The extraordinary events that unfolded in Afghanistan during the past week provided compelling and profoundly disturbing viewing. Not as dramatically horrifying as the images we saw on 9/11, they are a direct consequence of that momentous day though it has taken 20 years for the repercussions to become more fully apparent. What happened in Kabul and beyond will also have both intended and unintended consequences.
Bitter Lake – an Afghan primer
The theme of intended and unintended consequences that follow interventions in Afghanistan are dramatically explored in Bitter Lake (available on the BBCiPlayer) a fine documentary film made in 2015 by Adam Curtis. This complex film (which needs more than one viewing to fully grasp all the strands) examines the last 75 years of Afghan history, beginning in 1946 with President Roosevelt striking 2 deals – one with the then King of Afghanistan Zahir Shah to help modernise his country, and the other with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to secure America access to Saudi oil wealth. As it unfolds, we learn the consequences of those deals: the rise of Saudi influence in global politics, why heroin became a major cash crop, the invasions by Russia and the western powers and the origins of Islamic fundamentalism. The cast includes Sheikh Yamani the Saudi oil minister in the 1970s and Osama bin Laden.
Curtis is fascinated by the nature of political power and how the complexity of events is used and misused by politicians to mislead their electorates. In Bitter Lake, he suggests that no one in the west has ever properly understood the country and that every action taken there has produced outcomes no-one foresaw or wanted. Very few would have predicted that one immediate consequence of what happened in Afghanistan was the death of the idea that leaving the European Union meant the rise of Global Britain. But it was very clear to anyone watching the debate that took place in Parliament on August 18th on the UK’s withdrawal from the country that that’s exactly what happened. It is worth considering why.
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Parliament fights back
For 18 months ministers have sheltered behind the emergency legislation passed to deal with the Covid pandemic. The government has been allowed to operate with impunity, sidelining Parliament and making many changes to the law with minimal debate. But MPs forced a recall of the House to discuss what had happened. This was therefore the first time that the Government has been properly held to account since March 2020. It’s said that Boris Johnson comes into his own with the Commons full of loyal backbenchers to give him support. Not this time. He was exposed and MPs on all sides took their chance to challenge.
What was striking was the intensity of the criticism of Government behaviour from his own backbenchers. They were furious. None of them pulled any punches. Even Mark Francois joined in. Theresa May was explicit about what had happened: “We boast about global Britain but where was global Britain on the streets of Kabul?…did we just feel we had to follow the US and hope that on a wing and a prayer it would be alright on the night?” Tobias Ellwood (Chair of the Defence Select Committee) observed, “We have the means, hard power, connections to lead. What we require is the backbone, the courage, the leadership to step forward. Yet when our moment comes we are found wanting.”
Johnny Mercer and Tom Tugendhat spoke with barely controlled emotion, based on their direct experience of serving in Afghanistan. All who contributed emphasised how impotent and mean Britain looks as a result of the failure of British power and British influence. The opposition took full advantage too. Keir Starmer landed many telling blows about the government’s lack of preparedness, exemplified by both Johnson and Dominic Raab being on holiday when the crisis erupted. He was ably supported by Dan Jarvis, Chris Bryant and Lisa Nandy, who hammered Raab repeatedly with questions when winding up. None of them were answered. There were no answers to give.
What ‘Special’ Relationship?
It wasn’t just the specifics of the government’s policy failures that struck home. More than one MP was fiercely critical of the Americans. President Biden’s decision was repeatedly condemned, while both Theresa May and Bob Seely emphasised the fact that the origins of this disaster lay with Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to negotiate with the Taliban and release thousands of Taliban prisoners from prison, including the man installed as the new Afghan president. Ian Dunt has argued that the debate saw the rearrangement of western politics in real time, killing off once and for all the ‘Special Relationship’ idea that has sustained the UK’s post-war world view. Listening to these attacks, you’d have to agree. It will come as no surprise if we learn a speedy post-Brexit trade deal has faded further and further from view. Given that Johnson has also spent the last 2 years damaging relations with the European Union and looking across the Atlantic, he and the UK now look more and more isolated.
The beginning of the end for Johnson?
There was no vote at the end of the debate but one remark by Tobias Ellwood is noteworthy: “We have serious questions to ask about our place in the world, what Global Britain really means. I’m sorry there is no vote today as I do not believe that the government would have the support of the House.” Combine Afghanistan with his handling of the pandemic and the emerging damage that Brexit is causing and it is difficult to avoid the thought that Boris Johnson has now lost much of his authority within the Conservative party. Perhaps he avoided a vote at the end of the debate because he knew he would lose. Whole governments have resigned over such issues. It was as bad, for Johnson, as that.