Posted inGlobal Affairs

The Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Two Perspectives

Illustration by Khadijah Ali

Long after the end of the West’s involvement in Afghanistan, doubts surrounding the correctness of the decision to withdraw will still linger. Only a couple of months old by now, the news still has a forceful effect. But now we may more coldly assess the overall impact of this decision. This is what this article intends to do.

In this special piece, two of The Oxford Blue‘s contributing writers, Zack Martin and Alex Miller, discuss the causes and, most importantly, the effects of leaving Afghanistan. Taking opposite stances, Martin argues for the withdrawal and Miller argues against it. Here are their two perspectives.

In Support of the Withdrawal (Zack Martin)

Snap Back to Reality: Why the West had to leave Afghanistan

After 20 years of unwise and costly conflict, the British withdrawal from Afghanistan cannot come soon enough.

A Question Posed

The last soldier from the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, departed Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport, on 28th August, the fourth time that British forces, whether deployed unilaterally, or as part of a coalition, have departed Afghanistan after a costly intervention. 

It also means that, six years after his sudden passing, a question raised in Parliament in 2001 by the late Charles Kennedy can now begin to be answered in full, free of political posturing and with the great enabler that is hindsight. The findings of said question paint a picture of huge sacrifices with precious little attained and lead to only one conclusion: Western military misadventure in Central Asia and the Middle East must cease, and this withdrawal was long overdue.

Like any military conflict, British involvement in the war in Afghanistan came about in 2001 through the heat of political oratory and the hope of change. The then Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called for the “destruction of the machinery of terrorism”, whilst the leader of the Conservative opposition Ian Duncan Smith, declared that the intervention was about “upholding civilised values against anarchy and about defending good against the evil of terrorism”, low expectations indeed. In fact, of all the party leaders, it was only one – the aforementioned leader of the Liberal Democrats, Mr. Kennedy – who, whilst offering his full support for the intervention, questioned what the parameters of the operation would be, and “What analysis has been made of the possible political and humanitarian consequences?”

A Question Answered

Undoubtedly, the consequences of this war are most acutely felt by the casualties. 457 British servicemen have been killed on operations in Afghanistan since 2001, and according to the Ministry of Defence, a further 6,645 were admitted to field hospitals, of which 293 UK personnel were categorised as ‘Very Seriously Injured’ from all causes excluding disease, and 298 UK personnel were categorised as ‘Seriously Injured’ from all causes excluding disease. Such statistics, shocking in and of themselves, do not even account for the mental cost of the war felt by current servicemen and women, and veterans alike. Between 2000-2019, there were 306 suicides amongst regular armed forces personnel, with an uptick since 2020, including 14 suicides between January and March 2020, thought by the Ex-Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer to be a result of the particularly heavy fighting experienced during Operation Herrick (2002-2014). No such reliable statistic exists for veterans suicide rates in the UK – unlike partner nations in Afghanistan such as Canada and the United States, but Mercer, who resigned in April over what he perceived to be a betrayal of Britain’s Northern Ireland Veterans as part of the Overseas Operations Bill, frequently comments on Veteran’s issues via his Twitter Profile, recently castigating the lack of initiative surrounding the Government’s evacuation of Afghan interpreters, and the continuing lack of care for veterans – forcing them to seek help from private charities.

These numbers are shocking and, whilst it is true that every serviceman and woman accepts the ‘contract of unlimited liability’ – the understanding that they must give up certain rights and accept that they may be forced to kill, or be killed in the line of duty –, the British Government must also accept that, as well as having the privilege of commanding these men and women, it also has the responsibility of preventing such deaths and injuries unnecessarily. Despite the dramatic fall in deaths since the end of combat operations in 2014, the guaranteed withdrawal of US forces, by far the most significant foreign contributor to maintaining the security situation in Afghanistan, has already emboldened the Taliban in their conflict with the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) backed ANA (Afghan National Army) and lead to an uptick in hostilities, something which, if British troops remain in the country, even in a non-combat role, will inevitably risk raising these already too high figures in such a manner, necessitating a withdrawal in line with the Americans.

The economic cost of the War in Afghanistan may be felt less tangibly than the lives lost, but it is no less damming. Though the exact figure is difficult to estimate, it is put at somewhere between £37-£40 billion (Ledwidge) by former naval officer and barrister Frank Ledwidge in his book ‘Investment in Blood’, cited by amongst others, Channel 4, the Guardian and the Telegraph. This figure, equating to roughly £2000 per British household, is far higher than the widely criticised Government figure of £22.2 billion and does not consider the cost of veteran’s compensation and the treatment given to them by the NHS.

War has been, and always will be, expensive, but this vast outlay on Afghanistan, taken from the Treasury Special Reserve by both Labour and Conservative governments, is unacceptable given the drop of roughly £8 billion in wider defence spending in 2021 compared to 2008. The impact of such a huge expenditure, and of this accompanying budget cut, may not be felt so keenly in the asymmetric conflicts that have defined the so-called ‘War on Terror’, but with a growing focus on a future potential peer-on-peer conflict, with the likes of AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) pitted against an ailing but still dangerous Russia, or a rapidly rising China, the alternative uses of such a huge figure – enough to create an entire Carrier Group for the Royal Navy, or fund 3 Brigades in the British Army, some 5,000 men each, for ten years, will be sorely missed.

This money has already been spent, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, whatever the date, will not bring it back. However, it will prevent any more unnecessary spending (£500 million spent in 2019/2020 on combat operations overseas, of which Afghanistan took up the lion’s share) and will enable a reorientation of Britain’s military doctrine and funding away from such counter-terrorism centred, assymetric warfare, and towards capabilites that better equip the Armed Forces to meet the goals of the 2021 Intergrated Review. Whether that reorientation be the newly established Littoral Response Group (LRG), envisaged to be expanded East of Suez in 2023 to aid efforts in the Indo-Pacific, or the creation of a National Cyber Force (NCF), to allow Britain the keep pace with developments in this new field of Warfare, this withdrawal must be used as a launchpad into a new era of UK military operations if we are to reap the potential benefits from this decision. 

Finally, let us turn away from our own rather selfish motivations to leave Afghanistan, and consider the impact it will have on the country itself. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have accepted that the nation building experiment in Afghanistan is over (for the time being at least), they are no longer willing to commit the capital, political or financial, as well as the manpower required for such an endeavour. As a result, the current British troop presence in Afghanistan prior to the evacuation was of limited use to the Afghan people and, outside of the capital of Kabul, had little impact on the wider security situation in the country. This is illustrated by this series of graphics, which highlight the contested nature of Afghanistan as far back as 2017, at which point an estimated 15 million people (half the population) lived in areas controlled by the Taliban. What this military presence did do however, was provide a target for the enemies of the West in the Middle East, such as the Islamic State claimed attack on Kabul Airport on August 27th, which claimed the lives of 60 Afghan servicemen and 13 US troops. For as long as British or any other NATO troops, for that matter, remain in Afghanistan, the country will remain a rallying point across the world for the enemies of the West. Much like the response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which saw the arrival of tens of thousands of Muslim volunteers, and the injection of millions of dollars into the country on behalf of Muslim investors, in the name of expelling the occupying forces, the continued presence of Western troops in Afghanistan will maintains the countries reputation as a hotspot of religious terrorism, and its people will continue to suffer as a result. 

In Opposition to the Withdrawal (Alex Miller)

People Falling From Planes: Joe Biden’s Tragedy In Afghanistan

There are videos of it on Twitter, if you can bring yourself to watch. You can watch, if you like, young Afghans fall from the wings of planes, as parents being crushed to death by a scrum of desperate people hold their children up to departing soldiers in the hope that one will take pity. Modern technology has made it awfully easy for you to see these things. 

You can also see the President of the United States saying that the tragedy he unleashed was unexpected and completely unpredictable. You can see him saying that there is no reason to help an Afghan Army “not willing to fight“, even as his actions kneecapped their ability to do so. And you can see him prevaricating over the fate of the ten thousand-odd Americans still trapped in Afghanistan, saying that their fate is contingent on the goodwill of a group with a penchant for slicing people’s heads off in public.

Almost every single thing about this withdrawal is catastrophic. From the fact that those brave Afghans who chose to assist coalition troops have been abandoned to the fact that every country who thought they could depend on the support of American power is now sitting very uneasily, there is not a shred of dignity to be salvaged.  In six months, Joe Biden has done more to wreck the credibility of America on the world stage than Donald Trump ever did, as allies around the world (including in London) contemplate whether Donald Trump’s American retrenchment has become the rule rather than the exception. For instance, there will be some awfully twitchy trigger fingers in Taipei, following Chinese Communist Party sabre-rattling in the South China Sea immediately after the fall of Kabul. Joe Biden’s promises will likely feel more than a little hollow to Taiwanese who look across the world and see another people abandoned by a United States who had promised to save them.

There are two currently proliferating narratives among the apologists for this disaster. First, that Joe Biden’s hands were somehow tied by the Trump administration’s previous bumbling into a deal with the Taliban. Nonsense. Nearly every significant Trump policy was immediately reversed by the Biden administration upon entering office. There is no reason why this “deal” should have been sacrosanct. And this claim also ignores the fact that Joe Biden has been a longtime advocate of withdrawal from Afghanistan, including it in any campaign website you care to find, as well as opposing his former boss’s troop surge in 2009. So even if Donald Trump had somehow tied Biden’s hands, this does not imply that Biden would have done otherwise. And there is, of course, no small amount of irony in the most powerful man in the world complaining of his powerlessness.

Second, that the slide back into control of the Taliban was somehow inevitable, and that the American withdrawal was just ripping a band-aid off. In cities and townships across the country, young men and women protest against the advent of tyranny under the Afghan flag, in the face of executions of their compatriots. In Panjshir, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of Afghan resistance to Taliban rule at the turn of the millenium, rallies men to rage against the dying of the light. And indeed, there had been two months of hard fighting before the fall of Kabul, in addition to the years of counterinsurgency operations. The problem wasn’t a lack of fighting spirit among Afghans.

The problem was instead Joe Biden’s refusal to allow contractors who maintained the Afghan National Army’s airpower and supply lines (among other things) to remain whilst the US troops retreated, which crushed the ANA’s ability to fight.  Some one third of the Afghan Air Force’s resources were inoperative by July of this year. The ANA and Afghan National Special Forces were built by the United States into a fighting force intended, like the fighting forces of many US allies, to fight alongside the United States, much like the JSDF in Japan and the ROKA in Korea were constructed into fighting forces that work within the modern framework of overlapping alliances. Once the American contractors that underpinned the ANA’s ability to fight left, it is no surprise that the collapse came slowly and then all at once. Whilst it is true that there was serious corruption in the ANSF and ANA, this problem was improving, and with a continued American commitment it is not fantastical to think that it would have eventually been eliminated.

There was no sign of impending Taliban victory while US and NATO forces remained. After the initial commitment, consisting of arming local warlords to drive out the Taliban, and then after the troop surge in 2008-9, the Taliban were sufficiently suppressed that policing duties could be handed over to the Afghan Special Forces in 2013. The Taliban were consigned to mountain hideaways in the outskirts of Afghanistan, where the United States would every so often drop a very big bomb on them. Not a single American soldier had died for eighteen months.  America’s presence in Afghanistan was indefinitely sustainable, given a public largely apathetic. The price of the freedom of some thirty-eight million souls was less than one tenth of one percent of America’s GDP. 

But forget all of that. Suppose that the collapse was inevitable, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. How cruel is it to say that a group of men who are hungry, tired, nearly out of ammunition, and abandoned by those they thought to be their allies, who had nevertheless been stubbornly fighting for two months after the Taliban’s offensive began, and for twenty years before that, refuse to help themselves, and so we should wash our hands of the matter? It is like claiming that your neighbor deserves to burn to death because they are not trying hard enough to put their house fire out. 

After the Taliban were driven from power, women learned to read, a privilege forbidden to them previously. Men shaved their hair as they pleased, and listened to whatever music they wanted. In a country where the median age is just eighteen, a whole generation was born who had never known Taliban rule. In some twenty or thirty or forty more years, perhaps, like in Korea or in Japan or in Germany, those young men and women might have built a new country for themselves. But a necessary precondition for all of that was the United States remaining in the country for as long as it took, just as the United States remains in Germany and in Korea to this day.

Because of Joe Biden’s decision, this future will remain a what-if. A fairytale told by mothers who are now treated as no more than property to children who will see their fathers beheaded, their uncles thrown off buildings, and their sisters sold into slavery as the brides of Taliban fighters. 

We are already hearing the first rumblings of the incoming catastrophe. A pregnant policewoman is shot. Nine of the Hazara people are massacred. Women in university are forced to pose in the burka. Teachers tearfully say goodbye to their female students. All of this was predictable, all of this was predicted.

In the coming weeks and months, every person who clamored for an “end to endless wars” should take a long and hard look at themselves and at the reality of the consequences of that slogan. We threw a country to the wolves because we got bored. And we declared defeat without a fight.