OPINION: Lines in the sand

The juxtaposition of the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan and the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center has left Lord Digby Jones wondering what it was all for.

Joe Biden delivers remarks to the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (30002824)
Joe Biden delivers remarks to the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (30002824)

OVER the past few weeks, the juxtaposition has been heart-wrenching, the feelings of impotent anger mixed with acute sadness almost too strong to bear.

Firstly, the greatest military and economic power the world has ever known cuts and runs from Afghanistan with its tail between its legs, waving the white flag as it admits defeat to the very same organisation (I use the term loosely) it had spent trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and 20 years trying to beat.

And as the United States of America once more indulged in one of its periodic bouts of isolationism, the United Kingdom was forced to join in the self-flagellation of humiliating withdrawal, at once acknowledging its impotence (and that of other so-called military powers) in serious combat without Uncle Sam alongside and also thumbing its nose at the lives of soldiers snuffed out or changed forever over the past two decades. If ever there was a time to ask ‘what was it all for?’ then this is it.

Secondly, the images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center smoking in the bright, early autumn sunshine like giants in a state of pre-collapse have occupied our screens as the world remembered with sadness the fate of more than 3,000 souls, their horrible deaths the innocent by-product of the visitation of terrorism from the valleys of Afghanistan to Main Street, USA. And those from all over the world who have visited those towers, whether on business or as tourists, could be permitted the thought, as they bowed their heads in such sad tribute, ‘what if I had been visiting on that particular morning?’

The tragedy is that America had done the job in Afghanistan a few months after it invaded to banish the Taliban and root out and expel the terrorist organisation whose members had carried out the attack. So why then stay another 19 years?

America has never made a good occupying power. Its default position is always to go home ASAP. Indeed, out there, in the graveyard of empires from Alexander the Great’s to the Soviets’, not forgetting a couple of 19th century humiliations for the British along the way, it could be said that this shameful time was always going to arrive, that the American psyche was singularly ill-equipped to deal with anything and everything after it had achieved what it is very good at – the application of swift, well-executed, violent power to secure clear and well-communicated aims.

Whether this lesson is learned by future presidents remains to be seen but what is for sure is that very few (if any) democratically-elected leaders of America’s natural allies will be able to bring their people behind a policy of supporting her next time.

For the UK, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a shameful disgrace, both in its timing and nature.

With matters in a perilous state, the Foreign Secretary went on holiday, as did his Permanent Secretary and those at the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office.

Ever since Donald Trump had signed up for America’s withdrawal and Joe Biden had maintained the decision, the UK knew this day would arrive as what the UK Defence Secretary called ‘a rotten deal’ became fact. Indeed, as long ago as early spring, the UK government was being urged to provide a safe home for those Afghans such as interpreters who had risked their lives to support Britain. Yet the ignominious rush at the end, this unconditional surrender, left many to an awful fate.

As Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times pointed out, the UK was not only badly prepared but complacent and then sought unobtainable justification.

Former head of the Army General Lord Dannatt said as late as on 6 August that he would find it hard to justify going into Afghanistan in the first place ‘if we find that the situation is that the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan. But that will not happen’. Really?

Current Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Nick Carter wrote on 8 August that people in Kabul were cheering on their army in a way ‘reminiscent of people coming out during lockdown in support of the NHS’. You couldn’t make this up. The head of our entire defence capability could not apparently work out that if the Americans withdrew essential air support from the Afghan army, it would be game over very quickly indeed. Even a cadet at Sandhurst could get that one right.

He said that ‘war crimes are being committed’, ‘civilians are being brutalised’ which ‘undermines any claim the Taliban might have to political, moral or ethical legitimacy’ and yet just a week later Kabul had fallen and our top soldier, indeed the boss of all of our three armed services, described the Taliban as ‘country boys’ who ‘happen to live by a code of honour’.

Sir Nick Carter now said the Taliban wanted ‘an Afghanistan that is inclusive for all’. Tell that to the women who will be back behind the veil, tell that to the female teenagers denied an education worthy of the name, tell that to female journalists who are out of work awaiting a fate of which nightmares are made.

None of this is the fault of our soldiers, Royal Marines and medics from the Royal Navy who over two decades (and right to the very end) did their job, fulfilled the task they were given, with exemplary professionalism of which we should all be very proud.

But as a country, those who govern us and those who serve them at the highest level both in and out of uniform should hang a collective head in shame, in disgrace and not a little anger.

Very rarely in my life have I been ashamed to be British, but I was as I watched us turn our back on those who had risked their lives for us.

So what will a post-American-surrender-in-Afghanistan world look like?

Well, no one’s going to be trusting or relying on President Biden’s word in American foreign policy any time soon. His exclamation upon taking office that ‘America’s back’ rings hollow in the offices and parliaments, the studios and streets of historic allies of the USA. Where does this unilateral action, taken without even consulting those countries who spent blood and treasure alongside them in support of American foreign policy, leave relations, attitudes and, above all, trust? I hope they give Biden a hard time at the 76th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York this month.

European governments must start spending far more on their own defence. If Putin were to engineer a takeover of, say, Lithuania (a member of Nato and the EU), could America now be trusted to send some ‘hard diplomacy’ to its aid? The Nato capitals of Europe are not going to trust Mr Biden as far as they could throw him, let alone as far as Vilnius. Russia’s quest for warm water bases in the various theatres of the world has actually been facilitated by firstly Obama’s effective inactivity in Syria and now Biden’s appalling decisions. Thus emboldened, Putin will keep pushing to see where America will draw the line, and no erstwhile ally of Washington will bet a pound or a euro or a soldier’s life on that one.

Where does all this leave Israel?

Or, more alarmingly, Israel’s enemies?

A doctrine of ‘Get your retaliation in first’ has served Israel well over the years but having an American guarantee of survival behind it has always mattered enormously. Biden’s actions will lift the spirits in Tehran (especially with its new more bellicose leader) and shift the strategic dynamic in a bad neighbourhood.

Only the other day Kim Jong-un launched two long-range cruise missiles from a train in North Korea with a range of 932 miles. Such a trajectory and mobile launch capability puts Seoul in South Korea and Tokyo in Japan (and, interestingly, Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast) within striking distance. Trump’s policy of appeasing Little Rocket Man clearly didn’t work and Biden taking his bat and ball home from Kabul with such public disregard for America’s allies must cause more than a little worry in capital cities within that 932-mile radius.

If Biden had no compunction in returning half the population of Afghanistan to repression, subjugation and worse, where tactical air cover afforded security and not one of the few American servicemen based there had died for years, what is he going to do with the 25,000 US troops in South Korea? They’ve been there since the 1950s – how’s that for a ‘forever war’, Joe?

Which brings us to China, North Korea’s effective sponsor. Its economy will overtake America’s by the end of the decade. Its concurrent military build-up is frightening. It buys more and more influence in Africa every day. It continues apace to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese-controlled lake, in breach of international law. Xi’s drive for domestic authoritarian rule by the Chinese Communist Party is plain to see.

Encouraged by Biden’s isolationist instincts, Beijing must be weighing up the chances of succeeding with some form of takeover of Taiwan. A successful democracy, a thriving economy despite being shunned by so many countries which prioritise economic relations with China (which officially denies its very existence) and a huge irritation to the Middle Kingdom. Would Biden really draw a line in the sand over Taiwan? Would he commit American blood and treasure to a fresh ‘forever war’?

Only this week America has signed up to a cooperation agreement with Australia and the UK to build some nuclear-powered (but not nuclear-armed) submarines in Oz to project power in the theatre of immediate Chinese influence. But both smaller countries know that this initiative all depends on America – and betting the ranch by relying on their word has been proved not to be a sound decision.

Ah, lines in the sand ... like the one Obama declared over Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, then ignored and created a vacuum which Putin happily filled and gave Russia a Mediterranean port on a plate.

So the terrorists won, didn’t they? As the world changed forever on that clear blue September New York morning 20 years ago, the greatest economic and military power the world had ever known pivoted in its anger and grief to an area, both geographical and strategic, where for many reasons it could never win. And for 20 years it took its eye off the bigger prize – to remain the democratic and free guiding beacon and counterpoint to the growing global might and influence of Russia and China.

Because, Mr Biden, if your population tells the planet that every four years they elect the Leader of The Free World, then I reckon the Free World has every right to expect you to lead them – and in that task you have singularly failed.

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