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Col. Richard Kemp on Afghanistan and Iraq


Octavian Report: What is your take on President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy?

Col. Richard Kemp: The basics of it are to focus not on nation building but on trying to kill the terrorists who are trying to take over the country, and I think that’s exactly the right approach. It was, of course, the initial reason we went into Afghanistan. It wasn’t to turn Afghanistan into a western democracy. It wasn’t to improve women’s rights. It wasn’t in order to rebuild the country. It was all about killing terrorists and stopping them from doing another 9/11 from there. All that got blurred. I think that it’s good to see focus and clarity from Trump.

Another important dimension is Pakistan. The Taliban would not have have been able to continue as long as it did without the support of Pakistan and particularly the support of the Pakistani army and intelligence services. We know that they not only gave them safe haven inside Pakistan, but also both physically helped to restore them by providing some weapons and training.

They provided things like helicopter lifts for them on some occasions, as well as helping them avoid getting killed and with targeting. We know how valuable that was. I think that’s an area that’s very difficult to cope with. It’s critical to attack all that if the problem is to be brought under control, but it’s also extremely difficult to tackle it. Pakistan is obsessed with maintaining some control over Afghanistan and trying to force them to stop doing that via groups like either the Islamic State or the Taliban or rebels is going to be very, very hard.

OR: The Trump administration proposes giving the American forces on the ground more autonomy. Do you think that that makes sense, given the status of Afghan forces at the moment?

Kemp: I think there was always a lot of pretense about that from both the U.S. and Britain and other allies involved on that subject. There was a lot of pretense about Afghans leading this fight. They never did lead the fight while we were there. They would be put in front so it could be seen that they were leading. It was pretense more than reality, and so I think recognizing the reality — that the Western forces have really got to be taking a lead while they’re there — is welcome.

Of course, it does then raise the issue of when the Afghan forces are going to be able to stand on their own feet. And I think they will be able to do that better by watching what we do and learning from what we do and the Americans do, rather than this pretense, this charade that they’re taking the lead. Obviously, the training aspect of it is important and a lot of the additional forces being sent out there by the U.S. will be fundamental in training the Afghans and actually showing them how to do it in battle — actually leading them and showing them how it works, and how it should work.

OR: Do you think a political solution in Afghanistan is possible, absent the kind of nation building that Trump has ostensibly sworn off?

Kemp: I don’t think a political compromise with the Taliban or the Islamic State is even a remote possibility, and I don’t think it ever has been. If we wish Afghanistan to maintain a government that is pro-West, friendly towards us, cooperative towards us, well, that’s not the Taliban’s ethos. It’s not what they’re about. They won’t accept that. They don’t want it. They hate us and they will hate us. They want to be our enemies. There’s not going to be an accommodation between those two angles.

I think realistically speaking, there’s two options. One is a kind of settled status quo in Afghanistan where the capital and parts of the country remain under the control of the pro-Western central government where other areas of Afghanistan fall under Taliban control (or the control of IS, or of smaller local groups). It’s not much different from where we’re at now, except that I think that the balance of control has swung too far against the government and that does need to be rectified.

The second alternative, I think, can be found in Pakistan. A lot of the problems caused by the Taliban and Islamic State could be prevented by Pakistan, if they wanted to prevent them. That’s not really very likely. I think that’s the best possibility, but not very likely. It may be that India plays a part in this. The main reason Pakistan is obsessed with controlling areas of Afghanistan is because of its fear of India. If Pakistan’s fear of India can be allayed or changed in some way, then that may give them less reason to want to support jihad in Afghanistan. But I don’t think that’s very likely either.

My ultimate perspective on a realistic future for Afghanistan is that we don’t want to miss why we went in the first place. We don’t want it be an ungoverned territory that can be used as a launch base or a training base for the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. I’d want a country that is ruled in theory at least by a pro-Western government, which controls a significant part of the country — though probably not all of it — and which has accommodations with different elements, different groupings around the country. American forces should retain a foothold there, in order to launch operations when necessary. I’m talking more about maintaining intelligence and surveillance presence, and the ability to carry out air strikes or special forces raids.

I think that is the future of Afghanistan. In other words, we aim to get it into as a good a state as we can. We never actually in the foreseeable future leave it completely. If we had followed that policy with Iraq, then the likelihood is the Islamic State would not have risen up as it did. It did so because the U.S. up and left, leaving nothing there. That could happen again in Afghanistan if the U.S. leaves.

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?

Kemp: I would say that the first and most important thing is not to have any idea of turning these countries into western democracies. That was a laudable aim by the people around President Bush, but it clearly hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to work.

I would also say don’t in the future attempt to conduct a protracted military campaign. It’s very easy to sit here and say this. I appreciate that the decision itself is much more difficult. The most important thing is to use military force, I think, short and sharp and overwhelmingly.

OR: There seems to be a much more vocal debate today about the underlying legitimacy of military intervention as such. Where do you place it in the toolkits of hegemonic powers?

Kemp: I think that there’s a few issues. One of which is obviously the protection of one’s own country. I think that it’s not necessarily as clear-cut as it looks. I think, for example, President Trump’s strike against Syria was protecting the United States by enforcing the treaty barring the use of chemical weapons: the more people that use chemical weapons, the more threat there is going to be to the United States and its allies.

I think it is a duty of a President to use military force to protect his country even in circumstances like that. I don’t think anyone could really argue against that in principle. They can argue against whether a specific strike is in fact necessary to protect the country.

The second thing is the duty to protect other people. I think that’s a very difficult one. The media in Britain, on the one hand, make it incredibly difficult for a government not to intervene when there’s a humanitarian crisis because they constantly pull at the heartstrings. They’re flashing images around the country all the time of evil things happening. People demand to know when the government will do something.

Then when the government does something, of course, they’re condemned if things don’t go exactly to plan. I do think it’s something that is different in each case and I don’t think any country has an absolute right to protect foreign populations if it’s going to cause undue harm to their own people. I don’t mean just the civilian population, but the military forces as well. People tend to disregard the importance of a soldier’s life compared to a civilian’s life, but the two are exactly the same. That has to be taken into account.

I don’t think that the “world policeman” is the right model for this. I think it’s about protecting national interests. The U.S. isn’t just defending the homeland. It’s defending its interests abroad as well. I think use of force is very, very justifiable in those circumstance.

OR: How do you assess the national security legacies of George W. Bush? Barack Obama? Tony Blair? David Cameron?

Kemp: I was working in the cabinet office, which is effectively the Prime Minister’s office, in London during the period of the Afghanistan and the Iraq campaigns. My role was intelligence predominantly. I was one of the very few military officers actually there, so I got involved in slightly more than just intelligence.

I had almost a ringside seat in relation to both Blair and Bush. My view is that they both did the right thing in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan in initiating military operations in response to the threat that they faced. I think that the start of each of the two campaigns was absolutely right, but the development of the two campaigns was seriously flawed. Particularly I would say in Iraq. If the government had been decapitated, and the next-but-one level down had been kept in place and everything below that would have been kept in place and controlled by the Americans — which it would have been and could have been — I think we’d have seen a different story in Iraq and I think that was a fundamental error of both Bush and Blair in prosecuting that particular campaign.

I think both of them took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan because they focused on Iraq and that accounted for the resurgence of the Taliban. Again, it was a pretty fundamental error in judgment. I was in Afghanistan at the time when that was sort of beginning to go fairly badly wrong. It was quite obvious.

I was actually there with General Mark Milley, now Chief of Staff of the Army. We were both in Kabul. Both the same rank. We were both well aware that we were in a backwater. We had, compared to what was going on in Iraq, very limited resources and very limited interest in what we were doing from our respective governments. I think that was a pretty fundamental error.

I suppose in summary I think that both Blair and Bush had the right instincts and made the right initial decisions, but didn’t carry them through as they should have done.

I think Cameron wanted to be Blair. I don’t say he pushed for operations in Libya. I don’t say that he thought that because he wanted to have his own war, but I think that sort of entered into it. I think what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq and then Libya scared him and I think accounts for the way that he then was personally involved in decimating the British armed forces.

The British armed forces today have been hollowed out by constant budget cuts. Cameron decided not to give them enough money. I think that wasn’t just about saving money. I think it was also about putting yourself in a position where you can’t use them. If America decides to embark on some military operation again and they ask Britain to help, Britain can now say, “Well, we’d love to, but look, we haven’t got anything to do it with.”

President Obama fundamentally is not a man who wanted to use military force. He did use it very effectively, I think, in Pakistan via the drone strikes that he ordered. That was in many ways probably the most effective military action he took. I would say his military thinking was too dominated by the desire to win the election rather than prosecute the military campaigns as he should have done. Consider his decision-making when he agreed to have a surge in Afghanistan. I think he took — and I’m not sure if this is exactly right — longer to decide whether to do it than it took for the Allies to land in Normandy and get into Germany. Politicians have obviously got to be focused on their domestic constituents, but they also need an instinct to lead and to decide.

The common line in Britain is, “Oh, we stood up in 1939/1940 against the Nazis.” Well, we didn’t. Churchill did. Churchill was not quite on his own, but he was very much almost alone. He had to work really hard to persuade by sheer force of character the rest of his cabinet not to capitulate to Hitler in 1940.

OR: Do you subscribe to the theory that using military force against jihadists serves as a recruiting tool for them?

Kemp:  I don’t know. I think maybe it does, but I think the alternative is capitulation on our side. I think people say, “Well, if we hadn’t sent forces into Afghanistan, we wouldn’t have lost all these soldiers and everything and we wouldn’t have had attacks.” But if we hadn’t sent to forces into Normandy, we wouldn’t have had any casualties there either. We’d have just put our hands up. I think there’s no easy and risk-free solution to it. I would rather go down fighting than go down surrendering. If fighting jihadists creates more of them, then we have to deal with that.

OR: Do war crimes tribunals and the applications of the laws of war need reform?

Kemp: I think in many ways England currently is the worst offender when it comes to abuse of the law against our soldiers. We’ve had in the last couple of years thousands of soldiers under investigation for alleged war crimes — rape, murder, torture — to an extent that is just beyond belief and is not true. Our government has been paying lawyers to bring these cases against their own soldiers, an unprecedented betrayal of their own armed forces.

So in some ways I think we’re the worst example of the abuse of those systems. I do think there should be war crimes laws. The Geneva Conventions and the laws of armed conflict have been worked out over many years and I think they are robust. I think they should stand. I don’t believe we should change them. I don’t think there’s any need to change them. They should be enforced — but our government should not allow them to be used as political tools to subvert or to undermine the armed forces, which is what’s been happening.

Part of it is appeasement. We bring to trial numerous people accused of preparing for or carrying out acts of terrorism. We want to be seen to treat our soldiers in the same way. Which is great if they felt they’re guilty, but they’re rarely guilty. If there’s a genuine case of soldiers committing crimes, they should be dealt with properly, as they often are.

It’s become a political tool. The International Criminal Court is partly the cause of the situation we’ve got in. The ICC was designed to deal with cases in countries that weren’t able or weren’t willing to deal with their own misdemeanors. Of course, in the interest of appeasement and fairness, we’ve got three countries currently accused and under investigation by the ICC:  the U.K., the U.S., and Israel.