Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Sad and Twisted Tale of Two Wars and the West's Sheer Incompetence

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Sad and Twisted Tale of Two Wars and the West's Sheer Incompetence

Article excerpt

Byline: FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by Christina Lamb (William Collins, PS25) ROBERT FOX

JUST over a year ago the Camp Bastion airbase in the Helmand desert was the third- or fourth-busiest British airport in the world. Then, overnight on October 27 last year, the British packed up and went, in a huge air convoy, beating a retreat from 13 years of inconclusive warfare and nation-building. It had cost 453 British soldiers killed in action, huge public expenditure, including billions going directly or indirectly to corrupt politicians, warlords and even the Taliban.

There was no general invitation for the press to witness the UK's great air armada of retreat, but one who did manage to wangle her way onto the base was Christina Lamb, veteran correspondent of the conflicts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The great air scuttle from Bastion is the departure point of this book, part memoir, part clear-eyed assessment of what has gone so wrong - despite all the high hopes - in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the past generation.

The simple answer seems to be that neither the British nor the Americans really seemed to know what kind of war, or wars, they were fighting, and to what achievable goal. The persistent message was that were making the Western world safe from al-Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was soon gone from Afghanistan, however. The Americans then became distracted by Iraq, always the main aim of the Bush neo-Cons, and the British followed.

In 2006 it changed again and the British got into the business of nationbuilding, bringing governance to the drug-producing province of Helmand and fighting the Taliban, even though none of this was part of the original plan. Towards the end of the book, one of the UK's most experienced commanders, now head of the Army, General Nick Carter, is quoted as saying: "When we went into Helmand we didn't understand the politics on the ground, what was crime and insurgency, the tribal dynamics: we were too ambitious. …

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