Mark Nicholls: Problems of Afghanistan are problems of the world
- Credit: Supplied by Mark Nicholls
In filing reports from Afghanistan as the Eastern Daily Press defence writer, Mark Nicholls saw the changing face and intensity of the conflict over several years. Here, he reflects on the turmoil facing the country as the Taliban close in on taking control, and the threat that could pose to global security.
In April 2002, with a slight chill still pervading the air from the surrounding mountains, there was a new sense of optimism in the Afghan capital.
It was palpable; you could feel it on the streets of Kabul, in the markets, the mosques, and the schools and universities.
Weeks earlier the Taliban, and their harsh form of Islamic rule, had been driven from power following a push by the Northern Alliance, which had been backed by US forces in the wake of the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.
We are now just days from the 20th anniversary of 9/11; the deadly attacks on the US, co-ordinated by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organisation from its perceived safe-haven in Afghanistan where it had been welcomed by the Taliban regime. It was for that reason that Afghanistan became the target for US-led retaliatory strikes, which by November 2001 saw the fall of the Taliban, which had ruled Afghanistan with medieval ruthlessness since 1996.
Spending time in Kabul a few weeks after that, I surveyed a shattered city. Bombed-out buildings, scarred by decades of conflict, had the aura of the ruined small French towns on the Western Front in 1917, with mere shells of once formidable structures remaining.
Yet there was a new spirit in the Afghan capital as businesses began to flourish, traffic flowed in busy streets, bazaars were full and, significantly, girls and women were returning to the classroom having been deprived of the basic human right of education under the Taliban.
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At Kabul University, while some young women still wore the Burqa, not sure of who was watching and when or if the Taliban would return, others told me of their joy at returning to the learning environment they had been barred from under the Taliban.
On the streets, troops from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment – known as The Vikings - were on their first tour of duty in Afghanistan; still wearing light fatigues and berets as they patrolled rather than the helmets and body armour they would don on future deployments.
Young men from Great Yarmouth, Cromer, Diss, Bungay and Norwich were bringing security, peace and confidence to Kabul. A (Norfolk) Company had set up headquarters in a suburb and, when off-duty, were busy re-building a nearby school.
Yet by early 2003, the military focus again shifted and turned to Iraq, with US President George W. Bush vowing to complete the unfinished work of the Gulf War of 1991 – which had left Saddam Hussein in power – and complete the job his father (George senior) had begun.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had pledged to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US following 9/11, was alongside President Bush in this quest.
This, however, was an unpopular war, prompting massive protests against the British government. It was also arguably a war that did not need to be fought as Hans Blix and his UN weapons inspectors combed Iraq – without success - for the Weapons of Mass Destruction that was the premise of this second Gulf War of 2003.
But with a quarter of a million, mainly US and British military personnel, amassed in the region, war again flared, this time toppling Saddam Hussein. First a statue was symbolically hauled to the ground ending, and later execution after the former Iraqi president was dragged out of a whole in the ground, tried, sentenced and hanged.
What the Iraqi distraction had allowed – or facilitated – with coalition forces more engaged in the Middle East rather than Central Asia, was the return of the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan. Again, under the leadership of the mysterious Mullah Omar, they made territorial gains, wreaking violence on innocent civilians and adding to a death toll that was soon measured in thousands.
As US and UK troop numbers increased, supported from the air, so did the intensity of the fighting.
When I returned to Afghanistan in 2007, the backdrop was brutally different.
British troops were already dying as they were pitched against a ruthless enemy, this time in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan.
In April of that year, just ahead of the Vikings’ return to the country, I asked 1st Battalion commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Carver if his troops were about to embark on arguably their most dangerous deployment to date.
He looked up, grimly nodding acknowledgement. Within weeks his men were face-to-face with the Taliban, and sustaining casualties.
They were based in Sangin, a fertile area in the north of Helmand; a beautifully barren landscape with a green zone, created from the lush waters of the Sangin river, where their heavily fortified headquarters in the town were under frequent attack.
When venturing out, helmeted and wearing heavy body armour, they patrolled Sangin and the surrounding terrain of fields of maize, poppies, and communities of mud-brick alleys and courtyards that had not changed in centuries. This medieval landscape was fraught with dangers from ambush, hidden bombs and mines, with the main road leading to Kajaki arguably the deadliest stretch of highway on earth at the time because of the attack threat.
There was a heightened tension as the infantry faced a formidable enemy, often fighting at close quarter. Nine men from the 600-strong battalion were killed in action, but 120 – a fifth of the battalion’s strength – suffered trauma ranging from shrapnel wounds and PTSD, through to severe and life-changing injuries during a bloody six-month tour of Helmand.
Carver had been correct in his assessment; the deployment had been dangerous and costly, but also heroic, with the Vikings widely recognised for their bravery and actions in defending the strategic stronghold of Sangin.
Other Norfolk units were also involved in the conflict: the Tornado squadrons from RAF Marham provided air support, while the Light Dragoons were deployed to Afghanistan from their base at Swanton Morley.
As the conflict wore on, British military deaths rose, eventually reaching more than 450 over the 14 years of what was to be the longest deployment in British military history.
I was last in Afghanistan in 2014, as the withdrawal of British military personnel and the wind-down of massive bases such as Camp Bastion and Kandahar gained pace and were transferred to the Afghan military.
Tornado jets continued to fly over the rugged landscape, offer reassurance from the air, but the UK withdrawal was gaining momentum.
There was some sense of relief that the intense tours of duty were coming to an end, that the country was seemingly on a secure footing and the Afghan military had been trained and were ready to take control without the military support primarily provided by the US and UK.
But in the years since, as those overseas troop numbers fell, the Taliban gained ground, encouraged by the decision in America to end military operations in Afghanistan.
Now, the Taliban is advancing rapidly and close to taking control of the country, having seized all key cities and provincial capitals including Herat, Lashkar Ghar, and Kandahar, and fast closing in on the national capital as western governments scrambled troops to evacuate diplomatic personnel from Kabul.
Left behind will be the Afghan citizens, many displaced, once again returning to the Dark Ages of Taliban rule, where barbaric punishments, executions, and curbs on everyday social activities, will become a way of life again. The role of women in society will be set back decades, barred from work and education and not allowed out unless accompanied by a male relative.
This scenario of the Taliban regaining control will resonate deeply with UK military personnel who served in Afghanistan; many were left maimed, traumatised, or forever scarred by their efforts to bring stability and peace to a country that has seen so much violence over so many years.
Politicians, once again, seem to have misread the script; turned their eyes in the wrong direction; allowed a brutal regime to regroup and seize power.
While it may be the US and British governments that are facing criticism for allowing this scenario to return, we should not forget that these two nations have invested much in terms of endeavouring to bring peace and stability to this part of the world, while other nations contributed less.
But the problems of Afghanistan are the problems of the world.
The post-9/11 mission to Afghanistan was designed to make the world safer, to eradicate the hiding places and training grounds the Taliban provided for terrorist groups to plan and launch attacks on western targets.
With the Taliban back in control, and seemingly on the cusp of seizing overall power, there is the likelihood that this barren mountain country will again become a base for terror.
It may well transpire, that we all could yet pay the price of the Taliban regime returning to power.
Yet first and foremost, we should think about the people of this amazing country, forcibly returning to life under the medieval-style governance of a primitive, terror-loving, movement which will again cast a frightening shadow way beyond the vast, rugged, and empty landscape of Afghanistan.
Military intervention from the west will be inevitable if global security is to be preserved.
Twenty years on, we may well be back to square one.