Why are the Oxford Newspapers So Dull? – 11/06/2022

A shorter version of this piece has been published on ‘The Oasis’, a new online magazine for the writing of Lady Margaret Hall College students. The editors possess an admirable tolerance for intellectual diversity. You can check it out here: https://www.theoasislmh.com/blog/why-are-the-oxford-newspapers-so-dull

Every week a reassuring grey envelope, postmarked Paris, appears in my college pigeonhole. It’s my issue of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, and each time it arrives I open its garish cartoon-bespattered pages to check if this edition is as obscene, cutting, and deliciously cruel as the last one. I am never disappointed.

No one is safe from Charlie’s poison pen. The writers and cartoonists take pride in insulting everybody. The paper is read because it gleefully leaps taboos and excitedly limbos under low bars of taste. It makes an anarchic weekly stand against non-judgementalism and non-offence, against unity of consensus and the boring, censorious peddlers of ‘you can’t say that’.

Reading Charlie gives me a feeling of unfettered intellectual freedom, of uncredulous, cynical sanity. A publication does not have to be deliberately obscene to achieve this. I get the same feeling when I read The Spectator, and occasionally I glimpse it in the pages of The Times, The New Statesman, and even The Guardian.

What depresses me is that this type of writing is now largely absent from the Oxford student press. Picking up a copy of Cherwell, The Oxford Student, or opening The Oxford Blue website precedes a tidal wave of banality, a suffocating fug of lunkheaded prose and repetitive, ‘safe’ articles. It rarely feels exciting.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. As local publications, they are obliged to cover some of the necessarily mundane goings-on of Oxford. Cherwell does occasionally break an interesting story. The Oxford Student less so. The Blue almost never. What is beyond dispute is that all three publications are filled with such headlines as ‘BRITISH CULTURE’S OBSESSION WITH ANDY MURRAY’S RETIREMENT’ (Cherwell), ‘CADBURIES DON’T CARE ABOUT VEGANS AND WE ARE ALL WORSE OFF FOR IT’ (Blue), and ‘RONALDO VS. MESSI, THE ULTIMATE FOOTBALL DEBATE’ (remarkably, this was in the ‘News’ section of The Oxford Student).

Taken individually, these are fluffy, benign articles with miniscule numbers of interested readers. Harmless. But they are swiftly dull in large quantities, and ultimately unsatisfying. They do not fulfil what I believe the role of the newspaper should be: To question, inform, provoke, debate and entertain. Performing that role requires the lively discussion of contested, controversial topics (never forget that a topic is usually controversial because it matters). This is not happening. According to our newspapers, the great debate of the age is RONALDO VS. MESSI.

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I have scribbled for all three of the publications highlighted here, and I am grateful to them for airing my words. But that experience has also allowed me to glimpse the creeping, and so far, inexorable advance of a new journalistic doctrine: What I would call Total-noncontroversialism. The new religion is most evident in opinion and current affairs writing, though it also registers elsewhere. It places an enormous premium upon not being judgmental, on being entirely apolitical, or in only presenting the side of the debate that most Oxford students are expected to align with.

Consequently, student outlets either publish nothing on the topical debates of the day (and by topical, I mean the top five stories on the evening news or in the national papers), or they produce pieces which the writer assumes will reflect the opinion of most Oxfordians. For example, since term started, I have seen only one article about ‘Partygate’ (Cherwell), and it was almost comical in its ‘Boris-is-a-bastard-who-represents-everything-wrong-with-this-country’ militancy. I have seen nothing about the cost of living. There has been no writing on the pros and cons of NATO and Europe’s response to Putin.

It took almost two weeks for anything to appear on abortion rights after the leaking of Alito’s verdict. Finally, an editorial did appear in Cherwell. Again, it was an article that could have been written whilst asleep. The author – an American – stated how ashamed they were of their homeland, of how ‘deeply broken’ their country is (I dislike the smug superiority this kind of commentary encourages in Brits). The author characterised anti-abortionists as ‘religious fundamentalists’, and assumed that they are not really concerned with the life of the foetus (in fact, they are), but instead their motives are ‘patently about control’ of women’s bodies.

A more brutally simplistic piece could not have been written. And I did not expect anything less. This is the only opinion that could have been published in Cherwell, so that was what we got. This is what I mean by predictability: being able to write the rest of the article in your head after you’ve read the headline.

This is the current state of the Oxford student press. Most debate is excluded entirely, and what opinion is published represents only one side of the argument.

The non-controversialism which has brought this about is fed by lack of ideological diversity, and by fear of offence. To write something which is seen to upset anyone is to have strayed onto dangerous territory. It is a place where most student-writers fear to tread.

Incidentally, this fear of causing hurt explains why it is so difficult to find a bad review of a book, album, film, or student-play amongst the culture pages of our university newspapers. Just give it a go. Scan the websites of the papers I’ve mentioned here and see if you can find a stinking review. You’ll struggle. Instead, non-judgementalism prevails. To assert a hierarchy of preference, to be at all critical, has been equated with a kind of snobbish cultural discrimination. But we all understand – in our hearts – that some books and films are better than others, and that it is not always true that student drama produces ‘masterful emotional execution’ or ‘performances of which every cast member should be proud’ (The Oxford Blue).

That rare film or book which is panned is usually found to have landed on the ‘wrong side’ of the culture wars. For instance, The Oxford Student published a remarkably bitter review of the latest ‘Fantastic Beasts’ film a couple of weeks ago. It was so vicious in its nastiness (‘I think Fantastic Beasts 3 would have been better realised in podcast form, with just one continuous sound of a long, constipated groan’), that I could not help wondering if the author felt obliged to slam a movie inspired by the corpus of J.K. Rowling.

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My main concern, however, is not the culture pages, but those that used to be devoted to political opinion and current affairs commentary. Today, this section is dominated by ‘identity’ pieces. The kind of writing in which the author reflects on how their sex, gender, race, nationality, disability, class, northerness, Welshness etc. has impacted their time at Oxford. Identity is frequently employed as basis for student writing because it is distinctly uncontroversial. What you are is not up for debate.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with articles like this, and they are not without interest, but they have become wearying in their ubiquity. The columns and opinion pages of every student paper features them heavily (normally alongside at least one article on climate anxiety). At their worst, the preponderance of these pieces can start to feel self-indulgent.

It is also unnecessary. Oxford is populated by unusually intelligent people receiving world class tuition. In order to make an article interesting, or legitimate, it should not be necessary to centre it on the author’s identity and ‘lived experience’. The dominance of ‘what you are’, can sometimes obscure ‘what you think’: the argument, intelligence and eloquence of the author’s mind. If we truly crave diversity, then we should look inward, recognise the infinite originality of every intellect, and then allow that intellectual variety to shine in the student press. But the ‘noncontroversial’ doctrine stops this happening.

Because a broadly left-wing ‘social-justice’ oriented worldview is regarded by the student press as the ‘noncontroversial’ political stance, a great many opinions never make it into print. To most people working at the papers, the great debates of our time are hardly debates at all, but settled issues, within a narrow band of acceptable thought.

If the first consequence of this malaise is the production of a repetitive, predictable articles, then the second is how ideological single-mindedness blinds the Oxford student press to events which do not match the prevailing narrative. It causes entire cohorts of wannabe journalists to completely ignore massive, consequential stories.

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The most significant of these forgotten scandals was the overthrow of Rashmi Samant as president-elect of the Oxford Student Union in February 2021. Early in that month, Samant received an overwhelming mandate in the presidential election. She secured more than half of the total votes in a landslide victory, and in a year of record turnout. This made her the first woman of Indian heritage to be elected to the post. Her manifesto was filled with promises of ‘decolonisation’, ‘decarbonisation’ and ‘better mental health’.

Days later Samant had resigned. After her election, old social media posts of hers were unearthed, and it was claimed that they provided proof of latent transphobic and anti-semitic bigotry. That the claim of ‘bigot’ was completely at odds with the sentiments expressed by Samant in her campaign was apparently immaterial. Various Oxford student campaign groups (in particular the Oxford Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, CRAE) became predictably outraged. Under mounting pressure, and having failed to satiate her opponents with a grovelling apology, Samant resigned from the post of president-elect within days.

In May 2021, a new election was held, and Anvee Bhutani won the by-election for the presidency, though with a mandate a fraction as strong as her deposed predecessor. The numbers speak for themselves. Samant won her election in a single round, with a massive overall majority, and a total of 1,966 votes. Bhutani won in the 11th run off round, with 655 votes.

The version of this story that every single Oxford outlet ran with was that Samant had been revealed as a closet extremist, that her resignation post-election was necessary, and the subsequent voting-in of an alternative candidate was justified.

The alternative story? That Samant is not a bigot. That it is absurd to believe that someone whose manifesto was so filled with the language of ‘tolerance’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ was set on being discriminatory once in office. I think this second story is much closer to the truth, but no one dared suggest it.

The Oxford student press failed to perform anything approaching proper journalism. It did not inquire as to the credibility of the claims made against Samant. It simply parroted the views of those screaming loudest for her head. Being sceptical would have meant entertaining the possibility that the Race Equality campaign group was not accurate in its assessment of Samant’s character. The prevailing political consensus at Oxford does encourage this kind of thinking. The same ‘noncontroversialism’ which produces stale, predictable articles, also inhibits the kind of inquisitiveness required to do good journalism.

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Oxford’s newspapers have been allowed to develop such enormous blind spots because an inquisitive journalistic atmosphere has been stifled by a single mode of thinking. Raising the importance of viewpoint diversity or even simply, ‘freedom of speech’, is to risk clenched teeth, nervous looks, and hasty, mumbled excuses.

I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that many Oxford writers are afraid of the kind of anger that a single misplaced phrase could earn them. Some perfectly moderate views – widely held amongst the British population – are not considered acceptable within the Oxford bubble. That is wrong, and indicative of ideological intolerance unbecoming of an academic institution like Oxford; a place which lives and dies on the free exchange of ideas.

An injection of intellectual freedom is badly needed, not only to improve the quality of debate in the Oxford press, but to safeguard the survival of the press itself. The depressing reality is that the most avid readers of these publications are the same people who write and edit them. Every week, piles of uncollected Cherwell and Oxford Student copies lie unread at plodges. This is because most students already know exactly what will be said about a given issue, if anything will be said at all. They do not feel that time spent in the company of these publications will be surprising or provoking.

How should the Oxford newspapers stop being dull? They should shun repetitive predictability. The proportion of pages given to fluffy pieces should be matched by the space afforded to strong opinions of different stripes. The emphasis should shift from identity – what you are – to what you think. Editors should consider the value of challenging their readers, rather than massaging their biases. The only risk is that we might create an Oxford which is more intellectually diverse, inquisitive, and fearless.

Film Review – Happening (2021) – 10/06/2022

Dir. Audrey Diwan, producers. Rectangle Productions, France 3 Cinéma, SRAB Films, distributor. Wild Bunch. Link to trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeQLR3J4K6c

In its original French title, this film is called L’événement. ‘The Event’ in question is the pregnancy and subsequent abortion of Anne, a talented student and aspiring writer in 1963 France. It is a piece of cinema at once powerful and excruciating. And though it may be a cliché of the adoring film critic, it is also timely and necessary.

The film is an adaptation of a short, harrowing memoir by French author Annie Ernaux (b. 1940). It is an account of the desperate and dangerous underground abortion Ernaux underwent in her early twenties, when the procedure remained illegal in France. Anamaria Vartolomei gives a performance of astonishing, nuanced complexity as Anne (a fictionalised Ernaux). A top student, her parents, teachers and peers expect her to excel in upcoming university entrance examinations. But when she becomes pregnant, she finds that few friends remain loyal, and she must fight a covert, solo battle for her future.

Director Audrey Diwan makes effective use of long takes over her lead’s shoulder. We follow Anne as she dances and flirts, and the camera sways, as if we are another warm body in the crowd. Anne’s high school, and the French countryside to which she returns when visiting her proud parents, is striking in its rich, textured vividness.

But what Diwan’s camera loves most is Vartolomei’s face. As the narrative progresses, from the discovery of pregnancy to Anne’s increasingly frantic attempts to find help, to the agonising conclusion, one cannot help but be transfixed by Vartolomei’s expressions. We see it all. Her anguish, ambition, humiliation, daring and pain. The rest of the cast are faultless, but this is the lead’s film, and she is spectacular.

Anne is determined that pregnancy will not stop her from pursuing her literary talents. Her love of writing is reflected in the film’s title, drawn from a quote by Michel Leiris:

‘I wish for two things: that happening turn to writing. And that writing be happening.’

Annie Ernaux survived her abortion, and fulfilled her talent as an author. Many young women did not, because safe abortions were not available to them. Happening does not force a political message upon its audience. It is far too delicate and nuanced for that. Nonetheless, it makes its point.

A short version of this article is available in the latest print edition – Summer 2022 – of the Oxford Review of Books.

Annie Ernaux’s original text (2001), published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and a mere 77 pages long. If you get the chance, read it.

The Falklands and Ukraine – 12/04/2022

40 years ago this week, a British military task force was steaming southwards to recapture the Falkland Islands. On the 2nd of April, Argentina’s fascist regime had invaded the distant and barren archipelago. Though almost 8,000 miles from London, the island’s inhabitants were British, and they had no desire to live under the junta of President Leopoldo Galtieri. Margaret Thatcher’s government had resolved to defend them.

Taking place across 10 weeks in the spring of 1982, the Falklands War is a fascinating conflict. While relatively small in scale and casualties (258 British dead, 649 Argentinian), it was enormously consequential. It transformed Prime Minister Thatcher’s political fortunes, and led to the collapse of the brutal regime which had terrorised Argentina’s population since 1976. It also yanked the United Kingdom out of a period of economic crisis and low confidence. For many, Britain was suddenly worth being proud of again.

Victory was far from certain. The Argentine military aside, the weather conditions were vicious. The Falklands sprout from the roughest of seas. As for the landscape, imagine the Scottish Highlands, but populated with penguins instead of deer. Throw in freezing temperatures and gale force winds and you have some sense of the place. Charles Darwin visited with HMS Beagle in 1833, and described the island’s ‘desolate and wretched aspect, their peaty soil and wiry grass of one monotonous brown colour’. Dennis Thatcher was blunter. He said it was simply ‘miles and miles of bugger all’.

Many of Thatcher’s advisors and allies told her that a military response was not feasible. Years of post-war defence cuts had drained the strength of the armed forces. But the First Sea Lord Henry Leach put an end to the dithering. Whitehall legend has it that on the day of the Argentine attack, with panic flowing freely through Number 10, Leach strode into Thatcher’s briefing room and persuaded the Prime Minister that Britain should fight. “We must” he said, “because if we do not, if we muck around, if we pussyfoot…in a few months’ time we shall be living in a totally different country, whose word will count for little”. He could hardly have judged his tone better. Thatcher ordered the fleet to sail.

The war itself was nasty and ruthless, but the professionalism of Britain’s forces made the difference against Argentina’s largely conscript army. Today, the conflict is striking in its straightforwardness. A thuggish despotism launched an unprovoked assault on British sovereign territory. The United Kingdom fought to return that territory to its control. Just three civilians lost their lives. Just over two months after the Argentine invasion, the Union Flag flew over the islands once again. Neither the legality nor the morality of the British response was ever in serious doubt.

The same cannot be said of Putin’s war in Ukraine. I’m writing this on the 9th of April. Yesterday, a rocket attack on a train station in the city of Kramatorsk killed 50, including children. Ukrainian towns have been made famous by indiscriminate bloodshed. Bucha, Hostomel, Kharkiv, Irpin, Mariopol. It shows no sign of stopping. It looks as if the Russian army is planning a fresh offensive in the Donbass. This is despite Russian losses, which are estimated at 13,000 dead.

To us, Putin looks to have gone mad. He is destroying his country’s reputation. Killing thousands of Ukrainians and sending his soldiers to die. For what? A Greater Russia? A revived empire? His ego? There is little truth to the scraps of ideology in his speeches, but they translate into cold, real consequences. No one can look at the bodies and detect ‘denazification’ in the glazed eyes and twisted limbs. But they are dead. That is real.  

Yet, Putin could still get away with it. His troops might well seize swathes of eastern Ukraine. In India and China he has found unprincipled superpowers willing to establish the economic ties to replace those lost with the West. He has silenced his domestic opposition.

What stands in his way is the courage of the Ukrainian people. They recognise – and how could they not? – that their country is engaged in an existential struggle. And they know that the morality of the war lies with them. A people’s sense of justice is a powerful weapon. It unlocks fresh reserves of determination. Napoleon said that ‘In war, the moral is to the physical as three parts out of four’.

Men under 60 have been ordered to fight, but the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen said that he has met ‘no unwilling volunteers’. In his reports, Bowen has told the story of two young students. Maxim (19) and Dmytro (18) were both attending Kyiv university until they joined Ukraine’s army. Before the invasion, I imagine they would have had lives not dissimilar to yours or mine. Their courage is astonishing, and it raises the inevitable question: In the same circumstances, would I have the nerve to follow their example?

At Oxford we are taught the essential value of moral courage. Of being willing to speak for what you believe to be right. It certainly is essential. But the people of Ukraine are being forced to exercise another species of bravery: martial courage. National survival now relies on a willingness to put your life in danger. It is a kind of raw, primal fortitude that many Europeans might have assumed was archaic. A quality relegated to a time when disputes were resolved with violence.

If the Falklands War carries a lesson for Ukraine, it is that dictatorships must be confronted. The British recapture of the islands destroyed whatever faith the Argentinian people still had in their military dictatorship. A year later, the regime had been swept away by its own people.

Of course, standing up to despots carries risk, but so does acquiescing to them. Russia’s behaviour might finally have woken Europe up to this fact. More could be done to support Ukraine’s fight, and much work remains to make Europe less reliant on Russian energy. Still, a start has been made. The global effort to bring about Putin’s failure is gathering momentum. Perhaps the day shall come, when, to paraphrase Kipling,

All his lies are proved untrue,

and he must face the men he slew,

and no tale shall server him among

his angry and defrauded young.

I’ll end back in the south-Atlantic. After British troops had come ashore, the land-battle for the islands devolved into a series of intense, sometimes hand-to-hand struggles for the hills that blocked the road to the Falkland’s capital, Port Stanley.

It was during the ferocious fight for Mount Longdon on the 12th of June 1982 that three of Britain’s youngest soldiers were killed. Jason Burt and Ian Scrivens were 17 years old. Neil Grose had his eighteenth birthday during the battle. All three were Privates in the Parachute Regiment.

At an age when those reading this article were yet to leave home for university, those lads were sailing to the far side of the world, to take part in a war from which they would not return. I am sure they approached the Falklands with the combination of excitement, bravado and apprehension familiar to all young soldiers. I am sure Maxim and Dmytro know the feeling.

The courage and sacrifice of people like this protects us all. Now you know the names of Burt, Scrivens and Grose. Perhaps when the 12th of June comes around, you will spare a moment to remember them.

Brilliant Race, Corrupted Sport – 30/12/2021

An article originally written for The Oxford Blue earlier in December…

I don’t watch much Formula One. Too fake and flashy for the refined tastes of this writer. Fortunately, the distinguished editor of these columns – Squire J. Reid – is a keen F1 disciple. His unusually excited jabberings persuaded me that the final race of this year’s season might be worth a watch.

Britain’s Lewis Hamilton (36, Stevenage, now Monaco), the seven-time world champion (and two time sports personality winner) had fought his way back to points parity with the as-yet uncrowned youngster, Max Verstappen (24, Bree, now Monaco).

Like all great rivalries, the relationship between Hamilton and Verstappen is built on a firm foundation of mutual loathing. They hate each other. Their bitter, crash-strewn tarmac duels have made the 2021 season one of the most exciting in the sport’s history. Each arrived in Abu Dhabi with 369.5 points. So now – as if the season was scripted by Spielberg, Hanks or Tarantino – one last petrol-powered shootout would decide the winner. To deploy the first of many sporting clichés, it was winner take all.

That sounded quite exciting enough for a Sunday afternoon. So at about midday on the 12th of December, your writer yawned, stretched for his dressing gown, lurched out of bed, and padded from his sleepy cloister to the sofa, where he languidly arranged his remarkably supple, muscular limbs, and pressed the button which sparked the television into vivid, Arabian colour.

How I’ve missed landmark sporting events. They all follow the same reassuringly familiar pattern. First, at least an hour of cliché-laden punditry from a selection of grizzled talking heads. The final showdown, they’ll fight right to the line, the most exciting race I can remember, history in the making, both of them deserve the title, but only one can take it. Each phrase slips out as a pre-programmed gobbet, while every ‘expert’ limps slightly from the weight of the enormous Rolex shackled to one arm.

A few pre-race interviews next. Martin Brundle did a fantastic impression of an awkward dad at a school sports day, attempting to make conversation with an array of celebrities who all managed to tower over him. First came Usain Bolt and Chris Gayle, the latter of whom was unable to end a sentence without a Caribbean ‘yeaahhh maan’. Bolt wondered about finding Hamilton to give him a pep talk, one fast dude to another. ‘I think he’s probably trying to get in the zone,’ said a bewildered Brundle. And then Stormzy rocked up. Astonishingly, Brundle managed to quote the titles of some of the rapper’s tracks, asking him if the themes of his music could relate to the day’s racing. Stormzy almost leapt backwards in surprise.

But the best moment came when Brundle sidled up to Mercedes team-boss Toto Wolf. The ruthless Austrian did a superb Bond villain impression when asked what his race strategy was:

‘Veelll,’ he drawled, ‘vee are planning massive attack.’ What that means on the track, I have no idea.

Then the montages. Where would a sporting occasion be without the hastily cut-together collections of slow-mo clips? The screeching tires, screams of victory, scorched rubber, fluttering chequered flags, lights going green, spinning debris, clenched fists, reckless overtakes, attractive female fans, shots of superyachts in the marina, more crashes, more sparks, more screams of pain and delight, visors being lowered, gloves being donned, team directors looking pensive, another hot spectator, and all set to pounding techno music, probably interspliced with Eminem, Joan Jett, Fort Minor or Pavarotti.

I do like a good montage. Done well, they can remind us of what’s happened, and introduce a new pitch of excited, portentous gravitas. This is the place to be. Don’t move from your sofa. This is history.  

What I can’t stand is the love – apparently universal amongst broadcasters – for spoken word poetry. Sure enough, just as the cars were arranging themselves on the grid, we cut to the venerable Benjamin Zephaniah, delivering a piece which seemed to be constructed entirely from clichés (the greatest of all time, young pretender, clash of titans, one for the ages, write your name in history).

Zepheniah can be a powerfully original wordsmith. But not when he’s asked to tee-up a Formula One race. That’s just degrading. You wouldn’t ask Carol Anne Duffy to set the scene for the WWE. 

Still, it was worth sitting through it for the racing. It was spectacular.

Verstappen started on pole, with Hamilton in second. That didn’t last long. At the first corner, Hamilton fired himself into the lead. And then, within a handful of turns, the Red Bull and Mercedes drivers went wheel to wheel, inches from colliding. 

Verstappen had attempted an overtake, slicing through the inside line. It was well executed. Within the rules. But he forced Hamilton wide. So wide in fact, that the British driver cut off an entire corner of the track, and so rejoined the tarmac with his lead increased.

Surely he’ll have to give the place back, said the squawking pundits. Surely the stewards will investigate. The verdict came back: No investigation necessary. Hamilton stays in front.

And then the kid from the ‘slums of Stevenage’ put down the hammer, stretching out a substantial lead on his only rival for the world championship. Verstappen was given hope by the heroics of his team-mate Sergio Perez, who took first position after Hamilton pitted, and then held off the Mercedes driver long enough to allow Verstappen to close the gap. Hamilton whinged about ‘dangerous driving’ from Perez. That was nonsense. It was breathless racing, fantastic to watch. I was hooked.

Nonetheless, as soon as he’d managed to force his way back into the overall lead, Hamilton began to grow his advantage on Verstappen again. It moved out to above ten seconds. With about eight laps left in the grand prix, Sky interviewed the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner. They asked him what it would take for Verstappen to win. His reply was not confident:

‘We need a miracle from the racing gods.’

Horner asked, and he received.

With only five laps left in the 58-lap race, Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi crashed into the wall at the narrow, treacherous 14th turn, his rear end slewing around to rip into the barrier. With countless smashed components littering the tarmac, the safety car was deployed. This neutralised the race, but didn’t stop the laps from counting down. It was possible, likely even, that the grand prix would end while under the safety car. If so, Hamilton – as race leader – would become world champion.

Latifi’s wrecked car was cleared from the track, but by then only three laps remained. Verstappen’s path to overtaking Hamilton, his path to the world championship, was blocked by five lapped cars. Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel all found themselves caught between the two men fighting for overall victory. For Verstappen to have any chance of beating Hamilton, these drivers would have to get out of his way.

In the penultimate lap, that was exactly what happened. After some regulatory dithering, the race director, Michael Masi, ordered those five lapped cars to overtake and skedaddle. That they did, and now Hamilton, having enjoyed a double-digit time advantage over his rival, found Verstappen right up his chuff. And there was only one lap left. The whole championship, millions of pounds worth of prize money, glory, prestige, fame and fortune, all boiled down to 3.2 miles. Bloody exciting.

But controversy was bubbling. Convention stipulates that if some lapped cars are permitted to overtake – and so restore the real race order – then every lapped car must overtake. This would have taken too long, leading the GP to finish under the safety car, with Hamilton crowned champion. Toto Wolff wasted no time reminding Masi of the rulebook, the Mercedes team principal was spitting with rage:

‘No Michael, no no no! This is so wrong!’

Masi’s defence of his rule-bending was curt but truthful:

‘We wanted a race.’

If he had enforced the letter of the law, then the championship – this most exciting of seasons – would have been decided amidst neutered regulatory banality. Instead, Masi tried to make sure the 2021 season got the ending it deserved. Sounds fair enough to me. 

Hamilton stayed ahead until turn five, but there Verstappen made his move, lunging for the inside line, seizing first place. Hamilton wasn’t beaten yet. Down the long, back straight, he found the Dutchman’s slipstream, and then tried the overtake. At 200 km/h, he inched along the body of the Red Bull. He was alongside Verstappen’s rear wing, then his rear wheels, his cockpit. For the briefest of moments, they were completely level, both cars screaming on the limit, both throwing sparks from their rear. It was the best of motor-racing. The best of sport. It was magnificent.

But then Verstappen’s better line took him to the lead, to the chequered flag, to the world championship at only 24. When Hamilton won his first world title in 2008, Verstappen was 11 (the age-comparison cliché, now I feel like a proper sportswriter). To his credit, Lewis was exceptionally dignified in the aftermath of his defeat. On Wednesday he was made a knight of the realm by Prince Charles. That won’t be a consolation, but it’s well deserved.

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So the racing was fantastic. Yet I couldn’t shake the unease I’d felt at another of the pre-race rituals: a sinister ceremony of virtue signalling.

After the punditry, montages and poetry, we cut away from the expectant track once again, so that we could be shown each F1 driver, filmed in sombre black and white, spouting an avalanche of right-on catchphrases. Diversity, Inclusivity, Sustainability, Change is for the better, #WeRaceAsOne. Then we were back trackside, to be shown an overhead shot of some complacent looking sheiks applauding a big black carpet daubed with the same phrases.

This grand prix was taking place in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. In fact, this season finale completed a Gulf tour. The previous two races were in Qatar (Lusail), and Saudi Arabia (Jeddah). The season opener was in Bahrain (Sakhir).

Are the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia places where all this talk of ‘diversity and inclusion’ is taken very seriously? Err…well…no.

The UAE comprises seven ‘united’ hereditary sheikdoms. Those seven rulers choose the country’s president. And no, none of them are women. Because, well… you know why. There are no democratically elected government institutions in the UAE. None.

Saudi Arabia has a monarchical ruler with a nasty penchant for chopping dissident journalists into teeny weeny bits. It’s a country where amputation and execution are still very much in-vogue. Speaking out against the regime will earn you jail time and a taste of the lash. It is illegal to hold a Jewish or Christian religious ceremony on Saudi soil. So much for ‘diversity’.

The situation is similar in Qatar and Bahrain. These are oil-rich statelets governed by uber-powerful, uber-wealthy hereditary clans. They brook no dissent. They torture, jail and kill those who oppose them. They are thugs in fancy robes.

I almost forgot. There’s an amazing geo-sexual anomaly in these countries. There are no gay people there. No, not a single homosexual. Weird. Then again, that might have something to do with all the stoning and hanging.

To hold races in the Gulf, and then precede each race with a ceremony of pro-tolerance, pro-diversity hashtags, is the Everest of hypocrisy. It is institutional doublethink. Hosting an F1 grand prix gives a country publicity and credibility. If the Formula One franchise genuinely believed in these values, then they would not provide this succour to states which are diametrically opposed to those values.

If you think about this moral corruption too much – and the F1 organisers and their autocratic Arab chums are hoping you don’t – it starts to look more and more disgusting. Just imagine all the imprisoned pro-democracy activists rotting in jail, all the gays in line for lashes. Their plight constitutes the real state of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ in the Gulf.

But for a relatively small financial outlay, these regimes are given – by the F1 franchise – the chance to broadcast a totally false reality to the world. One where Lewis Hamilton proudly wears his sparkly rainbow helmet, and progressivism is applauded. By participating in the painting of a veneer of toleration, Formula One actually does harm to the very principles it claims to support.

That races are held in places like the UAE is only proof – not that proof was needed – that this is a sporting franchise utterly without ethics. From when Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley took over, the only guiding principles have been financial. Lucre, dough, cash, loot, bucks. This is what makes F1 tick. Not any slogan approved by Harry and Meghan.

Taking the money of the Qataris, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Saudis – and then pretending that these countries are governed by lovely tolerant chaps – epitomises capitalism at its very worst, twisted into money grabbing opportunism, helping to prop-up regimes that should be facing unrelenting criticism.

The negation of just, tolerant principles. Formula One corrupted into the autocrats’ favourite PR weapon. That’s a high price for sporting spectacle.

The racing was jolly exciting. If only it did not come at such a cost. 

The Attempt to Toxify Debate – Kathleen Stock and the Oxford Uni Fresher’s Fair – 15/11/2021

Earlier this month, Kathleen Stock quit her role as a professor of philosophy at Sussex University. Stock’s gender-critical beliefs had made her the subject of a three-year defamation and harassment campaign led by students and colleagues. That campaign has now succeeded in forcing her out of the institution she has served since 2003. 

Her crime? To assert that biological sex is immutable, that it should sometimes take precedence over gender-identity, and that simply declaring oneself to be the opposite sex does not make it so.

As those well versed in the sex-gender-identity debate will already know, this trifecta of heresies is more than sufficient to be branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) by some LGBT campaigners. Student activists at Sussex claimed that Stock ‘endangers’ trans people. When she was awarded an OBE earlier this year for services to higher education, Stock’s opponents published a letter which claimed she was helping to ‘encourage the harassment of gender non-conforming people, and otherwise reinforce the patriarchal status quo’.

But Stock believes that that trans people – like all human beings – have ‘a right to lives free of harassment and discrimination’. She has said this countless times. She is also a lesbian, so hardly gender-conforming herself. As an academic focused on feminism, her career has been dedicated to exposing power-imbalances in a male dominated society. It is safe to assume that she has done little to support the ‘patriarchal status quo’. Nonetheless, Stock faced such persistent harassment that the police advised her to teach her classes remotely, and to install CCTV outside her home. 

In mid-October, the campaign against Stock intensified when nearly one hundred balaclava-wearing members of ‘Anti-TERF Sussex’ gathered on Sussex’s open day to light flares, daub graffiti, and hand out leaflets with messages like this:

“[Stock] is one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes” who contributes to the “dire unsafety for trans people in this colonial shit-hole.”

The statement they released after Stock’s resignation was equally pithy:

“Good f*****g riddance. This is a monumental victory” 

This was accompanied by a meme showing the Wicked Witch of the West and the caption “Ding-dong the witch is dead”.

The students who wrote these messages – and the academics at Sussex who called them ‘intelligent’ –  believe that debating any issues arising from transgenderism equates to a violent threat against trans people’s very right to exist. The language of the protesters is couched in terms of ‘threat’, ‘safety’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘abuse’. But Stock is the opposite of a violent person. Unlike her opponents, she has never sought to defame and harass those she disagrees with.

She wants to ensure that predatory men cannot gain access to women’s-only spaces just by stating that they are the opposite sex. She points out that many of feminism’s achievements are built on levelling a playing field made uneven by biological realities, and that ignoring those realities could threaten that progress. These are not unreasonable positions. That Stock has been chased out of her workplace for espousing them is a disgrace.

Unfortunately, Stock’s case is far from unique. In October, a letter published in The Sunday Times – and signed by 200 academics – claimed that ‘universities are creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for staff and students’. The signatories – from institutions as disparate as Edinburgh, Cambridge, UCL, Essex, King’s College London, York and Manchester – spoke of the death threats and intimidation which routinely accompany the expression of opinions deemed unacceptable by student activists.

Selina Todd – professor of modern history at this university (St Hilda’s) – was one of the signatories. For expressing views similar to Stock’s, Todd has been subject to violent threats from Oxford students. They were judged serious enough for her to be given protection at her lectures. I remember arriving at Oxford as a fresher and immediately being emailed a petition calling for Todd to be ‘removed from student-facing roles’. To refuse to be taught by someone with whom you disagreed struck me as absurdly small-minded.

This instinct – which favours the exclusion and silencing of opponents rather than engagement – was on full display at this year’s Oxford freshers fair. A group of students from the Oxford Feminist Society attacked the stall display of Oxford Students For Life. According to a report from The Oxford Student:

‘The contents of the stall were placed in a black bin which was then dragged outside, before the protestors were loudly and aggressively stopped by security.

As with the anti-Stock protestors, the OU Feminists justified their actions with the language of ‘threat’ and ‘safety’. This is an extract from their statement on the incident:

“Oxford Feminist Society takes a firm stance against the pro-life organisation being promoted at the SU’s Fresher’s Fair. The stalls’ ideology is a threat to the safety, health and autonomy of women.

The argument made by all these student activists – anti-TERF and pro-choice alike – is that debating these issues is dangerous in and of itself. The language of ‘safety’ is designed to toxify debate and elevate the contested topic into a stratosphere beyond regular discourse. The stakes are so high, say the activists, that the normal rules of free expression should not apply. This attitude poses a serious challenge to the principle of free expression.

Defending open debate is important for so many reasons. Here’s just one: There may come a day when you find yourself an outcast, not in the comforting throng of the majority, but a holder of the reviled minority view. Defending free discourse now is a plea for similar magnanimity in future. The students who attempt to silence those they disagree with are assuming that the whip-hand will always lie with them. This is arrogant and short-sighted. If you help to create a society in which people can be judged as ideological heretics, then there are no guarantees that the enforcers of ‘acceptable thought’ will not eventually come hunting for you.

In her statement on the freshers fair incident, the president of Oxford Students For Life did say that most of the stall’s interactions with freshers had been constructive: 

‘Many students from all sides of the abortion debate have engaged positively with our stall over the Fair, and we’ve had a huge amount of compassionate and respectful conversations about these ethical issues’

This, at least, is encouraging. It should make reasonable people even more outraged that a small group thought they had the right to deny that chance for positive engagement to everyone else. Because this is exactly what the enemies of debate intend to do. It is not enough that they have their own right to speak – when it comes to the ‘wrong’ opinions – they want to make sure you don’t have the right to listen. Free expression is a two-sided coin. In its active sense, it grants the right to rebuke, espouse, argue and oppose. It is often forgotten that it also grants the listener the chance to hear, learn, empathise and understand. 

A concerted effort needs to be made to lower the temperature of these campus disputes. Students should realise that the presence of people who hold alternative views does not, in fact, put them in physical danger. The line between cognitive dissonance and actual violence – so blurred by frenzied hyperbole – needs to be reasserted. 

The threat to free expression is now an endemic problem in UK universities. Student unions – including Oxford’s – are pathetically weak in defending the right to hold diverse views. Most university administrations remain feeble in their efforts to stand up to ideological intolerance. 

In the meantime, the hounding of those who hold ‘unsafe’ opinions carries on. At Sussex University, the ‘Anti-TERF’ campaigners are celebrating the resignation of an eminent gay female philosopher. And they call it progress. 

Total Betrayal (1) – Terror of the Taliban

Amidst dusty, jostled screams, a parent hoists their child over the airport razor wire. The wide-eyed infant is lifted from the crush. Below, countless anxious arms wave passports. The arrival of thousands more terrified people compresses the foremost crowds, until some – under a blazing Afghan sun – pass out. A few are dragged away, but others are trodden on and choked by the febrile throng.

At the cordon, British and American soldiers are shouting in their own language. So far, they have held back the crowds with bare hands. But now tear gas is used. The pop of the canisters is barely heard before the white clouds spread their spluttered, salty retching.

From atop captured vehicles the victorious Taliban look on; keeping watch with bladed stares.

How desperate would you have to be to pass your child to a foreign soldier? What fear – the certainty of a dark and dread filled future – would compel you to grip the airframe of a jet as it roared skywards from the earth?

These are measures of pure terror. Each one distilled, recorded and gawped at. Names like Zaki Anwari – a 19 year old member of Afghanistan’s national football squad. Anwari was crushed to death by the retracting undercarriage of the US Air Force C-17 transport plane he was clinging to.

The desperation of those Afghans permits us a glimpse of the Taliban’s true nature. Why did Anwari hang onto the plane? Because he had heard about massacres of the Hazara minority, of interpreters, journalists and comedians butchered, of the shops selling out of burkhas, and of the Taliban’s outspoken determination to return the country to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. The presence of the American-led coalition had shielded the Afghans from this future. The shield has vanished.

Now, the executions will gather pace, the hunt for collaborators intensify, the already lethal crackdown on protestors grow harsher, and Afghanistan’s women will shrink into invisibility. The Taliban’s slick PR messaging – promising ‘inclusivity’ and women’s rights – is exactly what it looks like: canny media management for a West with a dangerously tangled moral compass. It seems to be working: Trump’s still banned from Twitter, but you can follow the Taliban’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid here.

When we look for a steer on how grim Afghanistan’s future will be, we should examine the scared faces crowding Kabul airport. They know the Taliban’s assurances are nonsense. We should believe their fear.

There are those – safely ensconced in the west – who do not. For example, Owen Jones (The Guardian), Matthew Parris (The Times) and Yannis Varoufakis have all chosen to frame the withdrawal in terms of rejected colonisation. Varoufakis has written that he was glad to see the back of ‘liberal-neocon imperialism’, and encouraged Afghanistan’s women to, ‘hang in there sisters’. All of them argued that the achievements of coalition soldiers in Afghanistan were negligible. This is not true.

The removal of the Taliban government at the end of 2001 allowed almost two million Afghan refugees to immediately return home. They came back in the knowledge that their homeland would be a more stable, less brutal place. Where the playing of music and the flying of kites would no longer earn lashes and jail time. Former soldier Tom Tugundhat MP, has spoken movingly in the House of Commons of the successful efforts he undertook to open girls’ schools:

“The joy it gave parents, seeing their little girl go to school, was extraordinary. I didn’t understand it until I took my own daughters to school about a year ago.”

The removal of the Taliban allowed primary school enrollment to increase ninefold, from less than one million to 9.2 million. Meaningful parliamentary and presidential elections have taken place. A generation of young Afghans have grown up hyper connected and tech-savvy, like you and me. They have attended institutions like the American University in Kabul (est. 2006), which provided a springboard for start-ups and a haven for intellectualism.

Being able to vote, to learn, to work. These are not small rights, and extending them to millions more Afghans – while fighting an insurgency – was no mean feat. It is appalling that so many of our leaders only appear to be grasping the magnitude of these achievements in the wake of their annihilation. A bunch of islamofascist savages will now merrily set to work dismantling that progress. Frontline Taliban commanders are happy to admit that under the new regime, adulterers will be stoned. Mind you, only the female ones.

Watching Biden’s administration address the Taliban like a foreign government they can influence has been laughable, and sickening.

Sec. of State Blinken: “Together with our international partners, we call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee the protection of women and girls and their rights.”

Press Sec. Psaki: “The Taliban also need to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community.”

This is what defeat looks like. When your bold ‘America is Back’ foreign policy is reduced to asking nicely for something you won’t get, from people who would never consider listening to what you have to say. 

Total Betrayal (2) – The Future We Chose

Our leaders chose the future playing out in Kabul. This is the worst – but crucial – element of the whole calamity. There was nothing inevitable about the withdrawal. It was not a retreat borne of overwhelming casualties, superior enemy firepower or strategy. The Afghans were abandoned not in accordance with a coherent foreign policy, but because of polling in the United States. The same rationale which possessed Trump now motivates Biden. Both believed that political kudos would be heaped on the man who brought the lengthy intervention to a close. 

Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Korea and North-Eastern Europe. These are examples of places which are now relatively peaceful and prosperous thanks to troop presences lasting multiple decades. Cyprus continues to be patrolled by UN peacekeepers, and has been since 1964. NATO has maintained battlegroups in Germany for decades, and now the alliance’s enhanced forward presence guards the Baltic from Putin. There are still 26,000 American soldiers in South Korea, just in case.And yet, Trump and Biden have repeatedly insisted that Afghanistan’s status as America’s ‘longest war’ – or even (dictionary definitions be damned) a ‘forever war’ – is reason enough to finish up and fulfil that universally popular policy of ‘bringing the troops home’. But it is no reason at all.

Source: US Department of Defence Statistics – Accurate as of June 30th 2021 – https://archive.is/BG3NU 

Conflicts cannot be won on a timetable. Especially not an American schedule. Their firepower is awesome, but their patience is pitiful. And patience is the crucial ingredient in defeating an enemy like the Taliban. They have it in spades.

In the 2021 context, patience from Biden should not have been too much to ask. America’s Afghanistan deployment prior to the withdrawal was a small fraction of the commitment Obama maintained. Yet Biden loves to make out that he inherited a costly, bloody and ineffective American war. This is from his April remarks on Afghanistan:

Section 60 [of Arlington National Cemetery] is where our recent war dead are buried, including many of the women and men who died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s no — there’s no comforting distance in history in Section 60. The grief is raw. It’s a visceral reminder of the living cost of war. 

(…) We already have service members doing their duty in Afghanistan today whose parents served in the same war. We have service members who were not yet born when our nation was attacked on 9/11.”

This is clever politicking. Biden implies he is the commander of an endless and costly mission, whose scope has changed little in 20 years. Framing like this helps to justify the withdrawal. But he is being profoundly misleading.

It’s true that between 2008 and 2013 – encompassing the period during which Obama launched ‘the surge’ – the war was costing the US almost $100 billion a year. It’s also true that during those years, US monthly combat fatalities would often climb into dozens. At the height of US involvement, 110,000 American servicemen were deployed.

However, Biden inherited a completely different mission. By the time he was sworn in, American troops were barely fighting a war at all.

Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf
Source: http://icasualties.org/

In 2014, the US mission changed from frontline warfighting (Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’), to a training, advisory, and air support role in support of the Afghan National Army (Operation ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’). This reduced mission was a fraction of the cost for the Americans and the coalition, in both money and lives. Here are the numbers.

2,461 American service personnel have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Just 109 of those deaths have been suffered since January 2015 (13 of which were sustained in the chaotic and bloodsoaked Kabul evacuation – for which Biden is also heavily responsible, more later). 

Minus those 13 recent deaths, the remaining 96 fatalities were all incurred before August 2020 (for the record, you have to go back to 2015 for a British fatality in Afghanistan). Those US fatalities suffered in the Kabul airport attack were the first Afghan combat deaths of Biden’s presidency. Until then, not a single American soldier had died in Afghanistan during his tenure.  

Further, the number of American soldiers deployed immediately prior to the start of the final withdrawal amounted to no more than 4,000 troops, compared to that peak commitment of 110,000. The financial cost of supporting the Afghan military remained significant, about $45 billion a year. Still, that’s less than half the annual cost of the war in 2011, when it approached $100 billion. With an annual defence budget exceeding $700 billion, the $45 billion figure equates to 6.4% of total US military spending. It is no small number, but a wise investment nonetheless. 

With that in mind, Biden’s withdrawal is baffling. The international coalition pulled out at the point where its troops were safest. At the same time, the US’s reduced role had been crucial. The provision of battle-winning air power, training and VIP protection only became more important as the Taliban regrouped. But this was no longer large-scale warfighting by the Americans. The frontline work had been taken over by the Afghans themselves.

Upon this subject, Rory Stewart, former MP, soldier and Afghanistan expert, has been pre-eminently sagacious:

It was a totally random, unnecessary act [the withdrawal]. The West had this very light, sustainable presence. The US/UK were not losing casualties (…) and really they could have stayed for the next 20, 30 years. So it’s very easy for him [Biden/Boris] to pretend that there was this enormous American and British troop presence, that we were haemorrhaging money and lives, and pretend that we were still living in 2009 (…) this is nonsense, we had almost nobody there! All we were doing was providing a bit of air support, and by doing that we were stopping the Taliban taking over the country.”

The fall of Kabul led some politicians to wonder if our leaders were let down by poor military intelligence. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with our spooks. Trump (who really kick-started withdrawal back in 2020), Biden and our own Prime Minister had been warned repeatedly by their respective intelligence services of the speed with which coalition withdrawal would precipitate the Afghan government’s collapse. Shamefully, they chose to press ahead.

Tony Blair has described Biden’s whole Afghan policy as ‘imbecilic’. That’s the perfect word. What is the point of the CIA if the commander in chief ignores their intelligence? Former regional CIA counter-terror chief Douglas London summarised it like this:

“The failure was not due to any lack of warning, but rather the hubris and political risk calculus of decision makers whose choices are too often made in their personal and political interest or with pre-committed policy choices, rather than influenced by (sometimes inconvenient) intelligence assessments and the full interests of the country.”

And what were those personal-political interests? The consistently high support given to ‘ending forever wars’ in domestic polling data. That this is the only way to explain an otherwise indefensible policy is outrageous. It is deeply cynical. It is cowardly in the extreme. It is no way to conduct foreign policy. It should go without saying: Just because a policy is popular, doesn’t make it right. The best leaders have the mettle to make difficult choices in defiance of the public will. Swinging with the polls ends in vacillation and impulsive, uncertain decision making

Biden could have committed to a limited, long-term mission, with the aim of supporting the Afghan government against the Taliban. By doing so, he would have protected the substantial humanitarian progress made in the country, and helped suppress a brutal insurgency. Instead, he decided to honour Trump’s disastrous ‘peace deal’ with the Taliban, and fulfil his own policy priorities. In  attempting to argue that the withdrawal was justified because it allowed US soldiers to return from a distant, foreign and fruitless war, Biden has chosen a path which is distinctly ‘America First’. Ultimately, this policy meant choosing to abandon America’s allies. It meant choosing defeat. 

Biden assumed that if the true military situation – of a small, effective and sustainable deployment – was obfuscated sufficiently in the language of ‘forever wars’, then his electorate wouldn’t know better than to applaud the safe return of their brave boys and girls. Thankfully, the American people are better than the dupes their president takes them for. The chaos in Kabul has caused Biden’s approval ratings to drop to their lowest levels yet. 

To make military decisions in defiance of the intelligence and in pursuit of a poll boost is a terrible betrayal of those who have taken the lead in fighting the Taliban for the last seven years: The Afghans themselves. It is they who will suffer the most, not those who walked away.

Total Betrayal (3) – With Friends Like These

At 3:00 AM local time on the 2nd of July 2021, the last US soldiers at Bagram air base turned out the lights, and left. The airfield, which once hosted 40,000 personnel, was left dark, desolate and empty.

The Afghans had been given no notice of their former ally’s departure. It was hours before General Kohistani – the new base commander – realised the Americans had gone. The effect of the unannounced exit on Kohistani’s troops was immediate. One National Army soldier told the Associated Press that “In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers”.

To abandon one of the largest military facilities in the country without informing the Afghans is not the act of a conscientious ally. Nor is it the behaviour of a friendly superpower determined to support the government it helped to build.

It is further evidence that the Biden administration’s only priority in Afghanistan was to just leave. To get out, cut ties and run, whatever the consequences. Worst of all, Bagram was only the latest sorry episode in an American betrayal which had begun months before.

Far too little has been made of the appalling so-called ‘peace deal’ signed by the Taliban and the United States in February 2020. In it, the US committed to a complete withdrawal, and – astonishingly – the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban were supposed to disentangle themselves from Al-Qaeda, and reduce their campaign of violence. They never intended to do either.

Most sickening of all, this deal – coordinated and promoted by the Trump administration – was negotiated without the elected Afghan government present. The very people the Americans had fought to put in power were not allowed to participate.

General H.R. McMaster, who served as Trump’s national security advisor before leaving over irreconcilable differences with the President, summarised the deal thus:

“We have sided with the Taliban against the Afghan government (…) we have put the Afghan government in an impossible situation (…) it’s disastrous.”

Once the deal was signed, the frequency and ferocity of Taliban violence rose to new heights. They knew that with the US committed to withdrawal, they could press home their offensive against the Afghan without fear of meaningful American retaliation.

But that didn’t mean Afghanistan’s fate was sealed. Biden could have ripped up the Trump surrender deal and reaffirmed his commitment to preventing a Taliban takeover. Instead, he chose to fecklessly trail in Donald’s wake, and honour the agreement’s only real purpose: to provide a pretext for withdrawal.

Given he won the 2020 election on a platform of ‘not being Trump’, any alignment with his predecessor is notable. The depressing truth is that abandoning Afghanistan is a rare area of bipartisan agreement. Isolationism now reigns supreme in American foreign policy thinking.

But merely abandoning the Afghans wasn’t a sufficient betrayal. In a craven attempt to deflect blame from themselves, Biden and his team have sought to insult them at the same time. On the 16th of August, Biden said the following:

“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

On the same day, Biden’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan echoed those comments:

“We could not give them the will, and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country.”

In June 2021, 703 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in battle with the Taliban. An average of 23 fatalities a day; a casualty rate many factors larger than any experienced by the US during its intervention.

So many Afghans did fight. So many died. Almost 70,000 in all. For Biden and Sullivan to claim they lacked will is shameful. It’s disgusting. Especially given that Biden belongs to that minority of American presidents who have never served in uniform.

And to talk of will when it was the United States which fled. That is surely a new Everest of cynicism.

Thousands of Afghan soldiers were desperate to help fend off the Taliban. It was the American withdrawal which robbed them of the means and morale to continue. The testimony of General Sami Sadat – an Afghan commander who led his 15,000 men in unrelenting combat in the months leading up to August – helps to explain just how crippling the US departure was. The loss of 17,000 maintenance contractors inhibited the repair of helicopters essential for resupplying isolated outposts. Sadat tells of having US jets overflying enemy positions, whose pilots were powerless to attack because their new rules of engagement prohibited it. The effect on Afghan morale was catastrophic.

It is astonishing just how long and how ferociously many Afghans did fight. In full knowledge of the odds, and of the likelihood that their families could be punished by a vengeful Taliban, many gave all for the dream that their country would be free of extremism.

The US veteran and author Elliot Ackerman put it like this:

“To accuse our Afghan allies of not fighting hard enough, then to use their alleged incompetence as a smokescreen for our own, is the height of arrogance, and dishonour. To abandon an ally is bad enough. To insult an ally from the East Room of the White House as Biden did in his speech creates a lasting moral injury (…) We should not forget who was the first to leave the battlefield: It was us. Tell the Afghan soldiers who fought until they ran out of ammunition and were then slaughtered by the Taliban in Faryab province [grim footage available] that they didn’t fight hard enough, or perhaps tell the same to the Afghan commandos who fought all summer in desperate battles in Lashkar Gah.”

There is also an international dimension to this betrayal. Given that the coalition chose to stop supporting the Afghan government, how should other allies regard the resolve of the west? Countries like Estonia, Ukraine and Taiwan must exist alongside hostile neighbours every day. Their sovereignty is dependent on the guarantee of full throated support from their fellow democracies.

Just imagine the confidence China and Russia will draw from the resurgence of American isolationism. Ackerman has highlighted how ‘a nation exhausted by war has a difficult time presenting a credible deterrent threat to adversaries’. There is a genuine risk that the betrayal of Afghanistan heralds a whole new era of American withdrawal, in which the US cannot be relied upon to fulfil its protective obligations to vulnerable allies. This was how Rory Stewart summed things up:

“Everybody’s in trouble with the US right now. Biden has basically shown that he doesn’t really care about alliances and relationships. He is signalling an isolationist policy.”

What was most alarming about the US withdrawal was Trump and Biden’s insistence that ‘forever wars’ were not worth fighting. There is a terrible complacency in this approach. For as Charles Moore has eloquently written in The Spectator:

“The defence of American interests – and of western interests more generally – is a forever war”

The world’s pro-democratic forces are under their greatest pressure since the end of the cold war. So far this year, Myanmar and Afghanistan have fallen to dictatorships. One military, the other theocratic. In both cases, international coalitions and supranational bodies like the UN have proved utterly impotent; hamstrung by bureaucracy, apathy and malign Russo-Chinese influence.

There are echoes of the League of Nations here. Last Wednesday – the first of September – was the 82nd anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. It signalled the opening of the European theatre of World War Two, a conflict which would claim over 40 million lives. That war began after a long period of American isolationism, brought on by the US army’s harrowing experience at the tail end of the First World War. It took until December 1941 and Pearl Harbour – 27 months later – for the United States to declare war on the Axis.

The world does not become more stable when the US retreats. For all its faults, the founding code of the American Republic is the antithesis of tyranny. ‘Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’; these values are dictatorship’s kryptonite. A reduced, timid US means an emboldened global array of thugs, psychopaths and tyrants.

Afghanistan was an appalling betrayal in its own right. It was also a warning of the dangers of retreat. 

Total Betrayal (4) – A Bungled Evacuation

“We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately & safely. And we will do it in full coordination with our allies & partners.”

That was how Biden described his plans for the US exit from Afghanistan in April of this year.

By the time the last American troops had departed, over 120,000 Afghans had been brought to safety. It’s certainly an impressive feat. According to the President, it was ‘an extraordinary success’.

Yet the same operation left hundreds of Afghans eligible for UK and US residency at the mercy of the Taliban. So far from being safe and orderly, at least seven Afghans were killed in the suffocating crushes which swelled around the airport gates.

The haste with which it was conducted ensured that billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment was received by a grateful, fledgling tyranny. And the failure to adequately prepare for an airlift of vulnerable civilians left the entire operation hideously exposed to terrorist attack.

That last oversight was ruthlessly exploited on the 26th of August, when a suicide bomber killed over 180, including 13 members of the American armed forces. Those were the first US fatalities in Afghanistan that Biden had overseen. They died as part of an evacuation made necessary by the withdrawal their President ordered.

The volume of American-made equipment now in Taliban hands is staggering. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but the captured arsenal is easily sufficient to make violent resistance to Afghanistan’s new rulers almost impossible. The kit list includes over 300,000 assault rifles, and 64,000 machine guns. Over 22,000 American-made Humvees – each costing $220,000 – are now available to the Taliban. As are dozens of light attack aircraft and military helicopters.

Many assumed that the militants would struggle to get any of those machines airborne. They answered those doubts by flying a UH-60 Black-Hawk helicopter over Kandahar, trailing the white Taliban flag.

The Taliban have wasted no time in putting their new American equipment to effective use. The Times journalist Anthony Lloyd has reported how resistance fighters defending the last free province of Panjshir had to watch columns of Humvees roar towards their positions, all flying the Taliban banner. He bore witness as a captured Panjshiri prisoner was dragged away, his wrists bound with American-made handcuffs:

“I caught his eye just long enough to notice he had the startled surprise of a man on the edge of drowning. I noticed too that his hands were secured behind his back with American handcuffs (…) The fact that his wrists were bonded by steel etched with the words ‘Peerless Handcuff Company, Springfield, Massachusetts’ seemed somehow more grotesque than any other detail beneath the angry blue of the late summer sky as the last pocket of defiance to Taliban rule in Afghanistan was extinguished.”

To have American kit used to crush American allies. That is grotesque indeed.

Most frightening though, was not the loss of weapons and vehicles, but of ‘biometric devices’, which contain the fingerprints, retinal scans, and biographical information of former Afghan army personnel. Gold dust for a vengeful terror group intent on hunting down ‘collaborators’. This revelation was followed by the discovery that American officials had provided the Taliban with a list of Afghans allies they wanted to extract, in the hope that the militants would expedite their passage to Kabul airport. Yes, that’s right. The US handed the Taliban the names of people who had worked with the coalition. If that sounds like an act of madness, then you’re starting to glimpse just how shambolic the evacuation was.

We Brits did not prove more competent. Staff at the British embassy in Kabul were found to have failed in their duty to destroy all documents containing the contact details of Afghans working for the UK. In the rush to leave, papers which identified some of our Afghan allies by name were left lying around, just waiting for the Taliban to find them.

Could the chaos at Kabul airport have been avoided? Keeping Bagram airfield open for longer would certainly have helped. The decision to abandon that base – given how familiar US forces were with its layout and defences – only grows more ludicrous with hindsight. If the goal was to extract as many Afghans as possible, then why not have a second airfield open?  

In the event, American and allied forces had to conduct the entire evacuation from Kabul. The vast majority of the troops involved in the operation were deployed only a couple of days before the Afghan capital’s surrender. That the minds of decision makers only turned to evacuation at the eleventh hour suggests a terrible lack of foresight. Particularly given that British and American intelligence services had identified a rapid Afghan collapse as a ‘possible scenario’. The receipt of that intelligence seemed to produce little urgency amongst our leaders. It did not stop the Foreign Secretary from jetting off to a Cretan beach. Making his holiday doubly cretinous.

Where was the planning? Why were contingency measures for a mass evacuation not being put in place? Could it have been because Biden and co. were unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of the decision to withdraw? Preparing properly for an airlift would have meant taking ownership of the defeat, rather than the kudos that comes with ‘bringing the troops home’. I hope these were not thoughts had by those in the White House, but I suspect they were.

With no time to set up a perimeter which afforded some protection to themselves, American and British troops were forced to check each terrified Afghan with their bare hands, with a jostling crowd just a few feet away. Presented with such a vulnerable target, and a final chance to kill western infidels, the terrorists – in this case ISIS-Khorasan – were never going to let the opportunity slip by. It’s difficult to grasp the explosive power necessary to kill more than 180 people at once.

One of the 13 American dead was 23 year old Marine Corps Sergeant Nicole Gee. She hailed from Sacramento, and had posted an Instagram photo just a few hours before being killed. It showed her cradling an Afghan child, with the caption: ‘I love my job’.

Biden’s response to the suicide bombing was to order drone strikes against ISIS militants. One of the missiles struck an innocent Afghan family, killing 10, including seven children. With the American presence gone from Afghanistan itself, Biden will become even more reliant on tactics like this. Drones, he says, provide an ‘over-the-horizon capability’ which keeps the terrorists distant. But if they carry a heightened risk of civilian casualties, then their increased use will hand propaganda victories to America’s enemies. Just another consequence of a thoughtless withdrawal.

The ISIS attack allowed us a preview of Afghanistan’s future: A Hobbesian state, with iron law. Hobbesian in its chaos, with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda causing mayhem, and simultaneously governed by the Taliban. A group who don’t blink at amputation for the pettiest of crimes. With followers sadistic enough to kill a teacher who dared to educate girls by disembowelling him, and then tearing his limbs off with motorbikes. No, I didn’t make that punishment up.

These are evil men. And now they run Afghanistan. They have every intention of dismantling the progress achieved in their absence. 8.2 million more children in school. A 75% hike in earnings. Maternal mortality cut by a third. Youth literacy increased by 18%. Secondary school enrolment up from 13 to 54%. An elected national parliament, where 27% of MPs were female.

None of that matters to the Taliban. All they care about is their faith, and enforcing absolute adherence to it. So they’ve told working women to stay at home. They’ve killed the musicians and comedians who’ve dared to defy them. In fact, they’ve re-imposed their total ban on music. For theirs is a death cult, which cannot accommodate joy.

They’ve assassinated many who worked with the coalition, and they’ve massacred members of the Hazara minority. They will go on doing it, as long as no one stops them. That’s the difference between us and them. They choose to take life, often in the most brutal, indiscriminate ways, and then consider it an act of faith, of worship, of piety. People like Sergent Gee choose to save it.

Already, the 13 dead servicemen have been returned home. 13 coffins have been returned to 13 sets of mourners. They will be lowered into 13 trenches, to the echo of gun salutes. And when the coffins come to rest, and the dirt is piled on top, they will leave American military families, doing their quiet best. 

Of this I am sure: At those 13 funerals, there will be crying, maybe singing. What there will not be, is deranged firing into the sky, or crazed ululations or veneration of the fallen martyrs. There will be no shrieks for vengeance, no curses hurled at the foreign infidel.

But thanks to our leaders, nor will there be any justice. There will be only defeat.

By Surrendering to the Taliban, America Has Betrayed the Afghan People – 04/06/2021

Note: Hopefully a version of this piece will be making its way on to The Oxford Blue website in the next few days. For readers of the blog, this is an early preview.

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Last month, the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in west Kabul was attacked. 85 people, most of them female students between the ages of 12 and 20, were killed when a suicide-bomber and two improvised explosive devices detonated outside the school gates.

It was planned meticulously. The bomber had approached the school in a Toyota sedan, and timed his explosion to coincide with the end of Saturday afternoon classes. Ul-Shuhuda teaches boys and girls in separate sessions, and he hoped to catch the girls as they left for home.

Sayed Ahmad Hussaini, who had arrived to pick up his two daughters, spotted a man parked in a car near the school. He seemed to be shaking from nervousness, and when Hussaini asked what he was doing, he replied: ‘None of your business’. The car exploded a few moments later. The two IEDs, set off at staggered intervals, were designed to finish the wounded and kill any first-responders brave enough to run towards the carnage.

Until the bombs went off, it had been a pleasant spring afternoon. The photos of the wreckage are filled with a soft evening light. Just outside the school lies what’s left of the bomber’s sedan. It’s a heap of blackened axle and sticky, melted upholstery. Twisted and charred, it looks more like a squashed insect than a car. The sturdy school gates, painted white, have been buckled inwards by the force of the blast. The arch over the gates has been blown clean away.

There are piles of exercise books by the side of the road. They will never be written in again. Some of them have their pages splayed open. Handwriting is visible, perhaps a few ticks from a teacher. Everything is covered in brown grime. Some of the books have ragged punctures in their covers and pages – shrapnel tears. There are also piles of clothes – a pair of pink slip-on shoes has been stained black with dried blood. In one picture, a boy in a grey Nike t-shirt and blue jeans clutches his sister’s backpack with both hands. He looks lost and afraid.

The next day, uncles, brothers and fathers gathered on the hills overlooking Kabul to bury their nieces, sisters and daughters. Not all of the dead had been accounted for. The blast was so powerful that little remained of the people closest to it. ‘Some of them could not be found’, said an Afghan official.

The men dug graves with pickaxes, scooping out the soft brown earth. In full sun, high above the city, it was difficult work. Finally, they offered prayers, and lowered bundles wrapped in colourful blankets into the ground. One uncle described his niece for journalists:

‘She was 15…she was very intelligent and didn’t miss a single day of school. Yesterday her mother told her not to go to school but she said “No, I will go today”…She told the truth, and we buried her here today.’

The attack on Ul-Shuhuda, carried out on the 8th of May, deliberately targeted the Hazara ethnic minority who inhabit the Dasht-e-Barchi district of western Kabul. The Hazara are Shia Muslims, and in the eyes of the Sunni extremists who constitute the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist networks, they are infidels. So there was a double motivation for the atrocity: not only were the girls killed for daring to aspire to an education, they were killed for being the wrong sort of Muslim.

The high school in Kabul was targeted almost exactly a year after a maternity ward run by Médecins Sans Frontières was attacked in the same neighbourhood. 24 women and babies were murdered, including three mothers in the delivery room. Their unborn children could not be saved. If anything provides an insight into the mind of the terrorist, surely it is this. Their cult of death is so complete that they will deliberately target new life.

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In the summer of 2012, a group of men gathered for a meeting in the hills of north-east Afghanistan. They were senior members of the local Taliban leadership, and their topic was the activism of a 15 year old schoolgirl.

The girl had been fronting a high-profile campaign in favour of women’s education in her hometown of Mingora, in the Swat valley of northern Pakistan. After the Taliban seized control of the valley in 2009, she had begun writing a blog for BBC Urdu, documenting life under the militants. In May, the Pakistani military launched an offensive, and succeeded in driving the Taliban across the border to Afghanistan. But an underground insurgency remained active.

By 2012, the girl was making regular press appearances, including on international networks, and her campaign for girl’s education rights was gaining momentum. She had continued her activism despite a stream of death threats from local terrorists. They dumped corpses near her family home, but she was not cowed.

So the local Taliban council had assembled to decide on a course of action. She could not be allowed to continue undermining their ideology – extremist Sunni Wahhabism cannot abide the education of women. The vote was unanimous: for the good of their movement, she would have to die.

The commander, Maulana Fazlullah, gave his orders. A two man hit-squad would intercept the girl on her way home from school. A bullet to the head would finish the job.

Of course, you know the rest. Malala Yousafzai didn’t die on the 9th of October 2012. She survived, and has become one of the world’s foremost women’s rights campaigners.

But take note of what the Pakistani Taliban said about her in the aftermath of their failed assassination: She ‘is a symbol of the infidels and obscenity’, proclaimed their spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. Obscenity. The Taliban believe that a woman who desires an education is obscene.

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Five years earlier, the Taliban had succeeded in killing another prominent Pakistani woman: Benazir Bhutto. The former Pakistani President – the first woman to hold the post – is, like Malala, an alumnus of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. On the 27th of December 2007, she was out campaigning in the city of Rawalpindi, in anticipation of the upcoming general elections.

Just after giving a speech, her SUV was sprayed with machine-gun fire before a suicide bomber detonated himself next to the vehicle. In addition to Bhutto, 22 people were killed. This successful assassination came after a failed attempt on Bhutto’s life just two months before. A suicide bomber attacked her motorcade in Karachi. 180 people had died, and over 500 were injured.

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The United States has decided that its war – and the war of its allies – is over in Afghanistan. Trump, and now Biden, have all but admitted defeat. The Doha Peace Agreement, signed at the end of February 2020, states that ‘The United States and the (…) Taliban seek positive relations with each other’. Far from being party to a balanced settlement, the Taliban know that they have achieved total victory – the US is leaving. In response to the Doha deal, the Taliban’s multimedia chief declared ‘the imminent defeat of the arrogance of the White House in the face of the white turban’.

A commitment to abandoning Afghanistan appears to be an area of rare bi-partisan agreement in the US. The Doha deal was negotiated by Trump’s administration, and Biden has simply trailed in his predecessor’s wake. His only change has been to announce that the last US troops will leave the country on September 11th; a tasteless attempt to derive some pleasing circularity from a humiliating withdrawal.

It has been clear for months that the peace agreement – upon which the US has justified its exit – is worthless. Even before Biden took office, military experts were warning that the Taliban would not abide by their commitment to reduce violence, or to cut ties with al-Qaeda. Back in November, I reported the comments of former US National Security Advisor H.R McMaster, who called the deal ‘disastrous’. The agreement was negotiated without the elected Afghan government at the table. Given that the Afghan National Army (ANA) has done the vast majority of the fighting and dying for the coalition forces in the war, this was a betrayal. McMaster said as much: ‘We have sided with the Taliban against the Afghan government’ was his assessment.

Escalating violence in the country as the US draws down its troop presence has proved McMaster right. In May, at least 247 pro-government personnel and 170 Afghan civilians were killed. When Biden announced that US troops would be leaving the country before the end of the year the response from military commanders was distinctly uneasy. They know that the ANA is not yet capable of holding back the Taliban without US support. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the UK defence staff, expressed himself as strongly as he dared by remarking that the commitment to withdraw was ‘not a decision we hoped for’. The Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib has made it clear that his country needs more time to develop its defences, particularly its air force. Even Hilary Clinton has warned of ‘huge consequences’. It is an open secret that the Afghans will not be able to successfully resist the Taliban without US support, and this underscores how negligent the withdrawal really is.

The Doha agreement contained no guarantees of protection for the Afghan people, it only specified that the Taliban will not use the territory they control to launch attacks on US service-personnel or civilians. It is a monument to selfish, short-sighted foreign policy.

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28,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in battle with Islamist extremists since 2015. Tens of thousands more have suffered terrible wounds. This year has brought a significant escalation in the violence, as the Taliban seeks to expand the 20% of Afghan territory it already controls. Each month, the ANA loses between 200 and 300 soldiers. Combat losses are incurred every day.

Since 2014, the Afghan army has taken the lead in fighting the Taliban, and the US, UK and other coalition forces have assumed a training and advisory role. As a consequence, US and British casualties have fallen dramatically. British troops ceased combat operations in 2014 and have not lost any personnel in Afghanistan since 2015. In 2020, more US troops died in training accidents in the US than in Afghanistan. For years now, it has been the Afghans who are shedding their blood in defence of their country.

Just 9,600 coalition troops remain. They perform a crucial support role for the Afghan government, and most importantly, they signal to the Taliban that the West is committed to ensuring that their brand of theocratic savagery does not take power again. The low level of coalition casualties only underlines the fact that Biden’s withdrawal is a political rather than a practical measure. The US is not leaving because the Taliban are inflicting terrible damage on its forces. It is leaving because Trump and Biden both judged it would be politically advantageous to be the President who ended ‘America’s longest war’.

And what coalition achievements will be thrown away when the US pulls out? Well, democracy for starters. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held regularly since 2004, in accordance with the Afghan constitution (another achievement of the intervention). The Taliban view democracy as un-Islamic. Should they topple the Afghan government, the Afghan people will lose any influence they have over how their country is run. In addition, the number of children in primary education has risen radically as a consequence of the intervention – from 1.2 million to 9.2 million by some estimates – and those who’ve benefited most have been girls. This has only been made possible by the defeat of the Taliban in most of the country. In achieving this, Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist safe-zone, an extremist paradise where atrocities could be planned unmolested.

Unsurprisingly, as the coalition troop drawdown has accelerated, the terrorists have regained momentum. Some analysts judge that they are now at their greatest strength since the 2001 invasion. Withdrawing completely means accepting a high risk that the achievements of the intervention come to nothing.

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It’s not just the US and Britain who have capitulated in Afghanistan, but the entire NATO alliance. The military bloc accounts for 57% of global military expenditure. It is equipped with the most advanced warfighting technology available. All backed by some of the world’s most capable intelligence agencies. And it has been defeated by tribesmen equipped with AK-47s, improvised explosive devices, and suicidal fanaticism.

But what distinguishes the NATO alliance and its terrorist adversaries cannot be measured in military spending. It comes down to patience. At present, the Taliban are simply more committed to their cause, and they are willing to fight for as long as it takes to win. They have learnt that Western states are led by politicians with short-term re-election agendas and populations with even shorter attention spans. Countries like the US and UK find it impossible to maintain focus on a single issue amongst the turmoil of domestic politics.

America should have learnt this lesson in Vietnam. In 1966, the North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong laid bare the difference between the American and Vietnamese will to fight. In an interview with New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury in Hanoi, he remarked:

“How long do you American’s want to fight, Mr Salisbury? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten years? We shall be glad to accommodate you.”

The comment is chilling in its prescience. America had ceased to fight in Vietnam by 1973, and in 1975, the South fell to the communists.

The Taliban share Van Dong’s attitude. They know that if they remain in the fight, eventually their Western foe will give up and go home. If the US and its allies wish to defeat organisations like the Taliban, then they must be able to shift their strategic thinking from short to long-term as well.

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Nation building, the task that the NATO forces in Afghanistan have been engaged in since the invasion of 2001, is far more difficult than winning an open war. But for there to be any chance of Afghanistan emerging as a stable country, then the insurgency which kills civilians and soldiers on a daily basis has to be suppressed. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has rightly pointed out that with casualty figures amongst Western nations so low, there’s no good reason to not maintain a military presence in the country. And crucially, making sure that the Afghan government are able to call upon overwhelming US air power delivers them a decisive battlefield advantage.

Biden appears to believe that Afghanistan’s status as ‘America’s longest war’ is reason enough to end it. It is no reason at all. It is an approach which refuses to pay attention to the deteriorating situation on the ground. If America fails to realise that patience is what they lack against groups like the Taliban, then it will always lose eventually. Short-termism threatens not just the Afghans, but the citizens of Europe and America as well. As General McMaster has made clear, if they are left unsuppressed, ‘threats from transnational terrorists do not remain in particular regions’. The Taliban and al-Qaeda see themselves as locked in perpetual conflict with the infidel. We should not be surprised if they seek to visit their violence on the West once again.

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What is it that the Taliban want? And what will an Afghanistan returned to their control look like? The first question has a very simple answer. They want the country to be governed by an extremist interpretation of Sharia – Islamic law. The Taliban have no sympathy for ANA personnel they kill – even though they are fellow Muslims – because they believe the Afghan army is defending a regime that is insufficiently devout.

If they topple the government in Kabul, then they will have control over the lives of 30 million people. We should expect them to re-establish the Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi An al-Munkar, or ‘Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’: the Religious Police. In the late ‘90s, this organisation gained notoriety for enforcing its dictates on women’s dress with street beatings. Although according to the Taliban decrees issued after the fall of Kabul in 1996, ideally women should not leave the home at all.

Afghanistan under the Taliban is a place where pleasure and female education are criminalised;  where kite-flying and music are banned, and where you can be slammed in jail for sporting too short a beard. And it is also a world of arbitrary execution, and of the all-pervasive fear that it creates.

For ethnic minorities like the Hazara – the community targeted in the school-bombing – Taliban control means the threat of genocide. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the community suffered pogroms and massacres at the hands of Taliban militants.

Victory for the terrorists would doom the country to more years stuck with a medieval rural economy and some of the lowest levels of development in the world. Afghanistan has a shocking infant mortality rate of 107 deaths/1,000 live births, but one can’t see the Taliban doing much to fix that.

But most of all, the fall of the Kabul government and the installation of a Taliban regime would be a victory for vicious theocracy over reason. Taliban-run Afghanistan is a world where the security forces don’t try to bring psychopathic murderers to justice, instead they recruit them to their cause. It means that tens of millions would be subject to the whims of men who believe that blowing yourself up in a crowd of schoolgirls is not an atrocity, or a war-crime, but instead an act of worship. These men do not believe that killing innocents is blasphemous, they believe it glorifies their god.

Often, when people use the word evil, it can seem naïve or hyperbolic. It has its place though. Surely men like this are worthy of the adjective.

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In summer 2005, the author Christopher Hitchens addressed a crowd in a Washington bookstore. It was just after the 7/7 bombings in London, and he was asked a question about what he made of the atrocity. He finished his answer like this:

“They will rue the day, we will out-live, and out-kill and out-fight them. They say they prefer death to life. Maybe they do. If they want to be martyrs we’re here to help. Really, here to help. But our love for London will outlive their hatred and their love for death.” (Timestamp: 44:00)

But their love for death has won.

America’s leaders have lost their nerve, amid a nauseous cocktail of apathy and defeatism. Many in the West – a majority even – no longer have any time or attention for the murder of children in Afghanistan. There are marches and protests for the tragic deaths of Palestinian children killed in Israeli airstrikes targeting terrorist rocket sites, but when scores of schoolgirls are deliberately massacred: nothing. There will be no social media posts, or petitions, no outraged television interviews or even calls of sympathy.

The political class across most of the West has decided that distant Afghanistan is simply too difficult a problem to solve. If the Taliban do take the country, it will also be a victory for selfish cynicism. The kind that sees the plight of the Afghans and assumes that stepping in would just be too much bother – too much hassle. ‘Anyway, the Taliban are too fanatical’, say some, ‘they’re just too committed’, ‘how can we hope to beat them?’

What does Biden think the most powerful military in the world should be used for? Does he not regard combatting international terrorism and protecting the lives of innocent civilians to be worthwhile? What more pressing priority would he offer?

Leaving Afghanistan means acquiescing to the Taliban, and all they represent. The Afghan people know it. The Taliban know it too. I’m sure Biden’s White House knows it as well. But they are pretending they do not.

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The BBC has done an interview with the families of one of the victims of the Kabul high school bombing earlier this month. The murdered girl was called Basgul, and she was 14 years old. In the video, her older sister – who only narrowly survived – reads some of her Basgul’s poetry. Her mother, Kubra, told the camera that Basgul – like so many children in the UK – had been bitterly disappointed at not being able to attend school during the height of the Covid pandemic. “She was so sad” her mother said, but she started “studying even harder, she was so passionate”.

The mother of a 16 year old killed in the same attack said that “You need to be brave to send them to school”, but if they do not go, “they will remain without a future”. If the Taliban gain control, Hazaras like her daughter will have no chance at any future.

The international response to the ruthless persistence of Afghanistan’s extremists has been to walk away. To leave the country and the people to whatever fate awaits them. A future of unbridled savagery, administered by men who see the deaths of children as noble blows struck against the infidel. A future of death squads, torturers and rapists for hire.

We will watch Afghanistan become that place. And the politicians will say that they did all they could. That the international community tried its best. But they will be lying. The Afghans, in all their suffering, will know the truth.