The events in Kabul this past week provide a severe reality check to Britain’s role in the world — in particular our involvement in international missions that demand the use of military force. We each start from a different background, but have a shared experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, and have reached complementary conclusions about what must be done after this latest retreat from Afghanistan.
Despite what the Prime Minister said in the Commons on Wednesday, some enquiry into operations and policies on Afghanistan is necessary. The conduct of the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, and three permanent secretaries make this urgent. We must examine what was achieved, what wasn’t and why.
The intention was to build a robust civil society where justice, education, health care, power and utilities worked. To underpin this we had to train security services, police, army, air force and intelligence agencies. More than 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police died at the hands of the Taliban.
This was largely an American-inspired, led, and executed enterprise. The diverse group of 42 nations supporting the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan barely functioned as a coherent coalition, each tied to their national agenda. The debacle we now witness shows how critical US military investment has been and how dependent the UK has been on it for achieving its own strategic objectives.
The precipitous Biden exit from Afghanistan sends even more worrying signals. It highlights contempt for Nato; key partners Britain, France and Germany were not even consulted. It also shows an alliance fragile without US leadership.
The tales of corruption and the cavils of Biden about Afghan forces hide the real nature of the problem. The allies tried to build a centralised armed force, state and constitution that was too centralised and secular, largely ignorant of regional differences, separate tribal customs and loyalties. Stuffing the place with aid dollars aggravated the problem.
Our efforts did manage to achieve a lot on the ground in Afghanistan, despite a difficult social and physical landscape. Schools and courts opened, elections were held, media, communications and health care improved. A crude platform of social stability had been achieved in many areas by 2014. But then things fell off a cliff. When UK operations ended that year, we seemed to lose the plot.
There are some stark lessons that must be learnt fast. The first is to understand the limitations of military force in such a complex stabilisation and development operation. Armies are a very blunt instrument and can provide only a rough and ready base of stability from which other agencies work.
The UK’s military focus on Helmand distorted our decision-making, our wider investment to building a strong society across Afghanistan, and commitment to the coalition. Britain can no longer wield power on its own; it must operate in coalition and we need to improve our performance as a partner.
Those in charge have to speak truth to power, soldiers, diplomats and civil servants. Politicians are not experts, and they are distracted by having to talk to multiple audiences in multiple time frames to clinch that next election.
A coherent strategy is now needed for Britain — and for today’s world. It has to be lucid, comprehensive, multi-faceted. Strategy has to be holistic and organic, embracing multiple aims, risks and threats. It has to be written in clear language rather than current Whitehall and think-tank gobbledygook. It has to have one ministry in charge, namely No 10.
This is what this year’s Integrated Review should have promised, but has failed to deliver. In the spirit in which we both write, Afghanistan and Iraq prove yet again we must listen to the Cassandras — however unpalatable their message.
General Sir Nick Parker commanded the UK Field Army and was UK Force Commander in Afghanistan. Robert Fox is the Evening Standard’s Defence Editor