As British and American forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, many people would have been thinking of the families of troops who died there: 454 British deaths between 2001 and 2015 - when troops withdrew from combat operations - and 2,372 American deaths overall. Sorrow at the terrible death toll caused by the war amongst the Afghan civilian population during the last twenty years, (48,000 at least but this is only an estimate), is less often expressed.
The Taliban - the name means students – (of the Qur’ān), are closing in fast. People may remember in better times BBC reporting from Herat in Western Afghanistan now under siege and about the south western province of Helmand, a former hell-hole for British troops, facing the imminent fall of Lashkar-Gah its provincial capital. Future Afghan or US air-force bombing of civilian areas occupied by the Taliban means that more civilians as well as combatants will die.
Britain and America completed the withdrawal of their few remaining ground troops and contractors a month ago, leaving residual technical support only. Air support, operating long-distance now from the Gulf, is much reduced. The speed with which the Taliban moved into major cities, or emerged within them, was unexpected. There are reports of many displaced people moving into the capital Kabul. Journalists are risking their lives reporting from receding front-lines. Accounts contradict each other. On the one hand there is the morale-boosting optimism of General Sami Sadat, former Afghan National Army Commander in Helmand, trained in both Germany and UK, claiming the insurgents will be beaten back by special forces. On the other there is the pessimism of Afghans themselves in threatened cities giving often contradictory accounts of the Taliban’s rapid assumption of control and their brutal behaviour.
Hopes that the Taliban’s ideology had mellowed since 2001 are over. There are reports of the savagery of Taliban assaults and the aftermath of their occupation of the first major urban areas – forced marriages to their fighters and executions of anyone associated with withdrawn foreign forces. If anything the Taliban’s perverse interpretation of Islam has hardened since the beginning of the US/UK’s Operation Enduring Freedom and the invasion of NATO coalition troops from 2001-2002.
It is difficult to remember that foreign intervention in Afghanistan was originally intended to destroy Al-Qaeda’s safe havens there. This war aim required defeating and chasing the Taliban out of the cities. But this in turn led to a near impossible goal: a commitment to the long haul of building democracy, stability and a modicum of security in an alien, and poorly understood, social, ethnic, religious and political culture. The combination of cultural solidarity amongst ethnic Pashtuns who compose nearly half the population and predominate amongst the Taliban, anti-foreigner nationalism, and the quest for an imagined 7th century religious Caliphate, have for two decades sustained the Taliban as a guerrilla force which could not be dislodged. And in addition covert cross-border support from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate meant that the coalition faced into a very strong headwind. Iraq took up time, troops and resources that might have bolstered coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Trying to conjure a modern liberal democratic State into existence in one country was hubristic, in two at the same time was cruelly punished.
Surprise at the effectiveness of the current Taliban offensive is not the only misplaced reaction. Given the disappearance of active NATO military power in-country and the prospect of a victory for a powerful Islamic extremist organisation it was predictable that foreign extremists seeking a new caliphate would be drawn to Afghanistan. And likewise that these opportunist incomers would somehow believe that ‘Allah the merciful, the compassionate’ demanded first and foremost jihad and the subjugation of women. There was an obvious precedent. Al-Qaeda itself had been created from similar ‘martyrdom migrants’, mostly Arabs led by Abdallah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, sucked into Afghanistan to fight the occupying Soviets. In the 1990s it even had US support.
Afghanistan is a failed State, insecure, unstable and with little hope of democracy prevailing. It is marauding rival militias who should now be expected to emerge. It might seem that not a single coalition political objective has been achieved. But there have been successes. There are indications that the nearly 30% of the population who are urban-based, in the main, have different expectations of their government. Amongst them there is strong support expressed for the hoped-for democracy and stability promised by the USA. In rural areas under Taliban control hopes for cultural change, modernisation, are evidently weaker and seem far-fetched.
But it is important to remember the many Afghans who actively supported the allied cause. For them, on 29 July, President Biden got a bipartisan billion dollar support and assistance bill through Congress aimed at protecting those whose lives were in danger because of their work for NATO forces and the elected Afghan government. Already 8,000 US visas have been issued and the application process is being streamlined. The response of the British government to the danger threatening our own loyal ‘collaborators’ recently elicited expressions of ‘grave concern’ from 40 military chiefs, including six former heads of our armed forces. They questioned the rejection in the past three months of 500 asylum applications from interpreters, drivers, cooks and others who had worked for British military forces and pointed to the danger that such mean spiritedness would ‘dishonour’ the British armed forces. Their pleas, and those of their military advocates, ought not to go unheard in Whitehall and Westminster.
Was it worth it? The bitter judgement of bereaved relatives of soldiers, “no it wasn’t”, must be respected. But for almost twenty years some 14 million Afghani women and girls had the doors of education and participation in public life wedged open for them. Even as the doors are shutting we need to remember the many Afghan parents who want their daughters educated, they have not changed their minds and nothing can take the experience of education away from the young people who received it. Those who died fighting the Taliban gave their own futures so that girls and women through education could hope for and aspire to a better future. That is not a wasted life.
See TheArticle 05/08/2021