Not heeding warnings, the UK pursued a laissez-faire approach to Afghanistan, and is now picking up the pieces…
Written by Johanna Ross, a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
If Boris Johnson thought he would get broad support for UK policy towards Afghanistan when he entered the House of Commons on Wednesday, he was mistaken. During the seven hour debate, not only was he lambasted by members of opposition parties, but by members of his own party.
Conservative colleagues suggested there had been a catastrophic failure of intelligence, if the UK failed to predict that Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban in as few as eleven days, once western forces were withdrawn. Former Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t hold back from criticising her successor, stating that the chaos and the speed of the Taliban takeover was ‘shocking’. She questioned if our intelligence was really ‘so poor’ or if it was simply the fact Britain felt it had to follow the United States’ lead and ‘hope that on a wing and a prayer it would be alright on the night’.
The official government position of course, and that of the US, is that politicians and defence officials were completely ‘blindsided’ by the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – who is facing separate criticism for taking time out of his holiday to phone the Afghan foreign minister as Kabul fell to the Taliban – said that ‘no-one saw this coming’. However, evidence suggests otherwise. Not only were former intelligence officials warning for months of the likely catastrophe once western forces were pulled out of the war-torn country, but a House of Lords report on the matter was given to government in January this year, which urged the UK to emphasise to the US and NATO ‘the importance of their ongoing presence in Afghanistan until a peace deal is reached.’ Like Theresa May, the report also criticised the UK’s subservient approach to the US, stating the UK has ‘shown ‘little inclination to exert an independent voice policy on Afghanistan. Instead, the UK has followed the lead of the US, and has been too reticent in raising its distinctive voice’.
It seems however that little attention has been paid to the advice given on Afghanistan, and instead the government adopted a laissez-faire approach. The UK, like the US seemed prepared to ‘give up’ on the country after 20 years of war. Conservative MP and Afghan veteran Tom Tugenhat in a moving speech suggested that patience in such situations are required, and that a military presence in Afghanistan should have continued, in the same way that South Korea continues to have a US military presence. Mourning the loss of fellow soldiers over the years, he said ‘The tragedy of Afghanistan is that we are swapping that patient achievement for a second fire and a second war.’ However this is something which was clearly not considered by either the Johnson government, or the Biden administration.
Now, in the midst of all the chaos, with desperate Afghans fleeing for their lives from the Taliban, many are calling on the government to increase its refugee quota from the 5000 stated for this year. There are already reports of people suffering at the hands of the Taliban; being stoned, shot and women being barred from educational institutions and workplaces. As Afghanistan expert Dr Liza Schuster said recently, ‘The Taliban have not changed. If western governments are choosing to believe the Taliban propaganda, it’s because it serves their purposes.’
Indeed, after the Taliban’s rather slick press conference given on Wednesday, in which their spokesman claimed they would not purge Afghan government officials, would respect women’s rights and avoid bloodshed, some were hinting at a Taliban rebrand. Incredibly, even the head of the UK’s Defence Staff, Sir Nick Carter, gave an interview to Sky News this week in which he claimed that the Taliban now may be different from that of the 1990s. In what has been viewed by some as extraordinary naivety, the British General said “We may well discover, if we give them the space, that this Taliban is of course more reasonable” and even went as far to suggest they shouldn’t be called ‘the enemy’ but were in fact ‘country boys’. Others have expressed more caution however, with former British army major general Charlie Herbert warning that people should not be ‘seduced by smooth words’ as what for many years was deemed a terrorist organisation needed ‘international recognition’, hence their current PR campaign.
When it comes to the official western narrative on the Taliban, it could of course be naivety or ignorance or indeed wishful thinking about the people whose hands the fate of millions of Afghans have now been left in. However the cynic in me wonders if this is not also part of a western PR campaign to pacify the public, by persuading them that the current state of affairs in Afghanistan is not as awful as it currently is. Western governments didn’t just hand over the country to extremist militants who they fought tirelessly for 20 years – all for nothing. Women and children will surely be treated better by this Taliban. It makes it a much easier pill to swallow if you think these terrorists are in fact nice, cuddly, friendly patriots, or ‘country boys’ as Nick Carter said. For Afghan veterans, however, a glamorous press conference complete with bottled water will not undo the pain, suffering and loss they endured in the twenty years fighting this extremist group. And no amount of British government PR can change that.
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