18 August 2021

Britain’s veterans and the Afghan people deserve the best Global Britain has to offer


‘The sacrifice in Afghanistan is seared into our national consciousness.’

Boris Johnson’s words to the House of Commons today are especially poignant for the many thousands of veterans of that conflict, myself included. We volunteered to serve because we believed a stable Afghanistan was good for us all. The Taliban’s impact on world affairs had become all too clear in the horrors of 9/11; here was the chance to rid the world of a regime that sheltered Al-Qaeda while treating its own population, particularly women, abominably.

Twenty years on, us veterans are glued to the news, ‘doom-scrolling’ social media, with supportive WhatsApp groups pinging late into the night as we try to help each other deal with our emotions and process the pain. But few who served will be surprised at the ease with which the Taliban swept through the country. What I saw on the ground in Helmand and Herat between 2010 and 2013 was a shameful excuse for nation-building.

Although our soldiers fought valiantly, Western technocrats had unwittingly conspired to create an unaccountable and corrosive Afghan state. Ours was a featherweight political strategy delivered with all the finesse of an elephant on roller skates, and it did a huge disservice to both our own service personnel and the Afghan people, tens of thousands of whom died defending their country from the Taliban insurgency.

It’s hard to overstate how dysfunctional things had got by the time I arrived in Afghanistan. I saw government officials siphon away millions, while Afghan police raped girls in a police station metres from our outpost.

As I recruited 250 Afghans for a team to jump-start local governance and public services across the provinces of Baghdis, Herat, and Farah, I was struck by the motivation of the Afghans on our team, in local government and the Western team leaders. While there were certainly exceptional people with noble intentions, the majority seemed driven by individual gain. Once hired, many put their greatest effort not into rebuilding the country, but getting jobs for their own family members. Try as I might, there was no sense of a higher purpose, a vision set out from the leaders in Kabul. Everyone seemed in it for themselves – take, take, take. Even some of my Western colleagues saw Afghanistan less as a country than an industry from which they could derive an income.

Amidst this corruption and indifference, the Taliban offered swift, crude justice to often terrified communities, with their mobile ‘courts’ dishing out what passed for justice to corrupt officials, thieves and rapists. Whilst we saw abhorrent abuses of human rights and due process, perhaps some locals saw the restoration of order.

Strategically, the West never connected its Ends, Ways and Means. Though tactically decisive, disconnected military operations sat in suspended animation in the absence of the overarching political and economy strategy required to build a lasting settlement.

A different Taliban

In contrast, a nimble, disciplined alliance of opposition has coalesced around a resurgent, morphing Taliban, crafting what seemed a better offer to many Afghans than the incapable, incompetent government that emerged after 2001. It is on the back of this makeshift coalition of Talibs, Tajiks, Uzbeks and perhaps even Hazaras that the new Taliban alliance has ridden across the country at breakneck speed. It is the fate of these transient ties which will determine the country’s future.

But it is the rising contest between the West and China which really raises the stakes for the next chapter of the ‘Great Game’ in central Asia. Our failing military-led endeavour cannot continue, but that does not mean we have to step away from the region. Indeed, the consequences of the ‘do nothing’ option espoused by President Biden are unacceptable – particularly when China and Russia are keeping their embassies open and cementing ties with the Taliban regime.

This is just the beginning. We have not only lost our regional counterterrorism platform, but a buoyed Pakistan – now a major roundabout on China’s Belt and Road Initiative – has shifted its delicate equilibrium with India  Ultimately, a ‘do nothing’ approach sees China securing its influence across Central Asia right onto Europe’s borders.

Things may seem unspeakably bleak at the moment, but all is not lost. There are opportunities to exploit the Taliban’s rickety partnerships, whilst building a new Western alliance seeking a politically-led seat in the Great Game. The Taliban is no longer a homogenous entity – it has diversified both ethnically and geographically into a hodge-podge of opposition groups. It is this opposition, comprised of different tribes and family groups, that has swept them across Afghanistan, but what it gains in breadth it loses in coherence.

Holding together this nascent grouping is far from a foregone conclusion, especially as increasing Chinese and Russian pressure is applied upon its quick mix foundations. How, for instance, will a Taliban-China settlement hold up while Beijing continues to persecute its Muslim minority in Xinjiang?

What now?

Faced with this situation, the West must imagine and build a third way. What does that look like?

Clearly a military solution is out of the question. As the Prime Minister said today, the “hard reality” is that without American support there is little chance of a sustained Western military presence in the country. If anyone was in any doubt, Johnson reminded MPs that at the peak of operations, 90,000 of the 132,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan were American.

A new strategy must , therefore, be unapologetically political, striving to break or pacify the Taliban’s alliance, foster Taliban-China tensions, and deny Russia and China unfettered dominance in Central Asia.

I am optimistic that the PM, a more strategic thinker than he is given credit for, understands that his legacy is intertwined with British leadership in the West’s competition with China and Russia. To do this, he must build a new, dexterous Western alliance just as eager and able to use trade as a decisive lever as military force. He has taken the first steps calling for “a united position amongst the likeminded”. And although not as costly as a sustained military campaign, this strategy would not come cheap; we will need considerable investment in our diplomatic and intelligence efforts, niche military capabilities and a rock-solid Western alliance.

All of this is achievable, but if ‘Global Britain’ it to be more than a slogan it will require a wholesale reform of how we conduct our business overseas. Britain’s political, civil servants and military must move from ‘business as usual’ to a constant competition footing (do not underestimate the change in mindset required here!), to contest Chinese influence and bolster our regional allies.

This is no easy task. We’re already seeing how the Integrated Review is being stalled by the ‘Whitehall’ blob as mandarins preserve their fiefdoms and fealty. Working on Asia and the Indo-Pacific I have seen firsthand how departmental divisions get in the way of effective work, not least because no single commander marshals our efforts. That, ultimately, is what we need. A single person, leading a single platform for years and accountable to the Prime Minister for a cross-governmental effort in the region.

The next chapter has begun in Afghanistan, and we must be ready to play our part. The people of Afghanistan and our fallen deserve the very best that a truly integrated Global Britain has to offer.

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Dom Morris is a senior crisis and planning adviser to the UK government.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.