Tuesday 23 November 2021
In Kabul, the Taliban’s takeover was assured. In London, an ignominious retreat, and the betrayal of former comrades in the Afghan army, was more than a group of ex-soldiers, now MPs, could stomach
Listen to Part 1
As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, and Western troops and desperate Afghans scrambled to leave, Britain found itself frozen out of decision making and incapable of influencing events. It was a stark illustration of the UK’s status, made worse by catastrophic misjudgements at the top of government
I’ve concluded it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for troops to come home.News clip
There is no military path to victory for the Taliban. There must be a peaceful and a negotiated settlement for the political crisis in Afghanistan and I believe that that can happen, I don’t believe that the Taliban are guaranteed the kind of victory that you sometimes read about.News clip
Gunfire rings through the streets of Herat. Afghanistan’s third biggest city, now reported to be under Taliban control.News clip
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has gone, he’s left the country, as Taliban leaders push for what they say is a peaceful transfer of power in Kabul.News clip
We’re getting new images of the truly desperate evacuation from Afghanistan. Look at what is going on in this cargo plane.News clip
Journalist: Of course this date was not a surprise, it had been agreed, it was a deal, it’s been known for over a year and a half, why did you go on holiday? Did you take your eye off the ball?
Boris Johnson: We’ve known for a long time that this was the way things would go.News clip
Some people won’t get back, some people won’t get back and we will have to do our best in third countries to process those people.News clip
Matt d’Ancona, narrating: The soundtrack of a geopolitical disaster – the fall of Kabul on Sunday August 15, 2021, and the return to power of the Taliban, 20 years after they were ousted in the wake of 9/11.
I’m Matt d’Ancona and this the second episode of my report on the 11 days in August – when the Islamic fundamentalist force swept into the capital of Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani fled the city and Kabul International Airport became the scene of a heart-rending human crush as thousands of foreign nationals and Afghans sought immediate escape from – in many cases – mortal danger.
We’ve seen how ill-prepared the British government was for the speed of the Taliban return – most of the key senior figures being on holiday, including the Prime Minister and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary.
And – while the government flailed – a group of horrified ex-Army MPs teamed up with NGO activists, intelligence operatives and military allies on the ground in Kabul to organise an unofficial evacuation network.
This group is really central to the story of what happened in these 11 days: MPs such Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, a Territorial Army Lieutenant Colonel who had served in Afghanistan and helped to set up the government in Helmand province; Johnny Mercer, former veterans minister and commando captain; and Tobias Ellwood, a captain in the Royal Green Jackets.
Not quite a government within a government, they were still having to do work that – by rights – ought to have been getting done through official channels, but, all too often, just wasn’t.
On the evening of Monday August 16, they and many others listened in shock as President Biden – impatient to get the US out of Afghanistan once and for all – took aim at the Afghan forces for giving in:
American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. The Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.President Joe Biden in the East Room
Matt, narrating: President Biden’s statement only deepened the anxieties of those in this network of soldier-MPs and their supporters.
It was crystal clear that the Americans were not going to do much to help or to be flexible. So, what about the British strategy?
On Tuesday August 17, the UK announced that it would take 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan in addition to British nationals and those evacuated under the ARAP scheme launched in April. Here’s the Foreign Secretary promising a warm welcome:
We’re looking at this very closely. I spoke to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, we’ll be looking at a bespoke arrangement, we’re a big hearted nation, and we have always, as I know from my own history, and Priti knows from hers, been a country that has provided safe haven for those fleeing persecution.News clip
Matt, narrating: Naturally, this was a whole lot better than nothing – but, being spread across five years, the scheme was also nowhere near equal to the challenge.
Already, there was tension between Ben Wallace’s Ministry of Defence – which wanted to get as many people out as possible – and Priti Patel’s Home Office – which was by now programmed to the default setting of keeping them out.
In Patel’s circle, there were mutterings about the risks of “doing a Merkel” – a reference to Angel Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and the political problems it caused the German Chancellor.
There was also the question of Priti Patel’s brand as an aspiring Tory leader. As one Conservative MP puts it: “It’s hard to shift your position from mobilising the Royal Navy against refugees in dinghies in the Channel to saying to thousands and thousands of Afghans – ‘Come on in’.”
By this point, then, the unofficial network of MP-veterans, activists, intelligence sources and journalists was working round the clock in a DIY effort that was both remarkable – a hastily-constructed ark to get people out – and a standing reproach to the official structures which just weren’t getting the job done.
To bring some sort of order to this 21st Century Underground Railroad, there was a series of Excel spreadsheets shared among the key players. But most of the heavy lifting was down to hard work on the phone.
Everything depended upon the arbitrary factor of personal contacts rather than anything close to a system. So for instance: those seeking to evacuate 50 members of the Afghan women’s football team sought a direct line to Priti Patel via a friendly member of the House of Lords.
Number Ten denied that Carrie Johnson, a well-known animal lover, was behind the U-turn decision to allow a special airlift of stranded cats and dogs in the care of Pen Farthing, a former British soldier who had set up the Nowzad animal shelter in Afghanistan.
But the fact that this story was so widely believed – the idea that the Prime Minister’s wife had intervened in this way – showed how ramshackle and personal the process was: much too dependent upon contacts and connections. What fate lay in store for the vast majority of Afghans facing danger who didn’t have such powerful patrons back in London?
One of the MPs involved in the day-to-day struggle to get people out described to me holding two mobiles simultaneously – on one line a friendly soldier or official at Kabul Airport, and on the other a potential evacuee in the crowd, pressed up against a fence, desperately trying to draw attention to themselves.
“So I’d be saying into one phone: ‘Hang on a minute, stay where you are!’ Then into the other: ‘Can you see a girl in a pink dress on a man’s shoulders? He’s wearing a red jacket. Probably to your left. Can you see them?’ And then back into the other: ‘For God’s sake, stay still!’
In some cases, the imperative was not simply humanitarian. Using exit routes other than the airport, the network also managed to exfiltrate key intelligence assets who – if they had been captured – would have been tortured by the Taliban until they gave up the full details of every agent and informer on the UK Government’s books – some of whom are providing intelligence to this very day.
Impressive as these efforts were, they were the opposite of systematic – and hardly what you’d expect of a supposedly great nation presently holding the presidency of the G7, a lead member of Nato, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
You can understand why those who were involved – a few dozen dedicated individuals – look back on these days in August with a mixture of pride, because they did their best, and of shame, because their country didn’t step up to the plate.
Back in mid-August, however, there were still plenty of people in the political class looking for a reason to explain or rationalise or at least diminish the horror of what they were seeing on their screens.
In particular, it became almost commonplace for a while to claim that the Taliban had undergone some sort of ill-defined modernisation – transformed into so-called Taliban 2.0 – and that the new regime would be nothing like its predecessor.
Just as ISIS had mastered modern media techniques, so the Taliban were now spinning away to Western journalists for all they were worth, alleging that the days of murder, misogyny and brutality were not coming back.
The Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Nick Carter, surprised many with the generosity he displayed towards the Taliban in an interview with Sky’s Kay Burley.
I think you have to be very careful using the word enemy, I think people need to understand who the Taliban actually are, and of course what they are are a disparate collection of tribes people, as President Karzai put it to me yesterday, they’re country boys, and the plain fact is they happen to live by a code of honour and a standard which has been their standard for many many years, it’s called Pashtunwali, it has honour at the heart of what they do. They are bound together by a common purpose which is they don’t like corrupt governance, they don’t like governance that is self-serving, and they want an Afghanistan that is inclusive to all.News clip
Matt, narrating: In November, Carter would claim to MPs that he had made these particular remarks for a specific reason – namely that he did not want to endanger British troops and diplomats or potential Afghan evacuees on the ground in Kabul.
But even in this session – with the defence select committee – Carter remained bafflingly optimistic that everything would be all right in the new Afghanistan.
Mark Francois: Do you really stand by that, do you think if we look back in 2026 that Afghanistan will be a much better place than it is in 2021?
Sir Nick Carter: Would you go on holiday to Vietnam?
Mark Francois: Would I go on holiday to Vietnam now? Well I’m only just about allowed to go on holiday to the United States, Sir, so I think I’ll go to Las Vegas first before I go to Saigon.
Sir Nick Carter: Okay, but would you go on holiday to Vietnam?
Mark Francois: I’m not sure I would.
Tobias Ellwood: I think the point you’re making is that Vietnam, after the Vietnam war, is somewhere where you could go to. The trouble with Afghanistan, if I can just pick this thread up, is that the music hasn’t stopped. You could see a Kurdistan-esque enclave developing north of the Hindu Kush, the Uzbeks and Tazaks have never been run by the Pashtuns and that’s the concern that we have as to where this actually then goes.Defence Select Committee
Matt, narrating: This suggested, at best, a private view about the likely fate of the Taliban – that they would quickly be succeeded by a modern, pluralist government – or, at worst, a serious naivete about the jihadis’ intentions for the country they had recently taken over.
Late on the night of Tuesday August 17, Boris Johnson finally got his courtesy call from President Biden that he had been chasing for the better part of 36 hours.
According to reports of the conversation, the two heads of government talked about “the need for the global community to come together to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.”
Well, yes. It would have been odd if they’d said anything different, wouldn’t it?
According to one senior source: “The call was pretty ho-hum, platitudinous. I think Boris had expected Biden at least to say: ‘You ok, hun?’ But he didn’t even get that. We were on the Oval Office call-sheet, had our allotted time, and that was that.”
So to Wednesday August 18, and the debate held by Parliament, specially recalled to assess the crisis.
It is often said that the House of Commons has been reduced to outbursts of Punch-and-Judy shouting followed by long hours of irrelevant argument by a handful of MPs over obscure technicalities. That it has no real democratic energy.
But that has not always been so. The Norway Debate of May 1940 led to the replacement of Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill. The Suez debates of 1956 sent shockwaves through the British body politic and the nation’s sense of itself.
More recently, the electrifying debate on the eve of the Iraq War on March 18, 2003, captured the divisiveness of the invasion plan and sowed the seeds of Tony Blair’s isolation in years to come as the Allied strategy unravelled.
The August debate on the Afghan crisis was in the same league – a moment of national reflection, anger, sadness, and recognition that things have changed.
And – not surprisingly, perhaps – it is an essential part of this story, which has, at its heart, the deep malaise that afflicts a governing class when a nation’s decline become undeniable; the embarrassment and shame which that triggers; and the rationalisations to which those in power will resort – something, anything – to maintain the pretence that, as bad as things look, the country in question is still as mighty and honourable a force on the global stage as ever.
For Boris Johnson, the key in the chamber was to look bigger than he actually was. To walk tall, even as his geopolitical presence shrank visibly.
My right honourable friend makes an excellent point, and that is why the UK has chaired the UN Security Council, and asked our French friends to put a motion together to get the world to focus on the humanitarian needs of Afghanistan. We will do the same thing in NATO, the G7 and other bodies in which we have a leadership role. We want all these countries to step up, as he rightly said, and focus on the most vulnerable in what will be formidably difficult circumstances.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: And then again:
As president of the G7, the UK will work to unite the international community behind a clear plan for dealing with this regime in a unified and concerted way. Over the last three days, I have spoken with the NATO and UN secretaries-general and with President Biden, Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Prime Minister Khan. We are clear, and we have agreed, that it would be a mistake for any country to recognise any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally. Instead, those countries that care about Afghanistan’s future should work towards common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding together whether to recognise it, and on what terms.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: His point being: we are the very centre of things, Global Britain is one the planet’s hubs of power. I am still World King.
But this was a risky claim to make – for it gave Labour leader Keir Starmer an opportunity to ask what, precisely, the PM had done with all his supposed international clout:
The lack of planning is unforgivable, and the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. He mutters today, but he was in a position to lead and he did not. Britain holds a seat at the United Nations Security Council. We are a key player in NATO. We are chair of the G7. Every one of those platforms could and should have been used to prepare for the withdrawal of forces, and to rally international support behind a plan to stabilise Afghanistan through the process and keep us safe. Did the Prime Minister use those platforms in those 18 months to prepare? No, he did not.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: More embarrassing for Boris Johnson was the ferocity and accuracy with which Theresa May, whose premiership he had destroyed in 2019, weighed in to attack her nemesis:
What we have seen from the scenes in Afghanistan is that it has not been alright on the night. There are many in Afghanistan who not only fear that their lives will be irrevocably changed for the worse, but fear for their lives. Numbered among them will be women — women who embraced freedom and the right to education, to work and to participate in the political process. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister was right to make the education of girls a key aim of his Administration, but in Afghanistan that will now be swept away. Those girls who have been educated will have no opportunity to use that education. The Taliban proclaims that women will be allowed to work and girls will be allowed to go to school, but this will be under Islamic law—or rather, under its interpretation of Islamic law, and we have seen before what that means for the lives of women and girls.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: And, Theresa May added, what about the UK’s own national security?
It is not just the impact on the people of Afghanistan that must concern us, however; we must be deeply concerned about the possible impact here in the UK. The aim of our involvement in Afghanistan was to ensure that it could not be used as a haven for terrorists. Terrorist who could train, plot, and encourage attacks in the UK. Al-Qaeda has not gone away. Daesh may have lost ground in Syria, but those terrorist groups remain and have spawned others. We will not defeat them until we have defeated the ideology that feeds their extremism.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: Daesh, by the way, is another name for ISIS. As the former Prime Minister twisted the knife, other Conservatives expressed undisguised fury with Joe Biden. Here’s Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, who had been enraged by the US President’s scorn for the Afghan army, addressing the question of Britain’s relationship with its allies:
That connection links us also to our European partners, to our European neighbours and to our international friends, so it is with great sadness that I now criticise one of them, because I was never prouder than when I was decorated by the 82nd Airborne after the capture of Musa Qala. It was a huge privilege to be recognised by such an extraordinary unit in combat. To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful. Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, was also highly critical of Biden:
I was born in the United States; I am a proud dual national and passionate about the transatlantic security alliance. Prior to him declaring his candidacy, I worked directly with President Biden on veterans’ mental health issues. He was the keynote speaker at a veterans reception here in the House of Commons, as my guest, so it gives me no joy to criticise the President and say that the decision to withdraw, which he inherited, but then chose to endorse, was absolutely the wrong call. Yes, two decades is a long time. It has been a testing chapter for Afghanistan, so the US election promise to return troops was obviously a popular one, but it was a false narrative.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: And here’s another former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith on Biden’s criticism of Afghan forces:
There is no question but that is an infamous statement to make. Those men and women lost their lives trying to uphold what we had brought to Afghanistan, and we should be proud of them. I say to the American President — the Government and even the Opposition leadership are perhaps reluctant to say this — that he has no right to use excuses and base them on people who have lost their lives, and done so bravely. The withdrawal of air support was critical at that moment. The moment that went, the Taliban got a green light and knew they were going to go in and that the Afghan forces could not be supported. That was a critical decision. It was done in a hurry, and it was wrong.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: To put this in perspective: Duncan Smith, another former Army officer, is a lifelong, passionate Atlanticist who offered Tony Blair what amounted to a bipartisan deal during the Iraq War and was in telephone contact with Vice-president Dick Cheney during that crisis.
And here’s Jeremy Hunt, the man beaten by Boris Johnson to the Tory leadership in 2019 and a former Foreign Secretary:
President Biden said this week that his “only vital national interest in Afghanistan” was to prevent a terrorist attack. Even if that is the case, both he and President Trump should be deeply ashamed— I say this with great sadness – because their actions have returned to Afghanistan to the very Government that harboured the 9/11 bombers.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: Mark Francois, a leading light of the Tory Right, and former lieutenant in the Royal Anglian Regiment, was even more forthright:
I am terribly sorry, as an Atlanticist all my life, that President Biden’s deeply isolationist speech on Monday was extremely worrying. If the midterm results in the United States are more important than the security and freedom of the free world, we had better work out pretty quickly what global Britain means, because it seems that global America just fell off its horse and died.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: And listen to the fury of Bob Seely, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, and a former captain, who served in the Intelligence Corps, awarded the Military MBE for his service in Iraq and Afghanistan:
The collapse happened because a truly dreadful US President, Donald Trump, who was probably in hock to the Russians, dealt with the Taliban behind the Afghan Government’s back — a shocking betrayal. Joe Biden, who admires Kennedy — we had some great quotes from Kennedy earlier — could have changed things. He has chosen not to and has opened the United States, Europe, India and many allies throughout the world to considerable terrorist risks from the 2,500 to 4,000 jihadi nut jobs — pardon my French — who are currently being released from Bagram, Kandahar and Kabul. When they have stopped slaughtering our friends and beheading a few key women journalists, they will turn their attention to us. We have walked away from a successful anti-terrorist operation after 20 years. Sooner or later, we will reap the rewards.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: Why include so many of these statements of disapproval? Because they were so striking and ideologically out of character for ardent Tories.
Remember: this was absolutely not the reflexive anti-Americanism of the Left: it was the deep despair of lifelong Conservative Atlanticists who felt a genuine sense of betrayal by the US President and the sudden loneliness that follows a break-up – in this case, on a geopolitical scale.
Part of that loneliness was a sense of shame. Tobias Ellwood expressed this emotion thus:
It is with utter disbelief that I see us make such an operational and strategic blunder by retreating at this time. The decision is already triggering a humanitarian disaster, a migrant crisis not seen since the second world war and a cultural change in the rights of women, and it is once again turning Afghanistan into a breeding ground for terrorism. I am sorry that there will be no vote today because I believe the Government would not have the support of the House.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: Johnny Mercer, meanwhile, gave voice to the impact that the withdrawal was having upon veterans – who were surely wondering whether their sacrifice had been worth it.
We are not trained to lose and we are not trained to deal with the way that Ministers are choosing to be defeated by the Taliban. Was it all for nothing? Of course, it was not for nothing, and we must get away from that narrative. Whether we like this or not it is a fact that, for a period of time, Afghans—the average age in Afghanistan is 18 years old—will have experienced the freedom and privileges that we enjoy here, and no one will ever take that away from them, which is incredibly important. What are we here to do if it is not to be good, honourable people, to fight for the oppressed, to keep our families safe and to live to a higher calling? Our veterans did this over many years in some of the hardest conditions and against as dark an enemy as this nation has ever faced. We often look to our forefathers for inspiration. You emulated them. You did them proud, not in scale but in the same amphitheatre, you can be forever proud of what they did when the nation called. I say to you, “You played your role, but you cannot control what is happening now—remember that. What folk like me saw you do—the courage, the sacrifice and the humanity—will never die and it has defined us as human beings. You did that and nobody will ever take that away. I will never forget you. Every day the sun comes up, I will make sure that this place and this country do not forget you and your sacrifice on the altar of this nation’s continuing freedom.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: And – for Boris Johnson, and his treatment of veterans – only anger:
But I must say to the House with a heavy heart that the Prime Minister has consistently failed to honour what he said that he would do when he was trying to become Prime Minister. He must not wriggle out of his commitments on this issue.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: And here is Tom Tugendhat again, recalling a particular horror from his time in the warzone:
It is the image of a man whose name I never knew, carrying a child who had died hours earlier, carrying that child into our firebase and begging for help. There was nothing we could do. It was over. That is what defeat looks like; it is when you no longer have the choice of how to help. This does not need to be defeat, but at the moment it damn well feels like it.House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: What is no less striking about this debate is how many MPs – of all parties – had already been contacted by Afghans in desperate straits. This is Seema Malhotra, Labour MP for Feltham and Heston:
Why do young men cling to the side of a US plane in the hope of escape and fall to their death? It is because they know that otherwise the Taliban will come for them. A terrifying situation for women at the forefront of progress for women and girls. I have heard directly from the relative of a 16-year-old girl in Kabul who last week was waiting for the results of her equivalent of GCSEs and about a possible scholarship. Her words yesterday were, “If the Taliban come for me, I’m ready to hang myself.”House of Commons Debate
Matt, narrating: The debate lasted from 9:38am till 5pm on August 18. In total, MPs used the word “must” 237 times, and the word “should” 132.
But, for all the declarations of what ought to have happened, or ought now to be done to make amends, the overwhelming sense was of the elected representatives of a supposedly mighty nation-state staring into the abyss of impotence and growing irrelevance.
Certainly, the debate was historic, though for all the wrong reasons. It reduced the Commons to a crucible of anger, sadness and powerlessness. What was meant to be a rallying-cry often sounded more like a cry for help.
On the evening of the 18th, I contacted a few of those who had spoken out, mainly on the Tory side. There was a sense of catharsis – things that festered had finally been said in the most public of spaces – and there was also the faintest glimmer of hope that Boris Johnson’s government might, for once, suspend its usual contempt for Parliament, take heed of what had been said, and raise its game accordingly.
In fact, precisely the opposite happened. By Thursday August 19, it was clear that, only four days after the Taliban had entered Kabul, the blame game in Whitehall was already well under way.
At precisely the moment that the key departments in the evacuation strategy ought to have sworn a truce and focused like a laser on the fiendishly complex business of extracting the maximum number of people before the August 31st deadline, a brutal briefing battle was already well underway.
And – like Bullingdon Club boys drunkenly choosing who they were going to push down a hill in a Portaloo – the most senior members of the Johnson government had decided that Dominic Raab was going to be the fall guy.
Top of the charge sheet, of course, was Raab’s decision to stay on holiday in Crete. Never mind that the PM had – at the very least – not ordered his Foreign Secretary to come home. That was not the top line of the spinning against Dominic Raab. The top line was that he had been AWOL when he should have been on the bridge – which was absolutely true.
On August 17, he had told Sky News that, had he known what was about to happen, he would not have gone:
But look in retrospect, of course I wouldn’t have gone on holiday if I’d have known that would be the case. Equally after 18 months and two years of a very gruelling demanding schedule, I think it’s right that people in those positions try and take some leave but we’re always ready, I’m always ready, to come back and of course the key point I was making is even when I was away I was constantly handling and managing meetings, talking to foreign counterparts, and because of technology of course I was able to engage in every one of the COBRA meetings.News clip
Matt, narrating: But this was nowhere near enough to satisfy the desire for a political blood sacrifice and – more to the point – a distraction that would push the images from Kabul off the front pages, at least for a day,
On Saturday August 21 the main news item in The Times bore the headline “Dominic Raab stayed on holiday for two days after he was called back” with the subdeck: “Foreign secretary ‘nobbled’ Johnson for permission to remain in Crete.”
At this point, Dominic Raab’s parliamentary allies – yes, he has a few – knew he was toast: “We urged him to hang on and we knew that Boris wouldn’t sack him immediately, because Boris doesn’t do that. There were some unhelpful references doing the rounds about Lord Carrington resigning honourably after the Falklands in 1982, and why wasn’t Dom doing the decent thing? Anyway: there was very little doubt after that Times piece that he was for the chop or at least a demotion at the next reshuffle.”
This duly followed on September 15, when the Prime Minister moved Raab to the Ministry of Justice, installing Liz Truss as the new Foreign Secretary.
It had been a classic, if shameful, example of the famous “dead cat” technique used by the legendary Tory strategist Lynton Crosby – Boris Johnson’s campaign manager in the 2008 and 2012 mayoral elections – according to which the best way to divert attention from a damaging newsline was to leak a more sensational story that would divert the media pack.
In this case, the dead cat was called Dominic.
All pretty low-rent spin-doctoring, of course, and especially shabby given the humanitarian crisis that was actually unfolding by the hour in Kabul.
The holiday story was standard populist fare. But the more serious charge against Dominic Raab was one that got to the heart of the systemic breakdown of government in the UK revealed by the Kabul crisis.
Why had the Foreign Secretary – and, for that matter, the Prime Minister – remained so relatively sanguine during July when Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and the network of soldier-politicians were already so anxious?
The answer relates to the quality of intelligence reaching the Government, and, more subtly, how it was being interpreted.
On the question of quality: as the Afghan government’s grip on the country loosened and as the territories that it truly controlled shrunk steadily, the quality of human intelligence getting back to the UK Government and being sifted by the Joint Intelligence Committee was declining.
As one Foreign Office source put it: “Afghanistan was never about cyberwarfare or signal intelligence. It was about human assets and the incredibly dangerous business of getting information from them. As the Taliban’s power grew, assets were going off-stream or even switching sides. There were never two absolutely distinct sides: the Taliban versus the Ghani government. That’s not how tribal, village society works. Today’s asset can melt away into the darkness or even put on a Taliban uniform and start working for the other team. If you’re very lucky, you’ve got a double agent. But the chances of that in a crisis like this are few and far between.”
Here’s Ben Wallace making a similar point before the defence select committee on October 26.
One thing that is missed in the debate about “was the intelligence was wrong and why we were surprised by speed,” is that the lesson from history is that as regimes, countries or Governments collapse, your intelligence reduces and your certainty slides. Your sources, your networks, your people are leaving the country; your military footprint is shrinking.Defence Select Committee
Matt, narrating: The other question is how you interpret what intelligence you do receive.
In the same committee hearing. Ben Wallace noted that – since the publication in 2016 of the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War – intelligence briefings had, understandably, become more cautious:
What I mean is that often intelligence is, with total honour, desperate to try to be neutral and not to be leading. One of the Iraq things was whether the intelligence was leading, like leading a witness; was it leading you into making wrong assumptions? They try to do assessments that are very clear and stark and caveated to the point that there is no inaccuracy and no room for making a mistake.
That is important. That is why they are there: to inform us. It does not mean someone like me is let off from judgment. My job is to take those things, read them, in my view, have enough knowledge about what created that intelligence report and indeed the history or knowledge of the political environment to add to that my judgment and say whatever. If you follow an intelligence assessment like it is an option paper, you will find yourself in the wrong place sometimes. Ultimately, just like a police officer on the ground or a soldier, in the end you have to make the decision about where you are going to cross the river.Defence Select Committee
Matt, narrating: What was the Defence Secretary really saying? That he read the reports with understanding and that others – mainly, by implication, Dominic Raab – did not.
Appearing before the Foreign Affairs select committee on September 1, the Foreign Secretary, for his part, looked back and claimed that he had been in line with cross-government thinking all along in believing that the Taliban would not prevail as quickly as they did:
My point is this. The central assessment that we were operating to — and it was certainly backed up by both the JIC and the military — is that the most likely and central proposition was that, given the troop withdrawal by the end of August, you would see a steady deterioration from that point and it was unlikely that Kabul would fall this year. That was the central assessment — of course with all the usual caveats that you will be familiar with.
Foreign Affairs select committee
Matt, narrating: Not quite, said the committee’s chairman, Tom Tugendhat, who was growing increasingly frustrated by the Foreign Secretary’s answers.
Tom Tugendhat: Your principal risk report on Afghanistan of 22 July 2021 read: “Peace talks have stalled, and US NATO withdrawal is resulting in rapid Taliban advances. This could lead to fall of cities, collapse of security forces, Taliban return to power, mass displacement and significant humanitarian need. The embassy may need to close if security deteriorates.” That was on 22 July. How did your actions change after that report?
Dominic Raab: I am sorry, what is the source of that?
Tom Tugendhat: It is your principal risk report.
Dominic Raab: As I said, we are very mindful of that. If you look at high-risk embassies, from the point of view of the embassy safety as opposed to the evacuation—it is important to distinguish those two things—we have a standard evacuation process for high-risk embassies like Kabul. Obviously, that is reviewed and has to evolve and adapt with the conditions, which is why what you said is timely, and of course we keep it under review.Foreign Affairs select committee
Matt, narrating: This was, at best, a slippery answer by the Foreign Secretary. He knew full well that the risk report had been a flashing red light on the dashboard – the Taliban are going to win, and soon – but had chosen to see it as only a narrowly-defined commentary upon embassy safety, when it was very much more than that.
In October, further evidence came to light under Freedom of Information rules that make Dominic Raab claims untenable. This recently released series of telegrams from Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador to Afghanistan and his deputy, Alex Pinfield, shows that the HMG’s most senior diplomats were unambiguous about the direction of travel as early as June.
On the 28th of that month, Bristow wrote that the Taliban would wait ”until it believes international military withdrawal is irreversible before escalating its campaign” – which would be the case once US air power was withdrawn.
On July 2, President Biden met that condition by withdrawing the US military from Bagram air base.
On August 2, Bristow cabled London: “The gloves are off. We are entering a new, dangerous phase of the conflict.” The Taliban, he warned, were on the brink of taking cities, “If that happens,” Bristow wrote, “the impact on already fragile political unity, military and public confidence and sentiment will be significant.”
Kabul’s status as a relatively safe zone, he said, was “very unlikely to last indefinitely” as the Taliban manoeuvred into a position where they could exert maximum pressure on the city “when they see fit to do so”.
Why did the Foreign Secretary choose to ignore or downplay this intelligence? Because it had nothing to offer the official narrative that Boris Johnson had endorsed in July: namely that the Taliban were not going to win by military means and were not going to get their hands on power any time soon. Which was plain wrong.
As one veteran of national security and diplomacy put it to me: “The government completely failed to see what was plain as a pikestaff by early July, or to understand how much this would matter to those in the UK who had put their lives on the line and to people around the world who were watching us fail in real time. The insouciance was despicable, like nothing I have ever seen.”
And it didn’t have to be this way. The French, after all, had got their people out in June and July, thus avoiding completely the often terrifying crush of August.
The British Government’s refusal to acknowledge what was coming and plan appropriately was undoubtedly a grotesque failure of political leadership – worse, by far, than the absence on holiday of the PM and his Foreign Secretary.
It was close to the “alternative facts” mindset of Donald Trump’s regime. And it is one of the most serious indictments to date of Boris Johnson’s government and its tenuous relationship with the truth.
Let us return, then, to those crucial 11 days in August – and yet another indignity for Number Ten.
On Sunday 22nd, the US President held a press conference in the Roosevelt Room in which he flat out denied that America’s international partners had raised any queries about his strategy:
I have seen no questioning of our credibility from our allies around the world. We’ve spoken with our Nato allies, our National Security Adviser has been in contact with his counterparts, as has the Secretary of Defence. The fact of the matter is that I have not seen that. Matter of fact, the exact opposite, I’ve got.News clip
Matt, narrating: This, in spite of the fact that the parliament of America’s closest ally had, only four days before, resounded with bitter criticism of Biden and his strategy.
As one Downing Street source put it: “Now I know what it feels like to be gaslit by the most powerful man on Earth.”
The Prime Minister had one last throw of the dice planned – which was to seek an extension of the August 31 deadline.
But on Monday 23 August, a Taliban spokesman ruled that out.
If they extend beyond the 31st August, that is a clear violation, one thing. Secondly, about consequences, it is up to our leadership, how to proceed and what kind of decisions they take, that decision will be implemented.News clip
Matt, narrating: This accorded with what UK diplomats and their protection officers were picking up on the ground in Kabul.
In the first few days after the Taliban’s arrival, the Islamist fighters had been reasonably cooperative, even when they found themselves facing the very same Paras with whom they had once fought to the death. The objective at the start was to encourage the evacuation and not get in the way.
But jihadis are not famous for their patience and by the 23rd the mood was hardening. As one military source puts it: “Around the hotel, you could see it in their faces: it was very much ‘fuck off time’.”
Which is what they did: the diplomats and soldiers could be proud of what they had achieved in near-impossible circumstances – the evacuation, by the end of the month, of 15,000 people, three times the original target envisaged by Operation Pitting.
On Tuesday 24th, with much fanfare in the press, the Prime Minister chaired a Zoom call of G7 leaders, also attended by the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
But, like the G7 summit at Carbis Bay in June, the call had a purely performative function. It made it possible for the Prime Minister to claim – just – that he had done something, that he had, at least technically, led, by hosting an on-screen meeting.
According to one involved in the call: “It was really just a set of platitudes and pleasantries dressed up as bold intentions. Pretty depressing. It felt like a digital Suez moment, to be honest.”
Thus did the 11 days in August end.
Since then, as we have seen, select committees have begun their investigations, there are calls – so far rejected – for an in-depth independent inquiry, and the network of dedicated MPs and activists continues its remorseless work to get people out of Afghanistan.
Unofficially, government sources estimate that there are 300 people left in the country who need to be urgently extracted. The network of soldier-politicians estimates that the real figure is closer to 3,000 – and probably much higher.
At the time of recording, the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme – promised for the 20,000 refugees – has yet to open its doors. This has done nothing to quash suspicions that Priti Patel would be quite happy for arriving Afghans to slip into the regular asylum system – for which the Home Office has much less direct responsibility.
Whatever the Taliban claims to the contrary in its media releases, women are being bought and sold once again in Afghanistan. Girls’ secondary schools remain closed. Women aid activists are denied the right to work – even as millions of Afghans face winter starvation and desperately need assistance. Women protesters are denounced as “animals”.
How does the promised Taliban 2.0 look today?
President Biden believes that he got away with it: the so-called “band-aid strategy” – ripping off what remained of US protection at great speed to get the whole thing over with quickly – paid off, to the extent that Biden has not suffered long term political damage from Afghanistan. He has plenty of other things to worry about.
Ditto Boris Johnson. It was a bumpy fortnight for the PM. But the plight of Afghanistan does not crop up in Conservative focus groups. The Government’s real problems right now have more to do with sleaze, energy prices and inflation.
According to the debased rules of modern populist politics, the two heads of government got away with it. But did they really?
Afghanistan is once more a potential sanctuary for terrorists.
The West has shown itself to lack stamina and principle – a boost to the ambitions of China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes constantly watching to see how much they can get away with.
And for the first time in my adult life Britain cannot plausibly be said to be punching above its weight.
Preparing this newscast, I was reminded of two literary passages.
The first from John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which the Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, tells spy-hunter George Smiley that he had gradually realised that “if England were out of the game, the price of fish would not be altered by a farthing.”
Published in 1974, those words ring ever more true in late 2021.
The second passage is from Kipling’s great poem of 1901 on the Boer War, The Lesson: “Let us admit it fairly,” Kipling wrote, “We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.
But have we? Will it?
Call what happened in those 11 days in August a defeat, or a withdrawal, or a strategic retreat; call it whatever you like.
The impression Britain’s actions gave to the world remains the same; and there is nothing good about it.
Anyway you cut it, we left a desperate nation, to which we had promised a safe, democratic and prosperous future, in the hands of a gang of theocrats, fascists and misogynists.
We look weak; we are weak.