How shall Britain remember Afghanistan? It seems right to consider the war’s legacy as the British Army’s deployment ends this year. Shall it be remembered as an unpardonable folly with no good outcomes? Perhaps we shall do our best to forget about it and reduce the memory to something of interest only to military historians, as we have the Boer War, Kitchener’s war in the Sudan, and countless other British imperial conflicts. Or perhaps, as I believe, we should remember it as a long and hard-going war – for it needed to be long and hard-going – that eventually achieved something great. Namely, the creation of an Afghanistan that is vastly more prosperous, liberal and safe than it was thirteen years ago.
To begin, should the Britain, America and the West have gone into Afghanistan in the first place? It is a moot question considering that we did, but even so it must be considered. In the aftermath of such an atrocity as 9/11 it is difficult to imagine any nation led by any leader not taking such an action. In fact, what should surprise us is not the ferocity of America’s invasion of Afghanistan, but its restraint. In the months after 9/11, the Americans could have made Afghanistan a desert and called it peace and it is unlikely that the world would have done much to protest. It could have remorselessly blasted away any person or thing in Afghanistan it remotely considered a threat to American lives, and yet it did not. It could have seized Afghanistan’s resources for its own and sucked the country dry, and yet it did not. Instead it and its allies, Britain among them, spent thirteen long, painful years rebuilding Afghanistan. I think this easily proves that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was far more than the unrestrained rage of the sleeping giant awakened.
A second issue we must confront is the legality of the war, for detractors are sure to describe the Afghanistan War as “illegal” in an effort to denigrate what has been achieved to further their own agendas. Quite apart from the fact that the West’s presence in Afghanistan was legitimised by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386 without a single member abstaining, these people seem unable to realise that “illegal” does not immediately mean “wrong”. It was illegal for a group of students to steal the Stone of Destiny in 1950 to return it to its rightful place in Scotland. Few would say it was wrong.
If we must look for further legitimisation, let us see what the people of Afghanistan say. In 2010, 74% of Afghans still supported the toppling of the Taliban and were equally divided 49/49 on whether the U.S. should send more troops to the region. In the words of Torpikai Nawabi, a female Member of the Kabul Provincial Council who would never have occupied that position but for the Western invasion, “popular uprisings against the Taliban prove that the people do not want them to rule Afghanistan anymore.”
Nawabi also mentions the “remarkable activities of the civil society, the existence of freedom of expression, and access of girls to education in most parts of Afghanistan” that have occurred since 2001. The number of girls enrolled in education in 2010 was 79%, up from 4% in 1999 during Taliban rule, according to UNESCO, which said that “Afghanistan has overcome the biggest obstacles to girls’ education any country has witnessed.”
Quite apart from obvious basic rights such as now being able to vote, uncover their faces and walk alone in the street without fear of summary execution, as early as November 2001, women were hosting a news show, highly important given the power media has in society. Other improvements in civil liberties include the right to play sports professionally, join the Army, and even start a career in rapping.
Afghanistan’s gross domestic product has boomed since the collapse of the Taliban regime. If we wish to see tangible improvements in people’s lives and not just economic figures, then since the invasion, Afghanistan has seen its greatest rise in the Human Development Index in forty years. The number of internally displaced persons has fallen massively since the liberation, according to the World Development Indicators of the World Bank, and so too has child mortality. Every single triangle shown on this graph represents a different study done into infant mortality. Every single study can be viewed by holding the mouse over the triangles. Life expectancy at birth is up from 55 in 2001 to 61 in 2012.
But the question must be asked, are all these improvements sustainable? Will the Taliban return to power, or at the very least, continue to act as a force that will cause untold misery for thousands of Afghans outside the big cities? Are the Afghan National Security Forces not dependent on the West for support?
The answer is, thankfully, no. The development of the Afghan National Army continues apace, and in 2013, the ANSF led almost 90 percent of operations. It was already in the lead for security in areas covering nearly 90 percent of the Afghan population. The ANSF handled all security for the 2014 Presidential elections, which were so well policed that the biggest issue was not Taliban violence but a shortage of ballot papers. According to the 2013 Asia Foundation survey, public confidence in the ANSF reaches almost 90%.
No one should be under any illusions that the War in Afghanistan will continue long after Britain has left, but Britain’s contribution there has ensured the creation and security of an ever-more stable, ever-more prosperous, and ever-more liberal country that will survive the Taliban. It was hard, but Britain has done a great good for the people of Afghanistan. For all that, I believe we should be proud.