The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they recently mounted a major military operation in Helmand province in the south and where throughout the rest of the country they are increasingly active, is emphatic evidence that NATO’s prolonged military mission there has been a dismal failure. This failure is not however a measure of the failure to impose a liberal democracy in the country but in the lives destroyed in the attempt.
As is the case all across the UK in 2015, homeless people are a regular fixture on the high street close to where I live; to the point where you can’t walk for five minutes in either direction without coming across one sitting on the pavement begging for change.
One of the regulars – let’s call him David – is an ex-soldier. Until recently I would come across him sitting on the pavement outside the same mini-supermarket each early evening rush hour, trying to make enough money to pay for a night at a hostel. In front of him he would have a piece of cardboard with his army service number written across it, hoping it would garner a more positive response.
David’s story is an all too common one. In his early twenties, with a young wife and two kids to support, he was made redundant from his job after serving his apprenticeship as a vehicle mechanic. Unable to find work he decided to join the army. He signed up for the minimum term of four years and in that time served four six-month tours of duty in Afghanistan. The experience left him damaged and unable to cope emotionally and psychologically with normal life once he came out. His marriage collapsed and for want of support from the state and not enough help from the various hard-pressed charities that are set up to help ex-servicemen like him, he ended up on the street.
Recently he disappeared and I stopped seeing him. I subsequently learned that he was in prison after selling heroin – heroin that likely originated in Afghanistan – to a young girl who died from it.
This spiral of despair and tale of wasted young life describes the reality of Britain’s military interventions over recent years. In Afghanistan, as with Iraq, young men such as David were thrown into a country they had no business being in to fulfil a military operation that was ill conceived, planned, and organised, lacking resources, equipment, and anywhere near enough manpower.
Where Britain is concerned we are talking war on the cheap, which in the case of Afghanistan was unleashed by Tony Blair after 9/11 to help US president George W. Bush vent revenge for this terrorist atrocity on one of the poorest countries in the world. The results, fourteen years later, are all too predictable.
Make no mistake, the Taliban are destined to be part of Afghanistan’s future. They are Afghans who inarguably enjoy wide support among the majority Pashtun population in the south of the country and are considered by the communities in which they operate to be fighting for the country’s liberation and independence. Conseqeuntly, the most grievous indictment of British and US policy is not the resurgence of the Taliban; it is instead the recent emergence of ISIS in eastern Afghanistan. It comes as more proof that instead of making the situation better, the presence of British and American troops in the Arab and Muslim world has only made it worse.
At its peak the number of British troops and service personnel in Afghanistan reached 9,500, the bulk of which were deployed to Helmand. The number killed stands at 456 while over 7000 have been injured or maimed. As for Afghan deaths, according to a study published by the Watson Institute at Brown University in the US, 26,000 Afghan civilians were killed between 2001 and January 2015. As for the number injured or maimed, there are no reliable figures available but you can draw your own conclusions.
The only victors to emerge from this military and foreign policy debacle have been corruption and the heroin trade. In October the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published its 2015 Afghanistan Opium Survey. It reveals that 66% of the country’s opium cultivation takes place in the south – i.e. Helmand. While overall there has been a decrease in overall poppy-cultivation compared to 2014, the number of poppy-free provinces in the country also decreased. In other words, Afghanistan and heroin are now two sides of the same coin.
Apologists for the US / British / NATO role in Afghanistan point to the achievement in leaving a country behind in which far more people have access to basic medical care and education than they did under the Taliban. While this may well be true the cost in wasted lives and corruption surely undermines it. This is without referencing the inescapable fact that the Taliban are stronger now, today, than they have been since 2001, prior to the invasion and occupation. Here Leo Tolstoy’s dictum that ‘The two most powerful warriors are patience and time’ receives ironclad validation.
Returning to the plight of David, a young man facing a bleak future of perennial despair, those who sent him and thousands like him over to Afghanistan to kill and be killed no doubt enjoyed their usual sumptuous Christmas this year. In a just society they would be the ones in prison and the Davids of this world would be where they rightly belong at Christmas – at home with their families looking forward to the future.