Richard North, 08/09/2021  

In the Guardian on Monday, Frank Ledwidge, former soldier, author and academic, wrote a piece of profound importance.

Expressing the view that an inquiry on the Afghanistan debacle was probably likely, he went on to suggest that it wouldn't make any difference. "We know from Iraq", he wrote, "that those with responsibility for 20 years of strategic disaster won't actually be held responsible". There will, he concluded:
… be no accountability for the men (there are only about 25 very senior female officers, with 430 males) who have been crucial in bringing us the most damaging strategic defeat for many decades. We can talk about cultures of impunity, the calumnies of politicians. All that is true. Also true is that the country doesn't really care. It's just not important enough.
Sadly, he's dead right. The evidence of my own blog tells me that, from a carefully researched and written piece about the treatment of one of the most egregious failures of the British military during their occupation of southern Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

Comments which normally run to over 200 and go to, on occasions, 700 or more, stuck at less than 80, of which considerably less than half addressed the subject of the post. By far the most discussed topic was the Northern Ireland Protocol, which wasn't mentioned by me.

Readers who are particularly interested, of course, might have been able to refer to my book, The Ministry of Defeat, except that they can't any more. My publisher has informed me that it is out of print and the sales don't warrant a reprint. A unique perspective has been successfully buried.

However, in asserting that the treatment Afghanistan won't be any different, Ledwidge is also pointing to the reluctance of politicians, the media and the population at large, to criticise the military.

Instead the tendency is to retreat behind the comfortable tropes about our "heroic" soldiers and kid themselves that we have the "best Army in the world", despite its lacklustre performance in two major campaigns. Politicians are fair game, but the military is off limits, so much so that hapless ministers are no uncommonly taking the blame for decisions made by the military, over which they have little control.

It doesn't help, though, when politicians make themselves such easy targets. From his address to the Commons on Monday, the fool Johnson conveyed that he believed elements of the Taliban were "different", with his strategy directed at putting "the maximum pressure on them not to allow the more retrograde elements to have the upper hand".

It only took until the following day for the Taliban to appoint a hard-line caretaker government, with Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund appointed as head of state. This is the man who is currently head of the Taliban's powerful decision-making body, the Rehbari Shura or leadership council.

As an indication of how "different" the Taliban has become, the man hails from Kandahar, the birthplace of the movement. Lacking a military background or administrative experience, he is a religious leader known for his character and devotion.

His government includes Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, one of the founders of the movement and former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Movement (IRMA), while the acting interior minister is Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network who has close links to al Qaeda and the ISIS-K terror group.

Officially designated as a terrorist organisation by the US Government Sirajuddin Haqqani is himself a designated "global terrorist", currently on the FBI's most wanted list. Considered "armed and dangerous", the US is offering a reward of up to $10 million for information leading directly to his arrest.

The Taliban have also reintroduced its notorious Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the enforcement arm of its extreme version of Sharia law, responsible in the first iteration of Taliban rule for mutilations, public beheadings and the beating and stoning of women.

Needless to say, this "inclusive" government is all male, mostly Pashtun, despite this ethnic group comprising less than 40 percent of Afghanistan's population. According to the Guardian, just three appointees appear to be from other ethnic groups. This is a Pashtuni coup.

As a measure of the mess the new government will have to deal with, the UN is reporting that access to food aid and other life-saving services is close to running out, as concern mounts that the country is facing a "looming humanitarian catastrophe".

On top of an emerging economic collapse, as a remarked earlier, the crises affecting the country would tax the skills of a highly experienced developed government, and is most likely beyond the capability of a group of religious fanatics and terrorists to resolve.

Already, we have had the first taste of the refugee crisis building as a result of the Taliban take-over, and a significant proportion of the dinghy people coming ashore in their thousands are Afghans. But, if – as expected – we see the humanitarian crisis develop, this could be only the start.

The point here is that, one way or another, this current crisis was avoidable and, while the politicians bear a huge responsibility for what has transpired, the military have also had a major hand in shaping this mess. And while soldiers in the field (very much the minority) must be commended for their service and sacrifice, that sentiment should not apply to the senior ranks in strategic planning positions.

However, as long as they can parade in their lanyards and, sashes their chocolate buttons and sewing badges resplendent on their chests, with the KGBs and bars and comfortable pensions, they will bask in the reflected glory of the combat soldiers under their command, and gain immunity from the barbs directed at the politicians.

The worst of it all is that the UK domestic agenda itself is demanding attention as Johnson proposes to raise the tax burden to its highest in 70 years, with no serious plans to deal with the social care crisis. At the same time, he proposes to throw money at an unreformed NHS which has long ceased to function as an effective service, ditching his manifesto promise on pensions at the same time.

Inevitably, as a result, Afghan news is way down page. While on a quiet news day, the appointment of a caretaker government might have had some prominence, the details have been banished from the front pages. 

Currently, on the Telegraph website – by way of example – you would be hard put to find any Afghan news. The lead item in the news section at the time of writing is telling us that: "Wondrous wooden carvings re-emerge after 1,000 years entombed in bird droppings". 

If there ever was a window where the responsibilities of the military might have come under media scrutiny, then it is rapidly closing – if it is not already closed. But then, as Ledwidge points out, nobody cares. And that's why we are doomed to rinse and repeat.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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