David Cameron has been making work for his spin doctors once again and in doing so he has surpassed even his own lofty standards. The great man has gone Full Mission Accomplished and, as George Bush learned in the immediate wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, one should never, ever go Full Mission Accomplished. The troops, he added, can come home “proud” and with their “heads held high”.
But given that veterans are notoriously tribal and serving soldier are prevented from speaking to the media by military law, what is their response? I asked a number of Afghanistan veterans - some still serving, some not - what they thought about a war which they experienced first-hand - a war which has become notorious for its shifting aims.
Cameron rehashed the argument that British troops have been fighting and dying to provide a basic level of security in the Central Asian country. Ben Wright, 28, is ideally positioned to address this claim. He previously served three tours of Afghanistan as a Royal Marine Commando, was blown up by an IED, recovered, redeployed and received a commendation for his operational service.
His review of the mission’s achievements is less glowing than that of Cameron: “Murders, kidnaps, opium production, bombing, the molesting of young boys, are all up since 2001.” I asked him how clear the military goals were to him and his comrades. “We were hastily deployed, one week’s operational training and very little background information on local population and their history. We were told about women's rights and the opium trade but again nothing to make clear why we were being sent.”
Ben does not think the mission has been accomplished. “I think the security of our country has been jeopardised by our involvement in Afghanistan. I am not proud…this is not a job well done. It wasn’t a job that needed doing.”
Glenn Humphries, also 28, previously served in the British army and went to Afghanistan in 2006 with 16 Air Assault Brigade. I asked him how he thought success might be measured. “For instance…” He said “…do the Afghanis have a better life now than before? Has the drugs trade stopped? Is the country now flourishing with trade and culture? And are the people now getting a better education?”
Glenn was also quite clear about what he thought he was going to Afghanistan to achieve and again it contrasts sharply with Cameron’s claim about security. “To find Osama bin Laden…” He told me “…and last time I checked he got away from Afghanistan.”
I also spoke to soldiers who are still serving and cannot be named for fear of persecution by the military. One returned from Afghanistan late last year and has no illusions about the occupations achievements: “I think old David has been reading George Bush's autobiography again,” he quipped. “I find it hard to see we have accomplished anything.”
“Cameron,” he continues “seems to be talking about such a small percentage of the country. I know for a fact that most of the farming population in Nari Saraj, down in Helmand, have gone back to growing opium.”
He puts little stock in Cameron’s claim that basic levels of security have been established: “They have to grow opium and do what the Taliban say or starve. Once the Taliban move back into those areas, I highly doubt the corrupt local police & army are going to make much of a stand.” And his view on legacy of the war he took part in? “The only thing we accomplished was adding a few hundred names onto a wall in the National Memorial Arboretum.”
He never really knew why he was going to Afghanistan in the first place. “I’ll go with what it says on my NATO medal, 'In the service of peace & freedom'. I guess to bring peace & freedom to a people oppressed by the evils of terrorism. That’s the bollocks I once believed anyway.” He added.
Another serving soldier was even more withering in his appraisal. “I have no f*cking idea which of the many commercial media stated 'missions' we completed”. He said. “To my knowledge, Osama was in Pakistan, opium production has rocketed, the Taliban presence has increased, the hearts and minds of the locals are all broken – we’re leaving an unsustainable and unwinnable war for a conscripted, corrupt army”.
Given his fiery response, I pressed him further on Cameron’s claims. “If the mission was to impose terror on a nation,” he said, “we achieved it. You can't fault his ability to mislead the public.”
Not quite the stuff of David Cameron’s patriotic imagination. Former marine Ben Wright who seems to best capture the confused and angry mood of men who are still trying to figure what the war was all about. “How can we say it is mission accomplished, when we don’t know what the mission was?”
Joe Glenton refused to serve a second tour in Afghanistan on legal and moral grounds, later spending five months in military prison. His book, 'Soldier Box', is published by Verso.