On Friday afternoon, I was asked if I would participate in a discussion on the BBC News Channel on ‘how history will view the recent campaign in Afghanistan’.
I’m usually asked to participate in interviews that are way outside my comfort zone. This, whilst not entirely fitting within it, was at least about history and the importance of utilising history to interpret events.
On the train to London, I planned my comments carefully.
No serious historian would seek to pass judgement on a campaign so recently ended (in fact one still ongoing just without the active participation of British forces).
There are many positive outcomes already apparent: the peaceful (though tension fraught) democratic transition of power from one president to the next; better education prospects for children, particularly girls; an increasingly effective and efficient army and police force.
Likewise, there are many negative aspects: a resurgent and increasingly capable Taliban in its southern stronghold; a fraught and difficult relationship between Afghanistan and its mercurial neighbour Pakistan; rampant corruption at all levels of government; and a resurgent opium trade which promises to cause further long-term instability.
But were these issues the right issues to discuss on the evening of a commemoration of Britain’s part in the war, of the dead and wounded, and the veterans of that conflict and their families?
As a historian, I’m frequently confronted with the importance of commemoration, the generation of a collective memory of a conflict that will help the healing process begin. Commemoration is an inherent aspect of my role as a military historian working alongside the military. Every staff ride and battlefield tour I conduct has a commemoration ceremony, and rightly so.
But it is when the memories are fresh and the public interest still high, that the most valuable lessons can be learnt, when the most useful knowledge can be exchanged, and when the best can be made of the collective experience of the campaign. Troubling questions need to be asked; and difficult issues confronted.
On balance, then, it is difficult to provide a satisfactory answer to the opening question of the discussion: Was it worth it?
As a typical historian, the answer at this point is ‘It depends’.
It depends on whether the democracy will continue to flourish in Afghanistan: will Ashraf Ghani stay in office for the duration of his term? Will the next elections to be held in Afghanistan be free of fraud and electoral corruption? Will Ghani hand over power to his successor peacefully?
It depends on whether the Afghan National Army can maintain its reasonably impressive standards and continue to resist the Taliban resurgence in the south? If confronted with an incursion of Islamic State, will the Afghan Army maintain cohesion or collapse as its counterpart in Iraq did in 2014?
Both of these issues require constant and consistent funding from the West. Withdrawal of funding will most likely lead to the collapse in civil order witnessed in the early 1990s – a situation that led to the emergence and eventual victory of the Taliban.
But the fact remains that even with these funds, the odds remain heavily stacked against a stable and secure Afghanistan emerging within the next decade. The campaign might still have been worth it if Al Qaeda or Islamic State are held at bay, or if at least some of the domestic benefits that have emerged are maintained.
Besides these issues, useful questions should be asked about the conduct of the British military in the campaign itself. How might the political-military interface be improved, and the frictions that developed overcome? We might also ask questions about the British Army’s failure to translate tactical success into strategic success.
What lessons will emerge from Britain’s campaign in Afghanistan? An interesting study could be made of how the British Army adapted to the challenge posed by an irregular foe in difficult terrain.
If the lessons of the Afghanistan campaign are summarily ditched because the memories of the campaign are too painful (much like the US Army abandoned the lessons of its experiences in Vietnam), then the answer to the opening question is most certainly no. History looks unfavourably on those that fail to learn from their experiences.
Image: Camp Bastion Memorial Wall, the central point where service personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan are named and remembered, is lit by the evening light. The vigil site was used for parades of remembrance of both historical events and when a life was lost during Operation Herrick.