Yesterday I once again recalled Henry Kissinger’s words:
“The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win”.
As we observe a resurgent Taliban sweep right across Afghanistan those words have once again come back to haunt us. Afghanistan was and probably always will be an ’unwinnable war’ but that is not to imply that have the right to close our ears and eyes to the plight of the Afghanistan people.
This morning I received one particular email and that for obvious reasons I will repeat without attribution:
“All I can say at this moment, with regret and sadness, is that every man and woman in Britain needs to look at themselves in the mirror and recognise the guilt and shame of being British this morning after what we have done to the people of Afghanistan.
I admit that what we did to the Marsh Kurds of Northern Iraq in 2002-3 was ethically similar in that it demonstrated our moral cowardice but the scale of what is about to happen to the people of Afghanistan will be forever and perhaps indelibly writ large as our Imperial epitaph.
We should take a very hard look at our position in the world and consider whether we are great as a force for good or for ill. Was what we did worth the life of a single service person?
All that money expended for what? An exercise in ‘military diplomacy’? How much good could have been done with the tax revenue that has been wasted? I am appalled and ashamed.
I share the above sentiments and this says it all. What we are observing in Afghanistan today bears witness to complete failure of western strategy and policy. In addition to what is seriously questioned in the above comment, we have let down not only the millions of Afghani people who looked to us in the hope of maintaining some kind of democratic system and freedom but crucially, we have let down thousands of those who risked their own lives in order to support the Allied Forces.
The war against the Taliban was never a conventional war – it was a war against corruption and fear. Allied Forces did their best to train an Afghan Army but sadly, the fight against corruption and fear requires a level of training that not even we possess. Of course, I make no argument that the UK could or should have stood alone once the US had decided to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. We are in no position to do that or indeed, to attempt to form an alliance of other nations who might be willing to share a burden of responsibility supporting the Afghani people in their plight. We may well be able to sail a large element of hard power into the South China Sea to fly the flag but when it comes to the realities of diplomacy and politics suffice to say that sadly, we no longer command the level of international respect that would be needed to achieve anything that did not also have full US support.
UK Foreign policy has once again been found wanting. The Foreign Secretary, taken in just as all those in Washington DC had been, that it would take many week or months for the Taliban to take control of the whole of Afghanistan, has ignored the plight of Afghanistan. Bad enough that the Foreign Office placed every obstacle in the way of allowing the many Afghan interpreters without whose support the allied mission would have been impossible from coming to the UK for self-preservation but by having decided not to issue visas and walking away from the commitment made in respect of the Chevening FCDO scholarship bursary awards (a situation later reversed but only after those involved had already received the shock news) scheme shows the reality of UK government attitude towards those that it had earlier made a commitment.
I both know and have huge respect for Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, former UK Secretary of Defence 1997-9 and Secretary General of NATO 1999 – 2003.Yesterday George Robinson wrote:
“It is stunning that the Foreign Secretary would stay on holiday as our mission in Afghanistan disintegrated. The horrors unfolding with every minute demand focussed attention from the top. The urgency involved both the evacuation of British citizens but also what is now to happen to the people of Afghanistan. The fact that the Foreign Secretary has been missing in action shows graphically the lack of purpose in our government’s attitude to what we set out to do twenty years ago. As Secretary General of NATO on 9/11 and the person who announced the invoking of Article 5, the self-defence clause in the North Atlantic Treaty, I am sickened by the prospect of the twentieth anniversary being marked by the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is apparently to recall Parliament to discuss the Afghanistan situation, one that Tobias Ellwood amongst many have termed as our biggest foreign policy failure in a generation. After Suez it probably is but then we learned that the recall of Parliament will be on a one line whip meaning that all the government has to do is pretend that it had no other choice as opposed to British Foreign Policy having completely failed and missing in inaction. Sadly, if Boris Johnson added anything into a situation in which he is completely out of his depth, it was that intelligence is no barrier to stupidity.
‘In one of a number of tweet responses yesterday I said that all we seem able to do is waffle and play to the gallery. A Taliban resurgence long anticipated and yet we didn’t even have a cohesive evacuation plan. Oh, for some real leadership, motivation and acceptance that we are in part to blame for letting the Afghan people down’.
As to the Secretary of State for Defence who with his Chief of Defence Staff have been behind withdrawal without replacement of our twelve remaining Lockheed Martin C-130J medium lift aircraft and that will reduce the number of Royal Air Force medium/heavy lift aircraft down from a current 40 to 30 less said the better. Not only did we have no evacuation plan ready in order to even start the process of evacuating Afghan citizens entitled to come to the UK before this coming Thursday should the Taliban advance have occurred (as it clearly did) faster than many had thought, we didn’t even have aircraft in the right place.
Bad enough that last evening on BBC Radio 4 I had the misfortune to listen to Lord Peter Ricketts once again pontificating his views – these from the man more responsible than anyone else for the destruction of UK defence capability that occurred in SDSR2010.
To think also that ahead of the Integrated Review process, full of nice sounding rhetoric and promises of a £4bn increase in the defence budget, our hapless politicians were even considering withdrawal and sale of some of the current fleet of eight Boeing C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift aircraft beggars’ belief. They really do not get it and probably never will.
History will judge us very harshly for our inaction over the Taliban advance in Afghanistan and rightly so. This changes everything and turns a part of the world that borders Iran and is a ‘bridge’ between eastern and western philosophies and ideals into a powder keg of dangerous uncertainty. Anyone who believes that the Taliban along with other militant jihadist extremist organisations such as al-Qaeda will fail to use the indescribable weakness of western foreign policy as a signal to advance is not living on the same planet as me.
I will leave it at that for now and once again ponder whether I really am still proud to be British!
CHW (London – 16th August 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785