Richard North, 25/08/2021  

Despite Johnson's attempts at the G7 virtual meeting to get the US president to extend the deadline for the airlift out of Kabul airport, we now know that, as of yesterday, the UK evacuation was to end within 24-36 hours.

That effectively has the main UK operation winding up by Thursday morning at the latest, leaving a short window to pick up last-minute, high-risk stragglers – those the Taliban allows through their lines – and collecting up the military and administrative personnel to get them out in good time.

James Heappey, the armed forces minister, said that extending beyond a week today risked turning Kabul into a "war zone", with soldiers attempting to manage the evacuation while fending off potential Taliban attacks.

How the US forces will manage has not been disclosed, but we might expect to see a C-17 sweep down the runway at a few minutes to midnight on 31 August while unseen at great height, a fully-loaded B-52 orbits overhead just in case it is needed to deliver a parting gift to the Taliban.

It wouldn't surprise me either if, out of the public eye, there are a few fully-loaded Chinooks, Marine CH-53Es and V-22s making a break for the Pakistani border, which is well within range. This may be accompanied by the selective explosive demolition of sensitive items which cannot be removed in time.

With the immediate human drama over, that might leave more media time and space for an assessment of potential political developments, before attention span limitations cut in and people get so bored with the whole thing that attention moves on to other issues – which is why politicians so often get away with their incompetence.

Already, though, we've had Lt Gen Sir James Bucknall - deputy commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011 – urge the reversal of troop cuts, which will bring numbers to the lowest point since 1714 and the war of the Spanish Succession.

Afghanistan, Bucknall says, "is a disaster of strategic proportions with implications for our foreign policy, defence policy, for Nato and for our relationship with the US". He is not wrong there, which is why this issue will resonate far beyond the immediate events, even if the media – and the population in general – does lose interest.

At some time, if not already though, the discussion on these issues and Brexit are going to merge. Already, there are some overlaps, not least the question of Johnson's general incompetence (not that there should be any doubt about that). But both domains raise ongoing questions about Britain's role in the world, and its foreign relations – particularly the EU and the United States.

However, if one takes Afghanistan as a failure, one material difference is that – according to Rafael Behr - is that while Brexit too is a failure, it is not a spectacular one. But that assumes agreement with the thesis that Brexit is indeed a failure, given that it is still very much work in progress.

Yet, by the same token, one might also say that Afghanistan is work in progress. The rushed evacuation is indeed a setback, but we've had setbacks before and much more serious ones. Not the least of these was the 1842 retreat from Kabul and the massacre of Sir William Elphinstone's army, considered the worst British military disaster until the fall of Singapore exactly a century later.

Just as with Brexit, therefore, the book on Afghanistan is not closed. In both domains, we are simply moving onto new chapters, the details of which have not been written and the outcomes are unknown.

Another commonality, though, might be the inability of the government (or governments) to learn from its mistakes, or even to recognise that it has made any. Johnson, in particular, has a habit of blaming anyone but himself for his own errors, and there is nothing to indicate that either the conduct of Brexit or the Afghanistan campaign are going to be properly (or at all) evaluated by official sources.

In many ways, it would be a waste of time if they even tried, despite calls for an official inquiry into the Afghan debacle. As we saw with the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraqi war, the huge volume of evidence was blurred into an incoherent mess, which failed to get to grips with any of the key issues.

One cannot even begin to expect that there will be anything like an official inquiry into the conduct of Brexit, but no doubt in the fullness of time, it will be tackled by authors and historians who will attempt to make sense of what happened and why it was so badly managed.

As for Afghanistan, because of the international dimensions of the venture – and especially the US involvement – we are already seeing a flood of analytical pieces in the media and elsewhere, some of which I have already reviewed. The flow shows no signs of abating, even if the quality is very varied.

One recent US contributor is Michelle Goldberg an opinion columnist in the New York Times, who writes under the headline: "The Afghanistan War Was Lost Before Biden Ended It".

She takes up the refrain from Ryan Crocker, Barack Obama's former ambassador to Afghanistan, who criticised the administration's lack of "strategic patience" in a guest essay in The New York Times. "Mr Biden's decision to withdraw all US forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure", he wrote.

In The Washington Post, says Goldberg, Condoleezza Rice wrote, "Twenty years was not enough to complete a journey from the seventh-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government", adding, "We - and they - needed more time".

But the argument for "patience" or "more time", Goldberg stresses, assumes that the American presence in Afghanistan was doing more good than harm. For some Afghans, particularly in the capital, she says, this was undoubtedly true. Keeping a contingent of American troops in Afghanistan might well have protected those who will be most hurt by the Taliban's theocratic barbarism.

But, she concludes, for America to remain in Afghanistan, Biden would have had to renege on Trump,s deal with the Taliban. More American troops would be required, and fighting, including American airstrikes, would almost certainly ramp up. That would mean more suffering, and more death, for many Afghan civilians.

Taliban control of Kabul, of course, will also inflict civilian misery, and some youth will feel they've lost a shot at a future, she adds. Nevertheless, "there was never a decent way to leave the country, which is why we fought a futile war for 20 years. But there also wasn't a decent way to stay".

Retired General David Petraeus gets a word in edgeways, worrying that the "harsh reality" of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban raises question on how closely Washington can keep an eye on Islamic extremism.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, also attempts to defend Biden, writing that history may just vindicate him. In the short run, there is almost nothing that can be done to reverse a diplomatic disgrace of the first order. But, in the longer term – as with Vietnam – the US will recover and move on to bigger and better things.

Says Ambrose, had the Biden White House torn up the deal – as Tony Blair wanted, with grand talk of Western "strategic will" – there most certainly would have been a fresh wave of attacks. It would have required yet another troop surge by the US military, and another open-ended strategic commitment, to put Humpty Dumpty back together by that late stage. America's democracy, he adds, had no conceivable appetite for this.

Wooden spoon of the week, though, goes to Anne Applebaum, writing in the Atlantic magazine. Arguing against the received wisdom, she takes on the view that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, she asserts that this is not true. "In many conflicts, probably Syria and certainly Afghanistan, there is a military solution: The war ends because one side wins".

This is the same Ann Applebaum, incidentally, who wrote in March 2019 that "Brexit has devastated Britain's international reputation - and respect for its democracy".

I suspect that she is no more right about Brexit than she is about Afghanistan, having little understanding of either issue. But, she is part of the debate we mist have. Those books have to be written somehow.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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