“We must reject the doctrine of liberal interventionism that underpinned these regime-change wars – an ideology which derogates to the US, the UK & Europe the right to selectively intervene in the affairs of other countries.”
By Sam Browse, Labour Outlook and Arise Festival.
Yesterday, Parliament reconvened to debate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, ending a 20-year bloody military intervention which has cost nearly a quarter of a million lives, including 71,000 civilians and 457 British military personnel.
Given the disastrous human consequences of the war, it’s no wonder that 53% of British voters believe it achieved nothing. It’s also notable that support for the war has greatly diminished since its high in 2001 to only 3/10 people, whereas 36% believe it ultimately to be a mistake. Indeed, in the debate itself, many MPs blamed Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan on upcoming elections and the unpopularity of the war in the US. Despite the prevalence of anti-war feeling, however, few gave expression to it in the House of Commons chamber.
Diane Abbott quoted the words of the veteran, Jack Cummings, who lost both his legs in the conflict: “Was it worth it, probably not. Did I lose my legs for nothing, looks like it. Did my mates die in vain. Yep.”
She said ‘I did not vote for the intervention in Afghanistan 20 years ago; I am afraid it was foreseeable that it would end like this. However, it is not inevitable that we as a country and this as a Parliament will not do the right thing’ and urged parliamentarians to provide support to the refugees and veterans of the war.
Jeremy Corbyn similarly argued that not only British and Afghan military personnel, but all those fleeing persecution from the Taliban, should be provided with refuge. He insisted that we learn the correct lessons of the war, and the history of all British military interventions in Afghanistan, saying ‘I can hear my friend, the late Paul Flynn, speaking about the number of soldiers who died in Helmand. I can hear all those who spoke up against the intervention, not because they supported the Taliban and not because they were not serious about human rights, but because they were serious about a long-term peace in a world that recognises the historical position that we have got ourselves into. Now surely is the time for a sober reflection on the disaster that has happened in Afghanistan’.
But many other MPs preferred to extoll the so-called human rights gains of the previous 20 years under occupation. Those gains are undoubtedly news to the families of the hundreds of thousands who have died, or the 18.4 million Afghans dependent on humanitarian aid, 30.5 million requiring support from the state or NGOs to survive, nearly half the population living in poverty, and nearly 5 million people internally displaced due to fighting (see here).
The veteran Labour right-winger, Pat McFadden, put his support for continued military intervention most sharply, saying ‘the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan today not because we intervened in 2001 but because we abandoned it in 2021’.
It may be a pithy and pointed soundbite, but it’s also an admission of failure – that after 20 years of regime-change war and occupation, NATO engagement has been unable to produce anything resembling an independent, stable Afghan government. In fact – unsurprisingly – that effort culminated in one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet – an administration which had little popular support, and which was consequently unable to function without the sustenance of a foreign occupying power.
While many MPs expressed their shock at how swiftly Ashraf Ghani’s AstroTurf government had withered after US withdrawal, the same cannot be said of the public. In 2014, after British troops left Helmand, YouGov found that 65% of people thought the Taliban were likely to return after the withdrawal of Western troops.
If Zarah Sultana sounded a lonely voice in the chamber, then, she nevertheless expressed what the overwhelming majority in society already knew 7 years ago when she argued that ‘the West cannot build liberal democracy with bombs and bullets’.
She continued: ‘that dangerous fantasy cooked up by neoconservative fanatics in Washington and championed by their faithful followers in London has brought untold death and destruction to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Libya and to many other places’.
We must reject the doctrine of liberal interventionism that underpinned these regime-change wars – an ideology which derogates to the US, the UK and Europe the right to selectively intervene in the affairs of other countries in a way that conveniently, and inevitably, segues with the economic and political interests of the imperial powers.
Indeed, one of the striking features of the debate was its imperial nostalgia – the desperate and delusional inability of some to recognise the UK’s own declining power, and a refusal to acknowledge that British forces are now incapable of acting independently from the US.
Theresa May asked ‘what does it say about us as a country—what does it say about NATO?—if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States?’ and wondered why the Prime Minister had not tried to pull together an alternative alliance of occupying forces without US involvement.
By way of answer, a sombre Tory MP, James Sunderland, mused that ‘it may be that our foreign policy is decided as much in Washington as it is in London. I am being provocative, but with so much being spent on defence and with global Britain at the forefront of our foreign policy, just how independent are we?’
Quite – in a context where the UK is incapable of launching its own independent military operations without the support of the US, the rehabilitation of early noughties muscular liberalism serves only one agenda: that of a declining US ruling elite attempting to claw back some influence in the context of an increasingly multipolar world. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of that attempt to stall this emerging geopolitical reality by pivoting to Asia – a reallocation of resources that embarrassingly exposes British impotence, provoking howls of reactionary outrage in the House of Commons chamber in the process.
Instead of upbraiding the US government for subordinating British imperial delusions to its confrontation with China, the left should be arguing for constructive, bilateral, peaceful engagement with this newly emerging multipolar world. Given the number of voices arguing for that perspective in the corridors of power, it’s vital the Labour left joins with organisations like Stop the War Coalition and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to expose the horrific realities of western military intervention and build the anti-war movement – campaigning on the streets, in our workplaces, and our CLPs for a progressive foreign policy which has as its objective peace and the resolution of conflict through diplomatic means.