Britain’s justifications for invading were having influence and deterring terror. They are just neo-imperialist platitudes
Twenty years ago the United States decided to relieve its 9/11 agony not just by blasting Osama bin Laden’s base in the Afghan mountains, but by toppling the entire Afghan regime. This was despite young Taliban moderates declaring Bin Laden an “unwelcome guest” and the regime demanding he leave. The US then decided not just to blast Kabul but invited Nato to launder its action as a matter of global security. Britain had no dog in this fight and only joined because Tony Blair liked George W Bush.
American and British troops roamed the country, signing up warlords or setting up new governors. Visiting Kabul at the time, I was told of Nato’s ambition to wipe out terror, build a new democracy, liberate women and create a “friend in the region”. I had an eerie sense of Britain in 1839 embarking on the First Afghan War.
Most Americans at the time wanted to get out, and concentrate on nation-building in Iraq. It was the British who were eager to stay. Blair even sent a minister, Clare Short, to eliminate the poppy crop. Whatever she did, it increased production from six provinces to 28, and raised poppy revenue to a record $2.3bn (£1.7bn).
Spin forward to 2005, and the British army was in full imperial mode, itching to march south with 3,400 troops and conquer Pashtun Helmand. The British commander, General David Richards, was adamant that it would be just a matter of winning hearts and minds in friendly “inkspot” towns. His defence secretary, John Reid, hoped this would be achieved “without firing one shot”. They had fun giving their operations names such as Achilles, Pickaxe-Handle, Sledgehammer Hit, Eagle’s Eye, Red Dagger and Blue Sword.
The Russians, who had been forced out of Afghanistan a decade before, were privately amazed at the ineptitude of the western operations – and publicly delighted. Gordon Brown, by then prime minister, was forced implausibly to explain in 2009 that British troops were dying in Helmand to make Britain’s streets safe.
Since then, most of Nato has retreated, hoping against hope that diplomacy would rescue the Kabul government and the west from abject humiliation. Three US presidents have pledged various forms of “surge and depart”, but lacked the political nerve to go through with them. Even Joe Biden has extended a May deadline to September. Each has done just enough to keep the puppet regime in Kabul safe without returning to full-scale imperial rule.
America’s 2,300 troops and their air support will now leave, as will Britain’s 750 (as one senior UK defence source told the Guardian: “If they [the US] go, we’ll all have to go,”). For the US, the cost has been high: 2,216 dead and more than $2tn spent. Billions in “aid” are said to have left Afghanistan, much of it to the Dubai property market. The cost to Afghan civilians has been appalling, put at between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths over the two decades, all in retaliation for “hosting” the 9/11 attackers. Is that what we call western values?
As a senior US official said this week, when President Biden fixed his new deadline: “The threat against the homeland from Afghanistan is at a level we can address.” That has surely been the case for years in Britain as in America, yet we are still there.
The latest peace talks in Qatar are going nowhere. The reason is obvious: that the Taliban need only to wait for September, when they can do as they choose. The current regime may hold Kabul for a while, but if it can barely govern with American help, it can hardly do so alone.
Left alone back in 2001, the Taliban leadership – with which US intelligence was already liaising – would have dealt with Bin Laden. It would have been held in check by its local warlords and by the Pakistani army. Instead, the Pashtun have been left to rampage for two decades, financed by western heroin users. The worst it has suffered is the decimation of its senior figures by US drones, to absolutely no effect. Afghanistan will need these people to contain another product of Nato intervention: the country is now a focus of Islamic State activity.
What has the US and UK intervention achieved? The military theorist Gen Sir Rupert Smith, in his book The Utility of Force, has pointed out that modern armies are almost useless in counter-insurgency wars. They have roamed the Middle East from Afghanistan to Libya, “creating one ruined nation after another”. Britain’s sole justification is the hoary Foreign Office cliche about having influence, deterring terror and standing tall in the world. They are neo-imperialist vacuities. In a world of apologies, some mighty big ones are due in September.
- Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist