Afghanistan: Lessons Of War

February 26, 2015

By Isabel Gonzalez-Prendergast

On 25 February, a panel of experts convened at the Frontline Club for a discussion on the war in Afghanistan and its ongoing legacy. Chaired by BBC Afghanistan correspondent, David Loyn, the debate spanned the period from 11 September 2001 to the present day.

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L-R: Mike Martin, Jawed Nader, David Loyn, Major General Jonathan Shaw and Jack Fairweather

Jawed Nader, director of the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) who has worked with both the Afghan Government and Afghan civil society, began by commenting on his experience of foreign military intervention post 9/11. He said, “At the beginning we didn’t know what to make of it. We were upset that all these people were being killed, but then we also thought maybe Afghanistan is becoming important for the international community.”

Loyn asked Nader whether he thought war in Afghanistan was unavoidable. He responded, “I think it was inevitable, and in some ways we really wanted that war to take place. Afghanistan was in war for many years before that and we thought there would be no end to it, and then now a superpower was coming and we thought it would be a decisive war.”

On the subject of public support of the intervention, Loyn provided the audience with an American poll figure which conveyed the staggering shift in opinion. “At the time, 93% [of Americans] were in favour of the action, and last month for the first time Gallup recorded negative support for the war in Afghanistan.”  

Jack Fairweather, former Baghdad and Gulf correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and currently fellow of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, commented on US strategy in the region. “They [the US] took a very stripped down view of what should be done. ‘Light footprint’ was the sort of catchphrase that was doing the rounds.”

The issue of aid was also discussed in depth, as multiple aid agencies flooded Afghanistan following the outbreak of war. Nader commented that “the aid agencies wanted to do good,” but also recognised that “there was an issue that the Taliban or the ordinary people will not be able to identify who were military personnel aids and who were aid agencies… The other issue was a lot of wastage of aid.”

Major General Jonathan Shaw, recently retired from the British Army after 32 years commanding operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, questioned “did we understand Afghanistan? The real problem is that we didn’t…the ahistorical nature of our approach was just remarkable.”

“I think we went into Afghanistan and Iraq in denial of the lessons of history, launching ourselves on an American crusade.”

Helmand was discussed in great detail, and was described as a “historical accident” by Lyon. “What the British decided to do was put in huge amounts of soldiers and very little aid and wondered why it upset the locals,” added Shaw.

Former British Army Office and pushtu-speaker Mike Martin, who served and undertook extensive research in Helmand during the war, commented on the damage inflicted in the province by UK and US military forces.

“Helmand seems to be a microcosm or a slightly extreme version of what happened elsewhere in Afghanistan…. We completely misunderstood what was going on… In Helmand what you saw was a civil war, it had nothing to do with the Taliban or the government. All of the Helmandis understood that we understood the conflict as a dichotomous good/bad government/Taliban…

“We made it worse: rather than clamping down on the violence we actually made it more violent.”

Shaw spoke on the relationship between the armed forces and Whitehall. “The problem is connecting the military instrument to the political objectives. The military were the wrong tool for the job… The military should have been support of the political plan.”

Nader then moved the discussion onto the West’s tendency to misinterpret the needs of Afghanistan.

“We compare Afghanistan with high standards, of European standards I believe, whereas Afghanistan should be compared with its regional countries,” he said.

Nader closed the debate with a hopeful view of the future of Afghanistan.”Today Afghanistan has changed in three main ways. One, Afghanistan is a better place to live, Second, Afghanistan is more diverse…And third, Afghanistan is more self aware, more critical.

“All of these positive changes would not have happened had you not gone to Afghanistan to topple a very draconian regime, the Taliban.”

Listen and watch back below:

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