Worse than Defeat: UK in Afghanistan

If we truly wish to understand the depth of British failure in Afghanistan–and by extension the folly of a knee-jerk military response to, well, everything–consider the following news report:

Afghanistan’s Helmand province could fall to the Taliban after months of heavy fighting, with 90 members of the security forces killed over the past two days, the deputy governor of the volatile southern province warned on Sunday.

Mohammad Jan Rasulyar said unless President Ashraf Ghani took urgent action, the province, a Taliban heartland that British and American troops struggled to control for years, would be lost

The province British forces fought and failed to secure for well over a decade, the province where Britain spent £15m a day (“more than £2,000 for every taxpaying household”) to maintain its “under-resourced” forces, the province British Special Forces returned to just two months ago to try and hold off Taliban insurgents, is set to fall to the Taliban.

It would be easy enough to run through a long list of errors–both military and political–made by the UK and NATO in its attempt to secure a single province in Afghanistan. The refusal to accept Taliban attempts at surrender and instead insist on an unconditional military victory, excluding Taliban forces from the Bonn conference, supporting corrupt and brutal warlords who aided NATO in creating the conditions for the Taliban return, pursuing aggressive tactics which needlessly alienated locals, etc. This Chatham House report does a good job of looking at  not just the incompetence of British forces but also how the British were outsmarted and ultimately defeated by the Taliban.

“Failure” and “defeat” may get the point across but they do not do the British experience in Helmand justice. James Meek runs into the same problem as he tries to explain the “extent of the military and political catastrophe” the British experience represents. “In a way,” he writes, “it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it.”

The British did not simply lose the war to Taliban. They made matters worse. The very arrival of British troops in Helmand, never mind what they did afterwards, “triggered a violent intensification of the insurgency.” That this was an insurgency willing to surrender after its initial disarray is a testament to the unique genius of British and NATO forces: to create an enemy where there might not have been one and promptly losing to it on the battlefield. The true cost of such a failure, needless to say, is being paid by the Afghan people.