Dr Julian Lewis: In his speech of self-justification after the collapse of Kabul, President Biden reduced a complex military issue to only two stark alternatives. It was a gross over-simplification for him to pose a devil’s dilemma between either a massive troop surge on a never-ending basis or a ruthless, chaotic and dishonourable departure. It is ruthless because people who trusted NATO will pay a terrible price; chaotic because of a lack of foresight to plan an orderly and properly protected departure; and dishonourable because even if our open-ended, nation-building, micromanagement strategy was wrong, as I think it was, in 20 years we created expectations and obligations which those who relied on us had a right to expect us to fulfil, as the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has just said.
It has been pointed out correctly that for 20 years, NATO operations in Afghanistan succeeded in preventing further al-Qaeda attacks on the West from being launched under Taliban protection. That was indeed the key outcome, but unless we choose a better future strategy, the threat of its reversal is all too real. Not only may sanctuary on Afghan soil again be offered to lethal international terrorists, but other Islamist states may also decide to follow suit. How, then, should we have handled a country like Afghanistan when it served as a base and a launchpad for al-Qaeda, and how should we deal with such situations in the future?
These are my personal views on a defence issue unrelated to the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee. For the past 10 years, I have argued both inside and outside this Chamber, very often to the dismay of my parliamentary colleagues, that a form of containment rather than counter-insurgency is the only practical answer to international terrorist movements sheltered and sponsored by rogue regimes like the Taliban. Containment, as older colleagues will remember, was the policy that held the Soviet Union in check throughout the Cold War until its empire imploded and its ideology was discredited. Islamist extremism has a subversive reach similar to that of revolutionary communism, and our task is to keep it at bay until it collapses completely or evolves into tolerant, or at least tolerable, alternative doctrines.
In Afghanistan, the task of overthrowing the Taliban and driving al-Qaeda into exile was quickly accomplished in 2001, and at that point NATO arrived at a fork in the road. The option selected was, as we know, an open-ended commitment to impose a Western version of democracy and protect it indefinitely in a country that had a strong sense of its own political and social culture and which was known to be politically allergic to foreign intervention.
Yet, there was another option available to Western strategists in response to the 9/11 attacks. Having achieved our immediate objectives of putting al-Qaeda to flight and punishing the Taliban, we should have announced that we were completely removing our forces but would promptly return by land and air to repeat the process if international terrorist groups were again detected in Afghanistan. When the Taliban regain full territorial control, they will lose their shield of invisibility. If they then choose to pose or facilitate a renewed threat – a terrorist threat – to Western security, they should expect both their leadership and their military capability to be hit hard by our mobile land and air forces. That cycle would be repeated until the threat was removed, but we should not and would not allow our forces to be sucked in again.
Alec Shelbrooke: My right hon. Friend is making some very important points. Has the game not changed slightly, though, with the immediate recognition of the Taliban Government by China and Russia? As they are permanent members of the Security Council, it will be very difficult to get any UN-led action in the way he describes.
Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right but, of course, this was a NATO intervention, and it is to NATO that we have to look when there are serious threats to international security, particularly those affecting Western interests.
The point is that it has to be flexible, because al-Qaeda itself is very flexible. An active containment policy of this sort can track and match the flexibility of the terrorists. Such a policy depends on the maintenance of integrated and highly mobile land forces, prepositioned in regional Strategic Base and Bridgehead Areas.
Mr Mark Harper: My right hon. Friend is Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and for this strategy to be successful it requires excellent intelligence with good analysis so that Ministers can make sound decisions. In this case, I fear that has not been the case. Does his Committee have any plans to investigate the intelligence failures in this case so that we can deliver the strategy he is so excellently setting out?
Dr Lewis: I am glad that my right hon. Friend approves of the strategy, but I said earlier that this speech on defence is, if anything, in my capacity as a former Chairman of the Defence Committee. I am not in a position at this stage to say anything publicly about what the ISC might or might not agree to do, but obviously his suggestion is pertinent.
The point about Strategic Base and Bridgehead Areas is that they contain integrated forces that are ready to strike and then withdraw, and then to strike again whenever and wherever needed – in Afghanistan or in any other susceptible state that becomes what our Defence Secretary and now our Prime Minister have rightly described as “breeding grounds” for al-Qaeda or similar international terrorist groups. Proportionate military initiatives could be taken, and interventions made, without undue logistical complexity and without getting sucked into full scale counter-insurgency campaigning while the terrorists redirect their efforts to neighbouring countries, leaving us mired in the original countries from which they operated.
Active containment is the hard-headed solution to an otherwise intractable dilemma: whether to allow terrorists to attack us with impunity or whether to shoulder the unending burden of indefinitely occupying every reckless rogue state that shelters and supports them. It is okay for people to say: “This is over. There is no way we are going back into Afghanistan.” However, I do not want to be here, in the years or months to come, after another spectacular al-Qaeda type attack on a Western country, with people looking around once again for a strategy because we are in a situation, as it seems we are, where the President of the United States can see only total withdrawal on one side or endless commitment on the other.
There is a flexible middle way, and it is an adaptation of the way in which we successfully saw off our Cold War confrontation. It worked then, in a very different context, and it would work now in this context, too.