Leaders: There’s little to be gained now by lingering in Afghanistan

IM AN article for the Washington Post, Barack Obama and David Cameron wrote of their pride in the progress they claimed the two counties’ troops have made in Afghanistan – dismantling al-Qaeda, breaking the Taleban’s momentum and training local forces to take over from them – but added that “as recent days remind us, this remains a difficult mission”.

This last admission is the one of the greatest understatements of international diplomacy. Although they did not specify, the recent events to which the president and Prime Minister referred were almost certainly the deaths of six British servicemen killed in Afghanistan last week and the massacre of 15 Afghans, including nine children, by an American soldier.

These incidents were shocking in themselves, but the raw grief of the relatives who lost their loved ones in a far-away country and the unfettered anger of ordinary Afghans who cannot comprehend how one of their so-called liberators could slaughter innocent children sent a more powerful message to the world than politicians’ carefully crafted words. That message is a simple but disconcerting one for those who continue to justify the UK and American’s presence in Afghanistan. Put simply, remaining there is increasingly futile.

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In the aftermath of 9/11 there was justification for sending forces to that benighted country. It had harboured al-Qaeda, which was behind the attack on the Twin Towers. It had to be rooted out of Afghanistan and was, relatively quickly. However, what was a successful counter-terrorism and international aid initiative started to go wrong once the messianic, interventionist vision of George Bush and Tony Blair took hold and their attention switched to Iraq, job apparently done. The task of establishing democracy and stability in a country which had never properly been either democratic or stable was grossly underestimated in a place which had defeated the might of the Soviet Union.

Under reforms maintained by military force, it is true that much of Afghanistan is a far more civilised country – the end of brutal suppression of women is one example – but in other respects it has changed little. It is still a largely tribal society, riddled by corruption, and the once-broken Taleban are powerful once again, despite all the military and technological power the West has brought to bear.

What, then, is to be gained by prolonging the time which British and US forces remain in Afghanistan? Mr Obama and Mr Cameron are to talk in Washington about handing over responsibility for security to the Afghans by 2013, with full withdrawal by 2014. The deaths of those British soldiers and those Afghan children serve only to increase the urgency of such a strategy. There is little to be gained in remaining other than continuing to train local security forces. Long-term interventionism against the will of local people has had its day, and Afghanistan must find its own way.

Tax cut would boost consumer confidence

After the last sightings of recovery “green shoots” turned brown last year, there is an understandable reluctance to hail fresh signs of an upturn as firm evidence of an economic spring. While business conditions may be easing a little, we are far from any recovery in household income and spending. Latest figures from the Scottish Retail Consortium show a 1.7 per cent fall last month compared with a year ago – the worst sales drop in February since records began. Depressed consumer confidence – caused in large part by the squeeze in real after-inflation spending power – has left households here reluctant to spend for all but essential items.

It is heartening, of course, that company hiring intentions are showing an improvement; that the trade deficit was less bad than feared, due to a better performance in manufacturing exports; and that even the housing market is showing flickering signs of recovery.

But so long as consumer demand remains depressed, belief in recovery will be grudging at best. And it is belief that the economy now needs most.

In his Budget next week, Chancellor George Osborne should make a cut in the tax burden for lower-income households a priority. Raising the starting rate of tax from the planned level of £8,105 in 2012-13 to £10,000 would be costly. But he could put a marker down with an initial move and a firm commitment to raise the threshold to £10,000 within the lifetime of this parliament. This would immediately put some money back in the pockets of households most likely to spend it, while providing confidence that further tax lightening is on the cards.

Red-carpet premiere a golden opportunity

After a grim run with austerity and a banishing of glittering receptions, the return of red carpets and VIP parties to the Edinburgh International Film Festival is to be warmly welcomed.

The capital city – and Scotland’s worldwide appeal as a tourist destination – can only be boosted by the news that the European premiere of Brave will be the climax to the festival this year. The animated fantasy, set in the Highlands, has been given a huge promotional budget. Organisers expect the premiere at the Festival Theatre to be the hottest cinematic ticket in Scotland since the 1995 European premiere of Braveheart in Stirling.

The occasion will bring such traffic-stopping stars as Kelly Macdonald (who voices the lead role of Princess Merida), Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Kevin Kidd and Julie Walters.

The film – and the glitter surrounding it – may not be to the taste of those who toil earnestly in the nether worlds of social realism and film noir. But cinema is powerfully driven by mass audience appeal, with all the flight of imagination and escapism that goes with it.

This stardust occasion cannot but be an uplift for the industry, for the capital city – and for Scotland’s profile on the global tourism map.