‘Britain is not a superpower’: an interview with Ben Wallace

The Defence Secretary on Afghanistan and the questions facing the West

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

Britain’s evacuation of Kabul began with an admission of defeat. Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said that the UK would probably leave having failed to assist everyone who had been promised safe passage. ‘Some people won’t get back,’ he said in tears in one interview. When asked why he was taking it personally, he replied: ‘Because I’m a soldier.’

He’s the first defence secretary for 29 years to be able to make such a claim. He served with the Scots Guards in Germany, Cyprus, Belize and Northern Ireland before entering politics. His experience in uniform, he says, has given him different insights into the job: in this case, recognising just how unpredictable retreats can be.

‘There was really no point kidding the public through the process,’ Wallace says when we meet over Zoom after the last flight has left Afghanistan. ‘It was a bit of a shock when Herat fell. Some of these big places had historically been resistant to the Taliban. When they fell, literally without a fight, I think the game was up. I remember back in July arguing that whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing.’

In the days before Kandahar fell on 13 August, he made the decision to send 600 troops to Kabul to conduct Operation Pitting, the evacuation mission that has since been dubbed ‘Dunkirk by WhatsApp’ due to the number of people called forward via their mobile phones.

Around this time, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, was in a five-star hotel in Greece, but Wallace is too diplomatic to make the point. For his part, Raab has been blaming military intelligence failures for the humiliation of Kabul. So who was to blame? ‘I’ve already seen some lines about the failure of intelligence,’ Wallace says. ‘History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.

‘I know that in exercises the hardest military manoeuvre is planning a withdrawal. In my training it was: when do you blow up the bridge?’ He says his three years as security minister were as useful as his time in the army when it comes to understanding the depth of the uncertainty: ‘Sadly I had endless terrorist attacks under my watch.’

And what about the emails sent by MPs about stranded Afghans that were never even opened? A blame game is under way in Whitehall. He defends the Ministry of Defence’s operation, saying it was in contact with ‘pretty much everyone’ on its own list (the so-called ARAP scheme). ‘All of us have big email inboxes, we have already analysed ours, we’ve sent defence intelligence analysts around Whitehall to help deal with that,’ he says. ‘We found on average each individual had four emails sent by a combination of a number of MPs. I actually got to the point where I recognised the names being circulated because so many people were emailing the same person. There was a lot of duplication.’

But, he says, ‘things could have been much worse’ in Afghanistan. ‘We sent 16 Air Assault Brigade, Nato’s most ready brigade specifically designed for quick intervention and raw fighting. If it turned nasty, that was who you wanted there. And it could have been nasty. But the Taliban in the end were compliant. They could have rained mortars on [the airport]. You only need one or two mortars and your planes stop flying — so they could have done a lot of stuff around that. They didn’t. So we had a much more, well, “benign” is probably a bit too strong — but it was better than it could have been.’

As for the terror attack that took place, recent reports in America claim US commanders had wanted to close the airport gate but kept it open on behalf of Britain. When mentioned, Wallace says he recognises ‘the narrative but I don’t recognise the facts, the facts aren’t true. Both forces, as well as others, wanted to continue to use Abbey Gate’.

Nasty surprises came from home as well as abroad. If you were to follow Wallace’s response via Twitter alone, you could be forgiven for thinking he spent half the time dealing with Operation Ark — an attempt by the former Marine Pen Farthing to fly back cats and dogs from his animal shelter in Kabul along with his staff. What followed was a war of words as Wallace was accused of blocking a plane for their rescue.

He is clearly still rattled by it. ‘I didn’t block the flight,’ he says. ‘But I said very clearly that I won’t prioritise pets over people.’ The problem wasn’t the flight, he says, but processing the crowds risking their lives to queue outside the airport. ‘Some people took 96 hours to get through, then get bags to the hotel to be processed and then brought across airside. The pinch point was not planes. A lot of the criticism from the animal rights lobby was that all we needed to do was let the chartered flight through and this magic wand would materialise. Pen Farthing and pets would get through, but it was evil us, stopping some plane going! That wasn’t the case.’

Britain, he says, left only a few vehicles behind, whereas the US left one of the world’s largest fleets of Black Hawk helicopters. ‘I’m not sure I would worry too much about the Taliban maintaining a fleet of aircraft,’ he says, given it’s ‘extremely expensive, high-intensity and a lot easier said than done’. But he is — when asked — more concerned about the risk that the equipment could be passed on to shadowy mercenary organisations. ‘The threat is that they flog it to somebody like Wagner Group. That’s why we need to be incredibly alert to that type of technology transfer. It’s a realistic possibility, I think.’ The Wagner Group, a paramilitary organisation with strong links to the Kremlin, is increasingly spoken of by the Ministry of Defence as an adversary.

And what of his recent defence review? How does it stand after the Afghan retreat? He argues it has been vindicated, in that it proposed a nimbler military. ‘If America makes the decision that it needs to tilt more [to the Pacific and China], the question for the West, for Europe, for the United Kingdom and for other nations is: are we going to go with them? Do we backfill? Or do we do both?’

Britain’s 2007 decision to build and deploy two aircraft carriers — now accompanying the Americans in the Pacific — has been seen by many in the military as an absurd overstretch from a country in denial about still being a global power. Wallace sees it differently. ‘I think it really goes to what the definition of what a global power is,’ he says. ‘It is obvious that Britain is not a superpower. But a superpower that is also not prepared to stick at something isn’t probably a superpower either. It is certainly not a global force, it’s just a big power.’

Britain, meanwhile, can act with others. ‘I take the view that the future of foreign policy around the world will involve more bilateral than trilateral alliances depending on the problems we face. So, West Africa may be a more French/British thing, East Africa may be the same.

‘Britain hasn’t been able to field a mass army for 50 years — if not longer.’ At the back end of the Cold War, he says, he was in the British Army of the Rhine. ‘It was always part of a massive international effort — so I think our defence paper is in exactly the right space.’ Britain, he says, still has ‘a huge range of tools at our disposal: from soft to hard power, economic power, scientific power and cultural power’.

Military intervention will still play a role. ‘Some countries in Africa are on the edge of being failed states.’ Stopping them from collapsing, he says, could stave off other conflicts. ‘What you need is an armed forces that can help the resilience of the [African] governments so things don’t get so acute that you end up having a proper fight,’ he says. ‘Fundamentally, I think that is what we need to be doing in the world.’ An important question is whether the intervention-weary public would be so keen for British forces to shore up African governments.

The United Nations, Wallace says, has been noticeable by its absence in Afghanistan and elsewhere. ‘If the UN isn’t for helping failed states, then what is it for?’ The question also arises in West Africa. ‘The anti-corruption, the deradicalisation, the education, all of the things the UN signed up to in the Algeria agreement haven’t been delivered. You don’t stop terrorism and security unless you deal with the other stuff.’

Difficult questions are also facing Europe. ‘We have risen to America’s challenge: to spend more on defence. I think the question is actually for Europe: is Europe prepared to put its money where its mouth is? To be fair to Donald Trump, he was straight as a die on that. There’s a difference between taking America for granted and depending on America. I think historically we have taken America for granted and that means we now need to step up to invest. The Prime Minister has made the biggest investment since the Cold War and we will continue to do that. Let’s hear what the others do.’

The other issue is staying power. ‘The question for the West — whether it is Ukraine, whether it is the South China Sea or upholding international laws — is resolve. That is the question: do we have resolve?’ Like Tony Blair, he dislikes the phrase ‘forever war’. ‘I think standing up for the values you believe in, standing up to protect your interests, is a forever commitment. It’s unending — so be prepared.’

He recently visited the Korean War memorial in Seoul, which is marked by the words ‘Freedom is not free’. ‘That is absolutely right — freedom is not free. Of course, we hope that standing up for it doesn’t involve the lives of our men and women. But when your adversary is constantly challenging you, then you have to constantly stand up for what you believe and constantly enable the defence of it. And that will be forever.’

Given that President Joe Biden this week explained why he chose not to extend this ‘forever war’ or the ‘forever exit’, it’s hard not to read Wallace’s comments as a divergence from the American approach. But if the US can no longer make such long-lasting military commitments, can Britain?

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