Afghanistan and America 2) David Davis: The harsh truth is that we had no strategy – and fell back on supporting a corrupt state

16 Aug

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

Like many others, I have watched with horror and shame as Taliban forces have seized Afghan regional capital after capital.

Horror, because although I have spent the last few months pressing the British government to help those Afghans who had worked as translators for our Armed Forces, I am only too conscious of the hundreds of thousands of other Afghans who have helped or cooperated with Allied Forces, and who will be waiting in terror as the Taliban forces approach their homes and workplaces.

Shame because this is a huge failure of Western strategy, arms, and principles. Like the American flight from Vietnam a generation ago, it will undermine Western standing, influence, and leadership in the whole world.

The one emotion I have not felt, however, is surprise. This is a failure that has been coming for a long time, and that has been apparent to a lot of people for a lot of years.

Back in 2008, I and a parliamentary colleague, Adam Holloway, went to Afghanistan to have a look at the facts on the ground. When we left London, I rather subscribed to the view that, unlike Iraq, this was a “justified war”, as the Taliban had provided support and succour to Al Quaeda at the time of the 9/11 attack.

Twenty four hours after we returned, I was interviewed by Andrew Marr on his Sunday programme, and told him that if we carried on as we were, we were going to lose this war.

This was not some remarkable demonstration of military prescience. It was a statement of the obvious, after talking to large numbers of people in theatre, including, most powerfully, ordinary Afghan citizens.

The British Ministry of Defence were not helpful when we were trying to organise our trip. Indeed they did pretty much everything they could to obstruct our visit. The British Ambassador – incidentally one of our very best diplomats – was much more helpful, but he actively encouraged us to avoid British officialdom and find our own way. “You will learn much more if you don’t have to travel everywhere in armoured convoys and actually get to talk to real people.” So that is what we did.

In 50 interviews we talked to everybody who would see us, from American generals to British troopers, from the head of the Afghan Security service to the representatives of the Taliban, from the governor of Helmand province to ordinary people who worked in the villages of his domain. The most powerful evidence came from the ordinary villagers.

The most memorable insight for me was during a lengthy discussion with a couple of Red Crescent workers, people who moved unencumbered by either Taliban or Government forces through all of Afghanistan. Their description of the operation of the rule of law in Afghanistan was astonishing.

To take one example: ordinary rural Afghans are often very small scale farmers, making a poor living out of tiny plots of land. With all the changes of regime during the previous 30 years, the title to these little farms was often disputed. These disputes should have been resolved in court.

But to get a court hearing, the farmer would have to bribe someone to get a court date. That date would come in about a year, and then the farmer would have to bribe a court official to win his case.

Alternatively, the farmer could seek Taliban justice. That meant walking to a village under Taliban control – in the case we were discussing about 8 miles away – and ask for a Taliban court adjudication. A date would be set within a few days, and the other party would be summoned to give evidence. Needless to say, they would have to turn up.

Then the Taliban judge would take a few days to establish the facts on the ground, and in little more than a week a ruling would be handed down. And of course the judgement was obeyed by all parties. In effect, the Taliban provided a judicial system that worked better than the official one.

This was not the only part of the rule of law that was bent out of shape. No doubt there were many decent Afghan police officers, but some were little more than bandits in uniform. We heard numerous stories of criminal behaviour by the police, ranging from stealing a families’ entire wood supply – in the harsh Afghan winters an act of savage cruelty – to kidnap of young women for ransom or rape. Afghan farmers trying to take produce to market would be stopped at roadblocks and made to pay a tariff on their goods, sometimes by bandits, and sometimes by the police.

From the point of view of the ordinary Afghan, the official state was just another instrument of oppression and corruption. At the grander end of the scale, government officials and their families became remarkably rich remarkably quickly. No one was ever in any doubt that the Western-installed members of the ruling elite were on the take. But of course no one was charged or convicted. The UK, USA, and their allies have installed and supported a corrupt state.

It’s effects have been felt by every ordinary family in Afghanistan. Even the Afghan Army was misused and mistreated, with its soldiers often going unpaid, unfed, and unsupplied. Its generals are frequently overruled by incompetent palace cliques.

This was why it was plain that this was a war that we would never win – or not until we solved these fundamental social problems. And because the Allied writ never extended more than a rifle shot from our isolated Forward Operating Bases, we were never going to solve them with the strategies that we have adopted for almost two decades.

A British journalist staying next door to me in Kabul told me about an American Marine colonel grumbling about “mowing the grass” – putting down an insurrection with a fierce round of firefights, only to have to come back and do it all again the next year. And he was not the only military officer who understood at that time the futility of the strategy.

This has now all been magnified by a stupid and cowardly withdrawal strategy, leaving even the best Afghan troops without the air support and backup that they were trained to rely on, as Joe Biden ignored his own military advisers.

Now we face an impossible problem. It was probably not always impossible. We could have simply intervened back in 2001/2, and then left, avoiding the sacrifice of blood, treasure, and reputation.

Or we could have designed a counter-insurgency strategy that worked. We have done it elsewhere in the world, but every time it involved as much a campaign about hearts and minds as about bombs and bullets. It would have been much more expensive in the short run, but undoubtedly less costly overall. We almost certainly could not have done it at the same time as invading Iraq. What we did instead was the worst compromise.

The lesson is horribly stark. If Britain, America, and the other Western Allies want to be a force for good in the world, and do not want their collective global reputation to be dictated by Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, then before we undertake any more foreign wars, we need a plan that extends way beyond the initial conquest, and right through the rebuilding of the country, with all the cost and commitment that that entails.

Meanwhile, the Western nations sudden rush to extract their own citizens will undoubtedly cause a panic which may accelerate the collapse. After that, the Taliban, with all its medieval behaviour, will reverse any good that we have done these last two decades. We will see the return of Sharia law, with its dismemberment and stoning. And the new regime will almost certainly exact vengeance on everybody who has helped us in any way. That will undoubtedly prey on our conscience in the years to come. And so it should.