Richard North, 23/08/2021  

On 14 November 2001, after it had become clear that the Taliban regime was in a state of collapse across Afghanistan, then prime minister Tony Blair delivered an excited statement to the House of Commons, during which he confirmed "that several thousand of our troops are being put on 48-hour notice to move in case they are required in the area".

For obvious reasons, he said, "I cannot give the House full details of how those troops may be used", but the main purpose of the troops was to be "in the context of multinational efforts to make safe the humanitarian supply routes that are now opening up as a result of military progress on the ground".

Other troops, he said, may be focused on securing airfields and clearing unexploded ordnance, and on ensuring the safe return of the United Nations and non-governmental organisations to Afghanistan, thereby permitting the construction of the broad-based Government that is so badly needed.

However, Blair assured the House, "the troops will remain in place for only a strictly limited period, while an international force to work alongside Afghan military commanders is prepared".

Then, just over a month later, following the so-called Bonn Agreement of 5 December when the establishment of an international security assistance force had been discussed, Lord Bach, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence confirmed that the UK was "formally prepared to take on the leadership of an International Security Assistance Force for a limited period of three months".

The force was "charged with assisting the Afghan interim authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding area". Responsibility for security, Lord Back said, will remain with the interim authority. Potential tasks could, however, include liaison with and advice and support to the interim authority as well as the UN on security issues, together with scoping future requirements for help in establishing and training the new Afghan security forces.

And that's the way it went on. When the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, presided over a further increase in the commitment of troops to Afghanistan in in April 2006, he famously said: "We're in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave again in three years' time without firing one shot".

Five years later, in June 2011, the MoD was happily burbling that, between now and 2015, NATO and the Afghan Government have agreed that responsibility for security in provinces and districts will transition to total Afghan control. After that, it said, "UK forces will no longer be in a combat role, or be present in the same sort of numbers as now".

Thus, at no time ever was it openly suggested that our military presence in Afghanistan was to be a long-term commitment lasting 20 years, terminating abruptly only when the US decided to withdraw its forces.

But now, up pops the progenitor of that adventure back in 2001, telling us that the "abandonment" of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours, while re-writing the history of his tenure as prime minister.

"Intervention can take many forms", he now says. "We need to do it learning the proper lessons of the past 20 years according not to our short-term politics, but our long-term strategic interests". And then he goes on to say something he never did in 2001 or subsequently: "intervention requires commitment. Not time limited by political timetables but by obedience to goals".

According to Blair's revised history, 20 years ago, "we held out the prospect, backed by substantial commitment, of turning Afghanistan from a failed terror state into a functioning democracy on the mend". This "may have been a misplaced ambition", the man says, "but it was not an ignoble one".

And now, never having declared what he says was the original intent, he bitterly complains that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan "was driven not by grand strategy but by politics".

"We didn't need to do it", Blair says. "We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending 'the forever wars', as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even ten years ago, and in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months".

What is absurd, Blair says, is to believe the choice is between what we did in the first decade after 9/11 and the retreat we are witnessing now: to treat our full-scale military intervention of November 2001 as of the same nature as the secure and support mission in Afghanistan of recent times.

However, he conveniently neglects the realities, firstly that there never was a "full-scale military intervention of November 2001" and, secondly, that the current "secure and support mission" is no longer tenable. Like it or not, the combat-free period was coming rapidly to an end.

From the inception of the western military presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban has never been eliminated and, as Matthew Hoh remarked (cited in my previous piece), the US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.

Written in 2009 when bloody fighting against the coalition forces had produced a record number of casualties, the situation was only resolved partially by handing more and more responsibility to the Afghan security forces who, over the period, were steadily losing ground.

In a recent edition of the Jerusalem Post we see this illustrated by the views of a former US soldier, Graham Platner who led a rifle company in northeast Afghanistan.

Speaking of his role in training Afghan police, he recalls that: "We were pretending that we were preparing them to do this on their own. But since they were utterly incapable of doing it on their own, we were going on combat patrols and dragging along some Afghan cops to pretend they were doing a mission. So we operated basically as a US rifle company".

As to the current situation, he says, the Afghanistan government the US supported can't be said to have "collapsed" because it never existed. "The Afghan army wasn't real. The Afghan Civil Authority was never real. They never collected taxes. There were no courts outside of police robbing people. None of it ever existed... it was just a big jobs program (sic) funded by American money, and the moment it looked like the money would go away, everyone went home".

With the exception of Kabul, Charikar and a few other places, Platner paints a picture of an Afghan state that never controlled much beyond a few highways and cities. That’s why it fell apart so quickly once the US pulled funding.

Thus, the harsh reality is exactly as president Biden painted it. Faced with the continuing encroachment of an emboldened Taliban, the US had one of two options – either to step up to the plate and resume active combat operations, or withdraw. The scenario which Blair holds out, where we could maintain a low-level presence, continuing to support a functioning Afghan government simply did not exist.

Perhaps, if back in 2001, Blair had been more open about his long-term ambitions, and subsequent politicians had been candid about the long-term commitment, things might have been different. But, unable or unwilling to be honest with their electorates, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have been selling a false bill of goods.

Maybe – just maybe – another ten years might have done the trick, even if that is extremely doubtful. But the case was never made for 20 years, much less 30. And now the electorates are calling in the tab.

Despite this, Blair wants us "to learn lessons from the 20 years since 9/11 in a spirit of humility". The trouble is, we have – and he hasn't. The results are all too visible.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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