We lost Afghanistan a long time ago
It's time we showed some humility about the withdrawal
Afghanistan is a subject that is deeply personal to me. Since my 2009 Helmand tour — for which I had to receive counselling — I have ruminated and agonised over my experience there. It was hellish, and for other veterans the toll was too much to bear.
So when I see articles about throwing “the towel” in too soon, followed by a piece today in The Times by William Hague describing the withdrawal as “betrayal”, I feel like screaming. The predictable guff about why we mustn’t leave is all there: the rights of girls and women, honouring the soldiers who died, talk of betrayal and not seeing through the nation and government building — those heady ideals that took us into the quagmire in the first place.
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But you do not invade and then occupy a sovereign country in the name of female emancipation, or because your mates died there and you need to make it “worth it”, or because of other Western-centric ideas we set to foist upon Afghanistan. During the first month of my tour, each week seemed to bring a new reason for being there. Forget 9/11, now we were saving Afghanistan’s female population from the burka, then impeding the international heroin trade, then delivering the ballot box.
It’s time for some humility. We lost Afghanistan a long time ago. Failing to accept this — as Jarvis and Hague do — prevents a clear-sighted analysis of what small benefits might still be achieved for Afghanistan and its people. When it comes to helping the country, let’s focus on tangible realities that are within our powers, such as resettling Afghan interpreters whose lives are at risk as the Taliban retake Afghanistan.
Saad Mohseni, CEO of Afghanistan’s largest media conglomerate Moby Media Group, admittedly isn’t optimistic. He says the country has been “left in the lurch” by the suddenness of the withdrawal. It’s hard to argue against that. But let’s at least consider what should come next to ascertain what is realistically achievable — rather than serving up the usual moralising and righteous indignation.
I will always be haunted by the Afghanistan — as well as Iraqi — women and children we killed with our bombs. As a British army veteran, those memories will stay with me for the rest of my days. But I can only hope that my experience will serve as a warning to those who feel compelled to make the same mistakes. For once, let history — not emotion — guide our decision-making.
Afghanistan was never ours to ‘lose’. In common with most of North Africa, the ME, and east and central Asia, it’s a cauldron of ethnic, cultural, religious, tribal etc factions, whose differences and antipathies are cemented in place by religious fiefdoms and franchises who each insist with utter certainty that their interpretation of the belief system and its ideologies is the ‘correct’ one. They will only come together to oppose a common enemy, before resuming traditional or opportunistic alliances and conflicts to promote their sectarian interests. There are no broader or longer term social, institutional, political etc influences which come close to rivalling the local influence of clerics and clan leaders. The only effective lid on the cauldron is a powerful, ruthless, repressive dictatorship. The West could not contemplate taking on such a role. The only way we could turn down the heat is to recognise that the underlying problem is not military, but religious, and weaken its certainties with direct questioning, criticism, challenge, and doubt. For some inexplicable reason, we have afforded religious belief ‘protected’ status, so not only will Afghanistan remain incapable of change, but we are enabling the seeds of its failure to grow here in the West.
I don’t disagree with much of what you say, except that you imply that the only way to success would have been to refrain from protecting religious belief. But surely, Soviet Russia and the regime it supported tried that, did they not?
Thank you, GA Woolley. Your comment says exactly what I was thinking, but you expressed it better than I would have done.
“The only way we could turn down the heat is to recognise that the underlying problem is not military, but religious, and weaken its certainties with direct questioning, criticism, challenge, and doubt.”
Spoken like the best kind of Cultural Marxist Neo-Colonialist. Lets us enlightened Westerners go in there and F with their heads – get them to stop believing in what they find is the most important thing in their existence.
I rarely have read a more Liberal/Fa* cist post than yours. Nothing like an arrogant secular-humanist who has found out all the answers to the universe and existence, and discovered everything of worth all can be had from Amazon, as what else is there? Post Modernism, existential Nihilism, Marx, Freud – those are the answer – right?
I don’t agree with the interpretation that the conflict is primarily religious. Tribal, possibly, at least in the case of Afghanistan. For a wider appreciation of the politicisation of Islam and the increasing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially since 1979, I can recommend ‘Black Wave’ by Kim Gattas. Sunni / Shia conflict had been rare, they often venerated the same shrines etc. Many people have commented on how these supposedly Islamic rules, such as women’s dress, have become much more prevalent owing to Saudi funded proselytising. And they are supposed to be our ‘allies’!
Potentially interesting, but I feel the article is unfulfilling.
The main point, “we lost Afghanistan a long time ago” is never explained, nor is it explained why you do “invade and occupy a sovereign country”.
Maybe the author needs the space afforded by an unHerd weekend essay.
To me the article seems complete as it stands. He is asking for
- Realistic objectives based on a clear view of what is possible in the real world
- A realistic assessment of required resources, and a commitment to come up with the resources that your objectives require.
- Unbiased reassessment as conditions change.
It does not require much explanation to see that it is not in our power to deliver a stable, democratic, female-friendly Afghanistan, and that we should aim for for a modest but achievable target rather than an ambitious and costly failure.
Yes that is fair – although it’s very easy to state that, whilst almost impossible to put it into any practical effect. Too many unknowns, even for ostensibly ‘simple’ goals.
His point about the resettlement of interpreters is a good one though. This is achievable.
It may be hard to get right – but the minimum would be to try. To try being realistic, and to say openly what you think will happen if you act, and what you think will happen if you do nothing. The people failing now are on the right, but the left has been no better: always eager to say why the west was wrong to intervene, e.g. in Libya, but never willing to take responsibility for letting Gheddafi massacre his opposition in peace, even if they thought it was the least bad alternative.
As for ‘invading a sovereign nation’, the bar is high. Still I have no problem with it, if we have good reason to think think it will lead to a better overall outcome than not doing it. Quoting Isaac Asimov, “You should never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”
Yes completely agreed on all counts there. Love the Asimov quote. Stealing that.
In return, I love one from the former SAS commander Graeme Lamb:
It’s hard to roll your sleeves up if you’re too busy wringing your hands.
To be accurate it’s not the British that lost Afghanistan but the US. And the issue really was that the US was not prepared to colonize Afghanistan but let it be run by a bunch of corrupt local politicians. In reality, Afghanistan could probably have never been colonized judging by the British experience in the 19th century. Perhaps it would have been better to partition the place into 3 separate countries: the kurds in the north; the taliban, and the region around Kabul.
Or better still the US should have simply gone in and then immediately gone out and not waste countless blood and treasure in a quagmire. As they say: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
That is what I was thinking; learn from British experience, and illustrate what happens if one allows sanctuary to people who raid peaceful territories, but resist the temptation of thinking one can instil alien concepts of secular law, education and trade.
I know it’s hard on the many Afghanis who yearn to attain those things, but progress (a subjective term) must come from inside. If there’s one thing at which an Afghani excels, it is resistance.
Kurds are Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
I think we should have left the Russians alone there. They are OK at managing the lands in that region. There would be mines, dams, farms, schools…. They can govern without the Stupid American women Squad types making everything about insane Western Pathologies.
Sorry got the Kurds mixed up with the Pashtuns. And yes the Russians there would have been fine – agreed.
Not the Kurds, they don’t live in Afghanistan but in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria….
Maybe he thinks of the Hazra, a people long persecuted, they have Mongol features and have traditionally been the house servants of the urban Patans – they are who lives in Bahamian, the ones who own the lands of the Great Buddha the Talib blew up…Being Shia, and I think speaking Dari rather than Pashtu, they are likely to get some assistance from Iran – but my guess is that is dangerous too…
Agree with Andrea – this does feel like it needs fleshing out more.
I looked up James and came across a Guardian article he wrote in 2013 advocating for an intervention in Syria (which i remembered reading at the time).
Now we all change our minds and develop our views – but I would be very intrigued as to why he thinks Afghanistan was the “invasion of a sovereign nation” but intervening in Syria would not be?
Really good point on the “betrayal” of our servicemen/women who died – I always found this odd. As if you are justified continuing doing something, no matter how wrong, until they it’s considered “worth it”?
His 2013 article for those interested: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/01/uk-parliament-wrong-call-syria
Afghanistan never belonged to us, and it never will. Nor will Iraq, Iran, Syria and many other places. The whole George W “Axis of Evil ” idea was just the Jewish anti-Iran lobby, in partnership with General Dynamics and the other Pentagon suppliers, climbing, successfully, on the bandwagon of the huge backlash which followed the 9/11 atrocities. The lobby unfortunately succeeded in getting the better of a weak, confused President who only won the 2000 US election because his brother was Governor of Florida. This is how unstoppable slides start: corruption at the top.
I will always be haunted by Afghanistan, of all I have ever lived, been to, it is the most pronounced in the weight of the memory – the beauty, the sheer way it is all history in the very air, it is humanity from thousands of years to now, existing at one time/place in the feel. – I cannot explain but the very land has a feel of ancient struggle, of fighting, of harsh life, and strength. – the land fills you with ancientness – cruelty, adversity, harshness, nothing is gentle and fat and safe like everything is in the West. Stark and barren mostly – bare desert, dry mountains, but beautiful and hard, baking hot or freezing cold, ability to carry hardship and keep on – it is a land where you see how strong humans are – also one of belief, faith, not the relative morality, post-modernism, sneering, weak, vacuousness of us fat and jaded Westerners – but toughness to the core, and acceptance of the fact of suffering as what life is. And suffering is always present.
The main thing, the entire problem as I would guess it is now – is demographics. The people are YOUNG. The youth have NO chance there. Millions of very young, no chance of jobs, or homes and family to raise – which is what the culture teaches is the ultimate goal of every young person. To work, have a spouse, and children, and then be with the greater family. This is impossible as their are just way too many of them, way too many. You cannot believe how young the population is – this is an impossible situation. They are doomed by demographics. They have no chance.
The Taliban were formed by KSA funding exceedingly harsh, fundamental, Madresses on the Western frontier, free to boys from Afghanistan – and all the families revere this education (schools where the mission it to teach the entire Koran, in Arabic which they do not speak, to me memorized! To memorize it all, to become Hafiz – the boys sitting memorizing all day wile a stick is very often used on them – it made them harder than we can understand)
The Taliban were made by exploiting this demographic of boys who had no economic use, made radical –
This is the coming Afghanistan – millions and millions of hard young men with no use or chance – very bad thing, the youth with no work – (Idle hands are the devil’s workshop)
I looked quickly to see a youtube on a Western Frontier Madresses – here is one in Pakistan to look at to get an idea – the boys rocking as the read to memorize, This scene is an old memory in me – The Jews do this, the Muslims, I suppose the Buddhists and Hindu too, and so on, but a memory I have, in the Medevil days I could imagine the monks doing this…
The Adhan at the start is always such a thing of beauty to me, invokes such a longing from my past…
Without seeing a madresses you cannot grasp the Afghanis, worth a quick look – I have not watched the actual video though…
PPS The beginning of the CGTN video is a Chinese Production company – the beginning logo is wild – it is a Global map where the individual nations leave the globe and then circle China wile dangling from strings – in an exceptionally prophetic image, Beware of China, it will soon fill the vacuum…. and even create more with its default diplomacy….
(find who in a poor country is in charge of resources, bribe them to take fantastic loans knowing they will default, and when they default, take the resources at a great advantage….)
The world you sheep think you occupy – you look at the pastures you are made to graze in and think how easy and safe it all is – but remember, the sheep lives in fear of the wolf, but always gets eaten by the shepherd….
The world is on the brink, and the covid response is likely the way the elites will push it over – things are changing FAST, and Social Media, MSM, Education, is the shepherd who leads you, protects you, and will eat you one day.
Your last sentence says it all! A study of history called for caution in the first place – Afghanistan was the only country that the U.K. could not subdue in the days of empire, and the Russians had to give up only a decade before 2001. .
We were fortunate that Wilson’s Labour government did not get us involved in Vietnam in the 1960s. Blair’s Labour government should have been equally canny when the USA set about expanding their bombing of terrorist sites in Afghanistan to an all-out war.
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