Just heard the depressing news of another British soldier killed in Afghanistan. I watched a programme on BBC i-player a couple of nights ago about the Battle for Helmand, and it was a fascinating portrait of men at war. The professionalism, courage and dedication of the young British men fighting and dying there is astonishing and their devotion to their comrades profoundly moving.
I only have one question. Why do we keep sending our young men to be killed in an essentially pointless war they cannot possibly win?
History tells us that Afghanistan is one of the most intractable places on the planet. Alexander the Great struggled to subdue it. A highly organised, but poorly led British army underestimated the tribesfolk in 1842 and paid a terrible price. It was the Soviet equivalent of Vietnam.
So what has changed? The programme painted a picture of soldiers sent out to man remote outposts in the middle of enemy territory as part of what amounted to little more than a political PR campaign. The reasons for their deployment were hazy. Nobody talks about defeating the Taleban any more. Every day they patrolled streets and roads laced with mines by resourceful, ruthless opponents who knew exactly where they must pass. They endured and suffered in awful conditions and the nearest they came to fun was in an occasional liberating firefight with men who were farmers by day and warriors by night. Their skills counted for nothing; no amount of training can save you if a roadside bomb explodes next to you. Their fortresses were islands in a hostile sea. They depended on the charity of the Americans to evacuate their casualties and that charity was sometimes not available, with fatal consequences.
Even heavily armed and with air cover, they couldn't venture much more than half a mile beyond their own perimeters and, when they withdrew, the ground that they had held reverted to the Taleban within minutes. Their officers despaired of the lack of equipment and support. The cooperation they received from the poorly trained and badly led Afghan army was negligible. Yet the morale of the men who spoke to the cameras remained high, their pride was clear and their resolve self-evident
The men of the British Army are prepared to stay in Afghanistan and pay the price as long as their government asks them too. Yet I have never heard a coherent argument from a general or a politician which justifies or even properly explains what our final objective in Afghanistan is. The latest pronouncement from the government is that the last soldier will leave in 2015 when responsibility for security has been handed over to the Afghans. Four more years, for what? An article a few days ago by a former British ambassador revealed how he had asked an Afghan minister how long his army would hold Kabul when the Allies left. The answer was 24 hours.
The message that came across in the programme was that the war in Afghanistan is an exercise in futility and not worth the life of another British soldier. Unfortunately, that British soldier died today. Isn't it time to stand up and say bring them home now?