As British paratroopers sat on the wall of Kabul airport, watching the Taliban whip Afghan refugees in line, their Royal Navy counterparts on HMS Queen Elizabeth were project an LGBT rainbow at the carrier’s control tower, as part of a series of “inclusion events”. The aircraft carrier is in the Pacific and practices cooperation with the US Marine Corps.
But over the past ten days the basic premise behind these British deployments and all current UK deployments, and indeed the conception of the British armed forces, has been sorely refuted. The assumption was that “America supports us”. Now this is not the case. And that’s what makes Afghanistan a strategic defeat for the UK. What for the United States is but an episode of humiliating failure, signaling its long-term decline as a superpower, is for us – politically, diplomatically, militarily – acute and existential.
The workers of an Afghan NGO I spoke about last week, after being run over and beaten for two days in the perimeter of Kabul airport, have given up. They fled to the land borders with Pakistan. The British government has informed that “hubs” will be set up to evacuate those fleeing the Taliban, but none of these centers exist at the time of writing.
This is what a strategic defeat looks like. This leaves Britain not only helpless, its Foreign Office unfit, its bitter and demoralized community of veteran soldiers, its jubilant Russian proxy voices; this leaves us without a viable global strategy.
Let us take an inventory of the constituent elements of defeat. It is primarily military. Britain ended combat operations in 2014, leaving a small force in Afghanistan to defend NGO workers and diplomats, while relying on the 300,000-strong Afghan army, which disintegrated without a fight.
This is the strategy that failed. The strategy that won involved the Taliban taking the countryside first, then the border posts, terrorizing the Afghan government with targeted assassinations while persuading regional commanders to maintain lines of communication and negotiation, even in areas where ethnic identity traditionally made them hostile to the Taliban. .
The Islamist group’s campaign was exactly the combination of military, financial, diplomatic and even religious power which, in most textbooks, constitutes the “grand strategy”. The West had only money, and apparently not enough. At the time of writing, it is the Taliban who decide who can get to Kabul airport, who have the right to queue for evacuees waiting, and who can mortar the runway at any time, without fear of American retaliation.
The outcome of the Afghan intervention is, as predicted by many of its opponents, now totally negative. Democracy is over in the country. Economic and social development will only be achieved through collaboration with a radical Islamist government. His apologists wasted no time in pointing out that the Taliban, using radical Islam to overcome tribal divisions, actually brought the rule of law to parts of society that could never reach it under the rule of law. corrupt Afghan elite.
It is also, obviously, a geostrategic defeat. If the UK doesn’t offer the Taliban dollars, the People’s Republic of China will. Pakistan is already in China’s orbit. Turkey, already a half-NATO half-Putin proxy, will extend its regional power to Kabul.
Why did this happen? In military and security circles, it is said that the West “lets politics get in the way of strategy.” Our expeditionary wars and nation-building projects have become hostage to public support, which has drained into the sands of Iraq. This ignores Clausewitz’s first principle: that war is only politics by other means. If a group of military decision makers think they should be able to strategize without politics getting in the way, it is because, throughout the free market era, politics has been put aside.
As Goldsmiths economist Will Davies put it, neoliberalism was “the disenchantment of politics with economics.” Politics could be which outsourcing company to use, or what percentage of the NHS to turn over to private companies, or which real estate speculator should be allowed to further destroy the once Unesco World Heritage site of Liverpool .
But it couldn’t be a debate on an alternative economic model. Nor could it be a debate on an alternative geostrategy, focused on the consolidation of peace through negotiation and acceptance of multipolarity. Those who have presented systemic alternatives within the British system, such as Jeremy Corbyn or the Scottish National Party, have been stigmatized and distorted by the group thinking of the political, security and media elite.
But in 2015-16, all over the world, politics returned. Americans voted for Donald Trump because he promised the end of the Expeditionary War, the start of the economic war to bring jobs back to the United States, and attacked the very liberal social values that Western NGOs had introduced in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Politics returned to Britain in the form of Brexit – the cultural ‘eternal war’ through which an alliance of populist xenophobes and Russia-backed conservatives snatched the UK from a strategic alliance that had taken 30 years to build up, causing dangerous instability in Northern Ireland in the process.
In just six years, the rules-based international order has deteriorated sharply: by the gutting of Greek democracy in 2015; by the collapse of the Dublin settlement as refugees flocked to Europe through the Balkans; then by Brexit; by Trump; by the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong; by the unpunished genocide of the Rohingyas; the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal; and now the dismal failure of Western strategy in Afghanistan.
All countries must adapt to a world in which competing power blocs – China, the United States, Russia, India and, if we’re lucky, Europe – use proxy warfare. , hybrid war, trade and financial negotiations to carve out a place in a world with an unstable ecosystem and where growth is increasingly driven by subsidized loans and the creation of central bank money.
There is a strategic mess, and Britain has chosen the wrong place. He didn’t just tear himself away economically from Europe, he elected a government that claimed the UK could itself be a world power, dodging and plunging into the gaps between the big guys, its doorstep. planes acting as a gargantuan sales platform.
But Joe Biden effectively ended all planning assumptions. This is why a series of former military Conservative MPs rose in the House of Commons last week and urged the government to seek closer ties with Europe (the Europe which we constantly threaten to backtrack. treated, if you remember).
Finally, to whom should the defeat belong? It was Labor who sent British troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and doubled the mission in 2008. But it was Boris Johnson’s government that wrote the Integrated Review, without, to my knowledge, consulting the parties of opposition, nor the Scottish governments. , Wales and Northern Ireland, blithely ignoring warnings from the British strategic community that “other views are available”.
The integrated review, which only mentioned Afghanistan twice and the Taliban not at all, should be the headstone for Johnson, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who all prompted and signed. It didn’t even contain a basic risk assessment of the events currently unfolding, as that was the point: to support an unsustainable strategic vision and inconsistent force structure, risks had to be ignored.
The strategic defeat is the defeat of Great Britain. It’s Johnson’s defeat. After spending his entire life fantasizing about being Winston Churchill during the Norwegian Crisis of 1940, he introduced himself as Neville Chamberlain, but without the charm.