Richard North, 19/08/2021  

Whether there was any point to the Commons debate yesterday will have passed the mind of not a few. Having read the entire debate, it is certainly a thought that occurred to me, and I don't really have any answers to offer.

One can certainly pass a view about the prime minister's speech, though, and the media has certainly not been slow to pass judgement.- much of it unfavourable. The Guardian, however, captures the moment, with the comment: "When events demand stature, Boris Johnson always shrinks to the occasion" – a sentiment with which it's hard to disagree.

It's Johnson's peroration – or part of it – which speaks loudest and dominates a rambling, incoherent speech. "No matter how grim the lessons of the past", the man dribbles, "that future is not yet written, and at this bleak turning-point, we must help the people of Afghanistan to choose the best of all their possible futures".

Any which way you look at it, that is a seriously bizarre comment. It is made in the context where US forces are disengaging and the coalition partners are following suit, leaving the people of Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taleban.

From this, two points emerge. The first is that, for the foreseeable future, the people of Afghanistan (or many of them) have precisely no choice about their future, and have no scope whatsoever to pick better options than the ones with which they are currently presented.

Secondly, by dint of following the United States out of Afghanistan – and not having the capability to do otherwise – the UK government is not in a position to help the people of Afghanistan. At the moment, their future is in that hands of the Taleban, over whom we have just demonstrated that we have no control.

Quite what Johnson really meant by these comments, therefore, is anyone's guess. But then, the man has a reputation for uttering meaningless, disjointed drivel and, in this at least, he didn't disappoint. That this was an occasion for offering some serious, well-founded remarks is neither here nor there.

The trouble is that, when it came to winding up the debate, Johnson's foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was not very much better. "At a time of crisis", he said, "we also need to look to the longer term", in an inevitable statement of the bleedin' obvious.

Raab had four areas that needed particular focus. First, he said, "on counter-terrorism, we must never again allow Afghanistan to be a haven for terrorists". I do love this "we" bit, because the UK has next to no capacity to do anything by itself, should the Taleban decide to rent out their real estate to al-Qaeda, or any one of its franchises.

Secondly, Raab says that "the international community" must be prepared to respond to the humanitarian plight caused by the Taleban's campaign. The UK, he adds, "is already using our convening power and our aid budget to galvanise the global response".

There can be little argument here, although there is little the UK can (or is prepared) to do about the refugee crisis apart from throw money at the UN and the international aid agencies, to help deal with the refugee crisis. But this can only go so far, when the "humanitarian plight" will in the main be experienced inside Afghanistan, which has just become a no-go area.

For his third item, Raab wants us (this famous "we" again) to work to safeguard regional stability. That, he says, will require us to work with different partners, and it will require engagement with key regional players, including India, China, Russia, Pakistan and central Asian states, however difficult, complex or outside of our comfort zone that may prove.

Yet, difficult it most certainly will be. Many pundits agree that, with the departure of the western powers, China takes on an influential role – yet its government is largely beyond the reach of the UK and its allies, especially with Hong Kong and the South China Sea on the boil.

Should the Taleban – as predicted – pursue an ambition to unite Pashtunistan, to the detriment of Pakistan, then China is perhaps best positioned to act, having strong economic interests in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the latter pointing to early recognition of the Taleban regime.

However, in Pakistan, it is not smooth sailing, as there are tensions between Pakistan and China over slow progress in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the management of the Chinese-financed Gwadar Port, with China recently taking a firmer grip.

Little is said of this project in the British legacy media (or elsewhere in the western media), or of the fact that there is a low-grade insurgency continuing in the surrounding Baluchistan province, whose denizens (rightly) regards themselves as occupied by an alien power.

Attacks on Chinese nationals throughout the province, and the recent attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where nine Chinese engineers were killed, is apparently causing some concern in Beijing.

The point here is that UK (and western) influence in the region is next to zero and, with the coalition allies now departed from Afghanistan, the UK will have precious little leverage in trying to secure (or enhance) regional stability. Raab is whistling in the wind.

Equally in the realms of wishful thinking is Raab's "fourth area" – "human rights and accountability". Through our domestic sanctions regime and by working with the Indians, who chair the UN sanctions regime for Afghanistan, he says, "we will make sure that we can exercise a moderating influence on the Taliban regime".

Although Raab declares that "we will pursue each of those areas with vigour", one wonders at this example of FCO naivety. Pursuing its long-term agenda of undermining Pakistan (and China, for that matter), India will make its own accommodation with the Taleban, to serve their national interests. Human rights and accountability will feature only insofar as it suits Modi's administration.

This leaves Johnson with little scope for any real action, whence he is opting for gesture politics, in convening a special meeting of G7 leaders "to consider a concerted and co-ordinated response" to the Afghan situation. One might reflect, for a moment, that G7 used, a while ago, to be G8 – until China was removed from the group.

Raab also tells us that the UK government will look at the question of a "contact group" of international partners on Afghanistan, and plans an event at the UN General Assembly next month "to focus minds and raise funds for the humanitarian response".

This is almost as vacuous as the EU's call for the Taleban to protect and promote all human rights, in particular those of women and girls, while also pressing Turkey to host Afghan refugees.

No more will Turkey play ball than India, though, with Turkish president Erdogan determined to bring to a "complete stop" migrants entering the country, with the erection of a 150-mile wall along its border with Iran.

Hardly were such issues mentioned in yesterday's Commons debate, which had most MPs bleating about a humanitarian crisis which, over the years, they have done little to head off.

Like their US counterparts, they have been largely silent about the ongoing failure of the Afghan venture and now, confronted with their own impotence, they shroud it with squawks of concern for their fellow man, with absolutely no ability to influence the course of events.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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