Hugh Reilly: No winners in Helmand as fight ends

Heading for home, British troops turn their backs on the Afghan conflict. Picture: PA
Heading for home, British troops turn their backs on the Afghan conflict. Picture: PA
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DAVID CAMERON can talk up the Afghanistan conflict all he likes, the truth is there’s next to nothing to celebrate, writes Hugh Reilly

The venue for my first schoolboy scrap was in Glasgow’s east end Cranhill Park. Boxing gloves were considered somewhat superfluous, hence the pre-teen pugilists prepared for a manly bareknuckle fight. I admit that as I stared at my monstrous opponent, Sid Napier, I struggled to stop my bladder opening the floodgates of fear. Watching my nemesis practice his outrageous haymakers, jaw-breaking uppercuts and concussion-inducing jabs withered my confidence, my low mood not helped by noticing that my cornermen were desperately running around trying to find a towel to throw in before the first blow had been struck.

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My uncontrollable leg wobbling, revealed by the wearing of short trousers, gave out body language that suggested being runner-up was the best I could hope for. Within seconds, fists were flying, well, his fists to be precise. To end his pulverising of my flesh, I could do one of two things: a) run away or b) cry. I decided on an enthusiastic combination both. Of course, days later, when recounting the event to friends who hadn’t witnessed the pasting, I laconically related that the spat had resulted in a split decision, that is, I’d earned a respectable draw.

That stubborn failure to deny taking a beating came to mind when I listened to Prime Minister David Cameron declaring that Britain will “never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice” as UK troops brought their campaign in Helmand province to a close. More than 400 soldiers perished in that far-off land and the lives of thousands of others were destroyed as a result of horrific injuries. And for what?

In a surreal interview, a British Army officer boasted that a village had been cleared of Taleban and now had 20 shops, albeit rickety stalls selling street food and Paddy’s Market-type tat. As he spoke, women in burkas hurriedly passed by. I recall being informed by Blair and his lickspittle ilk that the Taleban had been responsible for the spike in sales of pret-a-porter burkas. Why is it then that, today, more than a decade since the election of a pro-western Afghan president, females continue to uniformly wear the drab burka garb? I had hoped that our invasion would have heralded Afghan women rejoicing in the freedom to put on the dresses and, yes, mini-skirts they’d worn in the Seventies while strutting the boulevards of downtown Kabul. Back then, the capital was referred to as “the Paris of Central Asia”.

We were told that Afghanistan would be transformed into a democracy. In the 2009 presidential election, more than one million fraudulent votes were recorded for Karzai, the winner; in some polling stations, he won 100 per cent of the votes. Despite this, ahem, tweaking of the electoral process, Karzai received fulsome congratulations from prime minister Gordon Brown, an honourable man.

We were told that the bad Taleban men – helpfully wearing black turbans, it must be said – were complicit in the West being awash with opiates. It turned out that the Taleban discouraged poppy production and that the demise of their tenure in government was a catalyst for a supply explosion of the ultimate cash-crop.

In March 2010, Russia, amid concerns of a growing heroin addiction problem in its cities, proposed spraying Afghan poppy fields, a move rejected by the good men of Nato on the grounds of the negative impact on the income of local farmers. This year, Southern Helmand is enjoying a bumper poppy harvest, as is the rest of the country; according to the UN drug agency, more than 6,000 tons of opium will be produced. Happily, lest anyone accuses the UK of standing idly by and doing nothing to decrease the supply side of the heroin price equation, there is objective evidence of active intervention.

Like some latter-day Eliot Ness, Britain and that other untouchable, the USA, forced pro-western warlords running the drugs industry into breaking bad news of a profits warning after 27 of the 806 square miles of poppy field were eradicated by allied troops. If the Afghan government can build on the outstanding success achieved by coalition forces, the country could be drug-free by 2050.

Back in the heady days of 2001, the great British public swallowed the lie that overthrowing the Taleban would mean an end to al-Qaeda training camps. Bombing iron-age Afghanistan back to the stone-age was a small step for USA/UK mankind but the terrorist organisation simply relocated to friendlier shores in Yemen and Somalia. If the decimation of terrorist training bases was the rationale behind the carpet bombing of Afghanistan, why are we not dropping powerful ordnance in the Horn of Africa? I think we owe it to the civilian dead of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad to be at least consistent when choosing which countries to dish out wanton collateral damage.

We are departing our Afghanistan misadventure with a stiff upper lip and a flaccid tail between our legs, the jingoism that encouraged politicians to embark on this foolhardy mission nothing but a memory for those who watched it on the idiot-box. Sincerely, I weep for the men and women who have to live daily with the overwhelming grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. I can’t bear to watch macabre television war-fests that portray amputatee and paraplegic ex-privates as somehow plucky as they struggle with prosthetics, painkillers and post-traumatic stress. The biggest help for these heroes would be for the British electorate to wake up and demand we desist becoming involved in US military conquests initiated by its money-making military-industrial complex.

We exit the stage knowing that a political deal leading to the Taleban participating in a power-sharing government is the only viable solution to the country’s woes. A fig-leaf of British army specialists will remain to give advice and train an Afghan army that has no stomach for the fight and has been infiltrated by the Taleban.

By failing to deliver a knock-out blow, coalition troops have allowed the Taleban to rise from the canvas. It’s a rocky road ahead for Afghanistan.