Back in September 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I spent a few days with the then Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, at his presidential palace. He talked to me about his hopes for his country but, again and again, he returned to his distrust of the West and his fear it would once again abandon the Afghan people.
Now we have indeed abandoned Afghanistan. Every objective the West had in the country has been squandered: education for girls, the building of civil society, the creation of institutions, rule of law and the establishment of women’s rights.
We have betrayed the very people who believed in the promises we made and worked with us to try to turn that dream into a reality; the professors, the teachers, the scientists, the policemen and the soldiers who all trusted that those commitments would be kept.
Indeed all the promises made not only to the Afghanistan people but here to the British voters, who saw their young male and female soldiers go off to fight and too often come back dead or maimed, have been betrayed.
I spent time with British soldiers at their base in Helmand during the conflict. I saw for myself the commitment and dedication they had in delivering the mission with which they had been tasked. In total, Britain lost 455 soldiers and spent £22 billion on the war in Afghanistan, some £1,500 per household. All those lives, all that money, and all that effort has in the end achieved nothing.
After 20 years, and with more than $2 trillion invested, this war has ended in the most abject of defeats, one that only has succeeded in creating a new haven for the very radicalisation it set out to destroy.
Every leader who is responsible —largely President Joe Biden, but not exempting our own Prime Minister — should be ashamed of having allowed the greatest foreign policy disaster since the fall of Saigon.
Not least as it was so avoidable. Until the decision was made to cut and run, a mere 10,000 Nato soldiers were maintaining a force of some 400,000 Afghan troops. Then the Nato troops were told to withdraw, fatally undermining the combat power and morale of those they were now abandoning.
Worse, the seemingly inevitable presumption of defeat that decision created within the Afghan government, seems to have prompted an excess of looting as people sought to line their own off-shore bank accounts while there was still time. Most of the Afghan soldiers who surrendered cities without firing a shot had not been paid in months. It is little surprise they had lost their eagerness to fight, nor that they could be attracted by the $500 offered by the Taliban to turn over their weapons.
Just five weeks ago President Biden was confidently promising there could be “no circumstances” in which Americans would be lifted off the US embassy in Kabul by helicopter.
Now, we have this. Can there be a more public humiliation for an American president?
When Saigon fell, the war was over. The fall of Kabul risks only renewing further bloodshed on the streets of our own towns and cities by not merely providing militant Islam with a new safe haven but also by giving it a new potent recruitment call. That is the danger of the legacy of what we witnessed yesterday. It is only in the coming months and years that we will learn the true cost of our lost war in Afghanistan.
Lord Lebedev is the proprietor of the Evening Standard and The Independent
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