It was worth it? That is what many of us who serve in Afghanistan wonder silently as we watch in bewilderment and horror at what is happening.
Four hundred and fifty-seven British soldiers and women never returned from the war. Among them was Corporal Kevin Mulligan, a fearless young Scotsman with whom I had the honor to serve. He was the epitome of a paratrooper and one of our best and brightest commanders. At the time of his death, Kev’s fiancee was pregnant with their unborn child. One of the innumerable tragedies derived from that bloody conflict.
It is impossible to quantify the price paid over the past 20 years, but whenever I think of Afghanistan, the human cost is at the fore in my mind. The pain Kev’s loved ones felt. The thousands of veterans today who are suffering terribly from the physical and mental effects of the campaign. And the millions of Afghans who have known nothing but violence and bloodshed in their entire lives.
The good news has been limited for decades, but even by historical standards, the months since President Joe Biden announced the cut have been miserable for Afghanistan. Mass desertion of soldiers. US forces leave a strategic base in the dead of night without informing their indigenous counterparts. Violence is on the rise, including the monstrous bombing of the Sayed al-Shuhada high school in Kabul that left 85 people dead, an attack that contributed to record levels of civilian casualties. And this week, at least 80 people died in a flash flood in Nuristan province, bringing the country to the brink of a humanitarian crisis. The NATO chief’s promise of an “orderly, coordinated and deliberate” withdrawal sounds increasingly hollow.
What makes our failure such a bitter pill to swallow is that we knew about the flaws in our strategy all along. And yet we decided to do nothing about it.
We had an overarching goal in Afghanistan: to build a government that had the legitimacy, the competence, and the wherewithal to survive without us. A government capable of mediating between competing political forces adequately enough to avoid a major conflict would have provided us with an exit strategy. We failed in that quest because we never made it a serious goal.
I saw first-hand what corruption did to the Afghan security forces and the political environment in which they operated. Political exclusion and impunity abounded and undermined faith in a fledgling democracy. That, in turn, drove people into the insurgency and further fueled the conflict.
This was common knowledge, but we did not address the underlying issues. Instead, we turned a blind eye to the strongmen involved in land grabbing and assassinations, to colossal bank fraud that threatened the entire economy, and widespread electoral fraud.
Lasting stability is impossible if security forces and government institutions are corrupt, elected leaders are subordinate to warlords, and sectors of the population feel excluded from power. We were complacent and involved in a long-standing conspiracy of optimism that the tide would turn, but it never did. Then, realizing the consequence of our strategy, we opted for abandonment. And no one needs to remember what happens when Afghanistan is abandoned.
However, it is correct to highlight the genuine progress that has been made, particularly with regard to the rights of women and girls. Around two out of every five boys who now attend school are girls; 175 female judges have been appointed throughout the country; 25% of the deputies in office are women. Given where the country stood in 2001, these advances should not be underestimated. But make no mistake, the return of a Taliban-led government would be catastrophic for women – provisions for their protection, education and health must be a long-term priority for the UK government.
Britain and her allies cannot be proud of where we have ended up. After two decades of a war that has killed tens of thousands and cost the West billions of dollars, we left without a peace agreement and with the Taliban on the rise. That’s not what success looks like.
The effect of the intervention in Afghanistan and the wider region will take a generation to discern, but its effect on us is already clear. We may never commit to a campaign of this scale again. In the near future, it is inconceivable that any government will propose it, much less that the public will support it. Whatever the mistakes of the past, I still have some hope for the future. America’s decision to leave meant that Britain could not have feasibly been left behind, and being left without a coherent strategy would not have helped anyway. But we still have influence, even at this eleventh hour. The question is whether the government is willing to exert that influence in a way that successive administrations have failed to do.
First, we must support the Afghan government; however faulty it may be, it is the only show in town. Second, our support should be much more conditional on better governance and respect for human rights. Third, we must do everything possible to facilitate the peace process. And finally, there must be an active effort to engage regional actors to support a deal rather than fuel a deeper conflict. This will involve compromise, partly unpleasant, but the search for lasting peace should be our only goal.
So was it worth it? If Afghanistan continues on its current trajectory, then my honest but heartbreaking answer is no.
I want nothing more than to prove me wrong. I want the Afghan security forces to repel the insurgents. I want the government to agree to a peace agreement on its terms. I want the country to turn the page on 40 years of conflict so that its people can finally prosper. Ultimately, I want the sacrifices made by Kev and everyone else to mean something.
The fate of Afghanistan is not yet sealed. It has long been clear that a military victory is not possible, but that does not mean that now is the time to throw in the towel. If we do so, it will be a betrayal not only of our own interests and sacrifices, but also of the Afghans.
Dan Jarvis is he Labor MP by Barnsley Central, Mayor of South Yorkshire and a former British army important.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism