More tears for our brave boys in Afghanistan last week. The sorrow was exacerbated by the knowledge that the ‘soft underbelly’ problem in armoured vehicles was identified more than four years ago and remains unfixed. We fought World War One in that time span.
Had our boys been in an American vehicle, there is every likelihood they would be alive today.
On a cost-benefit basis, both Afghanistan and Iraq have been a disaster. The Romans were more savvy when they built Hadrian’s Wall. They could have crushed the Scots had they wished. But what did Scotland have to offer them? A miserable climate – especially for an Italian – a constantly restive and warlike people (just like some others on the north bank of the Rhine – the Germans) and next to no natural resources.
As a pragmatic people they decided to leave them both to stew. So both missed out on a whole range of benefits which a more advanced civilisation had to offer. The whole of this can be said to apply to Afghanistan today.
Much of America’s financial woes can be traced back to the horrendous cost of the Vietnam war. After all, it was then that it was forced off the Gold Standard. Does anybody doubt that if the untold billions spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars had been sitting in the US treasury today that things would be looking very different? Yet exactly the same could be said about us.
Wars are expensive. From a position of incredible wealth as a country, it took just two of them to ruin us and rob us of our leading position in the world by 1945.
Afghanistan was always said to be the ‘graveyard of empires’, and no one knew this better than we did. We launched no fewer than three ill-fated forays into that country in the days of the Raj. In one of them, an entire column of 16,000 perished in the snows of the Hindu Kush on the retreat back from Kabul to the Indian frontier.
Prime Minister David Cameron would spend a long time reading out their names in the Commons. So, more than anyone else, we should have known better.
Of course it was right to go into that country to flush out Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harbouring them, but having done so we should have got out and stayed out. We, in our heyday, were never defeated in the field by the Afghans any more than NATO has been, or, for that matter, the Russians.
But the Afghans do not heed good advice to mend their medieval ways (especially when that advice comes from foreigners) so they must be left to marinate. Just be thankful that you are not a woman in that benighted country.
It is unlikely that if the Taliban return to power after NATO’s exit – which is probable – they will ever again allow Al Qaeda to set up training camps. They are canny enough not to go down that road a second time, helped by Bin Laden’s death. While he was their guest, there was never a snowball’s chance that they would have handed him over, even when we threatened to invade. Muslim law on hospitality absolutely forbade that.
It is always important to have an exit strategy. But it is equally important to keep the date of exit to yourself. Had we held to our original statements that ‘we are here until the job is done’ – even if you had a date in mind – then there is every likelihood that the same weariness which brought the IRA to the negotiating table would have done so in the case of the Taliban.
Why hold on, they would have said to themselves, and stay a fugitive forever and as likely not die in the struggle? Let’s do a deal.
The Afghans have always been known as the world’s greatest wheeler-dealers. Now they are going around saying ‘the West have the watches, but we have the time’. So now that we have revealed our hand, we must make every effort to equip and train the home-grown Afghan forces to look after themselves when we are gone.
Who knows, they might even pull it off, despite everything. And our boys, in the interim, must degrade the Taliban to the maximum extent possible. A weakened force might just be more amenable to a greatly strengthened home army. But the deeply corrupt Afghan government will make this an uphill struggle. We can only hope our fears are misplaced.