Like many of you, the subject of Afghanistan is one that I have grown up with. ‘Helmand Province’ is known to us, perhaps not in geographical terms, perhaps neither even in detail as it is a name tossed around casually. It’s a place found in the news, on television, or at a politically minded friend’s dinner party. It is a word spoken daily for much of our childhood, recently smothered by political coverage of the Scottish Independence movement, Brexit, President Trump, and then of course COVID. Yet today it appears again on front page news, occupying 6 of the top ten headlines as another COBRA meeting is held, the MPs are recalled from their holidays, and the Taliban enters Kabul.
By Catriona Edington
The choice to invade Afghanistan at the start of the century is one known to many of us. In 2001, the Taliban won the 4-year long civil war, the tragedy of 9/11 happened, and the US, the United Kingdom, as well as all NATO members, and many other nation-states invaded Afghanistan in the name of the “War on Terror”. For the past two decades we have debated its necessity, its effectivity, and its cost both in terms of finance and in human lives. It started off as a success, but grew into a two-decade long war of attrition which saw thousands of military and civilian deaths amongst the renewed Taliban attacks and the West’s retaliation. Re-invading is perhaps not the answer, as clearly it is not a solution that worked the first time. But abandoning the people, whose lives we have ripped apart, isn’t either.
The US codename for the invasion of Afghanistan was ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. A name which conceptualises the ideals many believed they were fighting for: women’s rights, better healthcare, better education, and ever increased freedoms. It was a fight that indeed seemed worth it for so long. For the 100,000 British soldiers who have served there, for those who brought about change and gave the ultimate sacrifice, and for their families, who were comforted in the idea that they had died for a better world, for an Afghanistan free from terror’s reign, it was an ideal worth fighting for. But now the ‘enduring freedoms’ so many have fought to establish are being crushed as we sit watching.
Nine years ago, we all were part of a wave of support for Malala Yousafzai – Human rights activist, Nobel peace prize winner, and Oxford University alumnus. The story of Malala, of a Pakistani child shot in the head for advocating women’s education by those who share very similar ideologies to the Taliban. Malala’s experience is one we will see again, probably repeatedly; in some ways we have only ourselves to blame. Why? Because, as Tom Tugendhat highlighted, we have abandoned the people of Afghanistan. All this and more as we bicker over Boris Johnson’s curtains, and whether we should be allowed to go on foreign holidays. Never in recent history has the realities of Western life become so clear; a genuine concern for ourselves, a material concern for all others.
Already, news reports talk of Women being forced to wear a Burqa, banned from public places, from adult education, and killed or maimed for disobeying the rules. Their President has fled. The women’s education charity which my own mother supports – the Farkhunda trust – has broadcast a request to not contact them as they are being forced underground into hiding. The Taliban have brutal punishments for those who defy them; their ideology my be based on Islam, but their true agenda is a totalitarian dystopia. This is something we have always known, but we have withdrawn our shared support anyway. Although they have announced that there will be no acts of revenge, their actions prove that evil does not always practice what it so promptly preaches. People are running, fleeing their country, hiding, and being shot in the streets. The Taliban have gained their control because of our decision to withdraw. It is fair to say there are grounds for withdrawal as this war has indeed been costly; many British lives have been lost, many Afghan lives too. Financing a war is expensive, particularly in a post-Brexit and Covid economy; this abandonment has been planned for a while.
But something ever worse than the abandonment, is the betrayal we are committing currently. We have not protected those who protected us for so many years. Our borders are not open to the many Afghan refugees whose homes we destroyed, the interpreters who will now be cast as enemies of the state, the soldiers we trained and armed; now powerless rebels. Meanwhile, the women’s rights activists and the people who got a chance for wonderful education opportunities abroad, who are now condemned to never go home, become victims once more. We have not even evacuated all of those who worked for the British Armed forces. We have suspended the 35 Afghan nationals who were due to come to UK universities on scholarships. We have withdrawn our troops amidst a Taliban advancement knowing these consequences. Why? It takes too long to process a visa; we have decided it doesn’t suit us to pay for the last of Tony Blair’s wars, and it doesn’t align with Priti Patel’s policy on refugees.
Admittedly, the withdrawal of troops is not entirely the fault of the British government. The Americans, the ones who started the war – the so-called proponents of the ‘land of the free’ – need to take much of the blame, as does NATO. President Biden and the UN, for all their talks of a better world, are allowing Afghanistan to disintegrate before us. Should we be surprised? Little has been done to protect Uighur Muslims in China after all despite the high profile nature of the genocide. Yet Afghanistan is a problem of our own doing. We tore that country apart, patched it up in a frame that suited us, and are now letting it shatter into a million pieces with no regard for the casualties. The moral superiority we have claimed for so long lies in tatters; can we claim to be better when we sit by silently? The people in Afghanistan have lost their faith in the West. I have lost my faith in the West. If the suffragettes were right, and it is ‘Deeds not Words’ which matter, we are shown to be failing in our duty to protect those who are suffering.
Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ has turned out to be little more than an empty promise; nay an outright lie! People have been fighting so hard for so long and we have turned to face the other way. Limbs and lives have been lost – Around 241,000 to date. More will be lost in the days to come as the West continues its retreat. Homes, families, and friends have paid the ultimate sacrifice; now even the hope for a better life has left Afghanistan too. I suggest we Westerners – with all our comforts and material matters – all take a look at ourselves and recognise how lucky we are in so many ways. We are not perfect, far from it, we have much to fight for here too. But we have chosen willingly to abandon a people who are suffering. We aren’t even helping those who we owe our lives to, and the lives of our soldiers too. Culpability for the atrocities of the future lies in our hands, and we should – in former Prime Minister Blair’s own words – “…feel the hand of history upon [our] shoulder…”. But do we even care?
A final reflection should rest in the words of Carol Anne Duffy, whose poem War Photographer was probably ruined for most by its status on the GCSE English literature paper. She is right in every sentence; she’s right about the devastation and the pain, but also in how most of us will not read on, not do or even say anything to help, because most of us who are safe in our cosy world of the UK and Ireland – despite what we claim – don’t really seem to care.
Catriona is not wrong in her assessment of the way we in the West have treated the Middle East. The events in Afghanistan this weekend are not the end. Whilst I wish I could gleefully state that it is the means to a better end, I fear that our abandonment of our former battlefields and the people we dragged into the middle of them is far from “a better end”; as a supposed moral leader, we have allowed evil to take the easy route. One would hope, considering the immense scrutiny of British history in the recent years, that the Johnson administration would engage in some degree of moral imperative. Instead, with our eyes now firmly fixed on the domestic theatre, this weekend will go down as a mere footnote in the history of the West’s engagement in the Middle East; this won’t be a weekend we remember in a year’s time. It seems the continued popularism emitted by the Johnson administration has proved an old point once again; War is only popular when you’re winning.
Thinking back to the 2010s, I can remember how determined former Prime Minister David Cameron was to issue the order of a bombing raid on ISIS insurgents; Parliament was locked in for hours on a cold December evening as speaker upon speaker railed against the impact of such action. Yet, despite their best efforts, back to engaging in war and conflict we went; appointing ourselves the renewed liberators from fascism. As a nation, the threat of islamic fanaticism was an oxymoronic unifier; we seemingly abandoned our knowledge of the Middle East’s contribution to modern civilisation, and decided that all those who remotely reflected the image of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or ISIS were the enemy. Now, despite how much energy we in the West put as a civilisation into ensuring the continuation of this war, we’ve chosen to act like stereotypical young children on a Christmas morning; we’re bored of ‘that‘ toy, so we’re going to drop it, forget about it, pretend we don’t know what it is or who was there, and play with the newer, shiner, cooler one. How is it – and perhaps this is something contrived purely in England – that we can herald ourselves as the underdog victors against Fascism? How can we possibly continue to exclaim the narrative that we alone defeated the greatest war machine in history when we turn our backs so easily on the most prevalent and committed variant of Fascism the world has seen since those dark 20th century days?
The Gown will continue to report on and monitor events in the Middle East.