Britain needs answers to five questions about its longest warby Bronwen Maddox / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
A British soldier passes a poppy field in Helmand province, 2006. (© John Moore/Getty images)
At the height of the summer, David Cameron flew unannounced into Kabul and Helmand province to explain why, after Britain had spent 12 years battling to defeat the Taliban, he was pressing for talks with them. In open-necked dark shirt and trousers, standing out starkly against the ranks of soldiers in desert fatigues, he shrugged off the recent remarks of Lieutenant-General Nick Carter, Britain’s top general in Afghanistan and Nato’s Deputy Commander in the conflict—that for a decade Britain and the United States had missed crucial chances to talk to the Taliban.
“You can argue about whether the settlement we put in place after 2001 could have been better arranged. Of course you can make that argument,” the Prime Minister said, gesturing with his sunglasses, before adroitly announcing that, to mark Armed Forces Day, the fines collected from banks for improperly fixing interest rates would go towards creating a permanent memorial for the 444 British personnel killed in Afghanistan. He concluded: “We want peace and stability in Afghanistan, we want the return of the Taliban back to their country.”
Twelve years ago, that would have been an astounding statement—an apparent bald contradiction. Now, it is a measure of how completely the Afghan conflict has confounded early goals, as well as a victory, at last, for the notion that military effort is futile without a political deal for the country. As Britain prepares to withdraw its troops next year from its longest war since the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815, it is right to ask exactly what has been achieved—and to acknowledge that, with no hyperbole, the answer may be close to nothing. One former British diplomat in the region said: “No doubt they will redefine the original goals to claim some kind of success, but in my book, this is what failure looks like.”
There will be a temptation, as the images of army vehicles burned and twisted by roadside bombs disappear from television screens, to say that we are well out of it, and to leave the question of why it fell so short of its aims to fade in embarrassed silence. That would be an injustice to those who have died, to their families, and to voters, as well as an evasion of…