Secretary General of NATO 1999-2004
UK Secretary of State for Defence, 1997-99
Afghanistan: A Catastrophe, But Something Can Yet Be Done
by GEORGE ROBERTSON
Published: The Herald, 24 August 2021
The tragedy in Afghanistan did not have to be this way. A more graduated departure, reliant on clear progress on the ground, could have prevented the catastrophe unfolding before our eyes.
Now everyone, especially those touched by death and injury among our troops, is asking: was it worth the sacrifice?
My answer is yes. For two decades, we stopped the jihadis using Afghanistan to plot more 9/11 type attacks. We marginalised and excluded the Taliban. Thanks to our troops, we gave the Afghans the first ever taste of elections, and normal life. Women had respect – and education.
Such basic rights will be under attack now the Taliban are back – but will never wholly be taken away.
The trouble is that we never seem to learn from history. Even recent history would have shown us how things could have been done better.
In 1995 in Bosnia, 65,000 troops were deployed to finally stop the carnage in the Balkans. Today there’s just a handful of para-militaries there. Because, after that intervention, the eventual withdrawal of military forces was based on measurable progress.
It worked – but yet with every subsequent intervention by the West, it was as if we had learned nothing,
In 2001, the events of 9/11 triggered the move to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan. It made eminent sense as the criminal jihadists were planning more atrocities and no city would be safe after what happened in New York.
The Bush government used formidable US might to overwhelm the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda’s base. Donald Rumsfeld then tried to pass on the baton to his allies to sort the resulting power vacuum. As NATO Secretary General at the time, I told him personally and bluntly that this was not on.
I then had to get a consensus in NATO for us to take on the ensuing mission. There were objections – and not just from the US – but I made the case.
I applied the lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo. Build a broad regional coalition of self-interest.
To this end, I consulted Russia and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I spoke to Pakistan and asked China if they were with us. Everyone agreed.
They all had a stake in a stable Afghanistan and all wanted NATO to do that job. In contrast today, we all seemed to be fighting on our own, with that sense of cooperation and global interest in the region diminished and lost.
It is worth reminding ourselves that NATO’s mission was called ISAF, which stands for International Security and Assistance Force. But the mission crept away from reconstruction to concentrate on security. This had a logic given the threats NATO troops faced, but that priority of assisting Afghanistan changed and the locals noticed.
And then, along came Iraq. Whether one was in favour of that mission (and I was) or thought it rash, the fact is that it was a massive distraction from sorting Afghanistan.
Afghanistan needed attention and commitment but that inevitably was in short supply in Washington – and elsewhere too.
Yet where we really started to lose in Afghanistan was at home. Here again the lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo were ignored.
If you embark on foreign interventions you cannot depend on the initial support for it continuing – especially if there are casualties.
Unless the public are constantly reminded that what is being done miles away from home affects their own safety and security then the will to win will disappear.
When we took action to stop the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s killing in Kosovo in 1999, we built an all-party consensus which signalled to troops, the public and the enemy that our nation was united and defeat unacceptable.
We filled the airwaves to explain why we were involved. ‘Serbs out, NATO in, refugees home’ was the relentless message. Until it was fully achieved.
Compare that with the lukewarm commitment to Afghanistan. We sent out troops, of course, and some of our finest and most talented military commanders, but we allowed attention to be focused only on the casualties and the bitterly regretted fatalities.
We did too little to remind people at home that what happened in New York and Washington was a taster for what the jihadists planned for Paris and Rome and what did happen in Glasgow and London.
Gordon Brown made one major parliamentary speech on Afghanistan as did David Cameron. Theresa May made none and neither has Boris Johnson. And to rub in the point, our Foreign Secretary was on holiday last week as our collective mission was collapsing.
What then are the consequences of this catastrophe?
First of all, the terror threat increases. Every jihadist will be re-motivated by this retreat.
Second, the standing of the US, the West and NATO has been hugely damaged. Russia and China with Iran and North Korea will get real pleasure from the situation in Afghanistan
Third, the advances in civil society in Afghanistan will be attacked.
Fourth, refugee flows will increase. They will come from Afghanistan – as they already do, but others will also try to find safety.
So what is to be done now, with the Taliban back?
- The UN has to step up. It must put the spotlight on any Taliban excesses and apply all the pressure it can to mitigate human rights violations. Finance will be a lever on behaviour too.
- The International Criminal Court needs to signal it is watching Afghanistan and will target individuals and groups violating international law.
- We must continue to help those Afghans who helped us.
- We must rebuild that all-important regional collaboration with Afghanistan’s neighbours, which mattered so much when we went in.
- Finally, we need to learn brutal lessons quickly from this whole UN-mandated mission. Not some years-long, judge-led public inquiry.
Our troops did so well so far away, but were let down at home.
That’s one lesson staring us in the face.