Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Dominic Raab didn’t anticipate Kabul falling. He should have bought some binoculars

The Afghanistan issue was on Dominic Raab’s desk for years. If he’d paid it more attention, he might have realised what was about to unfold

Iain Galbraith
5 October 2021, 10.20am
Afghanistan rubble, 2007
Wikicommons/Gideon Tsang. Some rights reserved.

In the face of the unfolding debacle in Kabul, Dominic Raab, then the British foreign secretary, blithely claimed on Sky News that “no one saw this coming”. Viewers who had seen it coming for years (all called ‘no one’) will have scratched their heads in astonishment: What? You’ve spent some £40bn of UK taxpayers’ money on this (more than £2,000 per household) but you couldn’t afford binoculars?

According to some commentators, the problem was a lack of intelligence. While Raab’s claim to ignorance seems more suggestive of a somnambulistic vagueness, interventionary governments have typically wanted us to believe they could not see what was coming because their intelligence agencies had failed to predict the rapidity of the Taliban’s resurgence and inevitable takeover.

Policymakers are wont to hide poor policy behind claims of false intelligence (as national security blogger David Priess explained on Lawfare Live on 27 August). They do so to distract from their own errors of judgement and to signal to allies that it’s time to make smokescreens. According to Bill Roggio, for example, a whizz at military strategy and senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the failure to predict the Taliban’s takeover was the “biggest intelligence failure” since the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam (CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia, 16 August).

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Gosh! No wonder those poor policymakers have been kept in the dark! While the ‘intelligence failure’ ruse almost always stretches credibility, its fragility is particularly acute when placed alongside what Richard Dannatt, the British Army’s general chief of staff between 2006 and 2009, told The Guardian on the matter on 29 August: “This issue has been on politicians’ desks for two to three years and, certainly, it’s been there during the course of this year… Back in July, 45 senior officers wrote to the government… saying there are people we are concerned about and if we don’t do the right thing, their blood will be on our hands. It is unfathomable why it would appear that the government was asleep on watch.”

If the ‘issue’ has been on Raab’s desk for years but he hasn’t bothered to read about it, that could explain why he didn’t see the juggernaut coming. If he had spent the taxpayers’ money wisely and got himself some binoculars (in other words, eyes on the ground, books on Afghan history, or reliable counsel), Raab and other politicians pretending innocent surprise might have realised what was coming. The intel has been accumulating for years, some of it contributed by members of previous Conservative governments, from the heart of the establishment.

Another type of Tory?

On 6 November 2014, under the title ‘Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’, the New York Review of Books published a lengthy review of Anand Gopal’s deeply researched and widely praised investigative account of America’s intervention: ‘No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes’. By 2014, according to the reviewer, a man with personal experience of Afghanistan, the failures of the intervention were “worse than even the most cynical believed”. By the time the review appeared, consensus saw two remaining options for the future of Afghanistan: the best case was ‘political accommodation with the Taliban’, the worst was ‘civil war’.

The reviewer proceeds to cite one mind-bogglingly shocking example after another of the kind of US incompetence and ignorance revealed by the actions of its army, as well as prosecuting the “uniformity, overconfidence, and rigidity of Western response” to the “startling differences within the countries in which we intervene”.

Policymakers are wont to hide poor policy behind claims of false intelligence

He also decries the Western jargon of “state-building”, “capacity-building”, “civil society” and “sustainable livelihoods”, not only as resoundingly hollow, but as an indication that the opposite is actually true. “In truth, international statements about establishing ‘the rule of law, governance, and security’ became simply ways of saying that Afghanistan was unjust, corrupt, and violent… But policymakers never realized how far from the mark they were. This is partly because most of them were unaware of even a fraction of the reality described in Gopal’s book. But it was partly also that they couldn’t absorb the truth, and didn’t want to.”

When writing his review of Gopal’s book, Rory Stewart was not only a member of David Cameron’s Tory government, he was also chair of the UK parliament’s Defence Select Committee, hardly the usual vantage point for an assault on imperialism’s “fashion of state-building”. He doesn’t sound like someone who cannot “absorb the truth” either. Under Theresa May’s premiership he was promoted to secretary of state for international development, but promptly resigned from the Conservative Party altogether when Boris Johnson took the helm.

It barely makes sense to speak of more or less right-wing Tory governments, but from Stewart’s perspicacity and integrity to Raab napping at the wheel is a distance that perhaps indicates where the UK government stands now. It is a government that not only cannot absorb the truth and doesn’t want to, but one that is driving on the wrong side of the road with its eyes shut.

This piece was originally published in the September edition of Splinters

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