Next week will mark six months since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, and the end of February will mark six months since Britain withdrew its final forces and diplomats from Afghanistan.
Fears about what the return of the Taliban, and their imposition of an Islamist extremist state, would mean for the people of Afghanistan have sadly been proved right. The Taliban’s medieval and brutal ways have resulted in a complete reversal in the rights and freedoms of Afghans, with harrowing news stories showing, among other things, parents forced to sell their own children to buy food, and women and girls having their lives upended by being taken out of work and education.
The Taliban’s return to power has therefore destroyed the positive aspects that we and our allies helped to create with the Afghan people over the course of the previous two decades. In this sense, our withdrawal should be seen as a defeat.
The brave sacrifices made by our Armed Forces and all those who risked life and limb produced formidable achievements, however. Since first stepping foot there in 2001, they improved the lives of the people of Afghanistan, bringing prosperity, political stability, human rights and the rule of law, the likes of which the Afghan people had never previously enjoyed. It was an immense achievement, even on that timescale.
Furthermore, they improved the safety of those elsewhere, the reason behind why the US and its allies went to Afghanistan in the first place. Let us remember that we intervened following the 9/11 attacks because the Taliban had given sanctuary to the Al Qaeda perpetrators of the atrocity. Our response was designed to protect our own safety and security, and it succeeded in that we took down Al-Qaeda networks in the region, avoiding a repeat of 9/11.
Now, with the Taliban back in power, global security is at greater risk once again. Under their rule, 5,000 of our most committed, vicious and determined enemies have been released from Bagram Prison. They will seek their moment. That fact must be acknowledged.
Countries like the UK must make it abundantly clear to the Taliban that we will respond with military means to any security threats, and we must be explicit about what the trigger points will be. The world must put as much pressure as possible directly on the Taliban government and indirectly through their allies. The British government, for example, should see to it that any suggestion that states who are recipients of British aid are giving overt or covert support to the illegal regime is met with immediate consequences.
Questions must also be asked about the internal dynamics of Nato and its members. As the Taliban were sweeping through Afghanistan six months ago, too often complaints were heard within the Nato alliance about being forced to “ride America’s foreign policy coattails,” usually from those political elements who most opposed the build-up of alternative capabilities. Many of the political left who have most opposed increased defence spending, and balked at sharing responsibility for international security, were the first to bleat about having to follow American foreign policy.
The irony seemed to be completely lost on them that those who refuse to build up their own security capacity will, in the end, find themselves more dependent on Washington rather than less. The fact that it was virtually impossible for other Nato allies to maintain a viable security presence without America highlights the imbalance inside the alliance. There is increasing irritation inside American politics that many European allies wallow in high-spending “big states” while expecting American taxpayers to fund global security. There must, therefore, be increased willingness in the free world to make the case for spending and intervention in the cause of international peace and security.
This increased willingness is also needed because the strategic weakness of our alliance shown by the Taliban sweeping to power will have been noted in Tehran, and the capitals of rival world powers. Malevolent forces in these places will have perceived the US and NATO as having been humiliated, or worse, defeated in the face of the Taliban advance.
Returning to Afghanistan itself, we must continue to ensure that the human rights abuses – especially towards other religious groups, women and girls – that were also the hallmark of the previous Taliban government continue to be called out loudly and publicly. This must include the often-forgotten broadcast and print media who enjoyed increased, if not complete, freedom under the democratically elected governments in Afghanistan, another positive aspect that was brought about by international intervention.
We can ultimately only win against the Taliban, or those who share their oppressive practices, by winning the war of ideas, and we must begin by believing that what we offer as a society is not just different from theirs, but better. We need to believe that representative government is better than totalitarianism, that an impartial rule of law is better than theocracy, and that freedom and human rights are better than oppression and prejudice. Freedom will not come for free. There is a political and financial cost to be paid for it. If we are unwilling to pay for it, we have to accept the consequences.
Six months on, it is vital we learn these lessons to avoid a repeat of the loss of Afghanistan in other countries in the future.