In November 2001 I flew into Bagram airport in a battered old Iluyshin Il-76, part of the Department of International Development’s team tasked with setting up the UK office in Kabul and humanitarian aid programmes.
As we approached the runway in spiral tight turns to avoid incoming fire we could look up towards the beautiful Panjsheer valley and across to Kabul where I had been working just months before our teams were evacuated following 9/11.
Today, nearly twenty years later, with the US military having recently “transferred control” of Bagram airbase I want to recall just two of the many sad statistics:
- 454 British military fatalities
- Over 31,000 Afghan civilian deaths
So was it worth it?
According to RUSI, “Threats have not diminished, War is escalating, Peace is an unlikely outcome.”
With Al Qa’ida and the Taliban still close, the world is likely to be a less safe place as a result. The Biden administration gamble here is that it will be possible to contain the terrorist threat without boots on the ground. In the UK we can expect a heightened terrorism threat level in the near future.
Afghanistan has always been a strategic buffer between east and west. Strategically the Taliban will likely continue to seek rapprochement with Iran and Russia whilst the UK Government will endeavour to exert pressure through Pakistan. The great game is destined to continue in central Asia.
The Taliban will likely dominate in nearly all districts within months using Coalition forces weapons against the Afghan Government troops who despite 20 years of “capacity building” have already demonstrated their willingness to flee at first contact.
The humanitarian situation can also be expected to worsen. Women, children and aid workers are likely once again to be in the crossfire.
I’d like to offer a more optimistic view after the billions of dollars spent, but right from the outset this has been more about containing terrorism rather than about economic development and civil society. The biggest failure here has been recognising that the two are inextricably linked.
Regrettably, it is time to review the terrorism risk and response capabilities again.