Our troops are doing their best. But Kabul shows how impotent we are without America

Published by The Daily Mail (25th August, 2021)

There are few institutions that can still unite our nation in uncritical admiration after a series of scandals challenged our collective faith in the banks, the BBC, the Church, police, politicians and much of the Royal Family.

Yet there remains immense respect among most British people for our Armed Forces — and this has been reinforced in recent days by those hectic evacuation efforts seen amid the hellish debacle of the Afghanistan  withdrawal.

Night after night, news broadcasts have shown soldiers, many with baby faces beneath their helmets, staying remarkably calm at Kabul airport amid the scrums of people trying desperately to escape the terrifying Taliban takeover.

But despite such superb work, which has helped 7,000 people escape to safety on British flights, British politicians have insisted that when the Americans abandon Kabul, our forces must go too — even if this means leaving many deserving people behind.

Yesterday, the door slammed shut on thousands of those people after the Taliban refused to bend to demands for the August 31 evacuation deadline to be pushed back, and President Joe Biden ignored Boris Johnson’s plea for an extension.

As Afghans were ordered not to go to the airport and women were told to stay at home ‘for their own safety’ by their repellent new rulers, the reality of the West’s waning influence became all too apparent.

Despite its determined efforts, Britain will now leave a trail of broken promises and crushed hopes along with hundreds of abandoned families after 20 years in Afghanistan.

And while the noble endeavours of those dedicated soldiers can only be applauded, this rescue mission will hardly go down in the history books as one of our finest hours.

The truth is that what is happening in Kabul is a sad reflection of our country’s weakness. Without the help of the Americans, we cannot save more of those to whom we have a deep moral obligation.

Throughout this botched withdrawal, the U.S. President has shown complete indifference to Britain, the second largest supplier of troops over the course of this intervention. It is hard to disagree with Rory Stewart, the former aid minister, when he says that bumbling Biden ‘humiliated his Western allies by demonstrating their impotence’.

This was underlined by the G7 group of nations, which held online talks yesterday to come up with a united response to Afghanistan’s sudden collapse into the hands of the Taliban. Like Britain, other members wanted the withdrawal deadline extended and were deeply dismayed over the inflexible way the White House blindsided its allies with such a hasty, badly handled exit.

The G7 was only able to come up with a meaningless ‘road map’, agreeing on future engagement with the Taliban and insisting on the ‘safe passage’ of those who want to leave Afghanistan beyond August 31 — a response unlikely to make the Taliban quake.

Wherever you stand on the Afghan intervention — and I believe that, with its shifting strategies and backfiring nation-building efforts, it went on far too long — there is no doubt that both Washington and Westminster have a deep moral responsibility to rescue those Afghans we have left behind. Their lives are now in danger because they helped our forces and trusted the democratic leaders who have betrayed them.

We have the same duty to offer sanctuary that we have shown, rightly, to thousands of Hong Kong citizens whose historic freedoms were crushed by Communist China in breach of an agreement with Britain over the 1997 handover of our former colony.

We have thrown out similar lifelines in the past — for example with the 27,000 Asians expelled by the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1972. And perhaps most famously with 10,000 Jewish children saved from the Nazis in the nine-month Kindertransport mission before World War II.

Yet the chaotic scenes in Kabul raise profound questions over our ability to take similar actions in the future and our role in the world.

We live in a time when a harshly repressive Communist dictatorship in China seeks to dominate the world, autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin display contempt for our values and the reliance on technology increases our vulnerability to attack.

Yet we have now been crushingly exposed by the isolationism infecting the White House under both Democratic and Republican presidents with their myopic mantra of America First.

As Tim Cross, a retired Major- General and logistics expert who was involved in both the Iraq and Kosovo interventions, said this week: ‘What’s the point of having Armed Forces if we cannot hold a single airfield? It makes the whole global Britain idea a joke.’

Certainly this humiliating flight from Kabul feels a long way from our 1944 D-Day heroics, in which my father landed American allies on the beach at Omaha, or even that extraordinary long-range Falklands assault almost four decades ago.

Of course, there are valid reasons why our troops are being forced to leave Kabul after diktats from the Taliban. One missile could bring down a jet, one bomb could shut down the airport, one burst of machine-gun fire could end the evacuation in seconds.

But even if we wanted to stay, we simply could not have managed it without American troops. The U.S., which has 6,000 troops on the ground compared with Britain’s 1,000, is providing by far the most personnel to keep the airport secure and is running many of its key facilities, including air traffic control. It is also providing intelligence and aerial surveillance.

Even that small deployment represents a major operation for our shrunken Armed Forces, which have plunged in number from about 330,000 at the time of the Falklands conflict to fewer than 150,000 today, while spending on defence as a proportion of the economy’s size has fallen even faster.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace — who has handled this Afghan crisis with admirable honesty — plans to reduce the Army by another 4,000 troops to just 72,500 men and women by 2025.

He claims this is a modernising move towards drones and cyber warfare, speaking in grandiloquent terms of moving from ‘mass mobilisation to information-age speed’.

Certainly the importance of technology grows daily, with the alarming anticipation of hypersonic missiles travelling 25 times faster than sound and swarms of drones using artificial intelligence to hone their attacks as they hurtle towards targets. However, the chaos in Kabul demonstrates how important it is still to have sufficient boots on the ground.

Meanwhile, politicians, civil servants and military top brass have proved so incompetent over the years in their ‘modernisation’ programme that they have overseen a string of procurement catastrophes, from melting army boots through to white-elephant aircraft carriers.

The most recent horror story involves spending £5.5 billion on Ajax armoured vehicles that were meant to provide the Army with a fast, powerful and stealthy weapon for this era of high-tech warfare.

Deliveries from their U.S. manufacturer should have begun four years ago. Instead, it was reported last month that the vehicles cannot fire their guns in motion, while crews endure such bad noise and vibrations that they suffer back injuries and hearing damage. The project may be scrapped.

The nature of warfare and the shape of our world are changing with dramatic rapidity. Yet the tragic events at Kabul airport show just how much we are deluding ourselves that we remain a great global power in this time of such profound change.

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