“All that’s happened here since 9/11 – this is a very different country indeed. It feels different now that the Taliban have returned to power. It may be hard to believe, but security has vastly improved, corruption is down and the opium trade has all but disappeared. Pylons distribute electricity to the cities, solar panels are now everywhere, powering irrigation pumps, allowing more crops to grow. After Nato’s dramatic departure, should the West now engage with the Taliban?”
Those are the four short sentences which, as of his resignation yesterday evening, ended Tobias Ellwood’s tenure as chair of the Defence Select Committee. The graveyard of empires has found a plot for one last British career.
As is the way with such things nowadays, it looks as if he was jumped before he was pushed. Four MPs (two Conservative, two Labour) had tabled a motion of no confidence in his chairmanship; press reports suggest he tried to make the case for staying on, and “waffled” when asked for a full apology.
On the face of it, this always seemed like a very weird mine for Ellwood to step on. The Rt Hon Member for Bournemouth East is one of the hawkiest of hawks, about as consistent an advocate as Parliament has for spending lots of money on defence and then going out and using those weapons in support of British interests and values overseas.
So how did he end up offering such a risible apologia for the restored Islamic Emirate? It isn’t difficult, after all, to “vastly improve” security if the principal security threat used to be… you. Nor are brutal dictatorships necessarily incapable of creating at least an outward appearance of good order and prosperity. Would Ellwood wax equally lyrical about Razman Kadyrov’s Chechnya? It has shiny new buildings too.
But in his defence, Ellwood is hardly alone in striking this very strange line. Remember when General Sir Nick Carter suggested that Afghanistan might be “more inclusive”, because the Taliban had changed? He went on to deliver this absolute gem to the Defence Committee:
“I think it is to early to say that defeat has occurred. Victory here needs to be measured in the results and not some great military extravaganza.”
Afghanistan was a rout. The moment America’s patience ran out, the entire NATO occupation became unviable -and the regime upon which western powers had spent two decades and an eye-watering fortune ($145bn from the US alone) building collapsed before the last plane had left.
“Zersprengt ist unser ganzes Heer,
Was lebt, irrt draußen in Nacht umher…”
By way of context, the Soviets not only managed an orderly withdrawal in 1989 but the regime they’d been propping up managed to fight on until 1992. As I said, a rout.
So why pretend otherwise? For General Sir Nick, perhaps, base self-interest is a possible motive. If laying on airlifts for dogs during American evacuations is what we can do, might as well try and say that’s what winning looks like.
However for Ellwood, and others who adopt an idealistic and moral stance on foreign interventions, perhaps the whitewashing of the Taliban actually makes sense.
One can hardly keep claiming a war was a vital crusade for universal values if one gave up on it, at least not without also admitting the extraordinary scale of the failure. Maybe the Taliban aren’t so bad – because if they were the same vicious theocratic reactionaries we fought for 20 years, we’d still be fighting them, right? If everything’s better than expected on the ground then maybe the whole retreat thing was less important than it looked at the time.
There is a serious debate to have about our long-term engagement with Afghanistan. This country does business with many ugly regimes, and there is no reason to think Kabul’s will be an exception forever. But that can be done without having senior defence figures whitewash a group we spent 20 years fighting, in a way which if accepted would make about nineteen and a half of the twenty-year NATO occupation – for which over 400 British troops gave their lives – look ridiculous.
So let Ellwood serve as a warning to other MPs offered a junket in future: a short promotional video might look like a bargain price, but it can cost much more than you think.