Afghanistan: 10 Years On For British Forces

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.

Published by: bobshepherdauthor

Bestselling author Bob Shepherd has spent nearly forty years operating in conflict areas around the world. A twenty year veteran of Britain’s elite 22 SAS Regiment with nearly two decades of private security work to his credit, Bob has successfully negotiated some of the most dangerous places on earth as a special forces soldier and a private citizen. Bob comments regularly on security issues and has appeared on CNN International, BBC, SKY News, and BBC Radio. He has also authored numerous articles and books including the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller The Circuit. In addition to writing and lecturing, Bob continues to advise individuals operating in hostile environments. For more of his insights on security and geopolitics visit

Categories Afghan War, Afghanistan, British Defence, British PoliticsTags, , , , , 6 Comments

6 thoughts on “Afghanistan: 10 Years On For British Forces”

  1. Thank you Bob, for attempting to open the eyes of the British Government to the futility of pouring money, effort and above all lives into this troubled corner of the world.
    In 1971 I went to work in Pakistan for an American company which was building a ‘fertilizer’ plant utilizing natural gas. During my 10months there I, along with some other ex-pats made trips into the northern regions of that country, notably through the Khyber pass through the Autonomous Region all the way up to the Afghan border and again almost up to the Chinese through the Dera Ismail Khan region.
    The Kyber Pass is littered with commemorative plaques testifying the British Army losses in negotiating that road all through the 19th century.
    Have today’s politicians not read their own country’s history?

    1. Thanks for your comments Trevor,

      To think that you seen the signs all those years ago in the region. Indeed, sadly history wasn’t put into the initial thinking from the people left to run our armed forces.

  2. Good blog Bob, on the money again. You have to ask how many young men or women will loose their life or be horrendously maimed and how much of tax payers money will be squandered before 2014.

    Such a tragic waste.

    1. Thanks Jon,

      As the days…. not weeks, months or years now roll on in the Afghanistan conflict, I can’t help but get frustrated and angry at the spineless leadership of our government and military.

  3. As I think you have said before Bob, we don’t need some newly retired Top Brass telling us how bad it is, we need some one ( or preferably several people ) to stand up and lay their military careers on the line and say enough is enough! I have never understood how anyone has believed the lie that this war is to protect our national security. If there was one thing that leads these people to extreme beliefs, it’s this war. As a civey I have no idea about how we would pull our guys out, or how quick, but I do know, that is what we need to do. I remember reading a book called ‘Sniper One’ where a local police chief in Afghanistan was caught riding a motorbike whilst drunk, with a loaded pistol and threatening anyone near him. Our guys dissarmed him and took his pistol and keys off him to stop him doing any harm. The ‘Top Brass’ told the lower ranks to give him his gun and keys back as it would look like we were undermining his authority.!!!!! With this kind of leadership from Number 10 right down to the officers in charge, how the hell are our troups expected to do their job???
    If every one of us wrote a letter to either thier local MP or the PM spelling out their feelings we might, just might start a ball rolling that will make them listen. My synical side say’s ‘No chance’ but I’m always fighting that side of me……Fingers crossed one day they will open their eyes and see the ‘right’.

  4. It is a simple fact that we are caught in a mess of our own making. What ever happens will not be the right move.

    I believe that we should withdraw from Afghanistan, but it won’t happen anytime soon. The politicians, the brass and the defence industry have too much invested in staying there and trying to obtain “peace with honour”

    Thanks for another interesting read Bob.

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