By Ed Mayne
Christmas Eve this year marks an anniversary that will probably go largely unnoticed amid the seasonal festivities. For it was 30 years ago, on 24th December 1979, that the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan to prop up the embattled Communist Government. It turned out to be the start of 30 years of almost uninterrupted war in the country, first involving the Soviets, then the Taliban and now the USA, the UK and our allies. It is of course the latter that will dominate the headlines this Christmas and probably for the next decade to come.
I have always been sceptical of the benefits of sending troops into Afghanistan. As a 16 year-old sixth former in 2001, I took up the challenge of opposing military action in the school debating society, despite the fact that by the time the debate took place military action had already begun.
The arguments used to justify the war then were largely the same as they are now: protecting the UK from terrorism; liberating the Afghan people and promoting democracy in the region. During the debate one feminist in the audience raised the point that military action was justified to free the oppressed women of Afghanistan, a point that was very difficult to argue against then and still resonates today.
As I recall the bulk of my contribution to the debate centred on whether our sacrifice would be worth what we could actually achieve there. My case couldn’t have been that coherent. Summarising my arguments in the school magazine, the supervising teacher wrote: “…wouldn’t Afghanistan be like Vietnam…er…perhaps with less jungle.”
As it turned out we had the misfortune of arguing our case on the day the Northern Alliance took Mazari Sharif. Capturing Kabul and Kandahar was not far off and my side lost the sparsely attended vote at the end of the debate. Military action, it seemed, would soon be over and its legitimacy was not worth debating.
And yet eight years on we’re still there, Osama bin Laden hasn’t been captured and we’re fighting a resurgent Taliban with no end to the war in sight. Unlike that debate eight years ago, when military action in Afghanistan received widespread support in the aftermath of 9/11, public opinion is now far from united on the issue. Only time will tell who was right and who was wrong.
I remain sceptical, but my whole perspective on the war changed recently. For me this has always seemed like someone else’s war. I didn’t know anyone in the armed forces, I never saw military preparations and the whole thing seemed very distant. Now it is anything but. One friend has already been deployed there. Three more are in the process of joining the army and will almost certainly serve there. The dangers that confront our troops now seem very real to me, not to mention the difficulties faced by their family, friends and partners.
Another thing has affected my perspective on the conflict. Roughly a year ago I saw soldiers in desert camouflage in a motorway service station. They had just returned from Afghanistan. Presumably for them the contrast between desert warfare and a Burger King somewhere on a rain soaked motorway could not have been more different. Their presence was largely ignored by the other customers. No celebrations. No congratulations. How hard it must be to be seemingly unappreciated and constantly debated about. Yet the soldiers seemed so happy just to be back. Since then military homecoming parades have become a more regular feature, which will hopefully continue.
With the Obama surge and the tragic losses of our troops dominating the news, it’s easy to forget the plight of the Afghan people themsleves, whose casualty figures are absent from most bulletins. When we do hear about the Afghan people in the media it’s usually in the context of how unreliable their army is, their opium farming and the corruption of their politicians. One journalist even remarked recently that after three decades of war people have changed sides so many times that it’s hard to tell who is supporting who.
As anyone who has read Khaled Hosseini’s book The Kite Runner will know, many people in Afghanistan see politics and war as an unwelcome distraction. Despite all the debates about Nationalism, Communism and Islamism that took place there in the 1970s, so many people just wanted to get on with their lives. This cannot be much different today.
So this Christmas spare a thought, not just for our brave troops in Afghanistan, but also for the Afghan people, who have endured 30 years of war with seemingly no end in sight. We in the UK and the USA may look forward to the start of a military withdrawal in 2011. But I doubt if many Afghans view that as light at the end of the tunnel.