April 27, 2012
Every time a soldier dies the enraged shouts begin. ‘Bring them home!’ ‘Why are we even in that godforsaken hell hole anyway?’ ‘What’s the point of sending our boys over there, what has Afghanistan got to do with us?’ ‘One of our boys’ lives is not worth losing for another country’s mess. Let them sort it out’
So. Why are we in Afghanistan?
Hello to the million dollar question. In British military officer training they tell the fresh faced cadets that if you can’t narrow your reasons for going into a country down to less than three, you shouldn’t go. Then they ask them why we are in Afghanistan. The powerpoint flicks to the next page. There is a long list of reasons. The cadets laugh.
We can go over Tony Blair’s reasons for entering Afghanistan until the raggedy-haired bony old Afghan cows trundle on home, but the fact of the matter for us lot sitting here in 2012 is that we are already there, and now we must finish the job properly or we will end up going back there again in a few years.
This is a very, VERY simplified timeline of our past in Afghanistan. If you wish to read more, I highly recommend ‘War Against the Taliban: Why it All Went Wrong in Afghanistan’ by Sandy Gall. Or Googling each conflict frantically and cross researching.
First Anglo-Afghan War - British India v Afghanistan, 1839 to 1842
Why were we there?
Essentially a British Empire v Russian Empire ground gaining exercise. India was our asset and we wanted to protect her.
We did, sort of. We smashed everything up, killed a LOT of people (the word ‘pillaging’ was used) cleared the Khyber Pass, made a stronghold in Kabul and plonked a huge garrison in Kandahar. Then we buggered off back to India.
Second Anglo-Afghan War – British India v Afghanistan, 1878 to 1880
Why were we there?
The Russians had snuck up to the borders and we wanted to make sure we had full control of Afghanistan. We sent around 40,000 troops in and attempted to occupy the entire country. This proved impossible so in the end a treaty was signed and Afghanistan self-governed, the agreement being though that the British controlled all foreign policy. They were now a pawn in our game.
Third Anglo-Afghan War – British India v Afghanistan, 6 May 1919 to 8 August 1919
Why were we there?
They were pissed off with our control over their foreign policy and tried to regain autonomy. This time, they started it. However, we had planes now and they did not, so they failed.
What did it achieve?
Both sides benefitted from this war. The British influence in Afghanistan slowly eroded, from munitions supplies to funding in Afghanistan to eventually letting the country take control over it’s own foreign policy. HOWEVER, it was here, in 1919, that the tribal aspect of Afghanistan’s culture that we today are so familiar with became strong. They were poverty stricken but battle hardened with strong leaders and formed tribal allegiances with neighbouring groups. It was these men who took part in……
The Waziristan Campaign – Britain and British India v Afghan Tribesmen, 1919 to 1920
Why were we there?
We were there already. The Waziris conducted raids on British garrisons for just under a year, following the unsettlement during the third Anglo-Afghan War. RAF Bombers helped bring this one to an end.
The Soviet Occupation – Russia v Afghanistan, 1979 to 1989
Years of civil war meant Afghanistan was now extremely unstable. Soviet forces brought tanks, Ak47s etc. into the country and smashed the hell out of the towns and villages. They also raped a lot of the women, as your serving family members will tell you. Some of the faces of 20 and 30-something Afghans today are decidedly Eastern European in appearance. At night, the Afghan tribesmen descended on them and took back the land they lost during the day. Neither Britain nor Russia ever managed to gain complete control of Afghanistan, mainly due to the complex factional systems of local politics and tribal structure. Soviet troops completed a phased withdrawal in 1989.
We weren’t there, so why are you including this in an article about British involvement in Afghanistan?
Because we trained the mujahedin on the sly. US Navy Seals and British SAS trained, equipped and helped them fight the Russians. Rumour has it we even flew them to Scotland to train them, and the US flew them to big military bases in Virginia. We didn’t want the Russians to occupy Afghanistan.
Then when the Soviets withdrew, we dropped Afghanistan like a stone, leaving refugee camps riddled with displaced starving people, structural decimation and general lawlessness. Splinter groups formed, run by the mujahedin fighters we had trained. They would attack others, stealing to feed their own. It was mayhem. When Muslim fundamentalism in the shape of the Taliban and the Sharia Law they enforced began to rear it’s head, it seemed to provide an answer to local problems. For the people, it brought retribution when they or their family members were wronged and set a system of rules that applied to all and that everyone understood. To many, at first, it may have seemed like a solution.
Civil Wars in Afghanistan – 1989 to 1992 and 1992 to 1996
The first civil war was mainly infighting and by the end Afghanistan was officially “The Islamic State of Afghanistan”, had a transitional government in place and were preparing for general elections. The second phase started because Pakistan was not happy with this and so along with the support of a militant group called Hezbi Islami tried to take down the government. Hezbi Islami were not gaining ground fast enough however, so Pakistan started to support the Taliban.
The Rise of the Taliban – from 1994
Thanks mainly to the complete mess that Afghanistan was now in, slowly the now Pakistan (and Saudi) funded Taliban took over towns, and finally even Kabul. They tortured to death the former UN president and his brother and displayed them hanging from concrete poles at a traffic intersection. Women were suddenly veiled, banned from schools and forced to work at home. Amputations became the penalty for minor crimes. By the end of 1996 the Taliban controlled Jalalabad and much of the East and South East of the country. It was the perfect time for militant fundamentalist training camps to be set up.
September 11th, 2001
All eyes on Afghanistan. Bin Laden had used the training camps in the country, was he still there? On October 7th the US begins missile attacks against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets which lasted until the beginning of 2002.
You know the rest of the story. You waved your husband, boyfriend, wife, girlfriend, son, daughter, brother or sister off onto their coach. Some of you in 2001. Some of you for the first time only when they had participated in three tours of Iraq. We are still there.
Is it our fault that we are back in Afghanistan?
In my own, possibly extremely naïve opinion? Yes. Not ours alone, but yes. Had we rebuilt the country we smashed to smithereens so many times nearly a century ago, maybe it would not have become the extremist haven it is today.
So when people say, ‘let’s just bring them home, what’s Afghanistan got to do with us anyway?’ Now you can tell them. It has everything to do with us. Yes, it’s shit that our troops have to go out there. Yes, we may have messed up by taking our eyes off it whilst we fought in Iraq. Yes, we probably should have done things differently. Yes, it has been a massive waste of life, theirs and ours. But now, finally we have made progress, and will continue to make progress when the combat tours end and the restructuring and mentoring of Afghan forces carries on.
If we had just upped-and-left before the country was ready, it may have resulted in our own child or grandchild dying on an Afghan combat tour in a few years time when we ended up going back there to sort it all out…….. again.