been given sanctuary in Afghanistan by the Taliban government and was a hard – headed response to threats to our own safety and security, particularly in the United States and its NATO allies.
The first question, therefore, to answer is – are we safer now than we were in 2001? The answer probably has two parts. Certainly, we were successful in deposing the Taliban Government and breaking up Al-Qaeda and its terrorist networks in both Afghanistan and some of its neighbouring territories. To that extent, we have probably been safer over the past two decades than when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were attacked.
It is also almost certain that this period came to an end last week, and that in the future the risk to civilians in the West will increase, not least because 5000 of our most determined, vicious and extreme enemies have been released from Bagram Prison by the Taliban, including those who have committed beheadings and other atrocious acts of violence. The ostensible aim of the recent US Government policy was to stop Americans being killed.
Time will tell whether these policy decisions have increased or decreased that number, remembering that the total number of American citizens killed in the execution of Operation Enduring Freedom were 24 in 2009 and 11 in 2020. Two thousand six hundred and five US citizens died as a result of the single Al-Qaeda attack in New York in 2001.
Our wider security, too, is impacted by those in Beijing and Moscow who will see the US and NATO as having been defeated, or worse, surrendering in the face of the Taliban advance.
Interestingly, government spokesmen in Pakistan have said that they will not immediately recognise the Taliban government in Kabul, but will wait to see how allies such as China and Russia respond. Their choice of states in question speaks, worrying, volumes. It is hard to imagine the Taliban could have moved so quickly without Pakistani and Iranian help.
Another unappealing sight in recent days has been the number of those who claim that they knew that the Afghan state would crumble quickly. While there may have been a number of security scenarios that considered, at least theoretically, the possibility of a Taliban walkover, there were no serious political or media voices making that prediction a week ago.
There was good reason to believe that the training and equipping of the Afghan forces might produce considerable resistance to the Taliban. Despite Joe Biden’s statement that “The Afghan military collapsed, some without trying to fight”, it is worth remembering that 70,000 Afghan police and military personnel were killed in the battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda since 2001, compared to around 2300 coalition troops who sacrificed their lives. It was not just the 2500 troops who were removed under the US policy that caused the collapse in morale among the Afghan forces, but the rest of the 8000 allied forces and the 18,000 contractors who provide them with logistical support. It is this collapse in morale, perhaps even more than reduced capability, that has been the great policy miscalculation.
Quite rightly, given the previous record of the Taliban, many of the fears for the future centre around what the imposition of a hard-line Islamic state will mean for the people of Afghanistan themselves. While the building of a stable and democratic state with improved prosperity, human rights and rule of law were not the initial reasons for the initial deployment to Afghanistan, this became a key element in underpinning public support for the continuation of the mission. It was also a key justification for the sacrifices made in life and limb by the Armed Forces of the coalition, including British forces.
As one of the Defence Secretaries during the Afghan conflict who sent handwritten letters to the loved ones of those killed in action, and who visited many of the severely injured in hospital, including friends, I understand how totally raw their anger and sense of betrayal may be at the events of recent days. They will need additional support in the times ahead.
It is therefore imperative that we try to salvage the best that we can from the current position by putting as much pressure as possible, along with our international allies, directly on the Taliban government and indirectly through their allies. For example, any suggestion that States who are recipients of British aid are giving overt or covert support to the illegal regime should be met with immediate consequences.
In particular, we must ensure that the widespread human rights abuses, especially towards other religious groups and to the women and girls that were the hallmark of the previous Taliban government are called out loudly and publicly. This must also include the, often forgotten, broadcast and print media who enjoyed increased, if not complete, freedom under the democratically elected governments that were a result of the international intervention.
It is also our moral obligation to ensure that those who put their lives at risk in order to assist the coalition and build a better future for the fellow citizens (such as interpreters and other public servants) are given full sanctuary in the United Kingdom and other coalition states. That is, if we have not already missed the boat because of the miscalculations of recent days, and abandoned them, albeit unintentionally, to a terrible fate.
There has already been much handwringing amongst America’s allies about the crisis which they perceived to have been made in Washington. However true this may be in the short term, it exposes some other, more uncomfortable truths, for the partners of the US in NATO and beyond. It is particularly galling to hear complaints about being forced to “ride America’s foreign policy coattails” coming from those who have most opposed the build-up of alternative capabilities, within the NATO alliance. Many of the British and European Left who have most opposed increased defence spending and balked at sharing responsibility for international security are the first to bleat about having to follow American Foreign Policy.
The irony seems to be completely lost on them that those who refuse to build up their own security capacity will, in the end, find themselves more dependent on Washington rather than less. The fact that it was virtually impossible for other NATO allies to maintain a viable security presence without America makes it all the more galling that many wallow in high spending “big states” while expecting American taxpayers to fund global security.
What we are witnessing is more than a strategic setback, it is a defeat. We must acknowledge that truth. We must make sure that the Taliban understand that we will respond with military means to any increased security threat against our citizens and be very clear what the trigger points will be. We must ensure that we put in place whatever refugee policy we can to mitigate the damage already done and help those who put themselves in harm’s way for our sake.
And we must spare a thought for all our Armed Forces, their families and other civilians who will feel today that their sacrifices may have been in vain because they were not. For two decades they improved the safety of those at home and improved the lot of the people of Afghanistan. We must ensure that our response to this crisis leads to an increased willingness of leaders in the free world to make the case for spending and intervention in the cause of international peace and security.
That is the least that those who have made such sacrifices deserve.
David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
Like many others, I have watched with horror and shame as Taliban forces have seized Afghan regional capital after capital.
Horror, because although I have spent the last few months pressing the British government to help those Afghans who had worked as translators for our Armed Forces, I am only too conscious of the hundreds of thousands of other Afghans who have helped or cooperated with Allied Forces, and who will be waiting in terror as the Taliban forces approach their homes and workplaces.
Shame because this is a huge failure of Western strategy, arms, and principles. Like the American flight from Vietnam a generation ago, it will undermine Western standing, influence, and leadership in the whole world.
The one emotion I have not felt, however, is surprise. This is a failure that has been coming for a long time, and that has been apparent to a lot of people for a lot of years.
Back in 2008, I and a parliamentary colleague, Adam Holloway, went to Afghanistan to have a look at the facts on the ground. When we left London, I rather subscribed to the view that, unlike Iraq, this was a “justified war”, as the Taliban had provided support and succour to Al Quaeda at the time of the 9/11 attack.
Twenty four hours after we returned, I was interviewed by Andrew Marr on his Sunday programme, and told him that if we carried on as we were, we were going to lose this war.
This was not some remarkable demonstration of military prescience. It was a statement of the obvious, after talking to large numbers of people in theatre, including, most powerfully, ordinary Afghan citizens.
The British Ministry of Defence were not helpful when we were trying to organise our trip. Indeed they did pretty much everything they could to obstruct our visit. The British Ambassador – incidentally one of our very best diplomats – was much more helpful, but he actively encouraged us to avoid British officialdom and find our own way. “You will learn much more if you don’t have to travel everywhere in armoured convoys and actually get to talk to real people.” So that is what we did.
In 50 interviews we talked to everybody who would see us, from American generals to British troopers, from the head of the Afghan Security service to the representatives of the Taliban, from the governor of Helmand province to ordinary people who worked in the villages of his domain. The most powerful evidence came from the ordinary villagers.
The most memorable insight for me was during a lengthy discussion with a couple of Red Crescent workers, people who moved unencumbered by either Taliban or Government forces through all of Afghanistan. Their description of the operation of the rule of law in Afghanistan was astonishing.
To take one example: ordinary rural Afghans are often very small scale farmers, making a poor living out of tiny plots of land. With all the changes of regime during the previous 30 years, the title to these little farms was often disputed. These disputes should have been resolved in court.
But to get a court hearing, the farmer would have to bribe someone to get a court date. That date would come in about a year, and then the farmer would have to bribe a court official to win his case.
Alternatively, the farmer could seek Taliban justice. That meant walking to a village under Taliban control – in the case we were discussing about 8 miles away – and ask for a Taliban court adjudication. A date would be set within a few days, and the other party would be summoned to give evidence. Needless to say, they would have to turn up.
Then the Taliban judge would take a few days to establish the facts on the ground, and in little more than a week a ruling would be handed down. And of course the judgement was obeyed by all parties. In effect, the Taliban provided a judicial system that worked better than the official one.
This was not the only part of the rule of law that was bent out of shape. No doubt there were many decent Afghan police officers, but some were little more than bandits in uniform. We heard numerous stories of criminal behaviour by the police, ranging from stealing a families’ entire wood supply – in the harsh Afghan winters an act of savage cruelty – to kidnap of young women for ransom or rape. Afghan farmers trying to take produce to market would be stopped at roadblocks and made to pay a tariff on their goods, sometimes by bandits, and sometimes by the police.
From the point of view of the ordinary Afghan, the official state was just another instrument of oppression and corruption. At the grander end of the scale, government officials and their families became remarkably rich remarkably quickly. No one was ever in any doubt that the Western-installed members of the ruling elite were on the take. But of course no one was charged or convicted. The UK, USA, and their allies have installed and supported a corrupt state.
It’s effects have been felt by every ordinary family in Afghanistan. Even the Afghan Army was misused and mistreated, with its soldiers often going unpaid, unfed, and unsupplied. Its generals are frequently overruled by incompetent palace cliques.
This was why it was plain that this was a war that we would never win – or not until we solved these fundamental social problems. And because the Allied writ never extended more than a rifle shot from our isolated Forward Operating Bases, we were never going to solve them with the strategies that we have adopted for almost two decades.
A British journalist staying next door to me in Kabul told me about an American Marine colonel grumbling about “mowing the grass” – putting down an insurrection with a fierce round of firefights, only to have to come back and do it all again the next year. And he was not the only military officer who understood at that time the futility of the strategy.
This has now all been magnified by a stupid and cowardly withdrawal strategy, leaving even the best Afghan troops without the air support and backup that they were trained to rely on, as Joe Biden ignored his own military advisers.
Now we face an impossible problem. It was probably not always impossible. We could have simply intervened back in 2001/2, and then left, avoiding the sacrifice of blood, treasure, and reputation.
Or we could have designed a counter-insurgency strategy that worked. We have done it elsewhere in the world, but every time it involved as much a campaign about hearts and minds as about bombs and bullets. It would have been much more expensive in the short run, but undoubtedly less costly overall. We almost certainly could not have done it at the same time as invading Iraq. What we did instead was the worst compromise.
The lesson is horribly stark. If Britain, America, and the other Western Allies want to be a force for good in the world, and do not want their collective global reputation to be dictated by Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, then before we undertake any more foreign wars, we need a plan that extends way beyond the initial conquest, and right through the rebuilding of the country, with all the cost and commitment that that entails.
Meanwhile, the Western nations sudden rush to extract their own citizens will undoubtedly cause a panic which may accelerate the collapse. After that, the Taliban, with all its medieval behaviour, will reverse any good that we have done these last two decades. We will see the return of Sharia law, with its dismemberment and stoning. And the new regime will almost certainly exact vengeance on everybody who has helped us in any way. That will undoubtedly prey on our conscience in the years to come. And so it should.
John Healey is Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, and MP for Wentworth and Dearne.
This month more than 250 British troops will begin a three-year deployment with the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. This is described by the UN as its ‘most dangerous mission’, with 227 personnel killed since 2013.
With the growth of Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, the Sahel is now one of the most unstable regions of the world. The UK will be filling a ‘capability gap’ in the UN force by providing soldiers who are specialist in long-range reconnaissance. Combat and casualties can be expected.
Since 2018 the UK has provided RAF logistical support to the French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane, with three Chinook helicopters and non-combat ground crew, though the MoD stress the new UN deployment is separate from the French mission.
Despite committing British combat troops into a conflict zone, the Defence Secretary has felt no duty to report on this directly to Parliament. The deployment this month was confirmed in an MoD press release during the summer recess.
Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face. The public have a right to expect Ministers to be more open too.
As a UN P5 Security Council member, Britain has an overdue duty to support the 15,000-strong UN mission in Mali, which was first established in 2013, and which the UN Secretary General says plays “a fundamental political and security role”.
There is significant humanitarian interest in Mali, with the UN estimating 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and over a quarter of a million people internally displaced.
There is significant development interest in Mali, with 78 per cent of the population living in poverty, 39 per cent of primary age children not in school and the country ranking 184 out of 188 on the UN human development index.
Above all, there is significant security interest in Mali, with al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups active in the region which the Government say have a terrorist reach beyond Africa into Europe.
In these circumstances, the questions about British troops in Mali abound. What role will they play? How will they contribute to the UN mandate? What risks do they face? How does this deployment contribute to the UK’s new strategic approach to sub-Saharan Africa? What are the criteria for a successful mission and bringing Britain’s troops home again?
The practice of accountability to the public via Parliament is decaying under this Government but it should remain a basic principle that no Defence Secretary commits British troops into a conflict zone before a full statement in the Commons so that MPs can secure answers to concerns about the mission and the service personnel.
The Government is preparing to overhaul Britain’s security laws, utilising work done on them by Sajid Javid when he was Home Secretary, which in turn drew on research by Policy Exchange.
We wait to see what the legislation contains, but the plans seem to fall into three parts. First, an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act. Second, an updating of the espionage laws, which will be carried out largely with state actors, such as China and Russia, in mind. Third, a new treason offence.
Its origins lie in the return to Britain of Islamist terrorists who fought abroad with ISIS. Ministers believe that the present legal framework isn’t fit for purpose if prosecutions are to be successful. The recent Court of Appeal judgement on Shamima Begum’s case doubtless explains why we are reading about revised laws now.
At any rate, the original Policy Exchange proposal was supported by a former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd; a former head of MI5, Lord Evans; a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, and former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, Richard Walton.
Tom Tugendhat, one of the authors of that report, Aiding the Enemy, was out and about in the Sunday Times yesterday, concentrating largely on espionage – and writing as he did so “pinstriped fixers, lawyers and silver-tongued svengalis are pocketing money” are doing the bidding of hostile foreign governments.
Meanwhile, Javid was busy in the Mail on Sunday, covering the same themes, and arguing that we need to repurpose “our ancient treason laws to cover Britons who operate on behalf of a hostile nation or go abroad to fight alongside terrorist groups”.
That would cover Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as ISIS and Al Qaeda. It will doubtless be argued that Britain shouldn’t be in the business of legislating for loyalty oaths, or giving terror groups the same status as foreign governments.
But if you think about it, the loyalty oath claim is a red herring, since what would be required is not a pledge of allegiance to Britain, but the shunning of terror aimed at our troops or civilians. (The form of words that Javid used would appear to cover fighting alongside terror groups, period – whether against British citizens or not.)
We expect that it will also be claimed that a new treason offence will be “bad for community relations” – i.e: that British Muslims will be opposed to it, though it will certainly go down well among others in Blue Wall seats, as we must now call them, and elsewhere.
A modernised treason offence would certainly be to the point. Islamist extremism has no room within it for attachment to nation states – what matters is the worldwide community of Muslims, led from its present ignorance, as the extremists see it, to the politicised and ideological version of Islam which they themselves propagate.
(This use of religion rather than nationality as a catch-all definer explains why they identify Jews with Israel, by the way – despite the fact that not all Jews live there and many aren’t Zionists at all. Hence the Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege in Paris in 2015, and the 2008 massacre at a Jewish outreach centre in Mumbai.)
We anticipate, too, that forcing lobbyists who work for foreign governments to register; toughening up rules on registering interests in the Lords or work undertaken by former Ministers, and slowing, say, the flow of Chinese money into our universities and civil society will also be resisted. A sign of how much new measures are needed.