As I write, a group of more than 20 workers from a human rights charity huddle exhausted at the perimeter of Kabul airport. Their work on the ground is over.
They didn’t interpret for the British Army. They weren’t part of the Green Zone elite. There’s not even a single European power that is responsible for saving them. They have a letter from the US State Department saying they’re entitled to be evacuated, but they’re getting turned away from the airport. They’re too scared to use English on the phone, so I’m talking to them via a third party.
“None of us got in,” says one man, “though we were close to the gate. Even with the letter, the troops guarding the perimeter don’t care. They prioritise US citizens, green cards and visas. The Taliban don’t disturb us. They stand across the road saying nothing.”
A human rights activist from the group, who is coordinating their attempted evacuation from Europe, told me: “What we need to insist on is evacuation with families – because right now, European governments are only planning to evacuate people who worked directly with them, not their family members. Our colleagues are on several lists. But these lists come and go. They are scrapped at any moment and new lists proliferate. There are three steps to escape Kabul: get on a list, get into the airport, get on a plane. But that’s almost utopian. There needs to be some kind of corridor created. And to end that will probably require force.”
But that’s the problem. On Sunday morning (15 August) the West ceased to project meaningful force in Afghanistan – either military, political or diplomatic.
It was not only the way Britain left Afghanistan that deserves the term debacle. It was the way our politicians allowed the geopolitical order to collapse around their ears without noticing. Joe Biden withdrew the US from Afghanistan because Donald Trump had negotiated that outcome and set a date, after which – it is now clear – the Taliban knew that the Potemkin democracy in Kabul would collapse. Why the US did not know this remains an urgent matter for inquiry.
Trump negotiated the peace deal because that’s what millions of right-wing Americans want: a country that no longer seeks to shape the world to a rules-based order, but immures them against disorder and rewards their xenophobia. And because it suits the “nationalist international” Trump is part of and its puppet-master Vladimir Putin.
And Trump gained power because Americans’ belief in the rules-based order is collapsing. And because the US constitution – which creates a politicised Supreme Court and allows mass gun ownership and the freedom to incite racial violence – has left its democracy fragile.
As a result, Afghanistan is lost – not just to the Taliban, but to Pakistani intelligence and to the growing Chinese sphere of influence. The victims are those who, for 20 years, accepted Western assurances that they were on a one-way journey – if not towards a functioning democracy, then towards slow convergence with the norms of international development: female rights and education, functioning courts and non-summary justice, the demilitarisation of society and a non-failed state.
Nation-building was the project overtly announced by George W Bush and Tony Blair in 2001, and reiterated at the moment the defence secretary John Reid deployed British troops into Helmand Province in 2006. So for Biden to claim that “our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building” is nonsense.
The mission of groups such as that above was to help people survive amid the half-built nation; amid the hypocrisy, graft, violence and cynical manipulation that Afghans endured as a half-colony of the US. But while they worked, and European progressives funded them, and the rest of us quietly applauded, geopolitical reality shifted under their feet. The US people have, by electing three successive presidents determined to retreat from global engagement, signalled the end of the American Century.
And with that, all the dreams of liberal interventionism should die. Those of us who opposed the Afghan, Iraq and Syrian interventions have a duty to spell out the alternative. It is the building of order through rules and multilateralism – not its imposition by force.
Yes, all sovereign states, and especially UN Security Council members, have a duty to intervene to uphold human rights, and above all to prevent genocide. But the past 20 years show that, under this political elite, with this military and security culture, every time we do so we kill and main innocent people and then walk away leaving an ungovernable space.
Worse, the actual genocides – in Rwanda, Srebrenica in the 1990s, and then of the Yazidis, the Rohingya, and the Nuer in South Sudan – have been neither stopped nor punished. Because the consent for expeditionary warfare has evaporated.
That is the lesson of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. To those who object that “each one was different”, I say yes. Each one had a separate, and entirely plausible, casus belli. Some were even legal. But each one had the same outcome: massive human rights violations, endless compromise with the very forces of warlord-ism we were supposed to be fighting, and massive degradations of our own democracy and political culture at home.
In the process we have created an arc of crisis running from (if we’re lucky) the Turkey-Syria border, through Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, and stretching to Yemen and the Caucasus. If we’re unlucky, that arc of crisis will, within a decade, begin at the Greek-Turkish border and engulf Pakistan.
What do we do? In the short term, we should give every Afghan refugee in Britain the right to stay. Go out and find everyone Afghan on the road in Europe and relocate them here. And – if the situation at Kabul airport can be stabilised – take everyone with a plausible claim to come here as part of an international effort that will, given the salience of anti-migrant rhetoric, require the combined willpower of European governments.
In the long term, however, we need to face reality: the assumptions made by Boris Johnson as he wrecked our relationship with Europe and pursued the hubristic project of “Global Britain”, with aircraft carriers sent to the Pacific and naval bases in the Gulf, have been destroyed.
America First is now the bipartisan strategic stance of the US. It’s hard to blame Biden for that. If you’ve seen your legislature stormed by fascists, whipped up by a president with more loyalty to the Kremlin than the flag, it is wise to defend that democracy first and worry about other countries later. Once you’ve repudiated the intent to bring order, democracy and respect for universal rights to countries that cannot achieve them on their own, there is little point to the neo-imperialist project that has gripped the US since the fall of Jimmy Carter.
We, 66 million Brits, in a multi-national state with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, find ourselves adrift in a world of emerging power blocs. China is rising inexorably. Russia cannot be stopped from imposing its brutal will on its periphery. India is a regional superpower. And Europe knows it must either become a player in the new Great Game, or allow its constituent states to become pawns in it.
It was only in March, with little fanfare, that Johnson’s foreign policy review framed the breakdown of the rules-based international order as an opportunity for Britain to reshape the world. It was hubristic then. It is meaningless now.
Keir Starmer today flayed Johnson: for his incompetence, lack of focus and his callousness towards the refugees. The Prime Minister assured parliament only in July that there was no chance of a Taliban military victory. He was on holiday as a 20-year project collapsed.
The vision around which Starmer has to unite the country must be based on geostrategic realism. Britain was defeated in Iraq and in Afghanistan – at a huge cost to veterans and those who lost their lives. The world is more dangerous now than it was in 2001. We need a foreign policy, an armed force and a diplomacy renewed with honesty, money and competence. It must be painfully clear, even to the most loyal Tory traditionalist, that none of this is possible while Johnson remains in charge.