Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.”
Reviewing Barack Obama’s first term in office, Joe Biden, then Vice President, provided a pithy summary in 2012.
Almost a decade after al-Qaeda’s world-changing 9/11 attack on America, in May 2011 US Special Forces finally got their man. He had been hiding out in Abbottabad, which could be twinned with Aldershot, on the other side of Afghanistan’s often conveniently porous border with Pakistan.
Up there with other great political comebacks are now the Taliban. Ten years after the unlamented passing of bin Laden, history’s most troublesome paying guest, 20 years after being ousted by NATO forces and the local Northern Alliance, the regime is now in power. Or, as the lawyer for ISIS-groupie Shamima Begum tweeted to accompany the image of gun-carrying fighters with their feet under the Presidential desk in Kabul, “The boys are back in town”.
The success of Taliban 2.0 in the past two weeks has made us question the worth of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Or should that be missions?
In his memoirs Tony Blair reflects on his choices after the first Taliban regime was overthrown: “Like it or not, from then on, we were in the business of nation-building.” A Journey was published in 2010 with the benefit of hindsight. Britain joined American military action in Afghanistan in late 2001 under our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations. Back then, there was no plan to set up a liberal democracy or to educate girls.
Keen to keep busy after the end of the Cold War – “Go out of area or go out of business” – in June 2004 NATO members committed to an expanded operation in Afghanistan. Like a bust Monopoly player’s properties, the country’s provinces were divvied up. Outlining the scope of the British military mission in Helmand, in January 2006, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, talked the talk about “a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change” and “finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium”. He added “waging war is not our aim”.
With British forces under heavy fire from the Taliban almost as soon as their boots were on the ground, the current doubts about the quality of Afghan-related intelligence are hardly new. After all, John Reid stated “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.
Stabilisation? Protecting reconstruction? Nation-building? Counter-terrorism? Counter-insurgency? Counter-poppy? Combat? With the Blair-Brown government unsure of its objective in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising the public was baffled about the British role. In October 2006, 64 per cent reported there was no clear strategy. Three years later, 42 per cent did not understand the purpose of the British mission and more than 60 per cent believed the war was unwinnable and all troops should be withdrawn.
Conversely, Service personnel had never been held in higher esteem, approval ratings which continue today. Soldiers’ service and sacrifice – including the preparedness to make the ultimate sacrifice – became especially apparent on the final melancholy journeys through Wootton Bassett. The changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years have come about not least because of the professionalism and commitment of Britain’s Servicemen and women.
Combat operations ended in 2015. To paraphrase Keir Starmer, in the context of Afghanistan most of us in Britain seem to have been on the beach ever since. How many were aware of Operation Toral, the UK’s mission to train local Afghan Forces, not least at Sandhurst-in-the-Sand? Who raised concerns about the Trump-Taliban deal in Doha?
MPs’ semi-detached attitude towards Afghanistan was underlined by the almost complete absence of statesmanship in Wednesday’s Emergency Debate. Of course, given that most of our representatives have not actually bothered to show up for work for 15 months, they are out of practice, but that is no excuse for sanctimony at levels rivalling the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Apart from Tom Tugendhat, Dan Jarvis and a handful of others, most MPs should have stayed at home.
Regime change, which many MPs were in favour of in Iraq, usually involves chaos, bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis. Has the Stop the War movement become Continue the Military Intervention?
Perhaps Washington’s critics should tell us just how much they would like to take from the NHS budget to pay for an increase in defence to cover a unilateral British mission to Afghanistan. For the past half century this country has chosen welfare over warfare, sheltering under an American defence umbrella. US taxpayers have spent $2 trillion; more than 20,000 US Service personnel have been injured and 2,400 killed. With so much American blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan, evincing some gratitude toward our chief NATO ally would have been fitting.
What of the bigger strategic picture? The silence from MPs on this was deafening. The Prime Minister was correct to point out that deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is not an option.
In the rush to judgment over the past week, few have stopped to ask why the Taliban could seize power so easily. So far, the handover has been comparatively orderly. Just as London is not Britain, cosmopolitan Kabul might not be Afghanistan.
And who are the Taliban 2.0? How do they fit into this tribal multi-ethnic country, where mobile phone ownership has gone from about 30,000 to 22.5 million in the past 20 years. Supposing they are less medieval executioners-in-football-stadia and more 21st century smartphone-savvy operators, mindful of optics seen globally and instantly?
If Britain has a problem doing business with an Islamic regime with dubious attitudes towards women and civil rights, there goes most of the Middle East. As yet there are no evacuation helicopters hovering over the embassies of China and Russia in Kabul: perhaps staff are too busy drawing up deals over mineral rights and infrastructure.
This week President Biden declared that “we” could not provide “them” with the will to fight. A young British Army officer might well have disagreed. The Malakand Field Force describes a short military campaign in 1897 in a tribal area near the Durand Line, the newly-drawn border between British India and Afghanistan, specifically designed to protect Britain’s imperial interests.
The author, Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill, admired the enemy Pashtu tribesmen: “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer… Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”