Western deterrence now looks hollow

17 August 2021

5:50 PM

17 August 2021

5:50 PM

The efforts of a 20 year war took only a few weeks to overturn: the Taliban has completed its takeover of Afghanistan. As parliamentarians return to Westminster on Wednesday to discuss the situation, the focal point of the debate should be damage control.

One of the major challenges will be restoring deterrence. The withdrawal of troops, which was done hastily and without an organised exit strategy, gave the Taliban the opportunity to make quick advances, often even without the need to use violence. The last few days also saw images of western nations rushing to evacuate remaining personnel. The way these events have unfolded depicts the US and its European allies as weak, risk averse and war-weary — it undermines the West’s deterrence.

One of the principles of deterrence is ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’. Yet now the Taliban knows that the retreating nations will avoid another war in Afghanistan at all costs. If the government is serious about exerting global influence, the idea of a new coalition of nations should be investigated; one that is able to present the Taliban with credible and realistic threats that include military options.

Deterrence will only be effective if there is clarity about what will trigger punishment. Applying responses consistently and quickly is instrumental to effective deterrence. Sanctions or limited military operations can be done, for example, in response to actions taken by the Taliban that will increase the threat of international terrorism. Human rights violations should be met with public admonition and sanctions. A show of force in the region, for example by establishing a larger co-ordinated maritime presence, is an integral part of deterrence.

There is also a need for containment. Images of the Taliban’s success will radicalise those already sympathetic to the insurgents’ Islamist cause and will likely inspire acts of terrorism in the UK (whether they succeed is another issue). Afghanistan’s ensuing instability, its re-establishment as a breeding ground for terrorists and foreign fighters, including those from the UK, and the possible return of al-Qaeda, mean greater terror threats. Recognising and evaluating these imminent threats should be a priority.

British security services have been reasonably effective at challenging the threats of domestic terrorism. Now they should be prepared to stop potential terrorists hidden among the many innocent refugees fleeing Afghanistan. That means refusing to shy away from what Jihadist terrorism is — and saying it explicitly rather than obfuscating with terms like ‘faith-claimed terrorism’, as one police organisation suggested.

Terrorists have been recruited and radicalised online. The Online Safety Bill, which is currently at the pre-legislative scrutiny committee stage, may help mitigate the effects of extremist content online. The Bill has several weaknesses that will hopefully be mended before it is voted on, such as establishing better enforcement mechanisms, placing greater emphasis on regulating smaller and highly extremist platforms and monitoring those spreading ‘legal but harmful’ material in case it metastasises into extremist content.

Finally, there is mitigation of consequences. In 20 years of war, many Afghans have provided assistance and support for our troops and contributed to the efforts to rebuild a civil society that cares about human rights. These people have faced considerable difficulties. Many of them are now at risk of retribution from the Taliban for their actions. They have had the rug pulled from under their feet by the nations involved in the war in Afghanistan. They should not be abandoned. We have a moral obligation to offer them assistance and safety.

The strategic situation in the Middle East is changing. Russia, and especially China, are increasingly exerting their power on the region. The US and its European allies have turned their efforts towards challenging China directly in the East while showing a lack of appetite for prolonged military involvement in the Middle East. The events in Afghanistan are unsurprising: history — well known to British forces — is repeating itself in a nation that has seen many foreign invaders, much bigger and stronger than itself, and defeated them all. The enormous sacrifice of our troops should not be in vain. The West must fight those who wish to spread suffering, not only with force but with the art of deterrence.

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