Nus Ghani: Prevent needs to have confidence in its own identity

29 Apr

Nus Ghani is the Conservative MP for Wealdon, and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

When William Shawcross was appointed to lead an independent review of Prevent, I argued he needed to put the fight against non-violent extremism at the heart of the strategy.  As we approach the long-awaited submission of his report to the Home Secretary, interest is increasing.

This week David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, captured an essential element of the challenge facing the Government, in a foreword to a Policy Exchange report looking at Prevent’s critics. Cameron argued that delegitimising counter-terrorism risks enabling terrorism.

The debate around Prevent is not an idle academic exercise – getting it right matters. The murder of my colleague David Amess, the deadly terrorist attack on three gay men in Reading in 2020, and the botched Parsons Green bombing in 2017, all involved extremists who had been in contact with Prevent, but who carried on their path towards violence.

This is not the first review of Prevent, or the first attempt to update our approach to counter-terrorism. In my earlier analysis of Prevent, I likened the post-2011 version of the policy to a satellite that flew at 80,000 feet, without the “boots on the ground” that were also necessary.

As far back as 2015, David Cameron identified the ‘grievance culture’ poisoning the worldview of some young British Muslims. I wrote regretfully of the then-Prime Minister’s analysis: “His ideas failed properly to take hold in Government departments, let alone in communities.” Self-appointed ‘representative’ organisations were also indefatigable in besmirching Cameron’s analysis. They understood too well the threat it posed to their own survival.

Those problems persist and are exacerbated by the use of new technology. To address them, Prevent needs a stronger identity, and it needs to develop the self-confidence which flows from positive leadership. Talking to local Prevent staff, I am struck by their commitment and dedication.

However, those at the coalface sometimes see the Home Office as distant and isolationist. Statements in support of Prevent, whilst welcome, tend to come across as stock responses, when what is needed is sustained engagement from Ministers and senior officials.

Local authorities also have a role to play. Too often they fail to do any mapping exercises locally, struggle to get out and about into the community, and instead rely on ‘gatekeepers’ or a small number of activist organisations who have their own agenda. Yet for all the noise on social media, opinion poll data suggests the uniform opposition to Prevent from ‘representative’ organisations, is not shared by British Muslims.

As part of rebuilding Prevent’s identity, it needs to be restated what it is for. Prevent exists to stop people from becoming supporters of terrorism and stop people becoming terrorists. It must therefore challenge extremism in all its forms, and in a way that is understandable to the public.

One issue Shawcross will have to address is the declining number of Islamist related referrals, in a period where Islamist terrorism and extremism has continued unabated. Where there is considered to be a genuine risk of radicalisation, Prevent referrals may be followed by what is known as a Channel intervention.

The latest Home Office figures for Channel cases in 2020-21 record 46 percent concerned far-right extremism, just over twice the number for Islamist influenced individuals, which actually fell to 22 percent. Britain has a number of angry far-right activists, spewing out bile, and seeking to attract others to their cause in the process. Whilst we can’t ignore the referral data, are we sure fascists and neo-Nazis constitute twice the threat Islamists do?  Shawcross will need to answer questions like this, to ensure Prevent doesn’t lose its way.

To further recast Prevent’s identity, it needs greater transparency, with clear Ministerial control and accountability.  Without this, the opposition will fill the void. This is not to decry Prevent’s critics. It is through debate and critique with democratically elected politicians that policies are improved and fine-tuned.

But the undermining of a counter-terrorism policy is a different matter. For some of Prevent’s opponents, undermining is simply a prelude to abolition. Why would anyone want a permissive environment for extremism? As David Cameron has alluded, society needs to ask much harder questions of anti-Prevent activists.

The quest for constructive criticism has not been helped by the tendency for some of the debates around Prevent to become increasingly absurd. For many for us, for just challenging the critics of Prevent and tackling the issue of Islamist terrorism means we have to deal with abuse and death threats.

It gets worse. I came across comments that suggested that the treatment of British Muslims is on a path to how China treats Uyghur, who are genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How utterly absurd and shameful – and I should know. I’m the only female MP sanctioned by China as national threat for leading the way in the UK and internationally in exposing Uyghur genocide, trying to save the lives of Uyghur men, women and children.

The Shawcross report is not the first attempt to recalibrate Prevent, but it is perhaps the most important. It must signpost a way for Prevent to refashion its identity. We know too well the risks of not getting it right.

Rehman Chisti: How mainstream Islamic teaching can help to hold the Taliban to account

19 Sep

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has raised serious questions about the rights of religious minorities, women, and others under its rule in Afghanistan – and its interpretation of Islam. As the Prime Minister has stated, we have to judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words.

As someone from a Muslim background, whose father, uncles, and grandfathers were Imams, religion and faith are a central part of my life. This was reflected during my service as the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, when I worked with colleagues to challenge the persecution of individuals based on their faith around the world.

In fact, faith is an integral part of many people’s lives across the globe, especially in the Middle East and Central and South Asia region. According to a Pew Research Center report, 84 per cent of the world’s population claim to identify themselves with a religion. In my view, if we don’t understand religion, including the abuse of religion, it will be even harder for us to understand the world.

Having had the honour of working as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and first female head of state in the Islamic world, from 1999 to 2007, I know full well the strong and inspiring leadership role that women can play in Islamic nations. Islam has a rich tradition of inclusivity and respect which we must put forward and be proud of. In fact, we can see examples of strong female leadership in Islam throughout history, both in the distant and near past.

Muslim women have always played a crucial part in society as rulers, jurists, businesswomen, scholars, and benefactresses. Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, was not just his companion, but a businesswoman in her own right; Aisha bint Abu Bakr, another of the Prophet’s wives, became a brilliant scholar and tutored many men.

We can also see this in Shifa Abdullah, one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions, who held a leadership role in supervising transactions in the marketplace of the Islamic empire’s first capital, Medina. Or with Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, an eminent scholar and jurist of Islamic law in Medina who taught famous male scholars. And with Fatima al Fihri, a Muslim woman who founded, in 859, what is today the oldest continuously operating university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez.

In more recent times, we can look of course to Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, but also to Bangladesh: this country, which has the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population, has had a female prime minister for nearly 28 of the past 30 years.

Khaleda Zia, the country’s first female Prime Minister, and Sheikh Hasina, the incumbent, have been two of the country’s pre-eminent political leaders, and have overwhelmingly held the office of Prime Minister since 1991.

In Europe, Atifete Jahjaga served as the first female President of Muslim-majority Kosovo, from 2011 to 2016. During her time in office, she fought against extremism and radicalisation, fostered reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups in the country, and hosted a key International Women’s Summit.

Of course, there are divergences on theology in Islam as there are in every faith. But as set out above, Islam’s past and present has at its heart the values of all other faiths: respect, inclusivity, and tolerance. It is this version of Islam that we must champion.

As I set out to the Prime Minister last week in the House of Commons, he should call on the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ask Al-Azhar, a widely respected and leading institutional authority on moderate Islamic thought, to issue a statement confirming the rights of religious minorities and women in Islam.

The Taliban in Afghanistan claim that they will rule within the confines of Islam. A statement from an institution such as Al-Azhar will let the world judge whether the Taliban’s actions are indeed in line with the teachings of Islam.

In my recent meeting with the Kuwait Ambassador, Al-Duwaisan, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in London, who has served in his role for nearly 30 years, he was very supportive of calling on the OIC to ask Al-Azhar to set out the inclusive approach to the rights of women and religious minorities in Islam.

On this occasion therefore, when we have the support of Muslim-majority countries, I would urge the Government to move forward urgently with this proposal. Al-Azhar is a hugely well-respected institution across the globe, founded over 1000 years ago. Recently in 2019, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar jointly signed with Pope Francis a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, and when the UN Security Council held a session to discuss anti-terrorism, al-Azhar was the only Islamic institution invited to take part.

If we are to build an inclusive society and world, we must all play our part and that means setting out the true virtues and values of our faiths.

Robert Halfon: America has abandoned the Afghans. But we must stick with the Kurds.

8 Sep

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces
 in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America 
have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.

The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are
 building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

The UK
 supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil.
The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its
 people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and
 are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a
 legacy of the past.

A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden 
what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held
 out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014.
 Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal
 caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.

But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the
 Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and 
British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.

Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that 
isolationism on the left and right could take root.

Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western 
intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.

Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s
 no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds
 create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and
 opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.

Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any
 isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with
urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.

The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and
 provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.

Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the
 Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further
reform their institutions.

The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in
 Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as
varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption,
boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be 
produced in Kurdistan.

A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and
 encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and
 state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry.
One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for 
Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English 
language universities.

Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It
illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from 
injustice themselves.

Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria 
and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an
 enduring and willingly given duty for them.

Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully 
defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and
 British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as 
allies and partners, and vice-versa.

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.

Garvan Walshe: Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia

5 Aug

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

As in Belarus and Hong Kong, democratic freedoms are under attack in Tunisia. But 10 years after its revolution, the powers that be are weaker, and strong foreign support for Tunisians’ freedoms can tip the balance.

“I will not become a dictator” insisted Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, as he shut down parliament, put the army on the streets and stopped Al Jazeera broadcasting.

Not since Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in military uniform in the summer of 2013, denying that the events which would make him president were a coup, or when Jeremy Corbyn said he was “present but not involved” at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, has North African denial been so implausible.

Tunisia is the last survivor of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a decade on, its democracy is looking shaky. Ten years of fractious politics haven’t yielded the economic progress freedom was supposed to bring. The pandemic, and the disruption of the vital tourist industry it produced, has made things worse.

Tunisia is supposed to have a political system where power is shared between parliament and the president, but last week the president, a former academic who doesn’t belong to any political party, invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to suspend parliament for 30 days. But while the constitution allows periods of emergency presidential rule, they are conditional on the parliament being in session to keep an eye on him.

A constitutional court would have reaffirmed this, but one hasn’t been set up yet. In its absence, Saied, despite being a former professor of constitutional law, just used the security forces under his command for a power grab. Though he likened himself to de Gaulle, it would be fairer to compare him to Cromwell dismissing the Rump.

Nonetheless, unlike Sisi’s in Egypt, Saied’s coup looks far from a foregone conclusion. Elected with 72 per cent of the vote in 2019, Saied’s approval ratings have fallen to around 40 per cent, and it’s best to describe him as the single most popular figure in a crowded field.

The successor pparty to the old regime, known as the Free Destourians, heads the polls with around 30 per cent support, followed by the genuinely moderate post-Islamist Ennahda, with 20 per cent. Various left-wing and secularist groups, and Islamist groups make up the rest.

This contrasts with Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were extreme, saw democracy as a means to an end, and against whom the Army was the only force in society capable of standing up to them. Unable to win on their own, Ennahda, who now describe themselves in as “Muslim Democrats” in conscious analogy with Angela Merkel’s CDU, have become moderate (a hardline faction split off to form its own “Dignity” party). Though Saied can argue that his opponents are dysfunctional, there is no threat of an Islamist takeover in Tunisia.

Islamist weakness has been reflected in the US position, with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, insisting that Tunisia return to the “democratic path.” The US may also be motivated by concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the country, which is only 200 miles from Sicily.

The Foreign Office has so far been rather more perfunctory, issuing a statement so anodyne it is worthy of the department’s caricature in Yes, Prime Minister. There is a need to get a grip on the situation, and the Foreign Secretary should use the opportunity to lead.

Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia. It has been heavily involved in the democratic transition since 2011, supporting civil society, offering practical assistance and considerable sums of aid. Unlike France it is not burdened by colonial baggage there. And it has an opportunity to outflank the EU which is hampered by the requirement for unanimity in foreign affairs. The UK has an opportunity to convene a response by the world’s democracies.

The most important task is the resolution of the constitutional crisis and a return to the normal democratic process.

In the first instance, the army should be taken off the streets, and journalists be allowed to report openly. Parliament should be reconvened (after all that is what the Tunisian constitution requires even during an emergency), and the parliamentarians that have been arrested freed immediately.

In the medium term, agreement is needed on a constitutional court, and measures to ensure full international observation of future Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure their legitimacy.

In the longer term, reforms are needed in Tunisia’s army, intelligence services and police, to ensure oversight by all elements of Tunisia’s political system, as is normal in presidential democracies. They may be under the command of the president, but need to be subject to laws enacted by the parliament compliance with which is monitored by parliament and enforced by the judiciary.

Finally, priority should be given to Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country is still extremely poor, despite reasonable levels of education, a large French-speaking population and a geographical location extremely close to the European market. A good investment climate and the rule of law should put it in a position to leapfrog its neighbours in Algeria and Morocco. Further aid needs to be made conditional on progress towards a stable, and free, political and business environment.

The only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab revolutions needs our help. Unlike in Hong Kong and Belarus, autocratic forces lack a powerful patron. Unlike in Egypt, choice isn’t between authoritarianism and Islamism. And unlike in Lebanon, the country has not been overtaken by sectarian dysfunction. We can make a difference in Tunisia. It would be unforgivable to take our eye off the ball.

Tobias Ellwood: We’ve left Afghanistan to again become a haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the West.

14 Jul

Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.

It was just before midnight on October 12 2002 when a terrorist walked into a busy Irish bar in Bali and detonated a suicide bomb contained in his backpack. Those not immediately killed fled onto the street, running straight into the killing zone of a massive car bomb.

Over 200 people were killed, mostly Westerners, and a similar number were injured. This peaceful Indonesian island could not cope with the scale of this attack and hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, with the morgue lining up bodies in its car park under the burning sun.

My brother Jonathan, attending a conference on the island at the time, was missing. I flew out to join my sister to track him down, imagining him perhaps unconscious, in one of the hospitals – but nevertheless alive. Running out of options we finally visited the morgue.

One by one I unzipped the body bags to try and tried to find my brother. I was only able to identify his remains by finding the key-hole surgery scar on his lower back.

It soon dawned on me that the Bali bombing was not a one-off, but confirmation that the 9/11 attacks had triggered a horrific new form of asymmetric threat the West would have to confront.

Jonathan’s murder required me to do more than grieve. I needed to better understand how a peaceful religion could be hijacked by extremists able to persuade others that blowing themselves up would be rewarded via a fast track to paradise. Then I had to follow NATO’s trail to Afghanistan, where 70 nations combined after 9/11 to destroy the terrorists who recruited, funded, armed, and trained the misguided men who killed Jonathan.

It was not just as a bereaved brother, but as an MP and a former combat soldier in Bosnia that I had to see how well all the best intentions of the West could pacify a failed state and stifle the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism.

On the first of over a dozen visits it was immediately apparent to me the scale of the challenge: widespread corruption, intense tribal rivalries, Pakistani meddling, and deep-rooted resistance to foreign occupation. 

But we didn’t make it any easier for ourselves. I was frankly astonished how the US military were running the entire show. There was no “Paddy Ashdown” character co-ordinating a civilian post-conflict strategy. The big plan to rebuild the country (agreed in Bonn in December 2001) was largely based on the blueprint used for Bosnia, without any appreciation that such Western, centralised solutions were completely inappropriate for Afghanistan.

This schoolboy error is something Britain should have flagged up. We pride ourselves on our understanding of the world. Our history, connectivity and diplomatic reach has allowed us to offer intelligent strategic solutions to challenges that factor in local, cultural, and deep-rooted characteristics. Not least with Afghanistan where thanks to the “Great Game” we have form.

Three previous Anglo-Afghan wars have taught us what a complex tribal country this is. Even with charismatic leaders, such as Dost Mohamed and Amanullah Khan, this nation has never been run from the centre.

The US should have known this. After funding the Mujahedeen to see off the Soviet occupation, the US simply walked away in 1989 – leaving the feeble Afghan Government to eventually fall to the Mujahedeen’s successor, the Taliban.

So, after 2001, what made us think we could master the country again?

Well, we didn’t think, because we – MPs – barely knew. Did you know that US Senators are free to visit American troops wherever they may be posted across the world? No such rule exists for MPs. For me to witness what was going on, Sir Peter Ricketts, then our Ambassador to NATO, found out that I had US dual nationality having been born in New York.

He introduced me to US General Jim Jones, who as SACEUR  (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) visited the NATO mission in Afghanistan every six months. We developed a close friendship that endures today, and I secured a regular flight where I was one of the few MPs able to see the four glaring disjoints between our international rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

First, Washington was lulled into a false sense of security, its judgement distorted by the ease of the initial invasion and the relative peaceful first four years.

Second, creating detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, failing to tackle large scale Afghan corruption and nepotism, ignoring the poisonous influence of the Pakistan-India rivalry and the fallout of the Iraq invasion would all play their part in preventing a US-backed Afghan government from winning over the people of Afghanistan.

Third, NATO’s security reach across the country was impressive but little effort was given to training the Afghan Army so they could eventually take on this responsibility.

Fourth, all governance decisions were made in Kabul and no attempts were made to reach out to the Taliban. Quite the contrary. They had requested a seat at the December 2001 Bonn talks – but the victors kept them away. How different history would be had they been included. Instead, they withdrew across the Pakistan border to regroup and retrain before launching a vicious and enduring insurgency campaign that would outwit and outlast the most sophisticated and high-tech military alliance in history.

So why did it go so wrong? As Churchill said of Suez: “I would never have dared, and if I had dared, I would never have dared stop.” For all our grand ideas, we stopped thinking and planning. The short-term fix always beat the long-term plan.

I’ll give you just two examples of hundreds that illustrate the absence a wider strategy beyond killing bad people. On a visit to Helmand In 2008, I bumped into Brigadier Mark Carlton Smith – now our four-star general in command of the British Army. He was rightly proud of a mission 16 Air Assault Brigade had just completed to transport a 220-tonne turbine to the mighty Kajaki dam in the north of the province. This huge logistical and security challenge involving over 100 vehicles got the turbine (broken down into sections) delivered with just one fatality due to a land mine and a few injured.

Installing the turbine would have provided gamechanging electricity that would have won over hearts and minds of the Afghan people across south-west Afghanistan. Yet for years the turbine sat in its bubble wrap uninstalled. A lack of concrete meant the project to fully upgrade the dam is stillborn.

On another visit I accompanied Jim Mattis to the town of Margah just after its liberation (Operation Moshtarak). 15,000 coalition troops had flushed out the Taliban from this central Helmand stronghold. It was encouraging to see the locals return to some normality but when I asked, through an interpreter, if they were happy the Taliban had gone, they said yes, but what’s next? “I’m not allowed to grow poppies and there is no market for wheat”.

His point was well made. We’d just removed the town’s biggest employer. The state of the roads (think Salisbury Plain) meant growing wheat and getting it to market was simply not viable. Yet when I inquired about grading the roads to ease transport links and supporting alternative livelihoods, the local DIFD rep admitted “funds are limited but now the town is free we can get planning”. The absence of any follow up meant the Taliban were back in control of the town within months.

The tragic result of this strategic failure is that, after two decades, we have now quit Afghanistan, abandoning the country to the very insurgent organisation we went in to defeat in the first place. With the Taliban now swiftly surrounding the crumbling Afghan government and what’s left of its army, anyone who can is fleeing the country.

It is now only a matter of time before the West has its Saigon moment. Western embassies will be evacuated just as they were in Vietnam in 1975. And all we leave for the 40 million Afghans to whom we promised a better future is a return to the bitter past. Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorist groups to plot future attacks against the West.

Just imagine if we’d had the same attitude towards abandoning Germany after the war – leaving the country to potential domestic strife or more likely following the of East Germany with Iron Curtain bumping up to France. Instead, we stayed the course and supported for Germany for decades.

In contrast, our withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves a power vacuum in a critical part of the world. Sitting between the Russia and China, Afghanistan could have been nurtured into a powerful geostrategic ally. Both countries will be enjoying the decline of the West’s ability to defend global order – so soon after the G7 Summit when we promised an international re-boot.

With so many lessons to learn, I hope it’s therefore understandable as to why I’m calling for an inquiry to learn the lesson as to what went wrong.

Leadbeater’s first test: will she rebuke Shah’s call to criminalise cartoons of Mohammed?

7 Jul

Labour’s victory in Batley & Spen has had the outsize effect on the political narrative that wins by a couple of hundred votes always do. But you can be sure the party noticed how close George Galloway came to handing this safe seat to the Conservatives.

Although his new Workers’ Party of Great Britain doesn’t seem to have quite the pulling power that Respect used to, a strong third place suggests that the danger is real – and he might try playing spoiler again at the general election.

Perhaps that’s why Naz Shah, Labour’s ‘Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion’, used the debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill to call for what sounds very much like a blasphemy law.

Her logic is if the Government is introducing stringent criminal penalties for vandalising statues, it ought to do the same for people who “defame, slander or abuse” religious figures. If not, Shah suggests, ministers risk erecting “a hierarchy of sentiments”.

One might argue – indeed, I have – that the PCSC Bill is at least as much about public order as public feeling. Shah has no time for that:

“To those who say it is just a cartoon, I will not say, “It’s only a statue”, because I understand the strength of British feeling when it comes to our history, our culture and our identity. It is not just a cartoon and they are not just statues. They represent, symbolise and mean so much more to us as human beings.”

That’s the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion seeming to suggest that drawing a picture of Mohammed is not a legitimate act by people who can “debate, discuss, disagree and even respectfully and vehemently oppose” a religious figure, but the public-order equivalent of actual vandalism.

Is that actually Labour’s position? It’s not just an academic question. As of a couple of weeks ago, at least, a teacher who showed cartoons of Mohammed in class was still in hiding. How much help can he expect from his new Labour MP?

We must hope that Kim Leadbetter is as prepared to face down her own front bench as she was the thugs on the by-election campaign trail – even if this means continuing to antagonise the voters who backed Galloway and thus nearly handed the seat to the Tories.

Garvan Walshe: Lukashenko’s air piracy. By way of western response, sanctions are only a start. Here’s what we need to do next.

27 May

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

Alexander Lukashenko has stopped pretending he’s anything better than a gangster. Roman Protasevich was paraded on TV after his kidnapping with visible bruises. The message is clear: we grabbed him, we tortured him – and we don’t care what you think. He might as well have taken out that AK–47 he’s fond of carrying ,and screamed: “what are you going to do about it, punk?”

But what, indeed, are we going to do about it? International opinion is coalescing around a set of economic sanctions, and the US, EU, UK and other diplomats are working out the details. It could usefully be accompanied by a coordinated expulsion of Belarussian diplomats by all NATO members, just as Russian diplomats were expelled following the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. This is the minimum that can be expected, and will provide a modest deterrent against other small regimes contemplating something similar.

It is nowhere near enough.

While twentieth century dictatorships consolidated power by cutting themselves off from the democratic world, in the twenty first they exploit globalisation to corrupt democracies. They think we’re too greedy, fond of a quiet life, or exhausted after 20 years fighting Islamist terrorism to impose costs on dictators.

Mention of the latter pre-9/11 suggests a parallel today. Just as in the case of Al-Qaeda, which had bombed a US barracks in Saudi Arabia, attacked the USS Cole destroyer, and whose precursor made the first attempt to level the World Trade Center in 1996, we have ignored warnings about a significantly greater threat to peace and security, because facing the truth was inconvenient.

We made the mistake of hoping that tit-for-tat reprisals against Islamist attacks would be sufficient, when we needed to work out how to marginalise and sideline the full spectrum of Islamist activity. After 20 years of trial, and (considerable) error, we’ve settled on a combination of measures, from military strikes through humanitarian aid, counter-extremism prevention, and education progammes at the soft end. We came to understand that we had to neutralise the Islamists’ strategic aim to build theocratic dictatorships, and not merely blunt their tactics.

Lukashenko, Putin and Xi Jinping want to destabilise and weaken the West by undermining the system of international norms we’ve built up since 1945. They take advantage of our naivety. We made the mistake of letting countries without democratic politics and rule of law into the system by pretending to ourselves that the economic integration would be to make them liberal. This exposed our societies to infiltration by emboldened autocracies instead.

They have put a former German Chancellor and a Scottish First Minister on their payroll, have gained access to critical nuclear and telecommunications infrastructure, and broadcast their propaganda and disinformation on our airwaves. They use the openness of our free market system against us, by operating through front organisations (The gory details of the Russian element to this can be found in Catherine Belton’s excellent Putin’s People). The well-known abuse of social media platforms with fake accounts are just an extension of this technique. Lukashenko’s abuse of counter-terrorism protocols to dupe the Ryanair flight into landing, and then seizing Protasevich, is from the same playbook.

Our mistake was to extend the deeper elements Western of international cooperation, which relied on a sense of shared interest in keeping the system together, to countries that want not merely to free-ride on that system, but actually pull it apart.

This now needs to be reconfigured to deal separately with trusted and untrusted states. Trusted states can be kept within the system, but untrusted states need to be let in only on more sceptical terms. The automatic snap-back sanctions in the JCPOA Iran Deal are an example of mechanisms that could be used. The China Research Group proposed taking a similar stance in its Defending Democracy in a new world report (in which I was involved). Flows of foreign investment, support for think tanks, universities, and other forms of influence need to be brought under heavier scrutiny. Real “beneficial owners” need to be identified, and intelligence capability be built so this goes beyond a box-ticking compliance exercise. Media backed, directly or indirectly, by regimes that restrict media freedom should be denied broadcast licenses.

We need to consider whether we have adequate intelligence capability to keep tabs on influence by twenty-first century autocracies, and to protect our citizens and residents from their extraterritorial operations. One wonders whether Greek security services, for example, had any idea of the Belarussian KGB’s plot to kidnap Protasevich. Protecting democratic opponents of these regimes ought now become a priority for Western security agencies.

Belarus’s air piracy should be a wake-up call for the Western alliance. Just like twenty-first century terrorism, twenty-first century authoritarianism doesn’t stay within its own borders. Keeping it out of ours and those of our allies has become a matter of highest importance.

Emily Carver: If our choices are lawful, can we really trust the state to judge which ones will harm us?

19 May

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs. 

At some point in every child’s life comes the bleak realisation that their parents are not infallible. That they’re muddling through like everyone else, have bad habits and never get everything right, however hard they try. Perhaps they hold irrational prejudices or equivocate on who you should go out with, what you should eat, what subjects you should study.

And in as much as children think about government competence, they likely assume that policymakers know what’s best for them. That a benign state has their best interests at heart.

But at some point, it will dawn that policymakers are, in fact, humans. Flawed like the rest of us, and capable of making mistakes – some minor, some catastrophic, and some poorly-intentioned. An inability to accept or understand this fundamental truth was, in part, to blame for the failed socialist experiments throughout the twentieth century.

Yet as a nation we nonetheless collectively endorse the Government’s “we know best” attitude – be it with reference to our lifestyle choices, the economy, or ministers’ attempts to regulate our lives from what they deem to be ‘harmful’.

Granted, at times of national crisis, there is justification for government intervention in our lives that would be deemed excessive in normal times. While I would argue that very few of the restrictions that we’ve lived under over the past year or so are defensible (surely the state should never command the right to dictate who and when we can hug, for example), there is a broad consensus that protecting the public from a deadly virus justifies a level of government intervention we would usually reject.

However, even as the risk of the virus abates – with the Government on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July, and the Indian variant showing no signs of being resistant to the vaccine – the rhetoric from ministers still implies that we all remain in peril.

We should be suspicious of this: fear is undoubtedly being mobilised to increase uptake in the vaccine, while ministers are reportedly considering local lockdowns once again to limit the spread of the variant. And it’s working; polling shows that only half of us will feel comfortable hugging despite the Government easing restrictions.

Just as we’ve seen ministers continue to call for the utmost caution as lockdown measures ease, it’s clear that this Government sees its purpose as protecting us from anything that could possibly cause us ‘harm’, with its increasingly paternalistic streak encroaching into nearly every area of our lives.

Take the Online Safety Bill which was published last week, and made a notable appearance in last week’s Queen’s Speech. The stated aim of the legislation is to “put an end to harmful practices” on the internet – a suspiciously large remit and one, which, as Victoria Hewson points out in a recent briefing paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, will undoubtedly lead to a curtailment of free speech.

While it is glaringly obvious that the internet contains sordid material, from violent porn to Islamist and far-right extremist content, the Bill goes far beyond seeking to stamp out illegal content.  It will seek to extend a “duty of care” to social media firms, which, while it may sound to some like a positive step, includes a duty to remove “lawful but still harmful” content, which includes “misinformation” – a notoriously nebulous and undoubtedly subjective term.

So, when it comes to the internet, ministers believe that censoring is justified to prevent harm. However, the Government is clearly conflicted over the matter of free speech. On the one hand, we have the Education Secretary seeking to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on university campuses through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill; on the other, in seeking to ban the abhorrent practice of gay conversion therapy, it may well end up curtailing legitimate forms of therapy for those struggling with gender dysphoria.

Much like a parent intent on disciplining their naughty child, this Government’s preferred policy tool seems to be prohibition. It had been thought that the Government had decided against bringing in an ill-considered ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising on TV and online – but no, the proposed legislation reared its ugly head once again in the Queen’s Speech.

Not only is there no evidence to suggest this will have any impact on the nation’s collective waistline, but it is also fundamentally illiberal, severely curtailing businesses’ freedom to communicate with their customers and threatening broadcasters’ revenue.

The trend towards paternalism is concerning and, even more so, the level to which the public seem to be acquiescing with it. Even before Covid hit, the Government was encroaching in ever more areas of our life; the pandemic has only accelerated this trend.

Johnson – “Our new, full-spectrum approach to cyber will transform our ability to protect our people”

13 Mar

The Integrated Review will be published on Tuesday.  That’s to say, the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, to give the document its full title.  Boris Johnson will make a Commons statement.

And he steps up the pre-publicity today by saying that the review will commit to a new, full spectrum approach to the UK’s cyber capability – announcing the establishment of a ‘cyber corridor’ across the North of England and, he claims, thousands of jobs. The Prime Minister said:

“Cyber power is revolutionising the way we live our lives and fight our wars, just as air power did 100 years ago. We need to build up our cyber capability so we can grasp the opportunities it presents while ensuring those who seek to use its powers to attack us and our way of life are thwarted at every turn.

“Our new, full-spectrum approach to cyber will transform our ability to protect our people, promote our interests around the world and make the lives of British people better every day.”

The Government says that opening a new headquarters for the National Cyber Force (NCF) in the North of England will drive growth in the tech, digital and defence sectors outside of London, and help create new partnerships between government, the sector and universities in the region.

The NCF was created last year to transform the UK’s capacity to conduct targeted offensive cyber operations against terrorists, hostile states and criminal gangs – drawing together personnel from both defence and the intelligence agencies under one unified command.

Opening the HQ of the NCF in the North of England will drive growth in the tech, digital and defence sectors outside of London and help create new partnerships between government, the sector and universities in the region, Government sources claim.

They add that “the review will set out the importance of cyber technology to Britain’s way of life – whether by defeating enemies on the battlefield, making the internet a safer place or developing cutting-edge tech to improve people’s lives”.

Defence currently sustains more than 35,000 jobs in the North West of England alone. Ten thousand people are employed in maritime design in Barrow and 12,000 people work in advanced aerospace engineering and manufacturing at Samlesbury Aerospace Enterprise Zone, where the UK is producing the fifth generation F-35 stealth aircraft.

In addition to the NCF,  last year saw the creation of the 13th Signals Regiment, the first dedicated cyber regiment, and expanded the Defence Cyber School. These capabilities will play a part in operations, including HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first global deployment this year.

We now wait to see what mix of cyber and conventional capabilities the review proposes; what it says about the major foreign policy and security challenges, and where development fits in – as the Government prepares to abandon the 0.7 per cent GNI aid target, at least temporarily.

The challenges should shape the capabilities – on paper, anyway, though that is more often than not the case in the breach than the observance.  If the review stresses, say, naval and cyber capability at the expense of the army, what does that imply for the potential defence of the Baltic states from Russia?

What is Boris Johnson’s position on China, where the UK’s trade and security interests are at odds, Conservative backbenchers are in revolt over China’s abominable treatment of the Uighars, and Dominic Raab, this very day, has accused China of breaching the joint declaration on Hong Kong?

Finally, does the Government now believe that there is no major third threat to Britain’s security – from Islamist extremism, which dominated the security conversation from 9/11 through 7.7 to the murder of Lee Rigby and beyond? It didn’t get so much as a mention in the Prime Minister’s recent speech to the Munich Security Conference.

The review’s launch this week will be followed by a Defence White Paper next: that’s the document in which cuts and scalebacks will be announced.  A procurement review will come in its wake.

Meanwhile, there’s at least one select committee report in the immediate pipeline – the Defence Select Committee report on procurement itself.  Busy times for the Ministry of Defence in the immediate future then,.