President Biden has taken a lot of stick over Afghanistan, some of it justified. From Tony Blair to the Tory back-benches, in Parliament and on the BBC, we have been treated to days of passionate denunciation of American withdrawal – announced, of course, long before the current rush to blame. A miasma of unreality and theatricality rose from all the understandable political emotion and anguish.
It is as if in Clausewitz’s account of the nature of war, his mixture of emotion, chance and rational calculation, the rational can simply be ignored. “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”, Clausewitz wrote - to balance his war as ‘politics by another means’. The Taliban applied his lesson successfully. From Trump to Biden, as a consequence of chains of policies, decisions, and mission-creep, and as a result of a successful insurgency against a corrupt government and foreign invaders, the US was finally forced to submit to the Taliban’s will, negotiating and implementing its own exit from Afghanistan. It is not Biden’s decision that will determine the outcome for thousands of fleeing Afghans seeking but the Taliban’s.
According to Aristotle, a dramatic tragedy needs to obey the three unities of place, time and action. Reacting to the retreat into Kabul airport, the flights and chaos of the last week in and around it, we find political leaders playing their parts in such a tragedy. The G7, calling for the USA to extend the withdrawal time to allow more Afghans to escape, pitted NATO members against an American President, a President who rationally calculated that this course of action would escalate into a disastrous fire-fight with the Taliban lobbing mortars into the airport and fierce ground assaults on US forces trying to hold a perimeter (as Daniel Johnson indicates TheArticle 25/08). It is and was a tragic dilemma. But it was Biden who behaved like a rational statesman and refused.
It is perfectly understandable that denial and raw emotion prompted the positions taken up by MPs who had served in Afghanistan and played military roles in the tragedy. But it is not obvious why so many others took the opportunity to scapegoat Biden. Did they seriously think that more troops flown into Kabul airport would have kept it open for flights without it becoming a modern Alamo? Did they advocate a position they knew would be untenable to put pressure on the Taliban? Were they just ‘virtue signalling’, or in the case of Britain just trying to ‘punch above its weight’? And doesn’t the appalling ISIS terrorist atrocity at Kabul airport suggest at least one area of common concern between NATO and the Taliban that will require cooperation?
Perhaps the Biden-bashing sprang from deeper causes than his misjudging the resolve to fight of the Afghan National Army who in many instances fled the Taliban without firing a shot, or even his failure to foresee the corrupt government would collapse like the proverbial house of cards. Given the lack of clear and up-to-date intelligence from rural areas, a hasty withdrawal was inevitable. The CIA can claim to have presented the Commander in Chief with sudden collapse as one of several possible scenarios depending on the amount of American force available on the ground and in the air. But in a matter of a week or two abandoning a vast armoury of US military equipment?
Apart from Canada, all the loudly lamenting G7 members have at some point passed through a significant period of imperial ambition, and some have experienced imperial grandeur. Their dream of defying the victorious Taliban seems a post-imperial fantasy. Perhaps these Prime Ministers and Presidents still believe in some inviolable right to order the world and export Western values, and couldn’t recognise their own hubris and its consequences. Or perhaps we were watching a – deflected - fear of a US isolationism that long preceded Biden.
It is not as if US isolationism versus intervention was a new issue. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff then US Secretary of State, and Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defence, along with Tony Blair and his chief of staff in the UK, Jonathan Powell, had debated the issue before 9/11 including drawing up criteria such interventions must meet. Tony Blair’s wide-ranging 24 April 1999 speech in Chicago after the atrocities in Kosovo – justifying intervention and bombing - was a significant contribution. There was also the UN World Summit in 2005 on ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ that defined circumstances that required international intervention, looking back on the failure of any world power to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Blair, in a recent speech opposing American withdrawal called Biden’s use of the slogan ‘forever wars’ as ‘imbecilic’. But didn’t Biden’s decision to leave by 31 August comply with the very criteria for military action which Blair had proposed in his Chicago speech? In Chicago he had said “Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?” Breaking the agreement to leave by the end of the month concluded with the Taliban would have been neither sensible nor prudent. It could not have succeeded without massive military re-engagement and loss of life.
The aura of unreality surrounding this widespread denunciation of Biden, the assumption that America has only to say the word and the date of the exit could be changed, may spring from elsewhere: delayed recognition that US isolationism is here to stay, or fear that the USA was changing its strategic priorities, turning its back on Europe to concentrate on China. Nothing new here. Blair’s Chicago speech ended: “I say to you: never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism. The world cannot afford it. Stay a country, outward-looking, with the vision and imagination that is your nature. And realise that in Britain you have a friend and an ally that will stand with you, work with you, fashion with you the design of a future built on peace and prosperity for all, which is the only dream that makes humanity worth preserving”. There was surely some element of fear this was a fading dream lurking behind the attacks on Biden for his failure to consult with his allies.
Some clear and specific reassurances from the American President, if not some apology and explanation for the lack of consultation with his NATO allies, are long overdue. We must now respond to the consequences of the change in US priorities. But like COVID we are going to have to live with the Taliban More tragically, so are the Afghan people.
see TheArticle 27/08/2021
Not many democratic organisations without fanfare of trumpets can, and have, celebrated a 800th Jubilee. In August 1221, thirteen Dominicans, a good apostolic number led by the well-connected Gilbert de Fresney, landed in Kent and set off for Oxford. This month four young English Dominican friars have been marking the anniversary by walking the same route from Kent to Oxford back to the priory in St. Giles, to arrive on 15 August 2021.
Groups of ‘Black Friars’ (after their distinctive black cape worn over a white habit) were already established in Paris and Bologna when the twelve reached Oxford in 1221. At the time these three great mediaeval universities were attracting the best teachers and students in Europe. The Oxford Dominicans were not just there to satisfy their intellectual curiosity but to promote Catholicism both philosophically and theologically and to grapple with Christian heresies, Judaism and Islam as required by the Order.
Part of the staying power of the Catholic Church is its ability to allow innovative religious communities to flourish in response to different historical needs and sensibilities– provided they acknowledged, or finessed, papal authority when disputes arose. The mission of the newly formed Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, was to marry faith with reason – which Pope Benedict XVI described as having ‘a natural harmony’ - and to respond in the simplicity of their lives to the poverty around them. The great Summa Theologiae of the 13th century Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, was intended as a compendium of Christian thought, all that any peripatetic friar might need to win the arguments and convert by reasoning anyone on the wrong path, especially those in the new towns and cities.
All very well, you might say, but what about the Spanish Inquisition, the fanatical Cardinal and friar, Torquemada, and the torture of heretics. Not much to celebrate here apart from their role in Monty Python sketches. Dominic’s own approach to the Cathars (Albigensians) in Languedoc - they believed the body and material world was evil and only the soul good - had been one of example through way of life, preaching and reasoned debate. The Pope charged the Dominicans and Franciscans with the task of inquisition only in 1231, ten years after St. Dominic’s death. By then, however, the Church was already dealing with deviation from Catholic doctrine by fear and violence, for example in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29. In the late 15th century the Pope appointed Torquemada as the Grand Inquisitor for a Spain now led, post-Muslim defeat, by its Catholic Kings.
Across the Atlantic one of the next generation of Dominicans, the Spanish priest, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, was pleading for recognition of the humanity and rights of Native Americans before the Spanish King, Charles 1st, and winning the argument. The Dominican Order weren’t and aren’t monolithic. Nor were they always in the corridors of power. Between the years 1538 and 1540 Henry VIII confiscated every single one of Britain’s 57 Dominican houses. **
Fast forward to the 20th century and I will never forget my visits to the Dominicans’ radical Johannesburg priory in the - ironically - named Mayfair district. In the 1980s Mayfair was surprisingly multi-racial. Everyone was poor or down-at heel not just the blacks. The local South African Dominicans had set out to find a suitably decrepit property, fitting their voluntary poverty (hence the name mendicant Orders) to their ministry to the poor. A gleeful estate agent was astonished to get the building off his hands.
Albert Nolan OP, a South African born in Cape Town and a former university chaplain, made the priory a sanctuary for Christian and other supporters of the banned African National Congress, dealing with their everyday problems and exploring the spirituality that would sustain them through surveillance and probable arrest by the apartheid system. His vision of the Dominian vocation of preaching included participation and leadership in the influential and ecumenical Institute for Contextual Theology – influential enough for the apartheid propaganda machine to denounce it as the work of the Devil and the priory to get shot up. He was also the editor of Challenge, a popular and radical newspaper for the country’s grassroots Catholic communities. His 1972 book Jesus before Christianity presented to a secular world a radical historical Jesus in the context of the time. It could be seen as a South African approach to liberation theology and narrowly missed censure from Rome because of its – unsurprising - failure to mention the Church.
In 1983 the global Dominican community showed how much they valued Albert by electing him Master-General of the Order - but only for a few hours. When he asked their permission to decline the honour in order to pursue his ministry in Johannesburg and the struggle against apartheid, they voted on it and agreed. In 2003 he was one of the first to be honoured by Thabo Mbeki’s government with the South African Order of Luthuli. And after publishing several ground-breaking books of theology, in his late eighties, he is now retired.
What then of Blackfriars Oxford now home to Timothy Radcliffe, another great exponent of the Dominican tradition in his preaching and writing and former, much-travelled Master-General of the Order. Blackfriars present mission is very much the one envisioned by its 1221 founders. Attached to the priory is a Private Hall of the University owned by the English Province and base for Blackfriars Studium noted for its theology and philosophy but also its diversity of students, teachers and postgraduate degrees. The Las Casas Institute of ethics, governance and social justice and the Aquinas Institute, part of the work of Blackfriars Hall, reflect the great names of Dominican history as well as promoting contemporary Catholic social and philosophical thinking pioneered most famously in the 20th century by Vincent McNabb (1968-1943) and Herbert McCabe (1926-2001).
There is something very attractive about the mission-oriented democracy of the Order and its commitment to the natural harmony of faith and reason, combatting the drift into the emotion-led catastrophes of our political world. The Dominican motto: contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (to contemplate and hand on to others the fruits of contemplation) beautifully summarise their approach. When you come to think of it, quite a good motto for humble bloggers too.
** Richard Finn’s history The Dominicans in the British Isles and Beyond will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2022.
See TheArticle 15/08/2021
As British and American forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, many people would have been thinking of the families of troops who died there: 454 British deaths between 2001 and 2015 - when troops withdrew from combat operations - and 2,372 American deaths overall. Sorrow at the terrible death toll caused by the war amongst the Afghan civilian population during the last twenty years, (48,000 at least but this is only an estimate), is less often expressed.
The Taliban - the name means students – (of the Qur’ān), are closing in fast. People may remember in better times BBC reporting from Herat in Western Afghanistan now under siege and about the south western province of Helmand, a former hell-hole for British troops, facing the imminent fall of Lashkar-Gah its provincial capital. Future Afghan or US air-force bombing of civilian areas occupied by the Taliban means that more civilians as well as combatants will die.
Britain and America completed the withdrawal of their few remaining ground troops and contractors a month ago, leaving residual technical support only. Air support, operating long-distance now from the Gulf, is much reduced. The speed with which the Taliban moved into major cities, or emerged within them, was unexpected. There are reports of many displaced people moving into the capital Kabul. Journalists are risking their lives reporting from receding front-lines. Accounts contradict each other. On the one hand there is the morale-boosting optimism of General Sami Sadat, former Afghan National Army Commander in Helmand, trained in both Germany and UK, claiming the insurgents will be beaten back by special forces. On the other there is the pessimism of Afghans themselves in threatened cities giving often contradictory accounts of the Taliban’s rapid assumption of control and their brutal behaviour.
Hopes that the Taliban’s ideology had mellowed since 2001 are over. There are reports of the savagery of Taliban assaults and the aftermath of their occupation of the first major urban areas – forced marriages to their fighters and executions of anyone associated with withdrawn foreign forces. If anything the Taliban’s perverse interpretation of Islam has hardened since the beginning of the US/UK’s Operation Enduring Freedom and the invasion of NATO coalition troops from 2001-2002.
It is difficult to remember that foreign intervention in Afghanistan was originally intended to destroy Al-Qaeda’s safe havens there. This war aim required defeating and chasing the Taliban out of the cities. But this in turn led to a near impossible goal: a commitment to the long haul of building democracy, stability and a modicum of security in an alien, and poorly understood, social, ethnic, religious and political culture. The combination of cultural solidarity amongst ethnic Pashtuns who compose nearly half the population and predominate amongst the Taliban, anti-foreigner nationalism, and the quest for an imagined 7th century religious Caliphate, have for two decades sustained the Taliban as a guerrilla force which could not be dislodged. And in addition covert cross-border support from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate meant that the coalition faced into a very strong headwind. Iraq took up time, troops and resources that might have bolstered coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Trying to conjure a modern liberal democratic State into existence in one country was hubristic, in two at the same time was cruelly punished.
Surprise at the effectiveness of the current Taliban offensive is not the only misplaced reaction. Given the disappearance of active NATO military power in-country and the prospect of a victory for a powerful Islamic extremist organisation it was predictable that foreign extremists seeking a new caliphate would be drawn to Afghanistan. And likewise that these opportunist incomers would somehow believe that ‘Allah the merciful, the compassionate’ demanded first and foremost jihad and the subjugation of women. There was an obvious precedent. Al-Qaeda itself had been created from similar ‘martyrdom migrants’, mostly Arabs led by Abdallah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, sucked into Afghanistan to fight the occupying Soviets. In the 1990s it even had US support.
Afghanistan is a failed State, insecure, unstable and with little hope of democracy prevailing. It is marauding rival militias who should now be expected to emerge. It might seem that not a single coalition political objective has been achieved. But there have been successes. There are indications that the nearly 30% of the population who are urban-based, in the main, have different expectations of their government. Amongst them there is strong support expressed for the hoped-for democracy and stability promised by the USA. In rural areas under Taliban control hopes for cultural change, modernisation, are evidently weaker and seem far-fetched.
But it is important to remember the many Afghans who actively supported the allied cause. For them, on 29 July, President Biden got a bipartisan billion dollar support and assistance bill through Congress aimed at protecting those whose lives were in danger because of their work for NATO forces and the elected Afghan government. Already 8,000 US visas have been issued and the application process is being streamlined. The response of the British government to the danger threatening our own loyal ‘collaborators’ recently elicited expressions of ‘grave concern’ from 40 military chiefs, including six former heads of our armed forces. They questioned the rejection in the past three months of 500 asylum applications from interpreters, drivers, cooks and others who had worked for British military forces and pointed to the danger that such mean spiritedness would ‘dishonour’ the British armed forces. Their pleas, and those of their military advocates, ought not to go unheard in Whitehall and Westminster.
Was it worth it? The bitter judgement of bereaved relatives of soldiers, “no it wasn’t”, must be respected. But for almost twenty years some 14 million Afghani women and girls had the doors of education and participation in public life wedged open for them. Even as the doors are shutting we need to remember the many Afghan parents who want their daughters educated, they have not changed their minds and nothing can take the experience of education away from the young people who received it. Those who died fighting the Taliban gave their own futures so that girls and women through education could hope for and aspire to a better future. That is not a wasted life.
See TheArticle 05/08/2021