Afghanistan: Delusion and disgrace

The return of MPs to Westminster this week was a significant moment. Not for the abandoned people of Afghanistan, perhaps, whose immediate concerns probably do not include listening to the Prime Minister’s justifications for being absent from his post as Kabul fell. The needs of the Afghan people are as far removed from the Westminster circus as it is possible to imagine.

For while, for example, there is a real debate on how many asylum seekers this country should take, which will have enormous impact on the lives of those affected, Britain has never looked so peripheral in an issue affecting the transatlantic alliance.

The Prime Minister’s statement on Afghanistan was an exercise in window-dressing and back-covering, an attempt to evade responsibility while attempting to look serious and statesmanlike.

Delusion runs deep in England at present. Too many of us in Britain and America wrongly believe we can be better off by ourselves alone. That myth has been tested to destruction before. Let’s pray that we in this generation are not forced to learn the lesson all over again.

Starting his speech by harking back to bin Laden’s use of Afghanistan as a training base for a string of atrocities culminating in 9/11, Mr Johnson implied we should be thankful that the coalition’s presence over the past two decades had stemmed any further attacks coming from Afghanistan. If so, then it becomes harder to see why we are leaving, as by his own logic we are now putting ourselves at significant risk from a newly-triumphant, dangerously overconfident Taliban. Mr Johnson’s boosterish manner means he even tries to make calamitous defeat sound like a satisfactory innings on a bad wicket.

The truth of the matter is that our soldiers and the Afghan people have been badly let down by a lack of political will and leadership, not only in the UK but most obviously also in the US. And the betrayal of Afghanistan will serve for a generation as the salutary example of what happens to all those who trust the West. Sold out, short changed, sold a pup. You can find your own metaphors.

The brutal reality is that faith in the West is seriously shaken, in a way not seen since the mid-1970s and the fall of Saigon. Our rivals, especially Russia, Iran and China, can hardly believe their luck.

President Biden has made a terrible call in leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban. History will judge him for it, but the first draft of that history looks dreadful, judging by the dismay in the quality press. As for our government, it has big questions to answer. The UK likes to tell itself it has a “special relationship” with the US. So where can we see our influence in the American decision to withdraw, chaotically and humiliatingly, even as the Taliban closed in?

Did our Foreign Secretary press the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House to reconsider the pace of withdrawal, or at least discuss the strategy for avoiding the collapse of Afghanistan into a failed state? What joint assessment (if any) has the US and the UK made about the risk of the country once more becoming a breeding ground for terror? Why did the PM not consider using the fourth estate of the American press and TV media (as Tony Blair once famously did) to pressure the President into taking a different course? And why were both our PM and Foreign Secretary on holiday at the critical moment, despite the obvious deepening of the crisis?

The key line in the debate for me came from a Conservative MP. “If persistence isn’t persistence, if endurance doesn’t endure, then how can people trust us as an ally?” asked Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Our policy could not simply be summed up as “God Bless America”, he scathingly added.

To learn, we need to be honest about the situation we face. We have engineered our own defeat in Afghanistan after enormous sacrifice and cost. No ifs, no buts. We must also be realistic about the challenges ahead. The ambitions of the Taliban are not likely to remain contained within the borders of Afghanistan. What do national borders even mean to people whose ideology is built on the idea of a regional, if not global, caliphate?

The destabilisation of the region, and its consequences for the Middle East, are significant for both the UK and Europe. The US appears to have decided that those are risks it is willing for others to take. It is plainly evident that the US, under Trump and now Biden, can no longer be counted on as a “global policeman”. It now holds a far narrower view of its own interests than we have seen since the 1930s, even if a Democrat holds the presidency.

So how can a medium-sized power like the UK defend its security and its values when the US cannot be relied upon to lead the way? If we pretend that we have real influence in Kabul or Washington, when we have precious little, we are sure to be dismayed again, with the difference that next time the scenes of suffering and mayhem may be closer to our own shores.

Delusion runs deep in England at present. But the cold fact is this: once the American legions leave, a new Dark Age beckons. Not just for Afghanistan but for others too who love freedom and liberal democracy. That means we should be doing everything in our power to strengthen the transatlantic alliance, including by deepening our own commitment to internationalism and multilateralism. And we need a major effort in communicating to our own public the security challenges posed by the increasing threat from those determined to roll back Western influence, overturn liberal values and undermine democratic norms.

Too many of us in Britain and America wrongly believe we can be better off by ourselves alone. That myth has been tested to destruction before. Let’s pray that we in this generation are not forced to learn the lesson all over again.

* Lee Howgate is a Lib Dem activist who lives in South Devon. He is a senior leader at a large comprehensive school in Cornwall, and formerly worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with experience in Russia and the EU. You can follow him on tumblr where he posts as leetheliberal

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  • I don’t think that many people in England are isoloationist, and walking the streets thinking we are better off alone. England along with the U.K. is after all a leading member of NATO, the G7,the G20, has a seat on the security council of the U.N. is a strong partner in the five eyes, and is a member of the Council of Europe and the Commonwealth. Hardly evidence of going it alone.
    Of course there are numerous people in England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland who believe that being a member of a political union is not a prerequisite to working with other countries, something that the people of most other countries also seem to believe.
    Does anyone truly think this would have ended differently had we remained in the E.U.?

  • Barry Lofty 20th Aug '21 - 3:25pm

    An excellent piece by Lee Howgate, and as to whether things would have turned out differently regarding Afghanistan had we remained in the EU, probably not, but might I suggest that the UK,s long-term security might have been more secure even a better negotiated withdrawal agreement would have helped, but we are where we are until we have a trusted diplomat and national leader at the helm of government.

  • This is an excellent article. Agree with pretty much every word. Particularly the closing “And we need a major effort in communicating to our own public the security challenges posed by the increasing threat from those determined to roll back Western influence, overturn liberal values and undermine democratic norms.”

    The only thing to add is that the article leaves unsaid the obvious follow-up: That we need to start thinking about what we do to counter the threat from those seeking to undermine democracy around the World. That’s inevitably going to lead to the question of whether we should become more willing to intervene as appropriate to assist those abroad who are standing up for democracy.

  • John Marriott 20th Aug '21 - 5:55pm

    Churchill, writing in the 1890s, foresaw the problems arising from what he called “mahomedism” and the threat it might pose to western civilisation, while, around the same time, Kaiser Wilhelm II spoke of the “yellow peril”. What these gentlemen feared most was that their world order might collapse if certain forces were unleashed. The Balkans went into hibernation under communism and emerged into conflict again when Tito’s Yugoslavia disintegrated. It was concerted action from the United Nations and NATO that dampened down the flames, with no small credit going to the late Lord Paddie Ashdown. Again, religion played a key part as it has in most of the conflicts I have already mentioned. It’s a pity that the same lessons learned in Bosnia and Serbia weren’t applied in other modern conflicts.

    There is no doubt that our concept of democracy is again under threat, as it was in the 1930s. This time the threat clearly comes from a narrow and largely distorted view of Islam, a view not shared by the majority of Muslims; but one many find hard to criticise. We pride ourselves in our version of democracy but what goes for democracy here in the west could easily be sacrificed on the altar of indifference, cynicism, hubris and complacency. If we can’t make it work here what chance has it got in countries where it is an alien concept?

    Back in the cold war days we thought we knew who the enemy was and our nuclear defences, through the concept of mutually assured destruction, more or less kept the peace between the big power blocks until the collapse of communism. But, however, no amount of nuclear subs or missiles will defend us against a fanatic with a backpack full of explosives, who views his martyrdom as a first class ticket to paradise.

    So, what do we do now? Firstly we need to let the dust settle. Then we need to talk to the Taliban. If we don’t, you can be sure that Russia and China will. Remember what happened in 1939, when Hitler beat us to Stalin to conclude a non aggression pact, which allowed him to attack Poland. Although the current ‘victors’ in Afghanistan are far from desirable bedfellows, I would rather that they were OUR Taliban than THEIR Taliban.

  • Steve Trevethan 20th Aug '21 - 6:43pm

    Might the current outcome in Afghanistan have been so very much better if the U. S. government and its agents had not brought their own forms of “Dark Age” to Afghanistan’s abused people?
    Abu Ghraib?

  • The withdrawal from Afghanistan will mean an increasing reliance on signals intelligence to mantain some form of counterterrosim capability in the region. That in turn implies a deepening of the Five eyes alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States as well as continuing intelligence sharing with EU countries and other democracies around the world.
    The Five eyes alliance grew out of cooperation in WW2 and the Atlantic Charter agreed by the Allies to lay out their goals for a post-war world. Joe Biden and Boris Johnson signed a new Atlantic Charter in June on trade, defense and Covid recovery when they talked about “shared sacrifices” service members from both countries made in Afghanistan.
    There has been warranted criticism of intelligence failures with respect to the speed of the Taliban advance. A former British army office in Helmand province has advised “The Taliban went into every district and flipped all the local militia’s by doing deals along tribal lines.” In Herat, for instance, the head of the provincial council cut a deal with the local Taliban commander (both were members of the Aizai tribe). “Once those local forces had flipped there wasn;t enough weight on the government side. so the army had to surrender.”
    Another key factor is public support for the Taliban in rural areas as this expat Afghan describes
    “…Kabul and other Afghan cities are not representative of where Afghans live – 28 million of the total 38 million Afghans live in rural areas. The urban elite are not representative of Afghans – 80% of Afghans rely on rain-fed agriculture and cattle-grazing for their incomes.
    Appalling levels of economic, social and political inequality persist between urban and rural Afghans. This inequality is a known fact; it only took the Taliban, in a manner similar to communists in the 1970s, to exploit it and overthrow Ghani’s administration.

    As we reflect on the war in Afghanistan, it’s crucial that we incorporate the urban-rural divide, which considers class, ethnicity and other socio-economic factors, into our understanding and assessment of the current state of Afghanistan – the Taliban already do.”

  • Tony Zendle 20th Aug '21 - 7:58pm

    “Although the current ‘victors’ in Afghanistan are far from desirable bedfellows, I would rather that they were OUR Taliban than THEIR Taliban.”

    That’s like saying our Al Quada than their Al Queda, or our Nazis rather than their Nazis.

  • Or our Saudi allies rather than their Saudi allies. We can hardly pretend to be picky about who we call friends.

  • John Marriott 20th Aug '21 - 9:34pm

    @Tony Zendle
    The Taliban are here; they haven’t gone away. We need to embrace reality. I agree that they are an extremely unpleasant misogynistic lot, who might well find running a country like a Afghanistan as difficult today as they did in the 1990s.

    The world is full of unpleasant regimes; but, unless we are prepared to fight them, we have got to learn to live with them. While many Afghans clearly hate and are afraid of the Taliban there would appear to be many, as Joe Bourke writes, who support them. How else would they have been able to sweep all before them? We need a dose of ‘Realpolitik if we are going to deal effectively with people whose philosophy seems largely trapped in the Middle Ages.

  • Steve Trevethan 21st Aug '21 - 7:16am
  • Peter Martin 21st Aug '21 - 10:08am

    Does anyone truly think this would have ended differently had we remained in the E.U.?

    We all know it wouldn’t, but this is the line which the supposed ‘progressive left’ likes to push. Hence your question. It’s not even as if the EU put more than a token effort into the military operation there. The number of all EU countries’ dead was fewer than those of the UK.

    If the EU countries spoken out against the war and had refused to have anything to do with it, there wouldn’t have been any EU deaths at all and that would have included the UK too. This would have been the best course of action. However, this would have needed a certain level of political courage. The easy option was to tag along with the USA in a half hearted fashion and accept the relatively low cost in terms of both lives and money that came with it.

  • Peter Hirst 21st Aug '21 - 1:42pm

    There’s clear evidence that the mentality that took us out of the eu is not what is required for a credible foreign policy in a global world. We can only avoid these threats by working more closely with our allies and other countries with common interests. This debacle is doing nothing to help counter climate change and the myriad of other challenges the world faces.

  • Peter Hirst, I am curious as to what clear evidence you refer too, we remain committed to a whole range of international organisations. Once both the U.K. and the E.U. get over the hurt and anger caused by the U.K. leaving, restrain their ego’s and start acting like grown ups again, what exactly stops us from working together effectively if somewhat differently?

  • Helen Dudden 22nd Aug '21 - 6:57am

    I have been interested in the subject of properties in Portugal and France that are very cheap to buy. The interest is there, and the willingness to move from the UK.
    I’ve watched with interest the renovations of homes to live in.
    This seems to be an area that Brexitt has least affected.
    Personally, having a French Grandmother, I like France and would love to buy a French home.

  • Barry Lofty 22nd Aug '21 - 9:21am

    Justin@ You are probably correct in stating that the UK and EU could work together if they could restrain their egos, but I believe there will have to be a massive change of attitude and approach by our present government to achieve that very desirable result?

  • Barry Lofty@, I’d say that is largely fair comment, I would suggest that there also needs to be a change of attitude and approach by some on the E.U. side, not least President Macron. I have been pleasently surprised by some of the criticism of the E.U. approach to the U.K. post Brexit made by Junker, not so surprised by some of the comments from Guy Von Verhofstadt.

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