Everything is wrong about this dumb war : we don’t know what we are fighting for, we have no exit strategy, our troops lack essential equipment. and the British people are increasingly unwilling to accept casualties. No British politician has been capable of explaining coherently what victory in Afghanistan would actually look like even if it could be achieved. This is a failed state governed by shifting coalitions of Pashtuns, Baluchis, Tajiks, Hazares and Uzbeks – tribes who are united only in their eagerness to see foreign soldiers removed from Afghan soil. The most useful contribution Britain could make toward nation building would be to get out of there as quickly as possible.
More than 200 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan – more than in the entire Iraq war. Thousands of British soldiers have suffered terrible injuries and ruined lives, not to mention tens of thousands of Afghan casualties. And this in an operation in Helmand province which, the former defence secretary John Reid, said in 2006 he expected woult be over “without a shot being fired”. The parents of dead and injured servicemen and women would be justified in taking out a class action against the British government for failing in its duty of care. The British army, exhausted from its involvement in Iraq was sent to one of the most dangerous places on the planet, without proper air support, to feed the vanity of a UK political elite desperate to show that Britain still counts on the world stage. All they have demonstrated is that Britain does not matter any more. What remained of British military and diplomatic prestige has been lost in the dust of Helmand province.
Afghanistan has been a text book demonstration of how to not to win hearts and minds. We built schools and then bombed them to rubble. We spoke peace to the villagers and then killed them with drones, the worst kind of impersonal violence. We promised prosperity and then plunged the country into economic chaos. We promised good government and have ended up supporting a regime in Kabul which has become a by-word for corruption and cronyism. We talked of liberating women, but we have bankrolled a misogynistic leader who supports marital rape.
The idea that a few British soldiers could halt the poppy industry, the country’s main cash crop, was ludicrous. Almost as absurd as the suggestion that in some way British soldiers were preventing terrorism on British streets. This was Gordon Brown’s “chain of terror”, stretching as he put it from “the mountains of Afghanistan to the high streets of Britain”. Yet everyone knows that the terrorists involved in 7/7 bombings in London came from Britain and were trained in Pakistan.
Eight years ago, there may have been a justification for the ‘hot pursuit’ of al Qaeda terrorists, who planned and trained for the 9/11 plane bombings in training camps in Afghanistan. This was essentially a policing action, and recognised as such by the local people. Having destroyed those camps, we should have offered Kabul aid and support and left the country to find its own way. We were the liberators then. Now, our incompetent occupation of the country has thrust the Arab al Qaeda and the Pashtun Taleban – by no means natural bedfellows – into each others arms.
We wilfully ignored the lesson of the Iraq war that, however benign our intentions, the fact of our military occupation strengthens the very terrorism it is supposed to defeat. We scuttled out of Basra after handing the Iraq city over to Shia warlords. We scuttled into Afghanistan on pretence that we were on a peacekeeping mission. The Taleban and the Afghan mujihadeen were under no such illusions and reacted to what they regard as a foreign invader.
Trying to occupy the country with an inadequate force was plain stupid. This country has been fighting invaders successfully for 2,000 years. It defeated the British Empire 150 years ago and it defeated the Soviet Empire in the 1980s. How could we have been so naive as to believe we could occupy this country with a handful of soldiers and a few land rovers? The Afghans will never submit to foreign military domination, yet our military leaders say we are going to be in their country for thirty years. They are mad.
The Taleban are an odious sect who oppress women, reject enlightenment values and abhor democracy. They use 13 year old boys to deliver suicide bombs. But the reality is that they, or their confederates, are in control in 90% of Afghanistan and are not going to go away. You can’t fight them with gender awareness classes and election scrutineers. The British government recognised as much last month when David Miliband, the home secretary, proposed that we should start talking to the Taleban.
The fruit of our involvement is an opium trade that has burgeoned along with terrorism and corruption. Only in the area of democracy has there been any kind of progress, as millions of Afghan citizens made clear when they defied the Taleban and made the effort to vote. It was both inspiring and slightly chilling to see Afghan women dressed in burkas, like dusty ghosts, lining up to exercise their votes. Some may have been voting their tribal slate or as instructed by their menfolk. But at least they have demonstrated that there is nothing Afghanistan gene pool that makes them immune to democracy.
It is not enough to plead that our intentions were honourable – that we did not enter for economic or strategic gain but to try to build a modern democratic society. But you can’t bomb a country into the twenty first century and you can’t impose democracy from above. It can only come from the people themselves. Well, we should quit when we are ahead. Our job is now done. Let’s get out before we kill any more people with out kindness.