So, if Afghanistan was a mistake, what should we do next time?

Amidst the shambles that is the Johnson Government’s response to the collapse of the former Afghan government, the focus is – quite rightly – currently on getting as many people out as quickly and efficiently as we can whilst the incoming Taliban administration is willing to allow it. But, having set the wheels in motion, and determined who we want to evacuate and how many we should offer sanctuary to, we need to turn our attention to the question of why we should intervene in the affairs of another sovereign nation and how we can effectively achieve any set of clearly defined goals.

Firstly, we must question whether intervention is intended to be based upon consistent principles. Tim Garden, our dearly missed former spokesperson in the Lords, summed up the position in 2007 thus;

We have entered an era that is characterised by wars of choice. There is no urgent, direct, state-based threat to the United Kingdom that motivates our decision to send troops to the Balkans, to Sierra Leone, to East Timor, to Iraq or to Afghanistan. Also, we have a responsibility to weigh up the importance of playing an appropriate and proportionate international role as a force for good, against the very real limitations on the ability of our military to conduct simultaneous operations. We say “yes” to Afghanistan but “no” to Lebanon; we say “yes” to Sierra Leone but “no” to Rwanda. These are wars of choice. Having made the choice, young people aged 18 and upwards are put in harm’s way and are authorised to kill other young people if necessary.

Little has changed. We fought against terror in Afghanistan but sell arms to Saudi Arabia, we intervene supposedly in defence of liberal democracy but only generally do so when there is some stated “national interest”.

So, what should liberals use as a yardstick for future military intervention? Indeed, should liberals intervene militarily except in self-defence?

We’re lucky as a country that we have armed forces to be proud of, despite some recent procurement calamities, and maintain the capability to fight a significant conflict. But, to use a metaphor, when you’ve got a hammer, all problems look like nails. For, let’s be honest, we seldom intervene militarily without an American lead, and we now know, if we didn’t before, that an unreliable America is liable to lead us into situations we’d be better off avoiding.

We are, I believe, right to intervene to prevent genocide, as we did in Bosnia, but didn’t in Rwanda. We should, and I would hope to face little opposition here, defend our allies if attacked, in accordance with treaties signed.

However, I suggest that, as a country, we’d be better off building up our diplomatic effort, using aid and best offices to resolve conflicts rather than attempting to impose our version of civil society on other countries by force of arms. And that’s not because I think that our liberal democracy is a failure, or wrong, but I do note that it took us centuries to develop what we now take for granted – you can’t apply a veneer of democracy to a nation without democratic traditions and expect it to stick, unless you’re committed to the (potentially very) long haul.

We also have levers at our disposal, financial and legal, that we can and should use against those who oppress their people and their neighbours. Seizing illegally obtained assets and punishing those who enable their transfer abroad would send a clear message.

If liberal democracy is worth more than the paper it is espoused upon, then its example and relative success should be enough to persuade countries to adopt it themselves. We should defend it from outside mischief making, strengthen it where we can, and build societies that act as a beacon and not a bludgeon.

* Mark Valladares is a member of the Party’s Federal International Relations Committee, writing in a personal capacity.

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23 Comments

  • Denis Mollison 23rd Aug '21 - 12:15pm

    Whatever happened to the UN? There was once an idea – I still hold to it – that military intervention should only be through international action with a wide spread of support across the globe.

    How could we build up the UN? Could we support a more democratic structure for it, abolishing the veto powers of the “big 5” – of which of course we are still anachronistically one.

  • John Marriott 23rd Aug '21 - 12:48pm

    Stay out of it. We might think that democracy is great, whether liberal or not. I’m not sure the Afghans do.

  • John McHugo 23rd Aug '21 - 1:08pm

    Mark – I broadly agree with you, so long as you are not ruling out international humanitarian intervention (i.e. intervening to stop genocide or ethnic cleansing at the time when it is actually happening) as a matter of principle.

    The truth is that the greatest victories are won by soft power – the power to make other people want the same things that you want. With regard to formulating policy for Afghanistan today, a very good book came out a little over ten years ago advising America to love-bomb Iran rather than impose sanctions etc. It is called Meccanomics by Vali https://www.amazon.co.uk/Meccanomics-March-Muslim-Middle-Class/dp/1851687378 and ought to be much better known. It should be required reading for the relevant people in the FCDO.

    It would also make sense to increase our cooperation with our former partners in the EU much more on defence matters, going beyond the scope of NATO. They are in an identical position to us.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Aug '21 - 1:18pm

    The first rule should be to have an exit strategy. The entry strategy is the easy part.

    Also we should understand the history of the country first. Who has ever heard of Gen. Mohammed Daoud Khan for example? He was a key figure in the 50s, 60s and 70s. As a result of his reforms women were allowed to attend university and enter the workforce.

    His regime, and he personally, might not have met with total approval but it was a mistake to try to destabilise it and force him into the Russian camp. A similar mistake made by the UK and the USA elsewhere in the 50s and 60s.

    If the west is going to intervene there’s no point creating corrupt puppet govts. They’ll crumble at the first challenge. The west needs to support some internal political movement which does have a chance of longer term survival.

    https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/asia-jan-june11-timeline-afghanistan

  • I think the statement quoted from 2007, “There is no urgent, direct, state-based threat to the United Kingdom that motivates our decision to send troops to … to Afghanistan.” is entirely accurate. We originally went into Afghanistan because the Taliban regime of the time was openly supporting and sheltering Al Qaeda, who had launched the awful twin towers terrorist attack and were threatening more attacks on the West generally. There therefore was a direct threat to us (you could argue about whether it was state-based).

  • My previous comment should read , I DO NOT think the statement quoted from 2007, “There is no urgent, direct, state-based threat to the United Kingdom that motivates our decision to send troops to … to Afghanistan.” is entirely accurate

  • Peter Wrigley,

    the US and its allies never declared war on Afghanistan. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1267 in 1999, creating the so-called al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, which linked the two groups as terrorist entities and imposed sanctions on their funding, travel, and arms shipments.
    After the 9/11 attack on the USA, George W. Bush signed into law a joint resolution authorizing the use of force against those responsible for the attack.
    The U.S. military, with British support, began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces, officially launching Operation Enduring Freedom. Canada, Australia, Germany, and France pledged future support. The war’s early phase mainly involved U.S. air strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that were assisted by a partnership of about one thousand U.S. special forces, the Northern Alliance, and ethnic Pashtun anti-Taliban forces. Most of the ground combat was between the Taliban and its Afghan opponents.
    The Taliban regime unraveled rapidly after its loss at Mazar-e-Sharif to forces loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek military leader. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1378, calling for a “central role” for the United Nations in establishing a transitional administration and inviting member states to send peacekeeping forces to promote stability and aid delivery.
    After the fall of Kabul in November 2001, the United Nations invited major Afghan factions, most prominently the Northern Alliance and a group led by the former king (but not the Taliban), to a conference in Bonn, Germany. The factions signed the Bonn Agreement, endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 1383. The agreement installed Hamid Karzai as interim administration head, and created an international peacekeeping force to maintain security in Kabul. The Bonn Agreement was followed by UN Security Council Resolution 1386 which established the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

  • It is worth revisiting Paddy Ashdown’s 2011 article on Afghanistan https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/paddy-ashdown-what-we-must-do-to-win-this-war-in-afghanistan-1755787.html He wrote in December 2007:
    “We do not have enough troops, aid or international will to make Afghanistan much different from what it has been for the last 1,000 years – a society built around the gun, drugs and tribalism. And even if we had all of these in sufficient quantities, we would not have them for sufficient time – around 25 years or so – to make the aim of fundamentally altering the nature of Afghanistan, achievable.”

    And here is the conclusion: “So the realistic aim in Afghanistan, with current resources, is not victory, but containment. Our success will be measured, not in making things different, but making them better; not in final defeat of the jihadists, but in preventing them from using Afghanistan as a space for their activity. These two aims will be difficult enough to achieve; but they are at least achievable.”

  • john oundle 23rd Aug '21 - 3:16pm

    Mark Valladares

    ‘Amidst the shambles that is the Johnson Government’s response to the collapse of the former Afghan government’

    On the other hand could anyone dream that a US president should be so grossly incompetent,condemning thousands of our allies to the most horrendous of fates,gifting high value military equipment to the enemy & making the US military a laughing stock.

  • @John Marriott. At least your position is clear and uncompromising and absolutely fine as long as we promise ourselves that we will not wring our hands in despair when the murders, mutilations and rapes start. Some would observe that these horrors go on in ,many countries. We can’t intervene in all of them so we shouldn’t intervene in any.
    @Denis Mollison. UN ? League of Nations more like. Proven to be ineffective too often.
    I don’t see that military intervention suddenly becomes a “good” or “bad” thing depending on whether a vote can be forced through the UN. Is it better, as a civilian, to be bomber by UN forces, rather than American or British ? On the other hand, if intervention is the morally right thing to do, it should be done irrespective of the political machinations going on at the UN. If I am ever being mugged in the street and you happen to be on the other side of the road, I hope you will bail me out without first calling your solicitor to check the legal position.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 23rd Aug '21 - 4:23pm

    Let’s see now…

    @ Denis – abolishing the veto power of the “Big 5” would be good. It isn’t going to happen.

    @ John McHugo – genocide, yes, we should intervene where we can. I have a nasty feeling that our capacity to intervene may be limited given the size of our armed forces though.

    @ Peter M – yes, I’d agree with those points. We’re not good at nation building, and sometimes it might be better to look at the “civic society glass” as half-full rather than half-empty. Direction of travel is important.

    @ Simon – were we fighting a state or a terrorist movement? I’d say the latter, which makes Lord Garden’s comment strictly accurate. You can deal with states differently to terrorist movements, as the leverage is different.

    @ John O – let’s say that President Biden had revoked the treaty that President Trump had signed. What would have immediately happened? The Taliban would have attacked US and allied forces immediately, requiring either a hasty abandonment or significant, possibly massive, reinforcement. Was there the will for that? I doubt it.

  • John Marriott 23rd Aug '21 - 5:04pm

    @Chris Cory
    Call me a cynical defeatist if you like; but, while of course not happy (in fact appalled would be a better description) at the prospect of the kind of ‘atrocities’ you mention, that may well have to be the price I would have to pay. As for intervening anywhere, how do you propose to do this? Joe Bourke’s quotation from Paddy Ashdown about what is achievable in such circumstances may be as far as we collectively might go. I emphasise COLLECTIVELY.

  • George Thomas 23rd Aug '21 - 6:08pm

    While it may seem we achieved very little in Afghanistan the USA/UK’s presence there did allow a generation to know a different style of leadership and hopefully also did enough to convince them that different is better than Taliban of 20 years ago or Taliban of now.

    As ever with these things, the immediate analysis is not a complete analysis and may even be misleading.

  • Paul Reynolds 23rd Aug '21 - 6:35pm

    Very good aticle, Mark. Thank you. Well thought through.

  • I think there are two separate questions to answer: Firstly when is military action justified and secondly what kind of action is justified?

    In terms of when is it justified it has to be a clear and ongoing humanitarian crisis such genocide, use of chemical weapons or a security threat such as tolerating terrorist training camps.

    However once you establish that some form of intervention is justified there have to be standards about what kind of action is appropriate. I feel that invasion and regime change is almost always a step too far. Something very targeted would be better.

    I was not opposed to doing something in Afghanistan but bombing the Al-Qawda training camps would have been better than invasion and occupation which went beyond what was necessary.

  • john oundle 23rd Aug '21 - 9:40pm

    Mark Valladares

    ‘ let’s say that President Biden had revoked the treaty that President Trump had signed. What would have immediately happened? ‘

    Who’s talking about revoking the treaty?

    It’s the withdrawal that’s a complete shambles & Biden had months to prepare for this. There was plenty of time to gradually evacuate interpreters, vulnerable families, disable military equipment etc. Clearly he’s either badly advised or out of his depth or perhaps both. He’s lost all credibility & become a laughing stock along with his military.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 23rd Aug '21 - 10:06pm

    @ John O.

    It might have been more helpful had you been explicit in terms of your initial criticism.

    The withdrawal stems from the treaty signed by President Trump, which is the initial cause of what followed. And, one assumes, the timetable for withdrawing American and allied forces was drawn up at the time it was signed – would you really sign a deal like that without at least thinking through its consequences? In the case of Donald Trump, that’s possible, I guess, but still seems improbable.

    What seems to have failed is the intelligence as to what would happen on the ground, and only a Congressional inquiry will get to the bottom of that.

    Is America and its military a laughing stock? I really don’t think so. Are its allies shaken in their confidence? Certainly, although this has been apparent for a while now, with four years of a Trump administration having done plenty of damage.

  • “ While it may seem we achieved very little in Afghanistan the USA/UK’s presence there did allow a generation to know a different style of leadership and hopefully also did enough to convince them that different is better than Taliban of 20 years ago or Taliban of now.”

    On the flip side, it’s a generation whose exposure to western-influenced Democracy has been flawed elections, incredibly corrupt leadership, and near constant conflict. The lived experiences of the majority of the population – particularly outside of Kabul – is going to be wildly different to the elites. We pat ourselves on the back because the 1% got to send their daughters to university. Meanwhile tens of thousands of people have been killed and maimed by air strikes and all the rest.

    Let’s hope different has been better enough, but I don’t think we did enough to make it so.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Aug '21 - 8:20am

    @john oundle
    “It’s the withdrawal that’s a complete shambles…”
    It is a shambles but the agreement was made by Trump – who (along with his political sidekicks) – surprise surprise – failed to consider the impact of making such an agreement, giving the Taliban plenty of time to get themselves organised to take over the country rapidly.

    Not unlike some of the foul-ups made by our own ‘government’ really.

    A question for participants… Under what circumstances would you trust a US government – of whatever political persuasion – to take into account the interests of other nations where such interests might not be aligned fully with US interests?

  • Kathy Erasmus 24th Aug '21 - 11:36am

    Totally agree Mark. I read a book by Stuart Total a former Colonel of the first paratroop regiment to enter Helmand Province in 2010 . My opinion then was that we should get out of Afghanistan then. We were in an unwinnable situation. The UK has a long history of going into countries, leaving in a hurry and leaving a mess

  • Peter Hirst 24th Aug '21 - 2:37pm

    The issue is not entering wars as much as getting out of them. Entering is generally an event while leaving is a process or at least should be. A commitment to leave when goals are achieved and the will to continue that takes qualities that many governments do not possess. Many of the challenges of withdrawing from conflict can be removed by enlarging the time scale.

  • Peter Martin 29th Aug '21 - 6:07am

    ” we intervene supposedly in defence of liberal democracy” Mark V in the OP
    ” We might think that democracy is great, whether liberal or not. I’m not sure the Afghans do.” John Marriott

    What is “Liberal Democracy” when viewed from the perspective of an ordinary person in Afghanistan?

    It’s getting by on a per capita income of $592 p.a. Or $1.62 per day. This compares to $46,344 pa or $127 per day in the UK. It is seeing billions of dollars in US and EU “aid” spent well away from areas where they live and much of it syphoned off by a corrupt elite.

    So why are we surprised they aren’t too impressed?

    From their POV at least the Taliban aren’t corrupt to anywhere near the same extent as the western backed former ruling class which has been holed up in Kabul for the last few years.

    So “what should we do next time?” If you believe in Liberal Democracy make the case for establishing that. But you aren’t going to do it unless you create a functional economy to go with it. The only western success story I can think of is South Korea which now has what might be termed a Liberal Democracy.

    But it wouldn’t have if the GDP per capita there was only $592 pa. There’s probably nothing too much that is intrinsically different between Koreans, Americans, Brits, Afghans etc. Next time pay more attention to the numbers and the levels of corruption.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)_per_capita

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