Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.
It was just before midnight on October 12 2002 when a terrorist walked into a busy Irish bar in Bali and detonated a suicide bomb contained in his backpack. Those not immediately killed fled onto the street, running straight into the killing zone of a massive car bomb.
Over 200 people were killed, mostly Westerners, and a similar number were injured. This peaceful Indonesian island could not cope with the scale of this attack and hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, with the morgue lining up bodies in its car park under the burning sun.
My brother Jonathan, attending a conference on the island at the time, was missing. I flew out to join my sister to track him down, imagining him perhaps unconscious, in one of the hospitals – but nevertheless alive. Running out of options we finally visited the morgue.
One by one I unzipped the body bags to try and tried to find my brother. I was only able to identify his remains by finding the key-hole surgery scar on his lower back.
It soon dawned on me that the Bali bombing was not a one-off, but confirmation that the 9/11 attacks had triggered a horrific new form of asymmetric threat the West would have to confront.
Jonathan’s murder required me to do more than grieve. I needed to better understand how a peaceful religion could be hijacked by extremists able to persuade others that blowing themselves up would be rewarded via a fast track to paradise. Then I had to follow NATO’s trail to Afghanistan, where 70 nations combined after 9/11 to destroy the terrorists who recruited, funded, armed, and trained the misguided men who killed Jonathan.
It was not just as a bereaved brother, but as an MP and a former combat soldier in Bosnia that I had to see how well all the best intentions of the West could pacify a failed state and stifle the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism.
On the first of over a dozen visits it was immediately apparent to me the scale of the challenge: widespread corruption, intense tribal rivalries, Pakistani meddling, and deep-rooted resistance to foreign occupation.
But we didn’t make it any easier for ourselves. I was frankly astonished how the US military were running the entire show. There was no “Paddy Ashdown” character co-ordinating a civilian post-conflict strategy. The big plan to rebuild the country (agreed in Bonn in December 2001) was largely based on the blueprint used for Bosnia, without any appreciation that such Western, centralised solutions were completely inappropriate for Afghanistan.
This schoolboy error is something Britain should have flagged up. We pride ourselves on our understanding of the world. Our history, connectivity and diplomatic reach has allowed us to offer intelligent strategic solutions to challenges that factor in local, cultural, and deep-rooted characteristics. Not least with Afghanistan where thanks to the “Great Game” we have form.
Three previous Anglo-Afghan wars have taught us what a complex tribal country this is. Even with charismatic leaders, such as Dost Mohamed and Amanullah Khan, this nation has never been run from the centre.
The US should have known this. After funding the Mujahedeen to see off the Soviet occupation, the US simply walked away in 1989 – leaving the feeble Afghan Government to eventually fall to the Mujahedeen’s successor, the Taliban.
So, after 2001, what made us think we could master the country again?
Well, we didn’t think, because we – MPs – barely knew. Did you know that US Senators are free to visit American troops wherever they may be posted across the world? No such rule exists for MPs. For me to witness what was going on, Sir Peter Ricketts, then our Ambassador to NATO, found out that I had US dual nationality having been born in New York.
He introduced me to US General Jim Jones, who as SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) visited the NATO mission in Afghanistan every six months. We developed a close friendship that endures today, and I secured a regular flight where I was one of the few MPs able to see the four glaring disjoints between our international rhetoric and the reality on the ground.
First, Washington was lulled into a false sense of security, its judgement distorted by the ease of the initial invasion and the relative peaceful first four years.
Second, creating detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, failing to tackle large scale Afghan corruption and nepotism, ignoring the poisonous influence of the Pakistan-India rivalry and the fallout of the Iraq invasion would all play their part in preventing a US-backed Afghan government from winning over the people of Afghanistan.
Third, NATO’s security reach across the country was impressive but little effort was given to training the Afghan Army so they could eventually take on this responsibility.
Fourth, all governance decisions were made in Kabul and no attempts were made to reach out to the Taliban. Quite the contrary. They had requested a seat at the December 2001 Bonn talks – but the victors kept them away. How different history would be had they been included. Instead, they withdrew across the Pakistan border to regroup and retrain before launching a vicious and enduring insurgency campaign that would outwit and outlast the most sophisticated and high-tech military alliance in history.
So why did it go so wrong? As Churchill said of Suez: “I would never have dared, and if I had dared, I would never have dared stop.” For all our grand ideas, we stopped thinking and planning. The short-term fix always beat the long-term plan.
I’ll give you just two examples of hundreds that illustrate the absence a wider strategy beyond killing bad people. On a visit to Helmand In 2008, I bumped into Brigadier Mark Carlton Smith – now our four-star general in command of the British Army. He was rightly proud of a mission 16 Air Assault Brigade had just completed to transport a 220-tonne turbine to the mighty Kajaki dam in the north of the province. This huge logistical and security challenge involving over 100 vehicles got the turbine (broken down into sections) delivered with just one fatality due to a land mine and a few injured.
Installing the turbine would have provided game–changing electricity that would have won over hearts and minds of the Afghan people across south-west Afghanistan. Yet for years the turbine sat in its bubble wrap uninstalled. A lack of concrete meant the project to fully upgrade the dam is stillborn.
On another visit I accompanied Jim Mattis to the town of Margah just after its liberation (Operation Moshtarak). 15,000 coalition troops had flushed out the Taliban from this central Helmand stronghold. It was encouraging to see the locals return to some normality but when I asked, through an interpreter, if they were happy the Taliban had gone, they said yes, but what’s next? “I’m not allowed to grow poppies and there is no market for wheat”.
His point was well made. We’d just removed the town’s biggest employer. The state of the roads (think Salisbury Plain) meant growing wheat and getting it to market was simply not viable. Yet when I inquired about grading the roads to ease transport links and supporting alternative livelihoods, the local DIFD rep admitted “funds are limited but now the town is free we can get planning”. The absence of any follow up meant the Taliban were back in control of the town within months.
The tragic result of this strategic failure is that, after two decades, we have now quit Afghanistan, abandoning the country to the very insurgent organisation we went in to defeat in the first place. With the Taliban now swiftly surrounding the crumbling Afghan government and what’s left of its army, anyone who can is fleeing the country.
It is now only a matter of time before the West has its Saigon moment. Western embassies will be evacuated just as they were in Vietnam in 1975. And all we leave for the 40 million Afghans to whom we promised a better future is a return to the bitter past. Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorist groups to plot future attacks against the West.
Just imagine if we’d had the same attitude towards abandoning Germany after the war – leaving the country to potential domestic strife or more likely following the of East Germany with Iron Curtain bumping up to France. Instead, we stayed the course and supported for Germany for decades.
In contrast, our withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves a power vacuum in a critical part of the world. Sitting between the Russia and China, Afghanistan could have been nurtured into a powerful geostrategic ally. Both countries will be enjoying the decline of the West’s ability to defend global order – so soon after the G7 Summit when we promised an international re-boot.
With so many lessons to learn, I hope it’s therefore understandable as to why I’m calling for an inquiry to learn the lesson as to what went wrong.