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The education of a generation of girls and thwarting of al-Qaeda means Britain's role in Afghanistan was worthwhile

The education of a generation of girls and thwarting of al-Qaeda means Britain's role in Afghanistan was worthwhile

Then-foreign secretary Jack Straw meets a member of the Afghan army, 2003 | Alamy

3 min read

A few months after the mid-November 2001 defeat of the Taliban, I made the first of many trips to this benighted country.

Still seared on my brain is a visit I made to a girls’ high school in Kabul. Its second storey had been partially demolished by Taliban shelling in the early-90s civil war. The building had then been allowed to decay, since the Taliban had the prehistoric notion that girls should not be educated.

A group of women teachers and parents were now trying to put the school into working order. One of these women came over to me, her face so acquainted with grief that it disguised her mid-30s age. She produced an official looking document in Dari, the main language of Afghanistan. I asked the interpreter what it said. “It’s the record of a criminal conviction of this lady,” came the reply. “Her crime – trying to educate her daughter. The punishment was a large fine, with the threat of worse if she repeated the offence.”

The fundamental mistake was to believe that the Taliban was out as well as down

Through all the vicissitudes of the past 20 years of US and allies’ involvement in Afghanistan, I’ve held close to the image of this woman and her conviction. Many things have gone wrong; but for two decades, a whole generation of girls has been educated, and women have been able to work, and move freely.

That fact alone does make it worthwhile for us to have been there; alongside the reason we went in alongside the US – which was their imperative that al-Qaeda, and its protectors, the Taliban, had to be stopped from ever organising another 9/11 from a safe haven in Afghanistan.

I didn’t see this at the time, but the fundamental mistake we made was to believe that the Taliban was out as well as down.

“I came to see,” wrote Sherard Cowper-Coles, British Ambassador to Kabul from 2007 to 2009, “that the Taliban had never been defeated in 2001 to 2; that the Bonn settlement [in December 2001, which drafted a new constitution] which followed had been a victors’ peace, from which the vanquished had been excluded.” Writing in 2011 he added, presciently, that “the constitution resulting from that settlement could last only as long as the West was prepared to stay in Afghanistan to prop up the present situation”.

There were other errors. One was trying to pursue counter-terrorist and counter-narcotics strategies at the same time. Tens of thousands of Afghan farmers depend on poppy production for their (meagre) livelihood, to meet the insatiable demand for heroin from the West. In the absence of viable alternative crops, eradicating poppy production was a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban.

A second was in accommodating Pakistan’s all-too-duplicitous complicity with the Taliban, a constant complaint of President Karzai.

A third was in “ensuring” that Ashraf Ghani had “won” the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, despite almost certainly receiving fewer votes than Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who was far better qualified to lead Afghanistan. Whilst Ghani had spent virtually the whole of his adult life until 2002 in the US, Abdullah had been on or near the front line.

As for the future, military planners and historians will need to learn from our errors. The US will need the painful lesson (not for the first time) that it is hearts and minds which ultimately wins a peace, not fire-power. And we will all have to swallow hard, and deal with the Taliban unless and until that becomes impossible.

International pressure, and aid, will both be necessary, not least if girls are to continue to be educated and women to work.


Jack Straw was Labour foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006

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