What are the lessons of the calamity in Afghanistan?


“My Lords, on 4th October 2001, less than a month after 9/11 and a few days before the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, we debated in this House what should be done.   I intervene again today, like some other participants of twenty years ago, but miss my dear friend, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.  In a powerful speech, Paddy focussed on the history of Afghanistan.  His family connection went back a century before his birth in India in 1941, to his great grandfather who had been in Kabul, caught up in the First Afghan War, from which we withdrew in 1842, suffering one of the worst military disasters of the 19th Century.  Paddy reminded us that Afghanistan had rarely been at peace and advised of the perils of engagement.  I said that day that the problem was not the absence of socio-economic development, but of a wholly different culture and beliefs, which we would not change for the better by military intervention.  The first rule of Afghanistan is that invaders do not win, and the second is that it will not be a liberal democracy in any foreseeable future.  For twenty years, bookended by the geo-political catastrophes of 9/11 and August 2021, we have engaged in a war undertaken in 2001 to address our concerns.  It was not undertaken at that time to aid the Afghans, and what could have worked as a short, punitive strike, was ultimately doomed when it tried regime and culture change. 

Another colleague we miss today is Baroness Williams of Crosby.  She rightly asked then about UN involvement but that was blocked in early 2008, when the Afghan President Hamid Karzai vetoed Paddy Ashdown’s appointment as UN Envoy, despite his highly successful mandate in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Our response then should have been to engage in talks with the Taliban.  That was the advice given later to the Foreign Office by my Northern Ireland colleagues, brought in by the British Ambassador.  It was dismissed by London.  That is my second point.  Do not ignore the advice of those who have lived through terror-afflicted violence and come out the other side.  We may understand the messy reality better than those whose optimistic wishes dominate their diplomatic assessments.

Thirdly, our research has shown that it is not overwhelming military power and technical sophistication, but the passionate spiritual commitment of devoted actors that wins wars, and this should inform every response to the demand that ‘something must be done’.

We do not have time for a long Chilcott-type enquiry because these lessons are relevant to current involvements across the Muslim world, including as I learnt from some leading Palestinians this week, in Israel/Palestine.  I ask the Minister does he recognize that we ignore history at our peril; that we are unable to build liberal democracies from the outside; and ultimately, we will likely end a conflict best by understanding the spiritual strength of our enemies and negotiating with them when the time is right – and it is too late when you have decided you are leaving.”

The speech made by Lord Alderdice in the House of Lords on 18th August 2021 in the emergency recall debate on the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

4 thoughts on “What are the lessons of the calamity in Afghanistan?

  1. Dear Lord Alderdice, There are many important points that you raise here and I am very much in agreement with the assessments that you offer. Heeding advice, deriving some insights from historical precedents, and reflections on when and where to intervene are vital. I would certainly urge that a record is made of polices and practice that have succeeded and those that have failed, within their context. Any enquiry, which must surely be an imperative now, must not dwell solely on the question of how and why intervention occurred, as the Iraq Enquiry emphasised, but a more systemic review of the processes of making policy, the allocation of resources, and the assumptions that were or were not tested. In short, what we require is a review of how the country makes decisions, which are the essence of strategy.
    There are short term matters which command the current headlines, but we should examine some deeper and longer term questions. If this was a ‘systemic’ collapse of the Afghan state, then does this demand a more thorough examination of the roots of the issue? If the systemic divisions in Afghan society remain, and now the unifying element of a corrupt government has gone, what outcomes should we expect, based on comparative cases? What is to be made of Pakistan’s involvement in this conflict, and of China’s early move towards the Taliban to secure Afghanistan’s resources? We have a collection of political, systemic, strategic, military, and regional questions to answer.
    In 1841-2 and in 1879, Great Britain did indeed suffer military setbacks, but it then returned to Afghanistan, defeated Afghan insurgents, and recaptured Kabul before reaching a settlement with local rulers. In 1919, an Afghan attack on British interests was defeated and a settlement reached. The agreements each stipulated that Afghanistan was to conduct its own internal affairs without interference, and the head of state was to be preserved. In 1919, the anniversary of that event today, August 19th, this arrangement was extended to Afghanistan’s external affairs too. In other words, it was a strategic agreement which preserved Afghan national integrity and kept out hostile powers. Diplomacy was critical.
    There are many who wish to announce that this is the end of the conflict in Afghanistan and that the United States’ involvement there is ended. Few acknowledge that divisions and fissures that had riven Afghan society are still there and the Taliban position is far from secure. They may suffer the fate of Daesh yet, and civil violence may unfold. The art of strategy is to anticipate all developments, including these potential developments, rather than focus only on the present catastrophe.

  2. Some wisdom in these few paragraphs. It must be remembered that US at least will doubtless maintain a CIA presence and run black in Afghanistan, as they do elsewhere, and that this will have a continuing negative impact.

  3. One of the questions which is obscured by what is happening in Kabul must be what is the point of the UK’s Carrier Strike Group parading around the Western Pacific? Is this to show the might of British Forces? Is it show we are seeking new friends and influence? I feel sympathy for the ssrvicemen and women, several thousabd of them, plus 6 plus billion pound’s worth of kit, if they feel the ground has been cut from under them. I never heard if this subject was debated in Parliament, it seems to have been dreamed up by Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary, and the PM at the time, Theresa May was completely embroiled in her party’s internal warfare over leaving the EU. This appears to be a serious lack of democratic accountability.

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