In 2004, two years before British troops were deployed to Helmand, I escorted two television journalists from Kabul to Lashkar Gah by road. Operating outside the security bubble of Kabul and military embeds was a real eye opener. It was obvious that the locals did not support the coalition. I encountered a group of young Taliban down by the Helmand River who told me that should western troops ever attempt to set up bases in their province, there would be blood; an ominous prediction which indeed proved true.
Over the years, unilateral media excursions in Afghanistan became increasingly risky due to the deteriorating security situation. The Taliban were regrouping effectively, targeting NATO troops and anyone believed to be associated with the coalition. The evidence was indisputable. NATO casualties were steadily increasing year after year as were deaths of NGO personnel, the lynchpin of NATO’s hearts and minds strategy. Conditions outside Kabul became so dangerous for aid organizations that many were forced to abandon their projects or contract them out to local third parties whose progress, not to mention use of foreign aid funds, was impossible to monitor. Sadly though, the British public was largely unaware of what was really happening in Afghanistan because our military and political leaders insisted the campaign was going swimmingly.
One of the greatest misperceptions about the Afghan conflict is that the Taliban is waging an insurgency against NATO. There is no insurgency in Afghanistan; it’s a civil war in which NATO has taken sides. The distinction is crucial for understanding the limits of what can be achieved. The coalition backs the tribes of the former Northern Alliance which has been engaged in a festering 30-year civil war with the Pashtoon tribes of the southern and eastern provinces. Against this context, it is easy to see why British, American and other NATO forces have and continue to encounter such fierce resistance in Helmand. As far as the local Pashtoon are concerned, NATO has sided with their mortal enemies.
With a 2014 deadline looming, NATO has reined in its ambitions. Having given up on victory, it is now attempting to co-opt so-called ‘moderate’ members of the Taliban by offering them a stake in a future government. Even if successful, this strategy will by no means guarantee a western friendly Afghanistan. It may sound harsh, but history has shown that Afghans have no ideological allegiance. They simply jump to the winning side. This is not a national character flaw, but a survival instinct honed over generations of conflict. I knew an Afghan who fought on behalf of the Soviets during their occupation. When they left, he switched allegiance to the Northern Alliance. He then joined the Taliban. Last I heard, he was working as an Afghan police officer in support of the NATO-backed Karzai government. Who knows which faction he’ll be supporting three years from now.
Thanks to the ineptitude and spinelessness of our military top brass, British forces were deployed to Helmand in woefully insufficient numbers back in 2006. Last year, having fought valiantly, our troops handed over control of the province to a much larger US contingent. Only then did a shocked British public start asking what had gone so very wrong in Afghanistan.
Today, that shock has given way to anger. Our leaders took us to war on the lie that it would safeguard our streets against terrorism. If anything, our involvement in Afghanistan has fostered a menacing wave of home grown Islamic militancy; hence why so few believe the lie anymore. For my part, I think we went to Afghanistan because our government is so desperate to preserve Britain’s standing as a major global player; it will do anything America asks of it, including going to war. Even if the fight runs counter to our own national interest, when Washington says ‘jump’, Whitehall says ‘how high’. Canada too went to war at Washington’s request and its troops fought bravely at the sharp end in Kandahar Province. Overtime though, Canadian leaders recognized the futility of the Afghan campaign, bowed to public opinion and withdrew its troops. Why do Britain’s leaders lack the political will to do the same?
The toll of this conflict has been horribly grave. Hundreds of British soldiers have died, over a thousand have been wounded and who knows how many have been mentally scarred as a result of their service. Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by military action and tens of thousands are dead through displacement, disease and lawlessness. Then there’s the financial cost; billions of British tax payer funds wasted. The politicians, generals and bureaucrats who misled the public for so long about Afghanistan need to be held to account (how many produced rosy reports simply to justify their existence?). Above all, the government needs to admit it made a mistake and withdraw our troops from Afghanistan immediately. Let’s not sacrifice another British life to a civil war no outside force will ever win.