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Saturday, 13 April 2024
Afghanistan: Lost in Translation
James Denselow

To mark the upcoming US withdrawal from its longest ever war in Afghanistan, the New York Times interviewed soldiers who served there a decade ago. One reminisced about seeing two fellow soldiers killed by an IED blast and how he struggled with what he’d seen upon return to the States. Perhaps more interesting was the soldier’s comment that all the Afghan local leadership he helped to secure territory for had subsequently been assassinated.

The crescendo of violence in the country is already beginning to tick up with three months left until the official departure of the world’s most powerful military from the country. Last week Afghan forces clashed with Taliban fighters in a provincial capital about 120 kilometres from Kabul, officials and witnesses said, prompting the defence minister to take charge of a counteroffensive. A mortar bomb fired by the Taliban struck a wedding ceremony in a province north of the Afghan capital, killing at least six people including women and children, officials said on Sunday.

The death toll from the barbaric early May attack on a girls school in Kabul eventually reached 85 and a subsequent survey revealed that 52% of young people in Afghanistan stated that they don’t feel safe and secure at school or university. As the days count down towards the US and wider NATO withdrawal let us remember that Afghanistan already has the second highest numbers of refugees worldwide with tens of thousands internally displaced.

Against such a grim forecast was the double edge story of countries like the US and the UK doing the right thing by allowing those Afghans who worked closely with them to emigrate to the West. US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen Mark Milley explained that a "significant" number of interpreters and other employees could be targeted by Taliban militants. As many as 18,000 Afghan nationals have applied for US visas to immigrate to the US under a special programme.

From a UK perspective this would mean evacuating more than 3,000 people. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace explained that “With Western powers leaving Afghanistan, the threat is increasing and has increased, including targeted attacks by the Taliban. This is allowing people a route to the United Kingdom for safety, the people who supported the British armed forces and the British government over many, many years in Afghanistan who feel they are in danger and it's absolutely right that we stand by those people”. 

I say again that this is entirely the right thing to do but with so little time left until the US departure the test will be how quickly the bureaucracy and logistics can move to made good on good intentions. The other edge of these announcements however, are that they of course don’t bode well for what American and British policy makers expect to happen next in the country.  

Parallels are regularly drawn between Afghanistan and Vietnam, where the US evacuated some 125,000 allied Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon in 1975. A week ago Australia announced it would be shutting its embassy in Kabul. Officials in Canberra talked of "an increasingly uncertain security environment" in the country. Meanwhile “the Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield” and the prospects for a peace deal are “low”, a bleak US intelligence report issued in April said.

Will Afghanistan move from being a ‘graveyard of empire’ to just a worsening failed state in a world that suddenly appears more replete with them than ever? Many are of course asking the question ‘was it worth it?’ But too often that question is only aimed at Western audiences and policy makers, with Afghans themselves seemingly bit part players in the story of their own country. 

Many lessons will be learnt from Afghanistan for sure. Former Obama foreign policy adviser, Ben Rhodes, wrote recently that “ the forever war has been a 40-year enterprise at war with itself, demonstrating the fallacy of thinking these days that you can engineer events in far-away countries through force”. These are critical learnings indeed, but the more focused question for Afghans is who will survive the next period to be order to create and reflect on the country’s history to come. 


by: James Denselow

James Denselow,