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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I'm sorry, but I was wrong to support the war in Afghanistan

The myth of Afghanistan as “graveyard of empires” bewitches even British Muslims

Monday 24 August 2009 00:00 BST

Unlike many others on the left, I am not a total pacifist and not a proponent of laissez faire foreign policy. I was absolutely against the illegal, vainglorious war in Iraq and just as fervently committed to action in Afghanistan.

Sometimes intervention is the only option, often a lesser evil. Ultra-nationalist Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo would have successfully exterminated or driven out indigenous Muslims from those lands had NATO not intervened. Too many died as a result, a terrible tragedy and agonising, but the alternative would have been worse. Today it is hard, even impossible to affirm that interventionist position as the war in Afghanistan drags on and on, killing both people and the hopes many of us held when first our troops went in.

In the last few weeks I have seriously questioned the wisdom of that stance and may well have to eat my views. No bad thing, bitter though the taste. Much worse would be to fanatically cling on, become like William Shawcross, Chris Hitchens and others in that sad gang of deluded vocal supporters of the Iraq war.

On 10 September 2001, the day before the Al-Qa'ida attacks in US cities, I pleaded on these pages, asked Muslims and the western world to wake up and step in before the Taliban annihilated the life and soul of that troubled yet proud region that is Afghanistan : "...thousands of Afghanis are appearing as asylum-seekers around the world to be humiliated, perhaps even to die, a reminder of just what life can be under the Taliban... the Taliban is the bastard child of the Cold War in Afghanistan, and, even now, I hear Western money makers are happily doing business with it... girls and woman are being beaten, oppressed, denied health and education, hanged and stoned for the smallest transgressions."

What happened the very next day traumatised and roused the US and the west. Violent Islamicists indoctrinated in Afghanistan had dared to blow up Americans, moved from domestic intimidation (easily ignored) to international terrorism.

On 7 October 2001 the US went in, under the banner Operation Enduring Freedom and most of the world cheered. (How hollow that ambition sounds today.) When that audacious and brave Afghani activist Malalai Joya, who knows she will soon be killed by misogynist warlords, says foreign troops should leave immediately, who are we not to heed her call? If one thing has pushed me to where I stand today, nervous, feeling naïve and stupid, guilty too, it is this extraordinary woman.

She ran secret schools for girls, defying the men who want to slaughter female teachers and pupils. She also set up clinics for women who were dying needlessly because they were not allowed to be seen by male medical staff. She got herself into parliament in the last election and confronted the men who were mass murderers. Since then they have been looking to do away with her.

But she still is adamant: "I say to Obama – in my area, 150 people were blown up by US troops in one incident this year. If your family had been there, would you send in even more troops and even more bombs? Your government is spending $18m to make another Guantanamo jail in Bagram. If your daughter might be detained there, would you be building it? Change course or otherwise people will call you another Bush".

There are other realities too that are leading to a reassessment of our presence in Joya's country. In 2008 the UN expressed its concern that there had been a 40 per cent increase in civilian deaths. This year the figure will be higher. The Taliban kill the people indiscriminately but so to do our troops. No lessons have been learnt from the parts of Iraq where the allies treated local populations savagely and made enemies of those who were victims of Saddam and should have been their supporters.

An article in The New York Times described an American gunship attack in Azizabad in Afghanistan last August which wiped out 90 people, 75 of whom were women and children. Syed Mohammed from Kabul, a humble old man says Afghan and American soldiers shot his son, pregnant wife, and two grandchildren, one aged one, the other two. The stories are endless and endlessly sad. And what is it all for? In 2001, the two objectives were to neutralise Al-Qa'ida and destroy opium farming and trade. Neither has been achieved.

The country has been bleeding from war wounds for far too long. Yet our presence in that country gives the worst men of Afghanistan kudos and status. The Taliban, petty dictators and villains cast themselves the latest heroes in the foundational legend of that land, the "graveyard of empires", where no foreign rule can survive, not the once invincible British Empire, not the militarily mighty old Soviet Union and now not the best armed armies in the world.

That myth bewitches millions from disenchanted young British Muslims to the lawless and aimless angry young men of Somalia. Ironically the war to end Islamicist terrorism may be turning into perfect propaganda for the followers of Bin Laden, himself of course a foreigner in Afghanistan.

This summer has brought the bloodiest three months ever for the allies. Over 200 young men gone, many more disabled. Grief spreads and sometimes anger.

The Government thought it would be good for national resolve if more visible public ceremonies marked the arrival back of dead soldiers. This is backfiring. Each incredibly sorrowful individual story makes people ask why we are there, soldiers included. This is seen now as a quagmire, as squalid and misguided as Vietnam was. Public opinion the world over is falling. Polls show dropping support in France and Germany.

A recent worldwide PEW survey found that only 46 per cent of Brits want to carry on. The figure for the US is 57 per cent. The country which most supports the war is Israel. In 2002, six per cent of Americans were against the action. Today that figure is above 40 per cent. Key figures in the Obama administration admit the American people are tiring of this adventure. Labour's Kim Howells senses the same fatigue: "I don't think the public are up for it any more."

It has cost British taxpayers £2.5bn and that figure is expected to rise fast. The inept and ineffable Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, says it should take one more year while a number of army chiefs think we need to be planning for decades of engagement. Does anyone know really or do they just make up the lyrics as they go along?

So now we have had a dodgy election not worth the "indelible" washable ink on the fingers of voters. Karzai in his dashing gear and aristocratic demeanour is a catastrophic leader – useless, corrupt and an appeaser of those who want to legalise the total degradation of females. The most odious warlords – like "General" Rashid Dostum – are back in business. Hundreds of girls and women self immolate rather than succumb to this surge against them. After eight years their ashes are a sign off, the verdict on an abysmal military expedition. And I am not sure at all I should ever have supported it.

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