John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
After 20 years, Joe Biden is drawing the United States’ longest war to a close. All remaining US troops will leave the country by 11th September 2021, along with the 7,000 troops of other nations, including Britain, whose presence in Afghanistan without their American allies is unsustainable.
This brings to a close another misguided intervention. The lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria need to be heeded as we come to realise that, while always maintaining our guard against terrorism, the greater danger to our security was always potentially hostile nation states.
Biden is the fourth US President to oversee the war in Afghanistan, and as Vice-President was noted for his attempts to dissuade Barack Obama from his troop surge at the beginning of his first term. It appears he has not deviated from his views that an ongoing military presence is unlikely to achieve a winning position any time soon.
My parliamentary career has been punctuated by my resistance to overseas military deployments, largely driven by my concerns that we, in Britain and in the West more generally, have a tendency to rush into situations without fully understanding the situation on the ground, what we wish to achieve or how we intend to do it – and therefore do not resource operations correctly and have no clear exit strategy. These interventions also served as a distraction from greater dangers elsewhere.
Afghanistan is unfortunately a strong example of this. I did not oppose the initial intervention after the terrorist outrages on 11th September 2001 – it made good sense to rid the country of the relatively small number of international terrorists who had made the country their base. The initial light deployment of special forces, backed by friendly Afghans and 21st-century technology, was successful. Those in al-Qaeda who stood and fought were quickly destroyed, and many of the survivors quickly crossed the borders.
However, once this had been achieved, rather than winding up the mission the British Government and its allies greatly expanded the scope of the deployment to include wholesale reform of Afghanistan and Afghan society in pursuit of goals such as human rights, western-style democracy, and the rule of law.
This drift into nation-building, which I strongly opposed, required the defeat of the Taliban who, though brutal in their dealings with the Afghan people, had never been our enemy – it was al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, who attacked on 11th September.
The international troop deployment was never sufficient to hold the whole country, nor seal its porous borders – an essential part of fighting any insurgency.
Meanwhile, the international community, led by the United States, undermined any diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban with unrealistic and impossible preconditions. Insisting on the Taliban laying down their arms and accepting the new Afghan constitution before even agreeing to any talks, as the US did for many years, meant that no substantive progress was possible. It was Donald Trump who finally began the process of negotiations that have led us to this point.
In now announcing that the US will pull out of Afghanistan by September, come what may, Biden has provided little incentive for the Taliban to keep to any agreement with the Americans – some strategic patience on their behalf perhaps confirming the glib assertion that ‘the West may have the clocks, but we have the time’.
Though the President and other international allies have pledged to support the Afghan Government, it remains to be seen how well they will be able to resist the predations of the Taliban without the presence of foreign troops. Indeed, the present deployment of some 10,000 NATO troops, including 2,500 American and about 750 British soldiers, largely on training duties in support of Afghan Government forces, is seemingly holding the line with very small international casualties in recent years, even as their Afghan allies are losing a significant number of men.
It is clear that British commanders are unnerved by the announcement of the American withdrawal, which suggests a concerning lack of communication between allies, amid concerns that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan might mirror the hasty US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which left the Iraqi Government exposed when Daesh attacked a few years later.
Nevertheless, I am pleased that the military deployment in Afghanistan is coming to a close and that the laudable but misguided ideology of ‘liberal interventionism’ has largely faded into obscurity. This has taken some time – as Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron once correctly observed that it is impossible to drop a fully-formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet, but this did not prevent him as Prime Minister from attempting military interventions in Libya, Syria and Iraq, largely without success.
However, Theresa May’s 2017 assertion in Philadelphia that ‘the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our image are over’ suggests this experience has finally been definitively heeded, a fact underlined by her careful and limited involvement in the international air strikes against the Assad Government later that year.
There will always be a role for British forces to play a role on the international stage, but the idea of wholesale ‘regime change’ for altruistic reasons, as we attempted in Afghanistan for too long, has had its day. Time now to focus on greater dangers.
Alex Deane is a partner at a City consultancy and a former Conservative Party aide.
With the news that Joe Biden will withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September this year, and the subsequent and inevitable decision by their allies that, without American air and other support, they would withdraw their troops too, the prospect of the Afghan government losing ground to the Taleban – and perhaps losing control to them completely – looms large in that country’s near future.
Twenty years is a long time to fight. One can understand all too well the frustration felt, on a bipartisan basis at the most senior level, with the fact that more progress has not been made, and the desire to end a conflict. Indeed, barring a very small amount of ongoing technical support, Britain withdrew our forces in 2014.
Nevertheless, to commit to withdrawal without preconditions and as an absolute (all out) rather than something less than that (leaving some troops behind as advisers; providing some form of anti-terrorism support; etc.) seems to render the potential collapse of democratic government, however imperfect, rather more likely.
A question arises from such a probability, much as it did for the Americans after the Vietnam War. What happens to those who were on your side? Who fought with you, worked for you?
To say that the prospects for “collaborating” Afghans under the Taleban are bleak seems an understatement so great as to be unworthy of the term. Whatever else was right or wrong about American involvement in Vietnam’s war, they acted with generosity, decency and honour when in 1975 they took in a great many who fled when the regime in the South fell.
I believe that such an obligation exists today towards for those who fought in Afghanistan in the long post-9/11 conflict – and that it applies to us in Britain as well as to others.
We should therefore prepare ourselves to take a significant number of Afghans fleeing their country in the aftermath of the withdrawal of allied forces in autumn this year. This should be in addition to any general quota for asylum seekers and refugees we intend to accept through UN programmes or other routes here.
The time must come, and it may come soon, when their lives become an awful lot worse. It may be because vengeance by others around them is visited upon them as the rule of law slides further in Afghanistan, or it may be because their country – in just two or three years, perhaps – falls to the Taleban or something like it, in its entirety.
Those who sided with us will face persecution, and, in many cases, death. So we should give them a new home.
I do not know how many will come, not least because the answer to the question of how many other countries in the changing coalition of forces that have served in Afghanistan will also act as we will and take a proportion of those concerned is unknown. But it will be many people. We should be ready for that.
There will doubtless be some predictable opposition:
“Not our problem” – If you feel this way, after what I’ve set out above, then I concede that I am unlikely to be able to convince you. But I suggest that it plainly is. Perhaps not to the same proportion or degree as others, principally the Americans, but we clearly have some responsibility.
“We’re busy” – Our economy has taken a significant coronavirus dip. But so has everyone else’s, and it is forecast to bounce back strongly – perhaps more strongly than anyone else’s.
As to being “busy” with those escaping unpleasant regimes to places with which they have strong links more specifically, I acknowledge that this call comes at the same time that the United Kingdom (rightly) gives new hope and a new home to those fleeing the Communists in Hong Kong. But discharging historic obligations is not a mutually exclusive pursuit. We are more than capable of honouring more than one tie at once.
“Who will come?” – The suspicion will exist that, hiding amongst those who take part in any exodus, will be those intending to do us harm, trained perhaps to pass themselves off as those who were our friends and not our enemies. As Mao said, the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.
But there is an answer to this. Almost all can be vouched for by serving or retired military personnel, intelligence officers and administrators. Indeed, there might be an element of preference amongst those escaping to live amongst those with whom they worked – Britain might be thought to appeal more to those who fought alongside the British, America for those alongside the Americans, and so on.
“What if it’s fine in Afghanistan after all?” – That is possible, but not very probable. Aid alone is unlikely to achieve what aid and a sustained military presence could not, and aid is likely to be forthcoming in smaller amounts when troops are absent.
What constitutes “fine” is a live question, too. Many will choose, for many reasons, not to leave their country, no matter how bad it gets. It is their home. But some will wish to get out as things worsen. For many, by the time the danger is really clear it will be too late to save those who’ve been on our side and are now at risk from those we’ve opposed for so long.
“What will it cost?” – I don’t know. But whilst those who rallied to freedom’s call in Afghanistan were ordinary people hoping for a better country, they were also extraordinary. They were brave and they committed themselves to democracy and to us in the most visible ways. So I say that they will make the best possible migrants, bringing that spirit and bravery with them as they come.
I also suggest that this is a moral obligation that doesn’t come in pounds and pence. In any event, the cost is likely to constitute a fraction of the blood and treasure already spent upon the country for good reasons, and would have been all but guaranteed to have been spent if we had stayed the course with the Americans and the rest.
They fought with us. They stood by us and believed our promises about a better future and a better way of life. It’s time for us to stand by them.
I first came across the case of Mohammed Nabi Wardak in 2017 through the work of a young British woman, Jess Webster, who founded ‘Forge for Humanity’, an Athens-based not-for-profit organisation helping refugees who were streaming in from Syria during the civil war.
Jess told me that Mohammed was living on the streets of Athens and that he had fled Afghanistan because he had worked for British forces in Helmand and had been repeatedly targeted by the Taliban; the very Taliban that are now part of a peace process in Afghanistan and who continue to attack civilians, women and those deemed to have supported British, American and ISAF forces in country.
Moved by this case, I set up a petition for Mohammed to be relocated to the UK with his family, which garnered over 135,000 signatures. Yet there was no response from any Government department. So I delved further into his case and flew out to Athens in 2018 to meet with him at my own expense.
I found a man suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and who had been living on the streets of Athens. He had arrived in Greece through the route that Syrian refugees had been taking via Turkey and he has been imprisoned on his arrival, humiliated and then dumped on the streets of Athens to cater for himself. He was simply alive because of the charity of members of the public, the support from ‘Forge for Humanity’, and by people giving him any left over water in bottles. He had also slept on park benches and he ended up in hospital with suspected kidney failure due to dehydration at one point.
Mohammed was an Afghan forces translator who joined the Afghan forces to push back the Taliban, since he saw the danger they had posed to progress in his country. He believed in the messages that Western forces had brought to Afghanistan, those of ‘peace’, ‘progress’ and ‘stability’ and he joined up whilst in his late teens. These messages resonated with him and he ended up being one of the leading translators for British forces in places like Kajaki and in Helmand province.
He saw action in the field, lost Afghan colleagues, and saw his friends die as they stepped on mines, as they patrolled with British forces. His translations and directions in the heat of battle when British forces had contact with the Taliban may well have saved British lives.
Between 2008-2011, Mohammed saw fierce action with British forces in Helmand. I have seen the commendations and certificates congratulating him from British officers in the field for his bravery and his calm under fire. During these three years of service, Mohammed and his family were repeatedly threatened because of his support for British forces. It culminated in a kidnapping attempt by Taliban sympathisers with the aim of assassinating him. Their attempt was loaded with this message: anyone helping ISAF, British and American forces was a target to be killed.
These threats meant that Mohammed left the employ of British forces on two occasions, because of pressure from his family, relatives, and those who did not want to see him dead in a gutter.
Finally, around 2014, an attempt to capture Mohamed and the subsequent targeting of his family led to him fleeing Afghanistan, with the hope that the Taliban would leave his family alone. Mohammed walked and hitch-hiked to Iran where Iranian border guards robbed him, beat him, and sent him back. He entered again and this time made it on foot to Turkey where he was used for cheap labour as a shepherd, just to survive and to try and to get to Europe. Eventually, abused and maltreated, he crossed into Greece on a rubber boat in 2016, which led to more beatings and grinding homelessness in Greece.
As I write this in March 2021, Mohammed is still in a refugee camp in Athens, where murders and threats form part of the cycle of life. I have made repeated attempts to get the Government to look at the case of Mohammed and his family, as the Taliban are now entrenched into the areas where his family reside in Afghanistan. The initial responses from the Ministry of Defence had not taken into account the threats to Mohammed and his family and stipulated that because he left the employment of British forces, he could not be included in the Afghan Locally Employed Ex-Gratia Scheme, where relocation was only possible for those who were still employed with British forces when we formally withdrew from Afghanistan.
Since 2018, I have campaigned with others so that Afghan translators like Mohammed could be protected under a duty of care that is based on trust. These staff trusted us enough to put their lives on the line for our country, now we must step up and live up to that trust.
In October 2021, Ben Wallace MP, the Secretary of State for Defence, made changes to this scheme. Local Afghan staff and translators who resigned and who worked for more than a year with British forces in Afghanistan can be included in the scheme. This change must be warmly welcomed and the Secretary of State made the right moves.
That was six months ago and the Taliban are on the verge of power sharing in Afghanistan and emboldened enough to target and kill those that go against their fundamentalist Islamist principles. Whilst the Government have shifted, now is the time to move quickly and to bring Mohammed and the many others out there, into the safety of our country with their families. Each day that passes, places them and their loved ones at risk.
In the end, they stood with us, now we must stand with them in their hour of need.
Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
“Where are all the moderate Republican Imams?” asked David Frum, former speechwriter to George W Bush, after the Donald Trump-incited mob had ransacked the Capitol.
We came to learn that the 9/11 attacks, far from coming out of a clear blue sky, were the product of decades of radicalisation that Saudi Arabia had sponsored – because it gave its religious radicals something to do; because it allowed the kingdom to compete for influence with revolutionary Iran; and because the extremists sincerely believed in the doctrines to which the Saudi state paid only lip service. Riyadh was forced into a bloody counter-insurgency campaign against domestic terrorists and fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The attack on the Capitol, in which an absurdly-dressed mob gave cover for what the FBI is now investigating as a terrorist plot to take senators hostage, is the direct result of Trump sponsoring the anti-democratic Right in America.
This is the price of the GOP’s deal with Trump. Trump added fringe voters to the Republican coalition, gave them power for four years and allowed it to put three judges on the Supreme Court, but it’s brought about the biggest threat to democracy in America since the Civil War.
Trump’s bullying of his party through his celebrity appeal to the Republican base, threatening any congressman or senator with the American equivalent of deselection in primaries, will be familiar to many current and former Conservative MPs, as well as to Democratic politicians at the receiving end.
But after losing to Joe Biden in November, Trump went beyond political hardball to subvert the constitution itself. Brad Raffensberger, Georgia’s elections chief resisted (we know, because he taped Trump’s threats), but 138 congressmen and seven senators broke their oaths of office to try and overturn the votes of the American people on the basis of Trump’s own lies about electoral fraud.
It seems that some Capitol policemen also broke their oaths, refusing to defend the Capitol from the mob. More worrying still is the slowness with which Defense Department Officials responded to requests for them to authorise the deployment of the DC national guard, and to give permission for Virginia and Maryland to send backup. In the end it was Mike Pence, himself under siege in the Capitol building, who stood in to authorise intervention.
Τhe crisis is about far more than Trump’s personality. In fact, his outrageously flawed character hides the danger he poses, in the same way that animal-skin clad rioter obscured the much more serious kidnapping plot at the Capitol. Trumpists and many democratic American conservatives agreed about getting their people onto the Supreme Court, limiting abortion and restricting immigration, but they should disagree on how it can get done.
What distinguishes the anti-democratic right from democratic conservatives is not policy, but the concept of political office.
American government, like that in all liberal democracies, was created to be carried out by people who hold certain political offices subject to constitutional law and conventions. That’s what John Adams meant when he talked of a “government of laws, and not of men.” In liberal democracies, we don’t elect kings, but people who are temporarily “clothed”, to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, in the powers of the office they hold.
Democratic conservatives believe that people hold specific powers in trust, repsecting the laws and conventions made in the past, and keeping them, adapted for the changing times, to hand over to their successors. The anti-democratic right wants to put their leaders in total power, to enact their will, disregarding traditions of the past and stability in the future.
They say it’s because people have the right to hire their leaders, and fire them when they come up short. But Trump’s behaviour gives the lie to that. Despite the American people firing him, Trump tried to intimidate election officials and incited a violent mob to try and stay in power anyway: there’s a technical term for this, by the way, invented in Latin America, it’s an autogolpe or self-coup.
Thanks to four years of encouragement from Trump, there’s now a large number of radicalised, violent and armed anti-democratic rightists in the United States. The FBI is bracing itself for coordinated acts of violence in on inauguration day.
As with all terrorist movements, the violent few are surrounded by a penumbra of fellow-travellers who make excuses for them, give them platforms on TV, amplify them on social media, and argue that their grievances must be addressed in the name of peace and unity. As with Islamist or Northern Irish terrorism, this would be a grave mistake.
The terrorists must be brought to justice, their funds caught off and the arguments of their fellow-travellers dismissed. Please no more specious arguments about Trump being “censored” by Twitter. Even had Twitter been a state entity, his megaphone should have been removed as a threat to public safety.
The application of the US’s extensive anti-terrorist legislation needs to be vigorous and swift. It must deny this movement access to weapons. It must put its leaders and activists behind bars. Trump and his accomplices need to be banned from future public office, either through an impeachment or the use of the third clause of the 14th Amendment.
Then there is the ideological battle against the anti-democratic tenets of this movement, which is not confined to America. The issue not that they are “extreme”, but that they’re anti-constitutional. Let them hold positions as right-wing as they like, and compete for support like anyone else, but only within the limts of constitutional government, where laws apply to public office-holders, and are adjudicated by independent courts.
As during the Cold War, where it was democratic lefitsts who stood up to violent communists, it’s now up to democratic conservatives to dismantle the ideology of the anti-democratic right, and its dangerous idea that law, constitutions, and the civil political process are part of some plot by a “liberal elite” or “activist lawyers”.
Even where we agree with some hard-right policies, or sympathise with their positions (about left-wing dominance at universities, say), upholding the institutions and norms of parliamentary democracy has to come first, something that escaped our own absurdly-dressed (and visually challenged) revolutionary before he was ejected.
Otherwise, make no mistake, they’ll come for us. No amount of toadying to Trump protected Mike Pence or Mitch McConnell on January 6th. All conservatives have to choose: are they with democracy or with the terrorists?
Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.
The Overseas Operations Bill is critical legislation; we must ensure it supports our personnel effectively
Ahead of the third reading of the Overseas Operations Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has published its report (‘Legislative Scrutiny: Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill‘) and this week will seek to table a number of amendments.
Though the Bill passed at second reading by 332 to 77, costing a number of Labour rebels their roles in the process, the presumption against prosecution for British soldiers serving on operations overseas has proved to be a topic that has raised concerns in quarters beyond those of solely the Labour hard-left. The Chair of the Committee, Harriet Harman, has stated that the Bill “will allow those in our armed forces who perpetrate serious crimes to escape justice”.
Having served as an Infantry Officer on our two most recent protracted military operations, in both Basra and Sangin, I have the utmost confidence in the values and standards instilled and upheld by our service personnel and the leadership and moral courage shown by Officers and NCOs in confronting potentially illegal or damaging decisions and orders; to suggest otherwise belies a thorough misunderstanding of the qualities of our service personnel.
Despite the lengthy investigations of potential British war crimes carried out by the Iraq Historic Investigations Team (IHAT) and investigations in Afghanistan under Operation Northmoor, only two British servicemen have been prosecuted. However, the number of service personnel impacted by legal claims runs into thousands.
IHAT investigated 3,400 allegations against British service personnel, and Operation Northmoor a further 675, leading to one prosecution in 2005 and none since (Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman’s prosecution falling outside this framework). Therefore to place thousands of individuals under suspicion, some of whom already suffer the daily challenge of having served on operations during the most costly period for British forces overseas since the Second World War, is precisely the nature of vexatious claims that the Bill is designed to prevent – despite Reverend Nicholas Mercer’s view that the Bill itself is ‘egregious’.
During this week’s third reading of the Bill, Labour are expected to table a number of amendments, several of which are expected to fundamentally change its nature. But there is an opportunity to refine its detail in order to both assuage concerns and better support service personnel.
The Government must do its utmost to uphold the manifesto pledge to end the vexatious claims against members of our Armed Forces. With the majority of those who oppose the Bill having never found themselves faced with the life-or-death decisions placed upon our troops, particularly during the decade of high-tempo operations that started with the Iraq War, it would be remiss of the Government to acquiesce to their demands and facilitate the continued ease with which allegations are made.
Harman is expected to table an amendment that would remove the presumption against prosecution for service personnel, but the accusation that the Bill permits torture and war crimes to take place is not only an insult to the discipline and professionalism of our Armed Forces, it is simply not borne out by statistics. With thousands of service personnel having been needlessly harangued, protecting them from the debilitating pressure of lengthy investigations, sometimes years after they have served, remains crucial.
The six-year time limit restricting the ability of individuals to bring civil claims against the Government or the Ministry of Defence in relation to operational overseas service acts, however, flies in the face of this protection.
It is hard to envisage where the implementation of Clause 11 stands to benefit current or former service personnel. Under the conditions of the Bill, I as a veteran would find myself with a one-year timeframe to bring a civil case against the MoD should I develop an illness in later life caused by my operational service in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how this is of benefit to the thousands of veterans potentially impacted by this change.
Given the Government’s commitment to upholding the Armed Forces Covenant, it should not be afraid of confronting those circumstances when the duty of care towards personnel should have been greater. We cannot expect troops to show moral courage during demanding operations and not expect that to be reciprocated. Removing the six-year absolute limit upon civil claims for service personnel would reinforce the commitment to how they are valued and reinforce confidence that there is a framework in place that facilitates their needs should circumstances require it.
There has also been significant criticism of the Bill with regards to the duty to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights. Clause 12 of the Bill inserts a new section into the Human Rights Act which provides that the Secretary of State “must keep under consideration” whether the UK should make a derogation under Article 15 (derogation in time of emergency). Under this the Government is permitted to derogate from the convention in a “temporary, limited and supervised manner” and can be invoked “only in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. Though it has invoked derogation from Article 15 before, it is yet to do so in relation to overseas operations.
The ambiguity around whether the MoD defines “war” as per Article 15 ECHR as the same as “significant overseas operation” within Clause 11 of the Bill is one of the issues upon which critics have suggested clarification. In addition, clarification as to whether the Bill applies to international and non-international armed conflict as well as peacekeeping operations, special operations, and counter-terrorism operations will be vital in establishing the framework within which our forces are operating, and would prevent unnecessary scrutiny at a time when clear and transparent decision-making will be critical in ensuring confidence in our military operations.
The Overseas Operations Bill will uphold the election manifesto pledge to protect our service personnel against vexatious claims and the growing judicialization of warfare as well as illustrating that the Office for Veterans Affairs is delivering in its mission to enhance the quality of life for those who have served.
Current service personnel and veterans alike who have had their lives turned upside down by allegations and fruitless investigations by opportunists and activists deserve the protection on operations that the Government seeks to implement. We owe those same soldiers the right to challenge the MoD should they suffer long-term mental or physical injuries as a result of actions on those operations.
Sir Gerald Howarth was the MP for Aldershot from 1997-2017, and Minister for International Security Strategy 2010-2012.
As a former Minister for International Security Strategy, I warmly welcomed a review intended to place defence and security within a foreign policy strategic context.
Entirely correctly, the Government has made clear that it wants post-Brexit Britain to play a key role on the world stage. That vision alone calls for a strong military posture because, like it or not, military strength tends to command influence.
It is that strong posture, built over centuries, which has enabled the UK to deploy soft power to significant effect. Loan service officers, joint exercises, training overseas military personnel and the Royal College for Defence Studies all help promote British influence, but our ability to deploy soft power is founded on our hard power – the nuclear deterrent, state-of-the-art kit, and, above all, superbly professional armed forces personnel who have distinguished themselves in recent battles from the Falklands to Afghanistan.
Indeed, the successful Falklands campaign overnight transformed the world’s perception of the UK from a nation in terminal postwar decline to one which once again commanded international respect and propelled Margaret Thatcher onto the world stage.
Increasing global tensions also dictate that we need to increase our defence capabilities – and certainly not cut them. Since the 2010 review in which I was involved, and which was Treasury-driven as a consequence of the £160 billion budget deficit we inherited, much has happened. Take just two examples: in 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. It did so with complete impunity notwithstanding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by John Major, under which the US, UK and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders in return for that country destroying its nuclear arsenal.
In the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently annexed uninhabited atolls, ownership of which is disputed with other nearby nations, and turned them into military bases. Again, it has done so with complete impunity, so it is hardly surprising China has taken advantage of Western paralysis to impose draconian new laws in Hong Kong. Britain has a locus: following our withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s, the UK drew up the Five Powers Defence Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia to safeguard the interests of the latter two.
Our failure to strengthen our defence posture poses the real risk of further instability worldwide.
Britain has an impressive defence industry which a Conservative government should be keen to nurture. For over a century the UK has been a world leader in aerospace and continue to hold that position today through companies like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce but sustained by a broad and innovative SME sector. We are the second largest exporter of defence equipment, after the United States, which not only earns us annual revenues of around £15 billion but enables us to offer tangible support to our friends and allies.
“Buying off the shelf” in reality means buying from the US which is our closest military ally but a formidable competitor in the defence market which has in the past blocked UK military exports containing US components through its application of ITAR (International Trading in Armaments Regulations) restrictions.
As Labour Lord Drayson’s 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy stated, the loss of sovereign capability leads inevitably to loss of operational sovereignty, to which add the loss of those defence exports. The UK is an equity partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, yet the US continues to deny us access to the computer source codes.
Fortunately, the UK has recognised the danger. The Tempest aircraft programme, which is ITAR-free, will deliver a sixth generation optionally manned capability, exploiting new disruptive technologies essential to tomorrow’s battle-winning capability.
It is led by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, supported by Thales UK, Leonardo and missile manufacturer MBDA together with around 600 UK SMEs and institutions. It will generate valuable, new UK technology and employ tens of thousands of skilled people, many in the North of England and Scotland. It is a statement of national intent which also makes economic sense.
The special challenge today is how to maintain effective conventional forces (we cannot expose ourselves to the risk of being outmanoeuvred as a result of having neglected those forces) whilst also developing tomorrow’s technology. You do not win wars using old equipment so investing in future technology like cyber and AI is essential. Funding for defence research has endured a persistent decline in the last two decades; that must change.
[Through no fault of its own, apart from our excellent Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, this Government lacks senior ministers with knowledge of, or experience in, the military. This review must not be rushed and expert advice should be sought and heeded.]
Inevitably, Covid-19 has thrown government financial planning into chaos. Nevertheless, it would be folly, and damaging to the PM’s critical post-Brexit vision for the United Kingdom, if he fails to acknowledge the long-term requirements of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Abandoning the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review will cause major problems for the MoD which manages an equipment programme stretching over several years. For example, the Tempest programme requires multi-year funding to maintain the confidence of our international partners that the UK remains committed to Tempest. It will also ensure the UK remains ahead of competitor programmes.
Conservatives hold that the first duty of government is defence of the Realm. Money has rightly been found to deal with the pandemic; it now needs to be found to ensure our national security and give credibility to that post-Brexit vision.
Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, novelist and writer.
So it leaked out that the MoD is considering scrapping its tanks. And Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, says it would be better if the MoD waited for the strategic direction to emerge from the Cabinet Office’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.
They’re both right. Logically, decisions about tanks – the heavy end of army business – ought to follow from how the Review sees the future. On the other hand, the MoD has a budget to manage and can’t assume it will get bigger. They’ve been looking at options for a “strategic pause” in procurement for the past two years. That’s what staff work is about: possibilities, options, risks. Besides, they’ve been asked specifically by the Review “What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face?”
I know this because I’ve been asked the same. Last week I received an invitation from the MoD to enter a submission. It was no particular honour. Everyone is invited: see the link here.
We’ve been here before. In 1998 the new Blair government had celebrity focus groups for its Strategic Defence Review. It made participants feel important. They bought into the outcome, which by and large they agreed was a good one, which it would have been if only the premises had held good, which they didn’t, and if Gordon Brown’s Treasury had funded it, which they didn’t. Perhaps this time things will be different.
The Integrated Review intends to “define the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. It will set “the long-term strategic aims of our international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests, so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people.”
It will “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union and at a time when the global landscape is changing rapidly.” For it foresees “increasing instability and challenges to global governance”, adding that last year witnessed the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946.
In the last decade it estimates that “more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence”, and that by 2030 some 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.
It’s not all bad news, though. The Cabinet Office believes that in 2030 the UK will be “stronger, wealthier, more equal, more sustainable, more united across nations and regions.”
In asking what changes are needed to Defence, the Review adds that submissions “focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.”
So, not exactly blue-sky thinking, but certainly not (too) constrained. My inclination, however, as I was first a soldier, is to leave vexed questions such as Trident replacement, the superiority of land-based airpower, and the vulnerability of our “carrier-strike”, and instead ask rather more basically “What is the army for?” (Not “will be for“, because that implies it has no enduring purpose).
For the army is in a very present predicament. According to one former Chief of the General Staff, the robustly pragmatic Sir Mike Jackson, the army is probably no longer capable of war because it is simply too small, a “shadow”, he says, of what it was just a few decades ago.
Too much of it is part-time, with all that that means for quality and readiness. At the end of the Cold War the regular army was more twice its present size, and the Territorials were 80,000. Now the regulars can barely muster 80,000, and the Reserve 30,000.
How did it happen? The answer could be instructive.
John Major cut numbers drastically at the end of the Cold War – his “peace dividend”. The then CGS, Sir John Chapple, argued in vain that the army needed the dividend more than the Treasury because the future was so uncertain. Indeed, at the time the army was still liberating Kuwait. But as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer”; and Major saw that the future was peaceful.
Blair and Brown, despite their interventionist appetites – Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan – cut troop and equipment numbers even further, justified by novel doctrines of limited scale and “fast in, fast out”, as if the enemy had no vote.
Worse still, in 2010 the Coalition government all but emasculated the infantry and armoured corps, even while fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chancellor, George Osborne, anticipating the end of both campaigns and the coming of the elusive “summer”, demanded more chimneys be blocked up. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had been policy mistakes, ran the logic; policy mistakes could be avoided, and “winter”, if it returned at all, needn’t be too severe. Indeed, if there were a smaller army there’d be less incentive to use it.
This was nothing new. Writing of the Duke of Wellington’s struggle with the Whig government in the 1830s, the historian Sir John Fortescue concluded “Wellington’s care was less to improve the army than to save it from destruction.”
The same could be said of all army chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With no threat of invasion, no threat to internal security requiring a military response, and little need to defend overseas possessions, all that they’ve been able to do is point to residual Nato commitments, “defence engagement” (working and training with local forces in areas of instability) and peacekeeping.
But in auditing the manpower bill for this, the Treasury has always been able to find further economies because they’re good at measuring finite things. More cuts followed in 2015. Consequently there are now more postmen than regular troops.
The problem is that the MoD is always made to answer the wrong question. Or chooses to.
The Greeks had a word for it. They called their army stratos, “a body of men”, while the Romans called theirs not by what it was but by what it did: exercitus – “practice”, “training”. Both took for granted the fundamental need for a body of men that trained constantly.
When in 1906, however, Britain’s great reforming war minister, the philosopher Richard Burdon Haldane, famously asked “What is the army for?” he posed a different and existential question. Did the army, like the Royal Navy, have a specifiable purpose that not just determined its form but justified its very being? 1914 rudely interrupted the discussion.
What answer should the Integrated Review expect of the same question today? The Royal Navy is responsible for the strategic nuclear deterrent, and minds Britain’s trade routes as advocated by Sir Walter Raleigh. The Royal Air Force exists for the air defence of the United Kingdom, for which it was founded in April 1918, the air arms of the other two services having been judged not up to the task.
These functions are 24/7. But the army has no comparable purpose. Not, at least, one that justifies its existence beyond its original purpose in 1660: a few guards and garrisons. It should therefore refuse battle on terms of mere accountancy.
Trotsky explained why: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Only during the Cold War has Britain had remotely adequate defence insurance. Instead it has preferred to pay ruinous repair bills. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, defence spending was 5.1 per cent of GDP. At present, as a Nato member the UK is committed to just two per cent of GDP.
In real terms, this will not fund armed forces capable of full-spectrum war. Can it really make sense for post-Brexit “Global Britain” to be paying an insurance policy comparable to those of Belgium and Luxembourg?
Indeed, rather than insurance, shouldn’t the Defence budget be regarded as infrastructure investment, like HS2?
Rather than trying to justify itself by specific tasks, which come and go at a whim, the army should insist on funding for its fundamental, enduring purpose: to be ready for war, war that cannot be foreseen or its character predicted – even, paradoxically, by the army itself.
That, ultimately, is what the army is for.
Professor Hugo de Burgh is Director of the China Media Centre. He is the author of China’s Media in the Emerging World Order, has held office in three Conservative associations, and stood in unwinnable seats several times.
China is our third largest market and the one with the greatest potential. China is the country with which we must work if we are to have any impact on the resolution of global problems from environment to nuclear proliferation. China can accelerate the development of African and Central Asian economies, mitigating the risks to Europe that come from population explosion there without adequate economic growth. China is the largest economy in the world and already influential in a majority of countries.
For all these reasons, it is patriotic and reasonable for British leaders to find a way to work with China, which they will only do if they understand China as it is. Among other eminent Brits who started with a morbid suspicion of China, I have accompanied Boris Johnson and Jeremy Paxman on extended visits, and watched the scales fall from their eyes as they understood the enormity of the challenges facing Chinese government and the absurdity of imagining that its leaders wasted a moment thinking about conquering the world.
The reverse is the case. They are determined not to be conquered by the world. In the past, China built a Great Wall to keep out foreigners; today China is initiating the Belt and Road initiative to secure their back as they restore their civilisation, threatened from the east.
Fantasising about regime change in China, some US politicians make outlandish accusations. Had they talked to a few Chinese punters, followed social media or watched chat shows on TV, they could not possibly claim that China is a totalitarian country. Had they read Pew’s surveys of public opinion they would realise that the Chinese are, overall, more satisfied with their governance than European citizens, to say nothing of the USA. And are you surprised? While Europe and the USA are beset by economic and political troubles, Chinese people see ahead of them only more wealth, health and social mobility.
We need to recognise that demonisation of China is a weapon with which some US politicians deflect attention from their own failings and reflect their commercial jealousy. Both our National Cyber Security Centre and GCHQ have maintained until now that Huawei’s involvement in the UK poses no security risk that cannot be managed. Otherwise why would the US trade Department last week reauthorize US companies to work with Huawei, even as Donald Trump bullies other countries not to?
Robert Zoellick, a US former Deputy Secretary of State, is among the calmer heads to remind us just how positive a collaborator China is: that it recognises climate change issues, is in the forefront of environment innovation and has worked hard on endangered species; cooperates with the IMF over stimulation; provides more UN peacekeepers than the other members of the Security Council combined.
He points out that between 2000 and 2018 China supported 182 of the 190 Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on nations which violated international rules or norms; China collaborated on the Iran and North Korea proliferation treaties.
Zoellick is not given to dire warnings about how dysfunctional it will be if the West really manages to ‘cut China off’, but they are implied in his general remarks about China, restated at a recent Henry Jackson webinar. China, he reminds us, is the biggest contributor to global growth; the fastest growing market for United States products; no longer manipulates the exchange rate; and, in response to our pleas, has improved its legal system. All in all, Zoellick tells us that cooperation with China “does produce results” but we should not take China’s cooperation for granted, “it could be very different”.
At home in Blighty, those calling for “a reckoning with China”, demanding a COBRA-like committee to mull over retaliation, wanting to “hold China to account” should ask themselves whether our businesses, for many of whom China is their most important market, want matters to become “very different”.
As to Hong Kong, the whole world must be astounded at the descendants of nineteenth century imperialists sending out paper gunboats commanding that China order its affairs according to our desires. A long time ago as a student, I demonstrated against colonial rule and police corruption in Hong Kong, and can still feel the truncheon on my back. In the face of much more vicious violence than anything we democracy activists attempted, Beijing has been restrained. In Northern Ireland, when security deteriorated, the UK imposed direct rule and fiercely rejected US interference on the IRA side. Over Hong Kong, we should try to see how interfering former imperialists look to most Asians, let alone to Chinese.
There are aspects of Chinese policies that we do not like, just as there are aspects of US policies that we abhor. The China Research Group is right to be concerned about cyber security and human rights. The way forward is to deal with China as a partner in the solution of common issues, such as terrorism in Xinjiang and Afghanistan. We have always worked with regimes with different standards when it suits our national interest. And respecting and being respected by China is in our national interest.
In the words of Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister: Over 30 years China has pulled off the ‘the English industrial revolution and the global information revolution combusting simultaneously and compressed into not 300 years but 30’. There is a lot to learn and if we are to develop and prosper in the world ahead, we must be part of this. We should also celebrate that China’s rise is bringing better nourishment, greater life expectancy, education and security to hundreds of millions around the world.
Fulminating at China’s internal affairs and rejecting Chinese investment in order to please its commercial rivals will have no effect beyond signalling our impotence and arrogance; they are of no benefit to Britain and have no place in a long-term plan for Britain to prosper in the Asian century. Our government must develop a strategic approach to China. We owe it to future generations of Brits to work with China.
Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.
Number 11: Johnny Mercer
Mercer narrowly missed a spot in the top 10, and everyone ranked ahead of him is either a current or recent Secretary of State. For a Parliamentary Under-Secretary who has been in his first ministerial role for under a year, that’s an impressive achievement.
Before entering politics, Mercer did three tours of Afghanistan in the Army, retiring at the rank of captain. Unseating Labour’s Alison Seabeck in Plymouth Moor View at the 2015 general election, he has grown his parliamentary majority from just 2.4 per cent to 29.2 per cent.
His posts can be playful and self-effacing. When one of his campaign boards was vandalised with expletives, he took the opportunity to make a light-hearted video about it. His interactions with other members in the House feel more like office banter than the work of a national legislature.
They can also take a more serious tone. He entered Parliament as a man on a mission and is quite happy to ruffle some feathers along the way. He recently shared a scathing attack on Alastair Campbell. A post mocking Jeremy Corbyn received almost 20,000 likes. A fight with local newspaper the Plymouth Herald went viral. And a confrontation with a constituent who had allegedly spat at a young female Conservative campaigner is one of his most popular posts.
This skill in picking battles has carried over into his parliamentary career. He withdrew his support for Theresa May late during her tenure and was an early backer of Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. This loyalty translated into his first ministerial appointment,
Mercer has seen his political clout and parliamentary majority grow steadily in just five years. It seems entirely possible that he’ll be a Secretary of State five years from now.