United Kingdom

STEPHEN GLOVER: Did 456 British heroes die in vain? 

President Biden has announced that all remaining American troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11, exactly 20 years after the attack on the World Trade Centre that started it all. The 750 British soldiers still in the country will follow.

So job done, then? I'm afraid not. The Taliban — crazed extremists against whom Western troops have been fighting for nearly two decades — exercise control or influence over at least half of Afghanistan.

They have just pulled out of peace talks. They are apparently preparing to fight a full-scale civil war against an often corrupt and ineffectual Afghan government, which will be deprived of U.S. and British know-how.

It seems possible, even likely, that despite all the hundreds of lives lost and billions spent in fighting the Taliban, these pitiless fanatics will end up occupying the capital, Kabul, and running the country.

Blunder

Some will say it is therefore wrong for the Americans, British and other Nato forces to leave the Afghan regime in the lurch. It's a reasonable argument. But there is a deeper question — which is whether it was right to send thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan in the first place.

I believe the answer is almost certainly 'No'. Indeed, I think British involvement in Afghanistan was the biggest foreign affairs blunder of recent years. Its chief author was, of course, Tony Blair.

British Paratroopers in Salavat, Panjawi Province, Afghanistan in 2008 with soldiers from the US-led Task Force Paladin

The former Labour prime minister is rightly castigated for sending British troops into Iraq in 2003 to support the Americans in search of weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist.

But his Afghan misjudgement was arguably an even more egregious error. And yet he has suffered much less criticism on this front, probably because we slid into a quagmire after very little debate, and without any public commitment to a full-scale war.

Back in early 2006, Labour Defence Secretary John Reid expressed the hope that British troops being sent to the country might soon return 'without a shot being fired'.

In the event, 456 British servicemen and women have died — about two and a half times the number of casualties suffered in the Iraq War (179) and getting on for twice the number killed in the Falklands (258). It was the biggest loss of British lives in a foreign conflict since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Why were we there? It's not clear. One reason given by the Labour Government was that Nato troops, including our own, would destroy Afghanistan's illicit heroin trade. In 2001, Blair emotionally invoked the sad death of a young woman from what was probably an overdose of Afghan heroin.

But the attempt to curb the heroin trade has been a fiasco. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, opium poppies were grown on around 285 square miles. By 2017, official figures showed production had increased more than four-fold, so that opium was being grown on 1,266 square miles.

Another reason for invading Afghanistan trotted out by the Blair administration (and later thoughtlessly repeated by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition) was that it would help to keep our streets safe, because the Taliban had backed Al Qaeda, which was behind the attack on the World Trade Centre.

Royal Marines of 45 Commando board a Chinook helicopter of 27 Squadron RAF during Operation Condor May 20, 2002 in southeastern Afghanistan

All one can say is that, since 2001, there have been many terrorist attacks in Britain, none of which had any proven links with Al Qaeda. Jihadists of the Middle-Eastern Islamic State, by contrast, were partly responsible for many of these outrages.

I submit that we stumbled into Afghanistan without the dangers or possible benefits being properly weighed. Keeping our American allies happy was a major motivation. But where lies the sense in following a friend in an ill-conceived escapade?

One tragic, immediate consequence of our hastiness and ill preparedness was that many young troops were sent to Afghanistan to sit in Land Rovers offering scant protection against lethal roadside bombs. Some needlessly died.

The cost was not only young lives squandered. By 2010, there were more than 10,000 British troops in the country, occupying a base the size of Reading. Unsurprisingly, the bill was astronomical — officially £20 billion, though some observers reckon twice that amount.

I think British involvement in Afghanistan was the biggest foreign affairs blunder of recent years. Its chief author was, of course, Tony Blair

If only Tony Blair had known some history! He would have remembered that in 1842 a British army was driven out of Afghanistan after hundreds of soldiers had died. This was at the very apogee of British imperial might.

Nearly four decades later, a British force countering Russian influence in Afghanistan (the 'Great Game') was more successful after an arduous campaign, though it sensibly withdrew into the safety of India having installed a friendly emir in Kabul.

Disaster

Blair should have thought of Kipling's poem The Young British Soldier, written a few years later: 'When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains/ And the women come out to cut up what remains/Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.'

Tony Blair was a young man in 1979 when a Soviet invasion force rumbled over the Amu Darya River, eventually becoming a 100,000-strong occupying army. But during the next ten years the Russians lost hundreds of aircraft, and at least 15,000 men, before beating a retreat.

Didn't he notice that Afghanistan has historically been the graveyard of foreign armies? Perhaps he was relying on his equally ill-informed American master, President George W. Bush, as the two of them blundered into disaster.

Has anything at all been achieved by the deaths of all those young men and women? Despite my grim audit, I'd like to say that it has. It is a terrible thought that brave soldiers have died, and hundreds still suffer from life-changing wounds, in a hopeless cause.

Here I look to the parents and relatives of those who have lain down their lives. In 2019, Sarah Adams spoke to a newspaper website about the death of her 21-year-old son James Prosser, serving with 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh, from a roadside bomb ten years earlier. He had been in Afghanistan for 62 days when he died.

A convoy of Royal Marine Commandos makes its way through the Afghan countryside April 30, 2002

Taliban

Ms Adams said of him: 'He gave up everything, and look what we've done over there. When I look at it now, we've not achieved anything, really. The Taliban are still in Afghanistan . . . James didn't achieve anything because we shouldn't have been there anyway. That is heartbreaking.'

Hazel Hunt's son Richard, also 21, was fatally injured by an explosive device in 2009. She said: 'At the end of the day, we haven't achieved anything . . . I hear the news on the radio all the time about things that are still going on in Afghanistan. It makes you realise that nothing has really changed.'

I fear they are right, though the sacrifice of these and other courageous young soldiers is moving and inspiring, and their example leaves a precious legacy. But was it necessary?

If at the end of it all the Taliban are held at bay by the regime in Kabul, it may be possible to say it was worth paying a dreadful price, and that some good has come of it.

But even in that probably unlikely event this would surely remain a futile war. The lives of brave young soldiers were thrown away by ignorant or devious politicians who have never had to answer for their mistakes in an inquiry. I wish I could say it will never happen again.

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