John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
The precipitous collapse of the post 9/11 Afghan state has taken the world’s chanceries by surprise, and reminded them that no-one can accurately predict the future, just as the Iranian Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union reminded previous generations of this simple fact.
This mistaken intervention sits alongside Iraq, Libya and Syria. The lessons of this defeat though need to be particularly heeded – fine intentions and phrases in the Integrated Review are worthless if the required realpolitik and strategies are sidelined. If not, such an approach will not just prove illusory, but also dangerous.
The fundamental error in Afghanistan was to allow the initial, limited and well-resourced mission to expel al-Qaeda in 2001 to morph into the much wider intervention of nation-building. The Armed Forces deserve our fullest praise. However, as we showed in Northern Ireland, soldiers can only buy time. The politicians may now have accepted their error of trying to reshape the world in our image, but the mistakes regarding the intelligence that accompanied those interventions have yet to be heeded.
The first chapter of the Butler Review into the Iraq War contains an insightful section on the nature and limitations of intelligence and, by extension, of basing a strategy entirely on it. In particular, it highlights the differences between ‘secrets’ – which can be detected – and ‘mysteries’ – which can not. Although we knew the ‘secret’ of how much training, men and equipment the Afghan security forces had, we did not know the ‘mystery’ of how the Afghan troops would react to the advancing Taliban.
Part of the problem is the lack of intelligence on the ground. Technology and satellites, useful though they are, can only tell you so much. In recent decades the dull slog of human reporting has taken a back seat to the technological revolution, in which the US and its allies have created a formidable apparatus to intercept and analyse electronic communications. Though highly effective, it falls down when your adversary eschews modern communications – as indications suggest the Taliban may have done at key moments.
First-in-class technology has to be complemented with better political reporting and intelligence on the ground. In the Foreign Office’s internal review into why it was caught unawares by the Iranian revolution, Nicholas Browne noted that the reporting from those officials who had travelled around Iran in the months and years before the revolution had generally caught the public mood much better than the reporting from Tehran. For these reasons, much of our picture of what is going on in large parts of the world is a heady mixture of incomplete information and informed judgement, both of which can lead us down the wrong alley.
Yet since 9/11, we have placed enormous store on this mixture and have, as a result, often made substantial errors. The worst was the central premise of the Iraq War – weapons of mass destruction were never found. The Libyan intervention was in part informed by confident yet mistaken assessments that Libyans would subsequently embrace multi-party democracy. Optimistic judgements that Afghan society could be reformed wholesale in a matter of years proved well wide of the mark. Ignorance about the composition of the Syrian rebels and then naivety about our ability to arm only the ‘good’ ones contributed eventually to a complete change in approach which involved bombing the rebels.
However, Afghanistan starkly highlights other shortcomings with Britain’s overall strategy. Some of us in Parliament have long argued that the trend of reducing defence spending is severely limiting our ability to protect our interests. Judging from the mood in Parliament, it seemed a shock to many MPs that operating without the Americans was deemed impossible – even securing and running Kabul airport was beyond British capabilities.
Regardless of expensive kit and technology, there remains value in ‘boots on the ground’. No one can predict the exact nature of the next major threat, so sufficient margin is required in both the breadth and composition of our defence forces. Furthermore, a country of little use is little worth listening to. British objections to the American withdrawal timetable might have landed with more weight if we had had more to offer or at stake.
This point is not limited to Britain – all of NATO needs to reappraise its defence capabilities, and increase spending accordingly. Washington will be devoting more time and effort into countering China. Europeans should wise up to this before the Russians truly capitalise on this and start causing more problems. We must not forget the value of deterrence, which costs a tiny amount in money and resources when compared to actually having to fight a war – qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.
Britain also needs to better defend its key defence industries. We should be extremely wary of allowing companies of great strategic value to be snapped up and hollowed out by foreign buyers. Recent legislation has given Ministers much greater scope to intervene in such scenarios but this will add up to nothing if they are not actually employed. This applies to takeovers from American companies as much as those from other countries.
On a broader level, the liberal democracies must rediscover a sense of seriousness when undertaking grand strategy. What message does our ignoble withdrawal from Afghanistan convey to our allies? The Chinese certainly strategise in terms of many decades, yet our policy can sometimes be influenced by electoral cycles. Worthwhile strategies usually require long-term commitment, as NATO has shown in Germany and the US in South Korea – if we’re not prepared to put this effort in, then we shouldn’t get in at all.
Britain also needs to reassess its relationship with key allies. Kissinger’s remark that the US doesn’t have allies, just interests, is a reminder that it is folly to rely heavily on one ally. While continuing to recognise the many merits of a strong relationship with the US, we need to reassess other allegiances. For example, in tandem with countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France, we should consider a stronger defence and humanitarian-orientated alliance which has teeth – and which is perhaps centred on one of our two aircraft carriers. This would better guarantee the defence of our common interests.
However, perhaps the most important lessons from Afghanistan relate to leadership and mission. While accepting that war should be legitimate and the measure of last resort, sufficient force should always be deployed when finally despatching troops to theatre. Otherwise, lives will be needlessly lost and the mission compromised. Initially sending a Brigade-minus instead of a Division to Helmand was a derogation of duty.
Furthermore, the soundness of the cause should never be underestimated – did we truly believe we had a right to impose our version of democracy on Afghanistan, especially when the limited 2001 intervention achieved its goal? Joe Biden’s decision regarding this shambolic withdrawal perhaps at least acknowledges the question.