Twelve years, al-Qa’ida’s leader slain, one fundamentalist Sharia regime sidelined but not vanquished, 2,300 Americans dead, 15,000 civilians estimated killed since 2007 and tens of thousands more wounded, $400 billion spent – and this week, the 445th British death in action in Afghanistan since 2001, and the first in six months. Yesterday the 22-year-old was named as L/Cpl James Brynin, an intelligence analyst serving in the reconnaissance force of the 14th Signal Regiment (Electronic Warfare). He died at the scene of a firefight, while out on operation, trying to counter an “imminent threat” to Afghan and Coalition forces.
British servicemen end their combat operations in Afghanistan next year. The last deaths in a war are often reported with particular dread and poignancy. France even backdated the headstones of its soldiers shot on 11 November 1918 to 10/11/18, such was the shame at the killing of thousands of men in those last hours before the armistice came into effect.
But are the last deaths in a war any less tragic than those that precede them? Yesterday also brought news from an inquest at Oxford, examining the deaths of six soldiers in a huge explosion in Helmand in March 2012. At the last minute, the coroner heard, one of the men, Private Christopher Kershaw, had volunteered to take the place of another soldier who had just got out of the shower.
It is easy to lose sight, 12 years on, of the extraordinary opportunities created for Afghans from the blood shed by Nato and Afghan troops; of their self-sacrifice; of the barbarism of the Taliban; of the stunned aftermath of 9/11, that terror spectacular for the telly age.
Yet the US and its allies will leave Afghanistan with mission not-accomplished – objectives such as nation-building, a self-sustaining economy and jailing corrupt public officials long ago downgraded as time ran away. The education of girls has been a great Nato achievement – but will be threatened by a resurgent Taliban. And who will pay for the Afghan Army, and for how long, to keep 200,000 men with guns on (roughly) the same side?