While watching the West’s lamentable flight from Afghanistan this week, it has been impossible not to cast back my mind 20 years. To ‘liberated’ Kabul in the first spring after what was then seen as the Taliban’s final defeat.
Much of the outskirts of the capital lay in ruins after two decades of war. But peace had come. And so I found myself perched in the gods of a derelict cinema that had been closed down by the joyless mullahs of the ousted regime.
Unfolding below me was apparent proof of an extraordinary sea change; as sudden and antithetical to what had gone before as the shaming scenes at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport are to us today.
It was March 8, 2002: the first International Women’s Day ever to be celebrated in a land where females had been, at best, second-class citizens.
To mark the occasion, representatives of Kabul’s womenfolk — banned by the Taliban on threat of physical punishment from leaving home without a male relative or the invisibility afforded by a burqa — were filing, unchaperoned, into the stalls. As soon as they were seated, most threw off their head coverings — revolutionary stuff — and waited for the headline speaker, who had been anointed by the West to lead them into this new era of emancipation.
My own memories of almost 20 years covering the war in Afghanistan and its impact on those who fought there will stay with me, too. Were there signs along the way that the multi-trillion-dollar endeavour would simply prove to be what Marine Deen and many others have described as ‘a modern-day Vietnam’? Richard Pendlebury is pictured above in Afghanistan
He was a man, of course. In fact, a man after whom the city’s airport — now a symbol, alongside the old U.S. Embassy in Saigon, of ignominious evacuation and foreign policy catastrophe — would eventually be named.
The urbane, sartorially elegant but ultimately ineffectual Afghan president Hamid Karzai spoke at length of his vision of the ‘new dawn’.
As soon as the event was over, the women disappeared once again under their head scarves and burqas before re-entering the doubtful safety of the streets. Karzai left with his Western Special Forces’ bodyguards.
It was early days and beyond the cinema the city was coming to life. Metropolitan security was being provided by the British military, led by the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. They were the cutting edge of the newly formed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose task was to provide temporary help to local police in Kabul — and nowhere else.
To this end the police had been given 60 bicycles, eight cars and an undisclosed number of notebooks and pencils.
It’s instructive to re-read now what I wrote then of the — with hindsight — staggering optimism and naivety which underpinned this supposedly limited military intervention: ‘The ISAF should be here for six months, by which time peaceful democracy will have taken root in Afghanistan,’ I reported.
‘That’s the plan, at least. Thanks in part to Tony Blair’s globe-trotting efforts during the post-September 11 crisis, Britain has been given first charge of the ISAF. In fact, the in-joke here is that the British 16th Air Assault Brigade, which forms the main combat element of ISAF, is actually the “Blair Assault Brigade”, so closely is it linked to the PM’s statesman ambitions.’
And so the Paras patrolled the bazaars wearing friendly smiles and soft red berets — rather than combat helmets — handing out sweets to children. In six months they would be leaving Afghanistan to the Afghans.
A chimera, of course, a tragic delusion. This was not a new dawn but the slippery slope towards another abyss into which British soldiers were pitched at ever increasing rates. That ‘mission creep’, driven by Mr Blair’s messianic tendencies, saw its apotheosis in the eventual deployment of thousands of British troops to the Taliban’s rural heartland in Helmand province.
It’s instructive to re-read now what I wrote then of the — with hindsight — staggering optimism and naivety which underpinned this supposedly limited military intervention: ‘The ISAF should be here for six months, by which time peaceful democracy will have taken root in Afghanistan,’ I reported
They were sent to support ‘reconstruction’ and the promotion of the Western values espoused by Karzai in that ruined cinema during the Kabul Spring.
But Kabul would prove to be a metropolitan bubble. Helmand was not to be another Kosovo-style intervention with a well-defined foe and clear victories, following which the grateful populace would name their roads and children after Tony Blair.
Helmand was like no other place on Earth. In total more than 150,000 British servicemen and women would be deployed to Afghanistan over 19 years rather than six months.
Of these, 457 lost their lives and more than 4,000 were wounded, many losing limbs. Countless more have come home mentally damaged by PTSD and other combat-related conditions.
In their heads they cannot escape Helmand. For some — scores, more likely hundreds — the only way out of this legacy was suicide.
And for what? That is the big question asked of me this week by several veterans I first met on the Afghan front-line or have come to know at home. As the Taliban walked back into power, the ‘reconstruction’ for which they spilled blood, saw their comrades die or suffer years of mental anguish had proved to be as durable as a house of cards in a strong wind.
Among them was former Royal Marine commando Sam Deen. He tried to kill himself with an overdose of antidepressants in the summer of 2018, having come to feel that his life post-Helmand was simply an unendurable ‘vortex of s***’.
‘It’s difficult to comprehend what has just occurred,’ he texted me on Thursday. ‘My memories of Afghanistan will never leave me and it’s heart-breaking to realise now that it was all for nothing.’
My own memories of almost 20 years covering the war in Afghanistan and its impact on those who fought there will stay with me, too. Were there signs along the way that the multi-trillion-dollar endeavour would simply prove to be what Marine Deen and many others have described as ‘a modern-day Vietnam’?
Let us begin, back in Kabul in 2002. The carpet and antique shops of Chicken Street were doing a brisk trade with the influx of foreigners. The old British Embassy — abandoned in 1989 —was still intact. I explored the interior, where bottles of gin and other aperitifs were lined along a mantelpiece, relics from when HM Ambassador was still on the premises and hosting receptions.
The best china and portraits of British monarchs had been put into secret storage against his return. The two Afghan caretakers responsible were awarded MBEs later that year. Another ‘feelgood’ story from the new Afghanistan. Where are those caretakers and their medals now, I wonder? I ventured out towards the eastern city of Jalalabad and took tea with turbaned tribal elders, then surveyed one of Nangarhar province’s myriad opium poppy fields.
Richard Pendlebury is pictured above in Afghanistan. He writes of the conflict: ‘This was not a new dawn but the slippery slope towards another abyss into which British soldiers were pitched at ever increasing rates. That ‘mission creep’, driven by Mr Blair’s messianic tendencies, saw its apotheosis in the eventual deployment of thousands of British troops to the Taliban’s rural heartland in Helmand province’
This would stop, one assumed. The West was now in a position to act. One of the world’s biggest providers of the raw material for street heroin was surely going to be shut down.
Back in Kabul, more evidence of progress; the Para battalion was helping form a new Afghan army based on the Western model. I watched a Para NCO instructor putting the 1st Battalion Afghan National Guard through its paces.
‘Run to the edge of the square you f*****g gy***,’ he bellowed at a hapless recruit. ‘What the sergeant is telling you to do . . .’ began the interpreter.
Some wit at HQ had given this debut Afghan unit the acronym ‘1 BANG’, as in ‘one bang and they’re off’. That seems horribly prescient since their successors’ meek surrender this week. Then it was just an example of British military humour.
Because there really wasn’t much danger. Then. Out on the streets the Paras were addressing common or garden banditry rather than an insurgency. Any real trouble would likely come, they thought, from squabbling between government-allied warlords.
The only casualties were those inflicted on domestic harmony. One young officer read out loud to me what he thought was the mission’s first ‘Dear John’ letter. ‘One letter in five weeks, no Valentine’s card. You just cannot be bothered,’ his ex-girlfriend fulminated as she terminated their relationship.
But in the mountains to the south, near Gardez, the American combat troops were busy still, rooting out what was left of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. I got there by taxi to join crowds of locals gawping on flat roofs as huge, Vietnam War-era B-52 bombers circled overhead, waiting to drop their ground-shaking loads on distant enemy positions. A visceral demonstration of superpower and why the Taliban could not hope to win.
But in the course of losing that battle, they and their foreign allies inflicted almost 100 casualties on the Americans and shot down two Chinook helicopters.
That wasn’t in the script. Maybe subjugation and nation building would take a few weeks longer than anticipated.
To this end, there were whispers at Kabul HQ of an American request for Britain to send reinforcements to assist in their front-line mopping up. I broke the story and the Mail carried it on its front page with the headline ‘British Marines called to war’.
Another article I wrote carried the cautionary headline: ‘When will the first British soldier die?’ In retrospect, a more pertinent question would have been ‘How many will die?’.
The following month, 1,700 Royal Marines were flown in to help the Americans. Operation Herrick began that June. Yet from 2002 until the summer of 2006 only two British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan as a result of hostile action.
Then Mr Blair made his bold offer to turn Helmand into another Hertfordshire and the game changed almost overnight.
That summer, outnumbered and besieged in Helmand, small British units found themselves fighting desperate battles for survival. Strange names such as Musa Qala and, more regularly, Sangin, began to appear in newspaper reports. Casualties mounted.
More British soldiers were poured into the province until there were almost 10,000. Patrol bases proliferated, while the desert mother ship, Camp Bastion, grew to enormous size.
Air cover and logistical support was provided from the even more gigantic Kandahar Air Field (KAF) where, with its branch of TGI Fridays, French patisserie and Canadian roller hockey rink, one could imagine oneself almost anywhere but Afghanistan.
Still the casualty numbers grew. Increasingly from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One of my memories of the hardship of this new phase of war was a rainswept night during the miserable winter of 2008-09.
The Gurkha patrol to which I was attached had literally run into a Taliban IED layer pushing a wheelbarrow that contained a shovel and a ‘daisy chain’ of three 155 mm artillery shells, wired to a detonator. He escaped because of the immaculately followed rules of engagement, which said soldiers could not open fire on someone who was not immediately menacing them. You cannot push a wheelbarrow and point a rifle at the same time.
Nothing could be done about defusing the device in darkness. So the platoon lay all night along a wall in the driving rain to guard it. In the morning we found that the bivouac covered a stretch of ground used by the village as a communal latrine.
This kind of cultural disconnect and misunderstanding of local mores had already encouraged one of the military ‘reconstruction’ teams I met to build a public lavatory in another village. The kind of loo you would find in Harrogate rather than Helmand.
Eager to please, perhaps, the locals, who for millennia had wiped their backsides with smooth stones, continued to do so until the new lavatory bowl was overflowing with soiled rock. This so infuriated the British NCO in charge that he commissioned a series of photographs of himself dropping his trousers and using lavatory paper, which would be exhibited outside his pride and joy, for the greater good.
But what did the locals really want? And who were Taliban among the male residents of the closed villages through which we and the British squaddies passed; fearing with every step that what was buried in the ground ahead would take our legs or life?
The answer to the first question was to be left alone by both sides. The answer to the second was ‘any one of them. It’s impossible to tell’.
The next summer was the bloodiest. Along with Mail photographer Jamie Wiseman, I was embedded with 2 Mercian, in the lead platoon of the final phase of the biggest British ground offensive of the war.
Object: to take back territory from the Taliban so the locals could vote.
Snapshots. In a ditch under fire beside a bearded SAS reservist who was mentoring the attached Afghan National Army platoon.
‘Where are the rest of your men?’ I asked him. Later, he would smile ruefully. Only eight out of the 30 Afghan soldiers of which he was in charge had turned up for duty that crucial day — one of whom would lose his life.
In the hours that followed, disaster after disaster befell the British. First, a rocket-propelled grenade knocked out the leading armoured vehicle, taking a leg off its young commander and killing 18-year-old Private Robbie Laws.
This week, Danny Eaglesfield, Laws’ best friend from training — who was there when he died and wounded beside him — messaged me on Facebook.
‘It’s difficult to believe [the scenes at Kabul airport],’ he said. ‘It’s like I’m watching a movie rather than real life.
‘I’m so sad to think of the lives that have been lost on the front-line, for it all to end in this catastrophic disaster.’
A few minutes after Laws’ death, the entire Mercian company HQ — the Officer Commanding and his entourage — was killed or wounded by an enormous IED.
As we survivors traipsed through the gathering darkness to bivouac, bats swooping overhead to eat the midges or mosquitoes that were eating us, this did not feel like victory.
But even then I did not feel the Coalition war was going off the rails. That came in the Arghandab Valley near Kandahar in the autumn of the following year.
We had joined a battalion of a famed U.S. airborne division who were part of President Obama’s ‘surge’. The last throw of the dice to win Afghanistan on the battlefield. They were fighting among pomegranate orchards and small villages in one of the most heavily land-mined areas on Earth — the ‘Devil’s Playground’. One platoon had taken 50 per cent casualties that summer.
The commanding officer had been deeply affected. He did not want to build public lavatories; instead, he planned to wipe three largely abandoned local villages off the map entirely, because they were larded with the kind of IEDs that had killed or maimed so many of his men.
He believed that the former residents — who would return to their former homes to tend their crops — knew where the mines were planted.
But they refused to tell him. Or did not know. He’d given them, he said, until Thursday to come clean. After that, their villages would be levelled by air strikes. He showed me on the map on his control room wall where he intended to build the replacement settlements.
He had become an urban planner from hell; a Colonel Kurtz driven to extremes by the heart of darkness. He had written the names of his seven men killed and 14 who suffered life-changing injuries — including four double leg amputations — on a card which he always carried in his breast pocket.
‘I am unprepared to tell any more moms and dads that their sons died trying to clear [these places],’ he told me. I was flown off his base before I could witness what was about to happen. But it happened.
This was not hearts and minds.
In the same small base, a U.S. master sergeant bitched about the resident Afghan National Army unit. They were slovenly and smoked too much weed or opium.
‘God damn Afghans,’ he declared. ‘Messing up my God damned camp.’ Your camp, their country, I thought.
But, arguably, by then, the American airborne should not have been leading the fight.
This week one of the Tory Afghan veteran MPs made what I thought was a very important point. Not enough had been done to make the defeat of the Taliban ‘their war’ as opposed to ‘our war’.
The Afghan security forces, armed, dressed and paid by the West, were always only attached to Coalition forces that did the heavy lifting in combat. And when the Coalition left, they collapsed.
And now the rug has been pulled from beneath us all. The heroin cultivation is greater than ever. The Taliban are shooting demonstrators in Jalalabad. There are widespread reports of alleged revenge killings of Afghans believed to have colluded with the West. Beatings on the street for those carrying the Afghan flag — and claims that a regional police chief was executed in cold blood.
Jem McIIveen, the young commander of the 2 Mercian platoon to which I had been attached that summer of 2009, texted me this week.
‘What’s happened now in Afghanistan is a completely avoidable and self-inflicted disaster,’ he wrote. ‘I feel a great deal of sadness and guilt about the fate that awaits the people.’
The Kabul Spring, like the Prague and Arab Springs, was a giddy but mistaken moment of democratic hope before the Dark Ages returned — with a vengeance.