It is in my view a true and fair observation for the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon to make when he said yesterday that “it is with pride that we announce the end of UK combat operations in Helmand, having given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a stable future”. Afghanistan has been a tough and dangerous conflict for NATO’s ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) forces to fight but it is campaign that I for one believe it was right that we should be fully involved.
As the second largest force within ISAF fighting alongside US and other NATO partner forces Britain can undoubtedly leave Afghanistan with its head held high. While we may not have achieved full conflict resolution we have helped lay the foundations and played our part in building and training Afghan security forces that will take over from ISAF. We have also helped to put in place and protect a system of government that is properly established and accountable to its people through the ballot box.
While the transition from a state torn apart by decades of conflict, Al-Qaeda infiltration and until 2001 when they had been ousted, too many years of ruthless Taliban control we may take a degree of satisfaction that Afghanistan now has a system of government that with more hard work and determination can lead Afghanistan forward into a rather different and hopefully better world than the one that its people have been forced to endure in recent years.
Afghanistan remains a poor country of course but it is one that does now have a system of government based on democratic principles. That is not to suggest that democracy is always the correct system, but it is one that allows everyone to speak freely and to use their voice and their vote. Neither is anyone under the illusion or misapprehension that when NATO ISAF forces finally depart that those who would still seek to keep Afghanistan in the dark ages may not once again challenge the new order. But we can now say this, if and when they do challenge they will find not only huge resistance from well-trained and far better equipped Afghan security forces but also a people that are far less willing to be walked over or brow beaten into allowing the clock to be turned back.
The challenges ahead for the senior leadership of the Afghan government will be immense. For a start they will live in shadow of yet another large conflict that threatens the peace and stability of the Middle East. The threat that ISIL forms cannot be ignored by any of us not least those more directly involved or those like Afghanistan and Pakistan that sit on its periphery. In the months ahead the relationship between ISIL and the Taliban will be keenly observed.
We move forward with our eyes open too fully recognising that there will be challenges on the Afghan administration such as loyalty and other internal pressures including sectarian.
The Afghan administration will not be completely alone though and while Britain and the US have now in effect all but handed control over to Afghan security forces the US intends to leave 9,800 troops in the country through next year and probably through most of 2016 until close to the next presidential election by which time they too will have departed. Britain meanwhile will continue to provide assistance not only financially through NATO but also by leaving a few hundred special force soldiers in country to assist in training. These will most probably be located in the so-called diplomatic green zone in and around Kabul, and that they will be supported by retention of rotary capability from Joint Helicopter Command.
British forces can certainly be proud of what they have achieved in Afghanistan and while it is true that 453 British servicemen lost their lives in the conflict and that thousands more were injured over the full thirteen years of conflict involvement, Afghanistan is today a nation that looks far more reconciled than at any time over the past forty years.
It is right also to recognise that from both political and military perspectives we didn’t always get it right. We sometimes failed to provide our troops on the ground with proper equipment and for a period there was no doubt that we failed to provide troops on the ground with sufficient helicopter support. These lessons were hard learned but in the end we did get it right and today we may hope that the Afghan people have a far better chance of securing a better life for themselves and their children than had we not been there.
Did we win the war in Afghanistan? I suspect that due to the very complex nature of the Afghanistan conflict it is not possible to conclude who either won or lost the Afghanistan campaign. But what we can say is that Afghanistan is a very much better and safer nation state for the involvement of ISAF forces. That the Taliban suffered very large casualties and huge internal pressure is also without doubt and that it has been cleared from large areas of this vast country is also true. That the vast majority of Afghan people are now living in peace and harmony that many had never seen or known, and that they are better off as a result must be true. But while it is reasonable to conclude that British troops leave Afghanistan with a greater level of established peace, harmony and stability; to say that this conflict has been won, lost or that it is even over yet would probably be equally wrong. It would also be wrong to conclude that the war on the poppy has yet been won.
Now is we hope a time for reconciliation in Afghanistan but as I said earlier, no-one is under any illusion that this is a conflict that is yet finished. The Afghan government will need all the help and assistance it can get to rebuild a shattered economy and to provide and help build jobs for its people. Without work there can be no political stability in a country such as this. Thanks to NATO and ISAF forces though there are now schools for Afghan children to go to. Girls too are at last receiving similar educational entitlements as boys and there are hospitals, roads and better infrastructure too. There is though a very long way for the Afghan government yet to go, and the hope is that they can not only carry the people behind them but that they receive the true loyalty they need from the trained security forces. Only time will tell.
For the British Army and for the Royal Air Force too which has played a fantastic role in seeking out and destroying Taliban strongholds using precision weapons designed to ensure that only the target is destroyed without collateral damage and injury to civilians, very soon they will all be back home. Thousands of vehicles and containers have already been brought back home and most of the rest will very soon follow. The military has done a job spectacularly well and we should once again be very proud.
CHW (London 27th October 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785