PARIS — After the lives lost and the treasure exhausted, what was it all for?
That question is being asked in London and in Kabul as British troops, like their more numerous American counterparts, prepare to relinquish combat duties in Afghanistan next year after a tenure that appears to have achieved few of the goals set by their political masters.
In March 2002, Britain committed 1,700 soldiers to join American forces in what was portrayed as little more than rooting out the remnants of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces after the American-led invasion six months earlier. The logic was that if the streets of Britain were to be kept safe, then terrorism’s distant havens had to be dismantled.
But that brief early deployment did not shield Britain from the more immediate menace of home-grown terrorism. On July 7, 2005, four suicide bombers killed themselves and 52 travelers on the London transit system. None of them had ties to Afghanistan.
By 2009, the official mantra was the same, but the geographic reach had been redefined. Mission creep had raised the number of British soldiers to 9,000. The border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Gordon Brown, then prime minister, were “the crucible of global terrorism” threatening “the streets of Britain.”
In 2013, a new statistic has entered the calculations of loss: 444 British military personnel dead — the most potent figure fueling the outrage expressed by many in Britain when Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, told the BBC last week that the entire NATO exercise had been pointless.
The years of combat “caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering and a lot of loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure,” he said, adding: “I am not happy to say there is partial security because that is not what we’re seeking. What we wanted was absolute security and a clear cut war against terrorism.”
Comments like Karzai’s make a soldier ‘wonder whose side he is fighting on.’
Corporal Tom Neathway, a Briton who lost both legs and his left arm to a Taliban booby-trap five years ago, said of Karzai: “I think he’s stupid to say that. We may not be out there for the right reasons. Who knows?” But comments like Karzai’s, the corporal said, make a soldier “just wonder whose side he is fighting on.”
The resentments draw on a long history of interventions and invasion that left British imperial armies bloodied. Then, as now, the imperative to mold far-flung events collided with resistance.
But the precedents did not deter Tony Blair as prime minister from joining the United States in fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq, only to discover that history could not simply be rewritten when the invaders tired of the fray and wished to go home.
Iraq is now seized with some of its bloodiest, sectarian violence since the darkest days of the American-led occupation. Afghanistan is threatened with internecine bloodletting the moment Western forces withdraw next year.
While politicians and generals conspire to declare the campaign a success, the columnist Simon Tisdall wrote in The Guardian, “Karzai’s comments are a salutary reminder that all is far from well in Afghanistan — and things could turn very messy, very soon.”