If Winston Churchill were alive today, I imagine he might have said something like “Never in the history of human conflict have so few done such great damage to so many”. The Duke of Wellington, meanwhile, might well have repeated his remarks about Afghanistan in the 1840s, when after Britain’s disastrous retreat from Kabul to India he demanded to know why an army had been to occupy “deserts, rocks, ice and snow”.
Certainly one can question the steps that led the West to fall off the edge of the precipice that Joe Biden has led it over. Perhaps it was wrong to invade Afghanistan after 9/11 – and perhaps not; the Taliban needed to face the consequences of harboring Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda minions. Maybe it was the ensuing occupation that was the mistake. Maybe a lightning punitive campaign might have been a better course of action. And maybe not.
Of course, one can have a good back and forth pub argument over both of those ideas. But where the world should be in agreement is that Joe Biden has, at a conservative estimate, caused the greatest American foreign policy catastrophe since the Vietnam War.
Now, before you stop reading because you’ve read a hundred other character assassinations of Biden in every other paper on the planet in recent days, let me reassure you that this isn’t going to look at the current American president in too much depth – although I do believe that, really, he should do the decent thing and order a pint of port and a pistol for breakfast as they did of old.
The US’ failures here might be manifold, but what I’d like to highlight is where Europe and Britain have missed their own chances to escape this mess with any credibility.
I shall begin with my own country, since Europe – to its credit – had been skeptical of any success in Afghanistan from the beginning, with correspondingly fewer troops and less money committed.
You may recall that the Tony Blair government sought to copy the US in all things and dutifully deployed British military forces in their thousands to both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s worth noting, however, that the largest per capita contributor to the international coalition came from the tiny South Caucasus country Georgia. Though their actual number of deployed forces was small, Georgia sent its troops to Afghanistan in the vain hope of fast-tracking its dream of joining NATO.
I won’t dwell on my former adopted homeland, only to say that amidst the laughably corrupt stupidity of Georgia’s politicians is most starkly contrast with the courage, skill and tenacity of its soldiers.
You may also remember the newspaper articles that frequently derided Britain’s slavish obedience to Washington with some repeated variation of the UK being ‘the 51st state’. Over time, though, this tagline waned with changes in both British and American governments, especially as relations between London and Washington cooled under Barack Obama and became wary once Donald Trump was in the White House. Indeed, it was largely forgotten – and its silliness has been superseded in recent years by Boris Johnson’s mantra of ‘Global Britain’.
Diehard right-winger though I am in many ways, I’ve always been sceptical of Boris. People have levels, and he was best suited to the Tory Party as a cheerleader for the Conservative cause – a man for whom it was acceptable to vote, even for those who had always been Labour supporters. Yet, the bumbling Englishman routine did not work beyond his London mayoralty. He was not an effective Foreign Secretary and has been equally disappointing as Prime Minister. In my view, we don’t need a Wodehouse caricature, we need a Napoleon or Bismarck, someone of iron will.
Could Britain have supported Afghanistan alone? Ben Wallace, a former Scots Guards officer and now Secretary of Defence, doesn’t seem to think so. Certainly, the United Kingdom doesn’t have the military muscle of the US, but then, nobody else does either. But I would argue that it didn’t need to.
I think what’s being forgotten is that the days of hundreds of thousands of NATO troops being deployed in Afghanistan ended over ten years ago. The ‘US withdrawal of troops’ as the media have consistently called it did not involve a Dunkirk-style evacuation of 400,000 souls. Indeed, last year the US only had about 2,000 troops in-country, and Britain one battalion of 600. Compare that to 2011, when the United States had 110,000 and Britain over 10,000 personnel, respectively, in Afghanistan.
This, really, is what I’d like to pay attention to – the Afghan Army’s house of cards might have been flimsy, and indeed it didn’t take much to knock it over, but nor did was it a big commitment to prop it up.
Unfortunately, Johnson is neither a man of enough vision or political will to have even made the attempt of holding back the Taliban tide alone. Of course, it would have required the redeployment of some troops back to Afghanistan, but if the Americans could get away with just 2,000 in 2020, why couldn’t Britain have held the line with similar numbers in 2021? After all, one of the biggest failures of the Afghan military’s failure to resist is seemingly due to its dependence on American supply chains and logistical support, not – in many cases at least – a lack of fighting heart.
It’s a frequent complaint of the right-wing British press that the UK’s military power has been gutted by successive governments, and there is certainly truth to this, but Britain is still a self-sufficient military power: the Army numbers 130,000, with another 10,000 ground forces available from the Navy and RAF, plus a fleet of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. In other words, the UK is not like Georgia, which during its own Afghan operations was always dependent on American planes, helicopters and armored vehicles. The UK needs none of that – it has plenty of its own. It could, therefore, have been done.
It at least should have been attempted. As I write this, the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group is still pottering about in East Asia, making friends with the Japanese and infuriating Beijing, all of which followed its adventures in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, where it bombed some Syrians and provoked the Russians into claiming they’d fired shots at a destroyer. The Navy’s globetrotting is all a part of Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ campaign, but the current message of this is that ‘yes, we have high-tech ships and planes, and yes, we’re a big independent power just like we were in the 19th century, but we’ll still run for the hills as soon as the Americans tell us to’. I bet Putin and Xi Jinping can hardly contain their laughter.
Nor do I think the UK would have had to hold the line alone for long. What, gallant Britain cleaning up after the Americans, trying to prop up our Afghan friends and buckling under the strain – and all to prevent yet more Muslim migrants from trying to batter down the doors to Europe?
If I was monsieur Emmanuel Macron about to face Marine Le Pen in an election, or a German Bundestag wondering if maybe letting in a million new Muslims might just have contributed a little to the civil unrest, I might consider lending support of my own.
And what better way for Britain and Europe to reconcile after Brexit? What do little trade arguments matter in the face of preventing a humanitarian catastrophe? North America has resoundingly blown it. The senility of Biden has caused a disaster and resulted in the death and destruction on a scale that will not be fully known for years. Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality, meanwhile, referred to ‘our Taliban brothers’ – clearly misunderstanding the Taliban’s own views of gender equality in the process.
Europe had the chance to reclaim the mantle of ‘the leader of Western civilization’ at a time when the US’ resolve melts to a consistency on par with Biden’s brain matter and as Canada’s woke leftism under Justin Trudeau takes that country ever closer to politically correct oblivion. Europe had the chance to present a united front, but has instead been found to be just as wanting as its friends on the other side of the Atlantic.