On June 24, the flags were lowered in Afghanistan as the last British Army units left — it was behind closed doors, press not invited. It was the end of a commitment of nearly 20 years, at the cost of 457 lives of servicemen and women, many, many more wounded — some for life — and the expenditure of billions of pounds. For America and its allies, it has been a trillion-dollar war.
On a foggy morning in Kabul on January 30, 1989, there was another flag-lowering, this time in the grounds of the US Embassy; press, including this correspondent, invited.
The Russian forces were on their way out, their client dictator Najibullah, stranded and the Mujahideen Islamist fighters on their way.
The American chargé , Jon Glassman, intoned: “The people of Afghanistan will enjoy peace and freedom once again. That is our wish.” There was to be no peace — the Mujahideen arrived and set off civil war, which brought Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, 9/11, allied intervention, and more war.
Nobody believes there is much prospect of peace this summer, or in those to come. Yesterday Boris Johnson and the head of the armed services, and serial Afghan veteran, General Sir Nick Carter, tried to put a brave face on the British and allied achievement over the past 20 years. There is better education, more girls in schools, better health care, more electricity and — the big game-changer — a viable mobile phone system.
But the Taliban the allies came to defeat in 2001 are now in charge of half of the country. The government forces of President Ashraf Ghani are shaky, and following the Biden lead there will be less immediate help from western allies to help them.
The Taliban is not the one defeated in 2001, but one with new skills and new allies — elements of Islamic State and its new hybrids are already setting up shop. The signs are worrying.
This is the fifth military withdrawal — Boris Johnson and Nick Carter hate the word retreat — from Afghanistan in just over 150 years.
Unless we learn the lessons of muddled strategy and muddled planning — especially for unachievable targets like eradicating the entire opium crop of Helmand in three years, we are likely to be back again soon.