Michael Nazir-Ali: After the betrayal of democracy in Afghanistan, will other countries in the region ever trust the West again?

22 Aug

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.

Neil O’Brien: Five lessons from the pandemic

25 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

Planning for disaster

Years ago I was rummaging around in the basement of the Treasury and came across an old copy of the “War Book”: a big red tome setting out what to do in the event of nuclear attack.

Time had made some details rather quaint: if the Soviets were about to drop a trillion megatonnes of instant sunshine on Britain, I’m not sure “nationalise Girobank” would be the first thing on my to-do list.

But it was a huge, thorough plan. Each department had something similar.

Since the end of the cold war, thinking about civil contingencies has been lower priority. But our more connected world creates potential for new, faster crises.

Not just pandemics, but the financial contagion we saw in 2008. Our reliance on the internet, cloud, electric grid and GPS is increasing. More specialisation, plus more global chains of just-in-time production increase efficiency, but also fragility. You don’t have to be Martin Rees to think there’s new risks that we must plan against.

State capacity

It’s striking that the countries that did best in the Covid pandemic are those, like Taiwan and South Korea, which live under threat of annihilation by their neighbours. They’re dense, urban countries, but per head they had just three per cent and 0.1 per cent of the rate of cases seen in the EU.

Though we’re fastest in Europe, the world’s fastest vaccine rollout is in Israel – a country also under constant threat.

Other top performers include New Zealand and Australia.  They aren’t under such military threat, but have long been used to tough bio-borders. Australia went from one idiot releasing a couple of rabbits for fun, to having 600 million bunnies and having to build the world’s longest fence.  That was a pretty good early lesson about the exponential growth of a new organism introduced where there’s no predatorial ‘immune system’ to keep it in check.

New Zealand and Oz also imposed tough lockdowns in response to relatively few cases. At the time sceptics here said it was “absurd” and “out of proportion”. But our cousins were right, so they’ve been able to get back to normal faster. They basically followed the advice of Ripley in the movie Aliens: ‘nuke it from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure’.

Right across South East Asia and Australiasia, successful states have made their borders very tough. As vaccinations power ahead in the UK, we’re quite right to further toughen our borders against potential new vaccine-resistant variants. The cost of a vaccine dodging variant coming here would just be too high.

But there’s something more to learn from states that live under threat, about the need for state capacity.  Another top Covid performer is Singapore, where civil servants are very highly paid – but small in number, and low performers are managed out fast.  One reason the state shouldn’t be too big is exactly so that it can be strong and focussed.

China as number one

As people have pointed out, coronavirus has accelerated lots of trends: we’ve woken up in 2030. Paying for things is contactless. Videocalling friends is normal. More stuff is bought online. And China is closer to being number one.

Though some democracies managed the same feat, China’s brutal suppression of Covid-19 has been successful, meaning faster reopening, meaning the point where it becomes unambiguously the world’s largest economy is now only a few years away.

The last twelve months have seen Beijing start to throw its weight around more.

The west needs to get its act together urgently. There’s an internal economic challenge, to match their all-conquering innovation-industrial system. And a diplomatic challenge too, to reunite the democracies. At a China Research Group event last week with people close to the new Biden administration, it was clear that there’s an important role for the UK in making that happen.

Making a living

First it was the global scramble for masks and PPE.  Then ventillators.  Then diagnostics and testing kit. Now the global surge of demand for vaccine production and glass vials.

Again and again, the pandemic demonstrated why we need advanced manufacturing capacity: in a crisis, nations are utterly dependent without it.

To be sure, there were always other good reasons to back manufacturing.  Along with professional services, it’s the other part of the UK economy that really drives productivity growth: since 1997, manufacturing provided 40–50 per cent of productivity growth in places like Wales, the West Midlands and the North West.

But the pandemic underlines another reason to want such capacities here. When the international going gets tough, countries must be able to provide for themselves (topped up with firm agreements with allies for complex products).

This lesson is not lost on President Xi, who in a speech in April set out his “dual circulation” plan:

“we must build on our advantages, solidify and increase the leading international positions of strong industries, and forge some “assassin’s mace” technologies. We must sustain and enhance our superiority across the entire production chain… and we must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China.”

In case you were in any doubt, Xi also talked about “forming powerful countermeasures and deterrent capabilities based on artificially cutting off supply to foreigners”.

Since Margaret Thatcher left office, Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country.

Perhaps it’s another area where we should learn from Asia: South Korea has nine times more robots per manufacturing worker than the UK, yet since the Lawson era the UK has slashed capital allowances which support such investment.

As a recent report for the Levelling Up Taskforce found, such allowances also tend to help poorer areas more.

Staying nimble

The Government was panned at the time for not joining the EU’s joint procurement of the vaccine.  But the team who secured more vaccine orders for the UK than any other large country showed the benefits of being small and agile.

We need to apply the same agility and flexibility to our exit from the pandemic.

I totally understand why people want to set hard dates to reopen. We are all desperate to get back to normality.

But there are so many unknowns: how fast cases will fall; what effect school reopening will have; how much protection people get from their first and second vaccinations; how much that stops the spread, not just symptoms; whether new vaccine-resisting strains come here; and how fast we can go on vaccinations…

Given all this we need to stay nimble in the final phase of this. On Friday we delivered 425,000 vaccination doses in England alone. Huge numbers of people are being protected each day.

We will soon jab our way to victory, and end this pandemic.

Afterwards, there’s all kinds of lessons we must learn from it.