Afghanistan helicopter Square

Why we must return to Afghanistan before it’s too late

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AFGHANISTAN being ‘the story’ is never good, that much is certain. But this time, it is worse than ever before. There has been a lot of evidence to attest to this, from the horrific scenes of innocent Afghans attempting to scramble onto planes at the besieged Kabul airport, to the painting over of murals, and latterly the grotesque spectacle of British and American authorities having to beg the Taliban to allow their citizens to leave, with the latter dictating the terms and the former conducting ourselves like Dickensian orphans requesting an additional ladle of unappetising gruel.

The whole series of events has played like the bad ending in some unimaginative first-person shooter video game. The Taliban are in the presidential palace, are taking the first steps towards international recognition, and already have their friends in the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai smiling on. One glimpse at the recent front pages, if you can bring yourself to look – and you should, tells the whole sickening story.

In my view, abandoning the people of Afghanistan to the murderous theocrats of the Taliban, coupled with the irony that it was Western intervention which saved them from it in the first place, will stain our record for many, many years. I cannot shake the sinking feeling that when Britain, the US, and our allies return (and, make no mistake, we will) then we will find mass graves, acid burned female faces, mountains of murdered LGBT+ people, and a destroyed culture that had only recently approached something like its full height asking us forlornly just where the hell we have been – what shall we tell them? That protecting them was too costly? That when people are suffering the West no longer cares? That we decided we’ve better things to do? None of those answers should sit well with anyone with even the most average moral equipment, empathy, and reasoning.

The anti-intervention voices have become more sophisticated in recent times however and there’s a real chance they will prevail. Some commentators, from Gerry Hassan to Aaron Bastani, have already started with their comments about it being an impossible situation while others have gone full-steam ahead with the comparisons to the Vietnam War, which are as inaccurate as they are fatuous. However, perhaps the prince of the bad takes was Yanis Varoufakis, who appeared to celebrate the Taliban’s defeat of “liberal-neocon imperialism…once and for all” while encouraging the women of Afghanistan, in the most grotesque and impudent way, to “hang in there sisters!

Mr Varoufakis, any woman whom you would leave at the mercy of the Taliban is not, in any way, your sister and your female relations ought to turn their backs on you whenever they see you next for a comment so heartless, flippant, and evil.

Rather than attempting to future-gaze, perhaps it’s worth remembering what would have happened if the ‘anti-war’ brigade (they’re not, they just don’t think liberal democracies should do anything about them…) had been listened to in the past to get an indication of what might happen in the future.

If they had been listened to, Slobodan Milosevic would have continued his campaign of genocide, murder, theft, rape, and pillage. He would have succeeded in his ambition of creating a greater Serbian ethnostate and exterminated the people who, in his view, were in the way. This would have resulted in a National Socialist state sitting at the heart of the region, with all the influence that brings, and spreading his ideological filth as widely as his grubby little reach would have allowed. Free and fair elections, press freedom, respectable policing, and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in the area would have been completely extinguished and fascism would have had new life breathed into its previously thought dead body.

If they had been listened to, Saddam Hussein would have remained in control of Iraq and would have successfully implemented his annexation of Kuwait. He would have continued towards developing apocalyptic weaponry and, in the meantime, he and his knock-off Soprano crime family, with its fundamentalist, nationalist, and islamo-fascistic bent, would have perpetuated the kind of crimes against the Iraqi and Kurdish people that we promised, post-1945, would never happen again as long as we were around to stop them. On top of that, he and his Baath Party would now be sitting atop one of the world’s most important oil pipelines and would now be able to hold the rest of the world to ransom, presumably in exchange for acknowledgement and international standing.

If they had been listened to, the Afghanistan we are so shamefully abandoning would have remained in the vicious grip of the Taliban for the last twenty years. A few moments spent looking at the faces of the panicked population in the recent footage will tell you all you need to know about that. The women and girls who have made such inspiring strides in employment, education, and participation in public life would have remained in the animalistic conditions they were subject to and many would have the scars, both physically and psychologically, to prove it. Forget the bleak painting over a mural on shop front, had we not intervened that mural would never have been there in the first place.

If they had been listened to, the civil war in Sierra Leone would have been allowed to run its natural, terrible, course and the stench of the rotting bodies would have wafted round the world.

Being opposed to the West intervening in the trouble spots of the world is easy – especially when one sits in a privileged, protected, prosperous position. Gathering up the gumption and resolve to stick it out and do something about it is difficult, often unpopular, and very rarely produces everything we hope it will. However, just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean that we should do nothing and, I’m afraid to say, leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban is infinitely worse than doing nothing. The country, damaged, brutalised, and hurt as it is, is still our responsibility and we mustn’t abandon it – if we do, the people there will be right to never forgive or trust us ever again.

In the immediate term, it would behove the Western powers to take a number of very quick steps. The first is to ensure that all refugees fleeing Afghanistan find themselves in safe countries as quickly as is possible – that must include taking in our fair share and supporting them to build new lives. Secondly, a military presence should be deployed to drive out the Taliban and reinstate the government that has been so shamefully thrown out. Thirdly, a new accord should be drawn up with a long-term plan for the country, with the investment and robustness it requires, to keep the Taliban, and their inevitable Al-Qaeda partners, out forever. If we do this, then we might have a slim chance at salvaging whatever of our reputation remains.

As a liberal, this is not easy for me to advocate. My instincts always pivot me towards calling for dialogue, cooperation, and the kind of sensible, level-headed, mild conduct that makes me so proud of our intellectual and political tradition. Sometimes, however, as hopefully highlighted above, more direct and forceful action is required and this is one of those times. If we are to live up to our higher ideals and seek to reduce pain, suffering, want, ignorance, brutality, and oppression around the world then we must, without much further delay, return to Afghanistan and put right what we have allowed, so quickly, to go wrong.

In closing, I have three, very simple, questions for those who would sit back and simply fold their arms and turn their gaze away from this troubled country. Firstly, are you content with the Taliban sitting in the presidential palace in Kabul while we do nothing? Secondly, do the scenarios described above sit well with you – if so, how? And, thirdly, since you do not seem to want Western influence to be the dominant power in the region, are you prepared for the countries which, regular as clockwork, are champing at the bit to take up that role with gusto? If you are, then that is between you and your conscience… whatever that means to you.

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Photo of British Army Air Corp ground crew re-arming an AH 64 Longbow Apache attack helicopter in Afghanistan by Rob Leyland from Shutterstock.

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