I found a book in a second-hand shop in around 2003. It was published by a European government extolling the work its forces were doing in Afghanistan; there were pictures of girls in schoolrooms, of soldiers building wells and roads and training their Afghan colleagues in security techniques...
All was going swimmingly. The only fly in the ointment the book said were the ‘bandits’ in the hills trying to disrupt the European soldiers’ humanitarian efforts.
The book, of course, had been published in the early 1980s by the Soviet Union. But with just a few changes it could have been republished by the western coalition in Afghanistan just a few years ago.
We shall pass over the usual ironies of how the Bush and Blair governments of 10 years ago found themselves replicating Soviet policy, and the greater one of how they faced some of the very same bandits they had financed and helped against the Soviets.
(Though not as many as popular mythology would have you believe; although western aid was funnelled to groups such as Hezb-e Islami and Ahemd Shah Massoud‘s forces by Pakistan’s intelligence service ISI, little went to people such as Bin Laden and his Afghan Arabs.)
I want to turn to yet one more echo of previous western adventures into the country: how to get out. The consensus towards the end of the 1980s was that Moscow had ‘to declare victory, and leave.’ The 10 years that Soviet forces had been in the country had achieved nothing, and the attrition rate was crippling.
While the US and UK and allied forces have lost far fewer soldiers in the near 10 years since October 2001, it appears that president Obama has done much the same thing, he has declared ‘mission accomplished’ and announced a triumphant withdrawal.
To a degree he can do so. Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda and architect of 9/11 has been killed. That’s why US troops were in Afghanistan, and now there’s no need for them to be there, so 30,000 of them shall return home by November 2012.
Well, yes, Lord Copper, up to a point.
The pursuit of Bin Laden was far from the only reason for allied forces’ presence in Afghanistan. The mission, as sold in 2001, was not revenge (for that eyes might have to turn to Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) but to disrupt Al Qaeda operations already in Afghanistan and to ensure it did not remain a safe haven for that organisation or other Islamist terror groups.
That was a critical aim of both US and UK policy and it has not been achieved. It is true that in the late days of 2001 and early 2002 the reconstruction group, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), was led by British commanders, but that was a political decision so that the soldiers involved were not associated with the aggressive capture operations in Tora Bora and other areas. To that end ISAF soldiers wore green camouflage and berets, as opposed to the desert browns and helmets of the US troops hunting Bin Laden, so they were seen as separate and did not draw reprisals during hearts and minds operations where they were much more vulnerable than units in combat mode.
It was noticeable that British politicians and commanders, whose troops were engaged in a more complex battle against the Taliban in Helmand were much cooler on the idea of declaring job done and getting the hell out of country. They know that the job of stabilising Afghanistan so it could not fall prey to well-funded terror groups is far from done.
But the final irony of the Obama declaration is that he seems to have heeded one lesson of the Soviet occupation, which is after 10 years find whatever excuse to get out and go, whereas British politicians have not learned the lessons of the UK’s three previous involvements in Afghanistan; it’s very easy to get in; it’s incredibly hard to leave with anything like a victory under your belt.
Oh the Ironies of Afghanistan
Leaving Afghanistan is much more difficult than getting in
by Aled Thomas (28 June 2011)