It was Right to Withdraw from Afghanistan | Henry George
It is now over a week since the Taliban surged across Afghanistan in their blitzkrieg of its provinces, and nearly a week since the fall of Kabul on Sunday, 16th of August, 2021. Things have devolved further around Kabul airport as thousands of desperate Afghans attempt to flee the wrath of the Taliban barbarians aboard aircraft from the US, UK, and other countries. There was a debate held in a Parliament recalled for the purpose on Wednesday, 18th of August. The main event was the speech by ex-Territorial Army officer and now Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat.
Tugendhat has given noble service to his country from his time as a Territorial officer – putting himself in harm’s way and doing his duty to his men and his nation – to his time as an MP. He is right on many issues: supporting Israel, and taking strong stands against Russia, China, and Iran. All this is true, and his experience influenced the content and delivery of his undeniably captivating speech to Parliament. But it was also wrong in many respects.
What this speech never mentions, or even glances at, is the fact that our time in Afghanistan was a failure. We achieved a victory over Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and then lost it over 20 years of fruitless nation building and state construction. Tugendhat says that this “isn’t just about us,” and that “the mission in Afghanistan wasn’t a British mission, it was a Nato mission.” This is to avoid the truth of the situation: NATO exists because America bankrolls and sustains it materially and militarily. No US, no NATO. Without the might of American military firepower, technical capability and logistical capacity, NATO cannot afford to set a course of action, cannot get anywhere, or do anything when it arrives. Without America, we could not and cannot perform any of the military or humanitarian roles in the world that Tugendhat thinks we should. Britain tried to pacify and hold the single province of Helmand, backed by US airpower, and failed. The idea that we could have stayed in Afghanistan without the Americans is frankly fantastical. The core problem was that America didn’t know what it was fighting for, and neither did we.
For Tugendhat, our engagement in Afghanistan, extended for decades, was “a recognition that globalisation has changed us all,” that we are part of a web of humanity that cannot avoid what happens in other parts of our world. He pointedly referencing Neville Chamberlain’s comments about the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland with “Afghanistan is not a far away country about which we know little,” next referencing John Donne’s by his description of Afghanistan as “part of the main.”
Tugendhat is right that globalisation has progressively knitted our world together through the dissemination of technology and communication systems, and that this means we cannot avoid events elsewhere in the world. But this greater interconnection, Robert Kaplan argues, makes the world increasingly claustrophobic as people feel pressed against those unlike them, simultaneously pushing geography and its consequences to the fore. This was especially the case in Afghanistan, “a country riven by cathedral-like mountain ranges within its territory,” making it far from conducive to occupation forces. By 2018 the US couldn’t even secure the two-mile road from the American embassy and Kabul airport. They had to travel by helicopter. Geography was a major factor in this insecurity.
The brute force of geography was matched by the socio-cultural diversity and divisions of Afghanistan. As Amy Chua has written, western powers continuously fail to appreciate both the reality and strength of tribal bonds and feelings. This was turbo-charged in Afghanistan, divided between 14 tribes, with the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras being the four largest. The US hardly bothered to learn about or from this. The rifts between the Pashtuns and other tribes were worsened by American ignorance of the tribal context. The subsequent mistakes, blunders and errors made divided an already non-cohesive society.
America spent twenty years fighting for a place it never understood. The post-Taliban government favoured ethnic groups other than Pashtuns, alienating even Pashtun moderates. America failed to appreciate, much less understand the diversity of ethnic groups, linguistic nuances, religious divides, social hierarchies, geographic influences and population dispersion that comprise the kaleidoscopic population of Afghanistan. This all contributed to the resilience of Taliban support, particularly in rural areas. Tugendhat alluded to none of this in his speech.
Nor did he mention problems with the Western attempt at state-construction. The American-backed government lacked legitimacy because of its ethnic make-up and tribal favouritism, but also because of its outright corruption and gangster politics. Drug production spiralled out of control because the Afghan government allowed it to, with senior members implicated in this disaster. Opium production reached its highest point in 2017, 16 years after invasion, and despite drug-trade suppression being a part of the ever-expanding mission. 60% of Afghans justifiably believed that the judiciary was the most corrupt organ of government after a decade of Western occupation.
This corruption, embodied by ex-President Ashraf Ghani fleeing with $169 million in cash, maintained support for the Taliban. Corruption was mirrored by brutality, with the government carrying out summary executions on little evidence, including against those advocating against the war. The practice of bacha bazi, the institutionalised sexual abuse of young Afghan boys, made a return as well. Apparently it was common practice among Afghan military and police, with American soldiers told to ignore it, with a law passed against it only in 2017. The Taliban’s banning of the practice also garnered them support.
Skipping forward towards the end of his speech, Tugendhat celebrates Afghan girls going to school. This was indeed an achievement, likely reversed now. But we should not pretend that women’s rights and gender equality was vastly improved by us being there. The fact is that at the end of 2018, Afghanistan ranked 153rd out of 160 for gender equality, and tied with Syria for the worst place in the world to be a woman in a 2017 index. On the UN’s Human Development Index, Afghanistan is 169 out of 189. Its mean years of schooling in 2019 was 3.9, with the overall literacy rate at 43%, but for men it’s 55% while for girls it’s 29.8%. This was after the US spent $787 million on gender-equality drives in Afghanistan, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Why might this be? Perhaps it’s not because of lack of efforts on our part, and is connected to conditions on the ground? What do Afghans actually think? According to Pew Research in 2017, 99% of Afghans supported sharia law. In 2013, Pew found that 94 per cent of Afghan Muslims agreed that a wife is “always obliged to obey her husband”, while around 85 per cent of Afghan Muslims favoured stoning as a punishment for adultery. Around 80% of Afghan Muslims supported the death penalty for apostasy, and nearly 40% said that suicide bombings and other forms of violence in the name of Islam was justified. It is likely these attitudes held after 2017. The upshot is that after two decades of our presence, Afghanistan is still, Rakib Ehsan writes, “a resolutely Islamist society which comprehensively supported patriarchal social arrangements and brutal forms of punishment for adultery and apostasy.” Islamism 1:0 Liberalism. Being linked together by globalisation doesn’t mean we learn from each other. There was no acceptance of this fact by Tugendhat, or anyone else in the chamber.
This failure to countenance reality was also evident when Tugendhat upbraided the commander of the US 82nd Airborne, and indirectly, President Biden, for disparaging comments concerning the poor performance of the 300,000 Afghan troops. One can acknowledge the weight of 60,000 Afghan casualties over the war, while also admitting that many of the Afghan troops did in fact run. That is, those that existed and weren’t the so-called “ghost troops” that marched on paper and paid yet more money into the coffers of the kleptocratic Afghan government, who didn’t see fit to pay their existing troops. The US spent $2 trillion on the Afghan war, $80billion of that on Afghan military forces, and despite President Obama’s troop surge in 2009 and President Trump’s bombing campaign, the Taliban remained and in fact continued to advance, taking ground, positions and population centres and territory. Nothing America or Britain did stopped this.
As Damon Linker says, we should all be enraged at the US generals for their ineptitude and dishonesty. They have either been totally wrong or lied for at least a decade about the course of the war and the readiness of the Afghan military. In 2014, Gen. John Campbell said that “the Afghan security forces [are] really stepping up their game,” and that he was really “excited about the future here.” Reuters recorded that Gen. Joseph Dunford, Gen Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal variously proclaimed imminent success (however defined) and that the Taliban was on the backfoot. In 2011 the same General class deliberately misled Congress about the war’s progress.
The Afghan papers released by the Washington Post revealed that, actually, the US military higher-ups had no idea what their actual goal was in Afghanistan, didn’t know what victory looked like or how to achieve it, and that the main aim was to “not lose too badly,” all while lying about the truth of the situation. The answer was to keep throwing money at the problem in the hope that the “metrics of success”, whatever they were, went somewhere near the right direction, whatever that was. The result has been that without extensive US support, the Afghan military crumbled, which means it was unviable, end of. If it takes 20 years of load bearing to prop up a military which gives way the moment this is removed, then it’s not ready and we failed. There was no plan to succeed beyond more of the same.
And this is exactly what Tugendhat prescribed, arguing that armies don’t win wars, but that nations and their governments do, and that all that was required was patience, as in Germany, Cyprus and South Korea. Clausewitz defined the aim of war as the destruction of the enemy’s capacity to resist, thereby bending them to one’s will, gaining peace as a result. Victory is the shattering of the enemy’s ability to give battle, resist or resume hostilities. What Tugendhat calls for is not victory. It is a recipe to stay in a hostile land indefinitely. There is no end to this plan. If liberal government and culture are the conditions of victory, and we agree that governance was stuck or in reverse, this does indeed tie us to a “forever war.” The RAND Corporation’s Mike Mazarr is right when he asks “what major democracy has ever maintained such a role (in *active* combat) for 3+ decades?” Proposed spending 2021 was “$14B assuming big drawdown.” But if the violence spiked, that would’ve risen. The argument is apparently that America spends $20billion or more a year for an endless war.
Furthermore, the stalemate was unsustainable, and it is highly questionable just how much of a stalemate there was given the Taliban’s potency. The argument for “patience” by comparing Afghanistan to South Korea fails, because there is no conflict or insurgency underway in South Korea. It is not tenable to dig in indefinitely when the Afghan government was inept and corrupt and the military was a paper tiger. If leaving feels “damn well” like defeat as Tugendhat puts it, precisely what good, as Mazarr asks, does “staying in a war you know you cannot win, and demanding … more sacrifice” do other than exhibit a “callous strategic gambit?”
This gets to the final, fundamental point against Tugendhat’s speech. It is not far-left crankery to argue, as Linker does, that “benignly intended imperialism is still imperialism. This is wrong because “it’s governing another nation for them, taking responsibility for their defense, for their order, for their cohesion, for their existence as a nation.” It is high time we accept Western democracy is not the political or cultural default but an achievement borne of long evolution from deep roots. We cannot just impose it on countries like Afghanistan through creating certain institutions and procedures.
The reality is, that nations are made when they are potentially independent, self-governing, cohesive political communities, and states are crafted on top of this. For this, tribes must unite and declare their unity as a single community based on mutual loyalty and a common defence against enemies. This can’t be created whole cloth and bestowed by us on others. Afghanistan fulfils none of these conditions. It is not racism or prejudice to accept the facts on the ground of geography and culture, and our limited ability to accept both. Tugendhat’s speech demonstrated no acceptance of the limits of hard, or soft power. It was emblematic of a liberal universalism untethered to concrete practicalities.
The incompetence of the American government and military, at the highest levels has lead to failure after failure, the tragic denouement of which is the catastrophe unfolding for all the world to see, as a result of the woefully incompetent execution of the withdrawal. Even so, it is high time we left. The idealism that Tugendhat exemplified in his speech has failed us, and will continue to do so.