One feature of the reaction to this week’s parliamentary debate on the debacle in Kabul has been the praise for contributions from Tom Tugendhat and other MPs who were formerly members of the Armed Forces.
Beyond admiration for the technical skill of some of the oratory, these members were able to speak movingly about their on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, including the risks they had taken and the comrades they had lost during this twenty-year war.
As a result, there has been a perhaps natural tendency to give their perspective particular weight – although as our editor has pointed out, this seems not to apply to everyone. John Baron, another soldier-turned-MP, enjoys a much lower profile for his consistently anti-intervention position. Indeed, Tugendhat at one point went so far as to attack Joe Biden, a civilian, for criticising the collapse of the Afghan National Army:
“To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful. Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have.”
Such sentiment is understandable. But civilian oversight of the Armed Forces is a pretty central plank of what makes a western democracy today. On top of that, in the US the President is Commander-in-Chief. Criticism of the military by civilians, let alone the elected government, is legitimate.
There are other reasons too to be cautious of giving excess weight to ex-military voices in these debates. Again, it is understandable that people who worked on the ground to try and build a new Afghanistan, and lost friends in the process, should be frustrated to see it all collapse like a house of cards the moment the United States decides it can no longer spare a few thousand troops and auxiliary contractors.
But as we noted last week, the sunk costs fallacy is not a good argument for staying in. And whilst this week’s speeches were long on emotion, they were somewhat shorter on practical plans for creating a self-sustaining Afghan state. Given what we are now learning about the fragility of the Islamic Republic and the ineptitude of much of the occupation, it is tricky to see how we might have achieved even in another ten years what we did not in the preceding 20. Sometimes, a virtue of civilian oversight is the capacity of people less invested to call time on mission creep.
(Likewise, the Government cannot so easily handwave the practicalities of resettlement as can an eloquent backbencher. Tugendhat says he is “not going to get into the political auction of numbers. We just need to get people out.” But the ‘auction of numbers’ is the business of government.)
It is also difficult to imagine the Conservative Party endorsing this attitude towards external criticism when it comes to civilian professions (although much easier to envision the left doing so). Should people who aren’t doctors and nurses hesitate to criticise the NHS? Or non-teachers hold their tongue on school standards and education reform?
(Schools actually provide an interesting case in point about the limited applicability of specialist front-line experience to the business of government. New Labour expected great things of Estelle Morris, a former teacher appointed Education Secretary in 2001. But she resigned in 2002.)
None of this means that we should not value the ex-military perspective, nor even that Tugendhat et al are wrong in wanting to make an ongoing military commitment to Afghanistan. But there is a danger in affording them special status, perhaps best captured by Dr Johnson:
“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”
We should remember always that MPs and citizens with no military experience have just as much right to weigh in on these questions as anyone else.