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David Cameron

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Afghanistan: Mission not Accomplished

Britain’s prime minister David Cameron rambled a bit on his visit to Afghanistan last December, but ended up sounding just as deluded as U.S. president George W. Bush had been when he proclaimed “Mission accomplished” six weeks after the invasion of Iraq. British troops were sent to Afghanistan, Cameron said, “so it doesn’t become a haven for terror. That is the mission…and I think we will have accomplished that mission.”

 Prime Minister Stephen Harper was equally upbeat when addressing Canadian troops just before they pulled out in 2011. Afghanistan no longer represents a “geostrategic risk to the world (and) is no longer a source of global terrorism,” he said. Both men are technically correct, since Afghanistan never was a “geostrategic risk to the world” or “a haven for terror”, but they must both know that the whole war was really a pointless waste of lives.

Obviously, neither man can afford to say that the soldiers who died in obedience to the orders of their government (448 British troops, 158 Canadians) died in vain, but Barack Obama has found a better way to address the dilemma: he just doesn’t offer any assessment of the campaign’s success. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” wrote former defence secretary Robert Gates, and he was right.

So was Obama, in the sense that he realized the mission, whatever its purpose (the definitions kept changing), was neither doable nor worth doing. But in fact he did support it, at least to the extent of not pulling the plug on it—and 1,685 of the 2,315 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan died on his watch. Could do better.

Now there’s another “election” coming up in Afghanistan (on April 5); at least three-quarters of the remaining foreign troops (perhaps all of them) will be gone from the country by the end of this year, and the whole thing is getting ready to fall apart. This will pose no threat to the rest of the world, but it’s going to be deeply embarrassing for the Western leaders who nailed their flags to this particular mast.

The election is to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has served two full terms and cannot run again. It will be at least as crooked as the last one in 2009: 20.7 million voters’ cards have already been distributed in a country where there are only 13.5 million people over the age of 18. Karzai is so confident of remaining the power behind the throne that he is building his “retirement” residence next to the presidential palace, but he’s probably wrong.

His confidence is based on his skill as a manipulator of tribal politics. Indeed, his insistence that the U.S. hand over control of Bagram jail, and his subsequent release of 72 hardcore Taliban prisoners, was designed to rebuild ties with the prisoners’ families and clans before the election. But it is that same Taliban organization that will probably make all Karzai’s plans and plots irrelevant.

It’s not that the Taliban will sweep back to power all over Afghanistan once Western troops leave. They really only controlled the Pashtun-majority areas of the east and south and the area around the capital even when they were “in power” in 1996-2001, while the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras of the “Northern Alliance” ruled the rest.

That pattern is likely to reappear, with the Taliban and the northern warlords pushing politicians like Karzai aside—probably not at once, when most or all of the Western troops go home at the end of this year, but a while later, when the flow of aid (which accounts for 97 percent of Afghan government spending) finally stops.

The U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam did not collapse when American troops went home in 1973, but two years later, when Congress cut the aid to Saigon. The Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan did not collapse when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, but three years later, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia cut the aid. It will happen that way again.

The new part-Taliban Afghanistan that emerges will be no more a source of international terrorism than the old part-Taliban Afghanistan was. It was Osama bin Laden and his merry men, mostly Arabs and a few Pakistanis, who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks, not the Taliban.

True, bin Laden et al. were guests on Afghan soil at the time, but it is highly unlikely that they told the Taliban about the attacks in advance. After all, they were probably going to get their hosts’ country invaded by the United States; best not to bring it up. And there have been no international terrorist attacks coming out of Afghanistan in the past eight years, although the Taliban already control a fair chunk of the country.

The election will unfold as Karzai wishes, and his preferred candidate (exactly who is still not clear) will probably emerge as the new president, but this truly is a case of rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic. The second long foreign occupation of Afghanistan in half a century is drawing to a close, and Afghanistan’s own politics and history are about to resume.

The False Equation

18 December 2011

The False Equation: Religion Equals Morality

By Gwynne Dyer

In the United States, where it is almost impossible to get elected unless you profess a strong religious faith, it would have passed completely unnoticed. Not one of the hundred US senators ticks the “No Religion/Atheist/Agnostic” box, for example, although 16 percent of the American population do. But it was quite remarkable in Britain.

Last Friday, in Oxford, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that the United Kingdom is a Christian country “and we should not be afraid to say so.” He was speaking on the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible, so he had to say something positive about religion – but he went far beyond that.

“The Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today,” he said. “Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend.”

Where to start? The King James Bible was published at the start of a century in which millions of Europeans were killed in religious wars over minor differences of doctrine. Thousands of “witches” were burned at the stake during the 16th century, as were thousands of “heretics”. They have stopped doing that sort of thing in Britain now – but they’ve also stopped reading the Bible. Might there be a connection here?

Besides, what Cameron said is just not true. In last year’s British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted annually by the National Centre for Social Research, only 43 percent of 4,000 British people interviewed said they were Christian, while 51 percent said they had “no religion.” Among young people, some two-thirds are non-believers.

Mind you, the official census numbers from 2001 say that 73 percent of British people identify themselves as “Christian”. However, this is probably due to a leading question on the census form. “What is your religion?” it asks, which seems to assume that you must have one – especially since it follows a section on ethnic origins, and we all have those.

So a lot of people put down Christian just because that is the ancestral religion of their family. Make the question more neutral – “Are you religious? If so, what is your religion?” –and the result would probably be very different. There were attempts to get that more neutral question onto the 2011 census form, but the churches lobbied frantically against it. They are feeling marginalised enough as it is.

Why would David Cameron proclaim the virtues of a Christian Britain that no longer exists? He is no religious fanatic; he describes himself as a “committed” but only “vaguely practising” Christian.

You’d think that if he really believed in a God who scrutinises his every thought and deed, and will condemn him to eternal torture in Hell if he doesn’t meet the standard of behaviour required, he might be a little less vague about it all. But he doesn’t really believe that he needs religion HIMSELF; he thinks it is a necessary instrument of social control for keeping the lower orders in check.

This is a common belief among those who rule, because they confuse morality with religion. If the common folk do not fear some god (any old god will do), social discipline will collapse and the streets will run with blood. Our homes, our children, even our domestic animals will be violated. Thank god for God.

Just listen to Cameron: “The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option. You can’t fight something with nothing. If we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything.” The “alternative of moral neutrality”? What he means is that there cannot be moral behaviour without religion – so you proles had better go on believing, or we privileged people will be in trouble.

But Cameron already lives in a post-religious country. Half its people say outright that they have no religion, two-thirds of them never attend a religious service, and a mere 8 percent go to church, mosque, synagogue or temple on a weekly basis. Yet the streets are not running with blood.

Indeed, religion may actually be bad for morality. In 2005 Paul Gregory made the case for this in a research paper in the Journal of Religion and Society entitled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look.”

Sociological gobbledygook, but in a statistical survey of 18 developed democracies, Gregory showed that “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, (venereal disease), teen pregnancy, and abortion.”

Even within the United States, Gregory reported, “the strongly theistic, anti-evolution South and Midwest” have markedly worse crime rates and social problems than the relatively secular North-East. Of course, the deeply religious areas are also poorer, so it might just be poverty making people behave so badly. On the other hand, maybe religion causes poverty.

Whatever. The point is that David Cameron, and thousands of other politicians, religious leaders and generals in every country, are effectively saying that my children, and those of all the other millions who have no religion, are morally inferior to those who do. It is insulting and untrue.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Mind…it is”)

Euro Crisis

12 December 2011

Euro Crisis: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

By Gwynne Dyer

One senior European politician said angrily that British Prime Minister David Cameron was “like a man who comes to a wife-swapping party without his wife,” and there was some truth in that. Britain does not even use the euro currency, shared by 17 of the 27 EU members, but Cameron insisted on being part of the discussion in Brussels about how to save it. And in the end, he vetoed the solution that all the others had agreed on.

It was the eighth crisis summit of the European Union’s leaders this year, and it produced the fourth “comprehensive package” of financial measures to deal with the debt crisis. (The other three have already failed.) And if you judged the importance of the meeting by the scale of the uproar when Britain vetoed the EU treaty that was meant to stop the rot, it must have been a very important summit indeed.

But in fact they were all barking up the wrong tree in Brussels: the financial crisis over the euro will roll on, and the collapse of the common EU currency continues to be a real possibility. What the summit actually showed was how divided, distracted and deluded Europe’s leaders still are.

David Cameron went to Brussels knowing that his partners intended to come up with a treaty that would enshrine new financial rules for EU members, in order to reassure the “markets”, who have been demanding higher and higher interest rates to roll over the debts of EU members. He also knew that the nationalistic, “europhobe” faction in his own Conservative Party would never vote for such a treaty. They want out of the EU, not further in.

The only way out of Cameron’s dilemma, therefore, was to make sure that there would not be such a treaty. His stated reason for vetoing it was to avoid more stringent regulation, and possibly taxation, of the London financial markets, but his real reason was naked self-interest: a new treaty would split his own party and probably destroy his government.

His stated reason was nonsense. Any new financial regulations that would affect the London markets would have to be agreed unanimously by the EU countries at a later date; there was no need to veto the treaty if he just wanted to protect the free-wheeling, “casino” aspect of the London markets that had done so much to precipitate the crisis in the first place. Cameron just needed a cover story.

The other EU members feigned great anger at this, but some of them were secretly quite grateful for Cameron’s bad behaviour. They agreed to adopt the same rules anyway, but to do it outside the legal framework of the EU in order to get around the British veto. This had two great advantages: it meant that no referendums would be necessary – and if these new measures failed to reassure the markets, they could all blame Britain.

What were these fabulous new measures? They were all about “balanced budgets” in the eurozone countries, which would face sanctions if they let their budget deficit exceed 3 percent of GDP. They would even have to submit their national budgets to the European Commission, which would have the power to ask that they be revised.

These are exactly the steps that will be needed if the euro is to have a long-term future: it cannot survive if the countries using it do not have a unified fiscal regime. But the markets don’t give a damn about the long-term future of the euro; they just want to know for sure that they will get back the money they lend to eurozone countries, and until they have that assurance they will demand exorbitant interest rates on their loans.

In this context, the decisions taken in Brussels this week are merely a displacement activity. The bigger EU governments are using the crisis as a pretext to force through centralising measures that they have long wanted to impose on the weaker economies. But they are still not doing what the markets want, which is to take responsibility for the weaker countries’ debts.

Can it really be that simple? Can they really be that irresponsible? Yes, and yes again. Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, explained why this sort of thing happens in politics seventy years ago. “All politics is local,” he said, and that is true in spades in Europe today.

It’s not just David Cameron who is putting his local political interests above the interests of a broader European community. So is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who refuses to allow the EU to make a collective commitment to honour the debts of the weaker members.

That’s the only thing that will calm the markets, but Merkel’s voters are fiercely opposed to hard-working, thrifty Germans covering the debts of lazy, spendthrift Greeks and Italians (as many of them would put it), so she will not permit it. And so the euro crisis rolls on interminably.

But don’t worry: interminably is not the same as forever. Sooner or later there will be a real crash, and all these people will be duly punished for their fecklessness. Unfortunately, everybody else in the EU will be punished too.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“It was…indeed”; and “His stated…story”)