Two decades of conflict and tens of thousands dead – was it worth it?
The new millennium was only a year old when America was attacked in the most devastating and destabilising way.
It followed a moment celebrated as the “end of history” after a century in which democracy had prevailed against totalitarianism in wars, both hot and cold.
Far from closing the book, history merely began a new chapter.
The stage: Afghanistan.
When America, along with its allies, launched ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, few could have guessed it would be stepping into its longest war.
Yet if the legacy of this two-decade conflict will be long disputed, bleeding as it did both literally and metaphorically into the invasion of Iraq two years later, and a broader War on Terror, it would be wrong to forget the unity of that pre-invasion month in 2001.
For 9/11 shocked the world and left no room for equivocation.
“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” President Bush told the world after the attack on the Twin Towers. Soon it would appear to be a bluntly Manichean worldview, pitching good against evil in a way that could never encompass the subtleties of contemporary geopolitics.
But, at the time, the path seemed true. Osama bin Laden had not yet slipped away; defeating the Taliban, who supported him and condemned Afghans, particularly women, to a brutal medievalism, seemed morally right; the land campaign had not yet become bogged down and so costly in both men and material.
America triggered Nato’s “one for all and all for one” Article 5. Its allies responded. France, a target of criticism just two years later, was in 2001 an emblem of togetherness, coining the phrase “We are all Americans.” It even contributed jets and a carrier group to the fighting.
But of all America’s allies it was Britain, of course, that would bear the heaviest burden.
The Taliban’s backwards regime was no match for the cruise missiles and B-52s of America’s military colossus.
The Taliban were swept away by an onslaught of air strikes and US-friendly Afghan militiamen. Their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was reportedly last seen jumping on a motorbike and riding off into the distance
Osama bin Laden’s ability to give America the slip in Tora Bora appeared to be the only blemish in an otherwise complete victory.
British troops were soon patrolling Kabul in berets rather than helmets. The disappearance of the Taliban was so complete that in the summer of 2002, far from British troops being locked in relentless combat, there was suspicion that the UK Government was exaggerating the amount of action its forces were seeing and making up battles.
It was not to last.
While politicians in London and Washington were basking in the victory, profound mistakes were being made that would later come back to haunt the international military coalition.
Warlords and strongmen who had been despised during the 1990s were welcomed back into power as the coalition sought strong local partners. They quickly returned to stealing land, embezzling funds and killing people with impunity. Their greed and predations rapidly turned people off the government.
The Taliban were offered no part in the country’s new political system and, when defeated commanders tried to go home to resume civilian lives, they found they were victimised by the government.
One commander told The Telegraph 16 years later that, after the fall of his regime, he had no intention of continuing his Taliban life. Yet he and his former comrades were harassed so much they felt they had to rearm.
“We did not want to fight against this government, but they obliged us,” he recalled.
But the world’s attention switched to George W Bush’s campaign to oust Saddam Hussain.
Afghanistan appeared fixed compared with Iraq and the country was no longer a priority. Attention and resources waned.
Then in 2005, as security was undeniably on the slide and the promise of 2001 was clearly starting to sour, Nato agreed to send more troops into southern Afghanistan to strengthen local forces and set up reconstruction projects.
Each country was given a different region to deal with and Britain plumped for the south western province of Helmand. Few in Britain had ever heard of this opium-growing backwater. It would quickly become notorious.
As soldiers prepared to deploy, John Reid, then defence secretary, made the fateful remark that he would be happy to see the UK’s Helmand mission end in three years without a shot being fired. That was not to be.
In the early hours of July 10, 2009, Rifleman Peter Sherlock was woken on his camp-bed at Wishtan forward operating base by his fellow troops preparing for their dawn patrol.
Sherlock, then 21, should have been joining them but had been struck down by severe heatstroke the previous day and ordered by medics to remain in the base in Helmand’s Sangin district.
One of those getting ready, 20-year-old Rifleman Danny Simpson, was Sherlock’s best friend in C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles. He had lost his helmet and Sherlock agreed to lend him his, even though it contravened regulations and sat awkwardly on his far smaller head.
As the men filed out of the front gates, Sherlock went to sit with the medics near the officers’ quarters, wondering who had taken his place in the patrol.
Within minutes there were two loud explosions in quick succession about 500m away from the base. The soldiers inside burst into life with a quick reaction force to reach the men.
“As soon as the first explosion kicked off,” recalls Sherlock, now 33 and a Southampton-based painter and decorator, “we all had a gut feeling it was a bad one.”
The carnage was, in fact, even worse than they feared. Five members of the 30-man patrol were killed and a dozen or so severely injured in what was the worst casualty toll for a British foot patrol during the war. Over the 24-hour period a further three deaths of UK troops in Afghanistan were announced making it the deadliest day in the entire conflict.
Rifleman Sherlock remembers running to help. “Some of them were walking wounded, some were helping each other walk back and others were literally in bits,” he recalls.
The first death he heard confirmed over the radio was his best friend Danny Simpson, who had an eight-month-old son at home. Another of the dead, 18-year-old William Aldridge, was the youngest soldier killed in Afghanistan. “The guilt,” says Sherlock of not having gone out with them, “was instant” and has haunted him ever since.
The events of July 10, 2009, brought home to a wider public the scale of the bloodshed in Afghanistan. Then Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly warned of a “very hard summer” adding “it’s not over”. Rapidly it was becoming clear that the war against the Taliban had morphed into an intractable insurgency, one impossible to win.
A few days later, the eight Union flag-draped coffins arrived back at Wootton Bassett and crowds lined the streets to honour the largest cortège conveyed through the Wiltshire town. The deaths took the total number of British fatalities in Afghanistan to 184 (five more than the whole of the Iraq conflict). There would be hundreds more to come.
Rifleman Craig Monaghan was another member of C Company who arrived in Afghanistan with 2 Rifles on April 3, 2009.
As the casualties mounted he recalls their orders being changed to become far more aggressive.
“We went from knocking on doors to forcing our way in,” he recalls. “It became a very different war… we became hunters.”
By the beginning of July he remembers a sense of dread in C Company. Before heading out on patrol it was common to see Riflemen throwing up as they were so afraid about what lay ahead.
Monaghan was injured in a blast a few days later and was already in the hospital at Camp Bastion on July 10 when the casualties were carried in after being transported back from Wishtan by Chinooks. “The hospital was like a C Company reunion,” he recalls.
He never returned to Afghanistan but his war didn’t end there. He has since battled depression and severe post traumatic stress disorder, which led to him hallucinating the figure of a Taliban gunman he had killed at close-range in Helmand and who he would talk to until the early hours in his living room.
Of those he served with in Afghanistan, he says 11 have now taken their own life.
Rifleman Peter Sherlock remained out in Helmand until October that year. Such was the guilt he felt that he volunteered to go out on every single patrol for the rest of his tour.
On January 4 2002, Sergeant First Class Nathan Chapman was shot dead on a secret CIA-led mission in Khost province.
His killing marked the first death of an invading soldier on Afghan soil.
In total, almost 3,580 further coalition forces would go on to die serving in the conflict.
Ultimately, the war in Afghanistan would prove less bloody than its sister war in Iraq where at least 4,900 soldiers died. But for British troops alone, given the sheer levels of violence in Helmand province and longevity of their engagement, Afghanistan would prove more deadly.
But both of these conflicts have shared a number of clear similarities.
Firstly, it was the leaders of the invasion – the USA – who paid dearest for the conflicts, alongside their British allies; at the peak, these countries represented three-quarters of all troops in Afghanistan and saw 80 per cent of all casualties.
However, 157 Canadian, 85 French, 53 German and 48 Italian soldiers would be amongst the dead in what ended up being a more united coalition than in Iraq.
Secondly, the wars saw the catastrophic effectiveness of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in grinding down the coalition. In Afghanistan, around 40 per cent of all deaths can be attributed to IEDs; a similar proportion to Iraq.
And finally, contractors – effectively “outsourced” military personnel, engineers and other workers – would also become a key aspect of both wars. In Afghanistan, one estimate suggests that 3,800 contractors died in the conflict – higher than the death count for allied forces operating in the country.
Where coalition deaths have been carefully recorded, analysed and commemorated, the cost to Afghanistan’s own forces and civilians is more patchy.
As coalition forces have reduced in recent years, deaths among local forces have escalated.
In 2020, 10,900 Afghani soldiers are estimated to have died; around a fifth of total deaths throughout the entire conflict, according to the Brookings Institute.
The same trend has been seen in civilian deaths since they were first recorded by the United Nations in 2009.
As power gaps began emerging with the phased retreat, violence against civilians only increased, culminating in the bloodiest year of the conflict in 2018 when 3,803 deaths were recorded.
Once “enemy combatants” and aid workers are included, plus attempts to fill in gaps on civilian deaths not reflected in the official UN count, Brown University’s Watson Institute puts the total death toll at 157,000.
However, these numbers are best estimates last compiled at the end of 2019. With the violence far from over, it is likely the final toll will continue to go up until one side can finally declare victory.
Britain’s war in Helmand sputtered to a close in 2014 after multiple losses and few gains. Dominic Nicholls, The Telegraph’s Defence Correspondent, saw with his own eyes how and why the plans disintegrated.
Watch his account below:
Embedded with troops in the poppy-growing region, his tour covered a long winter just two years after Britain’s bloodiest day.
The army had become bogged down, and the disconnect between politicians in Westminster and soldiers in southern Afghanistan was growing.
The realisation was setting in: he was at the heart of an unwinnable war.
The British Army in 2006 in Afghanistan had similar kit to that used when the first Gulf War was fought in 1991: the same rifle, body armour, camouflage pattern and vehicles.
Deploying units were pushed through training mechanisms optimised for the Cold War era, minimally updated after the experience of the Balkan deployments in the 1990s.
And coursing through the veins of the whole organisation was a very British trait: the idea that ‘Brits did things differently’ and needed only soft hats and winning smiles to prevail was an early casualty of the campaigns.
The experiences in Afghanistan led to a sharp but necessary correction.
Any disdain for our American counterparts, in their armoured vehicles and body armour, evaporated as the casualties, especially from the hopelessly ill-equipped Snatch Landrovers, started to mount.
By the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, a soldier carrying the equipment then issued to troops as standard would have seemed to his, and increasingly her, 2006 cousin as alien as a warrior of science-fiction fantasy.
The much larger (but heavier) Osprey body armour no longer relied on the enemy being a good shot (the so-called Enhanced Combat Body Armour it replaced comprised a small plate about the size of a paperback book seated over the heart).
Groin protection and specially designed microbial underwear helped protect the femoral artery and minimised infections from any dirt blasted into the body from IEDs. Heavily protected vehicles such as Mastiff, Ridgeback and Bulldog (known as the ‘dogs of war’) significantly reduced casualties.
On the offensive side, the data available from drones, sometimes, like Black Hornet, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, meant troops in contact had a better idea of what was going on than at any time in the past.
Everything shifted better to support soldiers on the ground: headquarters staff received more intelligence than ever before and were able to filter it faster, to push to troops, who were better protected, trained and supported.
But was it enough to win a war?
Residents of Yakawlang remember well what happened when the Taliban came in December 2000. When the militants took the town in Afghanistan’s central highlands after heavy fighting, they went house to house rounding up men.
Scores of captives were herded together just outside the town and executed in the snow. Estimates of the dead reach as high as 300.
More than 20 years later and the movement that conducted the Yakawlang massacre is buoyant, after once having seemed obliterated by America’s military might. The movement has a political office in Doha where diplomats pay their respects and try to persuade it to engage in peace talks.
The Taliban claim to be committed to negotiations, but on the battlefield its military commanders have made a string of sweeping rural gains as American and Nato troops have headed for the exits. The Afghan forces built up at great international expense have often appeared powerless to stop the offensive.
For those who remember the old Taliban and wonder whether they have changed, or are still bent on violent conquest and repression, it is a troubling time.
“What I have seen of Taliban behaviour in the past and what we have seen of their long insurgency, it shows that they are thirsty for power, not thirsty for peace,” says Mohammad Reza, a shopkeeper who was in Yakawlang at the time of the massacre.
“With the districts falling, we don’t feel that the government can protect us. They are not organised within themselves, the Afghan government and army. With the American forces leaving, there may be a change in morale with the Afghan forces.”
“When the Americans left our fears grew,” added Syed Anwar, a local elder, aged 71. “The Taliban have not changed, they may have become worse.
“We are disappointed, in fact betrayed, that the Americans have left. We were so happy when they came. Now they have left us halfway. We have not stood up on our own two feet.”
With the Americans having now left their longest war, the question of how much will remain of the fragile Afghan republic they helped build hangs heavy.
In Kabul, many of the liberal educated elite who have flourished in the past two decades are already voting with their feet, trying desperately to get to Turkey, Europe, America or India. A campaign of assassinations against civil servants, journalists and activists has spread panic.
Educated women especially feel a return of the Taliban, or conservative warlords and strongmen, will bring a reversal of the fragile gains of the past two decades.
“We don’t think that we have a future here,” one 28-year-old university graduate and journalist told The Telegraph in February. “When I was a teenager, I thought we will remake Afghanistan and resolve all the problems we had. But when I got older, the problems got bigger and I think that the problem is more than us.”
The Taliban’s stated aim of imposing a true Islamic system sounds to many to be little different from their 1990s regime. Yet there are others, many in the countryside where the war has been largely fought, who are desperate for peace and ready to try compromise.
Afghanistan’s economic stats show that modest progress has been made in the past two decades, but the country remains one of the poorest in the world. Per capita gross national income rose from $450 in 2009 to $660 in 2013, only to now fall back to $530.
Three-quarters of the government budget is funded by international aid. Corruption is rife. The World Bank reckons two-fifths were in poverty in 2011 and that figure had risen to 55 per cent by 2016. School enrolment figures jumped in the early years of the international campaign, but are dipping again with the growing violence.
Few believe there is a military answer to Afghanistan’s misery, but the peace process started by Donald Trump appears stalled while the Taliban wait to see how far their offensive takes them. Fighting rather than talking will dominate 2021 and probably 2022, diplomats fear.
The insurgents are not an unstoppable military force, especially if the international community keeps funding the Afghan government, yet the militants have momentum and Kabul appears weak and divided. As the Taliban have captured rural districts in recent weeks, communities have vowed to raise their own militias to defend themselves if the government cannot. Those in Yakawlang are no different.
Twenty years after the Americans and their Nato allies first arrived and raised such high hopes among many Afghans, they are now faced with the prospect of rearming and a return to the anarchy and civil war of the 1990s.
It was a phone call that could have changed history.
On September 11, 2001, the young president of Russia picked up the hotline in the Kremlin and dialled George W Bush to offer unconditional Russian support for the US response to that day’s terrorist attacks.
Two weeks later, Vladimir Putin overruled his own generals to allow the United States to support its campaign in Afghanistan – daringly upending nearly two centuries of Russian and Soviet foreign policy doctrine in the name of a brave new world in which Cold War adversaries would fight together on the side of “civilisation” against “terror”.
The announcement fitted the drama of the moment; it was nothing less than an end to the Great Game in Central Asia.
Two decades on, it sounds like a fairy tale.
While two generations of American and allied troops and Taliban fighters fought and bled in the Hindu Kush, the country and the world around them changed dramatically.
Mr Putin’s Russia, via a path too long to recount here, has gone from nascent US ally to resurgent and determined adversary.
China, in 2001 still an ascendency on the horizon, has very much arrived as a global superpower. Under Xi Jinping it too is looking to assert its regional dominance as the US leaves the region.
Both have overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, agendas.
For Russia, the American presence was irritating, but useful in dampening the threat of Islamist militancy to the former Soviet republics on its southern flank.
Mr Putin is hardly likely to try to fill the vacuum in military, economic and political support vacated by the Americans. But he is diligently backing every Afghan horse he can in a bid to maximise Russian influence in their absence. In January a Taliban delegation visited Moscow, to the fury of the Afghan government. Russian diplomats are also cultivating local strongmen in the Tajik and Uzbek regions of the north of the country.
China, too, has security objectives: it principally wants to prevent Afghanistan-based Islamist groups infiltrating the Uighur and other Turkic-speaking minorities in Xinjiang; but it also wants to provide enough stability to realise its vision of a new Silk Road through Asia; and, more nebulously, to assert its regional dominance.
Unlike Russia, China has the vast economic resources, and the ambition, to make a stab at replacing the US civil and development role inside Afghanistan. It is already one of the largest investors in Afghanistan’s mineral sector, and is building roads inside the country.
There are plenty of players to keep the Great Game in Afghanistan going for many years to come, with or without the West.
And what of the United States – and the Nato alliance – itself?
Afghanistan is unlikely to be the graveyard of the American empire.
But after 20 years, more than 3,500 lives, and countless billions of dollars, there is no way of hiding the embarrassment of defeat.
And while the blow to US prestige is unlikely to parallel that of Vietnam – or the Soviet Union’s own withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 – the implications for the country itself are at least as unpredictable.
The biggest casualty may be an idea: the noble ambition to fight a “good war”, not for the Great Game between empires, but for the betterment of man.
Afghanistan was not the first war sold as such, but it was the longest waged by Western powers since 1945. It will be a long time before public support for such projects recovers from failures there and in Iraq.
Just like Mr Putin’s phone call to George W Bush, that belongs to a different era.