While British paratroops sat on the wall of Kabul airport, watching the Taliban whip Afghan refugees into line, their Royal Navy counterparts on HMS Queen Elizabeth were projecting an LGBT rainbow on to the carrier’s control tower, as part of an series of “inclusion events”. The carrier is in the Pacific practising collaboration with the US Marine Corps.
But over the past ten days, the basic assumption behind these and all current UK deployments, and indeed the design of Britain’s armed forces, has been cruelly disproved. The assumption was that “America has got our back”. Now it hasn’t. And that is what makes Afghanistan a strategic defeat for the UK. What, for the US, is merely an episode of humiliating failure, signalling its long-term decline as a superpower, is for us – politically, diplomatically, militarily – sharp and existential.
The Afghan NGO workers I wrote about last week, having been crushed and beaten for two days at the perimeter of Kabul airport, gave up. They have fled for the land borders with Pakistan. The British government has briefed that “hubs” will be set up to evacuate those escaping the Taliban, but no such hub exists at time of writing.
That’s what strategic defeat feels like. It leaves Britain not just powerless, its Foreign Office incapacitated, its community of veteran soldiers embittered and demoralised, its Russian proxy voices jubilant; it leaves us without a viable global strategy.
Let’s make an inventory of the defeat’s component parts. It is, in the first place, military. Britain ended combat operations in 2014, leaving a skeleton force in Afghanistan to defend NGO workers and diplomats, while relying on the 300,000-strong Afghan army, which disintegrated without a fight.
That was the strategy that failed. The strategy that won involved the Taliban first taking the countryside, then the border posts, terrorising the Afghan government through targeted assassinations while persuading regional commanders to maintain lines of communication and negotiation, even in the regions whose ethnic identity made them traditionally hostile to the Taliban.
The Islamist group’s campaign was exactly the combination of military, financial, diplomatic and even religious power that in most textbooks constitutes “grand strategy”. The West had only money, and apparently not enough of that. At the time of writing, it is the Taliban that decides who can get to Kabul airport, that has the right to whip the waiting evacuees into line and that could mortar the runway at any moment, without fear of US reprisal.
The balance sheet of the Afghan intervention is, as many of its opponents predicted, now wholly negative. Democracy is over in the country. Economic and social development will be achieved only through collaboration with a radical Islamist government. Its apologists have wasted no time pointing out that the Taliban, using radical Islam to overcome tribal divisions, has actually brought the rule of law to parts of society that could never achieve it under the corrupt Afghan elite.
It is also, manifestly, a geostrategic defeat. If the UK does not stump up dollars to the Taliban, the People’s Republic of China will. Pakistan is already, effectively, in China’s orbit. Turkey, already a half-Nato, half-Putin proxy, will extend its regional power plays to Kabul.
Why did it happen? In military and security circles it is being said that the West “let politics get in the way of strategy”. Our expeditionary wars and nation-building projects became hostage to public support, which drained away into the sands of Iraq. That ignores the first tenet of Clausewitz: that war is just politics by other means. If a cadre of military decision makers believe they should be able to make strategy without politics getting in the way, that is because, throughout the free-market era, politics was side-lined.
As the Goldsmiths economist Will Davies put it, neoliberalism was “the disenchantment of politics by economics”. Politics could be about which outsourcing firm to use, or what percentage of the NHS to hand to private companies, or which property speculator should be allowed to further destroy the once Unesco World Heritage-status skyline of Liverpool.
But it could not be a debate about an alternative economic model. Nor could it be a debate about an alternative geostrategy, focused on peacebuilding through negotiation and the acceptance of multi-polarity. Those who presented systemic alternatives within the UK system, such as Jeremy Corbyn or the Scottish National Party, were stigmatised and otherised by the groupthink of the political, security and media elite.
But in 2015-16, throughout the world, politics returned. Americans voted for Donald Trump because he promised an end to expeditionary warfare, the start of economic warfare to bring jobs back to the US, and attacked the very social liberal values Western NGOs had been introducing to Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Politics returned to Britain in the form of Brexit – the cultural “forever war” through which an alliance of populist xenophobes and Russian-backed conservatives tore the UK out of a strategic alliance that had taken 30 years to build, bringing dangerous instability to Northern Ireland in the process.
In the space of just six years, the rules-based international order has been severely degraded: by the evisceration of Greek democracy in 2015; by the collapse of the Dublin Regulation as refugees poured into Europe through the Balkans; then by Brexit; by Trump; by the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong; by the unpunished genocide of the Rohingya; the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal; and now the abject failure of Western strategy in Afghanistan.
All countries must adapt to a world in which competing power blocs – China, the US, Russia, India and, if we are lucky, Europe – use proxy warfare, hybrid warfare, trade and finance negotiations to carve out positions in a world whose ecosystem is unstable, and where growth is increasingly driven by soft loans and central bank money creation.
There is strategic disorder, and Britain has chosen the wrong place in it. It has not only wrenched itself economically away from Europe, it elected a government that claimed the UK could, itself, be a global power, dodging and diving through the spaces in between the big guys, its aircraft carrier acting as a gargantuan sales platform.
But Joe Biden has effectively pulled the plug on all planning assumptions. That’s why an array of ex-military Tory MPs stood up in the House of Commons last week and urged the government to seek stronger ties with Europe (the Europe whose treaties, if you remember, we are constantly threatening to renege on).
Finally, who should own the defeat? It was Labour that sent British troops into Afghanistan in 2001 and doubled down on the mission in 2008. But it was Boris Johnson’s government that wrote the Integrated Review, without, to my knowledge, consultation with the opposition parties, or with the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, blithely ignoring warnings from the UK strategy community that “other views are available”.
The Integrated Review, which mentioned Afghanistan just twice and the Taliban not at all, should be the tombstone of Johnson, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, all of whom instigated it and signed it off. It does not even contain a basic risk assessment of the events that are now unfolding, because that was the point: to sustain an unsustainable strategic vision and an incoherent force structure, the risks had to be ignored.
The strategic defeat is Britain’s defeat. It is Johnson’s defeat. Having spent his entire life fantasising about being Winston Churchill during the 1940 Norway crisis, he turned up as Neville Chamberlain, only without the charm.