63. Enduring Freedom?

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

30 August 2021

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Painful lessons from Afghanistan

Time was when August was a month devoid of news. It was the time when stories of the “dog bites man” category made it to the headlines because frankly there weren’t enough “man bites dog” stories. In recent years of course this has changed, and 2021 has been quite extraordinary.

Although it is far removed from Oxford for Europe’s normal agenda, it feels almost impossible not to say a few words about the unfolding tragedy of Afghanistan, and in particular what it has to say about our place in the world

In following through on Trump’s 2020 agreement with the Taliban, Biden was doing nothing other then he had promised in his campaign, and this should come as no surprise. The cynicism of his decision does him no credit. Politically he may well have reckoned that the descent into chaos of Afghanistan would take months and register very little in US public opinion. Sadly in the second of these he may well have been right. However, what is bound to register is deaths among American soldiers and civilians. What will also register massively is what may be a developing hostage crisis, with potentially a number of US citizens trapped in Afghanistan, in addition to many Afghans with US Visas. Some people reading this will be old enough to remember clearly President Jimmy Carter, who will always be linked to the Iranian hostage crisis, something which was on a much smaller scale than what we are witnessing in evolution at the moment. Carter was the last one-term Democratic president. Biden will have to up his game if he is to avoid following in his footsteps. Biden entered the White House with perhaps more political experience than any president before, indeed in that respect – as in so many others – he is the total opposite of his immediate predecessor. Now is the time for him to prove that during all those years in politics he has actually learned something. Mistakes have been made, it is not the time to add to them.

Above all, let us hope that Biden, if he has not already done so, learns the lesson that, to quote HL Mencken, “for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong”.

Newsreader Afghan-style. Times have changed. (BBC)

It is a grave tragedy for Afghanistan that the Taliban have been allowed free rein, and this time the Americans and their allies have succeeded in arming them to the teeth, albeit unintentionally. It is a further tragedy for the world that Isis-K and Al Qaeda have now once again been given a bolthole. Although we have been told that there is no love lost between the various groups, and for example Isis regard the Taliban as Western stooges, nonetheless actions speak louder than words. One of the first acts of the new occupants of Kabul was indiscriminate prisoner release, including members of every possible terrorist group. Now we are hearing that Al-Qaeda leaders, such as Amin-ul-Haq are returning to Afghanistan. Even if the Taliban intend to keep such groups under restraint (a big if), there is no evidence that they have the organisational skills to do so.

We have less than two weeks to go before the 20th anniversary of 9-11, which of course itself fired the starting gun on the Afghan invasion (‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ – has that title stood the test of time?). No doubt there will be great sighs of relief in Western capitals once that significant anniversary has passed, if it does so without further incident on their home territories. Sadly in the current climate nothing is predictable.

Perhaps the single most compelling lesson for the UK concerns the ability to work with other countries. Biden has sadly exploded the myth that American isolationism ended with the departure of Trump. The UK was never consulted nor informed of the detail of American withdrawal plans, and was caught seriously on the back foot when things started to unravel in Afghanistan. Does this reflect its diminished standing on the world stage post Brexit? What price the “special relationship” now?. Surely if there was ever a time to work closely with our allies, particularly those across the English Channel, this is it. Surely it is not a time to be mired down in trivial arguments with them over an ill-thought-out fantasy of ‘independence’?.

And is it right that the UK government should be trumpeting its achievements in rescuing Afghan nationals, while at the same time leaving behind many of the most vulnerable who have worked for it, and while bringing forward legislation, in the form of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would have the effect of criminalising those same Afghan nationals in the event of them trying to enter the UK on their own initiative?

Obviously the Afghan crisis has sucked a lot of the air out of the room and made it difficult to give much thought to the world’s many other acute problems. To name but a few: continuing lethal conflict in Yemen and Syria; state oppression, among other places, in China and Myanmar; the pandemic, which worldwide still in its relatively early stages, and about which the UK government has gone into denial; and most important of all, the climate change crisis, with the recent 6th IPCC report, flash flooding in Europe, forest fires around the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and now Hurricane Ida.

Against such a background news items like the lack of milkshakes in McDonald’s, or the closure of Nando’s branches because they can longer source their chicken, read as truly trivial First World Problems. However let us not be fooled. Food supply problems, empty shelves on supermarkets, rising prices and unsaleable rotting fruit and vegetables in the fields, are all tangible symptoms of how Brexit is impacting on the lives of ordinary people, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future unless serious action is taken.

Much of what has evolved over the past few weeks has been put to a shortage of HGV drivers, with a current shortfall of the order of 100,000 nationwide. There is some argument as to what proportion of this is down to the end of freedom of movement, and what proportion to the pandemic, eg the inability to replace retiring staff because of problems with providing sufficient driving tests. Even if there are multiple causes, no sane government would choose to erect further unnecessary barriers to well-qualified EU drivers taking up posts. The new immigration rules make no provision for such drivers to be treated as skilled, despite the fact that they manifestly are. At any given point in time the average HGV driver holds more human lives on his/her hands than I, as a doctor, could possibly do. The Road Haulage Association, the British Retail Consortium and Logistics UK, who are in no doubt whatever as to the importance of loss of free movement in this mess, have appealed to the government to grant special visas, and has been met with the following astounding response: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system. Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”. I need hardly say, the British people never did any such thing. Free movement, either for others or themselves, was never on the ballot paper either in the referendum or in any election. The promise made in the last Conservative manifesto was ‘Only by establishing immigration controls and ending freedom of movement will we be able to attract the high-skilled workers we need to contribute to our economy, our communities and our public services. There will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down. And we will ensure that the British people are always in control’. That is certainly working well, isn’t it?

The government has given itself powers to modify the categories under which visas will be granted, under the Shortage Occupations Visa scheme, but the system is slow, cumbersome and not fit for purpose. There is currently no intention to make any changes until at least 2022. The alternative solution, to train up more UK drivers, is reminiscent of the government’s intention to deal with the increasingly obvious doctor shortage by training more doctors, or the shortage of wood by planting more trees. Do they have no understanding whatever of timescales? Add to that the proposal to shorten driver training and allow increased working hours but ‘only where necessary and must not compromise driver safety’. Is this a government trying to wriggle out of both its primary responsibility for the crisis and for any road accidents which occur as a result of its change in policy? This government acting irresponsibly? Who would have thought it?

Empty Shelves – Oxford For Europe has a lot to say about it

The current shortages are one of the manifestations of Brexit over which it is impossible for the government to pass the blame on to the pandemic or the EU. If it is the pandemic, how come there are no empty shelves in other European countries? If the EU is responsible, then I would love to know how it could possibly have acted differently, even if it wanted, to prevent EU national drivers from becoming fed up with the UK hostile environment and returning to their home countries. However, this itself is only part of a perfect storm of blows to UK manufacturers, exporters, importers, providers of services, professionals, musicians and other creatives and so on and so on. The list is almost endless and if you need further information please let me refer you to Chris Gray’s excellent blog, to the Davis Downside dossier or to the ever-growing Keleman Archive.

At a time of crisis like this it is most certainly not the time for the opposition to hold its tongue about Brexit and the harm it is doing. Quite the contrary. Would somebody please tell them?

Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Details here.

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