Historians will debate for decades to come what went wrong in Afghanistan, how it can be that after 20 years of investment of ‘Blood and Treasure’ by the West we are now abandoning the country to the Taliban from whom we liberated it; why it has all come as such a shock, and who is to blame for the short term chaos that we are now witnessing and the apparently bleak longer term future for the people of Afghanistan.
The retreat of the British from Kabul in 1842 which at the time was described as a ‘signal catastrophe’ was ignored by the British Empire in 1878, then by the Soviets in 1989 and now the Americans and British as we scuttle away from our responsibilities in that war-torn land. If you don’t study history, you may well be condemned to repeat it.
I argued at the time that we should have gone into Afghanistan straight after 9/11, destroyed Al-Qaeda, killed Usama Bin Laden and then withdrawn. That would have been a clean(er) military operation, very probably led by Special Forces and Paras, and would have been wholly justifiable under International law.
Instead of that, we allowed classic ‘mission creep.’ It became all about women’s rights and educating girls; it was about infrastructure such as the Kajaki Dam (which in the end was never completed); it was about destroying the poppy crop (and by that stroke the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers who were as a result ready recruits for the Taliban). Women’s rights are a disgrace in many parts of the world, but we do not invade those countries to try to make them better. Afghanistan is - and always has been - a loose amalgamation of territories governed by warlords. It’s a bit like Western Europe 1000 years ago; and the notion that we could (or should) establish a Guildford suitable style of democratic government was forlorn from the start.
Having said all of that on 167 occasions I stood with the people of (Royal) Wootton Bassett on their famous High Street to honour the return of a total of 345 coffins of men and women who had given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. By strange coincidence I hope to get back from the Recall of the House on Wednesday in time to attend the little service in Lyneham on the tenth anniversary of the last ever ‘Repatriation.’
Those 345 young lives were not ‘wasted.’ We have had 20 years of relative peace in the West thanks to the destruction of AQ. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has been – to a degree – suppressed, although whether the Taliban will once again become their willing hosts we will have to wait and see. Even Afghanistan itself has seen a level of prosperity and freedom, and relative peace which they would never have expected.
So we can be ashamed of much that is now happening in Afghanistan; we can takes as many steps as necessary to evacuate our own remaining people as well as those whose lives are at risk through having supported allied forces and governments over the last 20 years; but we must not go on from all of that to argue that it was all a waste of time. To do so is to dishonour those young men and women whose bodies were brought back through Royal Wootton Bassett. We can be proud of them and all they did while at the same time decrying what is without doubt a shameful end to it all.