Sadness and mounting alarm: some personal reflections on Afghanistan

GPG Associate Sir Bill Jeffrey is a retired UK civil servant, former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, with wide experience of Government. In this week’s blog, he examines the situation ongoing in Afghanistan and reflects on the challenges and lessons that arose from decades of foreign policy in the country and wider region.

One of the consequences of a political, military and civilian commitment of the intensity of our twenty year campaign in Afghanistan is that it has created a generation of politicians, military people, diplomats and other public servants with a sense of commitment to the country and its people, and a personal stake in the outcome. We’ve seen something of this in the reaction to the horrendous events of the last few weeks.

I am one such. I never served in Afghanistan. My one hesitation when GPG asked me to write this blog was that there are many others with much more direct experience on the ground than myself. But as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence for five years from 2005 I was closely involved in advising Defence Ministers and mobilising the Department’s civilian capability in support of the military effort.

I also visited Afghanistan several times a year, partly to be briefed on the campaign and familiarise myself with the issues, and partly to provide visible leadership for the deployed MOD civil servants. Our military were rightly centre stage. They showed extraordinary courage and resilience, took the greatest risks, and in some cases made the ultimate sacrifice. But the civilians played a vital supporting role, frequently close to the front line.

These visits, which included meetings with many Afghans, some in public life and the security forces, others encountered more informally, left me with a strong sense of a country with deep cultural roots and remarkably resilient people, whom history has dealt a bitterly unkind hand. There were also occasional glimpses, in Kabul and elsewhere, of the more normal, secure life which so many Afghans crave.

So, like others, I have watched the events of the last few weeks with sadness and mounting alarm, not least for the safety of the many Afghans on whose support the campaign depended.  As the dust settles, for the moment at least, what conclusions to draw? Where did it go wrong? What lessons for the future?

The media have been awash with analysis of these questions. In a short piece like this, I won’t attempt to replicate that. But here are a few personal thoughts.

First, I don’t myself subscribe to the view that the Afghanistan campaign itself was a strategic error and a waste of human and other resources.  As others have noted, it greatly reduced the terrorist threat from that source for twenty years. The progress made on Afghan capacity-building, education, freedom of expression and the position of women, though fitful and now at risk, was real, and may prove to have lasting impact. The Afghanistan the Taliban are inheriting is very different from the Afghanistan of 2001.

To my mind, the greatest failure has been in more recent times. The decision to withdraw completely and in such an abrupt way was a bad one. It was made as if the Western commitment of troops on the ground was as it had been in the 2000s, whereas in fact the support provided by NATO troops was much more limited, and hadn’t cost a single allied life in combat in 18 months. Moreover, as recent events have proved, that support was the difference between the Afghan security forces being able to hold the line and not being able to do so.

But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The diminished appetite among Western populations for military intervention in distant places has been a fact of life for at least a decade. The Trump administration negotiated a weak deal with the Taliban from a position of evident weakness, effectively unilaterally, and careless of the views of the legitimate Afghan Government.  Although he might not have struck the Trump deal himself, Joe Biden was never going to change course. As Vice President, I recall that his was the strongest and most consistent voice in the Obama cabinet against the military surge in 2009, and in favour of a rapid draw-down of US troops.

With the writing so clearly on the wall, disengagement, if it had to come, was the great strategic challenge of the last few years, and required the most careful, hard-headed negotiation with the other side, and planning for the end game. Neither of these seems to have happened. It was always going to be messy, and I have been involved in enough emergencies to be reluctant to criticise those who end up handling them. Great things have clearly been achieved on the ground in recent weeks in the most difficult of circumstances. Even so, the disarray we have seen suggests a real strategic failure.

Second, as Tony Blair has argued, the unwillingness of the Western powers to persevere in Afghanistan raises sharp questions about global leadership and our ability to counter the threat of Islamic extremism. Blair couches this in terms of promoting democracy. I would be more inclined to speak of liberal Western values. But the point is the same. There needs to be a reappraisal of what the West can and can’t do, and whether it has the will-power to do it. If we won’t, others will.

There also needs to be a hard conversation about the Western alliance. In my experience in several different Government roles, the Americans have always been courteous and cooperative, and in some areas the cooperation is exceptionally deep.  In the end, though – as one would expect – they will do whatever they judge is in the US’s interests. There are plenty of examples of that over the years. But the sidelining of allies in recent months has been of a different order. In this country media attention has focussed on bruised UK feelings at being out of the loop. The really surprising thing to me is how little NATO seems to have featured, given that this has, from the outset, been a NATO operation, and the aftermath of 9/11 was the only occasion in its 70 year history when NATO has activated the commitment in Article 5 of the founding Treaty to come to the defence of a member state under attack.

Third, Afghanistan is probably as challenging an environment as it gets for capacity-building.  Even there, valuable experience was gained in civil-military cooperation in pursuit of development objectives, with senior military officers among the most committed to a comprehensive approach of that kind.  The prospects in Afghanistan itself are now unclear, and depend on whether the Taliban hold to the promises they have made – which must be in doubt.  I see that Turquoise Mountain, the charity which Rory Stewart set up with encouragement from the Prince of Wales, and whose work I observed at first hand in Kabul in the late 2000s, has already committed to continue, which is a good sign.

More generally, it would be a mistake, in my view, to conclude from these events that the kind of capacity-building work which GPG undertakes in insecure parts of the world is less relevant or needed, or indeed less feasible, than it was. If anything, they make such work more pertinent than ever. The challenge of Afghanistan is to learn from the experience, mistakes and all, and do better in future.