Was it worth it? That is what many of us who served in Afghanistan are quietly asking as we watch with bewilderment and horror at what is unfolding.
Four hundred and fifty-seven British servicemen and women never made it home from the war. Among them was Corporal Kevin Mulligan, a fearless young Scot with whom I had the honour of serving. He was the epitome of a paratrooper and one of our best and brightest commanders. At the time of his death, Kev’s fiancee was carrying their unborn child. One of countless tragedies borne out of that bloody conflict.
It is impossible to quantify the price paid over the past 20 years but whenever I think about Afghanistan, the human cost is at the forefront of my mind. The pain felt by Kev’s loved ones. The thousands of veterans who are today suffering terribly from the physical and mental effects of the campaign. And the millions of Afghans who have known nothing but violence and bloodshed their entire lives.
Good news has been in limited supply for decades but even by historical standards, the months since President Joe Biden announced the drawdown have been miserable for Afghanistan. Mass desertion by soldiers. US forces leaving a strategic base in the dead of night without informing their indigenous counterparts. Violence on the rise, including the monstrous bombing of Sayed al-Shuhada high school in Kabul that left 85 dead, an attack that contributed to civilian casualties reaching record levels. And this week, at least 80 people were killed in a flash flood in Nuristan province, pushing the country closer to the verge of a humanitarian crisis. The promise from Nato’s chief of an “orderly, coordinated, and deliberate” withdrawal rings increasingly hollow.
What makes our failure such a bitter pill to swallow is that we knew about the flaws in our strategy all along. And yet we chose to do nothing about them.
We had one overarching goal in Afghanistan: to build a government that had the legitimacy, competence and means to survive without us. A government capable of mediating between competing political forces adequately enough to avoid major conflict would have provided us with an exit strategy. We failed in that pursuit because we never made it a serious objective.
There must be an active effort to engage regional players to support a settlement rather than fuelling deeper conflict
I saw first hand what corruption did to the Afghan security forces and to the political environment under which they operated. Political exclusion and impunity were rife and undermined faith in a fledgling democracy. That, in turn, drove people towards the insurgency and further fuelled conflict.
This was common knowledge but we did not tackle the underlying problems. Instead, we turned a blind eye to strongmen engaged in land grabs and murders, to a colossal bank fraud that threatened the entire economy and to widespread electoral fraud.
Lasting stability is impossible to achieve if your security forces and goverment institutions are corrupt, your elected leaders are subordinated to warlords and swaths of the population feel excluded from power. We were complacent and involved in a long-running conspiracy of optimism that the tide would turn, but it never did. Then, on realising the consequence of our strategy, we opted for abandonment. And nobody needs reminding what happens when Afghanistan is abandoned.
It is, however, only right to highlight the genuine progress that has been made, particularly on the rights of women and girls. Around two out five children now attending school are girls; 175 female judges have been appointed across the country; 25% of sitting MPs are women. Given where the country was in 2001, these gains are not to be sniffed at. But make no mistake, the return of a Taliban-led government would be catastrophic for women – provisions for their protection, education and health must be a long-term priority for the UK government.
Britain and its allies cannot be proud of where we have ended up. After two decades of a war that has left tens of thousands dead and cost the west trillions of dollars, we left without a peace deal in place and with the Taliban in ascendency. That is not what success looks like.
The effect of the intervention on Afghanistan and the wider region will take a generation to discern but its effect on us is already clear. We may never commit to a campaign on this scale again. In the near future, it is inconceivable that any government would propose it, let alone that the public would stand for it. Whatever the mistakes of the past, I still hold some hope for the future. The US decision to leave meant Britain could not have feasibly stayed and staying without a coherent strategy would not have helped anyway. But we still retain influence, even at this 11th hour. The question is whether the government is willing to wield that influence in a way that successive administrations have failed to.
First, we must back the Afghan government – however flawed, it is the only show in town. Second, our support should be made much more conditional on better governance and respect for human rights. Third, we need to do whatever we can to facilitate the peace process. And finally, there must be an active effort to engage regional players to support a settlement rather than fuelling deeper conflict. This will involve compromise, some of it unpalatable, but pursuing a lasting peace should be our only objective.
So, was it worth it? If Afghanistan continues on its current trajectory, then my honest but heartbreaking answer is no.
I want nothing more than to be proved wrong. I want the Afghan security forces to beat back the insurgents. I want the government to agree a peace accord on its terms. I want the country to turn the page on 40 years of conflict so its people can finally prosper. Ultimately, I want the sacrifices made by Kev and everyone else to mean something.
Afghanistan’s fate is not yet sealed. It has been clear for some time that a military victory is not possible but that does not mean now is the time to throw in the towel. If we do, it will not only represent a betrayal of our own interests and sacrifices, but of the Afghans.
Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, mayor of South Yorkshire and a former British army major.