Saturday, 4 September 2021


Now that the dust has settled and everyone has had a chance to take a breath, perhaps now is a good time to talk about Afghanistan and the withdrawal of the US and its allies.

There are no particularly good starting places, so we'll begin by pointing at and addressing the very obvious elephant in the room; the spectre of US isolationism.

Or rather, the utter madness that this sentiment represents. 

It seems to come as a great annoyance to a great many people that foreign policy is something over which a nation only has a limited degree of control. It can be directed, and various aspects of it can be emphasised or de-emphasised, but ultimately a lot of foreign policy is dictated by circumstances. Does anyone seriously believe for example that if it wasn't for the enormous quantities of hydrocarbons residing underneath the soil of middle eastern states that the US would take any particularly great interest in their fortunes, especially given the track record of such states on issues like human rights?

Such is the problem with being an economic superpower. The 1948 so-called 'Marshall Plan' to revive European economies in the wake of the destruction of the second world war had essentially a dual purpose; to help build a European bulwark against communism, but also to rebuild the shattered economies of Europe and the markets into which the US sent an enormous quantity of its exports, hence the conditional requirements that often cropped up regarding the size and nature of currency reserves and controls over tariffs. 

The US cannot escape its size and its subsequent desire to influence the world in a manner favourable to its own interests. This is why the US retains significant overseas deployments in Europe long after the end of the Cold War. Its withdrawal from one theatre, from one campaign, does not really tell us much about its overall ambition.

The idea that the US will suddenly withdraw into splendid isolation is a splendid fantasy. 

Where exactly the US will go from here is up for debate. There has been much soul searching about the idea that maybe the US is not the omnipotent and benevolent power that will prop up all others at all times, something which you'd have thought people would have realised back in 2011 when the US showed reluctantance to engage in operations over Libya and reserved for itself more of a back seat role. Apparently ten years warning is not sufficient in foreign policy circles.

The larger question likely revolves around the trustworthiness of the US in certain committments and the future of US resolve, a concept complicated by the fact that foreign policy can wax and wane in its level of aggressiveness with the comings and goings of the Presidents and their staffs. 

There has been much talk on this side of the pond about Suez, with occasional spurts of Dunkirk, but one name that I've yet to see crop up is Iraq, except in the context of fighting the insurgency after the 2003 invasion. Iraq is an interesting subject to broach at this point, not because of what happened in the 21st Century, but what happened towards the end of the 20th.

The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 needs no additional treading over, except in respect of the motivations behind it. At the time it seemed crass, and with hindsight the decision seems to border on lunacy. But that is forgetting that we have since learned about one aspect that fuelled Saddam Hussein's delusion; his belief that the United States would not commit to a major campaign (which he incorrectly assumed would be a bloody and protracted affair) given the American public's memories of Vietnam.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan undeniably draws comparisons with that most scarring of American campaigns, and it is not too big of a leap I think to suggest that there will be those who assume, rightly or wrongly, that the manner in which the Afghanistan war ended represents a once in a generation opportunity to act. 

And perhaps as equally damaging to the US as the withdrawal itself has been the manner in which it has been presented by the President and his PR team. They have blundered from one disaster to another, managing to compound the damage done with allies and to the image of America with thoughtless comments and hollow bluster.

The blaming of the Afghan army for example, suggesting that they simply didn't fight, does not tally well with the immense casualties suffered by said army over the course of the last two years, numbering into the tens of thousands. If speed of collapse is to be a determinant of how 'hard' someone fought, perhaps an intrepid journalist would like to make another Dunkirk comparison and ask the President, should he ever deign to take questions on Afghanistan, whether he feels the collapse and withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 was because they too 'did not want to fight'?

The President should also be cautious about being overly critical of the Afghan army, given that the US has spent two decades and billions upon billions of dollars arming and training them. If the Afghan army collapsed so spectacularly after such an enormous investment of time, treasure and manpower, does this not raise serious questions about the ability of the US to train foreign forces, and in turn draw question marks about the doctrine of capacity building?

We on these shores should take that point to heart and be cautious about our criticism. UK trained forces appear to have fared little better than American trained ones, with similar implications for our own doctrine of forward engagement and capacity building. If we could not train them to any kind of reasonable standard, despite the significant resources applied, then what does this say about the plans for the new 'Ranger' regiment?

Some might argue it provides ample justification for them, that the failures demonstrate the need for a specialist unit. This would be a fine argument if it were not for the fact that the UK, at least on paper, already possesses such a unit. It was formed in the dark jungles of Malaya back in the 1950s, and proved instrumental in winning not only that campaign but a later counter insurgency campaign in Oman. The unit in question became known as the 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) regiment, which you just might have heard of.

Its legendary selection and training process; the long navigational marches across the hills of southern Wales; the teaching in the handling of foreign weapons; the specific composition of its four man patrols; everything about the early SAS was designed to reduce a pool of aspiring candidates down to only those few who showed the mental and physical aptitude required for unconventional warfare, and to equip those same few with the skills they would need to partner with and lead indigenous forces in taking the battle to an insurgent force.

Yet there is some irony that the modern SAS, from the little that has been publicly released about its operations, seems recently to have become more of a British equivalent of the US Delta Force*. Forged in the furnace of the 1972 Munich massacre, the requirement for the SAS to take on a domestic counter-terrorism role appears to have gradually morphed the nature of its operations beyond all original recognition, to the point where the military now sees a need to stand up a completely new force to fulfil the role for which the SAS was originally purpose designed.

And of course all this assumes that the military is the best placed to handle such operations. 

There is an argument that the capacity building role should be handed over in future to someone like the SIS (better known by the moniker MI6), to recruit and train personnel especially for the role while allowing them to be both more low key and also go outside the limits of army command and procurement constraints. I leave the merits of that argument to others (at least for now).

The biggest losers in all this are of course the Afghan people.

Abandoned by the west for reasons which remain somewhat unclear, at least in the sense of why suddenly now, the bones of the country have been left to be picked apart by all manner of interested parties. Aside from the obvious candidates of the bordering nations such as Pakistan and China, Afghanistan's geopolitical importance as an asian crossroads will once again come into focus. 

Russia is concerned about the potential for violence and terrorism to spill over into its southern sphere of influence, while Sunni ruled countries of the middle east could see it as a potential backdoor into Iran as part of the ever widening and ever more brutal proxy war being fought bewteen Iran and its Arab neighbours.

And, of course, we can only watch on and wait to see if Afghanistan once again becomes a haven for exporting terrorism, the precise thing that we set out to prevent through 'nation building'. That is arguably the saddest element as we close this particular chapter in Afghanistan's history, that everything that was fought for by so many has been for nothing and ultimately led us right back to square one.

Which in turn leads us back to that original elephant in the room; the geopolitics of superpowers and the prospect of American isolationism.

Somewhere in the Pentagon right now some poor sod is likely working on the contingency plan of what to do if America is forced to go back into Afghanistan and repeat the invasion of 2001 in response to another major terrorist attack. The US may be done with Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean Afghanistan is done with the US.

And despite the almost unseemly rush for the US and others to denounce nation building and the whole concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN) operations, it remains more of an optimistic hope rather than a credible plan that there will be no more insurgencies in critical nations that need countering. Indeed, great danger lies in the assumption that Afghanistan will be the last conflict of its kind. This is precisely the sort of attitude and lack of forward planning that leads nations to stumble into an insurgency of their own making, as happened in Iraq in 2003. 

If you want to be a superpower then you have to act like a superpower, and that means accepting the responsibilities of a superpower. The only alternative is to step aside and allow someone else to take the lead from you.
*Delta Force was originally conceived by a US Colonel called Charles Beckwith, who once served as an exchange officer with the SAS in the early 60's and used it as his model for Delta.

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