The conflict in Afghanistan has brought out some of the best in British foreign policy. Tony Blair was entirely right to send UK forces to help the United States in its retaliation for the attacks of 9/11. Those troops have fought with extraordinary courage in circumstances which rapidly became more dangerous than ministers had expected; one result is a priceless depth of experience of difficult live combat in the British army from the senior ranks down. The enthusiasm for helping Afghanistan attracted many to the cause of development, with good reason; it was impossible in 2002 to hear the delight of young girls on being allowed to crowd into the bare classrooms that the Taliban had barred to them, without thinking “surely we are doing a lot of good here.” Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, expressed some of that on a trip to Kandahar in 2003, when he said: “this brings out the VSO [Voluntary Service Overseas] in me.”
It was right to go there. It is also imperative now to acknowledge that in the 12-year conflict, more than 13 years long by the time the last troops come home next year, Britain has failed in all but one of the sprawling goals that it allowed itself to take on. The war has been a showcase also for the worst of British foreign policy: grandiosity about military capabilities, naivety about the task, fatuous claims about special regional sensitivities gleaned from historic combat; and a smiling, cringing terror that without embracing every aspect of an American strategy that was no strategy at all, the UK would lose its last fragile claim to the “special relationship.”
The Afghan conflict has cost the lives of 444 UK personnel (compared to 179 in Iraq); 2,146 have been wounded in action, and the MoD (unlike the Pentagon) is too coy about the impact of “life-changing injuries” on the 607 most severely wounded. The war will have cost Britain, on good estimates, close to £40bn by the end—nearly four times the cost of Iraq. For what? Al Qaeda is weakened; the Taliban were overthrown, but opium production is soaring; so is violence; President Hamid Karzai’s supporters want him to suspend next year’s elections and stay in power. It is entirely fair to argue that bringing a generation of Afghans the experience of some progress is worth something; it would be cynical to dismiss that, even if hard to measure. But those gains are vanishingly slim and will not last without continued future support.
There is a case for sending still more aid after troops leave. But there will be no chance that it does any good at all if the lessons of what is undisputably a failure are not learned, or are brushed aside as already covered in the defence review and cuts to the armed forces. Iraq prompted both the Butler Review into the phantom weapons of mass destruction and the Chilcot Inquiry into lessons learned. Britain’s failure in Afghanistan, its worst miscalculation in foreign policy since Suez, deserves its own parliamentary inquiry that asks: why did it go so wrong?