The United States Air Force prepares to load Afghan evacuees aboard a C-17 transporter, 21 August 2021

The noise before defeat

Even a good retreat would not have rescued a bad war

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Nothing became the disappointing “9/11 wars” like their endings. The fall of Kabul brought terror and death to the airport, a scramble at the British embassy, open celebrations in Islamabad, and recrimination in the House of Commons.

Washington’s execution of the pull-out from Afghanistan was, by credible accounts, reprehensibly and preventably poor. But a long, fraught campaign with ill-considered and unbounded ambitions on behalf of a rotten and predatory client state, a collapsing army and wishful falsehoods about progress against a determined adversary with international backing, cannot end well or proudly. 

Britain’s retreat from Iraq was quieter and more artful. Yet it also reflected failure. In the summer of 2007, with Basra imploding around them, Britain’s overstretched forces withdrew from Basra Palace to the refuge of the airport. To do so, they negotiated the permission of an Iranian-backed militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi — the kind of oppressive force the counterinsurgency campaign was supposed to marginalise, sponsored by a state the war was intended to deter from mischief. The withdrawal drew bitter criticism from the US, another irony. Britain’s participation was supposed to reinforce influence over Washington.

In the hour of defeat, some of Britain’s war hawks denounced withdrawal in a blame-shifting romp

Two tragic campaigns, two defeats with perverse outcomes. How did it come to this? In the hour of defeat, some of Britain’s war hawks, security grandees and former office-holders who denounce withdrawal — the “Stayers” — are having a fair old, blame-shifting romp. They lambast anyone other than themselves. They fix criticism exclusively on a botched withdrawal, not the preceding military adventure they championed. Just as their American counterparts blame the rise of ISIL in Iraq on the absence of a small residual US counter-terrorist force, and not the sectarian conflict that the invasion unleashed, so now they isolate the sources of breakdown in Afghanistan to recent developments, long after their tenure. The underlying message? My good war, your bad retreat. This invites scrutiny.

One clue lies in their overblown rhetoric. Major powers sometimes retreat from peripheral wars, bargain with adversaries or shift priorities. It’s distressing, but so too are protracted wars. It’s called “strategy”. Having complained for years of a strategy deficit, the Stayers offer little more than a morality play. They decry the collapse of US credibility or “the end of an era of Western liberalism and democracy”. We hear of “shame”, that “America is backing down”, we hear of NATO’s worst crisis in memory. 

Which must be true if your history begins in about 2005. Maximal, apocalyptic claims and trite analysis echo the same want of proportionality and prudence that defined the Global War on Terror. The analysis on offer is strikingly shallow. Britain’s former National Security Advisor Lord Peter Ricketts dates the crisis conveniently to President Donald Trump’s negotiation with the Taliban, as though the disintegration of Afghan security forces and breakdown of governance was not already well underway, and a cause of America’s decision not to extend a two-decade war into a third. 

Tony Blair finds that the fault lies in President Biden’s “imbecilic slogan” about ending “forever wars”. Stepping lightly over Blair’s own sloganeering record, consider his strategic acumen. It was he as Prime Minister who likened the confrontation with an encircled, sanctioned, immiserated Iraq to Chamberlain’s predicament over Nazi Germany. Recall, too, Blair’s declaration in December 2001: “The final collapse of the Taliban is now upon them … That is a total vindication of the strategy that we have worked out from the beginning.” He added caveats about future challenges, just as Bush did when he declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. In both cases, the main note was triumphant finality. 

That fateful autumn, the British government underestimated the length and complexity of the campaign they were entering. It hardly thought about strategy beyond regime change. It raised little protest when Washington rebuffed the Taliban surrender terms and amnesty that Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai negotiated, as Washington preferred retributive justice over a compromise peace and ultimately got neither. A chance at limiting war, dealing the old order into the new, was blown. Without clear direction, Britain’s envoy at the Bonn conference to reconstitute Afghanistan had to make it up as he went along.

There were more blunders. Miscalculations drove the wrenching Helmand province campaign from 2006. Essentially, Britain’s government and military chiefs badly underestimated resistance. Determined to take the lead and redeem defeat in Iraq, the interveners looked past the cautions of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit and intelligence assessments, hoped on meeting only light opposition, and conceived the mission primarily as a matter of “hearts and minds” reconstruction.

 “Strategic patience” was a fool’s errand; withdrawal followed by violence would come sooner or later 

To their shock, a resurgent Taliban launched an offensive that made British forces fight for their lives with minimal air assets and stretched manpower. The ensuing combat was the most intense since Korea. Who was Prime Minister? Tilting belatedly towards self-critique, Blair now concedes “maybe my generation of leaders were naive in thinking countries could be remade.” Quite. But this information was available at the time. Savvier minds warned Blair to his face of the communal strife that invasion might unleash in Iraq, at Downing Street in November 2002. Blair’s response: “But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?” As ever, the securocrats offer not strategy but theology.

Former NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson alleges that the “hasty” draw-down in Afghanistan — promised by Presidents Obama and Trump, agreed and forewarned by the Doha agreement of February 2020, promised by Joe Biden as presidential candidate and then as President, and briefed to NATO countries on 14 April 2021 — casts doubt over the reliability of America’s security umbrella guarantees in Europe. It is not clear why. Withdrawal from a 20-year war in a remote landlocked country in Central Asia is hardly a commentary on America’s commitment to treaty allies elsewhere, just as the pull-out from Saigon did not tempt allies to defect or try neutralism. 

But if transatlantic solidarity and allies’ confidence is threatened by the failure of these out-of-area campaigns, who helped set these unrealistic tests? Robertson was an enthusiast for tying NATO to an effort to bring compliant good governance on our terms to the Hindu Kush. Likewise, his Boxing Day 2002 gift to the alliance was to assert its “moral obligation” to support the US if it invaded Iraq. Let that sink in. The Iraq war worsened terrorism, ignited civil conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and dislocated many more, empowered Iran, and demonstrated to rogue states the advantages of acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

The ex-NATO secretary general claims the many humanitarian achievements of the war in Afghanistan — its death toll estimated at 157,000 — have been jeopardised, thus separating the demonstrated fragility of Afghan institutions, government and armed forces from the campaign Robertson defends. He complains that Western war-makers should have conducted the wars over decades with the will that the Atlantic alliance showed against Serbia for seventy-eight days in 1999, a critique-by-analogy that speaks for itself. 

Indeed, the urge to find the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts everywhere was part of the problem to begin with. And, days before 9/11, Robertson foreshadowed the miscalculations that were to come about western power taming the world into order. Drawing on an innocent metaphor of domestic policing, he claimed “in the global village, maybe I am the bobby on the beat.” He needs larger maps. 

It goes on. Some of those implicated in miscalculations from Kabul to Baghdad now pronounce with godlike confidence. Mark Sedwill, former Cabinet Secretary, denounces withdrawal starkly as a humiliating act of “strategic self-harm”. But whose assessments helped propel a conflict on which so much allegedly rested? 

In November 2012, when Sedwill was Political Director and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan with the FCO, he reported “significant progress” to the Defence Select Committee along with “improved” provincial governance, and that “Afghans are beginning to fill the gap that is being opened up for them as we gradually draw down and leave.” With his caveated but upbeat assessments blown away, Sedwill issues reprimands as a moral tutor and strategic counsellor.

Washington preferred retributive justice over a compromise peace and ultimately got neither

Former MP Rory Stewart, an incisive critic of interventionism until the intervention ended, alleges that staying with a light footprint would be “the easiest thing to continue to do”. He assumes that the conditions which relied on the ceasefire and the Taliban’s restraint under the terms of the Doha agreement, would somehow have persisted, even after the US cancelled its withdrawal. This is the Pollyanna vision of a cheap, stable stalemate, at odds with the evidence of pre-Doha violence. For his part, Tom Tugendhat MP enlists the dead to denounce retreat, condemning withdrawal as an abandonment of others’ sacrifice. Such appeals to a “blood debt” would preclude the termination of any military commitment, and waste more life. 

When the issue was last debated in earnest, around the time of the American “surge” of 2009, sceptics warned the adventure couldn’t succeed at acceptable cost. Power brokers in Afghanistan would not reform and align their ways with outsiders, making it hard to birth a strong, legitimate, effectively-governed state on Western terms, and enable a graceful exit. Indeed, a moral hazard would arise. The inflow of money and troops made kleptocrats and interested parties want to frustrate change and delay withdrawal, keeping foreign forces as their bodyguard. Pakistan would not cut its patronage or sanctuary to the Taliban. “Strategic patience” was a fool’s errand. There was nothing to be patient for. Withdrawal, followed by violence, would come sooner or later. 

The Stayers now play a three-card trick. They ignored or dismissed sceptics about the perils of overthrowing regimes and steering the destinies of peoples in fraught places. The mission in Afghanistan, they reaffirmed, was to build a state capable of coping independently, or at least buy it time. We know now from the Afghanistan papers that the war continued under the cover of wishful self-delusion, with assurances of progress towards this end. Disaster followed. They now blame sceptics for the fall of that which sceptics rightly opposed. 

What are the underlying assumptions that drove these campaigns? Three bad wagers marred them. While the wars were partly driven by fear as made manifest by the 9/11 attacks, they were also enabled by power and success. Ambitious ideas germinated on both sides of the Atlantic in rare and comparatively benign conditions, the “unipolar” era when Britain as a prosperous middle power under Washington’s wing could entertain fanciful ideas of what righteous military action could achieve.

The first ambition was that aligning Britain with the United States, and its participation in the wars, would bolster its grand strategic influence over Washington. Reflecting this tradition, former Prime Minister Theresa May cried out in the Commons as Afghanistan fell, “Where is Global Britain on streets of Kabul?” [sic], criticising Britain’s dependency on Washington and denouncing the government for not exploring the possibility of a post-American military presence. 

This fits a wider pathology, to treat US-led campaigns not on their strategic merits or a hard-nosed calculation about means and ends, but as a drama about Britain’s importance. May never made a parliamentary speech about Afghanistan as Prime Minister. She was the premier who raced to Washington to hold President Donald Trump’s hand. She voted through austerity budgets that denied Britain the kind of independent capability she now calls for. Her disquiet, therefore, is more about Britain, and Britain’s status, than Kabul, and even then, it is a desire for national aggrandisement on the cheap.

The wars’ architects overestimated western power and serially underestimated resistance

A preoccupation with Britain’s international influence ensured that Iraq and Afghanistan became tragically intertwined. Initial success in Afghanistan, a forbiddingly difficult place to occupy, fed overconfidence that western power was overwhelming as eyes turned to the Gulf. Advocates argued it was necessary to join Operation Iraqi Freedom in order to restrain and guide the US, despite the sobering history of efforts to play Greece to America’s Rome. Discovering that it could not much influence Washington and with its campaign in Iraq floundering, pressure rose to cast Afghanistan as the “good” alternative and realistic war, where Britain could focus and thereby restore its lost influence. 

That presumed success was possible and caught Britain in a credibility trap. Now, apologias recast Iraq as a bad distraction that diverted energy and focus from the “good war”. This is another deflection, making the core problems in Afghanistan not ones about governance, politics and power struggle, but about timing. Counterinsurgency and nation-building emerge as pristine. They never fail, they are just never properly tried.

Secondly, the wars rested on faith in the West’s ability to carry out regime change that would transform the region as the West willed it, with little thought about how to treat with the old order who stood to lose, whether overthrown Taliban, liquidated Ba’athists and beleaguered Sunni Iraqis, or the West’s newfound partners, such as predatory warlords. Overseeing the creation of strong governments in broken countries, it was assumed, was primarily a technical and developmental affair, requiring technocratic expertise and investment, when it was primarily a political problem of conflicting interests. 

Foreign elites often don’t want what well-intentioned occupiers want, and govern in ways that fuel insurgency and undermine institutions, leaving locals reluctant to defend the corrupt order. Further, policymakers assumed the wider world was attracted to the power and benefits of western dominance, and would not offer up brutal pushback. Invasion opened up new fronts for international terrorism, aided by neighbouring states from Syria and Iran to Pakistan. Saddam or the Taliban were monsters, but so too is war.

Thirdly, there was a baseline assumption that war worked. Specifically, war with an elevated moral purpose. Somehow, conflict would simulataneously revolutionise and stabilise societies. The experience of success in the “unipolar moment”, in Gulf War One, the Balkans, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and before then in the Falklands, made some believe that force had a general utility not tied to context, judgement and circumstance, and that the main variable was political will and resolve. 

The harsh truth is that sometimes wars fail not because they are betrayed, or mismanaged, or wrongly narrated or sequenced, but because in wildly complex conditions with unrealistic aims, they just don’t work. 

As their projects collapse, the wars’ architects and supporters, who inflated second-order threats, overestimated western power and serially underestimated resistance, now pronounce as sage observers, rather than as participants complicit in misjudgement. Their own intervention has a clear purpose: to write their own complicity out of the story, and to define the bad end of wars they helped design, prosecute or support as only reflecting the wars’ termination, and not the preceding years of its conception and waging. In this respect, their intervention has triumphed.

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