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 Hudson: We have every reason to feel excited about the Government’s ambitious Turing scheme

12 Mar

Dr Neil Hudson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border. Neil is a veterinary surgeon and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

As an MP who has worked as a university senior lecturer, I don’t mind admitting that I was a disappointed when I first heard that the UK would not be taking part in Erasmus+. Although the scheme wasn’t perfect, it still was an amazing opportunity for our students. I’d seen first-hand how it could create opportunities which broadened their horizons – and I worried about our ability to create a domestic alternative that would truly match its ambition.

The importance of students being able to exchange experiences in different institutions is a win-win for them and academics. I know from personal experience that when your students are placed in international institutions and vice versa this is a great way of fostering teaching and research collaborations in both places. In the midst of a global pandemic, it was too easy to see that this could have been deprioritised.

The reality is that international partnerships have never been more important to universities. International students – essential not just for the diversity of outlook they bring to campus, but for the financial contribution they make – have proved unexpectedly loyal during Covid-19, averting vice-chancellors’ worst-case scenarios.

But it cannot be taken for granted that this will continue, especially as Asian universities rise up the world rankings and the US seeks to once again become a more welcoming studying destination. Academic conferences, a staple of building international networks, have looked very different over the last year, with fewer opportunities to forge the personal connections on which partnerships are made.

For universities, this can be particularly challenging. An international outlook is part of their core ethos. From Covid-19 to climate change, it is increasingly clear that the problems facing our world require international solutions. And as a former university academic and admissions dean, I know first-hand that opportunities to meet people from other cultures and to travel abroad are seen as highly important by students when deciding where to study, or in inspiring them to reach their full potential.

It’s for this reason that I’m delighted that the Government has moved so quickly to set up the Turing scheme. It is a genuinely ambitious offer that has been described by Universities UK – no lovers of Brexit – as “a fantastic development”. And in some areas, I am relieved to say it is even better than Erasmus+ was.

Some of the criticisms that have been thrown at the scheme can only be described as inaccurate, misrepresentations of the facts by those not wanting to give something new and ambitious a chance. The monthly cost of living allowance for both schemes is comparable: 370-420 Euro for a typical student under Erasmus+ compared to 390 – 443 Euro (£335-380) for Turing, with similar uplifts for disadvantaged students.

Importantly, under Erasmus+, only those who went to non-EU countries – three per cent of UK participants – received support for travel, whereas in Turing, all disadvantaged students will receive travel support – not just for flights, but for visas, passports and travel insurance – wherever they are going in the world. The suggestion that Turing participants will have to pay tuition fees is also incorrect: mutual fee waivers will be negotiated by each university partnership, as is absolutely standard for HE exchange schemes around the world. This argument also underlies the flawed thinking that the UK should pay for both inward and outward mobilities: an exchange is a partnership, to which both sides contribute, just as all country participants in Erasmus+ paid towards its costs.

There are some ways in which the schemes are different. The most disappointing for me personally is that Turing only includes students, not academics or teachers. I know colleagues in HE who will feel this painfully. But equally, I recognise that academics have many other opportunities to travel abroad and, as a Conservative MP committed to the levelling-up agenda, I recognise that we should focus taxpayers’ money on creating opportunities for those who otherwise would not have them, not supporting those who could access support another way.

And set against this are the tremendous advantages of Turing. Most obviously, there is the ability to travel anywhere in the world, not just Europe. European countries will always be our friends and partners, but this scheme will open up new opportunities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia to name but a few. Providing the opportunity to study at the Ivy League, Singapore, Japan, or to forge partnerships, friendships and collaborations with our Commonwealth allies, is something our students will grasp with both hands.

Less talked about, but also important, is the greater flexibility that Turing offers in terms of the length and format of exchanges. The typical average six-month duration of Erasmus+ exchanges meant that the scheme was dominated by certain subject areas such as languages.

To take my own subject, veterinary medicine, it is difficult in a professional degree to spend a whole year abroad – but far more feasible to go for an eight-week study or clinical work placement. Although year-long exchanges will still be available, the greater flexibility and increased choice of destinations will open up demand to a much wider variety of students from different disciplines, which can only be a good thing.

In short, from an initial position of scepticism, I have found Turing to be an unexpected bonus. It is another example, like the fantastic trade deals we have signed, our hosting of COP26 this year or the ambitious relaunch of our

international education strategy, of how for this Government “Global Britain” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a strategy. And it’s one which I know our world-class universities and ambitious students will embrace.

Anthony Browne: Post-Brexit Britain. Now we’ve taken back control, here’s what we can do with our new powers.

31 Dec

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.

When I worked for Boris Johnson during his first term as Mayor of London, I led on devolving powers to City Hall, and went through it with Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy honcho. One idea was to devolve VAT to London, copying regional sales taxes in North America. “We can’t. It is against EU rules. Not sure why,” said Letwin.

With our agreement with the EU, arguably the biggest change is not individual policy areas, but the sense of empowerment. Throughout government, naysayers and those suffering excessive status-quo bias have been able to stop any initiative saying: “you can’t. It is against EU rules.”

Sometimes – like the abolition of the tampon tax and banning live animal exports – it was a correct interpretation of EU law. But often it was just a general prohibition. It would end the matter, because no one really understood the EU rules, they were too difficult to challenge, and basically impossible to change. It bred throughout the UK government machinery an intellectual dependency on the EU that led to a pervasive “can’t do” attitude.

But from January 1, no longer will anyone be able to say: “you can’t – EU rules”. We have jumped from the passenger seat to the pilot seat. Can’t do becomes can do. So – what should we do?

Eighteen months ago, at the depth of our Brexit political paralysis, ConservativeHome asked me to write a series of 10 articles highlighting potential “Policy Gains from Brexit” – things we might want to do and would be able to do once we had left the EU. So how are we doing?

On most of the issues, we are making great headway. Across much of government, the new empowerment has led to a renaissance of democracy and policy making. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs used to be a body for transposing EU rules, with a bureaucracy that had gone native.

But under Michael Gove, Liz Truss and George Eustice, civil servants have transformed from passive recipients to enlightened creators, giving the department a buzz of excitement.

The Agriculture Bill – the first time we have had an agricultural policy for over 40 years – scraps the dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy, and replaces it with environmental subsidies (it was a pleasure to do my maiden speech on it).

The Environment Bill (which I sat on the Bill Committee of) doesn’t just replace EU environmental law, but enhances it and tailors it for the UK, much to the delight of green groups.

The Fisheries Bill gives us our own, more sustainable, fisheries policy (subject to quotas agreed with the EU).

The Government is consulting on banning the export of live animals for slaughter, which the impotent Labour government was unable to do when it wanted to.

We now have a Department for International Trade, with our own trade negotiators, giving us a trade policy for the first time in forty years, and pumping out our own trade agreements. Agriculture and environment groups have been enthusiastically debating how we protect standards in our trade policy, something nobody discussed before because we had no power to deliver it.

The Treasury is reviewing the whole framework of financial services regulation, with the aim of setting out an ambitious financial services strategy. Previous strategies for financial services (which I played my part in, as chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association) were rather optimistic exercises – the UK government didn’t have the power to do very much. Almost all our financial services regulation we have inherited from the EU, but we need to ensure it is proportionate, and supports innovation and competition, as well as international competitiveness and high standards.

The Treasury has scrapped the hated tax on tampons, which EU rules had prevented George Osborne from doing. The popular duty free from EU countries is coming back after a 20 year absence – with the ferries from Holyhead to Dublin offering it from Friday. The Government is launching freeports to boost trade and regeneration of more deprived parts of the UK. The Home Office has scrapped the much-hated freedom of movement, and replaced it with a global immigration policy making sure we can get the talent that our economy needs.

But now that we have this empowerment, what else could we do now we have left the EU? Here are some other possibilities:

  • Reform public procurement (under the OJEU rules), to make it fit for purpose and give small businesses more opportunities.
  • Promote competition among retail banks by reforming EU inherited capital rules.
  • Remove VAT on housing insulation and other environmental products, and reform the biofuels regime.
  • Transform our waste and recycling regime, so it is not an exercise in hitting EU targets.
  • Reform the EU’s second company directive to reduce pointless red tape for public companies.
  • Reform the General Data Protection Regulation to protect privacy while reducing burdens on small charities and businesses.
  • Reform Solvency II so our insurance companies can compete globally.
  • Promote collaboration programmes with the Commonwealth, rather than just the EU.

It has been obscured by the dramas around Brexit and Covid, but the policy arena is the most exciting it has been for a generation. Say goodbye to can’t do. Say hello to the new “can do” Britain.

Michelle Donelan: The Government’s new Turing scheme will open up the world to British students

28 Dec

Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Universities.

When things become too familiar, it can be comfortable to sit back and enjoy their benefits, never stopping to consider whether the old, established parameters still meet the needs of the present day. The thought of losing it becomes a wrench. Even if what is being offered in exchange is clearly better, the original has acquired a totemic nature that goes far beyond its present value.

Such can be the only explanation for the cries of dismay from some quarters that greeted the news last week that the UK government would be establishing a new global Turing scheme for students, following our decision not to continue participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

I can understand why some people feel this way. Many prominent commentators, newsreaders or academics may have used Erasmus, or perhaps their children or friends did. It is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in. However, the simple reality is this: if anyone was creating a student exchange scheme for Britain today, would they really settle for Erasmus+?

Why would we wish to limit an exchange programme to the EU, when the fastest growing, most vibrant and dynamic countries are increasingly found in Asia and Africa – not to mention our old allies in North America, Australia and New Zealand? Some forward-thinking universities have already established exchange programmes, and even campuses, outside of Europe, and I commend them for that, but they deserve our full and whole-hearted support, not exclusion from the Government’s principal funded scheme.

It is also the case, unfortunately, that Erasmus’s benefits went overwhelmingly to students who were already advantaged. The language barrier meant that it was very hard for students not already studying a modern foreign language to take part, to flourish at their chosen university and get the most out of the academic experience. A 2006 study found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, 51 per cent were from families with a high or very high income.

In 2014-15, those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus at a rate 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap was widening. Of course, no-one would wish to prevent such students from studying abroad; but where Government support is concerned, surely it should be about ensuring all students have a fair and equal shot at studying abroad or going on an exchange.

That’s why the Government’s new Turing scheme will explicitly target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country. It will be backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, on apprenticeships, and in schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.

The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and will deliver greater value for money to taxpayers. And it will be named after one of our greatest British scientists: Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing and cryptography, a hero of the Second World War and who himself studied abroad as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton.

Of course, none of this is to decry Erasmus+: undoubtedly, those who took part in the scheme benefited from it. However, the fact is that it is simply too limiting for the global Britain that we aspire to. Of the hundred best universities in the world in the QS World Rankings, only twelve are in the EU. If we have stayed with Erasmus+ it would have cost several hundreds of millions of pounds to fund a similar number of exchanges, not have been global in nature and continued to deliver poor participation rates for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In the future, we will see young people from Bolsover and Bishop Auckland studying in the Ivy League; entrepreneurs from Dudley and Derbyshire learning from the dynamic economies of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and our best budding engineers from Hastings and Hartlepool inspired by world-leaders at MIT or the Indian Institute of Technology. The Turing scheme exemplifies the spirit of Brexit, opening up our opportunities, our hearts and our horizons to the whole world.