The UK Parliament’s recall was a moment for those with foreign affairs credentials to vent their discontent at the government’s complicity and haplessness in the face of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan himself, did not fail to seize the moment and his passionate intervention was praised widely.
If you are trying to signal your leadership qualities, it’s curious to communicate that you are susceptible to rage
Tugendhat talked of his own “rage”; a fitting summary for the session as a whole which exuded a lot of anger, but little substance, and, as BBC Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall put it, “one where the participants seemed to avert their gaze from a crucial bit of context- the power realities of the world”.
It was an odd thing to report. “Rage” is a mental state which is not normally associated with rationally assessing one’s options and making a calculated decision. If you are trying to signal your leadership qualities, it’s a curious thing to communicate that you are susceptible to rage. What is a government supposed to do with Tom’s “rage”? Try to find a policy that does not induce it?
Evidently Tugendhat’s rage had not entirely left him, for his most direct and visceral comment was directed at Joe Biden, who he implied was not qualified to criticise the conduct of the Afghan army, having not fought for his own. This was a moment of nastiness, since Biden’s late son Beau had been decorated for his armed service in Iraq.
This vitriol betrayed a degree of political opportunism. If there is any vitriol to be allocated, at least if you are in favour of statebuilding, it should surely be for Trump, who greatly narrowed Biden’s options by agreeing a unilateral withdrawal and drew down US troop levels to 2500.
Tugendhat’s jibe also injected an unpleasantness that is not normally there in UK political discourse – the notion that military service is a necessary apprenticeship for political office. Democracies function best (if not are actually defined to be) when their militaries are entirely subservient to and separate from their political masters. Insinuating that certain leadership functions require politicians to graduate from soldiering is an erosion of that principle.
Tugendhat dwelled on the notion of “patience” in state and warcraft, a word that is hard to take as anything other than a euphemism for being prepared to engage in indefinite occupation in pursuit of building an Afghan liberal democracy. He made a comparison to the occupation of South Korea. But how, given the promise to withdraw associated with the Taliban ceasefire, was he proposing that we get from here to South Korea, and with a local partner so evidently uncommitted and or unable to fight themselves?
Tugendhat laced his brief speech with powerful images from his own experience. Friends ending up “in the earth”; his own daughter going to school as a counterpoint to the Afghan girls who may now not be going to school. The reference to the sacrifices of the past invites us to fall for the sunk cost fallacy. A lost cause is not a feasible and attainable one because costs have already been paid. Tugendhat’s rhetorical tactic also does not deal with the issue at hand at all. How many more lives have to be sacrificed to sustain liberal education policies? If at all? Are our other foreign policy positions consistently targeted at female emancipation? If not, why not? The photo-story of “my friends died to send Afghan girls to school” is very powerful, accurate even, but it does not instruct us or explain our options.
Like others in the debate, Tugendhat expressed frustration that the UK could not find another partner to replace the US, mentioning Japan and France. For those who can’t see that our capabilities and suitability as a partner make this entirely unviable for Afghanistan, or any other major conflict, it must indeed be exasperating to have such little apparent agency. Moreover, Tugendhat, like some others in his camp, shows no sign of grasping the effect of Brexit’s ideology on narrowing the already slim options for leveraging our capability into such coalitions. The obvious partners are in Europe, particularly France, Germany and Italy. But as Stephen Bush and others have pointed out, it does not do to cooperate too closely with Europe. Our dispute over the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and gaslighting over the Northern Ireland Protocol puts us at loggerheads with them.
Perhaps the most understandable element of Tugendhat and others’ interventions is the dismay at how the collapse happened so quickly and caught everyone by surprise. But this dismay fails to make the connection with the optimism about statebuilding. If after 20 years your partner proves to be a paper tiger, doesn’t that tell you something? It also doesn’t address what you would do with the information to prevent chaos. As Biden disclosed [perhaps we should say claimed], the Afghans had asked the US not to begin evacuations at scale in order to avoid a crisis of confidence.
In a 2017 interview, Tugendhat let it be known he would like to be Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary and even Prime Minister. His intervention was described as being Prime Ministerial in a way that the incumbent was not. This comparison lacks fairness. Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the back of promises to “Get Brexit Done” and an agenda of “levelling up”. The vacuity of these statements, offering little more than good humour and optimism in the face of economic self harm and intractable social problems, is very similar to the empty rhetoric of Tom Tugendhat.
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