I keep a diary. The entry for 18 December 2001 reads “To Downing Street to see Tony Blair… We discussed Afghanistan. He said, ‘We will have a very limited operation… It will be confined to Kabul and we will get out early. I don’t mind us going in early providing we get out early’. I replied that was wise. Things would get worse the longer we stayed.”
Thirteen years, XXX British soldier’s lives, thousands of Afghan ones and £100 billion later, we are finally leaving.
So has it all been for nothing?
No. There are children – and esepcially girls – going to school in Afghanistan who wouldn’t be there if British troops not risked their lives to give them the chance. Democracy, though frail, has taken root. There is growing prosperity in some areas, markets in previous ghost towns, new roads that never existed and, perhaps most important of all, a knowledge of how things can be better, planted in people’s minds.
Was it then worth the price?
It’s too early to say.
If, as many believe, Afghanistan plunges back to civil war; if corruption remains permamently embedded in Afghan Government; if the Taliban, who now control many areas British troops died for, return to their bad old, brutal old ways; if the ungoverned spaces in south Afghanistan once more become a play ground for Jihadism and an outpost for the Islamic caliphate; if fractured Afghanistan gets drawn into the widenting Sunni/Shia religious war now spreading in the region, then the answer is no.
If, on the other hand, Afghanistan remains united; if it continues its slow progress to some kind of unity and good government and if, crucially, the Afghan Army remains united and capable of maintining order, then maybe.
My prediction? Sadly, I fear most of the first is far more likely than any of the second.
So, victory or defeat?
No British soldier and no British unit was ever defeated in any one of the thousands of individual engagements they fought with the Taliban during the long thirteen years of this costly war. Given their poor equipment at the beginning and how vulnerable they were, especially in such exposed positions at the start of Helmand, this is a truly remarkable record. Our fighting men and women can march home from “Afghan” with their heads held high.
But they are the only ones.
Our failure in Afghanistan has not been not military. It has been political.
This was a war we could and should have won. We went in under a UN Security Council mandate, in support of international law, consistent with our own national interests and with the overwhelming support of the Afghan people. Thirteen years later we have squandered all these assets and, in the process, written the definitive text-book on how to lose these kind of wars.
The international community should have been united in pursuit of a single plan for Afghanistan, with clear priorities. Instead we have been divided, cacophonous, chaotic. We should have concentrated on winning in Afghanistan, instead of getting distracted by adventures in Iraq. We should have engaged Afghanistan’s neighbours, instead of going out of our way to make them enemies. Our early military strategy should have been about protecting the people, instead of foolishly scampering off, chasing the enemy. We should have made fighting corruption our first priority, instead of becoming the tainted partners of a corrupt Government whose writ, along with ours, has progressively collapsed, as that of the Taliban has progressively widened. We should have understood that victories on the battlefield are meaningless unless translated into political progress and better lives for ordinary people. We should have placed more emphasis on political measures than on military ones, instead of looking to the soldiers to win the war for us. We should have understood the culture and history of Afghanistan, instead of imposing an unaffordable Western style centralised constitution on a country which has been decentralised and tribal for more than a thousand years. We should not have allowed realistic short term ambitions to slip into grand dreams which were as unachievable, as they were unworkable. And at the end, when we should have grabbed the best opportunity for a negotiated peace five years ago, we lost the moment by continuing our blind pursuit of the illusion that outright military victory was possible.
The price for these follies has been paid in lives – those of our young soldiers and many, many Afghans. It has also been paid in diminished Western influence and increased instability in what is one of the most instable regions in the world. Iraq and Afghanistan have broken for ever, the myth of Western invincibility.
So, should we never again intervene?
No. In a dangerous and instable world we may have to act to together preserve the wider peace. The right reaction to Afghanistan is not never again, but never again like that.