Monthly Archives: November 2014

Russia

Should we be worried about Putin’s Russia?

Should we be worried about Putin’s Russia? For fifteen years, the establishment answer has been ‘no.’ Despite a Russian-backed cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007, despite the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, despite the assassination of Litvinenko with radioactive plutonium in a Chelsea hotel by the Russian secret service in 2006, Russia has often been treated as a promising ally.  Three days before Russia annexed Crimea, the British parliament was assured that it would never happen.

Then Russia took Crimea, and Russian backed separatists shot down a passenger plane and killed hundreds. Again the West predicted that Russia would apologise and pull back. Instead Russian television, and the websites under Kremlin control, insisted that a Russian minority was under threat from ‘‘Nazis’, convinced anti-Americans in Europe that Russia was only defending itself against America, while telling Euro-sceptics that they were defending themselves against the European Union. Meanwhile, Moscow-based Special Forces and intelligence officers ultimately backed by conventional Russian forces seized Eastern Ukraine. And Putin’s popularity ratings climbed over 80 per cent.

Britain and the United States had convinced Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons, and promised to defend it from attack. We did nothing. Instead, some of us defended Putin, arguing that even Ukraine was ‘really part of Russia’. Really? Almost every one of the 15 independent states of the former Soviet Union could be described as ‘really’ part of the old Russian Empire. Our NATO allies, Estonia and Latvia, contain significant Russian populations. And Russia is not the only European country that has a ‘historical’ or ‘ethnic’ claim to part of its neighbours. Would we allow the same claims from Prussians in the Baltic, Hungarians in Romania, Romanians in Moldova, and Germans in Czechoslovakia?

Putin has now committed to spending a further $720 billion on upgrading his military equipment – particularly his nuclear arsenal. He is paranoid about being ‘encircled’. What will Putin do next if he feels his position is under threat in Moscow, and he or a successor need to appeal to nationalists to bolster their position? Putin has insisted that Estonia – like Crimea – is ‘not a real country’; and that the Baltic governments, are fascist sympathisers who oppress their ‘Russian minorities’. What conclusions will other regimes draw when they see Putin violently annex neighbouring territory, and ‘get away with it’?

Britain can help to minimise these dangers. But we must begin by acknowledging the threat, instead of hoping it goes away. The Advanced Research and Assessment group which tracked Russia for our Ministry of Defence was shut down in 2010.  The Ukraine desk officer post was chopped in 2012, and by early 2014, defence intelligence had only two individuals studying Russian military policy. Our policy will only ever be good as our understanding. We should bring back the people who understand Russia. And among them should be a team, continually prepared to challenge us and present the Russian point of view and the Russian tactics: however uncomfortable and unwelcome they may seem.

Putin has relied on cyber attacks, and propaganda. So Britain must invest much more heavily in NATO centres of excellence for cyber defence (where we currently have only one member) and in strategic communications (where we have none). We need to provide high quality, entertaining and objective BBC World Service programming, as an alternative to Russian propaganda in the Baltic. And we must show – sensibly and clearly – that although we have no aggressive intentions towards Russia, we are entirely committed to defending NATO members on Russian borders. NATO troops need to be brought to a higher state of readiness, they must undertake much larger scale exercises, and develop better contingency plans for defence against planes, submarines, and tanks (none of which were owned by our enemies in Afghanistan or Iraq).

Above all, the time has come for Britain and its NATO allies to demonstrate that we are serious. Russia – which is currently defining the narrative in Syria, holding cards in Iran, manipulating Armenia, intimidating the Baltics, and destabilising Ukraine – is a country with an economy smaller than Britain’s. But it spends more than twice what Britain does on Defence. We may not want to match Russian spending, but we should at the very least commit to not cutting our spending below our current level of 2 per cent of GDP.

Until Putin’s actions, Ukraine – for all its complex history and tensions – had at least been peaceful for sixty years.  Then Russian Special Forces intervened, seized military bases, and armed separatists. Now we have civil war – rockets plunging into cities, volunteer militia groups sprouting up, thousands killed and maimed, a shattered economy, and hatreds that will not be quelled for decades. In the process, Russia has created a ‘safe-haven’ for a new breed of insurgents with Russian military training and equipment. These men did what no Taliban or ISIL fighter has been able to do – shot down a civilian passenger plane, flying at 30,000 feet. They killed more foreign civilians in a single attack than in any ‘failed state’, since 9/11. And they did so in a European country, directly bordering NATO, and the European Union. If you want to understand why Britain helped to create the UN and NATO, why we have a defence budget, and why we must defend international borders, then just look at the horror in Ukraine, today.

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THE HOUSE OF STEWART

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Article first published on Politics Home by Paul Waugh on 6 November 2014.

He has, famously, been a deputy governor of an Iraqi province, an adviser to the Obama administration and part-time tutor to Princes William and Harry. He walked thousands of miles across Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, worked with the UN in Bosnia and East Timor and taught at Harvard.

Rory Stewart’s career was deemed so colourful that Brad Pitt’s movie company was keen on making a film of the life of this latter-day TE Lawrence. But no longer.

“I think it’s not on now,” Stewart reveals. “They paid me for an option, but I think they are not going to make it.” And the reason? “I think being a Tory MP is not a very sexy end to a movie,” he smiles.

Now more Stewart of North Cumbria than Lawrence of Arabia, the MP for Penrith and the Borders is these days as happy to be focused on rural broadband as he is on the Middle East.

Yet although he may be seen by moviemakers as a ‘mere’ backbench MP, the new chairman of the Defence Select Committee is still as fascinated by the global as the local.

And with its latest inquiry titled ‘The Situation in Iraq and Syria and the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and The Levant (ISIL)”, no one can accuse him of not looking at the big picture.

While stressing that he can’t pre-empt the committee’s report, Stewart backs limited air strikes but is wary of US promises to ‘destroy’ ISIL. “The separate question is what do you do about these guys in the long run. And then you have to do about a hundred things. That’s why people get a bit frustrated with these kind of answers, they want one answer.”

Among the solutions are using local knowledge to find and fund specific tribal groups and fighters who will provide boots on the ground. Memories of his recent trip to northern Iraq, when he visited the front line, are still fresh.

“One of the most striking things when I was there was when I asked Yezidi refugees what happened. They said ‘Well, we never saw any foreign fighters. The people who took over our village and who kicked us out were our neighbours. And the guy who is now the emir or prince of Islamic State in my town was the local manager of the electricity depot, who we’ve known for 20 years. He’s just rebranded himself as the Islamic State’.

“So as long as there is a core of support for the Islamic State among the Sunni

Arab population, you’ve got to flip those people around and flipping them around isn’t the same thing in every place.”

But among the ‘hundred things’ that can be done is a wider diplomatic push with Turkey and Iran. On Iran in particular, he says ‘you’ve got to get the relationship right’.

“There’s a man called  Qasem Soleimani who is sitting in Baghdad in the way that Ambassador Bremer sat in Baghdad for the Americans in 2003/4/5. He’s running everything, he’s got weapons, he’s got troops, he’s the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, he’s like a super-ambassador to Baghdad.

“Somebody’s got to get that balance right because if those guys push too hard in the Sunni areas then the Sunni guys are going to say ‘wait a second this is an Iranian Shia conspiracy to occupy our lands’. So this is something that cannot be done without passion, energy, without drive. What worries me is if people start looking for a silver bullet or a simple solution or thinking that it can be done by deploying huge numbers of [Western] troops on the ground.”

Simple solutions could be the problem too with the forthcoming Iraq Inquiry report from the Chilcot Committee, Stewart fears. “I’m worried that the fundamental problem in the Chilcot Inquiry is that it will firstly focus overwhelmingly on the legal case,” he says, “And secondly it will imply that it all would have gone fine if we’d just done a few things differently, in other words if we hadn’t abolished the Iraqi army, if we hadn’t de-Baathified in the early days.

“I think that that’s dangerous because that leads people to believe that provided you have the right justification and provided you have a cunning post war plan, everything is going to be fine. My experience in Iraq is that the problems were so deep even in the relatively more promising Shia areas of the south that it wasn’t going to work -regardless of whether you’d kept the Iraqi army and regardless of whether you’d kept the Baath party. Doing those things would have created problems in the Shia south almost equal to the kinds of problems you created in the Sunni areas by getting rid of those institutions.”

Again, he draws on his personal experience in the region. “I had demonstrations day after day, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, outside my office with banners demanding more de-Baathification – at exactly the time when Sunni groups were saying that the very mild de-Baathification that had begun was so completely offensive that that was the reason for their insurgency.”

In Afghanistan too, Western politicians are in danger of learning the wrong lessons from a protracted conflict, he adds. US journalist Anand Gopal’s new study of the Afghan war, reviewed by Stewart for the New York Review of Books, provides a stark contrast to a recent scorecard published by The Times in London.

“[The Times] said there are seven more million children in school. The Gopal book shows that these boasts about education are false, that in the provinces which they’ve managed to study…85% of the schools do not exist, 3,200 teachers are receiving salaries and not going anywhere near a school and don’t have any qualifications.

“The next thing they have on their scorecard is Afghanistan has a trillion dollars of mineral wealth, but again they’ve been saying this for the last six years. The reality is that with the exception of one Chinese copper mine which actually has decided not to start extracting copper yet, there is no investment in mining in Afghanistan, nor is there likely to be in the short term.

“Again they say great improvements in security, they don’t mention that more Afghan police and soldiers have been killed in the last six months than at any period since the start of the intervention.”

For Stewart, long a sceptic about Western intervention, there is one main conclusion to draw from the years of blood and treasure spent in the Middle East. “The lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that the idea of nation building under fire, this idea you can go and build a state and run a counter-insurgency campaign at the same time, is I’m afraid wrong. I can’t think of any historical example where it’s worked and I think history will judge that quite harshly.”

The final British withdrawal from Afghanistan took on a tangible form recently when the Union flag was lowered in Camp Bastion, Helmand. And with Remembrance Sunday this week, many inside and outside Westminster will reflect on the lives lost. But what does Stewart make of those who say that their sacrifice has not been in vain, that even the limited progress in Afghanistan has been worth it?

“It’s always very tempting, particularly in tragic situations where lots of people have lost their lives, to try to misrepresent the facts. But the reality is that every soldier’s life is valuable intrinsically and should be honoured as the sacrifice of a soldier for their country.

“The fundamental obligation that we have is, without being too pompous about it, to the truth. Because in the long run being honest about things is the only way that you can actually create policies, proper strategies to keep the country safe.”

And there’s a wider point that Stewart, who served briefly in the Black Watch as an infantry officer, wants to make. “The value of a soldier’s life should never, ever, ever be reduced to whether or not the particular battle they are fighting in does or does not achieve the objective set out by politicians. Those are not the metrics,” he says.

“A soldier’s life is something very difficult for contemporary societies to understand. It’s something that we may have been more comfortable talking about a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago. That war and sacrifice is something that a soldier joins to do and they are fighting and dying for many things. For their own unit, also for Queen and country, also for an idea of themselves.

“These things should be praised and valued and I think it’s really dangerous to start saying ‘Well was a soldier who was killed in the Somme less worthwhile than one that was killed in Aden? Less worthwhile than one that was killed in Iraq or less worthwhile than one killed in Afghanistan?’ Every one of those individual acts of sacrifice is valuable in and of itself, regardless of the surrounding local context.”

Stewart has been doing his bit to change the local context in Kabul. Seven years ago he founded a charity the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which now employs 450 people. It cleared 15,000 trucks of rubbish from the surrounding slum, set up a family health centre and now has a primary school too. At first no girls came to the school, but after five months the charity worked out what was wrong. “We worked out that we needed to have their fathers sitting in the back row and they were happy for their girls to go to school. Now we have 50% boys and 50% girls in the school. This is trial and error, trust, deep, deep local absorption, it’s not something that can be done with a Powerpoint presentation.”

Alliance building is something Stewart has brought to his Commons career too, it seems. This summer, he surprised some by beating off more experienced contenders for the Tory chairmanship of the committee. Faced with seven rivals, he eventually pipped Julian Lewis to the post after winning the backing of a serious chunk of Labour as well as his own MPs.

“It’s a huge privilege to work with such a dedicated and experienced committee. From Colonel Bob Stewart – with over twenty years experience and a DSO to Dai Havard, who puts so much energy and understanding into the committee work – everyone on the committee is deeply serious about Defence and brings a great deal to the subject. And we’re very lucky that Julian Lewis and Richard Benyon have just decided to join the committee as well.”

But looking back since his arrival in 2010, what does he now make of Parliamentary life? “It’s quite a wonderful world, but it’s completely unlike anything that I imagined before I came in. The bits I thought would be really good turned out to be disappointing, the bits I thought would be disappointing turned out to be really good. And the fulfilments and satisfactions are very strange.”

One example is just what happens in the chamber itself. “I assumed the centre of the whole thing would be speeches in the House of Commons. And I used to be quite good at making speeches so I thought oh well it’ll be fine. But of course it turns out that whereas in the 19th century of Gladstone and Disraeli their speeches packed the House, the journalists were all there, they were reported on the front page of the Times, the whole public debate of the nation was created through speeches in the House of Commons…that isn’t true any more.

“I turned up and I found out of course what we all know. Which is some debates are pretty sparsely attended, some of us are on our Blackberries, especially when people are reading speeches. It’s not I think that people couldn’t make really good 19th century speeches, I don’t think there’s anything different really, in many ways Members of Parliament today are much more educated, more articulate than they were in the 19th century, it just matters less.

“The 19th century people would put three or four days into writing their speech, now you would be a lunatic to do that really because there aren’t enough people listening.”

But what has impressed him has been the close ties to his constituency. “Constituencies have become much more interesting, a much more engaging part of your life than it would have been in the 19th century.”

The unique location of his constituency allowed him a significant role in the Scottish independence referendum, a campaign he clearly relished. He’s also been able to make a difference on rural broadband, pushing the Government into committing to 98% coverage of the country.

“I feel I have a real opportunity in Cumbria to shape things: rural broadband, neighbourhood planning, more affordable housing. Being an MP is a perfect way of connecting with community groups. I can reach out to the charitable sector, I can raise money.

“All you can really say to yourself in terms of this idea of making a difference is that you were one pebble dropped into the water. You can be pretty sure that on its own these things don’t change things but you just hope that somehow cumulatively you are one of the things that shifts it.”

Some in the military believe that Stewart certainly had a big impact on David Cameron’s policy of withdrawal from Afghanistan. Back in 2010, he and other MPs with military and foreign affairs experience gathered at Chequers to share their thoughts with the PM. Stewart argued strongly across the table for a deadline for pull-out rather than the ‘conditions-based’ approach favoured by Gen Sir David Richards and others. Just like Obama, Cameron went for a deadline. How did it feel to win that argument on such a hugely important policy?

Again, Stewart is modest about his role. “That’s right, I said that and that was the policy. But you become aware that it’s very difficult to be sure that you saying it is why it ended up like that. I think the first thing is you realise, or at least I’m beginning to realise, just how small a cog you are in the wheel.” “

So would he say that his career to date has been an attempt to speak truth to power, rather than to wield power. Or has it been a bit of both?

“I think that’s a really difficult question. I’m a politician. And I’m not always proud of myself. There’s a lot of spin and PR to do with our lives so it’s a matter of degree in democratic politics. I think everybody in politics or almost everybody is committed to trying to be honest with themselves about what’s wrong with the country and what they’d like to improve. It’s just a question of the way in which the structures do or do not allow you take risks and how far you can push that.

“So, being a politician is a perpetual learning experience, an experiment in working how far you can push it, how much risk you can take. And I’m a new politician, I’ve only been here four years so I haven’t been I’m still probably a bit naïve, I’m still interested in trying to push those boundaries. Occasionally you push a boundary and then you realise ‘oh god, I probably went too far there, I probably haven’t been careful.’

“So one of the dangers of being a politician is you end up being very polite. So a clear example: if somebody had asked me five years ago was the surge in Afghanistan a failure, the answer would have been Yes. Now the temptation is to say ‘if the objectives were defined as the creation of a credible, effective and legitimate Afghan state and the defeat of the Taliban, then we did not succeed in achieving those objectives’.

“And it’s because you learn over time unfortunately, and it’s a sad thing, you learn that if things are taken out of context then immediately you have somebody goes and grabs someone on the street and says ‘this guy says the Afghan war was a failure, your son was killed in Afghanistan what do you think about him?’ And then whose sympathy is with some crazy politician in Westminster or somebody who’s been bereaved?’

“I suppose the difference between them [the two statements] is one is more shocking and blunt than the other and it’s to do with what you are trying to achieve in the public consciousness. In other words what is it you want people to feel when they are making a decision like that in 10 years time?  When they are about to do something similar somewhere else, do you want them to have absorbed the basic thing, which is it didn’t work? Or do you want them to specify counter insurgency and state building didn’t work, which is a more precise way of putting it. And is the danger of doing that that’s so complicated that the big picture is lost: ‘Oh well there were some things that didn’t work but basically it was fine’?

“So sometimes we have to be pretty blunt and broad brush and not very academically precise in order to get the point across. In the end, politics is quite binary. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing? Did it work? Didn’t it? Will you or won’t you? One of the things that worries me a bit is because of the kind of ‘gotcha’ culture it’s very tempting to become so polite and subtle in your statements that it’s not really clear what you are trying to say.

“So what am I really trying to say? What I’m really trying to say is the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan was a mistake, we shouldn’t have done it. and presented with the same situation in the future we should not do it. The initial intervention worked, the surge didn’t. But working out how one does that and remain alive in modern politics is quite difficult.”

Stewart certainly said what he thought when he worked with Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative in Afghanistan. He argued his case on the opposite side of the table to big figures like Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McCrystal and even ended up testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I was very, very much more involved in the American debate because I was in the United States at the beginning of the Obama administration and I was quite close to Richard Holbrooke and I would meet Hillary Clinton and I would work on stuff there. The American system is actually much more transparent, it’s much easier to know where you are in the debate and what different people’s positions are. Who you are arguing against, where the camps are.

“So in the American system I could ally myself with Holbrooke or to some extent with Joe Biden and I could see on the other side of the table was David Petraeus and Stanley McCrystal, the generals pushing the surge.  In the British system, from the perception of a backbench MP it’s a very, very opaque thing how the decisions are made, where the decisions are, how many people agree with you, how many disagree with you.”

Now that he’s part of that ‘British system’, does he see himself staying in Parliament for another 10 or 15 years? “I really don’t know at all. I’m actually finding it more satisfying as time goes on,” he replies.

“If you’d asked me that question at the end of my second year, I [would have said] I was just beginning to realise how, in many ways, being a backbench MP is a pretty peculiar and potentially frustrating life. And how a lot of the consolations which were offered for that were probably not as satisfying as you might think. Now I’m beginning to see that actually one of the things that an MP can do is to get involved in a public conversation about defining what Britain is. And that’s a fascinating possibility for an MP.”

That conversation became very real this summer during the Scots independence referendum. Stewart had the idea of creating a ‘Hands Across The Border’ cairn in his constituency to symbolise the solidarity between the English and Scots.

“You dump yourself in a field, you put out the call for people to come. You sit there for the first few days getting a bit worried because nobody’s turning up, then gradually you see people from Cornwall, Argyll, Skye etcetera carrying these rocks. And we end up with 130,000 rocks so the thing is a big monument and in doing so you are connecting to the Scottish referendum debate in unusual ways.

“I realised that I’m not making speeches in the House of Common, which I did do about Scotland but didn’t have much impact, but other things did. Building the cairn did, maybe campaigning in Glasgow did, I did a BBC documentary, articles, a little bit of social media and you suddenly realise that being an MP, there are opportunities there.

“I really felt that the referendum campaign probably of all the things that I’ve done [as an MP] was the most exciting and satisfying. There was a once in 300 years decision, something I deeply cared about, my constituency was perfectly located to get involved.

“Again as with all these other things you do, you have absolutely no idea of the difference you make, whether you even added five votes to the whole thing but at least you know what you are about. And it’s really fun intellectually because you have the opportunity to take the Scottish National party and deconstruct their arguments.”

And on foreign policy too, he’s been able to use his time as an MP to improve the public debate, he says.

“On Iraq and Syria, for somebody like me who’s deeply deeply interested in British defence policy to be able to say well what are the objectives here? What are you trying to do, who are you targeting? And ok you’re targeting the Islamic State, here are your panoply of options: air strikes, boots on the ground, regional solution, political internal solution and maybe in addition attacking Syria, what are the justifications of these, what are the pros what are the cons and where does Britain fit into this? There’s this big monster called the United States, we are a small country we have a few planes, what are we doing?

“These things I don’t think I could do anywhere else. Or at least if I were to do them somewhere else I would be in the frustrating position of testifying to a committee as opposed to being the questioner.”

Now Stewart is the one doing the questioning as the Defence Select Committee oversees various inquiries. But although his own days as an expert witness are over, he hasn’t ruled out another role: becoming a minister one day.

“I think a dream career would also involve, at some point in my life, looking at it from the other side. It’s quite difficult to scrutinise the government if you don’t have any idea what the inside of the machine looks like. And that was the advantage that James Arbuthnot had, he had been a defence minister so he had an idea what was a realistic expectation to set on these poor guys sitting across the table from him.”

There are other attractions too. “I also think there are certain things I would love to do which you could probably only do by being a minister. For example, I would really, really love to focus on developing area expertise in the military, to see the military go into a much deeper form of defence engagement,” he says.

As an example, Stewart says the UK could learn a lot from copying the French system of expert defence attachés.

“Our defence attaches tend to be people at the end of their careers doing a two year posting before they retire. The French defence attaché in Tripoli on the other hand was taught Arabic for two years, went to the Egyptian staff college, was the defence attaché in the UAE for three years, was the defence attaché in Egypt for two years and is now in Tripoli.

“It’s completely different and when you see the French success intervening in Mali that’s all about that structure of defence engagement there. The reason the French can arrive in 96 hours and deploy is that their defence engagement is so deep and intimate that they have the platform to allow that to happen, which we don’t have in Britain.”

“Now if I wanted to do that I can’t do that as a backbench MP. I actually have to get into the nitty gritty of the essentially the HR personnel structures of the military, work out how they people are recruited, how they are promoted, what kind of language allowances they receive, how their career structures work, how you attach a brigade to a particular area.”

Speaking of defence attachés, that title was often a cover for British spies in the past. Some have hinted that Stewart himself was a spook. So, was he ever in MI6, and if he was would he ever reveal it?  He laughs. “The answer to the latter question is absolutely not. The answer to the prior question is No.”

Confirmation that he never was a James Bond may be one more reason for Brad Pitt to resist that film option. But Stewart has at least given the movie of his life a romantic storyline, having two years ago married Shoshana Clark, an American aid worker who worked with his charity in Kabul.

What’s more his wife is expecting to give birth to their first child as The House goes to press. Stewart upset a few parents when he last year told the Radio Times that children were ‘the opium of the masses’ and that some people felt their purpose in life was their offspring. Now that fatherhood looms, does he think differently? Again he smiles. “I may well end up eating my words…”

‘Rory goes to Hollywood’ may not be the next headline that attaches itself to the MP for Penrith and the Borders. But with new family adventure and a possible ministerial future ahead, his colourful career isn’t over yet.

RORY ON…BREXIT

“I’m absolutely in favour of the idea of a referendum. I do think this is fundamental to Britain. The British public tend to make the right decisions on things, I think the British public have made the right decision in every election since about 1900, I don’t think they’ve ever got it wrong. And they’ve just made the right decision about Scotland so I have full confidence in that. I also think you can’t keep pushing it under the carpet.

“I suppose I feel what I really would like to do over the next two years is make sure people understand what it is they are voting for.  In other words almost more important than a lot of people who are going to go out campaigning for one side or another, I just believe there’s a huge job in explaining what the risks and benefits are of the choice on both sides so people are open eyed. It’s perfectly respectable I think to vote both ways provided you understand exactly what’s involved in that choice. That’s what I think is missing in this debate.”

But is his gut feeling we should be in or out?

“My gut is that if the British people are really up for risk for a period of instability if they are prepared to take the risks that there could be a period of serious economic adjustment and they want to embark on a grand heroic independent task then they should be allowed to do that.

“But they need to understand that that is one of the risks they are taking, it’s not going to be easy all the way. And the question for the British public is two years after the vote, if the economy is struggling a bit and there’s a nasty divorce going on and Europe isn’t being as cooperative as we’d like, are people still going to feel it’s fine, I don’t mind suffering because in the medium to the long term we are going to be this different, independent country. Or are people really not up for that in which case they should really vote the other way.”

“I love the idea of buccaneering but the point is this is a decision the British public’s got to make, not me. I might prefer to take more risk and be more buccaneering, the British public has got to work out what they are up for.”

RORY ON…MISSING THE SYRIA VOTE IN 2013

Referring to the fact that he was at his sister’s wedding in Devon on the day:

“It’s slightly farcical. When they [the whips] realised that they needed the vote, I got a text in Devon. I arrived about six minutes after the vote having missed the wedding dinner. The worst of all worlds.”

RORY ON…AFGHAN WOMEN’S RIGHTS

“The position of women in Afghanistan is improving all the time. They’ve never been so educated, they’ve never had such exposure to public life. If I look at the women who work in our organisation they are pretty tough I can’t see that they are going to be pushed aside very easily but it is difficult, you are relying on cultural change. We still have honour killings happening in Germany and Britain.”

RORY ON…’GOOD INTERVENTIONS’

“We got things really right in interventions in Bosnia and to some extent in Kosovo. If we just focus on Bosnia, that really was a miracle. There were a lot of people saying in the early 1990s this is impossible, stay out, centuries of ethnic hatred, these guys are lunatics, we don’t understand it, none of it will do any good.

“And we went into a situation which 150,000 people had been killed, 130,000 people armed, war criminals on the loose a million people being kicked out of their houses. And by intervening we ended up with a situation in which a million properties have been returned to their owners, in which checkpoints have disappeared, in which every single war criminal has either died or been captured and put on trial. In which the militia groups have been demobilised to a security force of about 5,000 people and the crime rate is now lower than Sweden. And all that without any British or American troops being killed.

“That is a good intervention. People who say all interventions are bad, should look hard at Bosnia. They could also look at Sierra Leone, they could look at the Australian intervention in East Timor and the Solomon Islands and they could probably look at the early intervention in Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2003.

“In Bosnia, we were slow to intervene but that was probably in retrospect also a good thing. It meant that by the time we went in it was clear the reason we were going in was humanitarian, we were going in reluctantly. One of the reasons why we didn’t have more problems in Bosnia – more Americans were injured on the basketball pitch in Sarajevo than were injured in the whole conflict – was because at the moment we went in, essentially a regional solution was emerging where Milosevic and Karadic had decided to back off on the Serbian side. And Tudjman had backed off on the Croatian side. The European Union was a very important part of that.

“I think initial stage of the involvement in Bosnia was very, very difficult, there was the shame of Srebrenica and the inability to defend that, but again it’s a very, very difficult to say much more than in the end Bosnia worked. Of course many people assume that had we gone in earlier we would have been able to make it work earlier.. I think that’s unproven. At the point we went in the Bosnian Serbs were losing territory. Holbrooke comes in at the time when the Bosnian Serbs were on the back foot and are ready to make concessions. If we’d tried to go in in ‘93 there wouldn’t have been any components of a peace settlement.”

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AFGHANISTAN: ‘A SHOCKING INDICTMENT’

ashraf-ghani_2014-11-06Article first published in the New York Review of Books on 6 November 2014.

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes
by Anand Gopal
Metropolitan, 304 pp., $27.00

Ashraf Ghani, who has just become the president of Afghanistan, once drafted a document for Hamid Karzai that began:

There is a consensus in Afghan society: violence…must end. National reconciliation and respect for fundamental human rights will form the path to lasting peace and stability across the country. The people’s aspirations must be represented in an accountable, broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, representative government that delivers daily value.

That was twelve years ago. No one speaks like that now—not even the new president. The best case now is presented as political accommodation with the Taliban, the worst as civil war.

Western policymakers still argue, however, that something has been achieved: counterterrorist operations succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there has been progress in health care and education, and even Afghan government has its strengths at the most local level. This is not much, given that the US-led coalition spent $1 trillion and deployed one million soldiers and civilians over thirteen years. But it is better than nothing; and it is tempting to think that everything has now been said: after all, such conclusions are now reflected in thousands of studies by aid agencies, multilateral organizations, foreign ministries, intelligence agencies, universities, and departments of defense.

But Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living shows that everything has not been said. His new and shocking indictment demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed. Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.

As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:

The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.

Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that seven of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry.

Gopal’s investigations into development are no more encouraging. I—like thousands of Western politicians—have often repeated the mantra that there are four million more children, and 1.5 million more girls, in school than there were under the Taliban. Gopal, however, quotes an Afghan report that in 2012, “of the 4,000 teachers currently on the payroll in Ghor, perhaps 3,200 have no qualifications—some cannot read and write…80 percent of the 740 schools in the province are not operating at all.” And Ghor is one of the least “Taliban-threatened” provinces of Afghanistan.

Or consider Gopal’s description of the fate of several principal Afghan politicians in the book:

Dr. Hafizullah, Zurmat’s first governor, had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujahed. Mujahed wound up in Guantanamo because he crossed the Americans. Security chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Bagram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo….

Abdullah Khan found himself in Guantanamo charged with being Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban minister of the interior, which might have been more plausible—if Khairkhwa had not also been in Guantanamo at the time….

Nine Guantanamo inmates claimed the most striking proof of all that they were not Taliban or al-Qaeda: they had passed directly from a Taliban jail to American custody after 2001.

Why didn’t I—didn’t most of us—know these details? The answer is, in part, that such investigative journalism is very rare in Afghanistan. Gopal’s work owes a lot to other researchers. He is building on the work of Sarah Chayes and Alex Strick van Linschoten (both of whom immersed themselves in the Pushtu south), of exceptional journalists such as Carlotta Gall and David Rohde of The New York Times, of officials with years in the country such as Eckart Schiewek, Robert Kluijver, and Michael Semple, and of Afghan journalists such as Mohammed Hassan Hakimi.

Afghanistan, however, is not an easy place for in-depth reporting. Foreign civilians have been targets, even in the safer areas, since 2001, when the first Spanish journalists were executed near Jalalabad. Gopal—an American civilian—pursued his stories into the most active centers of the insurgency—the inner districts of Ghazni, Uruzgan, Helmand, Kandahar, and the Korengal valley in the northeast—places where thousands of international troops have been killed. He learned Dari and—more difficult—Pushtu. He won the trust of insurgent leaders.

But his real genius lies in binding all these sources together and combining them with thousands of hours of interviews. He tracks down the Taliban commander who attacked the provincial capital of Uruzgan in 2001, and then he interviews the US Special Forces commander who was defending it. He shows us the US commander ordering the air strike, and the Taliban commander seeing the same bomb destroy the jeep in front of him. He researches individuals by interviewing them, their neighbors, and their enemies, and then traces the very same people through Human Rights Watch reports, State Department documents (via WikiLeaks), US Army press statements, and Guantánamo interrogations and arrest reports.

All this allows him to bring life to figures who have hitherto been caricatures. Human Rights Watch reports have long emphasized the crimes of warlords such as Sher Muhammed Akhunzada, Jan Muhammed, or Abdul Rashid Dostum. But policymakers have still been tempted to perceive them also as charismatic rogues and inescapable parts of the Afghan establishment. Their links to organized crime, the CIA, Pakistani intelligence officers, and the international narcotics trade can seem simply elements of their machismo. Their scams—running construction companies, private security agencies, developing property, importing and exporting oil and opium poppy, and providing logistical support for the foreigners currently on temporary duty in Afghanistan—can seem simply colorful.

Ambassadors, for example, often joke about Dostum’s heavy drinking and his extravagance (he is rumored to have paid $100,000 for a fighting dog). A Washington Post journalist records Dostum thundering, when posing for his US visa photo: “My friend, even if you take a picture of my ass, the US will know this is Dostum.” All the American generals, Pakistani intelligence chiefs, heads of European NGOs, ambassadors, ministers, and foreign correspondents who have met Dostum over thirty years compete to tell such anecdotes. He cooked hundreds of Taliban prisoners to death in shipping containers. But he has just become vice-president.

Gopal’s deep investigation, however, brings out, in detail, the real horror inflicted by such men. His long interviews with warlords, his sympathetic accounts of their youth and sufferings, make their crimes only more convincing and more shocking. Thus he interviews Jan Muhammed at length, tracing his rise from school janitor to major resistance commander in the fight against the Soviet Union. He describes his being imprisoned, the tortures he suffered, and his being marched out to face a Taliban firing squad. He describes how Jan Muhammed saved President Karzai from an ambush in the 1990s and then became his friend and adviser.

All this, however, is the introduction to Jan Muhammed ordering death squads to shoot unarmed grandfathers in front of their families, to electrocute and maim, and to steal people’s last possessions, in pursuit of an ever more psychopathic crusade to eliminate anyone associated with the Taliban or indeed with a rival tribe. No one reading Gopal would be tempted to joke about these men again, or present them simply as “traditional power-brokers” and “necessary evils.”

The same careful research allows Gopal to reveal not only the conservatism of Afghan rural life, but also its startlingly modern elements. His description of the rural south, for example, where a woman is a piece of property—the “government would no more intervene in [killing your wife] than it would if you had in some private rage killed your own oxen or damaged your own house”—may seem familiar. But he also uncovers unexpected mobility and lurches in status behind the blank mud walls of the compounds. One long interview (it forms the basis for almost a quarter of the book and must have taken many days to complete) reveals that an impoverished woman, locked with her mother-in-law in Khas Uruzgan, was educated at Kabul University, and once lived unveiled in a prestigious Soviet-designed apartment block in the capital city.

Her husband—who beat her for leaving the house—was a progressive leftist and a proto-feminist who once encouraged her to work. When her husband was murdered and her ten-year-old son badly wounded in a gunfight, she was reduced almost to starvation in the southern city of Kandahar, and then suddenly, through a family patron, found herself elected the first female member of Parliament from Uruzgan.

Gopal’s astonishing stories are not, however, a complete portrait of Afghanistan. He is so immersed in the mayhem and abuse that he seems genuinely to believe—as the title of the book suggests—that in Afghanistan there are “no good men among the living.” The more difficult truth is that it is hard to describe living among Afghans without falling back on words like dignity, honor, courage, strength, and generosity. Many of the Afghans I have worked with epitomize these virtues so clearly, and even quixotically, that they can seem almost a rebuke to our age.

Gopal must have experienced this—with the Afghan friends, for example, who accompanied him on motorbikes into the heart of the insurgency. Walking across Afghanistan, and working in a very traditional community in the capital, I came to know dozens of authority figures who were men of striking charisma, energy, and sense of responsibility, clearly knowledgeable and competent in their immediate society. Gopal must have known many too. And he must have noted how even the villains of his book had been prepared to risk their lives, again and again, whether for religion, patriotism, or simply pride—and how calmly they lived, knowing that they would eventually be captured or killed. (A high proportion of the people he interviewed have since been murdered or imprisoned.) But he does not explore these virtues. And above all, he doesn’t capture their sense of humor. Afghans smile and laugh more than almost any people I know.

The Hazrat Ali mosque, Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, November 2001; photograph by James Hill from his book Somewhere Between War and Peace, just published by Kehrer

Ashraf Ghani is now—after four months of wrangling over electoral fraud—the new president of Afghanistan. His book Fixing Failed States (coauthored with Clare Lockhart) argues that Afghanistan can be fixed through creating ten functions of the state, including the “rule of law,” good governance, and a state “monopoly on the legitimate means of violence.” Along the way he proposes eliminating corruption, disarming and demobilizing militias, and creating a reliable justice system and a prosperous economy. Having spent three decades as a professor, a World Bank official, and an Afghan minister developing this intricate theory, he is now putting it into practice.

The leaders of the US intervention in Afghanistan once had very similar objectives—often directly influenced by Ashraf Ghani, who has been the most tenacious and articulate advocate of this vision of “state-building” since September 11. Similar concepts appear in General David Petraeus’s US Army counterinsurgency manual and in presidential envoy James Dobbins’s The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building. Much of the $1 trillion spent by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, and the more than a million people, deployed over a dozen years, have been justified in such terms. President Obama may in fact have been unconsciously quoting Ghani when he explained that Afghanistan’s problems with narcotics and women’s rights, and even the instability of neighboring states, could be solved through the creation of “a credible, effective, legitimate state.”

State-building, however, is not confined to Afghanistan. Ghani has promoted exactly the same recipe from Nepal to Ethiopia as the copresident of the Institute for State Effectiveness. And it seems to be immensely appealing. For the World Bank in 2013, state-building was the solution to piracy in Somalia. For French President François Hollande in 2013, “restoring the state, improving governance” were the first steps in tackling trafficking and violence in Mali. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon distilled the theory of Afghanistan’s civilian surge in his 2014 bon mot “Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism.”

Gopal’s book, however, should at least make us question this fashion of state-building under fire. What has actually been the result of Afghanistan’s $1 trillion attempt to create “security,” “economic development,” and “governance”? What did creating security mean in Khas Uruzgan where, Gopal explains, all the traditional leaders had been killed and where the only counterbalance to the Taliban was an illegal militia? How could the “police” be trusted to establish a “monopoly on the legitimate means of violence” if—as Gopal records—“in Wardak’s multiparty, multiethnic district of Jalrez, for instance, all sixty-five members of the police force hailed from a single pro-Sayyaf village”? (Sayyaf is a Pashtun warlord.)

What future was there for the Afghan economy when, as Gopal shows, it relied on servicing, supporting, and seeking rent from two hundred thousand foreign soldiers and civilian contractors, and where Afghan “businessmen” were often simply warlords profiting from security, supply, and construction contracts generated by US military bases? How would any of this be sustainable after the troops withdrew?

Aid agencies put billions directly into the budget of the Afghan government, on the grounds that this strengthened the “accountability” and “legitimacy” of the Afghan state. But much of the Afghan bureaucracy, including the ministries most popular with donors (education, for example), were paying money to employees who did not even pretend to work; and the regulations, tax inspections, and administrative orders were generally simply opportunities for nepotism, revenge, or bribes. Again and again Gopal reminds us that the state, which the West was supposed to be developing, was far weaker than anyone acknowledged—and often simply didn’t exist.

In truth, international statements about establishing “the rule of law, governance, and security” became simply ways of saying that Afghanistan was unjust, corrupt, and violent. “Transparent, predictable, and accountable financial practices” were not a solution to corruption; they were simply a description of what was lacking. But policymakers never realized how far from the mark they were. This is partly because most of them were unaware of even a fraction of the reality described in Gopal’s book. But it was partly also that they couldn’t absorb the truth, and didn’t want to. The jargon of state-building, “capacity-building,” “civil society,” and “sustainable livelihoods” seemed conveniently ethical, practical, and irrefutable. And because of fears about lost lives, and fears about future terrorist attacks, they had no interest in detailed descriptions of failure: something had to be done, and failure was simply “not an option.”

Recently, as chair of the UK Parliament Defence Committee, I voted on air strikes in Iraq, and saw state-building’s enduring appeal. The prime minister opened the debate by saying that his strategy depended on “the creation of a new and genuinely inclusive government in Iraq [and] a new representative and accountable government in Damascus.” An ex–cabinet minister argued that the solution to ISIS was to “focus on local governance and accountability.” A shadow minister replied that “there needs to be a wider, encompassing political framework, with a plan for humanitarian aid and reconstruction, which will ultimately lead us to create a stronger and more accountable Iraqi government.”

This is the intellectual frame within which Britain and many others have now decided to mount air strikes against ISIS, supplemented by counterterrorist operations to kill and capture ISIS commanders. The new coalition will pay, arm, and reinforce Iraqis and Syrians to attack our enemies. And we will replace ISIS with a credible, legitimate, inclusive state in Iraq and Syria. Before perhaps turning to Yemen, or Somalia, or returning to Libya.

But Gopal shows us clearly how easy all this is to say, and almost impossible to do. Why should we be any better at targeting ISIS than we were at targeting the Taliban and al-Qaeda? We are now funding Syrian and Iraqi militia commanders and tribal leaders. In Afghanistan such commanders made themselves wealthy off international contracts, misrepresented their rivals as terrorists, and used their connections with us to terrorize and alienate the local population. How different will our new allies be from Afghan warlords such as Jan Muhammed or Abdul Rashid Dostum? We already tried counterinsurgency and state-building in the same area of Iraq in response to a very similar group—al-Qaeda in Iraq—in 2008. We invested $100 billion a year, deployed 130,000 international troops, and funded hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arab militiamen. And the problem has returned, six years later, larger and nastier.

This is not a reason to reject intervention entirely—Bosnia, for example, was a success. But we should not pretend that a global model for “nation building under fire” is the answer. “Governance,” “the rule of law,” and “security” have different meanings in different cultures and are shaped by very local structures of power. Insurgencies vary with what remote and often little known communities think of themselves, their leaders, their religion, their past, and the outside world. Building a state or tackling an insurgency therefore requires deep knowledge of the history and character of an individual country. And such activity demands that Western governments acknowledge how little they know and can do in most of these places and cultures. But the startling differences within the countries in which we intervene are only exceeded by the startling uniformity, overconfidence, and rigidity of the Western response.

The question we need to ask today is not “How do you create good governance, economic development, and security?” Instead, we should be asking “Who makes up ISIS, and why are they getting tacit support from the Sunni population?” Are either the Iraqi state or army a credible alternative? What view have rural Sunnis developed of the West, of the “surge,” or extremism? Could the Kurds hold a new front line if ISIS continued to occupy Mosul? How would you convince the Kurdish leadership to allow the peshmerga to become a professional force, when it remains the essential channel of patronage and power for the major political parties?

How do you bring Turkey to actively support the fight against ISIS? How do you convince people in the Gulf to cease financing it? How do you stop Iraq and Syria being simply pawns in a much bigger fight between Iran and its Sunni opponents? What support can you provide for the people living under ISIS, to allow them to slowly escape this circle of horror? And how do our—the interveners’—institutions, conceptual models, weapons, and dollars undermine and distort our relationships, corrode our programs, and defeat our own stated objectives?

These are the kinds of questions—rooted in politics, culture, and lived experience—that we should have been posing in Afghanistan, instead of refining universal models of “state-building.” Such are the questions that only studies such as Gopal’s can answer.

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RORY MARKS ANNUAL PANCREATIC CANCER AWARENESS MONTH

Rory Stewart MP has joined the worldwide movement marking November as annual Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month (PCAM). It is a major awareness-raising tool about the disease, which is the fifth most common cause of all cancer deaths in the UK with only around 4% of people diagnosed surviving five years or more – a figure which has hardly changed in 40 years. Worryingly, it is predicted that by 2030 pancreatic cancer will overtake breast cancer as the 4th most common cancer killer. This important campaign provides an opportunity for people to raise awareness and funds for pancreatic cancer charities across the UK whilst remembering loved ones who have suffered from the disease.

Rory said: “I am very proud to support this campaign in honour of those who have been affected, and indeed to support all those currently living with pancreatic cancer, and want to thank the UK’s pancreatic cancer charities for all they are doing in the field of advocacy and campaigning. So much needs to be done to increase funding to awareness and research for this deadly cancer. It has the lowest survival rate of all among the twenty most common cancers, and we need to act on the recent Inquiry into research – spearheaded in parliament by the APPG on Pancreatic Cancer – which has recommended serious increases to funding and enhancing the ways in which scientific research is carried out. We also need to encourage our doctors’ surgeries to advertise more about the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer, and ensure that the public is aware of the risk factors and just how difficult it is to diagnose this disease, given that the symptoms do not manifest until it is far too late to operate and cure. This is a major battle but I’m really thrilled that public awareness is steadily growing.”

Alex Ford, Chief Executive of Pancreatic Cancer UK said: “In keeping with the spirit of this annual, national campaign we really want all our activity – whether working with the media, MPs or our supporters in the community –  to bring a feeling of hope to all those affected by pancreatic cancer. Whilst we always put a special emphasis on November in our charity’s calendar, we are working hard every month and every day of the year to raise awareness of the key issues and impact of pancreatic cancer. We want to ensure that the voices of all the key stakeholders and researchers who are striving to dramatically improve outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients are being heard.”

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wind turbines

Wind Turbines (Minimum Distances from Residential Premises) Petition

As part of his ongoing campaign to ensure that north Cumbria remains free of inappropriate wind-turbines, Rory has written to Cumbrian District Councils, pressing them to adopt the essential features of the Wind Turbines (Minimum Distance from Residential Premises) Bill which was formerly being carried through the House of Lords by sponsor Lord Reay, until his unexpected death in 2013. This Bill seeks to establish separation distances which increase as the height of turbines increases.

To add your name to a petition that would see Eden District Council incorporate a minimum distance clause into its own Local Plan, please click here.

STR

RORY WORKS WITH SECRETARY OF STATE TO SECURE FUTURE OF SOUTH TYNEDALE RAILWAY

The future of the South Tynedale Railway Preservation Society project looks to have been secured, after local MP Rory Stewart, and patron of the STRPS group, Lord Inglewood, met with the Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss, to ask that Defra review the way in which state-aid rules have so far been applied to the project. The Secretary of State agreed that the charitable aims and objectives of STRPS should not be subject to state-aid rules and confirmed Defra would revise its stance on the matter, so as to allow the group to again raise funds from public sector grant-awarding organisations.

The STRPS group has already successfully raised over £5 million to fund a self-supporting community railway that will eventually serve Haltwhistle, South Tynedale, Alston Moor and the wider North Pennines region. The creation of a seasonal heritage steam railway would hope to attract substantial numbers of visitors to the area, in a major boost to the local economy, as well as providing an important form of public transport for one of the most isolated and rural areas in Britain.

Speaking after the meeting with the Secretary of State, Rory Stewart said:

“The South Tynedale Railway group have invested an incredible amount of time and energy into a project which offers real scope and potential for the local area and its economy. Confusion over state-aid rules threatened the viability of the whole scheme, and it is fantastic news for everyone involved that the Secretary of State has revised Defra’s stance on this issue. Local volunteers can again turn their attention back to making this fantastic project a reality, and I remain keen to offer them any further support I can.”

Dodd & Co

RORY INTRODUCES HELP TO RENOVATE BUSINESS PREMISES IN CUMBRIA

Rory Stewart MP launched a scheme last week to support the renovation of Business premises in the most deprived parts of his constituency. The government scheme will give full tax exemption to people who are prepared to renovate disused business space, and bring it back into use. The tax breaks provide a major financial incentive to businesspeople and developers to build new businesses in areas from Rockcliffe and Longtown to Wigton.

Rory Stewart worked with Cumbrian accountancy firm Dodd and Co, to bring together fifty key Cumbrian leaders and explain and promote the benefits of the new scheme. ‎The scheme has become possible since the government secured “Assisted Area” status for the wards of Longtown, Stanwix Rural, Longtown & Rockcliffe and Wigton in Penrith and the Border constituency. The seminar was the first of its kind in Cumbria, and through a series of presentations – introduced by Rory – gave concrete examples to businesspeople of how to structure the renovations, and benefit from the financial assistance.  ‎

The BPRA (Business Premises Renovation Scheme) will give an initial capital allowance of 100% for expenditure on converting or renovated unused business premises within the Assisted Area. Another incentive to be offered to the areas is the ECA (Enhanced Capital Allowance scheme) which is a key part of the government’s climate change policy, providing businesses with enhanced tax relief for investments in equipment that meets published energy-saving criteria.

Speaking at the event, Rory Stewart thanked Dodd and Co for its hosting of the evenbt, and said: “This is an absolutely incredible opportunity for places like Longtown or Wigton: a chance to upgrade all those empty buildings, marking a significant advance on the general regeneration of high streets and industrial areas, whilst benefiting private Cumbrian investors at the same time. The basic idea behind this is precisely why I am a Conservative, which is to say that we create incentives and tax structures that enable to local private sector to invest in initiatives that make sense both commercially, but also to the community at large. The continuing regeneration of Cumbria – particularly in some of our more neglected towns, such as Wigton and Longtown – is absolutely vital, and this is a pivotal piece of legislation which we should be taking advantage of. I want to encourage anyone operating in one of these areas to think about how this initiative can benefit both their business and their community: it’s a win-win.”

Cllr Val Tarbitt (County Council, Longtown Division) said : “This was a very informative event, and it is encouraging to see these new incentives being made available to the Longtown area for the first time. With the impending commercialisation of part of the MoD property at DM Longtown, and the potential of the related Solway 45 initiative to encourage further regeneration in the area, the BPRA provides a very useful tool to developers as they look at new projects.’

Cllr Marilyn Bowman (Carlisle City Council, Stanwix Rural ward) also commented : “I am very pleased that Rory has taken the initiative to highlight the potential local applications of the BPRA, and hope that it can have a positive role to play in my own area. It may also be that the BPRA can help with the completion of the City Council’s asset disposal programme, which was initiated under the last Conservative administration and has helped to put the Council’s finances on to a
much sounder footing.”

Anyone interested in understanding more about how the BPRA might help their own redevelopment project is encouraged to contact Kathryn Brown of Dodd & Co, one of the speakers at the seminar.

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RORY SIGNPOSTS YOUNG CONSTITUENTS IN NEED TO CARLISLE KEY

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and The Border, is encouraging young people in need to be aware of the important services provided by Carlisle Key, a local charity whose work Rory supports. Rory met with Trustee Peter Ryan, Project Manager Julie Spence and apprentice Sophie Edwards, who introduced Rory to young Penrith resident Catherine Harper who has benefited from the charity’s work, which provides assistance and support to 16-25 year olds who are offered accommodation and vocational support if they find themselves in distress due to homelessness, housing troubles, financial difficulties or other problems. Rory was able to spend time chatting with Catherine about how Carlisle Key has helped her to find accommodation and work, and to support her as she raises her twin
daughters alone.

Rory said: “We should all applaud Carlisle Key, its Trustees and its very hard-working staff, for all they are doing to support young people who for one reason or another find themselves in severe difficulties. It is a safety net which catches young people who need a hand, temporarily, when times are tough; and, speaking to Catherine today, I can see how very, very crucial this sort of intervention is. It is of course a source of real sadness that some young people need to use such services, and of course we need to address the root causes of why young people find themselves without a home or income, but meanwhile Carlisle Key and charities like it fulfil a hugely important function, and I am very grateful indeed for all the work they do. If you know of anyone in need, who might be able to use the services of Carlisle Key, please do get in touch with them.”

Trustee Peter Ryan said: “The representatives of Carlisle Key were pleased to have the opportunity, to put before Rory the work of Carlisle Key, and the need of this work for an increasing number of young people. To this end I feel it was a very satisfactory meeting.”

Anyone wishing to get in touch with Carlisle Key should call 01228 595566 or visit their website: www.carlislekey.org
rory_carlisle key