Leaders: Prince’s Afghanistan tour is no palace exercise
WHATEVER one thinks of Prince Harry’s antics in a Las Vegas hotel room, it is difficult to fault his courage in going to Afghanistan to fly Apache attack helicopters.
So far this year, Nato and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan have lost a dozen helicopters in combat or from accidents during operations, resulting in at least 44 deaths. This includes two US Apaches.
Cynics may view Prince Harry’s high-profile detachment to a war zone as the palace’s way of mending his reputation. The more forgiving will reflect that Harry’s high-jinks might have been because he knew he was going to Afghanistan. Besides, training someone to fly the £37 million Apache is an expensive business. It would be foolish to waste his expertise.
Of course, sending the third in line to the throne to the front line is a calculated risk. As well as Taleban gunfire, a pilot in Afghanistan has to deal with unforgiving terrain and a hot climate that is not kind to helicopters. Royals have died on active service within living memory – the Duke of Kent, brother of King George VI, when his Sunderland flying boat crashed in Caithness in 1942. But Harry has weighed the odds and wants to go. We should respect him for it.
Having Prince Harry serve in Afghanistan may also rightly focus public attention on just what we have achieved in that benighted country since the West invaded to overthrow the Taleban 11 long years ago. Nato and ISAF intend to withdraw all combat forces by 2014, handing over internal security to the Afghan national army and police force. Yet it is difficult to conclude that the Taleban have been defeated. Or even – as US president Barack Obama claimed this week – had their momentum broken.
By some estimates, the level of violence in Afghanistan remains worse than in the years prior to the surge of US troops in 2010, though the surge reduced Taleban activity in their strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar. The number of casualties caused by suicide bombings jumped by 80 per cent last year. Recorded enemy attacks in the second quarter of this year were greater than in the same period in 2011. The Taleban leadership remains relatively safe across the border in Pakistan. Most ominously, the number of Nato and ISAF soldiers killed by Afghan security personnel or people purporting to be so, so-called green on blue attacks, is at an all-time high.
This picture hardly makes for confidence that the Afghan army and police can contain the Taleban insurgency when Nato leaves. Which suggests the West has a limited window of opportunity to negotiate a deal to bring the moderate wing of the Taleban into government, or to persuade Pakistan to expel Taleban hardliners. Unfortunately, this is something Prince Harry cannot help with.
Osborne oils wheels of the Union
Chancellor George Osborne came to Scotland this week to make, in his own words, “a very positive case for the Union”. Just in case we didn’t get the message, he left a present.
Companies investing to boost production in older North Sea fields will now qualify for a new tax relief to offset corporation tax. In his March Budget, Mr Osborne also provided help for companies prospecting new oil reserves in the Atlantic, off Shetland. None of this Treasury support comes too soon. Oil and gas production in the UK North Sea fell by nearly a fifth last year, reducing the Treasury’s expected tax receipts by £2 billion.
However, Mr Osborne is the architect of his own fiscal misfortune. In his 2011 Budget, he imposed an ill-advised windfall tax on North Sea energy companies, which was heavily criticised in Scotland at the time.
The extra money was intended to pay for a cut in petrol duty to help hard-pressed motorists. But the windfall tax only reduced investment, led to smaller than anticipated tax receipts, and increased borrowing, while motorists still faced rising prices at the petrol pump.
The first lesson here is that firms will only undertake risky investment in the North Sea and the Atlantic if they have a predictable tax regime and confidence that the Chancellor will not use them as a piggy bank. This is
especially true for the many smaller, independent oil companies who are doing most of the hard work these days in the older North Sea fields.
The second lesson is: beware chancellors bearing gifts. It is to be reasonably foreseen that there is a real possibility of more gifts as the referendum battle rages over the next two years.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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