Former Labour leader, now an independent MP, Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who is chair of the Commons defence select committee, joined Matt Frei to discuss the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan.
MF: Jeremy Corbyn, you were never in favour of this military intervention, are you relieved that it is now over?
JC: I’m pleased if we’re finally going to be out of there, but I’m appalled at what’s happened over the last few days: the mixture of incompetence by the occupying forces and the supreme danger that many Afghans are facing and the inability of our government to say even how many refugees are going to be allowed in this country. I think we have a huge moral and political responsibility to ensure that all those people that worked for the British or American forces or contractors or anybody else, do get a place of safety in our country.
MF: But do you think we should have stayed longer? Should the Americans have stayed longer? Should we have provided more security for the Afghan forces?
JC: Clearly the situation had become impossible in that the Americans had set a date for withdrawal quite a long time ago. Britain withdrew its combat role in 2014, reverted solely to a training role. Clearly, there was going to be an end game, at some point. The Afghan army clearly collapsed in the face of the Taliban assault over the last few days and the Taliban are in charge. But I suspect as time goes on, the idea of a strong central government in Afghanistan may not become a reality. It’ll be much more likely as a series of quite strong regional powers, almost back to the warlords of the past.
MF: Do you think it was a waste, the whole operation?
JC: I think the whole thing has been a complete disaster. If we think about it. We went in apparently to deal with the issues, the horrible issues of 9/11. Then the war aims changed and they changed again. Then they changed again. And it wasn’t very clear what the troops were supposed to be doing there.
MF: But it wasn’t a waste for the thousands of Afghan girls and women who were able to go to school and university.
JC: Absolutely. Those that managed to get education, good, those that managed to be able to develop their careers, good. But the reality is that many of those young people are in enormous danger. It’s up to the neighbours, the regional powers, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, China, to put all the pressure they can on the Taliban. And they’ve shown signs they’re trying to do that.
MF: And they have recognised, or many of the ones you just mentioned, have already recognised the Taliban government. Should we do the same now?
JC: I don’t think we should recognise until it’s clear what the government is. The British tradition is to recognise the de facto position on the ground and make that the de jure position. That is not the same with the United States tradition or others. I think it’s too soon to say recognise, because there is no government in place at the present time. I’m not quite sure who Russia and China have actually recognised at that moment.
‘Mass migration crisis’
MF: Tobias Ellwood, the point is, isn’t it, that it’s not just America first, and some of us who thought it might be a little bit different under President Biden, but it’s not just America first, it’s now America alone. And that, as your colleague Tom Tugendhat said today, leaves us in a very vulnerable position.
TE: It doesn’t have to be that way. My interpretation of what’s going on in Afghanistan is very different I think to Jeremy Corbyn’s. Our departure is causing a mass migration problem, which we’ve not seen since the Second World War, a humanitarian crisis and a space for terrorism once again to flourish. But this is where I contest President Biden’s interpretation of what’s happening there. You mentioned 2014. Will Britain, America and ISAF forces have not been engaged in a war. It’s been the Afghans who’ve been able to contain the Taliban over the last number of years because of our presence. And that has given space for the Afghan government to move forward. Now, absolutely it’s flawed, the government structure isn’t appropriate for a tribal set up such as you have in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the situation was fairly stable. And to say that we’ve got to bring troops home. Americans have far more troops in places like Djibouti and so on. In fact, it has more personnel in the US embassy here in London than it did in Afghanistan. It became a political football to bring troops home. This is an important part of the world. And the idea that all these other countries are going to chip in – they’re all going to chip in with their own agendas. China and India are not going to participate and work together. China is going to advance its relationship with the Taliban in a very different direction than we would have done as well. This is a very, very dangerous civil war that will now unfold as the Northern Alliance re-emerges and takes us to civil war.
MF: But the fact that we weren’t able to persuade the Americans, if we even attempted it, to stay on a little bit longer, that they pulled the plug unilaterally, shows you, does it not, just how vulnerable and how isolated the British government is. Where does that leave “global Britain”, our new role in the world post-Brexit?
TE: You’re right to ask that question. And I posed that in the house as well, because the Western authority, our reputation as a force for good on the international stage, particularly at the time when the world’s getting ever more dangerous, has absolutely been dented. But the bigger question here is whether Britain could have led the coalition ourselves. It’s the sort of thing we used to do on a regular basis, and we should be able to do that without the United States. I should mention that militarily, the United States will not be leaving Afghanistan. They will still have an oversight. The CIA and special forces, I’m sure. Why? Because they are haunted that there’ll be another terror attack planned from Afghanistan and that they wouldn’t tolerate [it]. So with that in mind, this is a political judgement that was made by Trump and then advanced by Biden. And we should have stood up to this.
MF: Jeremy Corbyn, just very briefly, where does that leave global Britain, do you even believe in global Britain?
JC: We’ve got to have a reassessment of our whole foreign policy strategy. Ever since the Second World War, it’s been essentially side-by-side with the United States. That no longer exists, quite obviously, after Afghanistan. Should we as an island of 65 million people on the northwest coast of Europe attempt to have a global role? Isn’t it time to reassess how we can help bring human rights, peace and justice around the world without occupation or invasion?