Update: on 7 December a Foreign Office whistleblower said the UK withdrawal from Afghanistan was “chaotic” and thousands of pleas from desperate Afghans were overlooked. This article was first published on 16 August.
Last night I listened to friends from Afghanistan talk about what’s going on in their street. Unfamiliar noises that would once have been dismissed as nothing are bringing fear. Everyone has heard the stories.
In Lashkar Gah, where I lived for a year as the adviser to the governor of Helmand, in southern Afghanistan, friends I worked with are being dragged out of their homes and shot. In the morning, their bodies lie in the gutter, a warning to everyone.
In Kandahar, the teachers who gave hope to a new generation of pupils have been silenced. Where once there were girls studying, who would one day become doctors, entrepreneurs and leaders of the country, now the desks are empty. Groups of men are calling on families and asking for fathers to register daughters over the age of 12. Those registered are forced into marriage with Taliban fighters they’ve never met and into a life of enslavement. Half the population has just been stripped of all rights.
This isn’t the new Taliban, as it would have you believe. This is the same Taliban it has always been: vengeful, violent and born out of the tribal conflict in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. The group hasn’t changed. Even its friends are the same.
Reports over the years have shown that the Taliban’s link to al-Qaeda is not broken. If anything, it’s stronger. As al-Qaeda has lost ground in Iraq and Syria, it has turned back to Afghanistan, where it is joined by Isis, another fundamentalist death cult. Other fighters include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement whose violence gave the Chinese Communist Party the excuse to imprison at least a million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
There will no doubt be other groups like it. We have seen this pattern before. In Libya, Syria, Iraq, and of course, Afghanistan before 2001, when a fundamentalist Islamist cult takes power, that territory grows terrorists like weeds.
So what happened? Why did we abandon the Afghan people to this fate? In what has to rank as the worst foreign policy failure since the Suez crisis of 1956, the UK has found itself unable to act fast enough, or separately from a US President who saw the totemic anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as more important than the success of the mission.
Joe Biden could have waited for winter, when it is harder to fight in Afghanistan, before withdrawing the last few US troops who were essential to enabling Afghan military combat power. He could have staggered the withdrawal to ensure that each post was secure before moving on to the next. Or he could simply have recognised that 2,500 troops, the number of US soldiers left in Afghanistan, is just half the crew of an aircraft carrier – a tenth of the number deployed in the Gulf and a fraction of those in South Korea and Japan.
He could have stayed. The ongoing cost was low; it was the sunk cost he kept focusing on. But the truth is clear – that money is spent and it’s not coming back. The men I buried, from Poole to Arbroath, will not rise again because we have left. Withdrawal doesn’t save money, it wastes effort – mine, theirs, everyone’s. This wasn’t a forever war. This was a garrison operation of the kind needed to support an embryonic government still fighting a domestic insurgency. Walking out of Germany in 1950 would have resulted in a newly reformed Wehrmacht steamrolled by Soviet troops. Leaving Cyprus today would risk another explosion of violence on the Green Line. Instead of pulling out, we stayed in both.
That strategic patience is essential to victory in war. Battles are noisy, rushed, confusing and complex. They’re about action and speed. Winning wars means winning battles, but it also means having the endurance to sustain, to hold the line, and to prove the resolve that brings people together. The tragedy of Afghanistan is that while we won every battle, without patience those victories do not matter.
The night the Americans left Bagram airbase, they told no one. In the morning, people who thought they were partners, allies with a shared future, discovered that their friends had gone. The people who guarded the gate, those who serviced the helicopters, all disappeared. It’s no wonder they then began to look to save themselves – that’s what their mentors had just done.
Without the helicopters, supply lines ran short, ammunition and food dried up, and morale – the key element that turns an idea into action – evaporated. It is amazing how many continued to fight. As foreign armies put resource and money into the Taliban, Afghan soldiers were abandoned until their positions were untenable and they ran home or surrendered to the enemy. Many were killed, many others are now in fear.
They’re not alone. Allies around the world are questioning what a deal with the US means, and what the real cost of an American alliance is. Will a future president copy this one and leave without warning? Will an alliance raise your profile enough to make you a target, but fail to secure the enduring commitment needed to make it worthwhile?
Like the Suez fiasco, the crisis in Afghanistan is going to change our foreign policy completely. For the UK, our options cannot solely be determined by the White House. We need to deepen our other alliances and, over the coming years, we need to think about what that means.
From the Commonwealth states now receiving more investment from Beijing than from London, to the traders who find it easier to shop in Guangzhou than Glasgow, we need realise there is a problem, and change it. Because the direction in which we’re heading will only lead to one end point – back to Kabul and to failure.
We can change. We can open our markets and remember that allies extend our influence, give us distance from enemies, and enrich our economy. But all that requires an end to the forever squabbles of the past years, a commitment to partnership, and the resolve to endure.
If we deliver that, we will not fear the knock in the night.
Tom Tugendhat is chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and Conservative MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling