The potential PM’s plan to cut benefits and boost defence spending merely serves her craving for the theatre of conflict
Fri 26 Aug 2022
Was anything learned? On the first anniversary of Britain’s defeat in Afghanistan there is only silence. The previous defeat in Iraq saw a searing public inquiry in 2016. It concluded that Iraq had posed “no imminent threat”. The war was “unnecessary”, and based on dodgy intelligence, dubious legality and feeble attempts at avoidance. But Iraq was the “bad” war. Afghanistan was always the “good” one. Hence no public inquiry.
Afghanistan was the worst fiasco of British foreign policy since Suez. Eager to curry favour with George W Bush in his craving for revenge for 9/11, Tony Blair lost his senses and went on a post-imperial romp. Under Nato auspices and using mercenaries from the Northern Alliance, the Taliban were driven south out of Kabul in 2001. Strategists including America’s secretary of state Colin Powell and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned against “owning” and “nation-building” Afghanistan. But with “mission accomplished”, Bush and Blair could not resist. The US was to spend an estimated $1tn there in an effort to create a westernised colony, a monument to democratic values in the heart of Muslim Asia
The Afghanistan folly compressed into two decades the history of the British empire in Asia. My first visit in 2006 saw Kabul already starting to decompose. I recall standing at dusk on a fort overlooking the city next to a member of its new ruling class, a Swedish aid worker. He gazed into the seething gloom and sighed: “Oh why can’t Afghanistan be more like Sweden?” I choked.
At the time, 3,000 British troops were about to leave for Helmand province to drive out the Pashtun Taliban. The latter were prospering from the bizarre attempt of a British minister, Clare Short, to eradicate the Afghan opium crop. Poppy revenue then rose to a record $2.3bn, surely ranking Short as the most successful agriculture minister of all time.
Eight years later, 453 British soldiers were dead, at least £27bn of taxpayers’ money had been spent and Helmand had to be rescued by American marines. The waste was senseless and astronomical. Britain lingered on another seven years, enmeshing thousands of Afghans in the occupation. Last year, London ratted on them and fled. Now western sanctions are helping to cause mass starvation. Just as Afghan policy in 2001 was driven by revenge, so now it is driven by ignominy. Empires never last, but rarely has their demise been so awful.
In recent interviews, Britain’s retired defence chief and Afghanistan veteran, the always thoughtful Nick Carter, has been blistering. At the time of 9/11, the Taliban in Kabul had been infiltrated by the CIA and were in contact with Pakistan. They had begun to switch out of opium production. Their younger, moderate wing had at least debated expelling Osama bin Laden. Now the same Taliban have been driven back to the middle ages. Even so, Carter stresses the necessity of reopening contact and engagement. He deplores the drone killings that invite retaliation and make negotiation impossible. We must deal with those at whose mercy we have left our friends.
The attitudes that drove Britain to intervene in Afghanistan seem unchanged. It is the stale Churchillian view of global roles, world stages and British values. They are what induced David Cameron to help topple Gaddafi and reduce Libya to anarchy. They made him try to join the Arab spring against Syria’s President Assad, until stopped by parliament. They continued with Boris Johnson mimicking President Trump in “making Britain great again”. He left Europe’s single market, dispatched an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea and demanded that “we” defeat Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. He even told President Zelenskiy what not to concede.
Johnson is now being aped by his putative successor, Liz Truss. She uses the same language of strutting interventionism. In a flurry of cliches she told a Chatham House audience last year that Britain’s duty was to build “a network of liberty” round the globe. She sought a policy that would enable “the free world to fight back … to promote freedom not fear”.
Truss’s rhetoric is empty. She says whatever she thinks her audience wants to hear. She was full of praise for China and is now fiercely anti. On the EU she was remain then leave, according to where her career interest lay. She has negotiated a dreadful trade deal with Australia and is at sea on the Northern Irish protocol. Truss’s sole objective is to find machismo in the moment.
Such bombast is hard to imagine in a German, French or Scandinavian politician. It has nothing to do with the purpose of foreign policy – guarding national security and prosperity. It merely diverts resources from defence into an aggressive posturing, requiring extravagant kit to match. The defence budget is diverted from manpower towards ships and planes, vanity projects of no defensive use and riddled with delay and inefficiency.
I find it hard to disagree with Americans – and Europeans – baffled that successive British governments have found themselves unable to break the spell of imperial outreach. That Americans are under the same spell is not the point; they can afford it. Truss is now proposing to starve her welfare state to find another £10bn for “defence”, upping its budget from 2.1% to 3% of GDP by 2030. This is justified by no knowable threat.
Just as Johnson wanted to win Downing Street by wrenching Britain from Europe, so Truss wants to drag it into one theatre of conflict after another, waving her flag from any stage going. The result is no secret. It lies bleeding in a Kabul gutter. And no one dares ask why.
- Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist