Richard North, 31/08/2021  

Just before midnight Kabul time, the last USAF C-17 took off from the airport, bring the 20-year engagement of US and coalition forces to a close.

This also marks the end of the air evacuation from Kabul, although the refugee crisis is by no means over. Although less in the public eye, there are reports of huge crowds on the border crossing points with Pakistan and Iran.

Not much has been said of the northern crossing points with the "stans", although we learn that the Uzbek-Afghan border is now completely closed and no land crossings are allowed through the Termez checkpoint. Similarly, the Turkmenistan border seems to be closed to refugee traffic.

Tajikistan, however, has temporarily taken in around 1,000 Afghan refugees and there was a report that the country was prepared to take in up to 100,000 from its stricken neighbour.

In the meantime, the winding down of Kabul operations have marked a rash of media commentary of the post-mortem variety, many seeking to explain what went wrong and why the Afghan adventure failed – all part of the blame game which, no doubt, will intensify until writers get bored with it and move on to other things.

There tends to be something of a split in emphasis, though – between a broad evaluation of the adventure as a whole, and a more narrow review of the conduct of the manner of our leaving, and the conduct of the evacuation. And in either domain, there are varied attempts to apportion blame.

Quick off the mark in this blame game is Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, with the provocative headline, "Britons want to blame anyone for chaos in Afghanistan – except ourselves".

"Victory has many parents, defeat is an orphan", Jenkins writes, arguing that nothing looked as lonely this past weekend as "Afghan nation-building". But whereas tyrants who fail can be toppled, he observes, democracy rightly diffuses responsibility.

Thus, he asserts, "it is all very well accusing Biden or Johnson or their predecessors. We elected them. When things went well, the west trumpeted its values and patted itself on the back. It was so evidently superior". Britons, he goes on to say:
… almost universally cheered on this venture. They voted for its authors. They derided – for perfectly sound reasons – the values of its foes. They are now desperate to offload blame for failure. But blame lies with western democracy at its most arrogant and interventionist. Blaming Biden and Johnson for not concealing it is absurd.
Actually, this is not so much provocative as offensive. On my various blogs, I wrote over 90 posts on the subject of Afghanistan between 2006 and 2009. I do not recall cheering on what was always a very dubious operation and, by 2009 had concluded it was incapable of success and our troops should be withdrawn.

I certainly didn't vote for its authors and, in strict terms, no one did. No one was given the opportunity when Blair made his decision to commit troops and, one might recall, Gordon Brown's Labour Party had not stood for election with him at the helm when he decided to increase our troop levels in 2006.

Come the 2010 election, I didn't vote for Cameron and it would not have made any difference had I done so. Both Labour and the Tories supported the military intervention. And in 2015, the issue hardly got a look-in, with the emphasis on the promised EU referendum.

Not, in any respect, therefore, can it be said that any British government had a democratic mandate to commit troops to the theatre. Nor, as I remarked in an earlier piece, was there an honest (or any) attempt to secure a mandate. Every stage was "sold" on the basis of short-term, "limited" commitments. At no time ever was it openly suggested that our military presence in Afghanistan was to be a long-term commitment lasting 20 years.

Interestingly, the Washington Post also takes a "blame the people" line, albeit restricting the scope of the blame to the deaths of the 13 service members who were killed in the blast at Kabul airport.

The rationale here, offered by columnist Max Boot, is that US leaders, in carrying out the "pell-mell withdrawal from Afghanistan", were only giving the American people what we wanted.

In a sense, Boot writes, the fuse of the bomb that exploded on Thursday was lit 18 months ago. That was when Trump, with bipartisan support, concluded a terrible troop-withdrawal deal that freed 5,000 Taliban terrorists and sapped the morale of our Afghan allies. Trump made scant provision to save Afghans who had fought with our troops.

Biden, he writes, should have done better, but he didn't. In April, also with bipartisan support, he announced that all US forces would rapidly withdraw, along with the 17,000 contractors who kept the Afghan air force flying and the Afghan army supplied. Denied the ability to support their forces, the Afghan military rapidly collapsed in the face of a Taliban offensive.

There are recriminations aplenty, Boot continues, but the sad fact is that the only way to avoid this particular disaster would have been either to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely or to leave our allies behind.

Both options, he says, would have come with their own costs and were overwhelmingly rejected by the American people: seventy percent of Americans wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, and 81 percent wanted to evacuate translators and other allies. "Our leaders" he concluded, "were simply giving the American people what they thought we wanted".

On somewhat safer ground is Julian Lewis, writing in the Telegraph. The task of overthrowing the Taliban and driving al-Qaeda into exile was quickly accomplished in 2001, he asserts, but Nato then chose an open-ended commitment to impose a Western version of democracy.

Compounding that error, it chose to protect it indefinitely in a country which had a strong sense of its own political and social culture, and which was known to be politically allergic to foreign intervention. Making that choice, Lewis asserts, sowed the seeds of ultimate failure.

Back in the Guardian - which is a frequent repository for the "what went wrong" school – we have Zack Kopplin with a familiar theme. Afghanistan collapsed, he says, because corruption had hollowed out the state.

Echoing Graham Platner's theme in the Jerusalem Post (so closely it could almost be plagiarism), he also tells us that one reason the Afghan military collapsed so quickly was because, "in part, it did not actually exist".

Doubtless well-meant, one cannot help but feel that Kopplin's critique covers familiar territory, known not only from recent articles but from reports written years ago, making a case that we've known about for more than a decade. The "how" and the "why" were then well known to anyone who had taken an intelligent interest in the subject.

And with the detail so well known, and for so long, what we are still lacking is any serious discussion of the points I raised in this piece and this. In the latter, I asked why so many intelligent people, many in a position of some power and influence, could see the system going off the rails but, neither individually nor collectively, seemed to be able to do anything about it.

Expanding on this, one must ask why the people in power seem to have been so insulated from the realities on the ground, and so impervious to the advice of those who knew what was going on, that they chose to pursue the path of destruction that had yesterday the last of the C-17s jetting out of Kabul. 

 When we can answer those questions, perhaps we might be better able to understand why it is that governments so often make serious blunders. At the moment, though, we need more people asking those questions rather than simply rehearsing the same old ground.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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