Afghanistan: As Nato reflects on its greatest defeat, the world's liberal democracies must renew their bonds – Alyn Smith MP and Stewart McDonald MP

The world has watched in horror over the past week Afghans have desperately sought an escape from Taliban rule by any means possible, with some tragically and unforgivably losing their lives in the process.

Royal Marines take cover while blasting a whole in a wall during an anti-Taliban operation near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand in 2007 (Picture: John Moore/Getty Images)
Royal Marines take cover while blasting a whole in a wall during an anti-Taliban operation near Kajaki in the Afghan province of Helmand in 2007 (Picture: John Moore/Getty Images)

The footage from Kabul airport should force politicians of all parties to reflect on the chaos that 20 years of intervention has left in its wake, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and countless families – in the UK and in Afghanistan – forever changed by two decades of war.

Afghan interpreters and embassy security guards now hide in fear of their lives, begging for assistance from a government thousands of miles away. Amidst the dust and disorder, one thing is clear: the UK government spent £30 billion building a house of cards which collapsed the second the Americans withdrew.

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The coalition tolerated and facilitated corruption on a national scale; the image of President Ashraf Ghani being helicoptered away from his desperate citizens with suitcases allegedly stuffed with $169m in cash should haunt all those who enabled, for all his denials.

In a country with endemic corruption and rising food poverty, the colour of the flag over the presidential palace doesn’t matter half as much to many as putting food on the table.

Resilient societies can resist organisations like the Taliban. Yet, despite spending more money in Afghanistan than on the Marshall Plan which rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, it is clear the coalition failed to build strong institutions and a society which can withstand extremism.

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Building resilient states

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is seen during a foreign ministers video meeting held on Friday to discuss the Afghanistan crisis (Picture: Francisco Seco/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Historically, UK foreign policy has been mediated through three prisms: defence, diplomacy and development. The tools of defence and diplomacy are many and varied, honed over centuries of interaction with the world. When it comes to development, however, UK spending has long been laser-focused on the single objective of poverty alleviation.

The world’s most vulnerable must always be the primary benefactors of development spending, which should never be spent with short-term domestic goals in mind. However, after Afghanistan, we must begin to grapple with the urgent and clear need to prioritise building resilience at the state level as well as at the individual level.

Furthermore, these three tools must be deployed in tandem. Since 2001, the UK government has spent around £27.7 billion on military operations in Afghanistan yet, over the same period, they spent approximately £3.8 billion in aid. Seeing these figures, you might be led to ask: what did they expect?

If the international community learns one lesson from Afghanistan, it must be the importance of national resilience. This is not just a political imperative: the climate crisis will accelerate resource scarcity and make future crises more frequent and more severe. The resultant instability is where groups like the Taliban thrive. In Europe too, far-right figures will gladly pounce on the climate crisis to sow division and hatred and undermine the pillars of tolerance and freedom which our society is built on.

Vast refugee crisis looms

But that is for the future. Right now, there are thousands of people in fear of their lives because they worked with us and believed us when we said we would protect them.

We need to get as many people out as possible.

The UK aims to take in 20,000 refugees within the next five years. Canada has said it will take in at least 20,000. The US, 30,000. There are 39 million people in Afghanistan.

People do not flee their homes unless they have no choice and, unless the Global North comes together to create safe and legal routes for refugees to seek the same safety we enjoy, the events that follow will make the 2015 refugee crisis look like a practice run.

For years, the UK government – particularly the Home Secretary – has vilified and demonised refugees. The same ministers wringing their hands now are those who would make it a criminal offence to help the 20,001st Afghan refugee fleeing the Taliban. This should be a wake-up call for them and I would hope that Tory ministers will withdraw this Bill immediately.

All of us, however, are entering a period of soul searching. The world changed this week.

The usually exuberant Global Britain cheerleaders in the Commons were pretty quiet. They’re in fine voice when talking about flags or yachts but rather less so when confronted with the grubby reality that the UK cannot maintain an independent policy absent US involvement.

Bastions of liberalism and democracy

As SNP politicians, we are committed internationalists and view Scotland’s best future as an independent state and enthusiastic partner for the EU and Nato, realistic about our role and responsibilities in the world.

Multilateral fora such as the EU and Nato still stand among the greatest vehicles for liberalism, tolerance and democracy that exist in this world. But Nato, in light of its greatest defeat, must reflect and learn from what went wrong.

Indeed, despite the best efforts of those who would overturn these values – such as a Chinese government which is already pushing the narrative that the West is weak and divided or a Russian one which met with the Taliban shortly after the fall of Kabul – it is imperative that multilateralism is not consigned to the history books.

It is time to strengthen, renew and reform the alliance of liberal democracies if these values are to endure. Afghanistan is a turning point for the world – that much is clear. Let us ensure that it is the low tide mark of 21st-century liberal internationalism, and not a point of no return.

Alyn Smith, MP for Stirling, is SNP foreign affairs spokesperson; Stewart McDonald, MP for Glasgow South, is SNP defence spokesperson.

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