Natalie Bennett: War in Afghanistan was a catastrophic failure. We can’t afford more mistakes in its aftermath

The UK government should be guaranteeing refuge to all who need it and stop peddling arms

Afghanistan flag

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer and a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward.

After 20 years of occupation by troops of the US, the UK and nearly 40 other allied states, the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan, a country in the grip of horrendous poverty, instability and insecurity, with a life expectancy of 48 years and one the world’s lowest per capita annual incomes of about US$500 (about £364 – a pound a day, on average, for people to live on).

Afghanistan is a policy failure – a failure of strategy and tactics, for which it is hard to find an adequately powerful adjective. Catastrophic will do for starters.

There’s lots of focus on Joe Biden’s pullout decision, the unashamed, Trump-like America First reasoning given for the decision, and the blatant, vicious attempt to blame the Afghans for the desperate circumstances in which they now find themselves.

But at this moment, what’s more important is to address “what’s next”, both immediately, and as we start to come to terms with the new shape of global geopolitics. Green Party representatives will be making two key points in the parliamentary debates today.

The first is our huge responsibility to provide refuge to Afghans who need it. That starts with those who’ve worked for the UK military, UK bodies such as the British Council, and for our companies and non-government organisations, whose lives are in immediate, awful danger as a result. We should be going well above and beyond to try to help them get out of Afghanistan.

As Greens, we’ve long campaigned against the Home Office’s hostile environment – a failure in law and humanity in its treatment of people in need of refuge. And we’ve been, disgracefully, treating Afghans the same way. The Times uncovered the awful case of Ahmadzai, an interpreter who worked alongside senior British officials in Helmand province and was as a result sentenced to death by a Taliban “court”. In June he was granted permission to come to the UK. Then, The Times report, last week that permission was revoked.

Our responsibility to provide refuge extends far further, however. In the past two decades we’ve encouraged Afghans – with a promise of long-term safety – to work in journalism, in the creative sector, in judicial and policing roles, encouraged women to work, full stop. Their following our encouragement now puts them in danger. We must do whatever we can to protect them – which means using all diplomatic levers we can to those ends, as well as providing refuge.

The UK joined 69 other countries in jointly issuing a statement, implicitly directed at the Taliban, calling for Afghans and foreign nationals who wish to leave the country to be allowed to do so safely and in an orderly way. Which is fine, but those people will then need somewhere to go, and the disgraceful response of President Macron in France – calling for a “robust” response to “irregular migration from Afghanistan” – must not be repeated in the UK’s words or actions.

It’s very early days, with the perilous evacuation from Kabul airport still under way, but we also need to start thinking about the new geopolitical world in which we live. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published in April is already hopelessly outdated.

That President Biden has not spoken to another world leader about the events in Afghanistan, and the events themselves, are powerful indicators of the post-hegemon world in which we live. Never again can we see the UK blindly following the US, particularly into war, but also into other dangerous international policies.

UK policy focus should be on working through international institutions, the rule of international law, working with like-minded nations to strengthen and support these mechanisms. That can start with working to rally the international community to present a common front to the Taliban demanding respect for human rights and democracy. This was after all a military takeover of a democratic state. This will also involve pressurizing China and Russia to join a common line. The proposed law of ecocide is another important area in which the government should be able to apply its favourite tag, “world-leading”.

We also need to urgently stop pumping out weapons into a world awash with them – turn our arms trade to essential, rather than abusive, purposes. The Taliban is now extraordinarily well armed – with weapons from the UK, US and other allied nations. Of the $83 billion the US spent on Afghanistan’s army and police, a very large percentage was on those weapons, now in the hands of forces with, for the people of Afghanistan and beyond, a terrifying record of human rights abuse.

In the past decade, the UK has licenced the sale of £16.8 billion worth of arms to countries classified as “not free”. The standout obvious next disaster in the making is Saudi Arabia. After a forced pause in sales due to its behaviour in its war in Yemen, the UK immediately licenced £1.4 billion in arms sales, overall since the war started, the figure is £20 billion.

The use to which our weapons are being put by Saudi Arabia now is indefensible. This is a regime we regard – astonishingly, given its treatment of women and rights abusing legal system – as a “friend and ally”.

When regimes like this fall, as such regimes always fall, where will those weapons end up? Likely in hands like the Taliban’s. We must stop being arms-pushers.

Finally, there’s our nuclear weapons. Acquired in the Cold War, a now long-gone era. They were in the Afghan crisis irrelevant. They can of course do nothing to help our soldiers battling now at Kabul airport to safely evacuate terrified civilians. They keep us in the club of “nations who have hideous weapons of mass destruction”, while being unthinkable to use. We could take a huge positive step into the new geopolitical order by joining the majority of the world’s nations in backing a ban on nuclear weapons. That would truly be world-leading. More modestly, we could join the pushes for “no first use” and the end to “sole authority” for use, which left many terrified in the final days of the Trump presidency.

And a final note, thinking of those UK and other nations soldiers working right now in such difficult circumstances in Afghanistan. What extra help is the government going to provide to veterans who served in Afghanistan, and those still serving, to deal with the shock of this month’s events?

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

Comments are closed.