Sunday National, 22nd August 2021.
I’m a child of the “war of terror.” I was 14 years old when I came home from school to see the Twin Towers falling, and 15 when American and British troops first landed in Afghanistan. At sixteen, I watched the “coalition of the willing” invade Iraq, with President George W Bush declaring “mission accomplished” in May 2003. At the time, I shared the strong moral intuition of most youngsters of my generation: these military adventures were misconceived. Two decades on, I’m more fortified in that view than ever. In the 20 years which have followed, the Americans have poured some $2.2 trillion into military expenditure in Afghanistan, with the UK shelling out more than £21billion. Quarter of a million people are dead as a result of the conflict.
You heard little reflection on this in the House of Commons this week, as MPs were recalled to discuss the historic failure of the UK-US intervention in Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation. Only a sociopath could contemplate the plight of ordinary Afghan people with a dry eye. But sifting through media reactions to this week’s Commons debate on Afghanistan felt like an out of body experience.
My spirit tumbled back through time to the early 2000s, when Tony Blair was at the despatch box, and MPs were reasoning themselves into a position where the idea of emancipation at the point of a bayonet and bombing countries into liberty seemed not only like a jolly good idea actually, but a moral imperative, and anyone who suggested otherwise was a spineless squish and objectively pro-fascist.
Those of you with memories of the period will remember the monstering anti-war sceptics took at the hands of Britain’s – still – recklessly gung-ho, war-hungry media. In the Afghan context, you can now throw in the defence of theocratic misogyny to the charges you can lay at the door of anyone who thinks a couple more decades camping out in the country is a Bad Idea.
It turns out that high-minded House of Commons speeches don’t deliver the kind of tidy crusade politicians convince themselves is possible, and instead results in the squalid disaster of war, with all of the wickedness, loss of life, pointless destruction and attendant cruelties every war in human history has reliably generated. Who knew? Well, quite a few of us, actually. I’m only surprised you’re surprised.
While people were watching the Tory benches tear into the government this week and enjoying Boris Johnson’s discomfort, they somehow failed to notice just how deranged some of the most celebrated Tory speeches of the day truly were. At times, it was harder to work out whether Tory MPs were most upset about the Afghan people being abandoned by the Americans – or their own sense of smarting national pride of being frozen out of the special relationship, endangering Britain’s cherished position as America’s +1 when the United States decides to pay some unlucky country a visit.
Liberals, “moderate” Labour MPs and “sensible centrists” turning gooey inside because an old soldier gives an emotional speech in the House of Commons gives me the fear, because it is exactly this kind of soft-headed sentimentality and weakness for hard-headed jingoism which has powered Britain’s devastating military interventions for the last two decades. Needless to say, the devastation mostly lands on other people. Yes, these were “powerful speeches.” They were powerfully stupid and powerfully dangerous.
Take Theresa May. Her remarks got a generous write-up even by her opponents because they made her successor squirm. But the murderous jingoism of what Mrs May was implying should be done is objectively doolally, and that matters a damn sight more than whether she left the First Lord of the Treasury thumbing his gusset.
“In recent years,” May suggest, “the west has appeared to be less willing to defend its values. That cannot continue. If it does, it will embolden those who do not share those values and wish to impose their way of life on others. I am afraid that this has been a major setback for British foreign policy. We boast about global Britain, but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul? A successful foreign policy strategy will be judged by our deeds, not by our words.” Meaning what exactly? What “deeds” does the former Prime Minister have in mind, beyond the boasting?
Tobias Ellwood – another former soldier and MP for Bournemouth East – was at least more candid about what he reckons “global Britain of the streets of Kabul” really means. Having laid into President Biden’s decision to withdraw the skeleton crew of American soldiers still in posts, Ellwood suggested “we could have stepped forward and filled the vacuum, but we did not.” Britain’s failure to unilaterally ratchet up its occupation of Afghanistan territory was, inevitably, attributed to a crisis in national confidence.
“We need to have more confidence as a Government in ourselves, as we did in the last century,” Ellwood suggested. “I thought that this was in our DNA. We have the means, the hard power and the connections to lead. What we require is the backbone, the courage and the leadership to step forward, yet when our moment comes, such as now, we are found wanting. There are serious questions to ask about our place in the world, what global Britain really means and what our foreign policy is all about.”
So unilateral re-invasion is the fantasy then, with the union flag fluttering nobly at the forefront. That’s what “global Britain on the streets of Kabul” means to these crackpots, and anyone inclined to get misty-eyed about their speeches because they are clearly sincere – in this case, sincerely sinister – should get a grip of their faculties, put away the hankie, and consider what would become of the world if we listened to these people. But we already know the answer to that one. Contemplate the comprehensive devastation of the UK’s foreign policy during the last 20 years. Listening to Tugenhat, May and Ellwood is an excellent way of ensuring the next 20 look just the same.
These people are a danger to themselves, and a danger to others. Squeamishness about escalating a 20 year, trillion-dollar occupation is – on Ellwood’s view – is just evidence of a lack of nerve, a lack of spirit, a betrayal of Britain’s noble tradition of painting the map red from sea to shining sea, century after century. This week, Times columnist Melanie Phillips lamented that “coddled by decades of peace, consumerism and a culture of hyper-individualism, the British have become deeply reluctant to commit to wars in far-away places about which they know little and care less.” There’s no irony in this statement. She isn’t joking. These people are cracked.
For once, our much-maligned Prime Minister was absolutely right. “I do not believe that today deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is an option that, no matter how sincerely people may advocate it—and I appreciate their sincerity—would commend itself either to the British people or to this House. We must deal with the position as it now is, accepting what we have achieved and what we have not achieved.” He’s right. But Johnson is more generous about their “sincerity” than I would be. If someone sincerely wants to turn your country into a battlefield in the name of freedom, I doubt you would be consoled in the night to think that the architects of the war killing you and your children really meant it.
You might remember the Stop the War movement campaigned under the slogan “not in our name.” It is striking, when the wars they resisted collapsed – one after another – into humanitarian disasters, the key architects and apologists for conflict are suddenly keen to make these failures all of our collective responsibility, rather than the blame landing squarely on the politicians who voted for it, the senior soldiers who orchestrated it, and the wider media which split it sinews to garner public support for it.
There was almost no reflection on any of this in the House of Commons this week. Whether it is in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria and Libya – there are always politicians in Britain who are convinced we should give war a chance. Or I should say – another chance. This succession of disasters have left Britain’s “liberal interventionists” not at all discouraged about the moral necessity and political effectiveness of dispatching armed missionaries and friendly bombs. Take it as a warning.