Twelve Dilemmas Behind the UK’s Afghan Defeat

Despite good intentions, the UK’s campaign in Afghanistan has ended in failure. Military deficiencies, a lack of a clear purpose and mission creep all had adverse effects on the British mission.

There is anxiety in Whitehall about an Afghanistan inquiry. But this inquiry will not be like the 12-volume Chilcot report on UK involvement in Iraq. Nobody is alleging malign intent but there is a need to learn the lessons of failure and to rectify deficiencies before the UK next intervenes overseas, as it surely will.

The recent notion that the War on Terror is over and has been replaced by threats from state actors is both misleading and dangerous. Events in both Afghanistan and Mali demonstrate that the threat from Islamist extremism is far from over. Furthermore, Russia and China have learned from observing the West fail against the asymmetric threats posed by determined insurgencies. Russia’s actions in the Donbas, Syria and Libya and China’s in Hong Kong and the Himalayas have been informed by Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the daily turbulence of managing the campaign (and the simultaneous operation in Iraq) some of the following dilemmas were visible – but are naturally clearer in hindsight.

Clarity of purpose. I recall being dumbstruck when the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked her officials in London in 2008, ‘Remind me. Why are we in Afghanistan?’, and then understood as they floundered in their response. Perhaps British officials should have asked themselves the same question once a month. After 9/11, the UK was right to support its US ally. But by mid-2002, there should have been a formal decision about whether to leave or to stay and, in the latter case, with what purpose, under what conditions and for how long.

Agreeing the cost. In 2005, when the UK government decided to go into Helmand province there should have been a discussion about how much it was prepared to lose in blood and treasure. A year later, as the casualties began to mount, it was too late to have second thoughts. Ministers started to worry about losing a helicopter full of troops, which they saw as a ‘deal breaker’. France had a serious crisis of resolve after one ambush which killed 10 and wounded 21 soldiers in 2008. In wars of choice (rather than necessity) the bill needs to be discussed in advance.

Wrong enemy. How did the UK go into Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy one group (Al-Qa’ida) and then find itself fighting a different enemy (the Taliban) by 2006? Yes, the Taliban had harboured Al-Qa’ida, but were not themselves international terrorists. Instead of fighting them a strategy should have been developed to integrate them back into Afghan life. Such work was underway in 2008 but was sabotaged by President Hamid Karzai and was also unacceptable to the US at that stage.

Mission creep. The gradual evolution from trying to destroy Al-Qa’ida to improving the lives of Afghans contained numerous pitfalls. The West did not have the troop numbers to confront the warlords, many of whom were the beneficiaries of the removal of the Taliban from power. So the West tried to improve the lives of Afghans while leaving the kleptocratic infrastructure in place. The early hubris of hoping to make Afghanistan an ‘exemplar’ of how a developing nation could evolve into a liberal democracy soon changed to ‘going with the grain’ and later to ‘just good enough is good enough’. When there was clear evidence of electoral manipulation in 2009, the West chose to accept the flawed result and retain Karzai as president, thereby building a division inside the Afghan government and disillusioning many ordinary Afghans.

The curse of opium. The prime vehicle of Afghan kleptocracy is the opium industry. The UK bid for the lead role on counter-narcotics, not least because 90% of the heroin on British streets came from Afghanistan. The choice of Helmand province (the heartland of the industry) as the site of the UK’s presence seemed logical (although Kandahar had been the initial preference). But, even before British forces arrived in the summer of 2006, the word had gone out that the UK was coming to destroy livelihoods. Towards the end of that year (when UK forces departed from the plan and occupied four towns in central Helmand) the UK was not fighting the Taliban so much as the poppy farmers and people of Helmand.

Far too much money. In early 2002, the UK built a school near Jalalabad for a few thousand pounds. Within a few years the cost of any infrastructure project had gone through the roof. Partly it was due to a shortage of skills but the much bigger problem was that the West threw money at Afghanistan in vast amounts. Every couple of years between 2002 in Tokyo and 2020 in Geneva there were donor conferences at which billions of dollars were pledged. Only towards the end was more conditionality introduced. Nancy Dupree, the legendary Afghan expert, is reported to have bemoaned ‘too much money, too many outsiders making decisions…undermining one of the best characteristics of the Afghans which is self-sufficiency’.

Partners or puppets. Karzai possessed many sterling qualities in the early days but he became an increasingly isolated and irate figure. He was almost always briefed about NATO operations but not always consulted. He was infuriated by the coalition’s early lack of cultural awareness and occasional US bombing errors. As allegations of his own family’s corruption gained traction and after the electoral malpractices of 2009 he became a liability. His successor, Ashraf Ghani, was similarly isolated. At the very least NATO could have ensured more decision-making by Afghans and greater visibility of Afghan generals.

Regional spoilers. The UK was quicker than the US to identify the crucial role that Pakistan would play. President Pervez Musharraf’s help in tracking down the Al-Qa’ida leadership blinded Washington to his simultaneous support for the Taliban. But the UK never fully committed its diplomatic muscle to resolving the problem. The UK government was also slow to realise that its intervention had made it a regional player in an area where its knowledge was understandably incomplete. I recall the genuine incredulity when Iran accused the UK of placing bombs in the city of Zahedan using the group Jundullah about which we knew almost nothing.

Khaki or blue. NATO built an enormous and unsustainable Afghan army of 190,000 (almost 3 times the size of the current British army) to take on the main warfighting role from 2014. NATO should have devoted more attention to the Afghan National Police which is still widely disliked and distrusted across the country for its rapacity and incompetence (and its misuse of opiates). The Afghan army has performed poorly in recent weeks, although their special forces have been excellent. However, the police remain a prime reason why people distrust the government.

Junior ally. The US called the shots and did the vast majority of the heavy lifting. They were responsible for almost all of the successes against Al-Qa’ida. But in other areas they tended to be inflexible. In the early days the US quickly rejected the idea of bringing back the former king, Zahir Shah, as the head of state, which would have done much to satisfy Pashtuns. They also brusquely ruled out talking to the Taliban at various junctures. The Obama surge was agreed with minimal allied input. When Donald Trump and Joe Biden signalled their intention to leave Afghanistan it was without serious consultation with an ally which had lost 456 soldiers.

Military failure. The UK failed to prevail over a lightly equipped insurgent group. One senior British general told me ‘there was more imagination and inventiveness shown in the four years of the First World War than in all our time in Afghanistan’. The UK kept doing the same things and mouthing the same theories for years; ‘clear, hold, build’; ‘find, fix, finish’; ‘dominate the ground’; and ‘show strategic intent’. The British Army’s habit of replacing whole brigades at once was a sure way of losing inherited learning. The reaction to having no workable counterinsurgency strategy seemed to be to write longer and longer manuals.

Skin in the game. For the people of Afghanistan the past 20 years have been an existential struggle. For the coalition countries it has been a series of 2 year postings and 6-month troop rotations. The UK had a bewildering number of ministers, generals, aid workers and diplomats who got a taste of Afghanistan before moving on. Fighting soldiers and helicopter crews had skin in the game but too few others got to experience the results of their decisions. It is unrealistic to expect Whitehall to be on a war footing for a conflict nearly 5,000 miles away but much more could have been done to build up subject expertise and to reduce episodic involvement. The UK briefly debated appointing a war minister but never considered developing an expert cadre of civilian and military officials who might have been required to spend a minimum of, say, 5 years on Afghan issues.

An immense amount of courage and compassion has been devoted to Afghanistan by the UK over the past 20 years and the human cost has been substantial. But it was no way to manage an intervention, to fight a war or to reconstruct a country. For it to end in a unilateral US decision to withdraw with minimal consultation and after a craven negotiation with the Taliban, has wasted two decades of flawed but well-intentioned endeavour.

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