Finished with Afghanistan?
Last week the BBC aired over two evenings, a docudrama on the August 1963 Great Train Robbery which netted the thieves over £2.6 million – equivalent today to some £41 million. One scene shows their leader, Bruce Reynolds, realising very shortly after pulling off the heist that they were way over their heads: "It's too much!" he is seen exclaiming as he gazes over the fields of Leatherslade farm in the direction of the scene of the crime and certain of the retribution soon approaching.
The major stumbling block facing Mr Reynolds and his accomplices, was the fact that they had no proper plan for after pulling off the robbery of the 120 sacks weighing about 2.5 tons. They had bitten off more than they could chew.
It was at this point that I remembered Prime Minister David Cameron's visit on 16 December to Camp Bastion in Helmund Province, Afghanistan, congratulating the troops on achieving "a basic level of security" and saying that the troops could "come home with their heads held high".
The troops, yes. As for the politicians over the years? Had they underestimated the task they had imposed upon themselves and bitten off more than they could chew? Well the jury is probably still out on that one and I'm quite sure that for all the blood and treasure expended, the outcome was anticipated to be more than some rudiment of security.
British troops are due to pull out by the end of 2014 and when queried by assembled media as to whether it was accurate to claim "mission accomplished", the PM replied:
"Yes, I think they do.
"To me, the absolute driving part of the mission is a basic level of security so it doesn't become a haven for terror. That is the mission and I think we will have accomplished that mission and so our troops can be very proud of what they have done."
Others, however, begged to differ. Labour warned against complacency and stated bluntly, that the "job was not yet done". If they really feel that way then they might care to ask themselves why?!
With more justification though with no clean record sheet, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai had complained shortly beforehand that the country had only "partial" security and blamed the foreign troops for not doing more to target terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. President Karzai makes a valid point but also brings to light the very complex nature of the region, its inhabitants and its recent politics.
Afghanistan is a spectacularly beautiful country of 31 million, some 42 per cent of whom claim Pashtun ethnicity, with significant minorities including Tajik (27 per cent) and Hazara and Uzbek with 10 per cent each. Ninety-nine per cent of the population (now) follow Islam.
The Pashtuns – synonymous with Afghans – have on occasion sought the creation of a "Pashtunistan" which would effectively divide present-day Pakistan, and traditionally dominate the country politically.
Until 1973 the country was a monarchy, when Zahir Shah, who had ruled since 1933, was overthrown in a bloodless coup by his Prime Minister (and cousin) Daoud Khan. During his reign, Zahir Shah established Afghanistan's first university and his New Constitution of 1964 introduced free elections, a parliament, civil and women's rights, and universal suffrage. There was corruption but in comparison to what was to follow, it is seen by many as a "golden age".
The King's New Constitution was deemed a bit too liberal by many and not just the religious conservatives. Daoud Khan brought the country into the sphere of the Soviet Union but in 1978 he was assassinated and most of his family killed in a Marxist revolution. More assassinations followed and all this time, Pakistan, with strong Saudi backing, was supporting a Mujahideen (radical Islamist) insurrection fought against all secular parties.
After 1980, the United States supported the Mujahideen in its fight against the Marxist, secular state and its Russian allies. Britain too gave the Mujahideen much valuable support. Some six million Afghan refugees fled the country, mostly to Iran and Pakistan and maybe as many as 1.5 million civilians died. The (Marxist) Afghan Forces lost 18,000 men, Russia lost about 14,500 dead and the Mujahideen, over 80,000. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops.
In 1992, the Marxist government of Afghanistan fell and the country became an Islamic State, yet the fighting continued and an extreme faction refused to recognise the new government. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar became leader of the Taliban and with financial and military backing from Pakistan, his forces were able "to target and destroy half of Kabul", with its two million citizens. In late September 1996, the Taliban established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Resistance to the Taliban's extreme and oppressive rule continued in the northern provinces of Afghanistan under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud who was assassinated in a suicide attack on 9 September 2001 by two Arabs posing as journalists. Massoud's forces might have been fighting the Taliban for years, despite their unpopularity by this time, had it not been for destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001.
The Taliban had been a haven for terrorists and in particular, Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters who had been responsible for the 9/11 atrocity. They refused on several occasions to hand over their extremist allies.
The subsequent attack on the Taliban by the USA and its NATO allies, largely making use of Special Forces (and not large invading armies) along with Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, defeated the Taliban and forced their withdrawal in early December 2001.
Why then will we still be fighting in 2014?
The (NATO) Alliance hasn't always been consistent in its objectives – not unusual in a multi-command structure – and the task of rebuilding Afghanistan has undoubtedly proved to be much harder than was ever envisaged, if much thought was ever devoted to the task.
The resources required to repair, not just physically, a multi-ethnic country bigger than France which is amongst the world's poorest, has great potential but few resources properly exploited, and has put strains on the Western participants at a time of recession.
The Taliban were able to reform in and with the help of Pakistan and funding from other countries in the larger region, which the Alliance has often been most unwilling to recognise and President Obama's notice of withdrawal in 2014 (against the advice of many military commanders) did not help.
President Karzai has been unable to do enough to curb rampant corruption which some estimates put at 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.
As for Mr Cameron, he inherited an unenviable, largely underfunded and under-resourced legacy but after more than three years, the buck stops with him and real cuts in Britain's Defence Budget only emphasise the fact that our troops can hold their heads high that bit more.