‘It was a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.’ – Rev. G. R. Geig, British Army Chaplain on the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-42, known by the British as the ‘Disaster in Afghanistan’
The inevitable surrender and withdrawal of American, British, and NATO forces in Afghanistan has been met with a mixture of incredulity, incandescence, and predictable ignorance. Much of it, in Britain, has centred on the shambolic process itself; President Biden a useful whipping ‘geriatric’ for a foam-flecked media, which had so overwhelmingly supported the bitter shambles and chaos of a fruitless war of twenty-one years that cost over $2.3 trillion and over 240,000 lives, 71,000 of them civilians. (The wars and counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have cost the US a truly eye-watering $6.4 trillion, according to a US Inspectorate Report.)
Everyone, it seems, has had their say – apart from those who now lie in their graves. We have witnessed the impotent bluster of parliamentarians, some of whom were just out of short trousers when the first US forces landed in Kabul. We have been subjected to inchoate attempts to argue for Britain to continue to hold the red line indefinitely, by those such as former Tory MP and resident Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart. He even cited the continued American presence in South Korea as an example to credulous media hosts.
We have listened to a new generation of Labour politicians, including the Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy, claiming that Britain’s original decision to join the US in what was supposedly an anti-insurgency operation to remove Bin Laden and al-Qaeda from the rocky fastness of Tora Bora was ‘the right one’. And above all there has been the attempt to re-write history, to spin and to obfuscate, because the Emperor really does have no clothes: the best garment to grab is the fiction that somehow we went to war to get girls into school. (Little mention, of course, of the thousands of women and girls killed by US and coalition bombings in Afghanistan – the most recent of which in Kabul killed ten civilians.)
The only voices that have not been heard are those who, twenty-one years ago, risked the opprobrium of all of the above to simply say: ‘We shouldn’t invade Afghanistan, because it is bound to end in tears.’ These voices have been virtually absent in the UK mainstream media, and in the liberal media in particular. In fact, you would be hard-pushed to even know that there was a movement against Britain joining with America to invade Afghanistan, or that there were large demonstrations in British cities, including in London and Glasgow.
The former, in Trafalgar Square, was attended by well over 50,000, and speakers included the late Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, and yours truly. ‘Stop the War’ was founded 20 years ago in September 2001, shortly following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as war clouds began to gather and Afghanistan moved into the sights of the neoconservatives. There were many who were simply anti-war and pacifist, there were others who—rightly, as it happens—believed that it made no sense to throw a lighted match at a petrol can – especially as the jihadists who had attacked America, including their obscurantist leader, Bin Laden, were, to a man, Saudi Wahhabis.
And what of Bin Laden? This is what I wrote about him in 2001:
He was originally offered for extradition by Sudan, but then apparently allowed to head for Afghanistan in 1996 with barely a whimper from the US. Here is the world’s most wanted man, explaining how he acquired his substantial arsenal during the 1980s: “I settled in Pakistan, in the Afghan border region. There I received volunteers, trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.”
And as the bombing campaign got underway, sanctioned by the UN Security Council, whose members were understandably both sympathetic to, and nervous of, America’s post-9/11 rage, here is Lindsey German of Stop the War reminding those who would listen that
“Regime change” did not form part of the Security Council resolution. The bombing campaign has done nothing to tackle international terrorism. The war aims were never to install the Northern Alliance into Afghanistan to replace the Taliban. Most people who know anything about both regimes regard the Northern Alliance as just as bad.
There is a reason for the quite deliberate refusal of the UK media to give a platform to those who predicted from the outset that that this latest Afghan war would be a disaster, and that it would spread international terrorism, not contain it. It is because it was utterly complicit in that war and at each step of the way.
At a time when there was no social media, and with every major media outlet supporting the government—a Labour government presided over by their own creation, Tony Blair—only a handful of small publications, including Tribune, put their heads about the parapet and took abuse from the assorted armchair generals, who Blair preferred to listen to rather than the real generals, who even then were sounding notes of caution.
Take, for instance, that perennial backer of bloody, pointless wars, the armchair general-in-chief, David Aaronovitch. He opined that if you opposed the ongoing war you ‘were indulging yourself in a cosmic whinge’. With the hunt for Bin Laden lost in mountain passes, and now a new pursuit for non-existent ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ in Iraq underway, the same Aaronovitch promised to ‘eat his hat’ if they weren’t found. The legion of armchairs general is long, even if not profound; Nick Cohen, Con Coughlin, Christopher Hitchens, to name a very few, and all rejoiced in their bovine certitude.
Now many of them wail at the biggest Western defeat in a generation. They warn that Russia and China will take advantage of this new vacuum, without considering for a passing second a seemingly rather obvious: that Russia, in the shape of the Soviet Union, did invade Afghanistan in 1979–and that Reagan and Thatcher armed the anti-Soviet Islamist forces with anti-aircraft Stinger missiles. Now, through their stampede to withdraw, America and NATO have singlehandedly gifted the Taliban $85 billion in military hardware–enough to keep them going for decades. In passing it may be worth recording that NATO was set up as a self-defence based North American and West European organisation. Which begs the question: what the hell was it doing in Afghanistan?
Britain was suckered into a war from which it took Trump and Biden to eventually lever us out. Tony Blair took us into to both Afghanistan and Iraq on a false pretence. He took himself off to Rome to meet the Pope to get his backing for the latter war, seeking to discuss St. Thomas Aquinas and his ‘Just War Theory’ with the Pontiff. Quite what the Pope made of the oleaginous British Prime Minister history doesn’t record, but clearly something transpired. A few years later, this report surfaced in a Vogue interview with Blair’s friend Wendi Deng:
Mrs. Murdoch, Wendi Deng, revealed that Tony Blair became godfather to their daughter Grace in 2010, donning white robes for her baptism in the River Jordan, right where it’s thought John the Baptist first dunked Jesus Christ.
In God and Tony Blair the British media did trust. Since his now-weekly homilies are treated with veneration, this tells us that it largely still does. The fact that a shrivelled Labour Party is also once again under the heel of former second grade lieutenants and assorted political hucksters who hark back to his glory days shows us that really nothing very much has been learned at all.
Carry on up the Khyber!