Sir Alan Duncan is a former Minister of State at both the Foreign Office and the International Development department.
Any mention of Afghanistan deserves an immediate outpouring of respect for those killed, wounded, or traumatised in the service of their country.
They have been defending a just cause. During the last few days, the dutiful resolve of Sir Laurie Bristow, our Ambassador, who has remained in Kabul to the sound of gunfire, speaks volumes for the best traditions of UK diplomatic service. The danger he faces, and the apocalyptic scenes of desperation around him, starkly illustrate how decisions made in the comfort and security of a political capital can have such massive consequences for people far away. And so it has proved for Joe Biden.
After Donald Trump’s moody and fractious foreign relations, there were high hopes that the new President’s would be more thoughtful. His early focus on Yemen offered hope but, since then, there has been little else of significance – until now.
His historic error has been to think that withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a simple matter – just tidying-up a remnant of 20 years of US engagement. War, some say, is the only way to teach Americans geography: tragically, this catastrophe has now become a cruel lesson in history.
The experience of the last fortnight is not specific to Afghanistan. The history books contain many examples of conflict and upheaval which have resulted in the supposed victor leaving havoc in their wake. Nature abhors a vacuum and, where strong authority is removed, the hole can be rapidly filled by something much worse. That is the lesson that has been so willfully ignored in Afghanistan.
You don’t have to look back very far to understand this obvious danger. There is ample evidence from just the last ten years. There has been near-continuous chaos in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi; and the removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen let the Houthis walk freely through the gates of Sana’a, starting a conflict which has condemned Yemenis to famine, disease, and violence. The US was involved in both, and the West should have learnt from the experience.
US policy has frequently been ‘smash in’, or ‘crash out’, or sometimes both. Any defence capability should be prepared for rapid reaction to unforeseen events, and the coalition response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a classic case of successful and fully justified military action. The same can be said of the UK’s re-taking of the Falkland Islands in 1982.
But most such interventions are far more complex, and require massive planning and understanding. In the case of Kuwait and the Falklands, the objective was absolutely clear-cut, and everyone understood why armed forces had been deployed. They also benefited from unequivocal political leadership which, when combined with the highest standards of military competence, ensured that popular support for the action was massive. In each case, political authority was restored to the previous government: job done.
However, it is precisely because the reasons for being in Afghanistan in the first place were more complicated, that the process of departure is too. What are you leaving behind? The experience of invading Iraq should be deeply engrained in US thinking. It is essential to ask oneself not just whether and how to become involved in military action, but also how then to get out of it.
Put simply, the process of departing is as great a strategic and moral decision as the one to become involved in the first place. The failure to appreciate this crucial truth has been President Biden’s colossal mistake. Military engagement has a beginning and an end, and each decision is as important as the other. Starting something, be it an argument or a conflict, can look easy at the time, but ending it rarely does.
The appalling chaos in Afghanistan, and its possible relapse into medieval barbarity, highlights a broader malaise: the world is preciously short of leadership and political wisdom. There is a dearth of intellectual and moral authority across international politics. This is not a golden age for the wider world.
Donald Trump’s approach to foreign affairs was volatile, arbitrary and shallow, dominated by fuming outbursts on North Korea, China, and Iran, and tetchiness with even NATO and the EU. He showed no interest in proper policy, and stripped the State Department of much knowledge and expertise. This will have undermined the new President’s foreign policy capability, but ultimately it was no excuse for choosing to walk away from Afghanistan, and for proving so naïve about what would ensue. Twenty years were spent containing a bestial force: it has taken Biden 20 days to release it again.
The consequences go far beyond the terrified Afghans at Kabul airfield. Those they leave behind fear vicious oppression, the UK’s immigration policy is in shreds, and Moscow, Beijing and Teheran are all looking on with glee. They will be dancing a jig at the humiliation of the West.
Our commitment to Afghanistan, and the courageous sacrifice of so many, have brought pride and dignity to the UK. We have been there alongside the US; but we are not their wholly-owned subsidiary. Being a strong ally of the US should never stop us from firmly expressing our own opinions. But we have become too supine. We should talk more confidently of our own foreign policy, and not just mimic that of the US.
The Foreign Office used to be a beaming lighthouse of global competence and influence. It still contains a cadre of highly impressive people, but its status has been battered and diminished during the last 20 years. Embassies have been sold off; a diplomat’s career path has become arbitrary; the last Permanent Secretary prioritised diversity over diplomacy; and too much experienced advice has been ignored and subordinated to the whims and instructions of Downing Street. Its recent amalgamation with DFID has never been convincingly justified, and it has created a muddle of purpose and practice which is far from settled.
Intellectually, the newly-labelled FCDO is facing an identity crisis. Its development reputation has been tarnished, and nobody is able to define quite what the UK’s foreign policy actually is. Intoning the words ‘global Britain’ or ‘the rules-based international order’ ring hollow, and have become meaningless. We have cut funding to poor desperate Yemen, and while so many voices across the world were condemning Israeli illegality and excess in East Jerusalem, the UK hardly emitted a squeak.
Personal relationships, which are so essential to our diplomacy, seem few and far between; and where they do exist, they must be prepared to be gritty, not sycophantic. We have ambassadors and officials of unrivalled competence and integrity, but their morale is low. The new order seems to rely heavily on less experienced special xdvisers, who unacceptably filter the flow of paperwork and access to their master.
Our Prime Minister is a former Foreign Secretary. His most impressive moment was when he took personal control of the Government’s response to the Russians’ use of Novichok in Salisbury. That experience should give him the confidence to re-empower the Foreign Office, and appreciate that doing so would enhance him as Prime Minister, not threaten him.
Had the Foreign Office been a much greater force, it could have offered the antidote to President Biden’s folly.