13 Mar 2015

Afghanistan: politicians and generals should be held accountable

It was a day of remembrance, recognition and respect for all those who had “served and suffered”, in the words of a priest at St Paul’s Cathedral this morning.

“Blessed are they that mourn,” said David Cameron, reading Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

But in Afghanistan there is still not peace. More than 1,200 Afghan troops died there last year, the deadliest loss for them so far.  More than 30,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001.

And while the bravery and sacrifice of British troops is not in doubt, British strategy in Afghanistan does not bear up well under scrutiny. The Taliban should have been talked to earlier; the invasion of Iraq in 2003 diverted expertise and helped prolong the conflict; and the killing of civilians in air strikes and attempted eradication of their income from poppy cultivation turned occupiers – with the noble notion of fighting a good war – into enemies.

Services like today’s may bring comfort to those who grieve, those who fought and those who helped bring them home. But the politicians and the generals with responsibility for our armed forces should be held to account for the decisions they made. Many of them were in the congregation at today’s service: promoted or retired, their careers by all appearances uninterrupted by strategic errors.

Inside the cathedral, the nation’s leaders gave thanks, thanks in particular for the 453 Britons who gave their lives serving in Afghanistan over 13 long years of fighting.

Outside, the crowds seemed rather thin. Part of central London came to a standstill, but Britain as a nation certainly did not. No wonder: the event had not been publicised in advance. And in truth the British public moved on from the Afghan war long before British troops came home.  You don’t need a public inquiry to know that the goal of creating a viable Afghan state has still not been achieved.

I asked one lance corporal, whose armoured vehicle had been blown up, thereby shattering his leg, whether his sacrifice was worth it. “It is above my pay grade to say,” he said.

He and many others were grateful for and touched by the official display of pomp and ceremony laid on in their honour today. My own view is that we owe them far more than that: an explanation for past mistakes.

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