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

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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?

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