A lesson in the limits of US friendship has left our place on the international stage hanging in the balance.
This article for the Telegraph by General Lord Richard Dannatt Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009 begins with these words:
With the final curtain about to come down on the tragedy that is Afghanistan on August 31, the critics will want to know why this production has ended before the logical conclusion of its run. The assertions by President Biden are unconvincing.
Until last month, the Afghan National Army, supported by a modest but highly effective international force, was successfully containing the Taliban while Afghan civil society continued to develop. In this context, the precipitate decision by Mr Biden to end the so-called forever war by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 makes little strategic sense. Indeed, to take a strategic decision merely to satisfy an election slogan is an abrogation of statesmanship.
The decision to withdraw is the latest in a series of errors that have characterised the Afghan campaign. There was near universal agreement that to sweep the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan was the right approach in 2001, but thereafter the muddled thinking began.
Why did Britain meekly accept the US notion that they did not do “nation building”? Why did Britain not try to argue the US out of switching attention from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003? Why was a poorly resourced operation begun by the British in southern Afghanistan in 2006?
And so the questions go on.
Recent calls for an inquiry into the higher-level decision-making in the Afghan campaign must not fall on deaf or politically embarrassed ears. Errors need to be exposed, lessons learnt and processes changed to ensure that the UK is better placed for the future. We owe that to ourselves, our allies and most critically to the families of the 457 British servicemen and women who lost their lives in this campaign.
Meanwhile, the world does not stand still. Issues relating to our future foreign and defence policy – the rolling out of Global Britain – and our relationship with the US, Nato and our other partners in the post-Brexit era all need urgent attention, given the geopolitical fallout from the debacle of Afghanistan. As matters stand, the reputation of the UK – and its place in the global order – hangs in the balance.
Having shown that a near medieval group such as the Taliban can humble the world’s only superpower, and by association ourselves, one wonders how impressed, or amused, will Beijing be by the arrival of the UK Carrier Group in the South China Sea? What power are we trying to project or are we posturing on a grand scale and at great expense? The one thing that the Taliban and the Chinese share is their belief in their cause and their commitment to achieve their strategic goals over an indefinite timescale.
Much the same can be said of the wider Islamist agenda where belief and time are not in short supply. Such is the challenge for Western democratic states where decisions are influenced too much by the daily news cycle and the frequency of elections. The British ship of state is not immune from this disposition to sail before the prevailing wind, lacking the deep understanding of our strategic goals and the long-term vision for how our foreign policy priorities can best be achieved.
Mr Biden’s mistakes have not changed the reality that occasional large-scale military operations will always be on the basis of an alliance or coalition, and invariably led by the US. This places a significant premium, therefore, on restoring our relations with Washington at the political level, while acknowledging that on a professional military and intelligence level they remain close.
Below the threshold of major military action, however, Britain has decisions to make. Newly independent of the EU and having been given a salutary lesson in the limits of American friendship, it is vital that the idea of Global Britain is substantiated. This can best be done through an integrated application of our national diplomatic skills, our defence capability and the focused targeting of our international aid budget. It is a matter of regret that the latter has been significantly reduced in the short term, but all three elements of our international engagement remain significant, especially if they are truly integrated as the recent review postulated.
If the conclusion of our Afghanistan intervention is an object lesson in how not to get matters right, our intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, only the year before 9/11, demonstrated the opposite. Skilful diplomatic maneuvering, a well led British military intervention and a commitment to aid the economic and political recovery of that country all showed what Britain can achieve. Indeed, when the ebola crisis of 2014 threatened to overturn all the progress made there, the continued presence and commitment of British civil and military effort averted a major disaster.
We may not have learnt the lessons from the past in regard to Afghanistan, but our experiences in places such as Sierra Leone offer hope for the future. Chairmanship of the G7, permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the leading role in the Commonwealth all present opportunities for Britain to exert influence and respond to our international obligations. If we acquire the humility to learn from our mistakes and build on our successes, Global Britain can still be a powerful force for good on the world stage.