Among the memorabilia of my time as foreign secretary are several chess sets, each of which brings back some aspect of the country it came from. One was a gift from the Russian government that I was advised not to use until checks had been made to ensure it wasn’t transmitting my conversations back to Moscow. Those little chess figures were innocent, but they always remind me that Russia has more dangerous pawns elsewhere.
My favourite, however, is the set I bought in Afghanistan, its meticulously carved pieces recalling the rich culture, history and diversity of a misunderstood land. And if you clattered across its skies in military helicopters, as I did many times, you could see at once how geography had dictated that diversity — vast deserts and mountain ranges with hill villages perched beyond the reach of conquerors or centralised authority.
In 2008, Joe Biden went there and took in the same view. That lies behind his announcement that by September 11, 20 years on from the 9/11 attacks masterminded from Afghanistan, the last US combat forces will leave. It is very much his personal decision.
Allies, including Britain, have argued against it. When the new CIA director, Bill Burns, says there is “a significant risk” and our own armed forces chief, Sir Nick Carter, says “it’s not a decision we hoped for”, these are professional understatements. Most western security officials I know are horrified.
In February, a study group comprised of America’s foremost experts on the politics and history of the conflict delivered an impressive report to Congress. It recommended keeping US and other Nato forces in the country to help ensure that both sides — the Afghan government and their Taliban rivals — came to a peace deal. And it warned that “a withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”
That he has done so tells us something important about him: this is no “Sleepy Joe”, as Trump’s caricature would have it. Biden knows his own mind. There is something reassuring about that, even if one disagrees with him. There have been crucial moments in history when expert advice was mistaken and the instincts of the president proved correct, as students of JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis will know.
On reading the reasons for the president’s decision, however, that sense of reassurance evaporates. He intends to “hold the Taliban to account” for their commitments to make peace. Good luck with that one. He will “reorganise our counter-terrorism capabilities in the region”. They will be scattered and without a secure base. “We’ll determine what a continued US diplomatic presence looks like.” It will look like a siege, and ultimately an evacuation.
Most worrying is the president’s argument that “what happened 20 years ago cannot explain why we remain there in 2021”. Here is the very core of the issue. That will be a popular sentiment, and it is a clear statement of the 21st-century western mind. It represents a continuation of the approach of Trump, who sensibly embraced talks with the Taliban but then destroyed his own leverage by reducing US forces rapidly while the other side played for time. It is the belief that, as this is America’s longest war, it must come to a defined end, given that the main objective of destroying al-Qaeda bases has been achieved and patience in any case has been exhausted.
The reality is, however, that 20 years is long enough to have changed Afghan society but not long enough to expect it to survive on its own. In 2001, virtually no girls went to school. Today there are 2,000 female university professors. It is now a more urban, educated and in some ways liberal country. That means that if it collapses into civil war, the human consequences — the flows of refugees, the justified sense of moral betrayal by the West — will be all the greater than in the past.
Twenty years has been long enough for us to learn. Biden was right to see, in 2008, that all-out war with massive coalition firepower would never bring complete victory or teach the Afghan authorities to take more responsibility themselves. Many of us agreed, and we decided to wind down that huge effort by 2014, by which point it had cost hundreds of billions of dollars — not to mention the lives of 3,000 Nato soldiers, as well as vast numbers of Afghans.
But since then we have learnt that leaving behind a much smaller western force to back up a strengthened Afghan army makes a big difference. With few casualties, Nato forces from 2017-19, including our own from Britain, helped keep the Taliban under pressure and brought them to the negotiating table. As soon as that pressure was reduced last year, an autumn offensive saw them advance to the gates of Kandahar, the country’s second city.
Those same 20 years have been long enough for us to be sure that al-Qaeda has not given up returning to Afghanistan. Ask people who have worked on this for years and they say that within 18 to 36 months the original enemy will be back. So we had better get ready, with whoever will work with us in central Asia, to counter that threat. We should also be prepared to open our borders to those we have encouraged, employed and who will feel betrayed: interpreters, students, women activists, civil society leaders and many more.
At the same time, when President Biden assembles the coalition of democracies he has promised, we should ask why our attention span must be so short; why our need for closure is so pressing, even on the wrong terms; why we put our credibility on the line and then walk away. When Putin feels threatened, he sends his forces to be a permanent presence blocking the approach of transparency and democracy to his borders — in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. This tactic has none of the legal and moral authority underpinning the actions of the West in Afghanistan, but it works.
Sometimes a chess piece is positioned to obstruct and hamper an enemy rather than to bring about a clear-cut win. You can remove it but then your flank is exposed. Afghanistan, even 20 years on, is still a vital flank. Events there determined the course of the opening decades of this century. Slowly, inexorably and tragically, we can expect that flank to be exposed once again.
William Hague, a British Conservative politician.