Afghanistan enters a new phase in its tragedy

Afghanistan entered a new phase in its tragedy today, with the Taliban on the outskirts of Kabul. Over forty years of war have led us back to “year zero” once more.

Events have moved quickly. Only two months ago, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, members of the Afghan Civic Democrats and the UNAMA talked to Lib Dems Overseas and LIBG members about their hopes to reach an inclusive political settlement acceptable to the Afghan people.

The blame game can be shared out amongst all those on the losing side: The Afghan government for its gross corruption that siphoned off hundreds of millions that would have otherwise – if wisely spent – helped those whose poverty and ignorance have provided fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban; the Biden administration that lamely followed the disastrous US policy of speedy non-conditions-based withdrawal by the Trump administration which included the criminal act of arm-twisting the Afghan government to release 5,000 seasoned Taliban fighters from prison (including the insurgency leader who then led the Taliban assault on Herat city); and the international community for pouring billions into the country’s coffers while not tackling corruption properly and wanting to believe too much what it was being told. And much more of course.

While others flee, the United Nations is trying to find its way in continuing its humanitarian support for the people of Afghanistan – which is needed more than ever. It had been cooperating with local Taliban leadership in areas under their control in the past and now has a vastly complex role to play if allowed to do so, given the human rights abuses that are already appearing as the victors reap their spoils of war, especially forced marriages with Taliban fighters.

Afghan society has seen progress since the US invasion of Afghanistan twenty years ago especially among the younger generation. An important example is widespread girls’ education in the cities which has now seen women starting to take their place in positions of authority in Afghan society, even if not yet sufficiently at the highest echelons of government; also competitions for qualified young persons to join the civil service. This educated generation, exemplified in civil society organisations such as the Afghan Youth Thinkers Society, which I have had the pleasure to work with in Kabul, and those who fought against government corruption, are perceived by the Taliban because of their ability to think independently as a direct threat to their theocratic rule, They need protection where possible.

That’s why the Canadian government has advertised a broader immigration programme which aims – over and above Afghans who directly worked for Canada – to cater for an additional 20,000 of the most vulnerable including women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals, and family members of previously resettled interpreters. But time is running out to process and get them out.

The British Government needs to follow suit, especially with former Chevening scholars who are at huge risk and also permit those who have won scholarships for this coming academic year to come to the UK if they are able to leave.

Ed Davey did the right thing to write immediately to the British government on the unfolding disaster. But additionally, even if Afghanistan falls into darkness once more, we must do our utmost to rescue the flower of educated Afghan youth who can help rebuild it again one day.

* George Cunningham is Chair, Federal International Relations Subcommittee on China and a former Deputy Head of China Division, European External Action Service, Brussels. He is also the Chair of Lib Dems Overseas.

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21 Comments

  • Foreign policy disaster which ever way you look at it. Even Dominic Raab has finally decided to interrupt his holiday. So much for global Britain!

  • Paul Fisher 15th Aug '21 - 7:34pm

    Part 1 “Afghanistan enters a new phase in its tragedy” is the first written apologia I have seen about the collapse of Afghanistan. This eulogy to catastrophic strategic failure is a tribute to the wider shock now shaking the very foundations of US led hegemony as exercised by NATO and its European poodle, the UK. There is another prism through which to view this omni-shambles where, already, the word “blame” is being asserted.
    The siphoning of trillions of US taxpayer dollars and billions of UK taxpayer sheckles into the hands of libertarian defence contractors’ offshore bank accounts either working as military substitutes in theatre or in the supply of sophisticated and overpriced military equipment, is a mere bagatelle in comparison to the tragedy of the dead and the mutilated. But there is a bigger strategic blunder which will now unfold; the collapse of the moral case for interventionism, self serving military adventures by the so called West – how now global Britain? Be in no doubt NATO has been undermined as it was led by the nose by an imperial USA 20 years ago. I never understood the geography of a contiguous North Atlantic with this Asian, land locked region. Those who ignore the lessons of history are punished by repeating it … Alexander the Great et al … The original mission in Afghanistan was to wipe out the terrorists who assaulted New York. This a benchmark example of mission creep – always a risky military mindset.
    It is all very well to wring hands at Afghanistan’s corrupt institutions (PPE anybody?) which was nicely fuelled by pumping liquidity into a small medieval country completely incapable of absorbing the burn rate; the ONLY outcome was to take up the super abundance of cash sloshing around; wholesale corruption was guaranteed!

  • Paul Fisher 15th Aug '21 - 7:34pm

    Part 2 Afghanistan was the breadbasket for its neighbours; contrary to popular belief it is not an arid desert. The humble onion is the most used vegetable in cooking worldwide. However the obverse is the slush funding of its replacement crop; the poppy. This is yet another money laundering enterprise tacitly allowed by western governments; Afghanistan is now the main supplier to the European population – the opium of the people. Think about it, convenient eh?
    The collapse of Afghanistan is not the biggest foreign policy failure since Suez, it is worse. It is the failure of strategy itself and we all know that strategy heralds and enables coherent policy, don’t we? Clearly our political and military leaders do not understand the sequential nature of planning.
    President Biden has shown true leadership in that he has a clear strategy which he has implemented. I agree with it.
    I would like to see a few resignations in the UK for the craven mindless acceptance of a flawed strategy. A good place to begin may be those LibDems who helped keep the Tories in power in 2010, but that’s another story … I am not holding my breathe …

  • Not sure a sly dig at the current government and Brexit is going to work this time Tim.

    In case you were unaware it was labour, the Lib Dems greatly desired future coalition partner, that took us into Afghanistan. Not forgetting the very pertinent fact that the Lib Dems had a full five years of coalition with the conservative party during which they said little of any import on the subject. The Lib Dems have their fingerprints all over Afghanistan far more so than this particular government. Looking for someone to blame for this? Don’t pass the buck so fast check the mirror first then look across the pond to the president you have all been raving about….until recently.

  • john oundle 15th Aug '21 - 9:32pm

    First we have the Syrian fiasco courtesy of Obama & now Afghanistan with the hopeless Biden. Hopefully the lesson will be finally learn’t & we no longer get involved with every passing war & conflict,it’s futile.

    After 21 years & the UK taxpayer forking out £ 22 billion for Afghanistan we are back with the Taliban at square one,hopefully the umbilical money cord has finally been cut. .

  • So the 4th Afghan war ends just like the first 3… I bet nobody saw that one coming…. hang on a minute…

  • Nom de Plume 15th Aug '21 - 11:30pm

    For me it has all been rather depressingly predictable. Unlike Iraq, I initially supported the invasion to of Aghanistan in order to root out terrorists and then to leave. Once it became clear that the strategy was nation building, then they needed to stay, and it would be for a long time. It is at this last point that it became clear to me how events would unfold. The Americans would never stay for the long-haul. Not that long term peace keeping is not possible. UNIFIL has been in South Lebanon for 43 years. The few thousand UN troops were acting as a buffer between the urban areas and the Taliban. The gains of the last twenty years have been lost. The Taliban is back. The reprisals and oppression will be brutal. And, in time, it will become a breeding ground for terrorism again. What a complete waste of time, resources and British life.

  • Tony Zendle 16th Aug '21 - 8:41am

    It is not important to be laying blame at this ptesent moment although people like to play the blame game. It goes down well at dinner parties.

    The fact is that as George says the Taliban are anti everything we believe in and we must do everything to ensure that anyone who wants to flee this extremely nasty bunch of people

  • John Marriott 16th Aug '21 - 8:47am

    Can you imagine if the US Administration had held talks during the Troubles with the IRA and not invited the British Government to attend or even kept them informed? We would have gone through the roof. So what’s so different with what the Trump administration did with the Taliban?

    Yes, you can blame Biden and Johnson for what they have done since; but let’s not forget, who lit the blue touch paper and then withdrew to the safety of his golf course!

  • Rebecca Tinsley 16th Aug '21 - 10:44am

    Afghanistan is about to resume its role as a global terrorist academy. The UK should be closely monitoring UK citizens going into or returning from third countries with access to Afghanistan eg Turkey, UAE, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan. Jihadists around the world have been emboldened by the Taliban’s success, and we should expect the worst from Islamists with grievances.

  • We can only hope that the new Taliban administration take a more pragmatic approach to its governance. Sandwiched between Pakistan and Iran it might show signs of temporing its previous policies. If it wants to maintain international relations and last longer than the last one it will need to adapt to a new reality in Afghanistan.

  • Catherine Royce 16th Aug '21 - 1:26pm

    The blame game gets us nowhere, we are where we are, and its a pretty dark place.
    One of the few tangible benefits of the 20year intervention by foreign forces has been the education of a generation of girls, now young women many of them in good jobs in health, education, the civil service and even politics. My money is on them.
    Remember the women of northern Ireland? -it was them that brought the IRA to the table which finally led to the Good Friday Agreement.
    Sooner or later wars end, sadly often only after sufficient pain and loss has been suffered by the general population, and I don’t think we are in that even darker place yet in Afghanistan.
    Repeated foreign intervention has failed and the Taliban also has to fail for the people to get their chance of peace. Of course its also possible although maybe not very likely that the Taliban learned something whilst waiting in the mountains for their chance. How women are treated in Afghanistan in the next few days and weeks will tell us that, but in the meantime let’s not delude ourselves that the Johnson Tory government will make any useful contribution to a lasting peace.

  • Paul Fisher 16th Aug '21 - 1:50pm

    Part 3 – The key lesson, yet again, of the Afghanistan debacle is the failure of strategy; or in the UK’s case lack of any strategic vision or indeed a plan. To continue to look at matters through an operational prism is reinforcement of that very catastropic failure of strategy; mopping up the mess is not planning for the future.

    So what to do?

    Foreign policy is merely one aspect of a nation’s wellbeing; physical and economic security are enablers, only.

    How about this? Build our wellbeing from within. Educate people to drive ambition, construct sustainable physical infrastructure to support people and recruit like minded people from around the world to join and reinforce our open and democratic society.

    So applied to the current cock up in Afghanistan, actively recruit all those people who want to build a fair and open society from there to here. Kill two birds with one stone – enable good people to thrive safely and consolidate the homeland with new vibrant blood – Turn the libertarian/fascist myth/mantra on its head. We might even see a reduction/dilution in gammon thinking!

    Why not?

  • nvelope2003 16th Aug '21 - 1:52pm

    In this uncertain world there seems to be a desire among many people to return to the past. In Britain we have Boris Johnson and the Conservative Brexiteers with similar moves in other countries and now even Afghanistan is going back to the past though in their case it seems to be the 7th Century. I have read the relevant parts of the Koran and it did not say that women taken in adultery should be stoned to death but that upon the evidence of FOUR MALE witnesses they must be confined to their houses. Cutting off the limbs of thieves was only to be undertaken after the most stringent enquiries and not automatically but I guess the vested interests would not want you to know that.

  • John Marriott 16th Aug '21 - 5:41pm

    @Paul Fisher
    No, the key lesson for the West is to stay the hell out of countries if all we want to do, other than to exploit any natural resources they may have, is to introduce them to what passes for us as ‘democracy’.

    After the era of colonisation, how many times has a possibly well meaning attempt to transplant our so called western values into the rocky soil of tribal rivalry, greed, graft and lawlessness, fuelled by religion failed abysmally? You might want to start with Suez. However you must include, besides the obvious in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia, and Sudan as well. To paraphrase W S Gilbert, the lot of trying to be the world’s policeman “is not a happy one”.

  • The Taliban of Pakistan’s tribal areas do indeed seek a return to the past. This is an excerpt from Winston Churchill’s first book in 1897 https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/taliban/tribal/churchill.html The last paragrapah reads:
    “… In the cool of the evening, when the sun has sunk behind the mountains of Afghanistan, and the valleys are filled with a delicious twilight, the elders of the village lead the way to the chenar trees by the water’s side, and there, while the men are cleaning their rifles, or smoking their hookas, and the women are making rude ornaments from beads, and cloves, and nuts, the Mullah drones the evening prayer. Few white men have seen, and returned to tell the tale. But we may imagine the conversation passing from the prices of arms and cattle, the prospects of the harvest, or the village gossip, to the great Power, that lies to the southward, and comes nearer year by year. Perhaps some former Sepoy, of Beluchis or Pathans, will recount his adventures in the bazaars of Peshawar, or tell of the white officers he has followed and fought for in the past. He will speak of their careless bravery and their strange sports; of the far-reaching power of the Government, that never forgets to send his pension regularly as the months pass by; and he may even predict to the listening circle the day when their valleys will be involved in the comprehensive grasp of that great machine, and judges, collectors and commissioners shall ride to sessions at Ambeyla, or value the land tax on the soil of Nawagai. Then the Mullah will raise his voice and remind them of other days when the sons of the prophet drove the infidel from the plains of India, and ruled at Delhi, as wide an Empire as the Kafir holds to-day: when the true religion strode proudly through the earth and scorned to lie hidden and neglected among the hills: when mighty princes ruled in Bagdad, and all men knew that there was one God, and Mahomet was His prophet. And the young men hearing these things will grip their Martinis, and pray to Allah, that one day He will bring some Sahib — best prize of all — across their line of sight at seven hundred yards so that, at least, they may strike a blow for insulted and threatened Islam. …”

  • @Catherine Royce-; ‘The blame game gets us no where’s and then you deliver a very well executed elbow strike to the throat of Boris and his government…..see what you did, there, nice!
    I am no big fan of Biden, neither Trump, but, Biden is very careful to not alienate people of other political alligences by referring to them as opponents rather than the enemy, he has never referred to them as being evil, unlike many people on this site when referring to the conservative party whilst at the same time extolling their virtue of tolerance and a desire for consensus. Make sense much?…..Not to me and I last voted lib dems not sure I will again.

  • I am old enough to well remember the Vietnam debacle in the last days of the US evacuation of Saigaon ..These scenes are being repeated, with interest, in Kabul.. THe USA and UK seem almost unique in learning nothing from history..From Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria we have created hordes of refugees who believed our promises of ‘democracy’.
    As with Vietnam, Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian refugees were subject to grudging tolerance, then distrust and ouright hostility..Will our ‘helper refugees’ from Afghanistan be treated differently? I doubt it..
    All UK political parties are equally to blame; Labour/Tories for the Iraq/Afghanistan ‘adventures’ but this party played it’s part in Libya and in the Tory/Libdem attempt to ‘get involved’ in Syria..
    It looks as if only Iran has been spared our western ‘democratisation’..Watch this space

  • Steve Trevethan 17th Aug '21 - 7:16pm

    Might the Taliban be but one of the many brands of fascism and crypto-fascism?

    Might the emphasis on an idealised past and the persecution of convenient minorities such as those of different beliefs and origins be ways of marketing a “pure” and “safe” future in which the many are dominated by a few who are determined to gain and/or retain their exclusive grip on power?

    Why does H.M.G. not simplify the paper work and rent some airliners?

    Where else might we see facets of fascism?

    https://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2021/08/17/the-uk-and-usa-have-indicated-that-they-are-indifferent-to-human-rights-in-afghanistan-the-fascists-will-have-noticed/

  • Jenny Barnes 18th Aug '21 - 5:34pm

    arithmetic of the frontier – Kipling

    A scrimmage in a Border Station-
    A canter down some dark defile
    Two thousand pounds of education
    Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
    The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
    Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

    No proposition Euclid wrote
    No formulae the text-books know,
    Will turn the bullet from your coat,
    Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow.
    Strike hard who cares – shoot straight who can
    The odds are on the cheaper man.

    The Kalashnikov £500 and the Toyota Hilux £42K or so
    – compare the useless Ajax IFV at £10million a pop – actually the contract is likely to be cancelled so that’ll be £4 billion for nothing, and the upgraded SA80 rifle £1,700 a copy

    But didn’t the military equipment suppliers do well!

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