The Unz Review • An Alternative Media Selection$
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
Topics Filter?
2020 Election Afghanistan Al Qaeda American Media American Military Arab Spring Bahrain Boris Johnson Brexit Britain Coronavirus Disease Donald Trump Economics Egypt Erdogan EU Foreign Policy Gaza Greece History Ideology Immigration Iran Iraq Iraq War ISIS Islam Israel Israel/Palestine Jeremy Corbyn Joe Biden Kurds Libya Middle East Mohammed Bin Salman Northern Ireland Pakistan Russia Saudi Arabia Science Shias And Sunnis Syria Terrorism Tony Blair Turkey Yemen 2016 Election 2018 Election 9/11 Abi Bakar Baghdadi Ahmed Chalabi Al Nusra Front Alt Right Arab Christianity Artifacts Assassinations Banking System Benghazi Benjamin Netanyahu Berlin Wall Birmingham Blacks Bowe Bergdahl Catalonia Censorship Charlie Hebdo China CIA Cockburn Family Confederacy Corruption Culture/Society David Cameron David Petraeus Democratic Party Donald Rumsfeld Drone War Drones Drought Drugs Economic Sanctions Europe European Union Eurozone Fake News France Free Speech Freedom Of Speech Gaddafi Georgia Germany Government Spending Haiti Hamas Health Care Hillary Clinton Human Rights Hurricane India Internet Iran Nuclear Agreement Iran Sanctions Ireland Islamism Israel Lobby Jamal Khashoggi Japan Julian Assange Kashmir KGL-9268 Lebanon Mali Marijuana Media Mental Health Mental Illness Mossad Muqtada Al-Sadr Muslim Ban Muslims Narendra Modi Nationalism Neocons Neoliberalism New Cold War Nigeria North Korea Nouri Al-Maliki Oil Industry Orlando Shooting Osama Bin Laden Oxfam Palestinians Panama Papers Paris Attacks Political Correctness Poverty Press Prince Andrew Qassem Soleimani Qatar Race/Ethnicity Racism Recep Tayyip Erdogan Republican Party Robert Mugabe Roger Casement Scotland Slavery South Korea Soviet Union Sudan Syrian Civil War Syriza Taliban Theresa May Torture Tunisia Twitter Ukraine Uyghurs Vaccines Venezuela Vikings Vote Fraud Wahhabis War Crimes War Of 1812 War On Terror Wikileaks Winston Churchill World War I World War II Yasser Arafat Yazidis Zimbabwe
Nothing found
 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • B
Show CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
AgreeDisagreeThanksLOLTroll
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter

Trumpism was never quite what it seemed to the rest of the world when it came to America’s actions as opposed to his words. The tone was always belligerent, but Trump went out of his way not to start any wars. As for the slogan “America First”, this was not so much about an isolationist US and more about the US acting unilaterally in what Trump saw as its own best interests.

Bidenism is turning out to be not so very different from Trumpism. Joe Biden carried out to the letter Donald Trump’s ruthless deal with the Taliban, agreed in February 2020, to abandon the Afghan government, which had been excluded from negotiations about its fate. European allies of the US learned little about the American pull-out plan from Kabul airport, even as it was under way.

Now Biden has followed up his unilateralism in Afghanistan with his surprise announcing of an agreement for the US, along with Britain, to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines to deploy against China in the years ahead. By arbitrarily cutting out the French from their \$66bn contract to supply diesel-powered submarines, Biden behaved in the true Trump tradition of causing greater outrage to an ally than dismay to a potential enemy.

The response of China to an alliance clearly directed against it was angry, but this was still mild compared to the apoplexy among senior French leaders at their public humiliation. “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” said French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies. It’s really a stab in the back.”

A betrayal it may have been, but the French showed a certain naivete, as well as poor intelligence, in not seeing that something like this might be on the cards. When it comes to back-stabbing an ally, there was the recent precedent in Afghanistan and, a couple of years back, another ominous pointer when Trump shocked the Saudis, with whom he was so close, when he failed to retaliate against a devastating missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 that was clearly orchestrated by Iran.

Gulf monarchies discovered to their extreme alarm that the American protective umbrella, in which they had previously trusted, was not quite what it seemed to be. It turned out not to include going to war on their behalf, a realisation that will have been reinforced by the Afghan shock and is radically reshaping regional politics.

Complaints by those let down by the US – be they in Paris or Riyadh or in wherever the dispersed Afghan government has sought refuge – are common enough in the history of diplomacy. After all, it was President Charles de Gaulle who said that, “treaties are like young girls and roses – they last as long as they last.”

True this piece of realpolitik about the impermanency of relations between nation states may be, but the Australia-UK-US (Aukus) submarine deal – coming after the Kabul rout and the non-defence of Saudi Arabia – gives a sense that tectonic changes are shaking the way the world works. Biden, who was full of “America-is-back” rhetoric at the start of his presidency, is now treating some of his allies as cavalierly as Trump ever did.

The Aukus alliance is just the sort of Anglo-Saxon line-up most likely to infuriate the French and worry the EU. It will energise European states to try to pursue a distinct and less confrontational policy towards China than before. If they fail to do so, and the omens are not good given their impotence in successive crises in the Middle East and the Balkans, then they become even more marginalised.

But rejoicing among Brexiteers that Britain was right to leave a foundering EU vessel are premature, because British reliance on the US is greater than ever. This carries unpredictable risks as well as dubious advantages, as Britain discovered during the Iraq war, which Britain joined as America’s principal foreign military ally in 2003 and spent the following six years trying to escape without offending the Americans. The calamitous method chosen was to send British military forces to Helmand province in Afghanistan, which turned out to be an even deadlier place than Iraq.

Joining the US and Australia in upping the confrontation with China carries similar risks. It is not “a profound strategic shift”, as Boris Johnson claims, since nothing much is going to happen for over a decade. Cold war threat inflation about China having the world’s largest navy is absurd, since ships that are little more than minnows have been counted as part of the Chinese fleet.

But what Britain would do if the new cold warriors are correct in their warnings and China does indeed invade Taiwan? This is an important question for “global” Britain because it means standing tall against even taller opponents like China and Russia in the hope that they show restraint or the US gives unstinting support.

The dependency is risky because American foreign policy is determined by its domestic political agenda, and never more than at present. A motive for Biden trumpeting his new alliance against China is that it projects strength and diverts attention away from the weakness displayed during the chaotic US exit from Kabul. Dominating American TV screens over the last month, the rout sent Biden’s approval rating in the opinion polls spiralling down to 42 per cent and his disapproval rating up to 50 per cent – the first time his ratings have been negative since he took office.

Britain wants to posture as a great power, but has less and less means of doing so, except as a humble spear carrier for the US. Not all this can be blamed on Johnson and his jingoistic flag wavers in government, because they are only taking advantage of a public assumption that Britain possesses levers of power that no longer function.

Dominic Raab may have lost his job as foreign secretary because he lolled too long beside the swimming pool at his luxury hotel in Crete as the Taliban was capturing Kabul. But had Raab hastily returned to London – or drowned in the hotel pool – it would not have made the slightest difference to events in Afghanistan.

Public and media misperception of the real power of the British government gives an air of unreality to much of British political life at home and abroad. Six years ago, debate raged on whether or not Britain should launch bombing raids against Isis in Syria, with all sides ignoring the fact that Britain did not have the planes or the intelligence to do anything significant – something subsequently admitted by the RAF officer in charge.

The pretence that Britain is once again a power in the South China Sea and Pacific can only be achieved by complete reliance on the US, ignoring the lessons of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Patrick Cockburn’s new book ‘Behind Enemy Lies: War News and Chaos in the Middle East’ will be published by Verso in October

 

Two decades after 9/11, the role of Saudi Arabia in the attack remains in dispute despite unrelenting efforts by the US and Saudi governments to neutralise it as a live political issue.

The Saudi Arabia embassy in Washington this week issued a statement detailing its anti-terrorist activities and ongoing hostility to Al-Qaeda. This was briskly rejected by the lawyers for the families of the 9/11 victims who said that, “what Saudi Arabia desperately does not want to discuss is the substantial and credible evidence of the complicity [in the attack] of their employees, agents and sponsored agents”.

Saudi Arabia claims that the 9/11 Commission Report, the official American inquiry published in 2003, cleared it of responsibility for the attacks. In fact, it found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials as individuals had funded Al-Qaeda. But this is not an exoneration since the Saudi government traditionally retains deniability by permitting Saudi sheikhs and wealthy individuals to finance radical Sunni Muslim movements abroad. A former Taliban finance minister, Agha Jan Motasim, revealed in an interview with the New York Times in 2016 that he went to Saudi Arabia several times a year to raise funds from private donors for his movement .

The evidence has always been strong that at various points the hijackers, who flew the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, had interacted with Saudi state employees, though how much the latter knew about the plot has never been clarified. What is impressive is the determination with which the US security services have tried to conceal or play down intelligence linking Saudi officials to 9/11, something which may be motivated by their own culpability in giving Saudis a free pass when suspicions about the hijackers were aroused prior to 9/11.

In Sarasota, Florida, the FBI at first denied having any documents relating to the hijackers who were living there, but eventually handed over 80,000 pages that might be relevant under the Freedom of Information Act. Last week President Joe Biden decided to release other documents from the FBI’s overall investigation.

A striking feature of 9/11 is the attention which President George W Bush gave to diverting blame away from Saudi Arabia. He allowed some 144 individuals, mostly from the Saudi elite, to fly back to Saudi Arabia without being questioned by the FBI. A photograph shows Bush in cheerful conversation on the White House balcony a few days after 9/11 with the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, told me in an interview with The Independent in 2014 that, “there were several incidents [in which US officials] were inexplicably solicitous to Saudis”. This solicitude did not ebb over the years and it was only in 2016 that the wholly redacted 28 pages in the 9/11 Report about the financial links of some hijackers to individuals working for the Saudi government was finally made public.

I have never been a believer in direct Saudi government complicity in 9/11, because they had no motive and they usually act at one remove from events. When the Saudi state acts on its own – as with the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamil Khashoggi by a death squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 – the operation is commonly marked by shambolic incompetence.

Conspiracy theories about 9/11 divert attention away from two areas of Saudi culpability that are beyond dispute. The first is simply that 9/11 was a Saudi-led operation through and through, since Osama bin Laden, from one of the most prominent Saudi families, was the leader of Al-Qaeda and 15 out of the19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The 9/11 attacks might have happened without Afghanistan, but not without Saudi participation.

Another kind of Saudi government culpability for 9/11 is more wide-ranging but more important because the factors behind it have not disappeared. A weakness of the outpouring of analyses of the consequences of 9/11 is that they treat the attacks as the point of departure for a series of events that ended badly, such as the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is very much a western viewpoint because what happened in New York and Washington in 2001 was not the beginning, but the midpoint in a struggle, involving both open and covert warfare, that began more than 20 years earlier and made Saudi Arabia such a central player in world politics.

This preeminent status is attributed to Saudi oil wealth and partial control over the price of oil. But more than 20 years before 9/11 two events occurred which deepened the US-Saudi alliance and made it far more important for both parties. These genuine turning points in history, both of which took place in 1979, were the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These together generated 40 years of conflict and war which have not yet come to an end, and in which 9/11 was but one episode and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan last month another.

Saudi Arabia and the US wanted to stop communism in Afghanistan and the rise of Iran as a revolutionary Shia power. The former motive vanished with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (though not the permanent crisis in Afghanistan), but the Saudi aim to build a wall of fundamentalist Sunni movements in the 50 Muslim majority states in the world did not.

Saudi policy is to bet on all players in any conflict, so it can truthfully claim to be backing the Afghan government and fighting terrorism, though it is also indirectly funding a resurgent Taliban. The US was not blind to this, but only occasionally admitted so in public. Six years after 9/11, in 2007, Stuart Levy, the under secretary of the US Treasury in charge of putting a stop to the financing of terrorism, told ABC news that regarding Al-Qaeda, “if I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia”. He added that not a single person identified by the US and the UN as a funder of terrorism had been prosecuted by the Saudis.

Most candid admissions by senior US officials were classified and are only known because of leaks. In a cable published by WikiLeaks, for instance, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrote that, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: 9/11, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism 

Two decades after 9/11, the role of Saudi Arabia in the attack remains in dispute despite unrelenting efforts by the US and Saudi governments to neutralise it as a live political issue.

The Saudi Arabia embassy in Washington this week issued a statement detailing its anti-terrorist activities and ongoing hostility to Al-Qaeda. This was briskly rejected by the lawyers for the families of the 9/11 victims who said that, “what Saudi Arabia desperately does not want to discuss is the substantial and credible evidence of the complicity [in the attack] of their employees, agents and sponsored agents”.

Saudi Arabia claims that the 9/11 Commission Report, the official American inquiry published in 2003, cleared it of responsibility for the attacks. In fact, it found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials as individuals had funded Al-Qaeda. But this is not an exoneration since the Saudi government traditionally retains deniability by permitting Saudi sheikhs and wealthy individuals to finance radical Sunni Muslim movements abroad. A former Taliban finance minister, Agha Jan Motasim, revealed in an interview with the New York Times in 2016 that he went to Saudi Arabia several times a year to raise funds from private donors for his movement .

The evidence has always been strong that at various points the hijackers, who flew the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, had interacted with Saudi state employees, though how much the latter knew about the plot has never been clarified. What is impressive is the determination with which the US security services have tried to conceal or play down intelligence linking Saudi officials to 9/11, something which may be motivated by their own culpability in giving Saudis a free pass when suspicions about the hijackers were aroused prior to 9/11.

In Sarasota, Florida, the FBI at first denied having any documents relating to the hijackers who were living there, but eventually handed over 80,000 pages that might be relevant under the Freedom of Information Act. Last week President Joe Biden decided to release other documents from the FBI’s overall investigation.

A striking feature of 9/11 is the attention which President George W Bush gave to diverting blame away from Saudi Arabia. He allowed some 144 individuals, mostly from the Saudi elite, to fly back to Saudi Arabia without being questioned by the FBI. A photograph shows Bush in cheerful conversation on the White House balcony a few days after 9/11 with the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, told me in an interview with The Independent in 2014 that, “there were several incidents [in which US officials] were inexplicably solicitous to Saudis”. This solicitude did not ebb over the years and it was only in 2016 that the wholly redacted 28 pages in the 9/11 Report about the financial links of some hijackers to individuals working for the Saudi government was finally made public.

I have never been a believer in direct Saudi government complicity in 9/11, because they had no motive and they usually act at one remove from events. When the Saudi state acts on its own – as with the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamil Khashoggi by a death squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 – the operation is commonly marked by shambolic incompetence.

Conspiracy theories about 9/11 divert attention away from two areas of Saudi culpability that are beyond dispute. The first is simply that 9/11 was a Saudi-led operation through and through, since Osama bin Laden, from one of the most prominent Saudi families, was the leader of Al-Qaeda and 15 out of the19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The 9/11 attacks might have happened without Afghanistan, but not without Saudi participation.

Another kind of Saudi government culpability for 9/11 is more wide-ranging but more important because the factors behind it have not disappeared. A weakness of the outpouring of analyses of the consequences of 9/11 is that they treat the attacks as the point of departure for a series of events that ended badly, such as the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is very much a western viewpoint because what happened in New York and Washington in 2001 was not the beginning, but the midpoint in a struggle, involving both open and covert warfare, that began more than 20 years earlier and made Saudi Arabia such a central player in world politics.

This preeminent status is attributed to Saudi oil wealth and partial control over the price of oil. But more than 20 years before 9/11 two events occurred which deepened the US-Saudi alliance and made it far more important for both parties. These genuine turning points in history, both of which took place in 1979, were the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These together generated 40 years of conflict and war which have not yet come to an end, and in which 9/11 was but one episode and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan last month another.

Saudi Arabia and the US wanted to stop communism in Afghanistan and the rise of Iran as a revolutionary Shia power. The former motive vanished with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (though not the permanent crisis in Afghanistan), but the Saudi aim to build a wall of fundamentalist Sunni movements in the 50 Muslim majority states in the world did not.

Saudi policy is to bet on all players in any conflict, so it can truthfully claim to be backing the Afghan government and fighting terrorism, though it is also indirectly funding a resurgent Taliban. The US was not blind to this, but only occasionally admitted so in public. Six years after 9/11, in 2007, Stuart Levy, the under secretary of the US Treasury in charge of putting a stop to the financing of terrorism, told ABC news that regarding Al-Qaeda, “if I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia”. He added that not a single person identified by the US and the UN as a funder of terrorism had been prosecuted by the Saudis.

Most candid admissions by senior US officials were classified and are only known because of leaks. In a cable published by WikiLeaks, for instance, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrote that, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”

 

An ill-judged attempt to find out who is to blame for failing to predict the swift victory of the Taliban and the disintegration of Afghan government forces is masking the most significant strategic lessons of the Afghan war.

Turning points in history usually come by surprise because, if the powers-that-be of the day could see those turning points coming at them, they would take steps to avoid them. Governments and the public like to believe that there is more inevitability in history than there really is. Unexpected events of great significance, such as the fall of France in 1940, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were followed by inquiries into why experts did not foresee them.

These investigations dig down deep in search of root causes of historic change and always find them. But, as Lord Northcliffe said, one “should never lose one’s sense of the superficial”. Key ingredients in important historic developments may be decisions and actions occurring that could easily have gone the other way. For instance, there were long-standing reasons for Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990, but none of these would have mattered if the Iraqi leader had changed his mind at the last minute.

I argued for a decade that the Afghan government was a floating wreck and that it was its unpopularity and fragility, and not the strength of the Taliban, that was the driving force of events. Yet, unsatisfactory though this situation was, it could have gone on for a long time had not Donald Trump signed an extraordinarily one-sided US withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. And even this might not have produced the final debacle, had Joe Biden not decided for domestic political motives to grandstand in his speech on 14 April this year confirming the American departure before the 9/11 anniversary.

He said correctly that the Afghan regime provided too rotten a branch for the US to sit on forever – and then decided to jump up and down on the very same branch and not expect it to snap. The details of just how everything fell apart on the night, and how this could have been avoided, is being venomously debated, but a far more important lesson is that the American way of war is dysfunctional and automatically generates failure.

Claims that the US might have prevented the return of the Taliban, if it had not been diverted by the Iraq war, or devoted too much time to “nation building” in Afghanistan, should be dismissed as the self-regarding nonsense that it is. Between 2001 and 2021, US administrations invariably acted in their own domestic political interests when it came to Afghanistan, these interests seldom coinciding with those of ordinary Afghans.

A curious fact is that the US had won the war by the early months of 2002, at which time the US-backed forces had overthrown the Taliban and al-Qaeda had left the country for Pakistan. But the White House continued the “war on terror” even in the absence of terrorists because of its strong appeal as a slogan and a policy to a US public badly bruised by the shock of 9/11. US forces brought back and supported old warlords, whose blood-soaked banditry between 1992 and 1996 had given birth to the Taliban by way of reaction. Big and small-time Afghan-style mafiosi used American support to win power and money, often denouncing their rivals as secret Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters.

How this process discredited the anti-Taliban forces and produced the Taliban’s return is explained in Anand Gopal’s brilliant and detailed book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War through Afghan Eyes. Based on copious interviewing, it convincingly describes how US military intervention first helped get rid of the Taliban but then replaced them with predatory local bosses who denounced as “terrorists” anybody who stood in their way.

Many in impoverished Pashtun southern Afghanistan, once the heartland of the Taliban, were glad to see the back of them, hoping that US intervention meant democratic elections and economic aid. Disillusionment began early when non-political or anti-Taliban farmers were whisked off to mistreatment and confinement in Bagram airport and Guantanamo. Among many examples, Gopal relates how in one area, “US forces assaulted the school and the governor’s house in January 2002, wiping out most of the district’s pro-US leadership in a single night.”

Such “mistakes” were integral to the way in which the US helped rejuvenate the Taliban over two decades by using assault teams to stage night raids and airpower at all times, their targets often chosen by faulty and partisan intelligence.

I was in Herat in eastern Afghanistan in 2014 writing about three villages in Farrar province bombed by the US air force, which had killed 117 villagers, 61 of them children, after the local police had called in an airstrike. Though there were cavernous bomb craters 15 feet deep, a US spokesperson initially claimed that the slaughter had been caused by Taliban tossing grenades into houses.

These atrocities grew worse in recent years as the US withdrew its ground troops and relied more on “night raids”, often carried out by US-organised Afghan assault units that were effectively death squads. The number of US troops might drop, but not the quantity of bombs and missiles being used.

Predictably, the motives for young men joining the Taliban in recent years were two-fold according to local reports and they had nothing to do with fundamentalist Islam. Fighters said that they had joined up because of the killing or injuring of civilians by airstrikes and night raids, and because of US backing for tribes and ethnic groups hostile to them.

The bottom line is that at vast expense – the figure ranges between \$1 trillion and \$2.3 trillion over 20 years, depending on how it is calculated – Washington has devised a method of fighting wars that makes sure they will never end. US airpower may have killed many Taliban, but it has recruited many more.

The US kept its own military casualties down by using drones and airstrikes whose targeting relied on difficult-to-interpret satellite images and dubious local informants. Appropriately, one of the last direct military actions by the US at Kabul airport was a drone strike aimed at suicide bombers, which killed 10 civilians including seven children.

 

The slaughter of at least 79 Afghan civilians and 13 American servicemen at Kabul airport has propelled the Afghan offshoot of Isis to the top of the news agenda, as it was intended to do. The movement showed with one ferocious assault, at a time and place guaranteeing maximum publicity, that it intends to be a player in Afghanistan under the new Taliban rulers.

President Joe Biden, echoing President George W Bush after 9/11, said: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

But the self-destructive US response to 9/11 should serve as a warning about the perils of ill-directed over-reaction. Reducing complex developments in Afghanistan to another episode in “the war on terror” is misleading, counter-productive and one of the root causes of the present mess.

By viewing everything in Afghanistan through the prism of “counter-terrorism” 20 years ago, the US plugged itself into a civil war that it exacerbated and from which it has just emerged on the losing side.

Biden is now the target of a storm of criticism from all quarters for an over-hasty US exit, but Donald Trump had planned an even swifter pull-out. Moreover, he was the architect of the one-sided withdrawal agreement with the Taliban signed in February 2020, which persuaded Afghans that the Americans had switched sides and they had better do the same if they were going to survive.

Biden has been wounded politically by the present debacle, but the damage may not be lasting, as television pictures of the carnage at Kabul airport fade in the public mind – and he stresses that he has extracted the US from an unwinnable war. Who now remembers that, as recently as 2019, Trump betrayed America’s Kurdish allies who had defeated Isis in Syria by green-lighting a Turkish invasion of their territory that turned many of them into refugees?

There may even be advantages for America that world attention is wholly focused on events at Kabul airport, involving as they do some tens of thousands of people, and diverting attention away from the grim prospects facing 18 million Afghan women and the likely persecution of 4 million Shia Muslims. Another benefit for the US is the rebranding of the Taliban as the enemies of Isis, which replaces them as chief bogeymen for the US and makes defeat by the Taliban more palatable

The same thought has clearly occurred to the Taliban, which has been fighting Islamic State Khorasan, the regional franchise of Isis, since 2015. “Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said an anonymous Taliban official before the bombing. By one account, 28 Taliban fighters were killed by the blast. Rebranded as an anti-Isis force, the Taliban will find it much easier to win legitimacy, international recognition and acquire desperately needed economic aid.

Isis itself has denounced the Taliban as collaborators with the US, saying that only an understanding between the two can explain the speed of the Taliban advance and of the Kabul government’s collapse. Here they are at one with some of the defeated leaders on the government side. The fall of Kabul was the “result of a large, organised and cowardly conspiracy,” claimed Atta Mohammad Noor, a former warlord, following his precipitous escape by helicopter.

Isis leaders do not like the fact the Taliban has succeeded in gaining control of an entire state, in contrast to the so-called caliphate they attempted to establish in western Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014, which was eradicated along with its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in 2019.

Islamic State Khorasan is not a large organisation and has between 1,500 and 2,200 fighters, according to a recent UN report. The airport bombings are not even its most horrific acts of butchery in Kabul this year – that goes to the murder of 85 Shia Hazara schoolgirls by a car bomb in May.

Isis feeds off the denunciations that follow such mass murders, be they in Kabul, Paris or Manchester, which serve to raise its profile, attracting new recruits and money. But how far does Isis really pose a physical threat inside and outside Afghanistan? Will the country once again become a haven for al-Qaeda-type groups, as it was when Osama bin Laden was based there before 2001?

The situation today differs from 20 years ago. Then, the Taliban needed an alliance with al-Qaeda, which provided it with money and fanatical fighters, such as the two suicide bombers who assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the very able leader of the anti-Taliban forces in 2001. Today, the Taliban needs no such assistance and, on the contrary, will present itself as an enthusiastic new recruit to “the war on terror” whose other failings should be ignored. This is a well-worn path for authoritarian states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia whose abuses are routinely ignored or downplayed in the west.

In the wake of the airport bombing, the Taliban is well on the way to escaping isolation as a pariah state, which it experienced between 1996 and 2001.

Self-interest could propel the Taliban to fight against Isis in order to establish links with the west, but the relationship between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Isis is more complicated than that dictated by such realpolitik. Taliban leaders previously living in comfort abroad in Pakistan and Qatar may see the advantage of showing a moderate face to the world.

But Taliban military commanders and their fighters, having won a spectacular victory against those whom they regard as heretics and traitors, will not be eager to dilute their beliefs, and instead will pursue those whom the US and its allies identify as terrorists. Many in Islamic State Khorasan are former Taliban fighters and all the fundamentalist jihadi groups share, broadly speaking, a common ideology and view of the world.

Clearly these movements fight, envy and collaborate with each other, with most welcoming the Taliban victory and a few denouncing it as the outcome a US-Taliban deal – as indeed it is. But looked at in more global terms, the overthrow of the US-backed Afghan government with at least 100,000 well-armed soldiers by the smaller less well-equipped Taliban will be taken as a sign of the strength of fundamentalist Islamist jihadi religious movements. As with the capture of Mosul in Iraq in 2014 by 800 Isis fighters pitted against three Iraqi divisions, such victories will appear to sympathisers to be divinely inspired.

The swift collapse of the Kabul government demonstrates that western-backed or installed regimes seldom achieve legitimacy or the ability to stand alone. In the case of Afghanistan, the disintegration was part psychological – the government simply could not believe that their superpower ally was going to desert them.

The debacle was also military, the Pentagon having created an Afghan army which was a mirror image of America’s and therefore could not fight without being able to call in airstrikes at will. These deep-seated failures are more important than the Isis suicide bombing at Kabul airport.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, ISIS, Taliban 

In 2001 the Taliban blew up the giant 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan to show their defiance of the world and their contempt for all religious beliefs aside from their own fanatical version of Sunni Islam.

Another motive was to demonstrate the Taliban’s power over the Shia minority in Afghanistan, mostly members of the 4 million-strong Hazara ethnic group, in whose heartlands the statues had stood before their destruction.

Last week the Taliban blew up another statue in Bamiyan, this time of a martyred Hazara leader whom they had murdered in 1995, shortly before they captured Kabul for the first time. His name was Abdul Ali Mazari and he died when he and his senior aides were invited to a peace meeting with a Taliban leader. On their arrival, Mazari was abducted, tortured, executed and his body thrown out of a helicopter.

His mutilated remains were later handed over to his Hazara Shia followers who carried them for forty days through snow-covered mountains in Hazara territory to a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Sanctified by his life and the manner of his death in the eyes of the Hazara, he was later declared an official Martyr for the National Unity of Afghanistan by president Ashraf Ghani who fled the country last week.

The swift destruction of the statue of Mazari in Bamiyan last Wednesday is an ominous guide to the future behaviour of the Taliban once they believe that their present show of moderation is no longer necessary to impress the outside world. In May this year, the visceral hatred of the Shia as heretics by either the Taliban, or the local chapter of Isis, was horrifically displayed when 85 Shia Hazara schoolgirls were killed by a bomb as they left their school in Kabul.

The next few months will tell, once Afghanistan no longer tops the news agenda, how far the new Taliban rulers of Kabul will renew persecution of the ethnic and religious minorities outside the Pashtun community to which almost all Taliban belong.

Yet, although the Pashtun are the largest community, they are still only 42 per cent of the 38 million population of Afghanistan. A determining feature of the country’s political landscape is that all communities are minorities, creating different power centres, the relations between which will decide the country’s future.

A militarised party like the Taliban based on the Pashtun community in the south of the country may seize power through physical force for a time, but it is unlikely to hold on to it permanently or peacefully unless some authority is devolved to the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara – as well as to cities like Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.

It was Mazari, the murdered Hazara Shia leader, who advocated a federal Afghanistan with the different regions of the country enjoying extensive autonomy. His fate at the time and the immediate blowing up of his statue a quarter of a century later indicates that the Taliban are no more interested now in his solution to Afghanistan’s permanent civil war than they were when they killed him.

“I don’t think the Taliban can unite the country,” an Afghan friend told me this week. “Afghans only come together to fight obvious enemies like the Russians or the Americans. The last time around [before the overthrow of the Taliban by the US-backed invasion of 2001], the Taliban demanded that everybody speak the Pashto language.”

My Afghan friend wondered if the incoming Taliban leaders would have the sophistication to rule a country as diverse as Afghanistan with its mosaic of cultures, languages, communal identities and political interests. She recalled Taliban leaders prior to 2001 who could not read or write and, at first, employed somebody to write their signature on official documents. “Later they had their signatures inscribed on a ring they would press down on an inkpad and then on a document,” she said.

For now, it is much in the interests of the Taliban to give the impression that they have moderated their old fanatical and murderous ways. Their victory has come faster and is more comprehensive than they had expected because the high profile American pull-out convinced Afghans that a government defeat was inevitable – and this belief became self-fulfilling.

Switching sides early to that of the likely winner has always been a feature of war in Afghanistan, as it was in medieval England during the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, Shakespeare’s history plays about that period provide a good guide to the treacheries and fast-changing allegiances of Afghan politics today.

Taliban domination is more fragile than it might appear in the long term, but for the moment they have the momentum of victory behind them. Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbours will want to see what they do with their new-found power.

Some members of the fallen regime already speak of armed resistance, such as first vice-president Amrullah Saleh. Another is Ahmad Massoud, the son of the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda suicide bombers in 2001.

As with his father, Ahmad says he will fight from the great natural fortress of the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, which the Taliban have not yet taken. The floor of the valley used to be littered with the remains of burnt-out Soviet tanks from battles in the 1980s. But the precedent may be misleading because the Taliban are stronger than ever and opposition to them has yet to come together.

Even when it does, it will require foreign backers in the form of money and weapons – and no foreign state is likely to provide them while they are still assessing the nature of the new regime in Kabul.

The US and its western allies say that a crucial test for them will be how far the Taliban avoids hosting terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, as they did before 9/11. It will be much in the Taliban’s interests not to do so because they want international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Unlike 20 years ago, they do not need anything from al-Qaeda such as money and fanatical recruits willing to die on the battlefield.

Foreign media coverage has focused on the threat to Afghan interpreters who were with foreign forces and the reduction of women to an inferior status within Afghan society.

Yet the decisive factor in deciding whether the 40-year-old Afghan civil war will continue or come to an end will be decided by the degree to which the Taliban will seek to monopolise power or to share it with the other Afghan communities.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Afghanistan, Taliban 

The American way of dealing with a lost war is to withdraw its forces. The Afghan way of dealing with it is to change sides as quickly as possible.

The Afghan way of war has created confusion among foreign political and military leaders in the past 20 years, but never more so than during the past few weeks as the Taliban swept through the country, capturing city after city without facing serious resistance.

Intelligence agencies had generally assured western leaders that the Afghan government had the soldiers and weapons to make a fight of it. They did so, even after president Joe Biden announced on 14 April that all American troops would be out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Biden said that a Taliban victory was not “inevitable” and Boris Johnson added that the Taliban had “no military path to victory”. Experienced politicians do not make such confident predictions unless their intelligence chiefs have been telling them the same thing.

The reason so many well-informed people got it so wrong is that they were comparing the military strength of the two sides. But the Taliban victory was not military so much as political. Analysts now wring their hands and explain that Afghan soldiers often were not paid and lacked supplies of food and ammunition. It is also true that the Afghan army had become accustomed to calling in close American air support and felt bereft without it.

The political triumph of the Taliban came about because Afghans with power – military commanders, civilian officials, tribal leaders, local warlords – decided that the US had done a deal with the Taliban and they would be wise to follow suit as quickly as possible. They saw president Donald Trump make concession after concession in negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar without the Afghan government getting anything in return. Biden confirmed this approach when, for domestic political reasons, he decided to grandstand in announcing a complete US pull out.

The most striking feature of the Taliban seizure of power is that it took place with so little fighting. This was the case even in what were once the heartlands of anti-Taliban resistance before their overthrow by the US-backed Northern Alliance in 2001. Easily defended mountain strongholds in the Hindu Kush and large anti-Taliban cities like Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif fell after a few days fighting or without a shot being fired.

The speed and ease of the Taliban advance was self-fulfilling as Afghans became convinced that they were going to be the winners. Deals were done with powerful warlords – or their underlings – who had been expected to resist. This repeated the pattern of the 1990s when the Taliban first took power in the country. At that time cities and towns often changed hands because the Taliban simply paid their enemies to go home. It would be surprising if this has not happened again.

These changes of allegiance sped the Taliban on their way to Kabul, but the loyalty or neutrality of their new fair-weather adherents is shallow. They will expect to retain their old control under the loose authority of a Taliban central government. Moreover, it may be difficult for the largely Pushtun Taliban to rule Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara areas without conceding a high degree of autonomy to them. The risk-laden alternative for the Taliban would be to use extreme violence against Afghanistan’s minorities, but the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and other smaller groups collectively make up not far from 60 per cent of the population.

The Taliban has one important advantage in holding onto power. For the moment, no foreign power or neighbouring state looks likely to support an anti-Taliban resistance movement with arms and money. They won power in the 1990s because of backing from Pakistan and lost it in 2001 because the US backed the Northern Alliance.

The US, Britain and other states warn that they will not tolerate Afghanistan becoming once again a haven for terrorists, as it was when Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were based in the country.

But this time round the Taliban is eager to win international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. They would pay a heavy price in terms of international isolation if they host al-Qaeda or Isis.

Another argument against other jihadi organisations again congregating in Afghanistan is that 20 years ago, when Osama bin Laden had his headquarters and camps there, an alliance with him was a two-way street. The Taliban gave him refuge, and he gave them money and a core of fanatical fighters. It was, after all, two al-Qaeda suicide bombers who assassinated the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, just prior to 9/11.

But the Taliban no longer need help from al-Qaeda and there is every reason why they should reject a renewed alliance. On the other hand, there may be Taliban commanders who feel ideologically akin to al Qaeda and its clones and will give them covert aid.

The Taliban are visibly astonished by the completeness of their victory and will take time to digest and consolidate it. The outside world will be wondering what to make of the new Afghan regime and what will be the implications of its success for them and for the region.

It is in the interests of the Taliban for the moment to show a moderate face, but they have fought a ferocious war for two decades, taking heavy casualties. There will be many in their ranks who do not wish to dilute their social and religious beliefs for the sake of politically convenience. Despite the amnesty just declared by Taliban leaders, many will seek vengeance against former government supporters whom they have long denounced as traitors.

 

As Taliban fighters enter Kabul, everybody from the US government to local policemen seeks to reach a deal with the new rulers of Afghanistan. Alternatively, they want to flee the country as soon as possible.

The Afghan government agreed at the weekend on a transitional government, which will avoid a direct Taliban military assault on the capital, allowing a peaceful transfer of power. At the start of this transition, at least, it may be in the interests of the Taliban to show a moderate face and not stir up opposition at home or abroad by public executions and beatings.

As Afghans see it, President Donald Trump began a series of one-sided deals favouring the Taliban in 2020, an approach confirmed by President Joe Biden in his speech on 14 April this year. He declared that the final American pull-out would be completed by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, come what may.

By fixing on such a firm date, Biden evidently did not foresee that he had set the ball rolling for the complete disintegration of the anti-Taliban forces four months later. By highlighting the immediacy and completeness of the US military withdrawal, the White House probably wanted to gain credit among American voters, who have become increasingly hostile to US involvement in foreign wars. The likely shattering impact in Afghanistan of Biden’s announcement received too little attention.

Many Afghans thought that if the Americans were reaching a deal with the Taliban, then they should not be far behind – if they wanted to maximise their chances of personal survival. “People began to ask why they should die for a lost cause and not reach an agreement with the Taliban as the Americans had just done,” says one Afghan observer.

She points out that Taliban fighters met no military opposition when they swept through the traditionally anti-Taliban north of the country. In provinces dominated by the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, the Taliban, who largely come from the Pashtun community in the south of Afghanistan, met no armed resistance. Yet before 2001, this region was the heartland of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. “It is clear that the local leaders and former Northern Alliance warlords reached their own deals with the Taliban and refused to rally to the government side,” says the observer.

Army officers abandoned military strongholds they had held for two decades, while cities and towns surrendered without a fight, the latest being Jalalabad in the east of the country. “I have taken off my uniform and hidden it,” says Najib, a 35-year-old police officer in Jalalabad, which fell on Saturday. Taliban white flags sprouted everywhere in the city as they took over with scarcely a shot being fired.

Najib says in a message to a friend in Europe shown to The Independent that he hopes that the Taliban will stick to their pledge “not to harm anybody who did not resist them”. Like many Afghans in the security forces, Najib had decided last week, as city after city fell without a fight, that the Taliban had won the war.

All over Afghanistan frightened individuals and families are desperately trying to calculate how they can either survive or escape the new regime. Many would like to flee the country, but do not know how they would do so or where they could go.

In the city of Herat, in the far west of Afghanistan close to the Iranian border, a wealthy businessman called Farid says in another message to a friend that “for the last three days we have been hiding in our basement. We do not know what the Taliban will want to do. We have enough food for now, but soon we will need to go outside our house to the market.”

The family had thought of leaving Herat in recent years, but the choice was not easy. The city was relatively peaceful and they owned property there as well as profitable pistachio and almond orchards. Farid considered building a private hospital where his two medically trained daughters could work as doctors, but he abandoned the idea as security deteriorated in the past couple of years.

Instead, he and his family went to Istanbul for six months, but Covid-19 restrictions made living conditions there difficult and they went back to Herat, where they are now trapped in their basement.

Others, who in the past had rejected the idea of leaving Afghanistan, now want to get out. Mustapha, the cousin of a Canadian citizen, had once been a translator, but was forced by lack of work to be a taxi driver in Kabul. Even so, he said he was happy in Afghanistan – until the past few days when he sent a message to his cousin saying he wanted “to ask about the chances of getting a Canadian visa [Canada has offered to take 20,000 Afghan refugees]”.

Women in Kabul have no doubt that they are facing a grim and deteriorating future. Mursal, a film maker and freelance journalist, says that under the Taliban “there will be no respect for women, culture or films, and no way to go on working”. Najmia, an older woman and a teacher who had experience of Taliban rule 20 years ago, says: “I did not expect that I would have to stop teaching again, but that seems to be the case.” She likewise asks if it is not too late to get a residence visa to live outside the country.

Not everybody is stuck in Afghanistan. Mrs Abadi, a British citizen born in Iran who works for an NGO, says that “it is sad that so many want to leave, especially if they have daughters. What a mess the US has left behind!” She herself plans to go to Iran for a time, but intends to return when the situation clarifies. She could have a long wait.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, American Military, Taliban 

“Do you remember the tomorrow that never came?” asked a sad piece of street graffiti in Cairo, referring to the fate of the Arab Spring that once promised to overthrow the brutal autocracies that rule the Middle East.

That tomorrow moved even further into the future this week when a coup displaced the last surviving democracy to emerge from the Arab uprising of 2011. Appropriately, it took place in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began a decade ago after a vegetable seller burned himself to death in a protest against the actions of the corrupt and dictatorial regime.

On 25 July, Kais Saied, the Trump-like populist president of Tunisia, sacked the prime minister, suspended parliament and declared himself prosecutor general. As with Donald Trump, he had spent the years since he was elected in 2019 blaming members of parliament, critical media and government institutions for the dire state of the country. Polls show that many Tunisians believe him.

The takeover of power has been called “a constitutional coup” because Saied, a law professor by profession, was already president, but decisive steps towards autocracy are being taken. By now this road to dictatorship is well-travelled in many countries and the Tunisian coup is only the concluding episode in the tragic saga of the Arab Spring. Almost every state in the Middle East and North Africa has now returned to – or never left – the political dark ages from which, not so long ago, they thought they might be emerging.

There was nothing phoney about the Arab Spring in its first phases, though western media coverage was over-optimistic about the chances of success. Spontaneous uprisings spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria. People poured onto the streets chanting slogans like: “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice! The people demand the fall of the regime!”

And regimes did fall or falter as television screens worldwide were filled with pictures of protesters battling police in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Libyan militiamen fighting Muammar Gaddafi’s soldiers on the road to Benghazi. The scenes looked like something out of Les Misérables, with the revolutionary populace struggling against the forces of oppression.

In many ways this was true enough, but the chances of victory were always less than they appeared. At first, the demonstrators had the advantage of surprise because the sclerotic regimes that they were seeking to overthrow had never before faced mass protests on such a scale. The powers-that-be used enough violence to enrage, but not enough to intimidate. There was much wishful thinking about how social media had outflanked and marginalised official propaganda.

The greatest triumph of the Arab Spring was in Egypt with its 90m population, where President Hosni Mubarak was removed after 29 years in power. Astonished by their achievement, the revolutionaries did not grasp its limitations. They never took over state institutions, notably the Egyptian army, which in July 2013 staged a military coup with popular support and established an even more oppressive regime than that of Mubarak.

One by one, the countries that briefly dreamed of a bright future in 2011 saw their hopes extinguished. In Bahrain, the Sunni monarchy ferociously stamped out demonstrations by the Shia majority, torturing doctors who had treated the injured and claiming, without any evidence, that the protests were orchestrated by Iran.

The outcome of the Arab Spring was uniformly disastrous in that in the six countries where it took hold the situation is worse than before. In three of them – Libya, Syria and Yemen – civil wars, all fuelled and manipulated by outside powers, are raging and show no sign of ending. Governments in Egypt and Bahrain, which is effectively a proxy of Saudi Arabia, ruthlessly crush any signs of dissent. Predictably, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have both welcomed the presidential coup in Tunisia.

I reported and wrote about all these uprisings at the time and in subsequent years. I was never optimistic that all would turn out well, but sitting in Cairo after the fall of Mubarak 10 years ago and trying to decide if I should cover the revolution in Benghazi or the one in Bahrain, it was impossible not to be caught up in the heady atmosphere of a new day dawning.

Even then I suspected that the old regimes were not going to disappear tamely. My minor skirmishes with the Egyptian bureaucracy convinced me that they were still waiting for a clear winner in the power struggle. In Libya, after Gaddafi had been killed, it was telling that one of the first proposals of the transitional government was to end the ban on polygamy.

I have asked myself ever since if the millions who demonstrated during the Arab Spring could have won or was the balance of power always too skewed against them. The answer to this question is vital if there is ever to be a second revolutionary wave more successful than the first.

Outside the Middle East, the vision of the forces at play 10 years ago was always naive, pitting “evil doers” against the good-and-the-true. Almost from the beginning, the Arab Spring was a peculiar mix of revolution and counter-revolution. Genuine popular uprisings took place in Libya and Syria, for instance, but it was absurd to imagine that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, the Sunni absolute monarchies of the Gulf, were giving vast sums of money to the parties and militias they supported in order to spread secularism, democracy and freedom of expression.

Anti-regime movements in their dealing with the West would sensibly downplay their religious and ethnic allegiances and adopt the vocabulary of liberal democracy. Usually they were taken uncritically at their word. Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein before the US-led invasion in 2003 blamed all sectarian hatreds on him, and the opponents of Bashar al-Assad did much the same after 2011. But in both countries, the military frontlines commonly mirror the religious and ethnic loyalties of local communities.

Western politicians who led the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq likewise pretend that one of their prime motives was to spread parliamentary democracy and personal freedom. But my experience of reporting these interventions was that they were not much different from 19th-century imperial ventures, and served to exacerbate divisions and spread chaos.

The first uprising in Tunisia provoked vast international interest, but the presidential coup in the same country last Sunday scarcely registered on the news agenda. This is a mistake even from the most nationally egocentric point of view because a great band of human misery now stretches more than 3,000 miles from Kabul to Tunis and 2,000 miles from Damascus to Mogadishu.

This vast zone of deprivation, dictatorship and violence may regenerate Isis or lead to rise of new al-Qaeda-type organisations. It will certainly produce great surges of refugees once again heading for Europe because they see no future for themselves in their own countries.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Spring, Tunisia 

Boris Johnson turns out to have privately yearned to adopt the same approach as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who publicly favoured allowing Covid-19 to rip through his nation. “Stop all this fussing and whining,” Bolsonaro told Brazilians, some 543,000 of whom have died in the epidemic. “How long are you going to go on crying?”

With similar callousness, Johnson is reported by his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings to have rejected a second lockdown last October after learning that the median age of the dead exceeded average life expectancy. “So get Covid and live longer,” he joked.

On 23 July 2019, two years ago today, Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative Party, defeating the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Had Hunt been chosen instead, or almost anybody other than Johnson for that matter, then tens of thousands of people in Britain would not have died and hundreds of thousands of others would have escaped severe illness and long Covid.

Down the centuries, Britain has generally been lucky in its leaders in times of crisis. In calmer periods, it may not matter much who is nominally in charge of the country. But during the last two years of permanent crisis over Brexit and Covid-19, Britain has been led by a man of such poor and wavering judgement that it is difficult to find a figure of comparable incompetence in British history.

The best parallels with Johnson come not from the past but from the world of comic opera, my favourite comparison being with the Duke of Plaza-Toro, the bombastic upper-class conman in The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan. “He led his regiment from behind – he found it less exciting,” go the lyrics, but when any success is achieved – one thinks of the Covid-19 vaccination programme – then the shady duke swiftly claims credit for it.

Looking back over the last 18 months, it is clear that when it came to taking life-and-death decisions for the country, Johnson would have shown better results if he had relied on the flip of a coin rather than his own chaotic judgement. Errors are too frequent to list but they include fatal delays to both lockdowns last year, the failed though vastly expensive NHS Test and Trace, 39,000 dead in the care homes, and the easy passage to Britain given to the Delta variant by not blocking travel from India.

Lessons are never learned from mistakes, whatever the death toll. This was evident again this week, as the government managed to get the worst of all possible worlds by abruptly ending measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 infection, while simultaneously asserting the necessity for 1.4 million people to self-isolate in order to stop the spread of the same illness. Britain is becoming a pariah state, with the US State Department issuing its highest-level warning, which simply says: “Do not travel to the United Kingdom.”

Johnson’s failings were no secret before or after he became prime minister, but just how bad and damaging he has been was confirmed with copious detail in the last few days by Dominic Cummings and by Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and an infectious diseases specialist, both of whom were at the centre of Britain’s response to the pandemic. Cummings’s stories of prime ministerial blundering are appalling though comical, but Farrar’s low-key description of “the absent prime minister” is damning.

How has Britain managed to end up with such a frivolous figure taking decisions that mean life or death for so many people? I have always believed since 2016 that the Brexiteers posed a far greater threat to Britain than Brexit itself. There was nothing irrational about leaving the EU in pursuit of greater national self-determination. Such attempts to assert national control, widely or unwisely, are common throughout the world.

The greater danger lay in the fact that Brexit had become the vehicle through which a coterie of opportunists and far-right ideologues had won power and would use it arbitrarily and incompetently.

I also hoped that their misrule might not matter too much since, as Adam Smith pointed out, “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. It seemed possible 18 months back that so long as the government elected in 2019 avoided a serious crisis – I was thinking of a war, not a pandemic – then they might not inflict too much damage. Nobody with an over-discriminate sense of smell would want to stand downwind from the present cabinet, but their wilder and more authoritarian schemes might be blocked by their own incapacity.

But Johnson and his senior lieutenants are not just the product of events specific to Britain like Brexit. They are associate members of an unsavoury club of populist nationalist leaders who have all mishandled the epidemic in their countries. Some, like the US under Donald Trump, had highly developed health sectors, but still suffered 604,000 dead. Others, like Narendra Modi’s India, did not have adequate medical resources but still calamitously underperformed what could be done – the official figure for deaths in India is 414,000, but a study by the Centre for Global Development and Harvard University says the true death toll tops four million.

The reasons for this common failure are clear enough. Populist nationalist leaders all claim to be combatting imaginary or exaggerated threats, but they are at a loss when it comes to coping with a real one like coronavirus. They peddle pipe-dreams, making contradictory promises of lower taxes to their plutocratic supporters and of greater state aid to the deprived. The cynical response of Modi and Trump – and now, it turns out, of Boris Johnson as well – has been to deny that any disaster is happening or to say that, if it is, then its scale is greatly exaggerated.

Johnson’s lethal blend of hubris, ignorance and incompetence is not confined to mishandling the pandemic. It was on show elsewhere this week as Britain demanded that the EU renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol in radical ways that were inevitably rejected by the EU. The government probably calculates that ongoing friction with Brussels will not hurt it with voters.

In reality, the government’s objections to the dilution of British sovereignty stemming from the protocol also apply to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Intentionally or not, Johnson and his ministers are unravelling the agreement and destabilising the balance between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Step by blundering step, the government is reawakening “the Irish Question”, traditionally the most destructive political issue in British politics, which the Good Friday Agreement appeared to have put to bed.

Perhaps the best analogy of all for Johnson looking back on his two years in Downing Street is Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, always self-confidently marching forward to disaster and ignoring the chaos he leaves behind.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Coronavirus, Vaccines 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


Personal Classics
Full Story of the Taliban's Amazing Jailbreak
"They Can't Even Protect Themselves, So What Can They Do For Me?"
"All Hell is Breaking Loose with Muqtada" Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr