Here’s my latest column from the Ham & High, which appeared earlier this month:
I remember when we first went into Afghanistan. There were dire warnings that no invading force ever succeeded – beaten back by landscape, tribal warriors, drug barons or harsh, unbearable winters. But of course we had to go there – there to the heart of the world’s crucible of evil where Osama Bin Laden was meant to be hiding.
The West was angry and hurt, scarred by 9/11 and its author cloaked in mystery – a millionaire, billionaire who forswore all worldly goods and who seemed in control of a network of devotees ready to die at his command. Terrorist Al-Qaeda members all over the world seemed able to activate anywhere, anytime – a mixture of amateur and superb sophistry and deadly as hell. So – we had to go and fight to rid ourselves of the scourge of terror.
But, did we learn the lessons of history? Did we heed the awful stories of death and loss from previous sorties into this harsh, unforgiving terrain? Of course not.
And now we have been there for seven years and have lost 187 soldiers. They stare at us from the front of our newspapers. Every Prime Minister’s Questions the three leaders give condolences for someone else’s brother, son or father. We pay genuine tribute to the bravery of our fallen soldiers – week after week. And as we stare at the unbelievably young faces, boys of 18, who die for Queen and country, only now there is the widespread asking of why and where and how.
It is as if the country has suddenly woken up from a reverie as, instead of one or two deaths per week, the dying now coming in threes and fours and fives and sixes. And, now we all know a lot more about this mysterious country where the men appear to have the wisdom of centuries in the wrinkled faces with eyes that stare out knowing how it works – whilst we Brits try and win their trust.
We are winning we are told. There is Operation Panther’s Claw – but I feel absurd using the language of games and comics to describe this latest push to rid the Helmund province of Taliban prior to the presidential elections.
So up spoke Nick Clegg and put a great big fat question mark over what we are doing there. Not that we shouldn’t be there. But we should be clear about why, what we can achieve and how we exit. And whilst we are there we cannot expose our young men to death because we don’t give them proper transport in helicopters.
We felt proud of ourselves – that we went boldly bringing freedom from the evil of the Taliban – especially for women from their feudal, misogynist rule. But, as with Iraq, the Government’s stated purpose in Afghanistan has been a moveable feast – from searching for Osama, to ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban, to curbing the poppy industry and drug trade, to bringing democracy and to freeing women from their hideous destiny with no education and no rights. The reasons keep moving, weaving and wafting – indefinable.
Nick Clegg opened the floodgates as he broke the cosy consensus around our sortie in Afghanistan. David Cameron suddenly piped up as did many other groups as we railed against the deaths of those young men staring out of our newspapers.
In the end the solution will lie not with making war, but with making peace – with restoring enough of a stable government across enough of the country that the future fate of Afghanistan can rest in the hands of those Afghanis who do not see the future as one of perpetual war with their neighbours.