by UnHerd
Thursday, 8
July 2021

Britain’s Afghan failure comes to an end

The war is over, but will the UK's defeat be remembered?
by UnHerd
British troops board a Chinook helicopter in Helmand

War was declared from the unlikely venue of the Labour Party conference, held that year in Brighton. The mood in the hall was sombre, and the delegates were silent. In a fifty minute speech, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave what the papers called a “chilling warning” to the Taliban.

“There is no diplomacy with Bin Laden or the Taliban regime… We stated the ultimatum; they haven’t responded.”

Blair made another guarantee, to the “Afghan people”. “We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before.” The Prime Minister received a standing ovation, left the conference hall, and returned to London. It was Tuesday October 2nd 2001.

Today a different Prime Minister announced the end of Britain’s involvement with NATO operations in Afghanistan. Flag-lowering ceremonies took place secretly last month. British troops were now “returning home”, said Boris Johnson.

In a separate statement, the head of the armed forces, Sir Nick Carter, paid tribute to the servicemen who’d lost their lives in the conflict. The current situation in Afghanistan, with the Taliban effectively taking control of the countryside, and the educated middle-classes of the country desperately attempting to leave it, was “pretty grim”, he admitted. But there was a silver lining. The British army, according to Carter, “were never defeated on the battlefield.”

In the twenty years since Blair declared war on the Taliban, their fighters have seen off, or eluded, five British Prime Ministers, four American Presidents, NATO’s armies, and trillions of dollars of taxpayers money from Western nations. (Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were estimated to have cost the Britain over £40 billion by 2013 — several thousand pounds per family.)

An irresistible illusion carried Blair into the war. “Post-9/11”, he said, “you no longer wait for the thing to happen. You go out actively and try to stop it.” We would fight in the terrorist’s backyard, not our own. We would strengthen the special relationship. We would make our country less vulnerable to attack. We would mould a stable liberal democracy into being in Afghanistan. On every count Blair, and Britain, lost.

Whatever Carter might think, the war in Afghanistan, along with the parallel conflict British forces fought in Iraq, will likely be judged as two bitter, unnecessary defeats. Many British casualties occurred because of under-resourced equipment. Men died due to a lack of armoured vehicles and helicopters — a fact that will probably be remembered only by historians.

The spontaneous public ritual that developed in the small town of Wootton Bassett, where people silently lined the roads as coffins flown back from Afghanistan were driven away from nearby RAF Lyneham, will likely linger longer in the public’s memory. The sentiment, while beautiful, and necessary, will obscure the fundamental lesson of the war — Britain lacked the power and capacity to fight it.

10,000 British troops were at one time deployed in Helmand province. This was much more British strength than was deployed in previous, mostly forgotten wars fought there in its 19th century imperial heyday. Yet they barely held their own against an enemy that was both omnipresent and imperceptible.

Far more than any prime minister’s words, the symbol of the British struggle in Afghanistan is the enormous hydro-electric turbine convoyed through enemy territory to Helmand’s Kajaki dam in 2008. It could not be installed because of continued enemy harassment.

Today the dam is operational and distributes power to more than 3 million people. Nominally run by the Afghan government, those who use the dam’s electricity pay for it in taxes — collected by the Taliban. 

Join the discussion

  • ‘But there was a silver lining. The British army, according to Carter, “were never defeated on the battlefield.”’ So Suez in 1956 can now be re-classified as another of our successes.

  • I watched the film, Kajaki. I wonder how all those young men who lost limbs there now feel about their sacrifice.
    “Older men start wars, but younger men fight them.”
    Albert Einstein

  • From the start it was Russia, back in, if I remember, 1973 the King’s Cousin took control and set up a Socialist government under Russian tutelage. (I actually think the process began in 1965, forming some kind of Parliament under the King) and when it all began to fall apart in 1979 the Failed Afghani gov invited in the Russians Army in to keep control.
    And this is where I think we should have let it go. The Russians seemed to handle the ‘Stan’ countries better than others, and under them Mining, Pipelines, Hydro, and all things would have modernized, and in those 40 years I think much progress would have happened…
    But instead we used this to bankrupt the Russians for Cold War purposes, I do not think to free Afghanistan, but by funding the Mujahideen, (Via ISI, another trouble maker) and later giving them anti air missiles, we put Russia into a military, very costly, stalemate. So 20 years of that…

    Meanwhile Saudi was funding many madrassas in Western Pakistan for the Afghani youth – free religious education, this is Highly revered by the Pashtun, so a great many boys went, very harsh and fundamental religious schools, they taught a Deobandi/Pushtunwali (traditional code of the Pushtu people, the code where one must kill any who strikes you, or a family member even, the code of honour above death, the code of family, tribe, land above all, also the code of the burqua, honour is very much tied up with the women, which was later the issue…)

    So all these exceedingly tough Afghani youth (Talib, which means ‘Student’, or Taliban) were trained up to fanatical fighters, and then loosened on the totally corrupt Mujahideen now the Russians had gone. One primary code of Pashtunwali is Hospitality, and the obligations of it once you had granted it… they were life and death obligations –
    So Osama had set up there, it was Saudi Salifist Whabbi financed, educated, fighters and the USA told the Talib Osama had to go – but their code would not let them kick him out, and so in we went, and once there the MSM, that Agenda driven force for evil in the West ,began on the girls and women (Pashtunwali) and so we stuck there another 20 years to try to Westernize the Women’s condition as the MSM had the Liberal outrage all worked up…..
    42 years, really 45, and for what? Not what they told you it was for. Crazy, Ironic, and expensive – and now China is gearing up to get making some money there….
    No one has had luck in Afghanistan after the Parthians (Alexander), Pashtunwali is the code of honour above death, it never ends well to try to make them live in a way which they feel is dishonorable….

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