Thirteen years on, Afghanistan is a bloody failure – and it is ordinary Syrians who are paying the price

The only real winner in the long Afghan conflict has been the arms industry

Share

On the day before the twin towers fell in 2001, I wrote in this newspaper that Afghans needed the West to save them from the vicious, reactionary, anti-female Taliban. Last week, as British troops finally withdrew, two women, both journalists, well-known and well-liked in Afghanistan, were shot. Anja Niedringhaus, an extraordinary photographer, was killed and Kathy Gannon badly injured by a local police officer. Election fever is high and people will not let the Taliban keep them from polling booths, but the hardline Islamists, too, seem unstoppable, determined to wreck the process and assert their dominance. How long now before they return and make this Western venture futile, and utterly hopeless? We know that around 3,400 coalition personnel have died and that many other foreigners have perished. And then as ever there are the uncounted (because they don’t count) lives of the Afghan people, some guerrillas and terrorists, most innocents. They have been slaughtered by the Taliban and its associates, and massacred by our sophisticated weaponry, including drones. 2013 was the most violent year in that country since 2001.

So do I regret supporting this military engagement? Yes, now; but then it seemed right. There had been vital and effective Nato interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the British had saved Sierra Leone from civil chaos and unspeakable brutalities. Twenty years ago, no nation or international body stepped in to stop the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, and left a stain on history, as did the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s killing fields, Sri Lanka’s war and other such horrors. So there were good reasons to want us to go into Afghanistan. Unlike Tony Benn, Tariq Ali and others on the political Left, I don’t believe that outsiders should always keep out of conflict zones or that all Western involvement is duplicitous and damaging. We would have had many more mass killings of Muslims in Bosnia, a repeat of what was done by Serb nationalists to Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, a fact neatly forgotten by too many Muslims. More limbs would have been chopped off babies and women raped in Sierra Leone and, in Kosovo, citizens would still be killing each other. Blair did some good then.

But then came 9/11 and he lost his head, as did millions of Americans and Europeans. Still, initially, I trusted them, maybe naively, to do the right thing in Afghanistan. The people of that country did, too. As one carpet maker told the journalist Polly Toynbee in 2002: “We shouted with joy when American planes came over this way. They hit a Taliban police barracks, boom! ...we were amazed at how precise it was. Yes, we cheered!”

The Iraq war contaminated Blair’s previous virtuous decisions and changed everything, including my previous view of our forces in Afghanistan. As time went by, the daisy cutters, cluster bombs and drone attacks were killing ordinary people like the carpet maker, wedding guests, children playing hopscotch. The cheering stopped. The only real winners of this long conflict have been the international arms industry. By 2012, most Afghans wanted the foreigners out but were also terrified of what would happen after that. The mood now is febrile, the local people hate not only soldiers, but aid workers, journalists and diplomats. Millions also detest President Hamid Karzai and co and the corruption that never ends. The US, too, now accepts that the Taliban are strong and powerful and getting increasing numbers of recruits, as the last annual report of The Worldwide Threat assessment of the US Intelligence Community makes frighteningly clear. Most Americans do not think any of this was worth the money and lives spent. I agree with them, even though it is heartening to see the enthusiasm for democracy, to see some women emerging from the shadows, to see life expectancy up and the economy growing. 

But then I think of Syria and how non-intervention has led to the biggest humanitarian disaster of this century, to bloodletting and millions displaced, and to a murderous dictator still in place because he is backed by Iran, Russia and other geopolitical players. Outside the BBC in London on Saturday morning, a small group of protesters were asking us not to forget Syria. Recently, at Names not Numbers, a gathering of experts and others debating ideas, I heard the British-Iranian CNN anchor, Christiane Amanpour, describing the pain of Syria as the “West stands by and wrings its hands. If some kind of military action had been launched early enough, this might have been avoided. Too late now.”

You see the problem? Now the West is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. People in crisis situations want our help, and then don’t. I, too, am now against interventions and still support them when nothing else works. This is the conundrum and it is leading to foreign policy paralysis in Western nations. Iraq and Afghanistan have created an uncertain and nervous age. Whatever happens to the pitiable Syrians, the West will do nothing. How tragic is that? Or is it?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobAre you a trai...

Year 3 Teacher Cornwall

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbridge Wells - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbrid...

Year 3 Teacher Plymouth

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fifi Geldof (left) with her sister Pixie at an event in 2013  

Like Fifi Geldof, I know how important it is to speak about depression

Rachael Lloyd
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering