By Alan Sked – 8 minute read
SUPPOSING that the Taliban had never invited Osama bin Laden into Afghanistan or that he had never plotted the destruction of the Twin Towers, these brutal, medieval Muslims could have kept on happily oppressing their fellow countrymen without Western liberal interventionists like Blair or even American neo-Cons devoting them the blindest bit of attention. Could they even have found the country on a map? And would Western commentators like Philip Collins or Rob Rinder whose fatuous articles on the subject fill the feature page of the Evening Standard, have batted an eyelid on the use of Sharia law there, any more than they do on contemporary slavery in Mauritania?
Curiously, by ignoring such things, they would have upheld the traditional standards of high-minded British moralists. It was Gladstone himself, after all, in one of his speeches in 1879 during the Midlothian Campaign, who stated: “Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of his life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own.” Mr. Gladstone would not have approved of teaching gay rights in Kabul.
However, just as Boris was compelled to follow Biden’s lead (and unlike Biden, he had no alternative so let’s not pretend he had) and withdraw what remained of our forces from Afghanistan, Blair, under much less compulsion, followed Bush’s lead and sent our troops into Afghanistan. Their record was brave but ultimately unsuccessful over twenty years, during which time the US spent $1 trillion, most of which went into the pockets of corrupt politicians and administrators, who rigged parliamentary and presidential elections with our connivance, although a small middle class expanded with a new generation of their children, including girls, receiving school and university education. Female employment blossomed and the smart phone, the internet and commercial media arrived. Superficially, Afghanistan was modernised although this was not true for the mass of the population. Nor did their fundamental values and loyalties change. Even so, enough people may have been modernised either to cause the Taliban a problem or (very optimistically) help them govern more rationally this time. We shall see.
One key question is: could the fall of the Afghan regime set up by the allies for twenty years have been prevented?
Both Trump and Biden thought not. Afghanistan is one of these countries Trump sees as “shitholes”; Biden has called it a quagmire. Both presidents agreed to cut and run. On the other hand for the last few years the fighting which kept the Taliban out of Afghanistan’s main cities had been done by the Afghan army (50,000 trained troops according to BBC research not the 300,000 claimed by Biden) with the aid of US Air Power and technical support. During the last eighteen months the US only had about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and they hadn’t suffered a single casualty. The Afghans had suffered 3,000. It was the Americans who lost the will to fight, not least their Commander-in-Chief who, suddenly and without consulting his allies, withdrew all military and air support and announced a final withdrawal date. But was this necessary? Blair is probably correct in blaming the influence of that ‘imbecilic slogan’ ‘a forever war’.
According to one US Senator the US recently has had more troops stationed in Spain. It may even have more troops guarding the Capitol in Washington DC. It has had troops stationed in Japan, Germany and South Korea for decades with excellent military and democratic results. So why the rush to sabotage the democratic effort in Afghanistan and undermine the war against terrorism? The answer seems to be to allow Biden to win over Trump voters and to draw a clear line under twenty years of commitment (a waste of blood and treasure in Biden’s eyes.) Indeed. But if Al-Queda and Isis turn up at the party this 9/11, Biden may find very few votes coming his way after all. The sheer fiasco at Kabul airport with its stirring up of memories of Saigon in 1975, has already dented his standing in the opinion polls.
The other key question about Afghanistan is what is its historical significance? Quite clearly it is a catastrophe for the Afghan people. But is it also a catastrophe for US foreign policy?
Collins, in the Evening Standard article I referred to, states: “the disastrous turn of events in Iraq has effectively killed off the hopes that were raised by successful interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone… the apparent lesson of failure has, since Iraq, foreclosed the possibility of action.” So the lesson of intervention in Iraq was only ‘apparent failure’ and intervention in Kosovo was a success. (I don’t suppose he’s visited either state recently.)
Collins agrees with Anne Applebaum however that “liberal democracy deserves a fight.” It surely does, but surely one must pick one’s fights carefully. (He might have told his friend Blair that – but then failure in Iraq is only ‘apparent’!) One frightening aspect of the reaction to Afghanistan therefore has been the realisation that trigger-happy Blairites and others still romance about the good they might do through ‘humanitarian intervention’. Of course the humanitarianism often seems to get lost. Funny that. But still.
Collins doesn’t have a very good grasp of contemporary history. I felt obliged to write to the New Statesman recently to complain of his exceptionally poor grasp of Tory Party history in an article he wrote on Conservative Party politics. It is an abiding flaw, it seems.
His article on Afghanistan contains a long digression on Global Britain with an unnecessary attack on poor Liz Truss and her free trade deals which, according to him, don’t amount to a pile of beans compared to “the trade lost due to our departure from the European Single Market.” Save that we haven’t lost any. The latest trade figures show British exports to the EU are higher than before Brexit, although EU exporters still lag behind. And the IMF and OECD both predict that our growth rate this year and next will be double that of the EU. Wake up and smell the coffee, Phil!
His real target is Global Britain. Hence he enthusiastically endorses the stupidest question in the Afghan debate by the stupidest MP in Parliament, Theresa May, who asked: “Where was Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” The answer of course was ‘as far away as possible, just like Brexit Britain during the nadir of your premiership.’
She and Collins truly deserve each other.
Global Britain is about asserting British influence post-Brexit economically across the globe. And it is in very good shape, given the figures I already quoted. Kabul, on the other hand, was the final legacy of Blair’s ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and Collins will no doubt soon also characterise that as merely an ‘apparent failure’.
Tom Tugenhat in his impressive Commons speech declared that Kabul was as great a catastrophe as Suez. Clearly he doesn’t know his contemporary history either. For apart, like Brexit, from disconcerting the chattering classes, Suez had no diplomatic effects whatsoever. Far from ending the Anglo-American alliance, both powers were happily invading the Middle East together as soon as 1958, the Americans in Lebanon, ourselves in Jordan. A few years later, JFK was selling us Polaris nuclear missiles on very good terms indeed – the only country ever to get them. The death of the special relationship has always been much exaggerated. Polaris even had the advantage of persuading de Gaulle to veto our bid to enter the EEC – which allowed us to keep our sovereignty for another decade. The true catastrophe of Suez was political. It meant the replacement of the anti-federalist Eden by the Eurofanatic Macmillan along with Heath and his sidekick Hurd who secretly made the Tory Party a corporate member of Monnet’s Action Committee for a United States of Europe. This Eurofederalist political takeover of the Tory Party was the real catastrophe of 1956.
The other parallel often made with Kabul is the fall of Saigon and defeat in Vietnam. But until Kabul fell, Saigon was quite forgotten. And despite all the gloom and doom after 1975, what changed? The domino theory which had sustained the Vietnam War proved wrong. Laos and Cambodia had in effect already fallen and were miserably poor and backward states anyway. But the Asian states that really mattered all remained independent. And the Asian tigers emerged. Communist victory in Asia meant nothing geopolitically. Communist China itself went capitalist. The 1980s also saw a lot of talk about the irresistible rise of Japan with its goods flooding world markets. But its economy eventually went into the doldrums and that of the US remained on top. Today China is contesting for world economic leadership but its lack of intellectual freedom, its political and economic regimentation, its apparent continuing need to steal intellectual property not to mention potential social problems suggests that it may still find many obstacles in its way. Finally, a true leader – politically, economically, militarily and diplomatically – needs followers, a point often overlooked. And China – like Russia – has none, not even those poor states signed up to its Road Belt. Not even Kim Jong-il.
Supposing it invaded Taiwan. Would this really strengthen it? Has the crackdown in Hong Kong manifestly strengthened it in any way geopolitically?
Will the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan weaken America? Hardly. The US invaded it originally to oust Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not for any resources contained in the country. Indeed, these have been left unexploited and will now attract the Chinese. Yet Afghanistan could prove, as in the past, a difficult neighbour. It could influence Chinese Uighurs, Iranian Sunnis, Pakistani dissident tribesmen, Russian Muslims. Its neighbours might even miss the Americans.
As for the Americans, they may feel shame depending on what happens under the Taliban but they will assuredly not miss being in Afghanistan.
Will their withdrawal make any geopolitical difference? Why should it? We are told that the enemies of freedom will feel emboldened but to do what? Putin could have invaded Ukraine or the Baltic states already. But to what end? Could he keep them down? What if a wider war broke out? Could he afford the cost? What would be the effect domestically? Would he survive? It is by no means obvious that he could rely on quick gains.
As for Iran, the state is in a desperate plight due to water shortages, inflation and domestic discontent. There is also constant military pressure from Israel and political rivalry from the Iranian diaspora. Meanwhile, its client state in Lebanon has collapsed and there is growing national resentment in Iraq. Syria is also out of control. America is none the less very stupidly attempting to restore the deal done with it by Obama just as Biden foolishly caved into Russia over the Nord Strom II Gas Pipeline. The end result is that Biden is hoping to retain the status quo rather than exploit Iran’s obvious weaknesses. So expect no great changes in the Middle East.
Britain, like the USA, will soon hardly notice the end of its mission in Afghanistan. Global Britain will take greater shape, friction with the EU will increase, relations with the Anglosphere will improve. The real problems for both countries are likely to revolve around budget deficits and faltering, second class political leadership.
In the end, however, contemporary historians must accept that the future is unpredictable. Great changes can happen without forewarning. A wise American friend of mine points out that no one foresaw the coming of the Internet or the fall of the USSR. Most of the catastrophes that are predicted don’t happen. Of course others do. But good things happen as well, including usually the survival of the USA. And I am told that technical journals are full of indications that the American economy may enter yet another stage in its unique technological evolution.
In the larger scheme of things Afghanistan may therefore not prove very important. True, we can lament the fate of the Afghan people and deplore Biden’s unilateral insistence on a quick withdrawal. But it does not presage the end of the world, the downfall of American leadership, or the collapse of the free world – as far as we know. As far as we can tell.
Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen’s School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked
Photo of Afghanistan warzone by t. kœhler from Adobe Stock