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“They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”
Joe Biden’s remarks this week were crass, and they belie a deep misunderstanding of what is happening in Afghanistan today. As the Taliban continues to take control of territories after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops in the region, the situation is rapidly deteriorating with each passing day. On Thursday, Herat fell, and many are surprised at the pace of the Taliban advance.
Even if you ignore the fact that Biden has been wrong on almost every U.S. foreign policy and national security issue of the last 40 years (not my words, ask the ex U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates), what is happening today matters more than most of his previous mistakes.
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As a former officer who has served there, of course, I am emotionally tied to Afghanistan. I also completely understand the war-fatigue experienced by so many who have not fought there. It seems expensive, never ending and at times fruitless. But these wars of choice — Iraq and now Afghanistan — require, by their very nature, an enduring commitment.
The debate over going there in the first place is redundant. We are where we are. But to think we can just leave is child’s play — the sort of student politics that permeates far too much of our political life at the moment.
“You have the watches, but we have the time” — or words to that effect — were said by every Taliban commander I knew of. They know our military weakness lies with our political masters searching for quick wins and clean outcomes they can claim credit for at their next election and who are hampered by a criminal disinterest in the effects of their choices on those sent into the fight.
What can we do? Clearly we cannot remain in Afghanistan forever. But if you are looking to rebuild an entire nation’s military capability to withstand ever-evolving adversaries, such as ISIS or the Taliban, you cannot do it in one or two decades.
You can get the bulk of it done in that time, but the technical expertise of learning skills like fighting close combined arms battles or maturing a high-risk man-hunting special forces capability — the bedrock of any counter-insurgency campaign — takes a far greater period of time.
I know this, because that’s what I did in 2006, 2008–2009 and 2010 in Afghanistan. It’s technical; it’s hard work; it requires a long-lasting commitment. But done properly, it is absolutely worth it in terms of reducing an insurgency’s momentum, building capability and, crucially, confidence in partnering forces, and critically reducing civilian casualties while retaining Afghan consent.
That is what has changed in recent weeks. Those remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan clearly had an effect far greater than Biden, or most other political observers, thought. Militarily it’s obvious — modern warfare allows extraordinary effects at scale from small numbers of troops. Take that away, and it’s a disaster for an Afghan security apparatus that is still strategically immature.
That’s why it breaks so many hearts that we would withdraw so suddenly, without these branches of support, and watch some of those gains get wiped out in mere weeks, as the Taliban overruns Afghan security forces positions, summarily executes Afghan commandos and operates with impunity, unworried by night-time knocks from International Security Assistance Forces.
The U.K. could operate unilaterally or lead a coalition to fulfil some of these roles. Sure, it would require a rebalancing of current commitments, but geo-politically, is anything more urgent today? We could physically operate combat air support to Afghan security forces on the ground, if we only had the political will to do so.
Surely we don’t pay £40 billion a year in defense spending and regularly boast of being the biggest defense spender in Europe, only to then try and claim that we cannot operate without the Americans. We must act, we have a moral duty to, and I call upon the U.K. government to do so before it is too late. Global Britain? Make it mean something.
And then there is the issue of interpreters; those who assisted U.K. forces at great risk to themselves and their families are being left behind, with their applications for relocation being rejected often in error and an Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy that is clearly not fit for purpose. Making subtle changes in response to public outcry is not a way to repay the debt we owe these Afghans; not understanding the ties of U.K. veterans to those who often kept us alive has been a calamitous miscalculation by the U.K.’s ministry of defense.
To give Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace his due, he has applied himself to tackle some of the relocation cases that have gone wrong. But the fact that so many have done so, reflects very poorly on a government that continues to bleat about supporting Afghanistan at every opportunity.
And then, of course, there are the families of the bereaved and veterans. For a country that has sung loud and long about its pride in its military community, the government’s abdication of duty in this space remains disgraceful.
In July 2019, I managed to convince Prime Minister Boris Johnson to open the U.K.’s first Office for Veterans’ Affairs. Bewilderingly, since then he has cut its rather paltry funding by 40 percent, reneged on promises to put a cabinet minister in charge of it and sought to dodge his commitments to our veterans.
In January this year, the data changed to reflect this. For the first time in our history, you are now more likely to suffer serious mental health problems if you were aged 18 to 35 and served in combat in Afghanistan, compared to your equivalent civilian cohort. Historically, it has been the other way around across every age group. This change was predicted years ago; that we have not stopped it is shameful.
Military charities — upon whom the government has leaned so heavily over the years — have seen their income decimated by the pandemic. This challenge will get greater not smaller, and it needs a prime minister who truly understands their responsibility to our veterans; one this country is yet to truly have. Predecessors could claim ignorance; Boris Johnson has no excuse. He has made conscious decisions not to honor his commitments to veterans, and we will live with the consequences of those decisions in the years ahead.
Afghanistan’s reckoning has many facets — chiefly, of course, for that beautiful country and its people. But it has impact over here too. We will undoubtedly be less safe here at home if Afghanistan collapses. And the personal sacrifices of many ordinary Britons, up and down our land, who sacrificed body and mind to rebuild that country, will be for what?