Afghanistan: an object lesson in strategic failure

Many years ago, I was talking with an Afghan who had lived through the country’s civil war. After he had described the horrendous privations and dangers he and his family had experienced, he paused. ‘Don’t ever leave us like that again’, he said. 

And that, horrifically, is exactly what is happening. Not everything since the US-led intervention in 2001 has been ideal – far from it – but I used to think that ‘failure’ was too strong a descriptor. There was ongoing conflict, yes, but overall the country wasn’t about to collapse. That’s all changed: ‘failure’ is now the operative term.

The whole concept of western liberal interventionism, perhaps best enunciated by Tony Blair in his 1999 Chicago speech, is of course controversial. Initially, though, we had the qualified successes of the Balkans, Sierra Leone, East Timor, the first phase of the Afghan intervention, before it overreached itself in Iraq. As I think an official said at the time of the Obama Administration’s non-intervention in Syria, ‘the US gets criticised if it intervenes, and criticised if it doesn’t. What do you want us to do?’. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the principle that developed nations should try to help less fortunate countries towards stability and security. The difference between success and failure lies in the approach. In particular, the exit strategy is something to design at the outset, not improvise in adversity or for reasons of political expediency. 

In the world of international security, the primary aiming point is stability. If you have that within a nation state or a region, you’ve got something to work with. Even so, foreign policy should start from a presumption against military intervention, even if the military instrument is the most readily available. The human and financial costs can be immense, commitments can drag on and, at base, there are rarely military solutions to problems of instability and insecurity. Politics, money, culture, power relationships – that’s where solutions potentially lie. There, and in understanding the primacy of pragmatism over idealism. 

Nevertheless, military intervention is sometimes necessary, and can shift the balance before the military holds the ring while other levers get to work. In the most extreme example, Western Europe was freed from Nazi occupation by military force, and allied forces remained in situ for decades to provide reassurance, but economic, political and social reform brought us the prosperous continent we know today. 

In the specific case of Afghanistan, it’s no secret that any foreign presence is going to come up against a bewildering array of issues: tribalism, warlordism, poverty, poor governance, corruption, narcotics. The level of ambition has to imagine Afghanistan as a better version of what it is rather than some idyll. But we did have a shot at helping Afghans create a country in which its people might lead lives less prey to the insecurities and unpredictabilities they had endured previously. 

This has been cast aside. Western strategic patience simply hasn’t matched that of its adversaries. They always told us it wouldn’t – ‘You have the watches, we have the time’. 

Another Afghan saying is: ‘you can persuade an Afghan into hell, but you can’t force him into heaven’ – no doubt born of a long history of foreign incursion going back to Alexander the Great. The new masters – the far from unitary collective of religious extremists who usually go under the inadequate shorthand of ‘the Taliban’ – will bring their own version of hell; and we forget at our peril the massacres, day-to-day brutality, destruction of heritage, misogyny and support for terrorism of the previous Taliban regime. Memory, and the atrocities we have already seen since the Taliban resurgence, provide an appalling counterfactual for what would have happened had the US-led coalition not intervened in 2001.

Their return to power will hit hardest those many good and brave Afghans who have sought over the past 20 years to create a better country, and who now have nowhere to turn. Those that remain will live in fear. Those that seek to escape deserve a generous helping hand, particularly those who worked alongside us, including interpreters. It’s the very least we can do, and sparse compensation for the chaos the west is now culpable in inflicting on their country. And the less we help, the more we risk a fresh crisis of irregular migration rippling through European politics as it did from Syria. 

Veterans and their families will struggle to understand how the Biden Administration’s decision, and the supporting actions of key allies like the UK, honour their sacrifices. We should never underestimate the extent to which armed forces personnel invest themselves in the difficult tasks they perform. To ignore that is to insult those who died or were injured; who have served or continue to serve; and who lost loved ones. 

On the global stage, the west’s reputation as a reliable partner has been trashed. Who will welcome us if it ends like this? Whether western involvement in the security affairs of others is right or wrong (or, more likely, Realpolitik), it has suddenly become a lot less credible for the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen the extent to which this opens the door for those competitor nations whose staying power outweighs our own, but China and Russia are likely to be immediate beneficiaries. 

So what is to be done? President Biden’s cure for America’s longest war is killing the patient. Is the west prepared to lose that much face? Do the domestic factors that led the Trump Administration to put this chain of events in train so far outweigh the resultant loss of US influence that there is now no turning back? Is it, in any case, too late? One scenario is that the US reinserts sufficient fighting power to ensure stalemate, at least around Kabul, before the fighting season winds down in the autumn. But that scarcely seems credible now. [EDIT 08.08 16/8/21: these two sentences clearly overtaken by events in the past 24 hours]

More likely is a strategic disaster perhaps outstripping Iraq and matching Vietnam, with long term repercussions for security and stability globally. It signals western decline and lack of resolve more powerfully than any single act since the Second World War. Hard to credit from an Administration that promised so much in international affairs. Hard to stomach for anyone who cares about Afghanistan and its people. 

5 thoughts on “Afghanistan: an object lesson in strategic failure

  1. Roger,

    An interesting commentary, one as you noted which is partly overtaken by events.

    In my opinion our national politicians, plus advisers forgot our history with Afghanistan and it’s people, principally the Pashtuns and after a long gap decided it was best to intervene with the USA after 9/11. Few as I recall dissented from this decision; dissent would come later.
    For many reasons we, NATO plus stayed too long. The rational for our action changed, although being a steadfast US ally remained paramount. Open sources soon revealed that Afghan farmers were growing even more poppies, including in Helmand.
    Of all the places to commit the UK’s main effort, Helmand Province was NOT the place to go; as we soon discovered. Those lost and injured did their duty, which the public recognised, even if puzzled or opposed to the intervention.
    This is not the first time the UK or other Western nations have failed to fulfill their commitments to local people and those who served. We only have look across the water to Northern Ireland, where the zealots are part of the government.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, David, and my apologies for not responding sooner. The history of the Afghan intervention is indeed long and complex, with many factors determining its trajectory. And on your final point, political solutions to conflict often necessarily involve the belligerents. There is a line to be drawn, though, and I can’t be optimistic that the Taliban, having routinely crossed it when previously in government, won’t do so again now that they are once again in the ascendant.

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  2. I remember, not all that long ago, when people were saying we had two wars in progress – Iraq and Afghanistan – and of the two Afghanistan was the successful one. All in all a tragic, all-too predictable story. I think there are probably three prime rules of warfare: (1) Don’t march on Moscow; (2) Don’t invade Vietnam; (3) Don’t leave an army in Afghanistan. I can’t see where the Afghans go from here, unless the fanatical tendency in the Taliban has diminished to the extent that they’re more susceptible to diplomatic pressure than they were in the 90s. Meanwhile, and I know it’s a trivial issue in the grand scheme of things, I worry about the future of the Afghan cricket team.

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    1. Thanks, Richard, and apologies for not responding sooner. Your rules of warfare might well be right, but I wonder also whether we should add strategic patience. A number of people have pointed out that in the Republic of Korea the US has had a very long-term and substantial force presence, in a volatile part of the world, that does not seem to bother President Biden in the same way that the much smaller deployment in Afghanistan apparently did. It’s also been argued that a kind of equilibrium had been reached in Afghanistan at very low US force levels, with very low levels of US casualties, and that there was no particular reason why that could not have been continued into the longer-term. So although it abrogates the rule of three, strategic patience would be my fourth rule of warfare.

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