Not such a great game

Public deliver damning verdict on Afghan deployment

On September 11, 2001, four American passenger aircrafts were hijacked mid-flight by nineteen Al-Qaeda terrorists in a coordinated operation, which would claim nearly 3,000 lives. Two of the planes slammed into and brought down the north and south towers of the World Trade Centre in Lower Manhattan, a third crashed into the Pentagon building and the fourth into a field in Pennsylvania after a struggle between passengers and hijackers. American’s immediate and massive military response led to the War on Terror and the invasion of Afghanistan to depose the Taliban leadership. The leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, initially denied any involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but eventually formally claimed responsibility. He was hunted down and killed in a US operation in Pakistan in 2011. Now, 20 years after the initial atrocity, America and its allies – including Britain – are pulling out of Afghanistan.

The long-term American military presence has been strengthened and supported by NATO military personnel from 50 nations from early on, with British troops arriving in 2001. Britain was no stranger to Afghanistan of course, having spent much of the nineteenth century engaged in brinkmanship with the Russian Empire there that became known as “The Great Game”. In 2006 British forces were deployed to Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south of the country. Most of our combat troops were withdrawn in 2014, when their base at Camp Bastion was handed over to Afghan troops. In total, 457 British service personnel have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

The country has slowly and tentatively moved on to a new constitution and to presidential elections, and all remaining US and allied troops are scheduled to withdraw by 11 September this year, exactly 20 years since 9/11. But despite an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan, signed between the US and the restructured Taliban in February 2020, the stability of the country looks fragile at best, and many at home are now asking the question, was it all worth it? The head of the British armed forces, Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter has said that further attacks such as 9/11 had been prevented from happening because of our presence in Afghanistan. He said that “not a day goes by” without him thinking of the 457 British lives lost and that “all of those who fought in Afghanistan can hold their heads up very high.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that there could “never be a perfect moment” to withdraw our troops but that the UK’s presence in the country was “never intended to be permanent.” Our survey revealed clear verdicts on Britain’s role in the conflict. A majority, 52%, agree with the withdrawal of British troops, while only a combined 19% think we should have stayed on at the same level or even increased our military presence. A larger majority, 59%, believe that British military involvement and the loss of life has not been worthwhile, with only 22% thinking the opposite. And an even greater number, 68%, fear a bleak future for Afghanistan, believing that the government there will not be able to maintain peace and security once the allied troops leave.

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