The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours. In the aftermath of the decision to return Afghanistan to the same group from which the carnage of 9/11 arose, and in a manner which seems almost designed to parade our humiliation, the question which allies and enemies alike pose is: has the West lost its strategic will? Meaning: is it able to learn from experience, think strategically, define our interests strategically and on that basis commit strategically? Is long term a concept we are still capable of grasping? Is the nature of our politics now inconsistent with asserting our traditional global leadership role? And do we care?
As the leader of our country when we took the decision to join the US in removing the Taliban from power, and who saw the high hopes we had of what we could achieve for the people and the world subside under the weight of bitter reality, I know better than most how difficult are the decisions of leadership and how easy it is to be critical and how hard to be constructive.
Twenty years ago, following the slaughter of 3,000 people in New York on 11 September, the world was in turmoil. The attack was organised out of Afghanistan by al-Qaeda, an Islamist terrorist group, given protection and assistance by the Taliban. We forget this now, but the world was spinning on its axis. We feared further attacks, possibly worse. The Taliban were given an ultimatum: yield up the al-Qaeda leadership or be removed from power so that Afghanistan could not be used for further attacks. They refused. We felt there was no safer alternative for our security than keeping our word.
We held out the prospect, backed by substantial commitment, of turning Afghanistan from a failed terror state into a functioning democracy on the mend. It may have been a misplaced ambition, but it was not an ignoble one. There is no doubt that in the years that followed we made mistakes, some serious. But the reaction to our mistakes have been unfortunately further mistakes. Today we are in a mood which seems to regard the bringing of democracy as a utopian delusion and intervention virtually of any sort as a fool’s errand.
The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics.
We didn’t need to do it. We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending “the forever wars”, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago, in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months.
[See also: Rory Stewart interview: Why Afghanistan marks the end of the age of liberal interventionism]
We did it in the knowledge that, though worse than imperfect, and though immensely fragile, there were real gains over the past 20 years. And for anyone who disputes that, read the heartbreaking laments from every section of Afghan society as to what they fear will now be lost. Gains in living standards, education particularly of girls, gains in freedom. Not nearly what we hoped or wanted. But not nothing. Something worth defending. Worth protecting.
We did it when the sacrifices of our troops had made those fragile gains our duty to preserve.
We did it when the February 2020 agreement, itself replete with concessions to the Taliban, under which the US agreed to withdraw if the Taliban negotiated a broad-based government and protected civilians, had been violated daily and derisively.
We did it with every jihadist group round the world cheering.
Russia, China and Iran will see and take advantage. Anyone given commitments by Western leaders will understandably regard them as unstable currency.
We did it because our politics seemed to demand it. And that’s the worry of our allies and the source of rejoicing in those who wish us ill.
They think Western politics is broken.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, friends and foes ask: is this a moment when the West is in epoch-changing retreat? I can’t believe we are in such retreat, but we are going to have to give tangible demonstration that we are not.
This demands an immediate response in respect of Afghanistan. And then measured and clear articulation of where we stand for the future.
We must evacuate and give sanctuary to those to whom we have responsibility – those Afghans who helped us and stood by us and have a right to demand we stand by them. There must be no repetition of arbitrary deadlines. We have a moral obligation to keep at it until all those who need to be are evacuated. And we should do so not grudgingly but out of a deep sense of humanity and responsibility.
We need then to work out a means of dealing with the Taliban and exerting maximum pressure on them. This is not as empty as it seems. We have given up much of our leverage, but we retain some. The Taliban will face very difficult decisions and likely divide deeply over them. The country, its finances and its public sector workforce are significantly dependent on aid notably from the US, Japan, the UK and others. The average age of the population is 18. A majority of Afghans have known freedom and not known the Taliban regime. They will not all conform quietly.
The UK as the current G7 chair should convene a Contact Group of the G7 and other key nations and commit to coordinating help to the Afghan people and holding the new regime to account. Nato – which has had 8,000 troops still in Afghanistan alongside the US – and Europe should be brought fully into cooperation under this grouping.
We need to draw up a list of incentives, sanctions, actions we can take including to protect the civilian population so the Taliban understand their actions will have consequences.
This is urgent. The disarray of the past weeks needs to be replaced by something resembling coherence and with a plan that is credible and realistic.
But then we must answer that overarching question. What are our strategic interests and are we prepared any longer to commit to upholding them?
[See also: John Simpson: The Taliban’s new reign of terror]
Compare the Western position with that of President Putin. When the Arab Spring convulsed the Middle East and North Africa toppling regime after regime, he perceived that Russia’s interests were at stake. In particular, in Syria, he believed that Russia needed Bashar al-Assad to stay in power. Whilst the West hesitated and then finally achieved the worst of all worlds – refusing to negotiate with Assad, but not doing anything to remove him, even when he used chemical weapons against his own people – Putin committed. He has spent 10 years in open-ended commitment. And though he was intervening to prop up a dictatorship and we were intervening to suppress one, he, along with the Iranians, secured his goal. Likewise, though we removed the Gaddafi government in Libya, it is Russia, not us, who have influence over the future.
Afghanistan was hard to govern all through the 20 years of our time there. And, of course, there were mistakes and miscalculations. But we shouldn’t dupe ourselves into thinking it was ever going to be anything other than tough, when there was an internal insurgency combining with external support – in this case Pakistan – to destabilise the country and thwart its progress.
The Afghan army didn’t hold up, once American support was cancelled, but 60,000 Afghan soldiers gave their lives, and any army would have suffered a collapse in morale when effective air support vital for troops in the field was scuttled by the overnight withdrawal of maintenance.
There was endemic corruption in government but there were also good people doing good work to the benefit of the Afghan population. Read the excellent summary of what we got right and wrong from General Petraeus in his New Yorker interview.
The intervention often dashed our hopes, but it was never hopeless. Despite everything, if it mattered strategically, it was worth persevering provided that the cost was not inordinate and in this case it wasn’t.
If it matters, you go through the pain. Even when you are rightly disheartened you can’t lose heart completely. Your friends need to feel it and your foes need to know it.
“If it matters.” So: does it? Is what is happening in Afghanistan part of a picture which concerns our strategic interests and engages them profoundly?
Some would say no. We have not had another attack on the scale of 9/11, though no one knows whether that is because of what we did post 9/11 or despite it. You could say that terrorism remains a threat but not one which occupies the thoughts of many of our citizens, certainly not to the degree in the years following 9/11.
You could see different elements of jihadism as disconnected, with local causes, and containable with modern intelligence. I would still argue that even if this were right and the action in removing the Taliban in November 2001 was unnecessary, the decision to withdraw was wrong. But it wouldn’t make this a turning point in geopolitics.
But let me make the alternative case – that the Taliban is part of a bigger picture which should concern us strategically. The 9/11 attack exploded into our consciousness because of its severity and horror. But the motivation for such an atrocity arose from an ideology many years in development. I will call it radical Islam for want of a better term. As a research paper shortly to be published by my institute shows, this ideology in different forms and with varying degrees of extremism has been almost 100 years in gestation.
Its essence is the belief that Muslim people are disrespected and disadvantaged because they are oppressed by outside powers and their own corrupt leadership and that the answer lies in Islam returning to its roots, creating a state based not on nations but on religion, with society and politics governed by a strict and fundamentalist view of Islam.
It is the turning of the religion of Islam into a political ideology, and of necessity an exclusionary and extreme one, since in a multifaith and multicultural world, it holds there is only one true faith and we should all conform to it.
Over the past decades and well before 9/11, it was gaining in strength. The 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and its echo in the failed storming of Mecca in late 1979 massively boosted the forces of this radicalism. The Muslim Brotherhood became a substantial movement. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan saw jihadism rise.
In time other groups have sprung up: Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, Isis and many others. Some are violent. Some not. Sometimes they fight each other. But at other times, as with Iran and al-Qaeda, they cooperate. But all ascribe to basic elements of the same ideology.
[See also: David Gauke: “Global Britain” needs new allies – starting with the EU]
Today, there is a vast process of destabilisation going on in the Sahel, the group of countries across the northern part of Sub-Saharan Africa. This will be the next wave of extremism and immigration which will inevitably hit Europe.
My Institute works in many African countries. Barely a president I know does not think this is a huge problem for them and for some it is becoming THE problem.
Iran uses proxies such as Hezbollah to undermine moderate Arab countries in the Middle East. Lebanon is teetering on the brink of collapse. Turkey has moved increasingly down the Islamist path in recent years.
In the West, we have sections of our own Muslim communities radicalised. Even more moderate Muslim nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia have, over a period of decades, seen their politics become more Islamic in practice and discourse.
Look no further than the Pakistan Prime Minister’s congratulations to the Taliban on their “victory” to see that though of course many of those espousing Islamism are opposed to violence, they share ideological characteristics with many of those who use it and a world view that is constantly presenting Islam as under siege from the West.
Islamism is a long-term structural challenge because it is an ideology utterly inconsistent with modern societies based on tolerance and secular government. Yet Western policy makers can’t even agree to call it radical Islam. We prefer to identify it as a set of disconnected challenges each to be dealt with separately. If we did define it as a strategic challenge, and saw it in whole and not as parts, we would never have taken the decision to pull out of Afghanistan.
We are in the wrong rhythm of thinking in relation to radical Islam. With revolutionary communism, we recognised it as a threat of a strategic nature which required us to confront it both ideologically and with security measures. This struggle lasted more than 70 years. Throughout that time, we would never have dreamt of saying ‘well we have been at this for a long time, we should just give up.’”
We knew we had to have the will, the capacity and the staying power to see it through. There were different arenas of conflict and engagement, different dimensions, varying volumes of anxiety as the threat ebbed and flowed.
But we understood it was a real menace and we combined across nations and parties to deal with it. This is what we need to decide now with radical Islam. Is it a strategic threat? If so, how do those opposed to it including within Islam, combine to defeat it?
We have learnt the perils of intervention in the way we intervened in Afghanistan, Iraq and indeed Libya. But non-intervention is also a policy with consequences.
What is absurd is to believe the choice is between what we did in the first decade after 9/11 and the retreat we are witnessing now; to treat the full-scale military intervention we did in November 2001, as of the same nature as the secure and support mission in Afghanistan of recent times.
Intervention can take many forms. We need to do it learning the proper lessons of the past 20 years according not to our short-term politics, but our long-term strategic interests. But intervention requires commitment. And must not be time-limited by political timetables but by obedience to goals.
For Britain and the US these questions are acute. The absence of across-the-aisle consensus and collaboration and the deep politicisation of foreign policy and security issues is visibly atrophying American power. And for Britain, out of Europe and suffering the end of the Afghanistan mission by our greatest ally with little or no consultation, we have serious reflection to do. We don’t see it yet. But we are at risk of relegation to the second division of global powers. Maybe we don’t mind. But we should at least take the decision deliberatively.
There are of course many other important issues in geopolitics: Covid-19, climate change, the rise of China, poverty, disease and development. But sometimes an issue comes to mean something not only in its own right but as a metaphor, as a clue to the state of things and the state of peoples.
If the West wants to shape the 21st-century it will take commitment. Through thick and thin. When it’s rough as well as easy. Making sure allies have confidence and opponents caution. Accumulating a reputation for constancy and respect for the plan we have and the skill in its implementation.
It will require parts of the right of politics to understand that isolation in an interconnected world is self-defeating; and parts of the left to accept that intervention can sometimes be necessary to uphold our values.
It requires us to learn lessons from the 20 years since 9/11 in a spirit of humility, and the respectful exchange of different points of view; but also with a sense of rediscovery that we in the West represent values and interests worth being proud of and defending.
And that commitment to those values and interests need to define our politics and not our politics define our commitment.
This is the large strategic question posed by these last days of chaos in Afghanistan. And the answer will depend on the world’s view of us and our view of ourselves.
This piece originally appeared on the website of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change