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Slow Views

Welcome to the real forever war

Monday 23 August 2021

Biden’s poll numbers, Johnson’s wounded pride and Raab’s holiday are minor details in a huge story. The Afghan crisis is forcing us, very uncomfortably, to ask what we truly believe in


On 14 April 1975, for the first time since the First World War, the entire US Senate Foreign Relations Committee went to the White House for a meeting with the president. The issue under discussion was the amount of financial assistance that Congress would make available to Gerald Ford’s administration for the anticipated evacuation from Vietnam.

An especially tough line was taken by a first-term senator, aged only 32. “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out,” he said. “I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.” His name was Joe Biden.

In the past ten days, we have seen flashes of that young man’s harsh certainty, in the 78-year-old president he has become. So often feted in recent years for his empathy and emotional intelligence, he has reverted instead to what amounts to “America First” without a Maga hat.

From time to time, it is true, he has alluded, en passant, to the “pain, on a human level” of the horrific images emerging from Kabul. But he has spent more time reassuring Americans that all Afghan refugees will be subjected to very “thorough security screenings”.

Fair enough, you might say: these are perfectly proper undertakings for a president to make to his fellow citizens about the protection of the homeland. But let us at least be honest about what we are observing here. The president who promised an end to Donald Trump’s isolationism and the restoration of generous US multilateralism has scarcely bothered to conceal his lack of interest in what comes next in Afghanistan – provided that America’s best interests are served.

On Friday, for instance, he was adamant that what really mattered in the crisis was that the rout of al-Qaeda had long been accomplished and that the US military operation was, as a consequence, definitively over. 

This is not correct, by the way: hundreds of “high-value” members of the terrorist group were among the 5,000 inmates released by the Taliban from the prison at Bagram Air Base eight days ago. Bear in mind, too, that, according to the UN, al-Qaeda already had a significant presence in 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces before this mass jail-break.

It is extraordinary that a statesman who has been immersed in foreign policy for so many decades can be so blind to the megawatt boost that has just been given to global Islamism. Lawless, tribally fractured and geographically ideal for guerrillas, Afghanistan has long been a playground for terrorists – and now they have it back.

In his remarks yesterday, Biden himself alluded to the Islamic State’s regional affiliate, Isis-K or Isis-Khorasan. Yet again he emphasised the antipathy that the Taliban and Isis feel for one another. But that is scarcely the principal point.

By design and (in the president’s case, at least, with apparent pride), the US has deserted one of the world’s most notorious training grounds and sanctuaries for jihadis of all kinds. Biden’s calculation is that the upside of ending America’s 20-year embroilment in Afghanistan is worth the risk. But a risk it most certainly is.

The post-9/11 era has yielded many lessons, one of which is that – in counter-terrorism – the partition between domestic and foreign strategy is so porous that it barely exists. Yet what Biden has done in the past ten days is to reassert the entirely false dichotomy between national interest and global security. The September 11 attacks took place not because America under Bill Clinton was perceived to be too strong, too ready to intervene militarily, but precisely the opposite. In effect, Biden has restored the status quo ante – “like 9/11 never happened,” as one disconsolate UK government source put it to me.

Again, it is hard to know what to make of the president’s completely false claims on Friday that America’s partners were united and at ease with his Afghan strategy. “I have seen no questioning of our credibility from around the world,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that I have not seen that. Matter of fact, the exact opposite, I’ve got.”

Well, then, sir, I dare say you have not been watching very closely – or should, at the very least, sack those who are meant to brief you. Little more than two months since Biden was posing as best buddies with Boris Johnson (and his fellow G7 leaders) in Carbis Bay, the level of anger in the British political class at America’s unilateralism in the Afghan debacle is unlike any tension in the so-called “special relationship” (or the “essential relationship” as Barack Obama and David Cameron renamed it ten years ago) that I have ever witnessed.

One expects to hear boilerplate anti-Americanism from the Left. What was much more striking about Wednesday’s debate in the recalled House of Commons was the level of dismay within the Conservative Parliamentary Party.

Tom Tugendhat, who served as an officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, was applauded by his fellow MPs in the chamber after his direct attack on Biden. “To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with – to claim that they ran – is shameful,” the chair of the foreign affairs select committee said. “Those who have not fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have.

Not surprisingly, Theresa May sought to associate Johnson himself with the fiasco. “Did we just feel we had to follow the US,” she asked, “and hope that on a wing and a prayer it would be alright on the night?” A fair question. Meanwhile, another former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith, accused Biden of making “shameful excuses”.

This mood of deep malaise matters more than most of the stories that have dominated coverage of the UK government’s response to date. True, Dominic Raab made an idiot of himself by not returning from holiday immediately. Priti Patel, evidently fearful that she might be thought to have gone soft, could barely wait to tell the media that “we cannot accommodate 20,000 [Afghan refugees] all in one go.”

But we know that this is a government of children, appointed because of their loyalty to Brexit rather than their credentials or ability. We have a home secretary who thinks it is proportionate to mobilise the Royal Navy against the wretched of the earth, those reduced to rowing with shovels in dinghies as they try to get across the Channel; and a foreign secretary who can’t make his mind up whether he is Napoleon or a body surfer who deserves an extra day on the beach, even during a geopolitical crisis. 

None of this is news, any more than it is news that post-Brexit Britain has – inevitably – slipped down the presidential call-sheet, so that Johnson had to wait 36 hours last week for Biden to call him about the Afghan debacle.  What did the PM expect? For more than 40 years, Washington depended upon the UK as the gateway to Europe, the first point of contact. In 2016, we decided to resign from that international role, in the interests of “taking back control” and supposedly reclaiming £350m per week from the EU for the NHS. And here, five years later, we are: shrunken, poorer, nudged from the centre of global diplomacy, and inexplicably baffled that any of this should be the case.

Tomorrow, Johnson will seek to regain a measure of grip in a G7 call to address the crisis in which Biden’s fellow heads of government will – no doubt politely – make clear that their solidarity is leavened by a sense of unease that the evacuation is being rushed; that the 20 reported deaths so far in the crush around Kabul airport may be much lower than the real figure; and that the completion of a military drawdown could fast mutate into an international humanitarian disaster.

Of necessity, and quite rightly, Tuesday’s call will be operational in emphasis, with particular focus upon the 31 August deadline for evacuation and its potential extension. It is not the right setting for a fundamental discussion about what this ignominious episode tells us about the true character of the “international community” in 2021, the limitations of American leadership in the post-Trump era, and the prospects – if they exist – for future military interventions to prevent genocide or the harbouring of terrorists. But these questions will loom over the online call like malevolent spirits.

The truth is that, having overwhelmingly rejected the geopolitical doctrine that underpinned the “war on terror”, the West has conspicuously failed to come up with a successor strategy. Modern populism is guilty of a profound hypocrisy: the longing by nations to disengage from overseas responsibilities, matched by a desire to save face and still be seen as strong and righteous.

Likewise, the campuses, publishing houses and many newsrooms of the free world are full of academics, students and journalists who loathe the very idea of the West with a passion – but still want somebody to do something, urgently, about the newly imperilled women of Afghanistan.

They are absolutely right to make that demand. But how do they think – in reality – that those rights will ever be protected again? By petitions, marches, social media campaigns? Military strength is a blunt instrument, and creates huge problems wherever it is deployed. But, in many circumstances, it is needed if human rights of any kind are to be defended, however imperfectly. 

This, of course. is a seriously unfashionable view. We are daily enjoined by the Left and social justice movements to believe that Afghanistan’s greatest affliction was Western intervention. Whether that is true or not, we shall find out soon enough.

In 2008, the US journalist Dexter Filkins popularised the idea of the “Forever War” in his book of the same name about his assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq. For many years, there has been a longing in the West to draw a line under the operations that were launched after 9/11 and – before the twentieth anniversary of that terrorist atrocity – to end the conflicts to which it gave rise.

Yet the real forever war is of a different character and it is one that rages within the free nations of the world, within their leaders and within individual citizens. It is a war between our instincts to look outwards and confront the complexity of the world; or to turn inwards and persuade ourselves that the solution to most problems beyond our borders is to ignore them, and (as a corollary) that many of the problems within those borders can be blamed on immigrants. 

In almost every conceivable respect, our planet is defined by interdependence: climate emergency; global supply chains; migrant labour and population mobility; refugee crises; fundamentalist terrorism; the regulation of digital technology and AI; and – while we’re on the subject – pandemics.

This is the reality of our world. Yet we absolutely lack the political and diplomatic software with which to make sense of and organise it. That – much more than Biden’s poll ratings or Raab’s holiday – is what really matters about the international turbulence of the past week.

As I have watched the terrible scenes at Kabul airport, I have been reminded of the closing pages of perhaps the greatest journalistic book on conflict ever written, Michael Herr’s Dispatches: “The war ended, and then it really ended… I watched the choppers I’d loved dropping into the South China Sea as their Vietnamese pilots jumped clear, and one last chopper revved it up, lifted off and flew out of my chest.”

Today, more than four decades after Herr wrote those words, we feel a similar sense of disjointedness, of collective unease, and an ending without a conclusion. That feeling is justified. And it will be with us for a long time to come.

Photograph Getty Images