by James Jeffrey
Tuesday, 3
August 2021

We lost Afghanistan a long time ago

It's time we showed some humility about the withdrawal
by James Jeffrey
British troops leave Afghanistan. Credit: Getty

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.

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

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