As US, British, French, Canadian, Australian, French, German and other allied forces leave or, if they have not already withdrawn their forces, prepare to leave Afghanistan what price will the’ West’ pay for leaving the door open to an all but obvious rise in insurgency?
Defending freedom and values is what western allies have and continue to do but to the Taliban the imminent withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan will look more like capitulation. The withdrawal questions not only the wisdom of US Government foreign policy but risks pushing the region into an endless period of civil war.
Peace talks in Afghanistan are very unlikely to succeed – even if there was to be a breakthrough, few believe that it would last. For a country that has lived through so many decades of war, constant almost daily bomb attacks by terrorist members of the Taliban and its people forced to live in fear of terrorism the withdrawal of western forces will, according to a recent US intelligence report , “leave the security of the country in the hands of a corrupt, ineffective government and an inchoate, poorly motivated military”.
Afghanistan isn’t the only nation where western forces are seemingly intent to withdraw. France is scaling back on its decade long military commitments in Mali and while air attacks by British and American forces continue to inflict retaliatory air strikes against Iran-backed Shia militias and in supporting what is a multinational coalition force assisting Iraqi security forces combat “remnants” of the so called Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, one questions how long before political attitudes change and we see signals of further western withdrawal?
Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan remain powder kegs waiting to implode and the inch by inch stepping back and reduction of western military influence opens doors for increased levels of insurgency. IS may have been defeated militarily in Iraq but the seeds that it has sown are now to be found elsewhere. It may also look dead to some, but although weakened, I fancy that al-Qaeda still lives on.
There are those of course who would argue that western influence is the cause and that we have no place supporting what we call freedom and defending human values. I beg to differ!
Politics lies at the heart of any decision making process and, as the BBC’s highly respected security correspondent Frank Gardner questioned in a BBC website article yesterday, almost 20 years since President George W Bush began the so-called ‘War on Terror’ it seems that the western governments, is the era of large military deployments to distant warzones coming to an end? His answer is “not yet” – there remains, he suggested, “a substantial commitment to fighting jihadists in the Sahel region of Northern Africa although there is a radical rethink in how these missions are conducted”.
The politics of western nations involved in defending freedom isn’t just about answering to the people back home who question whether the huge loss of life of their national in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is also about cost, translating the mood of voters and accepting that military involvement alone will not resolve a problem – it must be accompanied by constant diplomacy and acceptance that the battle for freedom and values requires that western nations involve in rebuilding destroyed nations, investing in those countries and helping to rebuild economies as well as training of the national military.
In an earlier article Frank Gardner wrote that in Afghanistan “over 2,300 US servicemen and women have been killed and more than 20,000 injured, along with more than 450 Britons and hundreds more from other nationalities” and he reminded too that “it is the Afghans themselves who have borne the brunt of the casualties, with over 60,000 members of the security forces killed and nearly twice that many civilians” adding that “the estimated financial cost to the US taxpayer alone is close to a staggering US$1 trillion”.
For the best part of twenty years Al-Qaeda, IS, the Taliban and many other extremist militant groups have engaged in what to many looks like civil war. Allied forces brought them to heel but, weakened as they had been, whilst militant groups scattered, they did not entirely disappear. Today they may be regarded as being resurgent and waiting for what they would regard as being inevitable allied withdrawal.
Views as recently expressed by the UK’s Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith at a RUSI Land Conference that “today’s Army will be more networked, more expeditionary, more rapidly deployed, more digitally connected, linking satellites to soldiers and centred on a ‘Special Operations Brigade’ are fine words but may be better regarded as being intent and future as opposed to what is available today.
Yes, fewer so-called boots on the ground would mean greater reliance on cutting-edge digital technology, including investment in artificial intelligence, space and cyber threat and attack are crucial but there is a very long way to go before we (the UK) can claim to have at our complete disposal. Investing for tomorrows wars is all well and good but not at the expense of the ability to engage in wars of today and those that unless we deploy could change everything that we believe in.
And all this is before we think about the range of other threats to our freedom and values be that from Russia or China. We ignore too how Russia and particularly China are investing in Africa and we do so at our peril.
Of course, public attitude does matter and it cannot be easily ignored. I cannot speak for America but as far as this nation goes, we ‘must’ better inform our people of why defence strong defence is crucial, why it is sometimes necessary that we deploy in conflicts alongside our NATO and other allies. We must better inform a public that often does not understand the politics of defence, diplomacy and deterrence. We must also work hard to ensure that they have a better understanding of what NATO is, what it does and why it is so crucial to our future and all those other members who signed the NATO Charter.
A bitter price to pay for backtracking on foreign military deployment? Yes, I fear that five and ten years from now the world will not be a better place and that by walking away too soon from those countries in which we and our allies have so bravely sought to support the values of freedom, political choice and free speech – be this directly or indirectly, by military involvement or assisting in training and policing, will be in a far worse place if we now choose to walk away.
CHW (London -21st June 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785