General Petraeus, I believe, recently alluded to a powerful way of thinking about the conflict: that the U.S. should be looking at Afghanistan in the same way it looks at South Korea. It's had forces permanently deployed there for decades. We talk about Afghanistan as being the longest war America's really ever been involved in, but in reality -- though it may not may not be a hot war -- it is South Korea. That may be a model for American people to look at for the future Afghanistan: somewhere that it's in America's interests to maintain security in. Not necessarily a vast garrison, but a foothold with the ability to flex in and out as needed.
OR: Where did the U.S. go wrong in Afghanistan and Iaq?
Kemp: I think, in relation to both Iraq and Afghanistan, many mistakes were made in the early stages of both those campaigns. There was to an extent in Afghanistan and to a greater extent in Iraq some significant success in the campaigns around 2012. I think in both cases, President Obama managed to grab defeat from the jaws of victory by -- certainly in Iraq -- pulling everything out, and also scaling back in Afghanistan.
I would say that rise of the Islamic State is to a very large extent down to Obama's policy of withdrawing all the troops from Iraq in 2012 for domestic electoral reasons as opposed to strategic reasons. In Afghanistan, it wasn't quite such a precipice, but I think there was a premature withdrawal of forces from there. Which left the Afghan army, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in an extremely difficult situation.
Britain was the same. Britain has to mirror America. We couldn't maintain a strong presence there if America didn't. We can't stand on our own anymore. We're a small country now. Significant in military terms compared to many others, but we're still not capable of operating without America. So we did the same thing. I'm not pointing at Americans and saying, "We were great." We weren't. We left the ANSF in a very tricky position. They weren't sufficiently trained. They weren't sufficiently resourced. They weren't sufficiently supported. They had a government that was corrupt. It was very hard to get Afghans to fight for that government. Particularly if someone's offering them more money to do something different.
I can't quote you casualty figures, but the casualty figures among Afghan security forces in recent years have been horrific. Far worse than anything that was suffered by us combined in the rest of the campaign. So we got a resurgent Taliban; the Taliban were waiting really for the withdrawal to take place. They knew it was going to happen eventually and they've got much more patience than we have.
There were a number of reasons given to explain why we were in Afghanistan, ranging from dealing with the Taliban to getting equal rights for women to dealing with the drugs problem to making it a democratic country. In Britain, being more or less between governments through most of the campaign, the political campaign was more focused on humanitarian aid, reconstruction, women's rights, and democracy rather than dealing with the Taliban -- which was, of course, the primary purpose we went in there for following 9/11. I would say that despite the mistakes that the campaign in Afghanistan was a success. It was aimed at preventing the country from being used again as a base from which to attack the United States of America and its allies in a way comparable to 9/11. It succeeded in that and still is succeeding in that.
OR: What do you think the U.S. and its allies should do about failed states as they proliferate?
Kemp: Where possible, where there is a state that is failing rather than necessarily failed, it should be propped up as far as it can be. Financial resources and military assistance -- probably advice rather than combat -- should be put into supporting that country against whatever insurgency it faces. I think we should avoid trying to make these things into democratic states. I think we should use military force where we need to use it if events or if activities in those states threaten us or look as if they'd like to.
Afghanistan is a bit of special case, of course, because as I said everything that happens there is so closely linked to Pakistan. Those two countries need to be seen as a single theater of operations. Pakistan is obviously extremely important because it is a nuclear power and because of its centrality to the region.
OR: Do you view Pakistan as the most dangerous nuclear hotspot?
Kemp: I think it is one of them. I have no doubt the U.S. has specific plans to try and mitigate that if it came to, for example, the possibility of nuclear weapons being used or falling into the wrong hands. Al Qaeda had and probably still has the intention of, first of all, bringing down the government of Pakistan and secondly taking control of their nuclear weapons.
I think that the next really serious issue is Iran. We know that Iran doesn't have nuclear capability at present, but it will. There's no doubt in my mind that unless it's stopped from it by a military force, it will develop nuclear capability. Iran generally considers itself to have a right to be a nuclear state, whoever's in power. I think we might worry less about it if there's a different regime in power. This issue is basically precipitating a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, mainly involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt -- which obviously gives us massive problems in the future.
OR: What are the lessons that world leaders should learn from the American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Richard Kemp has spent most his life fighting terrorism and insurgency, commanding British troops on the front line of some of the world’s toughest hotspots.