October 28, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Sunday’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan brings to the end one of the most controversial chapters of Britain’s modern foreign policy, namely the decision to invade, occupy and attempt to reshape two countries – Afghanistan and Iraq – in the name of somehow ending terrorism and spreading Western-style democracy. Critics of this foreign policy fall into the trap of putting these two together – often using the mismash name of “Afghanistanandiraq” or “IraqandAfghanistan” to signify two giant carbuncles on the name of Britain and its involvement in the world. Like many areas of international relations – it has not been as simple as that. So it’s worth pausing to look at the differences between the two and assessing what has and has not been achieved in Afghanistan over the last 13 years.
Afghanistan in 2001 was a barbaric place where the Taliban ran a medieval system in which women were beheaded for adultery and the thought that they might be educated was receding into the distance. This, you might say, was not our business. But the training camps for jihadists from which spawned the 9/11 plan hijackers plus a variety of other atrocities became our business. The original idea was to go into Afghanistan, rid the country of those training camps, find and capture Osama Bin Laden, and overturn Taliban rule and install a democracy that would allow Afghanistan to grow and develop into a country that would have nothing to gain by harbouring terrorists and would integrate with the global system in a positive way. People will conveniently not remember this, but the invasion of Afghanistan was not met with anything like the consternation that the invasion of Iraq brought, because there was a general feeling that “something has to be done”.
Just to compare with Iraq…there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11 or Al-Qaeda, the weapons of mass destruction that he was said to be holding didn’t exist, and we essentially went into a country that had a ruler we didn’t like who at the very least was keeping his country in a state of fearful stability, and overturned his rule, and that stability…hence ISIS. That doesn’t mean that I think Saddam Hussein was a “good man” – just that if you invade a country and overturn its rulers, you need a plan to ensure future stability, and it appears there wasn’t one for Iraq.
That said, if you want you could argue there wasn’t one for Afghanistan either. After all, it is third top of the list of the world’s most corrupt countries. The poppy trade (a key ingredient in heroin and opium) has tripled since 2001, and the Taliban haven’t gone away, and now the UK and USA have gone may well come back to rule the country.
On the other hand, women are now educated in Afghanistan (not ALL, mind you, but a majority), there are better roads, a free media, enterprise is encouraged and new firms are popping up all over the place, and, significantly, there has just been an election and a peaceful handover of power from one President (Hamid Karzai) to another (Ashraf Ghani). That is quite an achievement.
The Afghan army is trained and supplied with sufficient weapons that they may well be able to keep order and security in the country, although off-the-record they are fearful that they might not be able to do so. The key point here is that Afghanistan has a chance to run itself as a fully functioning democracy, and grow from there.
435 British soldiers died during the Afghanistan campaign, thousands injured, and it is to be hoped that this wasn’t in vain. We as a country spent considerable time agonizing over how to finish the job we had started – even resulting in some ridiculous claims when we went into Helmand Province in 2006 that “not a shot would be fired”. Many were, and many have died, and it is in their name that we have to hope and pray that the country has a chance. Afghanistan must never be forgotten.