Despite all the negatives, initial complacency of the UK Government and those responsible for UK defence and security as a whole, one has nothing but praise for all those currently engaged in the evacuation and repatriation of UK citizens combined with the difficult task of issuing visas to members of the Afghanistan community and their families and to whom, we owe a debt of gratitude. I particularly commend the work of Sir Laurie Bristow, UK Ambassador to Afghanistan and the military support team working with him at Kabul Airport.
Whether or not the MOD had a specific agreed evacuation plan for those that could potentially have been left behind in Afghanistan, there is much that we should learn from how this particular crisis has been handled. In doing so, it is sometimes useful to be reminded of the attitude of previous UK governments. As an example, cast your mind back to October 9th 2013 and you may recall that this was the day that the then Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond gave evidence to a House of Commons Defence Select Committee hearing during which he suggested that Britain is ‘war-weary’ and that only in extreme circumstances could the public be persuaded to back British troops being deployed abroad.
During that evidence session, one that I attended in person, Mr. Hammond said that “public appetite for expeditionary warfare is pretty low and that based on experience of ten years of our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan “it would be realistic to say that I would not expect, except in the most extreme circumstances, a manifestation of great appetite for plunging [our military] into a prolonged period of expeditionary warfare any time soon”. He followed this up by saying that “it would take several years before politicians and military leaders could start to rebuild public support for military operations abroad” although I recall that he also accepted that unexpected events can and do act to very quickly transform public opinion.
That was the view from David Cameron’s Secretary of State for Defence eight years ago and Mr. Hammond clearly believed then that once Britain’s allied support mission in Afghanistan ended [this was anticipated to be in 2014] members of the UK armed forces would be unlikely to be involved in foreign deployments for many years to come.
Whether right or wrong in his underlying politically based assessment, such remarks may better have not been said. Of course, by that time preliminary work was being done with the MOD in order to formulate proposals that would eventually constitute the SDSR 2015 defence and security review. At the time I wrote that Mr. Hammond’s words were perhaps showing him to be rather fleet of foot in choosing words that looked rather like a ‘get out of jail free card’ – one that might just allow him to support further cuts to our armed forces on top of those that had occurred in SDSR 2010 and moreover, be seen to get away with it.
Alternatively, this was Philip Hammond being rather more open and honest and suggesting that if whoever was in charge of the next government fails to properly fund the defence budget further big structural cuts lay ahead.
As we have witnessed in remarks made by the current Secretary of State for Defence in relation to Afghanistan policy, Mr. Hammond’s additional remarks at the time suggesting that the rise in powers such as China means that Britain’s economic future depends on a willingness to defend western values of democracy and the rule of law would mean that we as a nation would in future be far more dependent than others on an open global trading system, the survival of which he implied, was not a given.
Back in 2013 I wrote that it would be churlish to argue against the notion that voters are, following a long period of involvement in the wars of others, anything other than ‘war weary’. My view then just as it remains now was that in response to NATO invoking Article 5 was that the UK should join its allies in the fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and play a part in attempting to stabilise a country that has suffered so much over many decades. True it was for the PM to say in the Afghanistan debate last week that we succeeded in the core mission but very little else.
Observations of our walking away from Afghanistan as being similar to the US walking away from Vietnam were commonplace last week as the Taliban once again took control of Afghanistan. The speed of change in Afghanistan may have shocked but the inevitability of what has occurred will probably not.
That is not to suggest that I believe we should not do anything similar again although I also recognise that involvement without public support is in this day and age, futile. That said, I well recall the truly brilliant, powerful and somewhat unexpected speech delivered by Hillary Benn in the House of Commons debate on extending air-strikes in Syria in December 2015. Referring first to “what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated – it is why this entire house stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It’s why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice and my view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria”.
We did the same over one hundred years ago in the ‘Great War’ not because we ourselves were immediately threatened but because those that we regarded as our allies and friends such as Belgium and France were themselves threatened. We did so again in 1939 when Poland was invaded and when once again our close allies such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway were equally threatened.
Would we do so again or are we now saying, because the US public is similarly war weary that we no longer have the courage of our convictions to support freedoms that we believe in? What message does the sudden end game in Afghanistan send to China, Russia, Iran and other would-be enemies and nations I wonder? One of weakness, strength or having the courage of our convictions I wonder. You decide. My hope is that we would as a nation always be prepared to support our allies in the ongoing battle to protect the freedoms of others just as we clearly will defend own hard-earned freedoms and culture.
Whether you choose to believe war is inevitable is probably not the issue here but even if true, I loathe suggestions of perceived war weariness. We have failed in our defence of many past challenges and statements such as that delivered by Hammond in 2013 may just have equally been made in 1918, 1945 and after each of the twenty or so other conflicts that British forces have been involved since the end of the second-world-war. A good government does not prepare for war of course but it does prepare for the threat of war by providing deterrence as a warning to any potential aggressor.
Who knows what and where the next conflict that we might be involved in will be? I certainly don’t and it is perfectly true and responsible to say that our ability to analyse potential geo-political events remains as difficult today as it was a hundred years ago. But that does not mean that we should not always be properly prepared. Neither does it mean we should not learn from past mistakes and particularly so in regard to being inadequately equipped when the aggressor arrived at the back door.
The Integrated Review process is now almost history and what we observe is that despite the promise of an increase in the defence budget, our capability continues to be eroded. We recall many past mistakes in relation to defence capabilities and particularly so that of then Secretary of State for Defence, Duncan Sandys in 1955 when he decided that the future of air power would not be determined by fast jets but by missiles. We recall the slash and burn policies of defence during the Cameron led coalition government and while one might suggest that defence may be being better understood by the present regime, I am more concerned now that at any previous time about capability weakness in the Army and the manner in which we are allowing ISTAR capability to wither on the vine. It is shameful just as is the impending premature withdrawal of RAF C-130J medium-lift capability. Yes, the future may well be about enhanced use of unmanned aerial capability, fighting different wars, space and cyber security, but that does not mean that the potential and prospect of conventional war yet be cast into history.
The other important point to make is that for Hammond to have suggested that our military would not be involved in potential conflict resolution and support sends the wrong message not only to the public but also across the military.
CHW (London – 24th August 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785