We must stand ready to act if Trump tantrums risk tipping Afghanistan into chaos

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President Trump’s ‘termination’ of Defense Secretary Mark Esper should come as no surprise (given the terminator’s temperament – and that’s before his convincing defeat at the hands of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris). Because Secretary Esper was ready to resign in the event of his Commander-in-Chief’s electoral victory. He’d already written the letter.

His reasons why seem clear enough. Having ordered his troops back to base, he made public his refusal to condone even the possibility of their deployment on the streets of D.C., least of all to gas peaceful protestors for a photo opportunity outside of a church whose Bishop denounced the abhorrent abuse of power that had enabled it. President-elect Biden has drawn upon his faith – whatever your own beliefs – several times since his election, citing phrases of the powerful book that President Trump wielded as a prop so disgracefully.

But President Trump’s reason for sacking Esper now seems less clear. Most assume petty vengeance, a President affecting what little power he has left to ‘take out’ those who dared oppose him. A sign he is still President, in his own mind, by yielding his authority, perhaps. Or worst, an indication he plans to fulfil a campaign promise and is in full preparation for a 2024 campaign. To ‘End the Endless Wars’. Bring the troops home. An impossible prospect, at present, that would leave the future President Biden in a bind. To reverse, or abandon the region?

Were President Trump to order the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, it would not only represent an act of diplomatic vandalism, but herald in a period of dread chaos in the Middle East. – One that will come to bear on us, not safe-and-sound in The West. Such a betrayal of Afghanistan would doubtless clear the way for the Taliban to rock back into power and commence their hideous terror once again. Abandoning Iraq and the Levant would of course open the way for an ISIL resurgence. All the better for Iran and Russia.

The United Kingdom and the European Union must stand ready to fill any void – up to and including the increased deployment of troops ¬– that the outgoing-President Trump leaves open with capricious and incoherent orders, giving no thought to the future of those countries, or the negative externalities generated by the existence of any outlaw state, let alone the re-emergence of Afghanistan or Iraq as a haven or caliphate for global terrorists.

Such a prospect is unlikely to be popular, least of all amongst the Liberal Democrats, who stood firm against the illegal invasion of Iraq, despite all ‘evidence’ to the contrary. But Afghanistan must be allowed to set the course of its own future without coercion or terror. If the incumbent POTUS refuses to facilitate that out of spite or future self-interest, we must step in. It is the least we owe to that region; but bluntly, it is in our own security interests.

One of our past leaders warned of the consequences of inaction in the face of terror. Sir Paddy Ashdown’s book ‘Nein!’, on the German resistance to Hitler, is crucial reading today. With so many threats to liberal democracy, we cannot afford to delay in our responses, in our determination to see liberty prevail, to do the good, the right thing, even when our most ardent allies will not; no matter the cost. That is who we are. That is Liberalism, offering a place in the fellowship of free societies to those who would take it up, and fight to do so. We have a duty of assistance to such peoples who would fight to take our hand. And the Afghan people have fought. We encouraged them to do so for forty years. We cannot abandon them.

The EU can bring to bear all of its ‘leadiator’ skills – being accomplished in bringing together disparate interests and as the lead-mediator, resolving intractable blockades between regional players, as demonstrated during the Paris Climate talks – to aid Afghanistan in its journey towards security and stability. The UK should join them, committed as we are to the region and able to bring our hard-wrought expertise to help with the dilemma those peoples face.

If we fail, soon enough, innocent Afghans will be dragged into facilities we built before fleeing, and be executed once again. We cannot allow that grievous wrong to happen. Not again. It is both politically possible and morally permissible that we intervene. There is a mandate. And if President Trump continues with his graceless behaviour and abandons Afghanistan – possibly even Iraq – we must step in, however intervention-shy we are as a political party or country, those recent failures and follies burned into our collective memory. We must demand that Right overcome grievous wrong, and the good be allowed to thrive.

We have the capability. We have said all of the warm words. Now? We must demonstrate what our word is worth, show our commitment to a region that with a little stability could experience great economic growth, securing the peace so desperately sought. We must stand in, if necessary, as we await the inauguration of President Biden, and then his foreign policy. We must stand ready to fulfil this responsibility even if Biden will not. Anything less is cowardice and the worst betrayal. Even with morality and sentiment set aside? It is strategic folly. We must prepare for the tantrums of Trump. We hope for the renewed intervention and strategic oversight of President-elect Biden. But we must accept: being ‘aggressive’, in order to maintain peace and stability? That is right, to prevent grievous wrong. That terror will return if we abandon Afghanistan and the wider region.

* Johnny McDermott is a Glasgow University Law graduate who is studying for his Masters with a focus on moral and political philosophy.

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  • While I agree with the point in this article, the biggest risk right now is Trump’s tantrums tipping the United States into chaos. The Trump team are determined to win by any means possible and will subvert any process to achieve that, and they have their hands on the levers of power, and lots of money to fund their delusions.

    If they can create enough chaos within the current process, who knows what will come out next?

    I really hope the Democrats are as well prepared for all eventualities as the Republicans are.

  • What about the Iran deal? How will that affect ME peace?

  • “The United Kingdom and the European Union must stand ready to fill any void – up to and including the increased deployment of troops”.

    I’m afraid not. Any such military intervention should be solely via the UN….. in full consultation with President Elect Biden.

  • ……………..We must stand ready to act………….

    Amazingly it seems that the ‘exception’ of the West’s ME interference is Iraq (which the LibDems opposed). The destruction of Libya and of Syria (both the bombing of the forces of Assad and those fighting him were supported by this party in different votes) are ignored..

    As for …..We have the capability……

    ….. So, “we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too”???

    We should not get involved in, let alone instigate, any more military ‘adventures’..

  • @David – Whilst I agree with the sentiments, we shouldn’t forget both Russia and China have international agendas that a US vacuum can only facilitate… It is going to require a level of diplomacy from the UK that we haven’t seen in many decades…

  • Johnny McDermott 10th Nov '20 - 6:02pm

    @james – good point, one I rather overlooked, beyond their benefiting from chaos in Iraq (as they have for some time, and President Trump took exception to… by blowing up Soleimani…). A lot of thoughts covered here in the Guardian, which I put in a thread with the link to this post, as it expands on it nicely: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/10/donald-trump-mark-esper-foreign-policy-joe-biden-iran?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

  • Johnny McDermott 10th Nov '20 - 6:02pm

    As @David Evans says, there are so many areas the outgoing President can cause chaos in. I’ve focused in on Afghanistan from a special interest taken during my studies. The country is however a as serious a concern for all of us as it should have been 20 years ago, security and humanitarian key, but also economic. Should things get worse in US domestically, they will in Afghanistan by extension. The UK and EU can step in. Especially in the EU’s current role/ the promise of their ‘leadiator’ experience being brought to the region. It’s that I’d love to see happen, and peace ensue. As @David Raw notes, any idea of passing the UN rings rightful alarm bells. As it is, the mission is a NATO mandated one, and technically a non-combat training role, which includes UK/ most of EU. I like idea of EU because their reputation is marginally better than ours/ US in the region when surveyed, so to sully their name with troops is probably unwise (despite reality they send many).

  • Johnny McDermott 10th Nov '20 - 6:04pm

    The main goal here isn’t to go for a disastrous surge or change it back to a combat mission. Peace is closer than it has ever been. It’s to secure the country for 70 days until President-elect Biden takes power and he can set out his plan. We should consult him, definitely. The worry I have is it is an order. Symbolic, which Trump can call upon later. The signals it sends the Taliban and other networks in the country would be damning. Our commitment is already highly questionable. It’s why the EU can do so much for the region, should it wish it, in diplomatic and economic ways. But they must have a stable enough situation. China and India will not want to build major infrastructure while snipers pick off their engineers (one example). I suppose that’s the carrot. Beyond helping a ravaged country onto its feet, it could be an economic powerhouse, as a literal cross roads of major superpowers always increasing trade. And there is always the threat, the original reason any NATO troop is there, that security deteriorates and that will spill out. As humanitarian crises and terrorist attacks.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Nov '20 - 6:20pm

    expats 10th Nov ’20 – 4:53pm
    David Raw 10th Nov ’20 – 2:26pm
    Charles Kennedy’s principled position increased the numbers of our members and voters, but when the issue is over they had no reason to continue with us, What remains is Charles’ political principles and charm. He came to a bye-election when Chris Huhne resIgned and queued politely to sign in. He had a strong hand-shake and then went to talk to the BBC. (Laura K’s predecessor).

  • Richard Underhil 10th Nov '20 - 6:35pm

    David Evans 10th Nov ’20 – 12:10pm
    When I saw that the Pentagon had agreed arm sales to Taiwan I wondered what the US political leadership would do, in fact just a damp squib, shall we say deterrence? This is not Korea. It is 2020.
    The Peoples Republic of China have more numerous soldiers than the USA had in 1945 when they considered impending casualties against Japan and looked for an alternative. The UK has already thought about the realpolitik of defending Hong Kong.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Nov '20 - 6:40pm

    Richard Underhill 10th Nov ’20 – 6:35pm
    And why has the US defence secretary been sacked at this stage?
    Was the Senate consulted?
    Perhaps we should be told.

  • On reflection, in the eventuality he describes, is Johnny McDermott willing to forgo his Masters degree for a wee while and volunteer to join the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan ? If not…………. It’s easy to get into a war and more than difficult to get out.

    Johnny Mc. should give a nod in the direction of his long gone fellow Liberal Imperialists in the days of Liberal Government and reflect on what started on 4 August, 1914. It wasn’t over by Christmas. As a further minor consideration, what was the fate of the Liberal Party after that Christmas ?

  • Paul Reynolds 11th Nov '20 - 7:56am

    A well written article, Johnny. I don’t think it is a fair assumption that US forces are somehow keeping the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan with its military presence. The Iraqi government and regional administrations and militias control Iraq, with significant influence from countries in the region. In Afghanistan, US-supported government forces control a small minority of this grindingly poor country, where insecurity and malnutrition are more a concern of the population than the Talebs. The only major change after a full US troop withdrawal will be more publicity afforded to the existing chaos.

  • David Raw: Quite right. I have noticed that history does not seem to be a strong point with many Liberal Democrats. One of them denied that the Liberal Party supported Free Trade although that was its primary purpose and caused the resignation of some Liberal Ministers from the National Government when it introduced tariffs in 1932. The Liberals then split into Free Trade Liberals and the National Liberals who accepted tariffs. Entering the First World War and coalitions with the Conservatives have also brought about its present modest position.
    Repeating policies that have repeatedly failed is unlikely to produce a better result next time but seems to be very popular. Looking at the results of the last General election the Liberal Democrats did get a surge of support in parts of the West of England, seemingly at the expense of the Labour Party. It would be interesting to know why apart from its position on not leaving the EU.

  • @ Paul Reynolds. Let’s get it clear, Mr Reynolds, on this the centenary of the funeral of the Unknown Warrior, Are you and Mr McDermott advocating the return of UK troops to Afghanistan with the inevitable return of what used to happen regularly at Wootten Bassett ?

  • Paul Reynolds 11th Nov '20 - 1:29pm

    Thus, I don’t really agree with the thrust of Johnny’s article. In neither Iraq not Afghanistan does the presence of US military personnel prevent chaos. Removing the US military personell will make little difference, other than perhaps a publicity campaign by neo-conservative orientated US political figures, arguing that chaos has resulted from a withdrawal and the withdrawal should be reversed. Such a PR campaign is perhaps made possible by the relative absence of these two conflicts from mainstream Western media, despite the continuing death toll at the hands mostly (but not exclusively) of the US. There is scope however for a greater focus on peace efforts in Afghanistan, and regional negotiations to improve stability in Iraq.

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Nov '20 - 8:37pm

    Apologies, been busy, but this is starting now, with a reduction from 4.5k to 2k troops in Afghanistan and 2.5k to 2k in Iraq. Realistically (and now we know Trump apparently resisted dropping more bombs on Iran, thank Christ) it seems a better outcome than feared. Can and should we step in? I still say yes.

    We have a duty of assistance, not only because we’re already invested, the harm our presence has done the Afghan people. But it’s in our own interests too. Not just security, but helping those peoples find peace, security and massive economic growth? Well, if that happens, it’s an easy: Yes, to all three Qs, expats. Except ships… that really isn’t essential to our training mission in Afghanistan…

    Agreed Roland. We need to invest in our diplomacy. Cutting of aid does not help.

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Nov '20 - 8:38pm

    I don’t think they’ll strip me of my Master’s if I sign up, David Raw. Achieved with Merit last week, thanks for the opportunity to brag. I’m not sure military service is a prerequisite to having an opinion on international affairs. That said, there aren’t many job openings for legal philosophers… so you never know.

    Thanks Paul Reynolds. I think you’re right. Reading Rubin Barnett’s latest, he argues strongly against the ‘safe haven’ narrative I think I cited above. I think the main threat is a symbolic one. Those peoples we have encouraged towards liberalism, an ideology they will be punished for supporting, should they have chosen to live as such, deserve our protection. At least in words. Looking at recent events, the map is starting to reflect those areas where such liberal notions have never taken hold. PS. Agree or not, to continue this conversation we have to ship out, according to David Raw… so, at your own risk!

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Nov '20 - 9:12pm
  • Johnny McDermott 17th Nov '20 - 9:31pm

    One last link, essential reading for Afghanistan/ the EU’s role (and you’d hope our own in future, too, should a ‘good enough’ model be pursued, at least in certain regions). This has most shaped my thinking on Afghanistan beyond Rubin and Rory Stewart. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/An-assessment-of-institutional-learning-by-the-EU-Careless/bf56db7743f8c6620dabbc2d1b6a0e314215ce11

  • Johnny you have made a brave joust at a long term problem our party has. A lack of credibility with regards to foreign and strategic policy.

    We have allowed the Iraq War and to a certain extent Afghanistan to cloud our judgement. Instead of trying to answer difficult questions and have the bravery to give difficult answers when we need to, we are all too happy just to take the same take as the Stop the War Movement. In order to appear uncontroversial we have basically made our foreign policy barely distinguishable from Corbyn’s Labour.

    I am not entirely sure Afghanistan can be saved. But that is no reason not to open a discussion about if it is possible, or how at least the worst can be prevented. Trump wants his Fall of Saigon moment. As do most Liberal Democrats and Centre Left voters as far as I can see. Why? Because they take the liberal elitist view that liberalism in Afghanistan just isn’t worth enough. Because they are not “ready” for democracy. No one is saying we can have a European style democracy overnight. But what many overlook is that countries that are considered stable and successful now have previously gone through much disruption, including several foreign invasions (that includes our country btw).

  • Zachary Adam Barker 21st Nov '20 - 3:30am

    Another bit of food for thought. Consider that the Alt Right in the US advocates isolationism too, barely distinguishable from the Stop the War Coalition’s line. The extreme right meets the extreme left. Is this really the company we want to be keeping, because we are so against any kind of humanitarian intervention? The cost of not acting has it’s consequences too. Just look at Rwanda in 1994.

    The comment about volunteering for military service was uncalled for and didn’t engage with the problems this article engaged with.

    There is a high possibility that Trump may sabotage Afghanistan beyond repair by withdrawing as many US troops as possible. If this happens, then yes, we may find our military position untenable. We should do everything we can to shore up the Afghan Government’s bargaining position.

    On a parting note it is worth considering that Pakistan is a large part of the problem. They financed, armed and trained the Taliban via their intelligence services. They used the Taliban as a battering ram to destroy Afghanistan’s only true unity government during the civil war. If we are to try something new I advocate an international effort to pressure them into being more reasonable. Possibly including economic measures to pressure them.

    Well done Johnny for showing courage and writing this article.

  • Johnny McDermott 21st Nov '20 - 7:03pm

    I appreciate that, Zac, and admit, I was aware writing it that there was a certain ‘contrarian’ element, at least in this party, where intervention has often rightly been condemned as wrong. But remember Paddy on Bosnia. Like the President-elect Joe Biden, they knew when force was necessary to prevent grievous wrong. On that front, my dissertation tries to make sense of the confused and perilous position the Liberal cosmopolitan ideal finds itself. https://therealnorth.org/long-live/
    It’s rather long, and not entirely on point. For that, a piece I read since writing this blog by Muska Dastageer, is the best and most unique source of innovation in the talks I’ve read so far. https://www.auaf.edu.af/peace-policy-brief-3rd-edition/

  • Johnny McDermott 21st Nov '20 - 7:06pm

    It puts Rawls’s nonideal theory into action in a way that might yet save Afghanistan, but I entirely understand your misgivings. It seems hopeless, and the fear of ‘overrun/ takeover’ is clear reading that piece by Dastageer. And what it may mean for women’s rights, the basic (most basic) liberal rights that were hard fought for, not just by the Afghan peoples, but our own soldiers, as I was reminded of in a rather sharp way in another reply above. I did not forget Wooten Basset, for the record. I grew up to that, in the news every other week, wondering what it was for – 9/11, *still*? – and when it would end. Accepting there may be a less than full liberal model, if it could even be called liberal at all (Rawls would likely deem an Islamic constitution that respected basic rights as ‘decent’, but not a liberal peoples’ constitution). That is well worth aiming for. The economic prosperity awaiting Afghanistan could pull it from ‘decent’, protecting basic rights, to fully ‘liberal’ one day. Or perhaps not. They may set their own course, and that should be ok with us, even with the price we have paid. We did that for security, not liberalism in Afghanistan. But they are reinforcing values. We should not give up now, for the sake of 2 months of capricious ‘Presidential’ bad behaviour.

  • Johnny McDermott 21st Nov '20 - 7:10pm

    That cost of not acting, Zac. Exactly. It can be far more grievous than the ‘dirty hands’ we feel from intervening. I explore that in the dissertation, with one reference to Paddy’s Nein! (as above), where I cite:
For key examples: p.59, p.79, p.123, p.180, p.190, p.220.

    Each is a separate attempt, IIRC, which may have spared the lives of millions, had they been properly supported by Westminster. And I think I missed a few! It’s in chapter two, where I explore the major weaknesses of Liberalism, as seen by Katrin Flikschuh, a Kantian genius, in my opinion, who identifies our sense of superiority and embedded intolerance as key stumbling blocks to a truly internationalist liberal ideal. liberal-superiority-intolerance

  • Johnny McDermott 21st Nov '20 - 7:13pm

    I entirely agree on shoring up the Republic. That may require like for like troop replacements, as grim as that seems. But I believe a major diplomatic effort on the part of the EU may find favour too. A more stable guarantor of the pre-peace process, as it should be seen. The note on Pakistan is critical – see Dastageer’s piece, where she cites it as a safe haven for the regime to wait out US impatience. The EU and UK can reduce the efficacy of that strategy by making it clear we are going nowhere. I know it won’t find much favour, but I thoroughly agree with that call: we should hold Pakistan accountable for their complicity in Taliban and Haqqani activities. It may be rather difficult, however. It isn’t like calling the US ambassador, it is a complex and miasmatic mix of political and military players, some above board, some not. Who do we call? Who do we sanction? And might we be better to entice them? The economic opportunities of Afghanistan extend to Pakistan, India, China, Iran. Money talks… and they’ve suffered Pakistan Taliban attacks too, such as on the military school. Peace can be as profitable as war. That’s a grim pitch, but it’s one that needs made to warlords and unscrupulous ‘military men’.

    Thank you again for the comments, Zac. Much appreciated.

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