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The former MI6 chief Sir Alex Younger has described the withdrawal from Afghanistan as unnecessarily self-harming and the thinking behind it “at best naïve and at worst wildly reckless”. He said he couldn’t get his head around some of the decisions. Sir Alex said that turning our back on Afghanistan will increase the threat level to the UK and that “however humiliated” we are, the UK must not make that mistake again. He also said that Afghanistan has shown the limits of nation-building.
He was speaking to Tom Newton Dunn and Paul Waugh on T&G on Times Radio. There are episodes of successful nation-building that I think we’ve proven beyond doubt that in practical terms, when there isn’t a real pre-political consensus about modernising a political system, you can’t impose that consensus, externally, and nation-building is either impractical or certainly beyond our, our resolve, and that therefore our counterterrorism aims need to be more tailored and I suppose less ambitious. But equally, in tension with that, we’ve got to remember that fundamentally terrorism is a political phenomenon, We on the security intelligence side can… suppress threats, but we can’t eliminate them. That is a political job and we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it remains a political problem. And above all, we’ve got to hold on to the fact that it is a battle of values, and that our values are the thing that makes our country strong. And we need to have confidence in them, not relinquish them, understand that that is the main reason why people come to the UK to live and make sure that we understand the positive things or values and the partnerships we can generate as being key to our ability to deal with this problem. “Turning our back on a place like Afghanistan leads to inexorably to an increase in the threat to our country…however hard it is, however, humiliated we might feel, we mustn’t make that mistake again.” “I don’t actually question the broader strategy. The execution was unnecessarily self-harming. The idea that an abrupt departure is the same thing as a clean break seems to me, at best naïve and at worst wildly reckless and I frankly can’t get my head around it. I think President Trump’s administration also does have a degree of responsibility where unaccountably they began their negotiations with the Taliban two years ago with the relinquishment of our most important bargaining chip which was our presence in Afghanistan by setting a time for our departure…It is difficult to account for some of the decisions that have been taken.” “We need to be highly conditional in our approach to Afghanistan, but we also need to get over ourselves and be highly practical, we were humiliated there, but can we have front and foremost the Afghan people, as our principal considerations and can our decisions be guided, essentially by their welfare? We need a nuanced and engaged approach that allow us to prioritise the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people, whilst absolutely keeping the Taliban government’s feet to the fire. When it comes to living up to the undertakings that they have made.” Tom Newton Dunn asked if there had been a failure of intelligence in the lead up to the Taliban takeover: “Both sides of this argument should proceed with humility…It’s very clear that there are lessons to learn, and that we have a duty to do so. Equally, I find that the time intelligence failure is pretty easy one to employ, normally with hindsight, and generally belies, some of the complexities. It seems unlikely to me that there was a there was a failure to collect raw intelligence. This was a surprise to absolutely everybody so I’m not sure there was a secret out there which eluded us. And when it comes to the assessment ie putting together all of the bits mostly open source to reach a conclusion that now it seems obvious with hindsight, I think it’s complex.….It would have been incredibly hard to assign probabilities to any of the particular scenarios.”