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Artillery Row

The final humiliation

What happens if the Taliban gets it right?

British squaddie slang for their absurdly stubborn foe in Afghanistan was Terry, as in Terry Taliban. The alliteration had its obvious appeal. It also dovetailed nicely with when Jerry — German soldiers — was our main foe, and, as during World War I, the nickname deployed humour to mitigate a horrific situation, while granting a grudging respect to the enemy.

Loathe them, curse them to hell when another of their IEDs took the legs off a friend, but it was hard not to acknowledge the ballsiness of Terry when his blood was up. A bunch of Taliban would attack one of our patrols, we’d call in close air support and unleash the monstrous 30mm canons of American A-10s. No more Terry at that location, just shreds of him. But soon enough the Taliban would attack again from the ruins of the same position.

Respecting the enemy to facilitate defeating them is a basic tenet of warfare.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist of antiquity wrote in The Art of War. “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

So it proved during the past twenty years in Afghanistan, where we knew neither the enemy nor ourselves. Unfortunately, some appear intent on repeating the same mistake as the Taliban retake Afghanistan.

Much of the initial response by politicians, pundits and media was to shrilly tie themselves in knots over the incoming horrors. But Terry is continuing to do what he does best — operate asymmetrically — and defy expectations. The Taliban appear, for now, to be applying moderation and restraint.

The international community needs to watch the Taliban like hawks

Of course, it may not last. The Taliban could prove true to the former type. But they may continue to surprise. Perhaps that lurks behind some of the more emotional reactions: a subconscious fear that the Taliban could do a decent job — the benchmark set by the Afghan government of our backing hasn’t been positioned high — because where would that leave our self-satisfied progressive identity and capabilities?

The leftfield present moment is forcing media and others to leave aside prejudices and finally grapple with the crucial question of whether it is the same Taliban. Because Terry, in addition to being tenacious, does have brains. The Taliban’s leaders are not idiots. They know they can’t get away with the same things as before if they want to retain power long-term.

In a recent interview with CNN, Saad Mohseni, CEO Of Afghanistan’s largest media conglomerate Moby Media Group, described how the Taliban faces a shifting societal makeup in Afghanistan. This includes stronger media and increased acceptance and respect for females and minorities, which offers some light to those weighing the sacrifices and what it was all for.

Suddenly a lot of people have become geo-political experts specializing in Afghanistan

Cogitating about the bad guys in such a way is asking a lot of those Guardian, New York Times and Economist readers who already seem pre-determined to embrace moral outrage. Admittedly, at this early stage, a more pragmatic and reasonable side to the Taliban remains a huge unknown. Mohseni isn’t optimistic and says the country has been “left in the lurch” through the suddenness of the withdrawal. It’s hard to argue against that.

But the current collective wail of lamentation over Afghanistan becoming the greatest foreign policy disaster is rather late. It happened years ago, when many of those now throwing up their hands were conveniently silent, leaving veterans to wrestle with the associated guilt and shame that has driven many to take their own lives. 

As Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy, his anthology of the common threads linking all religions:

The Puritan may practice all the cardinal virtues — prudence, fortitude, temperance and chastity — and yet remain a thoroughly bad man; for, in all too many cases, these virtues of his are accompanied by, and indeed causally connected with, the sins of pride, envy, chronic anger and an charitableness pushed sometimes to the level of active cruelty.

The Taliban clearly has its dangerous zealots and hypocrites. But Huxley’s critique can also be leveled at Western policy makers and wonks who went into hyperdrive after 9/11 with heady ideas of nation-building in a country congenitally unsuited to it. Some are back at it reacting to the Taliban takeover, with calls for just a little more to save the day.

Such calls are embraced by a plethora of enthusiastic amateurs. As previously noted, suddenly a lot of people have become geo-political experts specializing in Afghanistan, as well as wannabe Sun Tzu’s declaiming on the essential role of close air support — after its ferocious application didn’t enable us to win — for the Afghan army.

The West might well have done better to treat the Taliban with more respect and humility

We just don’t know what will happen next in Afghanistan. As unpalatable as it seems to many, the West has little choice but to diplomatically engage its enemy in Afghanistan with a tempered respect, rather than condemn them outright as the embodiment of evil. The international community needs to watch the Taliban like hawks, and call them out, certainly, but if we want them to apply nuance, we need to show some too.

Another unpalatable point — and perhaps truth — is how years ago the West might well have done better to treat the Taliban, in terms of a political body, with more respect and humility, and accepted the need for a power-sharing agreement. That would surely have been better than what is happening now, potentially a total Taliban takeover. But no, we could never engage with nasty, brutish people like the Taliban.

In striking contrast to the Taliban judging the situation adroitly — their deft use of WhatsApp to achieve their aims is an eyebrow raiser — we have our beloved leaders and their blundering approach. As the situation in Afghanistan unraveled following the US withdrawal, Dominic Raab went on holiday, as did the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office minister responsible for south Asia. Despite their current restraint, the Taliban’s return to power is perilous for many Afghans. It’s clearly the sort of complex situation when you need your foreign secretary and his team together and fully focused. Which couldn’t happen while Raab took a holiday in Crete.

Authority figures going on holiday during foreign policy disasters has become a British specialty

Authority figures in high places going on holiday during foreign policy disasters has become a British specialty. In The Changing of the Guard, a scathing account of the British military since 9/11, Simon Akam recounts how as the situation in southern eastern Iraq deteriorated in 2008, the major general in charge of the British area of operations decided to go on a skiing holiday. The deterioration continued and ended with the British military striking an agreement with the enemy and retreating from Basra. It was the greatest British military embarrassment since the fall of Singapore during World War II, according to some, leaving it to the US to launch Operation Charge of the Knights to restore order.

Akam notes the resultant loss of US confidence in British capability. That may be one of the reasons the US went about its Afghanistan withdrawal unilaterally. But for all the media pontificating on duplicitous Uncle Sam, I can’t say I blame them for having had enough — both of Afghanistan and of the British military and political establishment. In blood and treasure, they sacrificed the most.

But the flaws in the US withdrawal strategy — especially the speed and secrecy — are increasingly apparent. Hence why the US troops flew back into Afghanistan to assist with the unfolding drama. If the US had retained Bagram Air Base, 50 kilometers north of the capital Kabul, it would have offered the perfect staging post for those needing to evacuate. Perhaps Raab and the Foreign Office had that discussion with the US. But I doubt it. Given the lack of leadership and moral backbone demonstrated by this UK government, what hope for it having a grip on the Afghanistan riddle?

All the bravery in the world on the part of our soldiers may never have been enough to defeat such a tenacious foe as the Taliban, motivated by defending, let us not forget, their homeland. But it certainly was never going to happen with the misjudgments, hubris and careerism of the generals and politicians, the latter of whom’s disingenuity doesn’t appear to be dissipating.

Now we are left with the resulting muddle in Afghanistan. Dealing with it requires much more than just blaming and raging against Terry, even if you think he is a cunt.

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