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“I want to talk about happy things man!” protested President Joe Biden when pressed by reporters about the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Here we go again. History is repeating like a bad Chung King curry. How else are we to judge the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with troops skulking away, while the zealots of the Taliban are on the march again. The parallels with Vietnam are striking and uncanny.
I don't blame the brave men and women who bore arms. They answered the call and did their best under trying circumstances. Once again, the culprits in this shameful episode are the politicians, who send young people into battle with ill-defined objectives and no end-game.
Unlike Vietnam, the Brits played a role this time as part of NATO. In 2001, Tony Blair jumped in with both feet, although, of course, none of his kids would be doing the fighting. As a consequence of Blair's decision, 457 British soldiers died for no discernible reason other than hubris.
With commendable foresight, Harold Wilson, the former Labour PM, had the savvy to keep Britain out of the Vietnam war. But, unfortunately, Tony Blair lacked that critical skill of forward-planning and something called a backbone, proving all too willing to do the bidding of Bush. Iraq is another example of a shockingly misjudged invasion.
These British victims join an estimated 65,600 Afghan soldiers, 2,420 Americans, 159 Canadians, 89 French, 57 Germans, 53 Italians and 321 other assorted nationalities killed. At the same time, the Taliban lost 51,000 plus. Then you have 3,937 contractors killed—finally, an estimated 47,245 civilian men, women and children. Tens of thousands were injured.
According to charity Save The Children, an average of five children were killed or wounded every day for the past 14 years in Afghanistan.
That data can't capture the human toll on the families, the wounded, the smashed communities. Let's remember the particular penchant for drone strikes on Afghan wedding parties. Seeking to excuse the killing of 40 plus, including several toddlers during one such strike, a U.S. spokesman asserted, "Who holds a wedding in the middle of the desert? We know what was going on".
And with that statement, he summed up the clueless approach of the Western forces. A lack of cultural awareness, wilful blindness and a 'we had to destroy it to save it' attitude underscores the mindset.
The U.S. has spent a stunning total of $2.26 trillion on the war. That's just under 10 per cent of the U.S. national debt in 2020. Think what you could do with that; new hospitals, refurbished roads, bridges and airports.
The Defense Department's latest 2020 report said war-fighting costs totalled $815.7 billion. That covers the operating expenses from fuel and food to Humvees, weapons and ammunition, from tanks and armoured vehicles to aircraft carriers and airstrikes.
Although America first invaded to retaliate against al-Qaida and rout its hosts, the Taliban, the U.S. and NATO soon pivoted to a more open-ended mission: nation-building on a massive scale.
Washington has poured over $143 billion into that goal. Of that, $88 billion went to training, equipping and funding Afghan military and police forces. Another $36 billion went on reconstruction projects, education and infrastructure. Then $4.1 billion has gone to humanitarian aid for refugees—finally, the campaign to deter Afghans from selling heroin around the world cost over $9 billion.
As part of the nation-building, the West sought to shoe-horn in a liberal democracy model on a tribal nation with no history nor hinterland of such systems. That failed. The so-called democratic government is corrupt to the core and so widely reviled even the Taliban look more welcome to some sectors.
Plus, the reason for going to war was dubious at best. While the Taliban did shelter al-Qaida forces, it's not clear that Bin Laden was there at the time. Later, he turns up in Pakistan, a supposed U.S. ally. Not only that, he lives next door to Pakistan's top military academy. That's where Seal Team 6 caught up with Bin Laden.
Did the entire enterprise prove a colossal waste of human life, capital and time? Was it an honourable effort? Did it make the world safer?
Of course, the NATO forces could win battles and take ground, but without a stable, trusted government in place couldn't translate those victories into anything meaningful.
It's difficult not to conclude, as a resurgent Taliban gains ground, the effort was pointless. Helpfully the West left behind a massive haul of weapons that may now fall into the wrong hands.
Meanwhile, Bush and Blair, the decision-makers, are busy accounting for their missteps by twisting the history. At each attempt, Blair looks more haunted because the truth will always be there. “I want to talk about happy things man!” protested President Joe Biden when pressed by reporters about the withdrawal.
In Parliament, Boris Johnson sought to produce the best spin he could. Finally, a few conservatives MPs had the decency to acknowledge "it looks a bit like the last days of Vietnam, an unprecedented and hurried exit with no commitment".
Reports of flag lowering in secret and the NATO forces sneaking away from bases without bothering to tell their Afghani counterparts doesn’t sound reassuring. At one location, the local militia only knew the Americans had gone when looters entered the base. The withdrawal is out of sight of the media because the imagery portrays defeat.
Here's what happens next; civil war, millions displaced, thousands dead, and a new threat from the emboldened, rearmed Taliban. As the Taliban tighten their grip, heroin production will surge to fund their rebuild of an Islamic state. Along the way, their efforts will destabilise the region, including the border with China's sensitive Xinjiang province.
Before that, minority groups face the terrible decisions of either up and leave — if that's possible - to convert to Islam or face death. This ethnic cleansing is a direct result of NATO leaving. In 1992, under Taliban rule, Hindus and Sikhs had to wear yellow armbands. Expect more of the same and worse as a brutal theocracy takes over.
In the West, late in the evening, a mother will sit in silence asking what her son died for? Did he make the world safer? Did he free an oppressed group? At best, she can take some comfort that for a brief window of time, Afghan girls got an education, with some semblance of order attained. Maybe you could argue that a blunted al-Qaida forestalled more attacks. But, unfortunately, all is about to be reversed.
The Afghans must be asking themselves why they bothered to trust the West, given the awful fate that now awaits them. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the West emerge from Afghanistan diminished on the World-stage.
So next time, and there will be the next time, the politicians need to pause, and question are we prepared to stay the course? Or will we again lower flags after dark to sneak away, leaving another bloody mess behind? Because without an integrated military and political plan, these ventures are death-producing follies of monumental proportions. Surely, we can do better.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.