When the Brits asked the Russians for tips on invading Afghanistan twenty years ago they laughed in their faces. Their message being, after they’d tried and failed, ‘rather you than me, mate’. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the long predicted tragedy now unfolding is sending shockwaves all the way from Kabul to Whitehall.
In the commons debate on the debacle, ex-serviceman Tom Tugendhat said: ‘This doesn’t need to be defeat, but right now it damn well feels like it.’
Those words strike an agonising chord among millions of ordinary Afghans, particularly women, who face a future uncertain at best, bereft at worst.
The rot set in when Donald Trump effectively gave the Taliban the green light as far back as February last year.
Made MP’s moaning about it last week sound like those French politicians squabbling after Hitler’s advance about whose idea the Maginot Line was.
The Metro newspaper said it all. Singling out Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, it ran the headline: ‘Asleep at the wheel.’
The nice noises the Taliban have been making about respecting human rights, including women’s, have been met with a barrage of incredulity.
Little wonder, given the reports emerging all over the place about door-to-door searches and reprisals already under way.
The fundamentalists’ form does not augur well, as they place their own brutal interpretation on Islam’s sharia laws.
The word literally means ‘the clear, well-trodden path to water’. Sounds lovely, and one of the prophet’s prime objectives was the emancipation of women.
Yerright. Barring them from education, placing them under house arrest, and flogging, mutilating or stoning those who don’t meekly obey?
The Koran has an altogether more benign perspective on women’s rights. Shurely shome mishtake then, as Private Eye put it. But these guys think they know best.
And though Bob Dylan’s in deep trouble over allegations of sexual assault in the 1960’s, his iconic hit does resonate. It’s a hard rain’s gonna fall.
It’s pelting down already on many of those who worked with and for the allies and are now at risk of losing their lives for it.
At least security guards at the British embassy are safe, in spite of fears they’d been left in the lurch because they’d been hired by contractors.
But for so many others the situation last week was, as the I newspaper described it, ‘hell on earth’.
Mothers, who were getting beaten by the Taliban outside Kabul airport, were throwing their babies over barbed wire to British service personnel.
A army officer said: ‘By the end of the night there wasn’t one man among us who was not crying.’
Unsurprisingly, the government’s come in for a lot of well-deserved stick. The charge being they just couldn’t be fricked, pardon language, much of the time.
Raab, for example, brushed aside suggestions he really ought to call Afghanistan’s then Foreign Minister before Kabul fell.
Holidaying in Crete, he tried to fob off the job to one of his junior ministers. And in the end it didn’t happen at all.
Johnson too was was getting a bit of R and R, in his case in Somerset, during the crucial period leading to the Taliban takeover.
As Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer put it: ‘You cannot co-ordinate an international response from the beach.’
To cap it all, it’s said three of Britain’s top mandarins whose departments are overseeing the evacuation chose to remain on leave.
As to why it all happened so quickly, many experts maintain responsibility largely rests with the White House.
When Trump cosied up to the Taliban, leaving the authorities in Kabul out of the loop, the Afghan army lost the will to fight, they say.
A problem compounded by the lack of a clear chain of command, and systemic corruption going back years.
In many cases soldiers who hadn’t been fed very well, or paid very often, were prone to desertion and susceptible to Taliban infiltration.
So when the militants slipped into urban areas, killing key people like pilots and threatening commanders’ families, capitulation was wholesale.
International affairs professor Stephen Bidden from Columbia Uni put it bluntly: ‘Nobody wanted to be the last man standing after the others gave up.’
So what can the British government hope to salvage from the wreckage?
They’ve promised to take in twenty thousand refugees, but, ahem, that’s over a long period. Only five thousand this year.
In the commons last week, Labour MP Chris Bryant put it powerfully. ‘What are the fifteen thousand meant to do? Hang around and wait until they’ve been executed?’
No getting round it. It’s a bloody shambles.
Not that we in the west are exactly squeaky clean on the gender agenda.
Cherie Blair has just signed a petition to try and get the Garrick Club to admit women members. Which they haven’t for for the last couple of centuries.
‘Everybody knows in professions .. one of the ways you learn is by meeting and talking to more experienced practitioners. It’s about networking’,’ she said.
‘But if you have a place where only men can go and women are excluded .. you are missing out on opportunities .. not encouraging diversity in general.’
Then there’s dear old Auntie Beeb. After much huffing and puffing, News at Ten frontman Huw Edwards’ pay’s been cut to just under £430,000 a year.
Newsnight host Emily Maitlis has had hers more than doubled. But it’s still a hundred grand short of what Edwards gets.
Talking of telephone number salaries, AstraZeneca’s boss last year picked up more than fifteen million for his work on the Covid vaccine.
That’s five times what most top execs get, who incidentally still pick up nearly ninety times as much as most of their staff.
It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure? Seems it really is the same the whole world over.
The World Health Organisation say more than half of people in high-income nations have had the jab, and scarcely above one in a hundred in poor countries.
An ethical argument against giving boosters, says the head of the UN Agency’s emergencies team, Dr Mike Ryan, given that the science is still uncertain.
At least here in England the boffins have agreed to offer vaccination to sixteen and seventeen-year-olds.
The hope is they’ll get a chance to build up immunity before school starts again in September.
And the certainty is, according to new research, that the jab here has directly saved getting on for a hundred thousand lives.
So at least, even in this pretty depressing week, it isn’t all a blooming shame.
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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