A Prayer for the Weak and a Cheer for the Brave: What’s Left of Britain’s Afghan Policy

Joe Biden knew he was taking a political risk in withdrawing US forces quickly from Afghanistan. But it has turned into a full-blown political blunder in which Britain involuntarily, but fully, shares. After the G7 meeting, chaired by Boris Johnson, British policy in Afghanistan is reduced to little more than offering a prayer for the weak and a cheer for the brave. Michael Clarke describes it.

The withdrawal crisis at Kabul airport is about as bad as these events ever get; a multiple human tragedy while US action is dictated by what Taliban leaders are prepared to allow. And the scope for British action in Kabul is completely dictated by US policy. Withdrawing under threat is a dangerous military manoeuvre and to maintain some element of surprise, US forces may well crash out of Kabul airport earlier than the 31 August deadline. British forces won’t get much notice when this happens and will have no choice but to leave with them. The last western aircraft out of Kabul will be American.

Cheers and Prayers

British policy will soon be left with nothing to offer but cheers and prayers.

Cheers go to British (and other NATO) troops who have, according to many first-hand accounts, behaved with enormous professionalism, courage and compassion. Their collective ethos makes 2 Para and their Royal Marine colleagues eschew individual media photo opportunities. They have operated to the point of exhaustion in the heat and confusion. They have taken great personal risks to extract families from the chaos and safeguard the dangerous passage of even straightforward evacuee cases to relative safety inside the airport’s northern perimeter. They have given away their rations, distributed endless bottles of water and taken charge of unaccompanied, uncomprehending infants, for whom they represent a best, last hope. And they have all worked under the shadow of potential terrorist attacks that could come from either al-Qaeda or Islamic State (Khorasan) militants – both of whom despise Taliban leaders as much as they also hate each other. The troops have operated in a situation where the potential dangers have increased with each passing day.

At the end, the whole international operation will have airlifted over 15,000 foreign nationals out of the country and somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 Afghans from immediate danger – a grand total that will be somewhere between 85,000 and 100,000, depending on how many hours remain before the civilian part of the operation winds up.

The British airlift will have accounted for about 10,000 of that number – almost twice the original estimate made less than 10 days ago of a total topping out at 5,500. That has included British nationals, those who worked for the British, and a ‘greatly expanding’ number of those who worked in civil society who are now judged to be under severe threat.

The country can no doubt cheer the work of 2 Para, the RAF, the consular staff on the ground and (latterly) the London end of the operation that has salvaged at least this much from the Kabul tragedy.

But Britain can offer little but prayers, futile prayers, for the several thousand Afghans who have been unable to exercise their entitlement to safety in the west, or those hundreds of thousands of Afghan citizens who represent civil society, education, human rights, honest journalism or international connections who must now fear for their lives and their families.

However many people have been ‘rescued’ in this operation, British ministers are resigned to admitting that ‘lots’ who should be evacuated will be left behind. All week, ministers have quoted figures of which we should be proud, while their faces have showed the betrayal they know such figures also represent. The departure of the last military aircraft from Kabul will probably become the enduring symbol of western impotence in the face of defeat.     

Some Straws to Clutch

Western leaders spoke bravely after the G7 meeting about the standards they expected from the new Taliban government of Afghanistan. They cited some political ‘levers’ that would pressure Taliban leaders to allow those Afghans who wanted to leave to do so, guaranteeing rights for women and girls, preventing Afghanistan becoming again a base for international terrorist training and planning.

Those political levers include withholding recognition to the new government, denying it vital international credit, making critical international aid to Afghanistan strongly conditional, even threatening immediate sanctions – though sanctions are hardly relevant against an organisation that begins from pariah status and is already proscribed as terrorist. Nevertheless, G7 leaders were looking for some leverage over a new government that certainly wants to establish a strict Islamic society, but not necessarily to create a hermit state. Maybe there will be something to work with?

But the geopolitical reality is that such measures will not be western levers to pull, so much as straws to clutch at, if China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran move to fill the political vacuum created by western withdrawal and the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government. For their own different reasons, none of Afghanistan’s neighbours want the Taliban’s Afghanistan to descend into chaos. They all have strong motives to help it. China will be cautious in the way it approaches Kabul but can certainly cover it for the $440 million IMF loan and the $3-4 billion a year in US aid it is about to lose. It can choose to keep the new government afloat for a couple of years while it refines its own national response to Afghanistan. Both Beijing and Moscow have choices over their Afghanistan policies that are no longer available to the western powers. The G7 governments are likely to be left with the straws.

The Weak Are the Brave

When the airlift is over a new reality will emerge inside Afghanistan – impossible to say how prominently or how quickly – which will reflect whatever success western policy really has had over the two decades prior to the final blundering tragedy of 2021. A generation of young Afghans have known a different country. After 2002 per capita GDP grew by over 60% before beginning to fall back in 2018. The economy now depends far less on agriculture, while the service sector has grown fourfold, particularly in health and education. In 2002 only 12% of children had any secondary education, now it is 60% (over 80% among girls). Mobile phone ownership grew from close to zero in 2002 to 60% of the population now. Afghanistan remains a poor country but some of the metrics of sectoral improvement of Afghanistan as a society are nevertheless dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Taliban government faces formidable challenges for which neither guerrilla fighting nor deep religious fundamentalism can have prepared them. The former head of the Afghan Central Bank has noted that wheat prices have doubled this year, and some 14 million of Afghanistan’s 38 million population are facing food insecurity. Incomes will fall. Inflation is growing, while cash and savings are crumbling even as Afghans have lost access to their money. Cuts in US aid, whatever happens to international development assistance, will have the effect of slashing central spending with job losses among government employees. Afghanistan’s $9 billion in foreign reserves are currently frozen and considerable amounts of bilateral aid – like $300 million from Germany – are suspended indefinitely. Stimulated by foreign spending, the Afghan economy grew strongly for more than 15 years before beginning to stagnate in 2019. That is what the Taliban are inheriting. And while cash from narcotics can make them rich for a terrorist group, it makes them poor for a central government.

It is hard to imagine the new Afghanistan will look much like the old one of the 1990s. If many Afghans are cynical or resigned to a more repressed future (and some in the rural areas evidently welcome it), there are legions of examples of a new generation of citizens who see their future differently and have repeatedly shown courage and great inventiveness in the face of growing Taliban influence. They will watch carefully to see how Taliban rule now emerges and which national leaders are brought into the new government. It seems unlikely this generation will be cowed into a lifetime of submission if the new Taliban merely behave like their old selves.

In the aftermath of the chaotic scramble at Kabul airport, the upcoming generation of Afghans will probably feel weak, even hopeless. But so many have also showed themselves to be brave. The weak and the brave will ultimately – eventually – have some considerable say in Afghanistan’s future.

As Britain prays and cheers for them, it might reflect on its own strategic thinking that created the new generation’s present weakness – and its bravery. They shouldn’t have had to be either.

See also, Michael Clarke, ‘Afghanistan and the UK’s Illusion of Strategy’, RUSI Commentary, 16 August 2021; Michael Clarke, The Strategic Consequences of Western Defeat in Afghanistan, http://www.tippingpoint2020s.com, 16 August 2021; and Michael Clarke, ‘Afghanistan: time for more fighting before any more talking’, http://www.tippingpoint2020s.com, 14 July 2021.

Michael Clarke is the author of The Challenge of Defending Britain, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018. He is the co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I. B. Tauris, 2019; and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris, November 2021, forthcoming.

Photograph by LPhot Ben Shread. UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021. MOD News License here.