Tobias Ellwood: We’ve left Afghanistan to again become a haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the West.

14 Jul

Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.

It was just before midnight on October 12 2002 when a terrorist walked into a busy Irish bar in Bali and detonated a suicide bomb contained in his backpack. Those not immediately killed fled onto the street, running straight into the killing zone of a massive car bomb.

Over 200 people were killed, mostly Westerners, and a similar number were injured. This peaceful Indonesian island could not cope with the scale of this attack and hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, with the morgue lining up bodies in its car park under the burning sun.

My brother Jonathan, attending a conference on the island at the time, was missing. I flew out to join my sister to track him down, imagining him perhaps unconscious, in one of the hospitals – but nevertheless alive. Running out of options we finally visited the morgue.

One by one I unzipped the body bags to try and tried to find my brother. I was only able to identify his remains by finding the key-hole surgery scar on his lower back.

It soon dawned on me that the Bali bombing was not a one-off, but confirmation that the 9/11 attacks had triggered a horrific new form of asymmetric threat the West would have to confront.

Jonathan’s murder required me to do more than grieve. I needed to better understand how a peaceful religion could be hijacked by extremists able to persuade others that blowing themselves up would be rewarded via a fast track to paradise. Then I had to follow NATO’s trail to Afghanistan, where 70 nations combined after 9/11 to destroy the terrorists who recruited, funded, armed, and trained the misguided men who killed Jonathan.

It was not just as a bereaved brother, but as an MP and a former combat soldier in Bosnia that I had to see how well all the best intentions of the West could pacify a failed state and stifle the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism.

On the first of over a dozen visits it was immediately apparent to me the scale of the challenge: widespread corruption, intense tribal rivalries, Pakistani meddling, and deep-rooted resistance to foreign occupation. 

But we didn’t make it any easier for ourselves. I was frankly astonished how the US military were running the entire show. There was no “Paddy Ashdown” character co-ordinating a civilian post-conflict strategy. The big plan to rebuild the country (agreed in Bonn in December 2001) was largely based on the blueprint used for Bosnia, without any appreciation that such Western, centralised solutions were completely inappropriate for Afghanistan.

This schoolboy error is something Britain should have flagged up. We pride ourselves on our understanding of the world. Our history, connectivity and diplomatic reach has allowed us to offer intelligent strategic solutions to challenges that factor in local, cultural, and deep-rooted characteristics. Not least with Afghanistan where thanks to the “Great Game” we have form.

Three previous Anglo-Afghan wars have taught us what a complex tribal country this is. Even with charismatic leaders, such as Dost Mohamed and Amanullah Khan, this nation has never been run from the centre.

The US should have known this. After funding the Mujahedeen to see off the Soviet occupation, the US simply walked away in 1989 – leaving the feeble Afghan Government to eventually fall to the Mujahedeen’s successor, the Taliban.

So, after 2001, what made us think we could master the country again?

Well, we didn’t think, because we – MPs – barely knew. Did you know that US Senators are free to visit American troops wherever they may be posted across the world? No such rule exists for MPs. For me to witness what was going on, Sir Peter Ricketts, then our Ambassador to NATO, found out that I had US dual nationality having been born in New York.

He introduced me to US General Jim Jones, who as SACEUR  (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) visited the NATO mission in Afghanistan every six months. We developed a close friendship that endures today, and I secured a regular flight where I was one of the few MPs able to see the four glaring disjoints between our international rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

First, Washington was lulled into a false sense of security, its judgement distorted by the ease of the initial invasion and the relative peaceful first four years.

Second, creating detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, failing to tackle large scale Afghan corruption and nepotism, ignoring the poisonous influence of the Pakistan-India rivalry and the fallout of the Iraq invasion would all play their part in preventing a US-backed Afghan government from winning over the people of Afghanistan.

Third, NATO’s security reach across the country was impressive but little effort was given to training the Afghan Army so they could eventually take on this responsibility.

Fourth, all governance decisions were made in Kabul and no attempts were made to reach out to the Taliban. Quite the contrary. They had requested a seat at the December 2001 Bonn talks – but the victors kept them away. How different history would be had they been included. Instead, they withdrew across the Pakistan border to regroup and retrain before launching a vicious and enduring insurgency campaign that would outwit and outlast the most sophisticated and high-tech military alliance in history.

So why did it go so wrong? As Churchill said of Suez: “I would never have dared, and if I had dared, I would never have dared stop.” For all our grand ideas, we stopped thinking and planning. The short-term fix always beat the long-term plan.

I’ll give you just two examples of hundreds that illustrate the absence a wider strategy beyond killing bad people. On a visit to Helmand In 2008, I bumped into Brigadier Mark Carlton Smith – now our four-star general in command of the British Army. He was rightly proud of a mission 16 Air Assault Brigade had just completed to transport a 220-tonne turbine to the mighty Kajaki dam in the north of the province. This huge logistical and security challenge involving over 100 vehicles got the turbine (broken down into sections) delivered with just one fatality due to a land mine and a few injured.

Installing the turbine would have provided gamechanging electricity that would have won over hearts and minds of the Afghan people across south-west Afghanistan. Yet for years the turbine sat in its bubble wrap uninstalled. A lack of concrete meant the project to fully upgrade the dam is stillborn.

On another visit I accompanied Jim Mattis to the town of Margah just after its liberation (Operation Moshtarak). 15,000 coalition troops had flushed out the Taliban from this central Helmand stronghold. It was encouraging to see the locals return to some normality but when I asked, through an interpreter, if they were happy the Taliban had gone, they said yes, but what’s next? “I’m not allowed to grow poppies and there is no market for wheat”.

His point was well made. We’d just removed the town’s biggest employer. The state of the roads (think Salisbury Plain) meant growing wheat and getting it to market was simply not viable. Yet when I inquired about grading the roads to ease transport links and supporting alternative livelihoods, the local DIFD rep admitted “funds are limited but now the town is free we can get planning”. The absence of any follow up meant the Taliban were back in control of the town within months.

The tragic result of this strategic failure is that, after two decades, we have now quit Afghanistan, abandoning the country to the very insurgent organisation we went in to defeat in the first place. With the Taliban now swiftly surrounding the crumbling Afghan government and what’s left of its army, anyone who can is fleeing the country.

It is now only a matter of time before the West has its Saigon moment. Western embassies will be evacuated just as they were in Vietnam in 1975. And all we leave for the 40 million Afghans to whom we promised a better future is a return to the bitter past. Afghanistan will once again become a haven for terrorist groups to plot future attacks against the West.

Just imagine if we’d had the same attitude towards abandoning Germany after the war – leaving the country to potential domestic strife or more likely following the of East Germany with Iron Curtain bumping up to France. Instead, we stayed the course and supported for Germany for decades.

In contrast, our withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves a power vacuum in a critical part of the world. Sitting between the Russia and China, Afghanistan could have been nurtured into a powerful geostrategic ally. Both countries will be enjoying the decline of the West’s ability to defend global order – so soon after the G7 Summit when we promised an international re-boot.

With so many lessons to learn, I hope it’s therefore understandable as to why I’m calling for an inquiry to learn the lesson as to what went wrong.

Iain Dale: Why have Buckland and Braverman signed up to breaking international law?

11 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Few people believe in Brexit more than I do, but I also believe in the rule of law. Quite how a democratic government can brazenly admit that it intends to break the law, albeit in a “strictly limited and specific” way, is quite beyond me.

The Supreme Court must be licking its lips in anticipation. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the new Bill is being introduced. I’d like to think that no one in Downing Street would wish to deliberately foment yet another clash between the Executive and the Judiciary, but anything is possible.

Rather than introduce this squalid Bill, it would have been far better to say that in the event that the EU doesn’t meet its pledge in the Political Declaration – to come to a Free Trade Agreement – then the Withdrawal Agreement ceases to apply.

At least this would have had some logic to it, even if it would still be incendiary. Countries often withdraw from Treaties – the EU did this themselves with Switzerland not too long ago, when they object to how the Swiss had voted to limit EU migration into the country.

But to introduce this new Bill without even using the mechanisms for discussion set out in the Withdrawal Agreement is an audacious move to say the least. Those, like John Major, who predict that this will affect trust in Britain into the future and make trade agreements less likely, certainly have a point. It’s hard to argue about the logic of that position.

It may be that I’m wrong. It may be that these hardball tactics with the EU will result in them rushing to an agreement. I hope they do, but I have more doubts about that than I did a week ago. Michel Barnier was on the ropes, but this move will have given him a renewed spring in his step.

What puzzles me is how Suella Braverman and Robert Buckland signed off on this. Perhaps we will find out in the Sunday Times, where I hope Tim Shipman has one of his long reads about how this came about. Because I, for one, am totally perplexed and somewhat horrified.

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I just knew it. On Wednesday, when the Prime Minister announced the new Coronavirus restrictions, I predicted to a colleague that one of the big beast political journos would ask a question purely designed to get themselves a headline, and sure enough the task fell to Robert Peston to ask the Prime Minister if he was effectively cancelling Christmas.

I expected it to be a headline in The Sun yesterday but even The Times sunk to the depths too. This is what political reporting has come to. Slow handclap.

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One thing the Coronavirus crisis has made us all realise is that we are no longer a United Kingdom. The other constituent parts of the country seem to have revelled in doing things differently to the Westminster government.

In some cases, this has been entirely justified, but much of the time it has been gratuitous. Given that all four nations make their policies from the same data, sometimes one is left scratching one’s barnet at the different decision that are arrived at.

No wonder many people think there’s a lack of clear messaging from government. You’d think the four health ministers could have a Zoom call and agree a way forward, wouldn’t you? And if they can’t then explain why one part of the country is acting differently to another. Perish the thought.

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Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the event which helped shaped the world we live in now. It was the day when Islamist terrorists seized control of a series of plans on the eastern seaboard of the United States, and caused the death of more than 3,000 people.

The date is stained into history as 9-11. Next year’s 20th anniversary will be a more significant one in many ways, as America and the world continue to try to come to terms with what happened, and the consequences we are still living through now.

It’s not an exaggeration to claim that most of the terror attacks we have experienced in this country, and many around the world, would not have happened without 9-11. It’s a sobering thought

Clare Ambrosino: Why One Nation Conservatism can unite the country and win the Millennial vote

21 Aug

Clare Ambrosino is a Communications Consultant and was a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate in last year’s General Election.

It is a common perception that my generation, the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), also known as the Peter Pan generation, the Boomerang generation or the Me, Me, Me generation, are principally governed by their desire to live life hedonistically, and place their emphasis on personal pleasure and career rather than buckling down to a life of responsibility.

Certainly, a brief look at the social media profile of anyone born after 1980 (#guilty), will show a lifestyle of holidays, instagrammable rooftop cocktails and a catalogue of material purchases, as well as a penchant for photographing everything ever eaten in a restaurant. This has led many of our parents, who by the age of thirty were already married with kids and a mortgage, to roll their eyes and wonder when we are going to settle down to real life!

However, are Millennials really so privileged or is this apparent golden age of opportunity masking the simple fact that our parents, who received free access to university education and were able to buy a home with generous mortgages (sometimes as much as 100% of the cost of the house) shared fundamental values and a belief in society which we do not have?

After all, what better way to get people to buy into the values of a society if they literally buy a stake in it? Is it any wonder that young people today – the first generation unable to buy a home in decades – seem to want to spend as if there were no tomorrow? Could it be that precisely because the thirty some-things of 2020 are unable to buy their stake, that many have become largely disillusioned with traditional party politics, preferring instead the populist and single-policy movements?

Talking to my peers, it seems that many of them don’t see the relevance of traditional values or traditional politics to their lifestyle, and they prefer to live life in the now. They choose the fast hit of dating apps and fun over responsibility and deferred gratification.

Millennials were largely born into carefully planned, child centred families whose high ambitions, encouraged them to aim high and provided infinitely more affirmation than their parents had received. For decades they have enjoyed the lowest unemployment levels on record, and had access to opportunities and luxuries that previous generations did not have, brought by technological advancements and globalisation.

Yet, all is not as idyllic as it seems. Born into a fast changing and threatening geo-political landscape and with old certainties of growing up in question, younger people have become reluctant to commit to saving and planning for the future in the same the way previous generations did.

The twin towers, the war on terror, the credit recession, austerity, the tensions underlying the EU referendum and now, to cap it all, a deadly pandemic all wrapped up into a new recession and culture wars on the side. The lives of Millennials have been set against a backdrop of fear and anxiety, so that it is of little surprise that many, mercifully not all, have turned inward and do not buy into the values which are the pillars of society. ‘Peter Pans’ of both sexes prefer to burn the candle at both ends. They are cicadas, not ants.

The fact of the matter is however, that many, if not most Millennials would love to plan for the future and raise a family, but this is becoming increasingly difficult. According to recent ONS data, overall marriage rates are at their lowest on record, sinking by 45% since 1972, with the average age of marriage being 35.7 for women and 38 for men. High university debts make it difficult to save for the significant deposits now required by banks, and this has led to increased rents and inflated house prices.

Coming into Covid-19, the last standing pillar of stability for young people – that of employment – is now also at risk. This will naturally lead to an exacerbation of an already existing resentment towards the institutions and powers at play.

Now more than ever, the nation needs to be brought together as a whole and we need to make younger people feel that they have a voice which will be listened to. The fall of the red wall in the North was the proof that if people feel that they are being part of the conversation, they will respond. Too many people have felt excluded and unheard – excluded from the decisions of Westminster, excluded from the workforce, excluded from society itself.

The Prime Minister said last week that we can expect to have a “bumpy few months” ahead of us, and we have a “long way to go” until the UK sees a return to “economic vitality and health”. However, one of Britain’s greatest strengths is that its people pull together in a crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic, whilst causing one of the biggest recessions in our economy, may become an opportunity to reset the way we live and work – the Great Reset, as it was called by the World Economic Forum. The UK should use this time to focus on its strengths as one of the world leaders in the AI and tech sectors, to generate new jobs for the young, retraining existing workers and pushing forward with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The UK should also pivot on the rising trend of working from home to encourage people to move out of the city and invest in rural and coastal towns, where homes are more affordable and new investment is much needed for the survival of their economies. What the government can do to encourage this, is to ensure there are favourable conditions for these opportunities to thrive, such as cutting edge broadband connectivity across our rural areas. Our education system too can follow the job demand, so that the community, education institutions and job opportunities are more closely interlinked.

It is always worth looking at the Democrats to see the future direction of the Labour Party. Esteemed Professor Niall Ferguson, in an article for The Atlantic in May 2019 entitled ‘The Coming Generation War’, correctly identified that the Democrats would start to use generational divides as a wedge issue for future elections. Certainly, this appears to be the central strategy in the impressive Democratic presidential campaign. Joe Biden has recently told a virtual town hall with young Americans that “young people have got a kick in the teeth”, effectively communicating how he feels younger voters’ pain.

In the UK, the Labour Party, whilst traditionally relying on the votes of younger people, has yet to articulate the generation crisis they find themselves in by offering any real solutions.

As Conservatives, it should be our priority to be bold and become the voice of this generation by providing a new vision to keep unemployment levels down, and keep the promise of a home owning democracy, which has served previous generations so well. We should allow young people to buy a stake in society and live by One Nation Conservative values. Now more than ever, young people should be reassured they have a stake in the future and nothing will encourage people to feel included as much as home ownership and stability in the workplace.