General Elphinstone’s Return: Biden’s Appalling Mistake

The twenty-year expedition in Afghanistan has been a litany of strategic and tactical errors starting with the failure to follow through on the success of Task Force Dagger to crush the Taliban when we most easily could have done so. The operationally brilliant first intervention by the Green Beret Special Forces “Horse Soldiers” of Alpha 595 (known to cinema-goers from the film “Twelve Strong” and now immortalised in an equestrian statue at 9/11 ground zero in New York), partnered the Northern Alliance in winter 2001, vectoring in modern Air Force fire-power from horse-back.  The Taliban were out of Kabul and on the run by November 2001 and Osama Bin Laden was on his way to the Tora Bora caves. US President George W. Bush’s decision to open up war in Iraq before the Afghan job was done was a costly deflection. In the second phase, the Afghanistan mission lacked firm focus. Crushing terrorist bases? Nation-building? Narcotics suppression? Educational programmes for girls? Which? All?

Our mission should have been kept perfectly clear and the maintenance of aim should have been constant. It should have been about our national security first and last. Security from Islamist terrorist attacks was to be maintained by dominating these hard lands to the exclusion of others, as the British had done with some success for decades after General Frederick ‘Bobs’ Roberts culminating victory over Ayub Khan in September 1880 at Kandahar in the Second Afghan War. In the nineteenth century this was called the Great Game. Geo-politics are facts on the ground.  It is the Great Game still.

This week, not in military defeat but by just walking away, the West surrendered its hard-won dominance over this strategic space — this pivotal crossroads — in the modern version of that same old Great Game.  The tactical expression of our strategic mission was to exclude the influence of our enemies, Russia, Iran and now Communist China, plus that of our “frenemies”  Qatar and Pakistan, both active supporters of the Taliban. The Pakistani ISI intelligence service was the Taliban’s great enabler — with Chinese Communist support — along the longest contiguous border. Remember that Osama Bin Laden was eventually found and killed hunkered down in the Pakistani frontier military cantonment of Abbottabad. Now, maybe in a fit of absent-mindedness, President Biden has ceded our position in the most humiliating and morally indefensible way possible.  The doctrine of R2P – “The Responsibility to Protect” – which was an honorable motif of twenty-first century Western military interventions, died in those mountains and deserts on the weekend 14-15th August 2021.

Now our enemies, who were enemies of each other, seem to be cutting deals with each other simply because they are our enemies. Shi’a Iranian Quds Force Revolutionary Guards are reported to have been assisting Sunni Taliban at that common frontier. Has Communist Chinese oblique military support channelled both ways to the Taliban, through Pakistan and through Iran, and prompt diplomatic recognition, bought their silence and even their active support against their co-religionists, denying them sanctuary (for which there is some evidence) in the on-going Uighur genocide in Xinjiang?  Neither the Taliban nor the Chinese Communists care a whit about human rights. They do not figure at all because the rights of the individual are entirely subordinate to those of their respective all-dominating ideologies.

Yet, having been silent over the fatal mid-August weekend, in his first statement the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab misjudged the moment. He talked in traditional diplomatic bureaucratese that is wholly disconnected from the changed facts on the grounds after the Fall. Sounding like one of his professional diplomats, he spoke of “contact groups”, of  G7 “pressure”, of “sanctions” when there is now zero leverage. He even mused about increasing “development aid” to the Afghan people next year, to be supplied independent of the Taliban. What has he been smoking? We read authoritative reports that the Taliban may be preparing to boost poppy production next planting season to flood the West with heroin.

Taliban Afghanistan will now join the next empire to visit it, the PRC’s Belt and Road form of neo-imperialism, which thereby deprives us and gives to the PRC access to un-mined gold reserves and the wealth of Afghanistan’s minerals, including rare earths and enormous lithium deposits. The PRC uses them as part of a developed strategy to put a strategic economic arm-lock on us through the current self-harming western obsession with the thermodynamically incompetent orphan technology of lithium-ion battery electric vehicles. Meanwhile the PRC hoovers up oil from our traditional suppliers – it is already the world’s leading oil importer – and plans to double its oil consumption and its ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicle fleets by 2040 using our primary intellectual property. Through “Net Zero” we are also giving away to the PRC western dominance of global transport systems too. Everything is interconnected in strategic terms.

Make no mistake, the educational and other benefits to the Afghans from Western presence these last two decades — and the benefits were immense but will now be erased along with the hopes and life chances of a rising young generation — were a most welcome collateral, but they were collateral. The main mission was and should have remained one of self-defence.  Once this was forgotten, muddle and a sapping of will set in.  Moral ambivalence about our values and ourselves, which our enemies do not have about themselves, expressing itself as an embarrassment about using force in our self-defence, meant that softer edges were attached.  These came to confuse and obscure the primary mission.  It also appears that there was also an almost unbelievable intelligence failure in assessing the readiness of Afghan government forces to stand and fight. How did that happen? If it was indeed so, and not simply Biden ignoring the advice that he was given, it must rank as one of the greatest such failures in US intelligence history. Biden’s withdrawal order had also swept away the “enablers” — the people who kept transport and medevac helicopters and critical air support for Afghan Government ground forces flying. No wonder they gave up.


We needed strategic patience of the sort that has kept US forces on the Korean peninsula, or British forces in Cyprus, for a lifetime of decades. Our leaders, and mainly one, lacked the vision to have that patience and to understand that the insurance premium to keep western dominance of the Afghan strategic space in the modern Great Game was modest compared to the geo-political benefits it bought us.  Conversely, the cost of suspending that insurance payment means that we shall henceforth pay a heavy price in diminished reputation and influence around the world, as well as in increased risks of future conflict – and ironically heavier costs. This defeat was not inevitable, and the assumption being peddled that it was, must be firmly rebutted.

The iconic and enduring image of foreign expeditions into Afghanistan is Lady Elizabeth Butler’s painting of Dr William Brydon, thought at the time to have been the lone British survivor of General Elphinstone’s disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842 after the Afghan Rising of November 1841 in the First Afghan War. It depicts a wounded man on an exhausted, wounded horse emerging from a dry and hostile desert landscape and is one of the most famous images of the British empire.  The original is owned by the Tate Gallery, but an excellent copy of it now hangs prominently to the left of the main doors at the British Joint Services Command & Staff College at Shrivenham where it provides an implicit object lesson for all passing officer-cadets. Yet the story it tells is partial.

Elphinstone was a monumentally incompetent general but also a tragic man.  His contemporary, General Sir William Nott described him as “The most incompetent soldier who ever became general.”  A veteran of the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Elphinstone was elderly, seriously unwell, unable to cope with stress or the demands of command in 1840, which made him indecisive and weak to the despair of his subordinates and the contempt of diarists, such as Lady Sale, who were under his shaky protection. Of him, she wrote, “General Elphinstone vacillates on every point…he is swayed by the last speaker.” He had seen his Bengal posting as a retirement billet and had pleaded not to be sent to Kabul. He was therefore as much a pawn in the Great Game as anyone. Once there, he was played for a gullible fool by the shrewd and merciless Akbar Khan, whose word he trusted, repeatedly, and as a result essentially his entire command was massacred during the retreat from Kabul in January 1842. He himself died a captive two months later. Yet his defeat was not militarily preordained as the redoubtable Lady Florentia’s husband, Major-General Sir Robert Sale showed by his successful fortification and defence of Jallalabad until relieved by General Pollack’s ‘Army of Retribution’ which invaded to avenge the Elphinstone disaster. General ‘Bobs’ Roberts was to show how to prevail in these harsh lands in a far harder-edged and successfully prosecuted campaign forty years later. However this week has furnished further iconic images reinforcing the First over the Second Afghan War narrative: that Afghanistan is always the destroyer of empires.

President Biden’s decision to cut and run has given the world the image of the Chinook helicopter evacuating US Embassy Staff from Kabul in a replay of Saigon 1975 and then, far worse, the images of desperate Afghans who had trusted us but were now  swarming over and clinging to a USAF Globemaster transporter airplane, even as it rolled on the runway, so frantic were they to escape the enveloping darkness that the return of the Taliban to Kabul has brought them. Two fell to their deaths and Zaki Anwari, a promising Youth League teenage footballer, was crushed to death by the landing gear. The era of the Twin Towers ended as it had begun with innocent bodies falling from the sky. President Biden’s decision to cut and run has mercifully avoided the scale of bloody chaos that was the retreat from Kabul in 1842, so far; but without Biden’s decision none of this would have happened; and Elphinstone’s memory would have remained in obscurity.

Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the initial responses to 9/11, was completely correct in saying that the signal of the Taliban’s return for the 20th anniversary of that attack is the worst possible: not just for Afghanistan but for the credibility and perceived reliability of the Free World.  Although the British disapproved of Biden’s order, we could not resist it and knowing that it was the wrong thing to do, we too have had to evacuate. Biden has damaged us as well, for this humiliation will make building “global Britain” after the liberation of “Brexit” that much harder.

In Afghanistan, as was the case with the crushing of Hong Kong, late in the day the British and US Governments seem to have accepted a moral responsibility to evacuate all our interpreters and their families, as our rightly furious former field commanders demand. But it now may be too late for many, as Ben Wallace, a former soldier and British Secretary of State for Defence admitted. In addition, as with Hong Kong, we have a duty to open an escape route for all the educated Afghan democrats — an entire young generation — and especially for the young women. Like the Hong Kongers, we would be lucky to receive them. Again, the speed of the collapse brings this all into question.

What lessons should we learn? First, that the responsibility for this terrible self-inflicted defeat lies squarely with President Biden.  Trump had many successes in his foreign policy (the Abraham Accords; preparing to deter Xi Jinping) but failings also, of which his naive attempt to “cut a deal” with the Taliban was one of the worst. The Taliban do not do negotiation, nor keep any word, and Trump should have known, or have been made to understand, that.  The “Doha deal” and draw-down was a grave error: it disheartened the Afghan Government and it encouraged the Taliban. So Trump does have his share of the blame, but not in the way some would suggest. A strong narrative is building in the usual anti-Trump quarters that tries to blame the current catastrophe entirely on Trump.  Biden, who has so far distanced himself from all of Trump’s other policies, tried that line in an apparent attempt at self-exculpation by teleprompter on 16th August. After reading it out,  he marched off refusing all questions, perhaps wisely. Last weekend’s disaster cannot be laid principally at Trump’s door. Biden’s 8th July Press Conference will go down as one of the most damaging ever by any President. His petulant refusal to heed his own military and intelligence advisers — or maybe to understand them — and the assertion that we would never see what we have just seen five weeks later, a repeat in Kabul of the 1975 helicopter airlift from the Saigon US Embassy, have indelibly defined his Presidency.

In the USA, another slow fuse has also been lit this week. The Democratic Party will soon have to explain how it foisted such a manifestly impaired candidate as Biden upon the American people and by extension upon the Free World at any time and most especially at a time of such strategic transformation. There will be a great reckoning within our greatest ally. The American people want their troops home as is normal and natural, but not in such circumstances that render the Free World in even more danger than before 9/11, not to mention the utter humiliation wrought at the hand of no enemy, but that of their own President.

Suzanne Raine, the formidable former Head of the British Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre and now at the University of Cambridge, has been at the epicentre of the fight against Islamist terrorism for the last twenty years. Therefore her words carry much weight. Her first public assessment on 18th August was that when the President argued that we should focus on today’s threats, not yesterday’s threats, there was a “logical inconsistency” in Biden’s justification of his withdrawal. As she crisply observed, yesterday’s threats are only not today’s – and tomorrow’s – threats by dint of all that has now been surrendered. We have lost our eyes and ears by surrendering dominance of the Afghan space in the modern Great Game (my words); and specifically she observed the known links between individuals in the current senior Al Qaeda leadership and the new rulers of Kabul. Under western dominance of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda was pushed to the failed state spaces in Libya and Iraq but will now have the option of flowing back. The escape route from Afghanistan to Libya and Iraq was through Iran; so Iran can be the route of return, about which we can now do nothing. We are once again in a more passive than active mode. In sum, Ms Raine’s message is the old message: that we should trust deeds not words. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and Biden has just made that task immensely more difficult.

Biden’s unexpected announcement of US withdrawal by an arbitrary date  against the advice of Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Central Intelligence Director William Burns, will be the most consequential decision of his Presidency.   Nor can it be denied that Biden’s  failure to consult his closest allies has weakened the Western alliance.

The US withdrawal has, in addition, precipitated the worst failure in British foreign policy since the Suez debacle of 1956 when the unilateral action of the Eisenhower administration, threatening to trigger a run on the Pound, strong-armed British abandonment of its military operation on the very cusp of success. The Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, has correctly made that comparison. It was creditable of the UK government, after the shock announcement, to seek to assemble a rump alliance without Biden’s America, but the chances of this succeeding were always slim. The real fighters like the Scandinavians, The Netherlands, Canada, Australia were too few and the Trojan Horse of the EU’s ambition to present itself as a military power was exposed for what it was – a paper tiger.

Suez was followed by an era of anti-Americanism and of “declinism” — learned helplessness — in the British establishment which became one of the groundwater springs that nourishes still the unreconciled remainer/remoaner/rejoiner losers of the 23 June 2016 referendum to leave the EU. While focussed on a Commander-in-Chief variously described as shameful, dishonourable and incompetent by MPs from all sides of the House of Commons in the special recalled one day debate on 18th August, most particularly by former soldier MPs, the upwelling of a more generalised questioning of the UK’s primary ally and the implication that our ‘European partners’ were to be preferred, was present. We must guard against this resurgence at a moment when the solidarity of the anglosphere is more important than ever.

Second, this withdrawal is therefore a set-back for the Free World as we square off to defend our way of life against Xi Jinping’s communist command group which, like the Taliban, does not engage in deal-making nor understand win-win. “We win you lose” is the next game.  The Chinese are highly organized and strategic — as we must swiftly become after this defeat. They understand us incredibly well. They have sent their leadership cadres through our universities for three decades.  In comparison we know hardly anything about China because we do not have that depth of experience in our political class which was utterly naive after “12/11” when the PRC was let into the WTO expecting it to become like us.  This was like letting the fox into the hen-house in the expectation that it would behave like a hen.

We are, however, not without resources for this Great Power contest which is already in train as a “grey war,” with PRC “Ghost Attack” by economic means, in which it encourages us to follow policies – notably “Net Zero” fantasy green economics — that they think, correctly, are disadvantageous to both our economy and defence, and hence in their strategic interest.  The Five Eyes intelligence alliance is still peerless. The Free World still, just, commands the definition of global institutions. Our combined military deterrence, grounded in the world’s leading military cultures, still gives us superior capability across the full spectrum of future conflict so long as we do not compromise it further in worrying ways, for example by allowing “woke” identity irrelevances or green virtue-signalling to distract commanders and to injure the chains of command.  Furthermore, in democracies, however flawed, power derived from the ballot box is always more legitimate in the eyes of those governed than rule by fear in autocracies.

Third, with the loss of Afghanistan we cross a watershed. What is needed now is a swift cold shower of geo-strategic reality in our political classes. The time for self-harming distractions with “wokus pocus,” obsessing about sexual dysmorphia, Marxist “critical race theory” and “climate catastrophism” built on Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness that mistakes hypothetical scenario projections for real data — all of which the Chinese Communist Party Ministry of State Security United Front Work Dept is glad to encourage — must end.

Biden’s terrible mistake must be turned into the wake-up call for the Free World to pull itself together after two years in which, one way or another, the Chinese Communists made the world sick, causing the deaths of more than four million people and injuring the economies of many nations —  all, to date,  with no accountability. We must clear for action, which means that to defend ourselves by credible deterrence, we must start by dumping overboard all extraneous impediments.

The challenge of the defence of Taiwanese freedom – first, by strong deterrence  — plainly approaches.  The regional democracies Japan, India, and Australia stand ready as the 2021 Japanese Defence White Paper shows; and the USA has a duty to shake off Biden’s shame and once again stand tall.

19th August 2021


Gwythian Prins is Research Professor Emeritus at the LSE and a past member of the British Chief of the Defence Staff’s Strategy Advisory Panel


This essay was first published in a shorter form by the Gatestone Institute of New York on 19th August 2021 and this expanded version is published with permission