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The Afghan war ended as it began, shamefully

By Diane Abbott

THE Commons was recalled a few days ago to debate the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

But, as some MPs implied, there is little point in debates such as this if the real bedrock of the British foreign and military policy is that this country will simply do whatever the US tells it.

From beginning to end the entire Afghan war morally and politically indefensible. Just 17 MPs opposed it at the time, and I am proud to say I was one of them, alongside Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru) who are still sitting MPs.

One of the claims made by advocates of the war was that the Nato forces would stabilise the country and bring prosperity. Yet according to the World Bank, per capita GDP has not grown in Afghanistan since 2015 and over the course of the occupation growth has lagged far behind countries like Nepal.

Nato did not introduce democracy either. Instead, leaders were allowed to come forward like Hamid Karzai who was described by the US as “mired in corruption,” or Ashraf Ghani who reportedly fled with carloads full of money. Nato did not build a nation, it installed a kleptocracy.

The rallying cry for bombing and invasion was the rights of women. But this was a false flag. Nato and Western powers had little regard for the rights of women when they were funding the mojahedin and Osama bin Laden.  

The UN reports, through its Human Development Programme, that in 2019 the human development indices for women were far lower than Nepal, or Pakistan or the average for the whole of South Asia. Inequality relative to men was also far worse in Afghanistan than those countries and in the region. 

It is shocking, but the UN also reports that on average girls in Afghanistan in 2019 attended school for just 1.9 years. This is half the duration for girls in Pakistan and little more than a third of the region as a whole. Nato is not a feminist organisation, and, no, the military occupation did not liberate women and girls.

Crucially, according to Brown University researchers 71,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict since 2001, presumably very many of them also women and children.

How grateful are Afghans and Afghan women in particular for this disgraceful treatment? The founder of the Afghan Women’s Network Mahbooba Seraj had this to say on TV about Nato, US and EU leaders: “Shame on you for what you did to Afghanistan….are we just pawns in your hands?...we don’t have any hope from you….we are disgusted.”

Of course, there was a price paid at home too. According to the Ministry of Defence the total additional cost of the Afghan war up to 2013/14 was £21.3 BILLION, although noted economists such as Joseph Stiglitz imply it is far, far greater when all true costs of the conflicted are accounted. Given that the conflict has lasted longer, presumably even the official total is now considerably higher.

But the costs of war cannot be counted solely or even primarily in monetary terms. Almost 460 service personnel, British men and women, lost their lives in the Afghan fighting. 2,000 more were seriously injured. All this, it should not be forgotten, in addition to the 71,000 civilians already noted.

The grief of the friends and families of all those who died will last the rest of their days. So too will some of the effects of those most seriously injured. For many, the mental scars may take as long to heal.  

None of this is made easier by the clear impression that this was a pointless war which achieved nothing beyond the death and destruction that characterised it.

Its supporters, then and now, cannot point to a single success from invading Afghanistan.  Osama bin Laden, Nato’s erstwhile ally in Afghanistan was finally found living in comfortably in Pakistan.

Those women and men who died were overwhelmingly young. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Mothers of some of the fallen have written an open letter to the Prime Minister, calling on successive governments to be held to account for their role in the debacle. 

Caroline Valentine’s son, Sergeant Gareth Thursby was serving with the 3rd Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment, when he was shot dead by an Afghan policeman at a checkpoint in Helmand Province on September 15, 2012.

She recently told the Daily Mirror: “Our sons were sent to war on a bed of lies and 20 years on we are back to square one with the Taliban in control.

“It breaks me apart and enrages me that our soldiers’ lives were treated so flippantly, and I will never recover from losing Gareth.”

Supporters of never-ending wars should heed her words, and others from the grief-stricken loved ones. 

Unfortunately, it seems as if some are determined not to learn the lessons of this debacle. They see the shame and humiliation only in the withdrawal. In truth, the entire adventure was shameful, from beginning to end.

The Prime Minister has told us that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was not his, but that it was forced on him by the decision of the US administration to cut and run. 

The ignominy of the departure is matched only by humiliation of that statement, for him and for this country. But truth hurts sometimes. 

We do not have an independent foreign policy in this country. The political choice was made some time ago that this country should be the loyal servant of the US. 

So, if the US is threatening China with a new cold war, we will send an aircraft carrier. If the US wants to overthrow Assad, we will bomb his forces even when they are fighting Isis. And if the US wants to get out of Afghanistan before the mid-term elections, we must rush to the exit too.

In 1956 this country, acting with France and Israel, tried to bully Egypt and illegally seized its canal and its oil. Because the US opposed us, it ended in complete humiliation. But the lesson drawn was completely wrong. 

Since that time, successive governments have been at pains not to let a cigarette paper come between them and the war plans of successive US administrations. From Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Libya, we have followed the US everywhere. The honourable exception to this was Harold Wilson who refused to send combat troops to Vietnam.

And what has been achieved? Yes, bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gadaffi are dead. But whole countries have been laid to waste and countless civilians have been killed. “They have made a desert and called it peace.”

Yet still the US and allies thirst for more worlds to destroy, the overthrow of leaders and the destruction of countries. 

There is an alternative, and it is here on our doorstep. Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden and Switzerland – not one of them is a Nato member. 

And, with very few exceptions, they do not participate in any of these wars. Yet their citizens are able to sleep soundly at night, and their sons and daughters do not come home to be buried with military honours. They do not engage in regime change, and they are not forced out of Helmand, or Basra.

We could have a foreign policy based on promoting peace, non-intervention and a shared common future. 

Our defence policy would be precisely that, defensive. But I am afraid that once again there may only be a few dozen of us who uphold that position. 

Others, here and in other Nato countries are itching to prove there is no “Afghan syndrome” by increasing hostilities. Regrettably, some are determined to avoid the lessons of the very recent past and determined to make the same mistakes all over again.

Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington.


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