Robert Clark, Defence Policy Associate at the Henry Jackson Society. Prior to this he served in the British military for thirteen years. He can be found on Twitter.
From the outset it should be noted that for many people, the connotations surrounding the “9/11 wars” are often negative. Reported instances of war crimes; illegal occupations; intelligence failures; the prolonged suffering of the local populations; and the images flashed across our screens throughout the height of the last decade, of Union flagged draped coffins, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whilst each of the 636 British personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is a personal tragedy, and the thousands of others still living with both mental and physical scars, they did not sacrifice so much in vain; at least, not until recently. Those of us who served in these conflicts that shaped our generation will come together for the twentieth anniversary of the awful events of 9/11, just as many people will be doing around the world.
Despite the many policy blunders and human suffering witnessed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been many, many more tangible gains witnessed over the last two decades, and in time the knee-jerk negative connotations may give way to the positive impacts that these interventions have had. First and foremost: bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. Whilst the threat from Al-Qaeda has been ever-present, its sanctuary in Afghanistan was closed down, their middle-rank commanders scattered, and their senior leadership largely eliminated.
Along with Al-Qaeda, there was also the immediate removal from power of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Despite faulty intelligence over the degree to which Iraq posed a threat to the West with its nuclear programme, Saddam had plagued the Iraqi people, particularly the long suffering thirty million non-Sunni civilians. Regardless of Saddam’s nuclear programme, his threatening behaviour had caused two regional wars that killed over a million people, and he had perpetrated at least one genocide, killing up to 180,000 Kurds. His belligerent behaviour was a threat to regional stability and to his own people, and the world is a much better place with him no longer wielding power.
There have been immense gains too for both Iraq and Afghanistan’s civil societies as a result of the military interventions. Iraq’s security forces were rebuilt and fought off the scourge of Islamic State (IS), while its economy boomed in the post-Saddam reconstruction. In Afghanistan, significant gains in both women’s and ethnic minorities’ rights were a noticeable difference from the brutal and exclusivist Taliban regime of the 1990s.
On a day-to-day impact, patrolling the streets of Basra or the villages of the Upper Gereshk Valley, I would regularly see the advancements in both societies first-hand. By 2008, the Corniche in Basra had resumed its fairground rides and canal-side nightlife, a throng of liberalised crowds in Western-style clothing enjoying evening dinners with friends. In the dusty villages of northern Helmand, I would regularly have children running alongside our patrols on their way to school, girls enjoying a meaningful education in the security provided by British and Afghan patrols. Both memories a stark contrast to the brutal oppression subjected amongst these people under the former barbarous regimes, and validation that these societies were made better by our presence.
However, with the current US administration under the weak leadership of President Joe Biden, the gains witnessed across Afghanistan, achieved through the collective sacrifice of some 2,800 British and American soldiers, not to mention 70,000 brave Afghan soldiers, have been almost entirely eroded in the space of one month.
The withdrawal of NATO troops from the country was inevitable. However, the conditions were (evidently) not there on the ground, either militarily or politically, to suggest that this was the right time to do so.
Twenty years is a long campaign, agreed, for nobody more than those of us who have fought in it, and whose lives have been defined by it. For the better part of a decade, if I wasn’t deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, I was away training for these wars. Likewise for the hundreds of thousands of other veterans, and for the brave Afghan soldiers themselves, many of whom have been murdered by the Taliban since their return to Kabul.
But worse than a twenty-year campaign marred by blood and sacrifice is a twenty-year campaign cut short for an ideologically-convenient domestic political quip. Far from being remembered as he wishes, for ending a “forever war”, Joe Biden will instead be remembered for the next bloody chapter in Afghanistan’s never-ending conflict—particularly by those of us who served there, who will always carry a tiny piece of Afghanistan with us.
The memories of laughing children, girls running to school, families able to live how they choose, a form of democratic representation, and a free and open media have now been swept away. The Afghan people have been returned to a regime that combines chaos and tyranny in its domestic affairs with terrorism in its foreign policy.
The stark reality now facing Afghanistan, and the West, is that on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 the US President has allowed a return to power of the Taliban, just as cruel as before, and now in control of even more territory than they did previously.
Our enemies have been emboldened by our departure. The vultures in Beijing, Islamabad, Tehran, and Moscow, are circling, seeking to fill the security, economic, and political void. America’s weakness, as well as NATO’s, has been highlighted to all. A lack of American staying power, and the high-handed unilateral way this retreat was conducted, have undermined NATO’s unity and out-of-Europe capability. Individual NATO states and others further afield will not be so eager to answer the call next time the US needs assistance. Their hedging is likely to involve forging new alliances, some of them likely unconducive to the values and security of a united West.
More immediately, however, the gains in human security and civil society which the intervention brought the Afghan people are now all but reversed. That is the lasting result of this particular “9/11 War”. That is down to Joe Biden, that will be his legacy. A needless and rushed withdrawal, completely unplanned by politicians yet handled bravely by the troops (c’est la vie), which ultimately did not, and should not, have happened.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.