Current Affairs

Bitter lessons from Afghanistan

Bitter lessons from Afghanistan
  • PublishedOctober 20, 2021

Speaking from his perspective as a UK government minister during the 9/11 attacks which led to the invasion of Afghanistan, Lord Peter Hain is frank about the errors made and worries that the recent events will distract from urgent issues in Africa.

At the same time that I was Britain’s only Africa-born Minister for Africa, I was also a junior Foreign Office Minister covering Afghanistan from July 1999 until January 2001; then from June 2001, Europe Minister during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan to eradicate al-Qaeda’s base.

I was therefore implicated in the very beginning of what even Boris Johnson’s senior Conservatives have described as Britain’s ‘biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez’, questioning what on earth so many British soldiers, coalition forces and Afghans bravely fought for, and sacrificed their lives for.

This seems to me the time for a proper reckoning by all involved. First of all, the Taliban have taken over the country: they are the government, even if they have many internal enemies, some still prepared to fight.

Washington, Britain and Europe must now find ways to incentivise the Taliban – and yes, that also includes engaging with them alongside regional powers like China, Russia and Iran – so that they are discouraged from returning to their bad old ways, including their medieval-like oppression of women and girls, who have shown such extraordinary bravery in continuing to publicly protest against Taliban attitudes.

A United Nations panel on terrorism reports that the Taliban kept up a close relationship with al-Qaeda, permitting them to conduct training and deploy fighters alongside its forces. Something similar was almost certainly true of ISIS, which claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on Kabul airport whilst refugees were being evacuated.

Therefore, engaging with Taliban government ministers will require a combination of toughness and economic incentives, with Afghanistan desperate for outside aid, trade and investment to repair a war-shattered country.

Britain’s experience from Northern Ireland, hard learnt at bloody cost to life and limb, shows that you will fail if you treat groups like the Taliban as pariahs.

As Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell – who played a key role in the Northern Ireland ‘Good Friday’ peace-making programme – explains in his excellent book Talking to Terrorists, you have to negotiate with them, offering economic inducements and tough deterrents.

The costly ‘nation-building, democracy building’ strategy of the West failed abysmally in Afghanistan. A fundamental mistake of US-UK policy from the outset was not accommodating the Pashtun, the biggest ethnic group, where the Taliban’s power comes from.

Failure to negotiate

Instead of cultivating only Afghan forces and individuals amenable to the US from 2001, instead of occupying a country that has always rejected foreign invaders – from Britain in the 1830s to the Soviets in the 1980s – surely after 9/11 the West should have negotiated a deal to remove al-Qaeda, instead of barging in, staying for 20 years, then fleeing ignominiously?

And yes, the story might have been different if the US and UK focus on Afghanistan after 2002/3 had not been diverted by the calamitous invasion of Iraq. 

The whole of the British political establishment shares the blame, both the Labour government in which I was proud to serve for 12 years, and since 2010 the Conservatives (including Liberal Democrats when in coalition) in our betrayal of the millions of Afghans.

It’s no good just finger-jabbing at Joe Biden or George Bush, at Johnson or Blair: instead there must be a proper reckoning by the British Parliament, the American Congress and the European Union, about the real lessons of their common culpability in this utter catastrophe.

Not just the betrayal of thousands of Afghanis who sided with them, but the utter humiliation of the Western world which will invite increased threats of terror attacks and refugee flows.

West should keep Africa in focus

Afghanistan’s fate should not divert the attention of the world’s most powerful and rich nations from Africa. I remember British Foreign Office mandarins pigeon-holing Africa as a ‘third order’ diplomatic and security issue. The Biden administration’s interim national security guidance issued in March allocated the whole continent just one measly paragraph.

Yet in the Sahel, French forces are on the defensive against increasing Islamist insurgencies. In the horn of Africa, there are varied threats, especially by al-Shabaab in Somalia and from Islamist derivatives down its East Coast, including most recently northern, remote Mozambique. In West Africa, Boko Haram is a continual threat.

The G7 leaders have so far given little sign that both the opportunities and the dangers across the continent are any sort of priority for them.

Yet the UN has predicted half the growth in the world’s population over the next 30 years will take place in just nine countries, five of them African, with the continent expected to jump by more than a billion people – equivalent to an extra China or India numerically. By mid-century, Africa will have at least three times Europe’s population, with Nigeria bigger than the United States.

Will this phenomenal growth lead Africa to emulate China in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty? Or to become a source of migration from conflict and destitution, dwarfing numbers so far seen flooding across the Mediterranean?

Will Africa look increasingly to China which has moved quickly into the strategic, diplomatic and investment vacuum left by the US on the continent?

On the downside, climate change is ravaging Africa. So is the Covid-19 pandemic with publicly declared numbers of African casualties probably a fraction of the true figures.

On the upside, young cosmopolitan-educated ministers have replaced older ones and young people are challenging old corrupt elites. South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruling that former President Jacob Zuma must be imprisoned was a triumph of the rule of law over his corrupt state capture, and the attempted insurrection by his cronies to free him.

The G7 should be supporting such initiatives with more African consulates, embassies and trade missions, more expertise and investment in digitisation, in education and in the vaccines needed by the continent. It should also be promoting women’s rights. 

Africa needs long-term military, diplomatic and economic help for its states in trouble, learning from the failure of Afghanistan.

Former British Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord William Hague has asked a pertinent question of Washington, London and Brussels: “Today in Kabul, we are leaving people in the hands of extremists, to be exploited by China, and feeling betrayed by the West. We cannot afford to do the same in Africa”, he says.

Western military intervention in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya and chaotically one-sided in Syria’s civil war, has surely brought home some uncomfortable lessons.

Somalia has recently shown how Western countries collaborated to fund African forces to fight al-Shabaab terrorists, and supported through the UN a legitimate government, without sending invading soldiers onto African soil.

In 1999, Britain led the West to save Muslims from genocide in Kosovo. In 2000, when I was Britain’s Africa Minister, and requested by Sierra Leone’s elected government, we sent in our soldiers to thwart a bloodthirsty terrorist insurrection. These interventions all had domestic consent, were relatively surgical and all were successful.

That was never the case for Afghanistan or Iraq – and was never going to be. 

Lord Hain’s memoir, A Pretoria Boy, South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, has recently been published in Johannesburg by Jonathan Ball and in London by Icon Books.

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What the fall of Afghanistan means for Africa

Written By
Peter Hain

Lord Hain is a former anti-apartheid campaigner and British Cabinet Minister.

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