THE WEST’S abrupt and calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan is, for British consumption at least, being compared to the rude awakening to its impotence without US political support that its Suez adventure provided in 1956. Actually, it is far worse than that.
As anyone below seventy is unlikely to remember Suez the comparison is also being made to the US withdrawal from South Vietnam and the consequent fall of its capital, Saigon. The famous scenes of the chaotic scramble for helicopter flights from the US Embassy rescuing the last remnants of the American presence are all over social media. I recall the moving scenes as a teenager; but it is worse than that too, as described in this masterful explanation by Brendan O’Neil in Spiked.
The abandonment of Afghanistan will now have its own place in history but it is in many respects worse than either.
Let us recall briefly then, the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez adventure of 1956 was not a military defeat it was a political one. The combined UK forces lost 16 men, the French 10, and the Israeli’s 172 against estimates of up to 3,000 Egyptian military personnel and 1,000 civilians. The Egyptian air force lost over 215 aircraft and its army 125 tanks. It was the UK’s last battalion-scale paratrooping drop and the world’s first helicopter assault. For all that it was without moral authority, with no Commonwealth country (including Australia sitting on the UN Security Council) or the US supporting it.
In the end Egypt’s President Nassar was strengthened rather than removed, the Arab nations’ solidarity was bolstered and in eleven years another war would break out in the Middle East with significant consequences still existing today. It led to the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden and the humiliating realisation that without tacit support from the US President (Eisenhower had repeatedly warned against military intervention and threatened a run on Sterling) the days of European colonial expeditions were over.
Despite having the bomb from 1952 Britain was no longer a superpower. That is why historians keep going back to Suez as the moment when the Empire could see it had no clothes.
Likewise in Vietnam in 1954. While Điện Biên Phủ was without doubt a highly embarrassing military (and political) defeat for France, the resulting escalation into the Vietnam War of the 1960s was not a military defeat for the US that many perceive. It overcame the North Vietnamese peace-breaking Tet Offensive of 1968 which ended the military capability of the North Vietnamese Army. Again, however, the propaganda victory lay with the enemies of freedom as the scale of the surprise attack undermined the general morale, then back home majority support in favour of the war collapsed.
A hundred years after its bloody Civil War and never suffering invasion during WWII, US citizens were suddenly witnessing the horrors of guerrilla warfare in their living rooms and learning the draft might be ramped up to bolster US troop numbers. From that point on the political journey was to find a peaceful solution where South Vietnam could hold its own. Again, once US political will to provide background support evaporated so too did the self-belief of the Vietnamese to fight communism – and the nascent state imploded.
What we are seeing now in Afghanistan – whatever the merits of invading the country – is not a military defeat but a moral and political one like Suez and Saigon – but amplified.
What nation will trust the West to be a reliable ally for the foreseeable future? Taiwan is undoubtedly put at greater risk of invasion. Faith in NATO is evaporating. Are the Baltic states now safe from Russian aggression?
It should be acknowledged that the first of two original goals for the invasion of 2001 – of preventing it being used as a base for Al Qaeda – had been realised early on. It took longer to apprehend or eliminate Osama bin Laden (2011), but then he had been hiding in Pakistan for nine years. The goal of ‘nation building’ was developed by 2003 and in the end grew to be perversely provocative to the host populace. Earlier this year the US Embassy flew a rainbow flag to celebrate LBGT+ rights – defining how the mission’s limited aims had expanded to become counter-productive and beyond ridicule.
Was a full withdrawal really necessary? Having no “boots on the ground” is a popular political metaphor but it applies only to having forces actively engaged in the field – it does not apply to technical assistance, intelligence gathering, training and advice. How many realise the UK currently has troops located in 142 bases over 45 countries world-wide?
Reducing Afghanistan to the status of receiving only military advice and technical support had already happened in 2014 when Operation Herrick ended and Operation Toral was created. There have been no UK military casualties in Afghanistan since February 2020 and that was of a ‘non-battle’ nature, the most serious before that was when 5 allied personnel (2 UK) died in an accidental helicopter crash in 2015.
A similar pattern of reducing fatalities for US forces in Afghanistan pertained, with 9 personnel lost in 2020 – of which only two of those were killed in action eighteen months ago, with 5 others resulting from military accidents that happened in the country. These fatalities compare to the total loss of over 2,354 US personnel since 2001 – against more than 45,000 Afghan military personnel who lost their lives between 2014-19.
Following the swift collapse of the Afghan Army the obvious question is how then could such small numbers of Allied personnel have made a difference to ensure relative stability?
The military answer is that by removing US air cover and technical support that could repair the expensive and sophisticated allied-supplied hardware the Afghan army’s 4-1 advantage in numbers became worthless. The political answer is that such was the level of corruption in the Afghan army and civil institutions that too many people were not willing to fight and risk their lives for superiors who themselves were shown to be craven and looking to escape. Good honest Afghans who had fought bravely or sided with Westerners found themselves marked out for retribution with every chance of betrayal by neighbours scared of the consequences for themselves.
James Glancy (pictured), my former MEP colleague and three times a Royal Marine Afghan tour veteran tweeted that four interpreters he was photographed with in February in Kandahar had all been executed outside their homes last Thursday.
The collapse has therefore been brutally quick, showing US intelligence to be over-optimistic – Kabul’s collapse was put at 90 days away only last Friday – and Western allies ill-prepared.
Further, logistical errors have only made the catastrophe more difficult and potentially deadly, with reports of thousands of US civilians not even able to get to Kabul airport never mind find space on a flight. Staff of the UK mission to process the repatriation of Afghan helpers were still en route when Kabul fell. A Canadian Air Force evacuation mission had transport aircraft waiting in Kuwait but could not get its Government to clear it to fly into Kabul. On Monday night a Luftwaffe A400M transport left Kabul with only SEVEN passengers, refusing to help any others that were not on its list.
Highly valuable military equipment from the US was abandoned rather than destroyed and huge arms caches are now in the hands of the Taliban and there was no plan to prevent it. Meanwhile leftist woke leaders such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern implored the Taliban to uphold human rights and the US State department joined the UN Security Council calling on the Taliban to provide an “inclusive” government with the “full and meaningful participation of women”. that’s it sorted then. Right?
President Biden has attempted to shift the blame on to former President Trump as it was he who brokered a deal with the Taliban, but this conveniently ignores that the deal had many break clauses dependent on them halting attacks on foreign troops and preventing Al Qaeda from operating in Afghanistan. Earlier this year Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US was “taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are complying”. Yet when a bi-partisan Congressional panel called on the withdrawal deadline to be pushed back Biden chose to ignore it. US generals were also becoming alarmed and lobbied for maintaining a military presence to provide technical support, this too was ignored. The UK Government reportedly asked European leaders if they would join in providing technical assistance but none were willing.
In fact Biden accelerated his plans for withdrawal – making them effective by 8 July rather than 11 September.
The collapse of what had essentially become the US mission in Afghanistan (when addressing the nation Biden did not even manage to mention NATO or use the word “Allies”) is wholly down to to the 46th US President – he had the ability to halt the collapse and he made the wrong call. To remove the Taliban would now take many more lives and likely require door to door combat – it is not an option – they are there to stay.
After the Afghanistan expedition – Operation Enduring Freedom – there will be no freedom, enduring or otherwise. The return of more international terrorism cannot be discounted. The Taliban is emboldened and women’s rights will undoubtedly suffer, the West’s reputation for reliability is in tatters and the world a far more deadlier place. China, Russia and Iran are looking to exploit Western weakness – and will all test President Biden further.
Historians will be the judge but the scenes of the mayhem at Kabul airport, the Chinook above the US embassy compound and the revelations that are yet to come about undoubted reprisals and summary executions will add to the growing charge sheet.
Suez was humiliating for Britain and France; Vietnam was a humiliation for the US; but Afghanistan is a humiliation for the West , for it was not just the US but NATO and their allies. The West’s self-belief is evaporating with every breath it uses to demean itself and its achievements; its collective judgment is now openly questionable; its willingness to fight in its own defence now doubted – and its ability to hold a line and be depended upon no longer assured.
Withdrawing large scale troop commitments in Afghanistan was undoubtedly required, but it had started seven years ago and to a large degree was completed. Withdrawing technical support and advice that could have remained while an internal political solution was sought, appears precipitous and rash – and self-harming to our strategic interests.
The manner and goals we went into Afghanistan for are open to conjecture but the reasons and manner we have left surely are not.
Photo of James Glancy (centre left with camera) together with fellow cameraman in Kandahar in February, and four interpreters since murdered by the Taliban.