I have become curiously obsessed with understanding the story of our intervention in Afghanistan. I have been reading more on the subject and also buying photographs by the outstanding photographer, Simon Norfolk.
I find Afghanistan a much more interesting and thought provoking subject than Iraq because Iraq the the Iraq story is so dominated by the noisy and ill-tempered debate about how the decision to invade was made. All other considerations get drowned out.
Afghanistan, by contrast, was generally seen as a good war, justified by the extremes of the Taliban regime, the self-evident risks of a failed state and the real threats to the West of Islamic terrorism. There was no real opposition to the deployment of UK forces, even when some of the political pronouncements, such as John Reid’s comment that “We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without firing one shot.” (Reuters, April 2006) seemed improbable and naive from the very start.
From 2007-10 the UK Ambassador to Kabul and then Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan was the gloriously named Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles and I have just finished reading his book on that experience, Cables from Kabul. There is quite a lot to dislike about the book because the author is outrageously self-centred and given to name-dropping at every opportunity. He is also much stronger at explaining the problem than setting out the solution. Nevertheless it is a fascinating book and lays bare just how much we have bitten-off in Afghanistan and just how difficult it is to see a way out. I would encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary history and current affairs to read it, perhaps in conjunction with Afghansty which I praised on this blog a few weeks ago.
Towards the end of his book, Sir SCC, as some of the Americans called him, summarises a piece which was written in 1968 about Vietnam and why the American intervention there had failed so badly. The parallels with Afghanistan are so stark it is worth repeating some of his summary here:
– a general perception of China-on-the-march, and a monolithic conception of the Communist bloc,
– a lack of real Vietnam or Indo-China experience,
– the domestication of dissenters within the US Government,
– the ‘effectiveness’ trap whereby those who had doubts about policy feared that, if they spoke out, they would lose their traction inside the Government,
– a preoccupation with the presentation of the war rather than its substance,
– executive fatigue: worn-out ministers and officials simply gave up pushing from fresh approaches, even though it was obvious the existing ones weren’t working,
– a curator mentality: rapid turnover meant that officers and officials felt that their role was simply to keep the policy going until they handed over to their successors,
confusion about the type of war the US was fighting,
– wishful thinking,
– bureaucratic detachment (it’s not our problem, it’s the military’s),
– the belief that an American ‘victory’ in Vietnam was essential, and that America could not afford ‘defeat’,
– human ego investment: those who had advocated sending more troops could not admit that they had been wrong,
– a steady giving in to pressure for a military solution; and
– repeated failures to exploit opportunities to seek a political solution.
All these points are brought out clearly in his book and he refers frequently to tactics without strategy meaning the application of military counter-insurgency tactics without the necessary context of a practical and achievable political strategy.
But I took away some other points as well. The first and most significant is that to make a success of an intervention like that of NATO in Afghanistan requires an extraordinarily large and sustained commitment of national will and treasure (money and people). It is the sort of scale and duration of commitment that is only conceivable if (i) the core national interest is genuinely threatened to the extent that one is willing to sacrifice domestic prosperity in a significant way, and (ii) consequent to that the public really believe that the sacrifice is necessary and worthwhile. My belief is that there is no conceivable overseas intervention that will really be perceived as a sufficient threat to justify the level of commitment really necessary. And those required to deliver – military and civilian – are thus condemned from the start to seek ambition ends with inadequate means.
To give this a sense of perspective, Afghanistan has thus far cost 377 UK lives and some 2,600 US lives, not to mention all those seriously wounded and maimed. UK expenditure in Afghanistan from 2005/6 to 2009/10 has been estimated (see Circling the Lion’s Den) at about £8,419 million. And we are small payer and these are insufficient funds. To get a sense of what it costs to lead I quote from the US Council for Foreign Relations about the US costs: “The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the cost of the Iraq war , projected through 2017, might top $1 trillion, plus an extra £705 billion in interest payments, and says the total cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined could reach $2.4 trillion”. And even at that extraordinary level of expenditure it seems highly likely that it will be enough or be sustained for long enough to change Afghanistan for good.
I think if we had known at the start that the intervention costs resulting from 9/11 would exceed $2 trillion, we would have been in denial and those plotting the attacks would actually have exceed their wildest expectations. It is small wonder that the US is now facing a fiscal crisis of real severity.
The second point I took away from the book is the practical difficulties of properly managing the military in a modern democracy. Of course the individual men and women who serve in Afghanistan and elsewhere demonstrate huge commitment, capability and courage, and deserve our full support. But it is clear that it is becoming difficult or impossible to question or challenge any military proposal without being accused of failing to support the military. This puts any politician in a very difficult position and I am convinced we need to find a way of enabling and supporting constructive challenge before we are faced with the same situation again.
Finally Sir SCC’s book reminds me of the total impossibility of being an American ally. If you provide loyal support, including men and material, it wins you little if any influence in a political system which is deeply inward-facing. But if you fail to provide support, you have even less influence. No doubt this has been the lot of allies down the ages and why for years we were Perfidious Albion. But it is none the more comfortable for that.