Afghan dead are numbered at approximately 20,000 with an unknown number of seriously injured. Some of those were Taliban fighters but many were not.
So was the loss of life worth it? I spent most of last weekend, and last Monday, reading articles or watching TV interviews where the great and the good have been telling us that it was. I think it isn’t actually possible to answer that question and it won't be for a while.
If the ‘democratically elected’ Afghan government is still in existence this time next year then we can, I think, start to make that judgement. If it is still in place in two years’ time then we can probably draw much firmer conclusions. Will women still be working? Will girls still be being educated? Will people be allowed to vote in the next elections and will they be truly democratic? It’s not until those questions can be answered with a very certain ‘yes’ that we will know that it was worth it. If, on the other hand, the Taliban are once again occupying the Presidential Palace in Kabul we will know for sure that it wasn’t worth it, or that troops were withdrawn before the job was properly finished, assuming it could ever be finished.
You will note my use of quotation marks around the words ‘democratically elected’ in the last paragraph. Why? Well, it took months of wheeler dealing before the new President was allowed to take up office, because the other candidate wasn’t going to concede defeat and agree to a hand over of power. Was the new President actually democratically elected or was this just a stitch up? We may never know. All we know for sure was that elections were held and then there was a great big gap before the new President took office.
One of the questions which has never, for me, been satisfactorily answered is ‘Why were we there?’
Following the terrible events of 9/11 George W Bush vowed to bring the perpetrators, Al Qaeda, to justice. The trouble was that the ringleaders, as identified by the Americans, were hiding in Afghanistan and the government of the day, the Taliban, weren’t going to hand them over. They used the ancient Muslim tradition of ‘hospitality’ as their justification. So the Americans threw their weight behind a loose grouping of opposition fighters called the Northern Alliance, dropped bombs on anything that moved, put Special Forces on the ground and threw the Taliban out of Kabul. Victory. All over in a few weeks.
No it wasn’t. As usual the Americans had given no thought to what would happen after regime change and found they were trying to support a group of people who had no popular support. If the Americans left then the Taliban would fight back and the whole operation would have been in vain. Besides, Osama Bin Laden still hadn’t been found and to find him the whole country, not just Kabul, had to be pacified.
However, if the Americans stayed in Afghanistan there soldiers might be seen as an army of occupation; they would be accused of imperialism. The Great Satan strikes again, stealing countries and resources for its own ends. The Americans had to find some allies in a hurry in order to be able to defend their actions. They had to make their invasion an ‘international peace mission’. So they went to NATO and persuaded them to take ownership of the occupation.
Do please remember that up to that point no one in the U.S.A. had been in the least bit interested in what the Taliban had been doing in Afghanistan. No one was interested in the injustice of not educating girls, of the imposition of the Burkha on women, the brutal use of force against any infringement on the rules laid down by the Taliban on a whole range of things, such as dancing and the playing of music. The same could be said for most of the rest of the world. I plead guilty as charged. But all of a sudden the restoration of peace, freedom and justice to Afghanistan was the most important issue in the western world.
When NATO was set up in 1949 it was as a deterrent to Russian expansion in the wake of the Second World War. Attack one of us, NATO said, and you attack us all and woe betide you. I don’t think that the founding fathers of NATO ever envisaged NATO troops being used to combat a bunch of terrorists holed up in some caves several thousand kilometres from the borders of the nearest NATO country. NATO military operations are carried out under the auspices of Article Five of the Washington Treaty, the treaty that established NATO. It covers attacks on member nations in Europe or in North America. It makes no mention of Central Asia. This article was twisted out of all recognition to try to equate a terrorist atrocity in New York with an armed attack by a sovereign nation such as Russia. The nearest parallel that could be drawn would be if Britain had asked NATO to invade the Republic of Ireland because of the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham.
But of course Bush had his old pal Tony in Number 10 and with his help NATO was persuaded to take on the peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan. Eventually 48 countries would contribute to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), including several, such as Ireland, Malaysia, Tonga and Australia who aren’t actually part of NATO, with up to 34,000 personnel in the field in 2014.
So that’s how we got to be involved. It wasn’t our war, but our politicians and the Americans twisted a treaty out of shape and then made it our war. I well remember the Defence Minister of the day, Dr John Reid, saying on TV that he would be happy if Britain could withdraw in three years’ time having never fired a shot. Well we were there for 13 years and an awful lot of shots were fired. I strongly suspect that Dr Reid knew that would be the case but unfortunately I can't prove it.
The argument was that to protect us from terrorism they had to first defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and then defeat the Taliban in order to prevent them taking over the country again. Well, Al Qaeda is a nomadic grouping of disparate terror groups a bit like the traveling people. As soon as you move them on from one place they appear in another, so that never had any chance of working. As for the Taliban, if you believe the soldiers that were out there then they are just as much present today as they were in 2001. Except that now the Afghan police and army have to fight them and they may, or may not, be successful. I refer you to my earlier remarks. Only time will tell.
What about preventing terrorism in Britain? A very good question. I’m so glad you asked me that (blatant book plug). There are two ways of viewing that. The first way is that we did, indeed, prevent terrorism, but I would suggest that the evidence is otherwise. Back in 2001 the terms ‘radicalised’ was hardly ever read in our newspapers or heard on our TVs in relation to Muslims living in Britain, but now that word is in everyday use. Young Muslim men go to Syria to fight against Assad or they join ISIS to fight against everyone who isn’t a follower of the ISIS version of Islam. They weren’t doing that in 2001. Despite the best efforts of the BNP and the English Defence League, in general young Muslim men and women living in Britain didn’t see the ethnic British as their enemy as they do now, unless it was on the pitch when the Pakistan cricket team were touring.
We can also look at the 7/7 bombings and ask which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were those bombings going to happen anyway, regardless of whether or not we were involved in Afghanistan? Or were they carried out because we were involved in Afghanistan? We can’t ask the young men who set the bombs off because they are conveniently dead. My own view is that the British Government caused those bombings as surely as if they had ordered the army to machine gun Muslims in Small Heath or Bradford.
However, you won’t get Tony Blair to admit that Britain was wrong to involve itself in Afghanistan. Neither will you get any of the current crop of politicians to admit it, because many of them sat on both sides of the Houses of Parliament when the decision was made. Some of them were Cabinet Ministers at the time and others are Cabinet Ministers now.
Now that we are out of Afghanistan does that mean that we will no longer be a target for terrorism? Of course not. The RAF are involved in bombing ISIS targets. That would be justification enough for any would be terrorist. But Islam follows the code of ‘an eye for an eye’ and terrorists can, and may, justify further attacks as retaliation for Afghanistan (and Iraq), even if we weren’t already bombing ISIS.
My fear now is that if the situation in Iraq and Syria deteriorates, as its seems it might, we will get sucked into a new war. Prior to last weekend we would have struggled to raise enough soldiers to put boots on the ground, but with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan it frees them up for redeployment to the next hot spot.
ISIS are now operating right up to the border with Turkey. Turkey is a member of NATO. Following the precedent set in Afghanistan if Turkey were to come under attack from ISIS, which is hardly out of the question, it could request NATO assistance to protect its borders. Would Britain refuse to help? Answers on a postcard please.
What is the likelihood of Britain once again putting boots on the ground to fight Islamist groups abroad? I would say quite high. Probably not before the next election, of course, it would be too toxic an issue, but afterwards? I think its quite probable.
Second blatant book plug: My book The Girl I Left Behind Me, which is to be published in December, deals with the war in Afghanistan. It tells of a Sergeant in the British Army who leaves his wife behind him when he is posted to Afghanistan with his Regiment. But that is only half the story. Youssef, a British born Muslim, joins the Taliban after his family are killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan and he leaves behind him the girl he wants to marry, Fatima. The book traces their stories as they are all dragged into the conflict in different ways.
In 2012, when I started writing that book, we hadn’t heard of British Muslims traveling abroad to fight in the Jihad, so my story was stretching credibility a little. At least I thought it was stretching credibility. Today it seems as though I was foretelling the future. Will more young Muslims travel to Syria and Iraq? Will they one day find themselves fighting British soldiers? In answer to both questions, I sincerely hope not.
If you found this blog interesting or if you have enjoyed any of my other blog posts then please also visit my Facebook page and ‘like’ it. Once again any person to ‘like’ it by midnight on Sunday will be entered into a draw for a free paperback book. Congratulations to Robin Bradford who was the only person to ‘like’ the page before last Sunday night’s cut off and who selected The Inconvenienced Store as his prize.
In other news, I have been interviewed by The Daventry Express and that interview will appear in the next edition on 5th November. You will also be able to read it on their website if you don't live in the Daventry area. I am also appearing on the Helen Blaby show on BBC Radio Northampton on Sunday 23rd November between 10 a.m. and 10.30. You can listen on-line by going to their website.