What I tell my family as a former soldier watching Afghanistan fall to the Taliban

This article appeared in The Telegraph on August 15th, 2021

When I am asked by family and friends what to make of the news coming out of Afghanistan, first I tell them to sit down. If they want an honest answer, it’s going to take some time.

Then, I point to two things.

First, the manner of the West’s withdrawal will cast a long shadow.

We went to Afghanistan for a reason – to push back against extreme forces who wish us harm.

The phrase ‘Global War On Terror’ never really took hold in Britain, partly due to the unpopularity of President George W Bush, but our fight against violent extremism largely amounted to the same thing.

Now, it speaks volumes that the British government has to be pressed to meet its moral obligations to Afghans who helped our forces.

Interpreters, contractors, other staff and their families, many of whom endured great hardship and threats, will be forgiven for wondering if they should ever have bothered trying to help Britain.

Their treatment by Britain will also have been noted around the world as the fight against extremism continues.

British forces are currently deployed in Mali, north-west Africa, and may soon be off to Somalia as well.

Imagine you are a Somali national who wants to help resist the Islamic extremists of al-Shabaab. You may welcome Britain’s interest. You may long to see British troops on the ground. But if such a deployment does occur, will you decide to volunteer your services as an interpreter having seen the way Britain treated those who made that choice in Afghanistan?

The fight against extremism is not over. The way we exit this war may already be setting the conditions for failure in the next.

The second thing I say is that if this conflict has reminded us of anything, it is that armies do not fight wars. Nations fight wars.

Why did we allow our politicians to become bored with Afghanistan?

When did we let them subcontract our interest in the country to the military, in the hope of achieving a military solution without addressing the significant political and cultural factors that made the fight necessary in the first place?

If those in positions of power are more interested in their own pockets, reputation, family, tribe or winning elections; doing what is easy rather than what is right, then the endeavour is doomed.

As with President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in haste – and let’s not conflate the decision to go, which many felt reasonable, with the way that policy was enacted that has led to chaos and fear – the UK government’s attitude to the country seems to have been one of increasing apathy.

The hard, costly and enduring efforts required to even make a start on the many ills afflicting the country were never properly addressed, which only benefited the Taliban.

That is not to let the military totally off the hook.

Take just one example. I’m not convinced the requirement for precision in modern weaponry should be seen solely through the lens of making it easier to hit targets with minimal ordnance.

That’s important, of course, but have we also learned that ensuring the security of civilians and their livelihoods is the greater win?

Alienate the population: local, regional and global, through bad politics and careless acts and you will watch the legitimacy for your cause bleed away, like so much other blood soaked over two decades into the sand and dust of Afghanistan.

I say all that and then leave my, by now slightly shell-shocked questioner, with one final thought: There’s going to be more of this, you know. How certain are you that we’ll do it better next time?

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