LESSONS FROM AFGHANISTAN – 11 February 2015

Dr Julian Lewis: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Keith Simpson) on his tour d’horizon. I am sure that, given his wealth of experience and knowledge, he could have used up the entire hour and a half with an analysis from which we would have derived nothing but benefit. As he has been generous enough not to do that, the rest of us can make brief contributions to the debate.

I would like to focus on four lessons from the campaign in Afghanistan. First, we failed to focus on the key objectives. Secondly, we overreacted against former campaigns. Thirdly, we failed to fight on the ground where we are stronger and our enemy is weaker. Fourthly – and, importantly, my hon. Friend concluded by drawing attention to this issue – we failed to maintain dedicated decision-making machinery for controlling and constructing campaigns of this sort. Let me deal briefly with each of those lessons in turn.

In my opinion, there were only two relevant strategic objectives in going into Afghanistan: first, to prevent it from again being used as a base, a training-ground or a launch-pad for further terrorist attacks against the West; and, secondly, to assist its neighbour, Pakistan, in preventing its nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or its imitators. We did not stick to those objectives, as my hon. Friend said and as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) emphasised in an intervention. We allowed the campaign to change into one that effectively committed us to transforming Afghan society and building up the Afghan nation on the lines of a modern democratic state.

Even if we had been able to succeed in carrying out that objective, what would we have done if al-Qaeda, having been driven from Afghanistan in the first few days or weeks – as it was – had then re-established itself in another state that was vulnerable to acting as its host and base for operations? Would we have invaded that country too and built it from the ground up, all over again, while our enemies, fleet of foot, went to one bolthole after another? We did not concentrate on the key objective, which was to deny Afghanistan to al-Qaeda as a future terrorist training-ground and launch-pad for its operations. As for the second objective – of being able to assist Pakistan, should the need ever arise, to protect its nuclear arsenal from falling into the wrong hands – that remains as far from being fulfilled today as it was at the outset of the campaign.

However, I do not go along with critics who say that taking a military campaign to Afghanistan was wrong in principle, even if it was badly handled in practice. What was the United States meant to do after an attack had been launched on its homeland, killing nearly 3,000 of its citizens, many of whom were Muslim American citizens? Was it simply supposed to sit back and take no action by way of punishment, retribution and, as an example for the future to other countries, a determined policy to make sure that no such attack could be repeated? Of course it could not be expected to operate in that way, and with our ally having been attacked, it was right and appropriate that we participated in the campaign in response to that attack. The mistake was trying to take over and micro-manage the whole country.

The second question – that of overreaction against former campaigns – leads us to the question of why the mistake of trying to micro-manage the whole country and rebuild it from the grass-roots upwards was made. I am sure that it was in response to the way in which Afghanistan had been left entirely to its own devices after the Russians had withdrawn. It was felt, therefore, that by allowing ungoverned space to exist in that way, the opportunity had been created – as it had – for the pestilence of an organisation such as al-Qaeda to take root and flourish. The pendulum swung from leaving the country completely ungoverned to total management, reform and burden-carrying by the Western countries for the whole nature of Afghan society. Then, when that did not work and when there was a change of Government in this country, we overreacted again, and the pendulum swung back from micro-management of the whole society to setting an arbitrary date for withdrawal, four years hence from the announcement in late 2010.

The third failure that I mentioned was the failure to fight according to our strengths. That is where the doctrine of war ‘down among the people’ came in. We do not hear too many people talking about war down among the people these days, but at the time it was very much in vogue. It was a method of combating the enemies that we had mobilised against us in Afghanistan – quite apart from al-Qaeda, who had been expelled from the country – and it was a method by which we sought to fight them at ground level. The effect was that with every patrol that we sent out, we supplied the Taliban with targets to be shot at and blown up at will. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland set out in his survey of the scene, every casualty we incurred was an individual tragedy played out in the living rooms of the whole nation, even though, as he rightly said in relation to the sort of casualties taken in a war of survival such as the Second World War, the casualties of a single day in that war were often greater than the casualties of the entire campaign in Afghanistan.

What method should we have adopted? The method that I have always recommended is one of strategic bases – or garrisons – and bridgehead areas. One does not have to swing from one extreme, of having no involvement in a country and allowing it to become ungoverned space, to the other extreme, of trying to govern the whole country, manage it at the most basic level and build the whole nation and carry the governance of that country on one’s shoulders. One can have regional centres of power from which one can exercise military power periodically and through methods that suit our purposes rather than our enemies’, yet without having to take on the burden of governance of the whole territory concerned, thus making ourselves an irritant and a target for the indigenous people.

That leads, fourthly, to the failure to maintain dedicated decision-making machinery. I was particularly struck by what my hon. Friend said about whether one particular Chief of the Defence Staff from one Service could fully appreciate the strategic concerns that somebody from another Service might better have grasped. That leads me back to another theme I have been trying to pursue in recent months: the mistake of allowing the Chiefs of the Armed Forces, who used to be central to strategic planning, instead to become the managers of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force, is likely to have further consequences of this sort. If one is going to get joint advice on military campaigns, the top representatives of each of the Services should be involved in debating and agreeing the military advice that should be given to the political leaders.

I finish by saying that unless we get back to a situation in which there are solid, consistent and tri-Service forums in which strategic plans can be properly evolved, politicians will tend to take campaigns in directions that sensible strategic thought would not have them go. I shall give just two brief examples.

First, there was the decision that we took to bomb Libya in 2011. That was a classic case of not having learned the lesson of sticking to the task that was originally set out, because we thought we were voting on having a no-fly zone imposed over Libya. If a no-fly zone had been imposed over Libya, the result would probably have been a stalemate; but the moment Parliament voted for a no-fly zone to be imposed, we got something very different – an all-out aerial offensive on behalf of one side in a civil war. The result was to replace yet another Arab dictator with another aggressive, potentially lethal Islamist state.

Secondly, in Syria in 2013, Parliament prevented something similar from happening. If the Government had had their way at that time, we would have done exactly the same thing in Syria as we did in Libya. Now people are coming to the view, albeit reluctantly, that Assad’s downfall would not necessarily have improved the situation. On the contrary, it would have given our deadly enemies, who have now morphed from al-Qaeda into ISIL, opportunities to take the offensive.

To conclude, there are lessons to be learned, and my hon. Friend has done us a great service by giving us the opportunity to outline a few. I join him in regretting the fact that no serious study is being made of the lessons to be learned. If Libya and Syria are anything to go by, some of the lessons we should have learned from Afghanistan have yet to be taken on board.