For more than a year, Covid has dominated our news coverage. That shows no signs of abating. Yet in a few years we may look back with surprise at our failure to see a much bigger story. While we have focused on a pandemic, much of the Middle East is on the verge of a pandemonium, in Miltonic usage. No vaccination can cure that.
The Palestinian question almost seems to have disappeared from geopolitics. That can only be temporary. The cold war between Israel and Iran is dangerous. The temperature could rise at any time. Jordan has chronic difficulties. The late King Hussein, the “plucky little King” (PLK) as some Brits used to call him, sounding more patronising than they intended, did everything he could to hold Jordan together, with one exception. He did not adequately train his son Abdullah for the burdens of Kingship.
Hussein himself learned lessons from long experience. In 1970, when Palestinian militants seemed about to overthrow the monarchy, Hussein had a plane ready to take him abroad. He intended to make this a reculer pour mieux sauter. At that time, there was an outstanding member of MI6, the late Frank Steele. He coined the phrase Muddle East. He also dissuaded King Hussein from leaving, telling him that if he did so, he would never return. Hussein stayed, and dealt with his Palestinian enemies. Fifty years later, the Hashemites are still on the throne, but for how much longer?
Syria is a mess, as are Lebanon and Libya. Algeria is a long way from stability. Egypt has a sort of stability based on authoritarian rule, which is probably better than any available alternative. In Saudi, Mohammed bin Salman is also better than any likely alternative. He has sensibly cut his losses in Yemen, leaving that benighted land to cholera, Covid and famine.
The subject of cutting losses takes beyond the Middle East, to Afghanistan. During the heyday of Empire, Great Britain was sometimes on the receiving end of “No end of a lesson”, in Kipling’s phrase about the Boer War: never more so than in Afghanistan.
Although they pre-dated Kipling, the officers in General Elphinstone’s army, most of them well-drilled in the Classics, ought to have remembered that Alexander the Great lost more men in Afghanistan than he had in all his previous campaigns. He would have agreed with Kipling: “The hillside teems with home-bred hordes”.
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In early 1842, during the withdrawal from Kabul, those hordes triumphed, turning the retreat into a massacre. That was the most inglorious episode in Imperial military history until the fall of Singapore. But we did seem to have learned the lesson. From then on, until this century, we never sought a prolonged presence in Afghanistan.
When it was necessary to take reprisals against Afghans, there was a standard tactic: match cruelty with ruthlessness and then pull out. Moralising critics described this, accurately, as “butcher and bolt” though there was also a third “b”: bribery. Even if Afghanistan and Switzerland have icy mountains in common, that has never extended to the Geneva Convention. Yet the methods which we used did keep the butcher’s bill under control.
The Russians were the next overconfident imperial power who tried to take on the hordes. Again, Kipling features. Around 1990, when cautious optimism about Russia did not seem absurd, Gorbachev had a very post-Soviet foreign affairs spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov. It was he who declared that the Brezhnev doctrine – no exits from the Warsaw Pact – had been replaced by the Sinatra doctrine: “I’ll do it my way.”
In a sparring but mutually amused exchange, I asked him why the Russians had invaded Afghanistan. The reply was instantaneous: “Because we had not read our Kipling.”
Nor had the Americans. In 2001, there was a crisis. Though there had been previous attacks on American Embassies, the US had not found an adequate means of retaliation. Then came 9/11. It was clear that the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan were allowing Al-Qaeda to use the country as a base for terrorist operations. This could not go on. The Americans also decided that Afghanistan was not enough.
The noxious swamps which engendered the evils that afflicted the wider region would have to be drained, starting with Iraq. In this, the Americans were in danger of achieving the impossible: being unfair to Saddam Hussein. He was not to blame for Al-Qaeda. In combat against faith-fuelled extremism, the Americans did not realise that they themselves were in the grip of two faiths which would cloud their judgment: idealism and a belief in technology.
On idealism, the neo-conservatives were the guilty party. Especially in Iraq, they argued that democracy was a universal political antibiotic. A millennium ago, Baghdad had been one of the world’s greatest cities. So it could be again, while Iraq’s oil riches were utilised to promote growth and prosperity, guaranteeing the populace a decent life: an alternative to fanaticism. To begin this process, open the tailgate of the jeep and dish out candies for the kids, votes for the parents.
If only it had been that simple. Though there is no need to abandon all hope on Iraq, that country could be in much better shape today if there had not been a succession of disastrous misjudgments, in which idealism was reinforced by arrogance. That brings us to Tony Blair. If he had been willing to listen, he would have found resources of expertise: diplomats and academics who had spent lifetimes studying the region. Admittedly, most of them were against the invasion of Iraq, but a compromise was available. The experts would have told the PM that if the Americans were going to overrun Iraq, they would have to think about nation-building, a more complex matter than either the neo-Cons or Donald Rumsfeld understood. But Blair was seduced by the Americans’ can-do zeal. It never occurred to him that perhaps they could not do.
Afghanistan is another matter. Here the second blinding American faith came into play: in the irresistible power of technology. Again, Kipling could have provided a corrective: “Two thousand pounds of education drops to a ten-rupee jezail.” In modern parlance, 20 years, 2,300 American lives as well as 450 British ones plus around a trillion dollars has not been enough to defeat the hordes. Nor should we forget – though most of us will – the 60,000 or so Afghan security personnel who have lost their lives, not to mention the civilians. These days, it is Kalashnikovs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) rather than jezails but the principle is the same. Primitive military hardware has prevented a super-power from prevailing.
So has it been a waste of blood and treasure? That depends on what happens next. Those who believe it to be worthwhile can deploy a strong argument. Something had to be done after the destruction of the Twin Towers. To an extent, it was. For 20 years, Al-Qaeda has not been able to use Afghanistan as a terrorist garrison. It may be that the error was not the invasion, but the failure to create a viable government and state to facilitate withdrawal. Because of that, we are now going to hand the country back to the Taliban. Once they take over, will they invite their old comrades to return?
No-one seems to know. There are those who believe that even Afghans can suffer from exhaustion after long years of blood-letting. Their hope is that a relatively moderate (the stress being on relatively) Taliban leadership will emerge who actually want their country to work.
The alternative view hardly needs stating. As Henry Kissinger might have put it, a moderate Talibani is one who has run out of ammunition. There is one overriding reason for fearing that the paraphrased Dr Kissinger would be right. Admittedly, the Vietnamese defeated the Americans and then modernised, away from communism. But the Taliban do not seem to resemble the Vietnamese any more than they are likely to adopt a Genevan approach to morality on the battlefield. Moderniser sounds like moderate; no sign yet of a translation into Taliban. The overriding reason for gloom is surely this: they have won and we have lost.