Today started off somewhat dull and overcast and the the temperature seemed to have drifted down a degree or so. I walked down for the newspapers at about 8.00 am as I generally do – and didn’t even come across the usual crop of joggers and dog-walkers who are the only other people to populate the streets at that hour. Nonetheless, I was back by 9.0 am and instead of the Andrew Marr show, we had plenty of Team GB successes in Tokyo to watch and to celebrate. After we had our fill of the paralympics, we engaged in our normal walk down to the park where we met with our University of Birmingham friend. Before he turned up, though, we had a fair share of the regular dog-walkers to entertain us. Most people bring with them a special long handled plastic ‘thingy’ (called a ‘launcher’ in the pet-shops) which helps to propel a standard tennis ball a long way – hence, those in possession of one of these implements can send their dogs crazy by launching their ball a long way and there are always some breeds of dogs (e.g. collies) which love chasing after the projected ball. Other breeds of dogs, though, seem to be indifferent to a flung ball – I suppose it must depend upon the volume of ‘retriever’ type genes that are in the dog’s heritage. We must have spent at least an hour in the park deep in conversation which we both enjoy before we realised that we had better get home and cook some lunch. We had a conventional lunch of beef, cabbage and baked potato before we settled down to a good read of the Sunday newspapers.
In the midst of all that was written about the fairly ignominious retreat from Kabul, one particular offering stood out for me. This was a cartoon brilliantly drawn by Riddell in today’s Observer in which one sees a ghostly line of soldiers, all drawn correctly in the military dress and with the contemporary weapons of the day, trudging away in the road that leads away from Kabul. Each soldier’s kitbag or uniform is labelled with the year of the retreat in question and they are in order: 1842, 1880, 1919, 1989 and finally 2021. The whole cartoon is titled ‘Retreat‘. The post of the cartoon is clear – Britain had had many military ‘adventures ‘ in Afghanistan and they always ended in disaster and a military retreat. In what has been termed one of the greatest disasters in Britain’s military history, in 1842 some 16,000 lives were lost in the retreat and there was only survivor who limped into Jalalabad on his mortally wounded horse. When asked what had befallen the rest of the army, the survivor pointed out ‘I am the army’. The point here is to wonder any of our military high command or senior civil servants in the Ministry of Defence have ever read any British history – did they not know (or care) that campaigns in Afghanistan nearly ends like this? Another related point is the realisation that any so called ‘special relationship’ with the United States is only in the fevered imagination of the British – and seems completely moribund. There are also columnists who are arguing that Jo Biden is not up to the task of the situation in which the USA finds itself. Although most American citizens are in favour of their troops not being in Afghanistan any longer, they also recognise a blunder of a withdrawal when they see one. So the presidents short term popularity is at an extreme low and may never actually recover. There are still folk memories of the retreat from Saigon decades before. Finally, the Sunday Times lead story is that the recriminations in Whitehall are reaching fever pitch. One particularly shocking revelation is that MP’s and ministers to asked to log concerns about individual Afghans that were particular worthy of rescue (in the main, interpreters) by email to the Foreign Office. it now transpires that at least 5,000 of these are logged onto Foreign Office computers and have not even been read, let along entered in to a spreadsheet or similar. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab is due to appear before a select committee next week and in view of his already manifest failings (being on holiday and not returning the minute that the fall of Kabul was evident), he looks as though he might receive the most severe of grilling from MP’s. Many think his days are numbered in any case. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s national security adviser has suggested the West faces another 9/11 if it abandons Afghanistan for a second time. It seems that the only sensible way forward is for British diplomacy to seriously engage with the Taliban to try to establish a ‘modus vivendi‘ for the months ahead. Certainly, there are many with military experience (sometimes in Afghanistan) on the back benches of the Tory party who are deeply unhappy with the government’s performance – so we may see quite a lot of blood-letting in the weeks ahead!