Last Sunday the last British combat troops left Afghanistan, and so a chapter of our history ended. Looking back, it is weird to realise that I do not remember, as I do with Iraq, the beginning of the war. In 2001, I was 6 years old – just conscious enough to be able now to recall 9/11, much too young to have any concept of what was happening in its aftermath.
And yet, the war in Afghanistan featured heavily in my growing awareness of the world around me. Almost every news bulletin I watched during my childhood or teens seems to have featured another death or injury, another debate about whether the international forces were doing more harm than good, another question about whether we would ever be able to leave behind a country stable enough to keep going.
The jury is still out. On the plus side, little girls can now go to school, and no one gets their hand chopped off for stealing (or not stealing) a loaf of bread. The Taliban has been seriously weakened, although not, as the Americans would have us believe, to the point of defeat. I don’t think many would be willing to put money on the Afghan army being able to keep the insurgency where it is now, but at least Kabul seems safe. There is little chance of another take over.
Yet in blood-soaked Helmand, and in countless other areas, especially in the wilderness near the Pakistani border, the rule of law is still a distant ideal. Tribal leaders still hold more power than the central government, itself hardly an emblem of hope. It took three months this summer for a new president to be announced, after each side made claim and counter-claim of election fraud. At least the venal ex-President, Hamid Karzai, is no longer in power, but the deal which settled the deadlock (with one candidate, Ashraf Ghani, becoming President, while the other, Abdullah Abdullah, Prime Minister) leaves the government, and the country, divided. The democracy which the West claims to have brought to Afghanistan is little more than a charade.
Was it worth the nearly 3500 ISAF fatalities, not to mention the countless civilian casualties? I honestly do not know; it is impossible to say what could have been if there had been a different response to 9/11, if George Bush had not declared a war on terror.
I wonder if, in 2001, when I was still learning how to spell, anyone seriously thought troops would still be in Afghanistan when I was at university. It would be pleasant to think that now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over, we could put the war on terror to bed too. But now Western planes are again flying missions over Iraq, and Syria too – more limited action, yes, but still with no end in sight.