Published: 20 January, 2015
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
AND so the curtain falls on another adventure in Afghanistan. The apologists, the generals, the politicians and the gangsters go on to comfortable retirement. No fear of inquests. They are reserved for the dead.
We began the 21st century abjectly following Bush’s war on terror, made memorable by Tony Blair’s supine posture. After 9/11 and the twin towers, revenge burnt in the heart of every red-blooded American. They were going out to “kick ass”. We were asking questions like “What is al-Qaeda?” and “How long would it take to root it out from Afghanistan’s remote mountains?”
There were other puzzling and unanswered questions. The Taliban were purveyed to the media as a united, solid and merciless group of people, fired by Islam. They were nothing of the sort. They were groups of farmers. They did protect Bin Laden for a while, but it was never stated or put forward that they were getting restless with Bin Laden and his religious authority. They were not a unified, homogenous group. It was a fragmented concept.
No one in the leadership of our forces spoke Pashto. No one came to the conclusion that Kabul’s power was limited to a large extent by geography and by stubborn local forces. British arrogance pushed for the arrest of the most powerful war boss in the Helmand province. However repugnant he was, he was an efficient local leader. To shift him was a profound mistake. Of course, the generals, with their sheets of logistics, changed objectives and situations; shifting their power bases. And there in the foreground was the appalling Donald Rumsfeld, asserting the power of the Pentagon. Not one of these geniuses and experts had thought of looking into the crystal ball.
The West’s entry into Afghanistan had been preceded by the Russians. During the 1980s they moved in 660,000 troops, and left in 1990 with 16,000 dead. The mighty Red Army had been beaten by the men in the hills. The Americans lost 4,000 and the UK 500 soldiers. It’s not easy to be accurate about Afghanistan’s loss, particularly civilians. And, of course, the use of drones in the last years was an efficient killer.
There is a very effective part of Jack Fairweather’s book which vividly makes plain the terrors of young soldiers, particularly those dealing with IEDs – improvised explosive devices. Imagine the terror of watching from 30 yards as one of your comrades is blown to pieces trying to defuse one of them.
Soldiers in any conflict are kind to children when they come across them, as a large number of them are fathers too. But it all became “every man for himself”. It slowly dawned on the British and American high command that you could not impose on the local communities. They had to be cultivated and patiently explained to.
But instead of buying up the poppy crop, they thought they were doing a good thing by destroying it. The farmers were left penniless and, by resorting to secrecy, they doubled up production. Afghanistan today produces three-quarters of the world’s opium, which becomes heroin. This was one of the questionable effects of the war on terror.
Hamid Karzai, the installed leader, belonged to a powerful family which ran the central bank, with custody of millions of dollars. He was rumoured to take heroin and painkillers himself.
In The Good War, Jack Fairweather, an ex-Daily Telegraph writer has the reporter’s keen powers of observation, and he makes a lasting impression. The book is an indictment of Blair, Bush and others who managed the news output and gave a false impression to the world.
It has a shot of humour. A young British officer trying to set up a liaison with the village chief became perplexed when the old toothless man kept asking for magic power. After a long time, he came to the conclusion that what he wanted was in fact Viagra as payment for collaboration. Ironically some front-line soldiers were on Prozac.
This war cost the Americans alone $3trillion and too much young life.
One wonders if the Guilty Men will ever be brought to judgment.
• The Good War: The Battle for Afghanistan 2006-14, by Jack Fairweather, published by Jonathan Cape, £20.