Olike something learned? On the first anniversary of the British defeat in Afghanistan, there is only silence. The previous defeat in Iraq had given rise to a dazzling public inquiry in 2016. It had concluded that Iraq posed “no imminent threat”. The war was “useless” and based on dubious intelligence, dubious legality and weak attempts at avoidance. But Iraq was the “bad” war. Afghanistan has always been the “good one”. So no public inquiry.
Afghanistan was Britain’s worst foreign policy fiasco since Suez. Eager to curry favor with George W Bush in his desire for revenge for 9/11, Tony Blair lost his mind and embarked on a post-imperial adventure. Under the auspices of NATO and using mercenaries from the Northern Alliance, the Taliban were driven south from Kabul in 2001. Strategists including US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld , warned against “ownership” and “nation building” of Afghanistan. But with “mission accomplished,” Bush and Blair couldn’t resist. The United States was to spend about $1 billion there with the aim of creating a Westernized colony, a monument to democratic values in the heart of Muslim Asia.
The Afghan madness compressed the history of the British Empire in Asia into two decades. My first visit in 2006 saw Kabul already beginning to fall apart. I remember standing at dusk on a fort overlooking the city next to a member of its new ruling class, a Swedish aid worker. He stared into the seething darkness and sighed, “Oh why can’t Afghanistan be more like Sweden?” I choked.
At the time, 3,000 British soldiers were about to leave for Helmand province to drive out the Pashtun Taliban. The latter profited from the bizarre attempt of a British minister, Clare Short, to eradicate the Afghan opium harvest. Poppy revenue went on to hit a record $2.3 billion, surely ranking Short as the most successful agriculture minister of all time.
Eight years later, 453 British soldiers were dead, at least £27 billion of taxpayers’ money had been spent and Helmand had to be rescued by US marines. The waste was insane and astronomical. Britain lingered another seven years, entangling thousands of Afghans in the occupation. Last year, London reported them and fled. Now Western sanctions are helping to cause mass starvation. Just as Afghan politics in 2001 was driven by revenge, today it is driven by ignominy. Empires never last, but their demise has rarely been so terrible.
In recent interviews, retired British defense chief and Afghanistan veteran, the ever-thoughtful Nick Carter, was searing. By the time of 9/11, the Taliban in Kabul had been infiltrated by the CIA and were in contact with Pakistan. They had begun to abandon opium production. Their younger, more moderate wing had at least debated Osama bin Laden’s expulsion. Now the same Taliban have been pushed back to the Middle Ages. Even so, Carter insists on the need to reopen contact and engagement. He deplores the killings by drones which invite reprisals and make negotiation impossible. We must take care of those at whose mercy we have left our friends.
The attitudes that prompted Britain to intervene in Afghanistan seem unchanged. This is Churchill’s well-worn view of world roles, world stages and British values. They are the ones who pushed David Cameron to help overthrow Gaddafi and reduce Libya to anarchy. They made him try to join the Arab Spring against Syrian President Assad, until he was stopped by parliament. They continued with Boris Johnson impersonating President Trump in ‘making Britain great again’. He left the European single market, sent an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea and demanded that “we” defeat Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. He even told President Zelenskiy what he should not concede.
Johnson is now aped by his putative successor, Liz Truss. It uses the same language of parry interventionism. In a flurry of snaps, she told a Chatham House audience last year that Britain’s duty was to build “a web of freedom” around the globe. She sought a policy that would allow “the free world to fight back…to promote freedom, not fear.”
Truss’ rhetoric is empty. She says whatever she thinks her audience wants to hear. She was full of praise for China and is now fiercely anti. Within the EU, she stayed and then left, depending on her professional interest. She brokered a dreadful trade deal with Australia and is at sea on Northern Irish protocol. Truss’ sole purpose is to find machismo in the moment.
Such emphasis is hard to imagine from a German, French or Scandinavian politician. It has nothing to do with the goal of foreign policy – to protect national security and prosperity. It simply diverts resources from defense into an aggressive posture, requiring extravagant kit to match. The defense budget is diverted from manpower to ships and aircraft, vain projects with no defensive utility and riddled with delays and inefficiencies.
I find it difficult to disagree with Americans – and Europeans – baffled that successive British governments have found themselves unable to break the spell of imperial openness. Whether the Americans are under the same spell is beside the point; they can afford it. Truss is now proposing to starve his welfare state to find an extra £10 billion for ‘defence’, increasing his budget from 2.1% to 3% of GDP by 2030. This is not justified by any known threat .
Just as Johnson wanted to win Downing Street by wresting Britain from Europe, Truss wants to drag him into one theater of conflict after another, waving his flag from any stage. The result is no secret. He lies bleeding in a gutter in Kabul. And no one dares to ask why.