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What is the scandal of Afghanistan?

By Dr Owen Thomas

This blog is based a talk given as part of the “Reflections for “Twenty Years of the Global War on Terror: Looking back, looking forward” event, jointly hosted by the Secrecy, Power and Ignorance research Network (SPIN) and the South West Doctoral Training Partnership on 8th September, 2021.

This month, two parliamentary select committees have announced that they will hold inquiries into aspects of the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. An ‘Afghanistan Inquiry’ has been called for many times in 2021.1 But reaction to the Taliban’s unexpectedly sudden seizure of Kabul and the West’s rapid evacuation has hastened and sharpened these calls, such that both the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee will use much of their inquiries to focus on that withdrawal. A striking feature of the British reaction to that withdrawal was the shock experienced by those who had been involved in two decades of Western operations in Afghanistan. During the BBC’s Question Time, for example, a British military veteran who served in Afghanistan told the panel: “the only way I cannot be utterly embarrassingly humiliated about my service is if we, a democratic nation, hold those responsible to account and have a full parliamentary inquiry.”

These forthcoming Afghanistan inquiries will be important. They will be important both in terms of what the committees decide to focus on as the ‘scandal’ of Afghanistan and, consequentially, what is not scrutinised. In other words, their accounts of what ‘went wrong’ tell us much about the values that are held dear in British political culture and the kinds of questions that are tolerated about Britain’s role in Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror. 

What do inquiries do? A probe and gauge of values. 

Inquiries are institutions of last resort, instigated when the state’s usual mechanisms of making sense and finding fact are perceived to have failed. The function of an inquiry is to rehabilitate the political legitimacy and credibility of the state. (Whether you think inquiries are genuine opportunities for lesson learning and speaking truth to power, or whether you think they are ‘establishment whitewash’—this function of an inquiry is the same.) To be successful in this regard, an inquiry must ‘represent failure as temporary or no failure at all.2 It must identify and allocate criticism where failings are found but do so in a way that guarantees and renews public trust in the legitimacy and authority of the state.3 

Inquiries reflect aspirations as to how the political community defines itself (against others). This is neatly illustrated by the statement of then-Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, introducing the Baha Mousa public inquiry report to parliament. 

To represent Britain, in war as well as in peace, is to represent our inherent democratic values, the rule of law and respect for life. When those values are transgressed, it is vital that we get to the bottom of what has happened, are open about the issues and their causes, ensure that what reparations we can make are made and do all that we can to prevent it from happening again.4  

Liam Fox

In this sense, inquiries are not just a ‘probe’ into how the state has behaved, they are also a ‘gauge’ of what values the state and the political community hold dear.5 In this latter sense, it was striking how the UK’s withdrawal was interpreted. For some, the so-called “Fall of Kabul” was the result of technical failures, such as overdependence on air power or the timing of the military withdrawal. 

…the question we must ask is: why, oh why, would anyone choose to remove their troops—even if they had decided to do so—during the fighting season, when the Taliban were at their greatest strength?

Liam Fox speaking in the House of Commons, Wednesday 18th August 2021 

But for others, the withdrawal was always, irrespective of its execution, a more fundamental betrayal of Western values, the people of Afghanistan and of the service personnel who were sent to fight.   

If preventing al-Qaeda camps is now the limit of our ambition, we are betraying 20 years of sacrifice by our armed forces and we are betraying the Afghan people, who cannot be left to the cruelty of the Taliban. 

Kier Starmer speaking in the same House of Commons debate 
Figure 1: In a deleted tweet, journalist Carole Cadwalladr attracted criticism for claiming that withdrawal from Afghanistan signalled the end of ‘the West’.

As both a probe and a gauge, the act of inquiry is never neutral. Seeking to hold the powerful to account through an open, transparent inquiry is not an inert process in which the facts of the matter are simply unearthed—as if the inquiry were some kind of archaeological exercise. 6 The scope of an inquiry, the invitation of particular voices to speak, or the decision to ask particular questions are all inherently political and preferential: they shape the inquiries epistemology (what knowledge of ‘facts’ it produces) and normativity (the values against which such facts are judged). 

In this respect, the most important question to ask of any inquiry is: what is the scandal? 

Inquiries produce scandals 

Inquiries investigate scandals. (Not all scandals, but the most serious ones that otherwise threaten the legitimacy of the state.) A scandal is an alleged transgression of social norms, values or moral codes normative violation that becomes publicized and a matter of concern.7 Inquiries are not established to investigate tragedies (that is, losses or harms that are regrettable, but commonly accepted as unforeseeable or unavoidable misfortunes that occur despite and exogenous to an otherwise functioning social and political order). A scandal, instead, implies malfunction or malpractice within social and political order. Scandals are constituted through decisions and therefore imply (ir)responsibility.8 Inquiries scrutinise such decisions by separating the transgressive from the otherwise proper political order. This is how inquiries perform the function of rehabilitating the state’s legitimacy. They prevent a scandal from becoming an existential, systemic crisis for a state that would otherwise find its behaviour at odds with its professed values.  

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, it can be argued that inquiries (and scandals more broadly) actively protect social and political order from scrutiny. The act of establishing an inquiry, defining its terms of reference, inquiring and publishing findings, affirms and preserves the value(s) that are found to be transgressed. Explaining a scandal in terms of lies told by the power affirms the value of not lying in public life; explaining a scandal in terms of the technical failure to follow jus ad bellum affirms the laws of war (and thus closes off an inquiry as to whether those laws may systemically produce such ‘mistakes’).9 As Jamie Johnson notes, ‘the performative force of scandal is to regenerate the very principles that are distressed by their apparent transgression.’10 Furthermore, by defining terms of reference into the terms of the scandal—the time period, the actors, the types of decisions under scrutiny—an inquiry implicitly affirms everything outside of those terms as proper and legitimate. Thus an inquiry provides 

a neat perimeter around a particular site within which transgressive events have occurred, and from which the lessons of a scandal are to be learned. Inside this perimeter… is a hyper-visible site of extraordinary political toxicity … implor[ing] us to understand that it is in relation to the events that occurred within this space that our outrage should be targeted. The logic of this manoeuvre is to assure us that beyond this perimeter, the wider moral architecture remains intact and that this architecture is moral… Scandals do not simply function to purify toxic spaces; they also assure us of the wider morality of a particular practice or social order.11

Jamie Johnson

Anything outside this perimeter is not a scandal but a controversy—a socio-political divide that is regarded as a part of legitimate political debate—rather than the consensus of outrage that defines a scandal for which ‘something must be done’.12  

What does this mean for an Afghanistan inquiry? If the inquiries follow these existing cultural responses to Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan—a technical failure or a betrayal of values—this is already a narrowed scope.  

Afghanistan was the standard against which Iraq was judged. 

Earlier in the year, two former heads of the British Army gave contradictory views on whether the government should appoint an inquiry to investigate Britain’s participation in the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. One former Chief of the General Staff (CGS), Richard Dannatt argued that the UK needed an inquiry after it had committed an error of ‘near biblical proportions’ because 

The US may have made much of its boast not to “do nation-building”, but that was exactly what Afghanistan needed. Investment in its institutions and economy, the creation of reliable security forces and a welcome inclusion into the cohort of moderate developing nations were all sacrificed on the altar of the Bush/Rumsfeld agenda of unfinished business in Iraq.13 

Richard Dannatt, ‘The West Has Squandered Its Early Success in Afghanistan’, The Telegaph, 1st July 2021.

By contrast, Nick Carter, former CGS and current Chief of the Defence Staff argued that 

You have to remember why we had a Chilcot investigation. If I remember correctly, it was because there were big questions being raised about the fairness of the Iraq war. I thinks that no one is questioning the true accuracy of the war in Afghanistan…It was very clear why the international community went to Afghanistan to do what they did and no one questioned that…14 

Nick Carter

Carter implicitly frames Iraq as scandalous and Afghanistan as legitimate. This claim hinges upon the laws of war as the normative architecture for state-military violence. Iraq was scandalous, primarily, because was a transgression of the Doctrine of the International Community. In 2016, a long-running public inquiry on the Iraq War reported that the government had failed to follow the jus ad bellum principles of the Doctrine of the International Community, due to failures in intelligence, planning, prime ministerial leadership and outside scrutiny. As such, intervention based upon the principles of the Doctrine was affirmed. Afghanistan was not scandalous, Carter suggests because those laws were followed without any significant disagreement. Implicitly, Dannatt follows the same logic: the intervention and state-building were legitimate, and these efforts were damaged by a scandal of political decision-making. The exchange tells us much about what transgressions count as scandalous: clear violations of the laws of war; deception and malpractice in government. Iraq is scandalous because the harms—dead service personnel, civilian body counts, destroyed infrastructure, internecine conflict, corrupt rebuilding, and regional instability (which might otherwise be the tragic consequences of good intentions) – are traceable to an identifiable transgression: the failure to follow the laws of war.  

An inquiry on these terms severely limits scrutiny of the GWOT: the scandal of what happened in Afghanistan is one of technical incompetence or a lack of political courage to uphold the West’s values. The invasion of Afghanistan was legitimised through deeply embedded assumptions that Western militaries, especially the British military, are a force for good in the world, and that use of force can and should be used under the laws of war—governed especially by the principles of just cause, right intention and last resort. The war in Afghanistan was held, as Carter shows, to meet these standards. Moreover, these standards were reaffirmed by the terms upon which the scandal of Iraq was resolved—a failure to interpret and apply these properly. The same standards have been used to scandalise the West’s intervention in Libya (e.g. as a failure of planning and political commitment) and for parliament to decide not to use force, and then to use force in Syria in 2013 and 2014.  

Should the terms upon which war in Afghanistan was legitimised ever be subject to mainstream scandalisation rather than rehabilitation, the last twenty years of the West’s use of military force unravels. But at present, those values are visible as a line to be transgressed, rather than a potentially transgressive practice in its own right. If it were legible as such—which would first require an inquiry to invite different voices, ask different questions and, crucially, be prepared to make judgements about ethics rather than technique—this would invite a reevaluation of the Global North’s place in the world, its relationship with the Global South and our understanding of the former’s use of violence against the latter. Questioning whether we need new principles for the use of military force in the twenty-first century would invite us to question what it means to use force defensively, in a way that protects the security of its citizens, and the rights of individuals everywhere.  

This might sound like the kinds of questions only associated with the anti-colonial politics of the Left. But it is worth noting that such questions were at the heart of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s response to the 2016 Iraq Inquiry report. That report criticised his failure to follow the Doctrine of the International Community while simultaneously reaffirming these values. In response, Blair said that the inquiry had failed to explain how political leaders should interpret such doctrine and how they should use force in the twenty-first century.    

I understand all the criticisms that the report makes of the process, but I do think – and I tried to do this … but there are real lessons of political strategy and military strategy.  I don’t see where these are in this report.  I don’t see where it tells you, what’s the right capability today to try and defeat this terrorism?  What should Britain – what sort of alliances should Britain be constructing in the world today?  How does Britain make sure that it leverages its power in the most effective way to defeat this terrorism…Where does this report tell us what we should do, as decision-makers?15 

Tony Blair
Start at 1.00.35

Blair challenged his audience to give an alternative to his decision to apply the laws of war (as the Doctrine of the International Community) as he saw them. He implies ambiguities in the Doctrine amid the discourse of imminent threats in the twenty-first century. The journalists were not generally interested in these questions. They wanted to know about the scandal: the intelligence failures, the deception. And there is something depoliticising about this reception that concerned Blair, and indeed should concern some of Blair’s fiercest critiques who would object to his call—and a call he repeated in the wake of the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan—for more intervention in the Middle East.  

The scandalisation of Iraq and now of Afghanistan threatens to close the space for political reflection and transformation. An inquiry may be a space for scrutinising and rethinking the values and practices of state and society. But through scandalisation and an unwillingness to think beyond the politics of technique, they can also be spaces for the rehabilitation of business as usual. 

References

[1] In April of this year, Tobias Ellwood MP—chair of the Commons Defense Select Committee—called for an inquiry in response to the British Government’s decision to follow the United States’ plans for military withdrawal. Referring to the Iraq Inquiry, Ellwood said, “Our nation and our military deserve answers so I request a Chilcot-style inquiry, so we can learn the lessons of what went wrong.” A few months later in July, Lord Dannatt—a former Chief of the General Staff—said that with the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, “the real audit must begin and a public inquiry modelled on Chilcot’s on Iraq must be launched.

[2] Frank Burton and Pat Carlen, Official Discourse (Routledge Revivals): On Discourse Analysis, Government Publications, Ideology and the State (London: Routledge, 2012), 48, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203067512.

[3] George P. Gilligan and John Pratt, Crime, Truth and Justice: Official Inquiry, Discourse, Knowledge (Willan, 2004).

[4] ‘Statement on the Report into the Death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003’, GOV.UK, accessed 22 July 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/2011-09-08-statement-on-the-report-into-the-death-of-mr-baha-mousa-in-iraq-in-2003.

[5] Alex Danchev, ‘The Reckoning: Official Inquiries and the Iraq War’, Intelligence and National Security 19, no. 3 (1 September 2004): 438, https://doi.org/10.1080/0268452042000316232.

[6] Lisa Stampnitzky, ‘Truth and Consequences? Reconceptualizing the Politics of Exposure’, Security Dialogue 51, no. 6 (1 December 2020): 600, https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010620904576.

[7] Thomas Crosbie and Jensen Sass, ‘Governance by Scandal? Eradicating Sexual Assault in the US Military’, Politics 37, no. 2 (1 May 2017): 118, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263395716661342.

[8] Many of the ideas about scandal in this post originate in a working paper by Jamie Johnson, Victoria Basham, and Owen Thomas on ‘The Case of Scandalogy in International Relations’.

[9] Neta Crawford, Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199981724.001.0001.

[10] Jamie Johnson, ‘Beyond a Politics of Recrimination: Scandal, Ethics and the Rehabilitation of Violence’, European Journal of International Relations 23, no. 17 (2017): 709.

[11] Johnson, 712.

[12] Crosbie and Sass, ‘Governance by Scandal?’, 119.

[13] Richard Dannatt, ‘The West Has Squandered Its Early Success in Afghanistan’, The Telegaph, 1 July 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/07/01/west-has-squandered-early-success-afghanistan/.

[14] Nick Carter, ‘No Need for Chilcot-Style Investigation into Afghanistan Campaign, Says Chief of Armed Forces’, The Telegraph, 17 July 2021, sec. USA News, https://goodwordnews.com/no-need-for-chilcot-style-investigation-into-afghanistan-campaign-says-chief-of-armed-forces/, https://news.yahoo.com/no-chilcot-style-inquiry-afghanistan-185755047.html.

[15] Tony Blair, ‘Transcript: Press Conference on The Report of the Iraq Inquiry’, Institute for Global Change, accessed 21 July 2021, https://institute.global/tony-blair/transcript-press-conference-report-iraq-inquiry.

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