And the public is even less informed than they were in 2001by Ahmed Rashid / January 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The first British troops scheduled to fly into Bagram airbase outside Kabul in November 2001 nearly didn’t make it. Northern Alliance (NA) leaders, who had driven the Taliban out of the city with the help of US Special Forces a few days earlier, refused to allow the British plane to land. Their leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was furious that London was sending troops without asking permission first. He telephoned the head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, and informed him with some alarm that “the British are invading!”—as they had, twice, in the 19th century. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, recalled that “all hell broke loose.” Eventually, the NA leadership calmed down and allowed the Brits to land.
The first British soldiers had next to no warning of their deployment, no strategic plan and were lacking the right equipment. Coming just two months after 9/11, such confusion and lack of preparation was perhaps understandable. But Whitehall was repeatedly unprepared in the years ahead, too. It was a grim opening salvo.
Theo Farrell’s book is entitled Unwinnable, and with good reason: what followed for the next 13 years was an unremitting tale of miscalculation, confusion, overstretch, poor planning and political paralysis. The British were caught between high-minded promises made to Afghanistan and backroom deals with America and Pakistan. The US had its eyes on Iraq, which always seemed a more important prize. And the Afghans, sensitive to imperial meddling, had conflicting priorities of their own. Winning here was all but impossible: as Farrell suggests near the opening of the book, “in retrospect, Britain should have probably quit while it was ahead” in late 2002. By the time UK forces formally withdrew in 2014 (some personnel are still there in an “advisory capacity”) 453 British soldiers had been killed and 2,000 wounded, 600 receiving “life-changing” injuries. The estimated cost was £37bn.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t days of glory early on. Fresh from successful interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Tony Blair was initially enthusiastic about the idea of nation-building. When he became the first western leader to land in Kabul after the Taliban fell in January 2002, the prime minister promised Afghans that the west would stay the course.