3 min read14 July
Winning in Afghanistan was always going to be difficult but avoidable errors made it impossible. We should have the political courage to now hold an inquiry.
Decisions do not come any bigger for a Prime Minister than to send our Armed Forces to war. But, when that war lasts two long decades, costs nearly 500 British lives, billions of pounds to the taxpayer’s, and ends in retreat – it would be a dereliction of duty not to ask what went so wrong.
Because nothing undermines a country’s hard power more than losing a war we were meant to win; or its soft power more than squandering the peace we hoped to build.
As Henry Ford said, “the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing”. If we want to add flesh to the bones of Global Britain we need to learn the lessons from Afghanistan.
The terrible events of 9/11 triggered a western reaction to a new type of threat. We entered Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda and prevent the Taliban from harbouring other terrorist groups.
We now witness a mass withdrawal of NATO forces with the Taliban once again on the advance. There is now a very high risk of a civil war. We now abandon the country to the very same Islamic fundamentalist regime we went there to defeat in the first place.
We failed to develop post-conflict and governance solutions that empowered critical communities beyond the reach of Kabul
We simply must take stock of our strategic failures and decipher how it all went so wrong. This mission was not without obstacles. On the first of over a dozen visits I made since the invasion it was immediately apparent the scale of the challenge: widespread corruption, intense tribal rivalries, Pakistani meddling, and deep-rooted resistance to foreign occupation. But this was a country that had only experienced war for the last four decades. And with over 70 nations joining this UN endorsed effort to bring enduring peace we brought hope to the 40 million Afghans once we committed ourselves to do much more than just flush out Osama Bin Laden.
But on subsequent visits it was clear to see little post conflict progress was being made under the huge umbrella of security that this high-tech, well-financed military coalition had created. Winning in Afghanistan was always going to be difficult. Avoidable errors made it impossible.
For our own part, Britain failed to recall our own experience of three previous wars with Afghanistan. It seemed no one read their history books. Afghanistan had never been centrally run. Yet here we were imposing a Western political solution based on our experience in Bosnia.
The biggest schoolboy error was not to include (despite their request) the Taliban in the Bonn talks on what a future Afghanistan might look like. How many lives might have been saved had Donald Rumsfeld not told them to stay away.
We also made no serious effort to train Afghan forces so they could start taking responsibility for their own security. Whilst we slept, the Taliban had regrouped and re-armed across the Pakistan border. Year by year, the insurgent attacks increased, and more Afghan areas fell to the old regime, simply because we failed to develop post-conflict and governance solutions that empowered critical communities beyond the reach of Kabul.
Today the world is an even more dangerous place than it was in 2001. Harm now derives not just from terrorist cells that might return to Afghanistan and wreak terror in the West but from China and Russia who seek to reshape the world order to their dictatorial playbook.
We should have the political courage to now hold an inquiry – before we repeat the mistakes. Again.
Tobias Ellwood is the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and chair of the Defence Committee.
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