As a former soldier, this is how it feels to witness the fall of Afghanistan

I am not the only veteran who has questioned the legitimacy of an enduring military presence in Afghanistan. Even 10 years ago, I saw firsthand the limitations in our approach

Mike Crofts
Thursday 19 August 2021 09:03
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During my two deployments in Afghanistan, I had the privilege to work closely with Afghan soldiers and interpreters, sharing dinner and stories with them each night, building trust before the next day’s operations. I was struck by two things; the charm and generosity of the people, and the soldiers’ hopes for their future.

Historians will question how the west managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, when they come to review the Afghanistan campaign that ran from 2001 to 2021. When I reflect on it, I will ask if those Afghan soldiers’ trust in me was misplaced.

I am not the only veteran who has questioned the legitimacy of an enduring military presence in Afghanistan, which has seen 457 British and over 2,400 US fatalities, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives lost. Even 10 years ago, I saw firsthand the limitations in our approach. However, I was encouraged by the speed of positive change I saw in Helmand between my two tours in 2010 and 2013; the reduction of violence in the region, the bustling economy, new roads and infrastructure, successful health centres and schools. It appeared that the establishment and investment in Afghan-led forces was providing genuine security.

The rationale for Nato’s Afghan deployment has crept from the response to 9/11 and ridding the country of the Taliban to stabilisation, counter opium operations and stopping the country from being an extremist staging post. The strategy and focus of efforts fluctuated, flying in the face of conventional military principles which seek to establish a clear aim and purpose from the outset.

The scale of collapse after 20 years and the trillions of dollars spent in the country has been shocking. To many veterans, the blame lies at the feet of the two most recent US presidents: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. In 2018, Trump commenced negotiations with the Taliban without the presence of the Afghan government. Afghanistan is a country where signals and perceptions of power matter, amplified by the emphasis on tribal status. The visibility of unilateral negotiations between the Taliban and US served only to embolden the Taliban. In turn, Biden’s decision to pull out all 2,500 US soldiers removed the safety net which guaranteed support for the Afghan government. Both developments started toppling the dominos that have led to the current crisis.

We are seeing something more complex playing out than the Taliban simply storming the country. The interwoven tribal tapestry is potent, and the rapid advance of the Taliban suggests that they are being bolstered by tribal leaders in Afghanistan who have been playing both sides and waiting for their moment for two decades – the phrase “you have watches, but we have time” is a popular Afghan riposte to external interference. The mixture of power politics, economics and ensuring the safety of their tribes was a complexity that took Nato forces too long to comprehend.

Afghanistan is now entirely controlled by the Taliban, it never achieved this previously. As a veteran, this is a bitter pill to swallow, it feels as if we have handed the group of theocratic-fascists a stronger position than they had before 2001. There may be groups and tribes that start to counter Taliban control once the dust settles, such as Turkmen, Tajik and Hazara tribes, but this won’t be an Afghan National Security and Defence Force (ANSDF) shaped like a conventional western military; the US, UK and Nato troops and infrastructure have been withdrawn, so the “experiment” is over.

The immediate concern for Afghans who served alongside British forces is that a return of the Taliban will bring with it brutal recriminations against members of the population who helped western forces. The spectre of secret assassinations of Afghan judges, commanders, specialist soldiers and pilots in Kandahar and Jalalabad already looms large. Despite the positive public image that the Taliban are portraying now, we must beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have been in contact with my interpreter from Afghanistan throughout the fall of the country. The speed of the advance has been terrifying. The west and the countries associated with the campaign have a responsibility to this man who risked his life repeatedly to support UK soldiers.

There are achievements veterans who served in Afghanistan can rightly be proud of, including facilitating girls’ access to education – in 2001, girls did not go to school, but by 2012, there were three million in school.

However, there is a growing sense of futility as we watch events unfold. The phrase “lions led by donkeys” has never been more apt watching the political mismanagement of this withdrawal. Having sacrificed so much, the US has abandoned Afghanistan for the sake of returning a small and low risk troop deployment for the sake of domestic US political signalling. I can’t speak for all veterans, but the indifference of UK political leaders is equally galling.

Internationally, we must mind the message that we send to other countries experiencing turbulence, whether in Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq or Syria. We cannot roam the world fixing its problems, but questions of Nato’s reliability undermine our attempts to challenge extremism internationally. Thousands of mainly young men will now forge a path to Britain and the USA for their families, both legally and illegally, over the coming years. We should remember that their migration is entirely of our making as they start to arrive on our shores seeking safe haven.

Veterans should rightly remain proud of our efforts. We gave Afghanistan the best chance of success that we could. The last stages were characterised by abject surrender, betraying the collective bravery and sacrifice since 2001. But there are many Afghan men and women who have flourished during the past 20 years. The coming uncertainty of the Taliban must be terrifying for many Afghans. I remain optimistic that those soldiers I served with 10 years ago, will feel hope once again.

Mike Crofts is a former British Army Captain who served two combat tours of Afghanistan. He is now the CEO of human performance company Amodigo and the founder of criminal justice charity 3Pillars Project

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