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29 September 2021

Jeremy Bowen’s Diary: Where the West went wrong in Afghanistan, the ruins of Helmand, and my sharp new attire

I first met the Taliban in 1994, two years before they took power. I never thought I would be dealing with the group again 27 years later.

By Jeremy Bowen

A thought hit me halfway between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province, on a road studded with roughly filled-in bomb craters. What were our politicians thinking when they sent ­British troops to this place? The reasons Afghanistan was invaded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks were legitimate: to destroy al-Qaeda, find Osama bin Laden and punish the Taliban for harbouring them. What happened next is where it went wrong.

The Taliban was, and is, an organisation that kills and maims without hesitation, but it was ready to talk in the years after its defeat in 2001. Instead the Americans, the British and their allies dug themselves deeper into the war. Brave soldiers were told that they were fighting to make the people back home safer, and to create a better Afghanistan that could never again be a theme park for the likes of al-Qaeda. With hindsight, observation and containment of the Taliban would have been less destructive than direct action. Politicians and generals become committed and then calculate that it is too costly, or too late, to change course.

How it all ended

I have met some of the British soldiers who were badly wounded when serving in Afghanistan. Their courage is humbling. I can imagine how painful it must be for them, and for the families of the soldiers who were killed, to see how it all ended. I know many of them believe that the mission was worth it. The uncomfortable truth is that the Taliban won, and the real gains in education and equality, mostly in Kabul, were based on a corrupt state that collapsed when its foreign backers left.

I walked through the ruins of Marjah, a sprawling town in Helmand surrounded by fields of cotton and opium. One of the war’s biggest battles happened there in 2010. A plan for a quick victory turned into a grind that the US commander Stanley McChrystal called a “bleeding ulcer”. A man called Shamsullah showed me the ruins of his family’s home; his four brothers, one a Taliban fighter, were killed in the war. They had been given the house by a project funded by foreign governments to win hearts and minds. The house was destroyed in a ­battle, just one example of the way that the war undercut attempts to make Afghanistan a better place. ­Shamsullah’s mother dismissed my suggestion that women had benefited from the past two decades. How could we, she said, when the invaders killed our husbands and sons?

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Meeting the Taliban

This was my first time in Afghanistan since 1994. Back then I drove out of Kabul towards Kandahar, down a road undulating in a series of long peaks and troughs. I was told that they were caused by the weight of Soviet military convoys driving on the road until Mikhail Gorbachev accepted inglorious defeat in the late 1980s.

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We were looking for the nascent Taliban, then making a name for itself as an unusually violent new player in a terrible civil war. I didn’t think I would be dealing with the group again 27 years later. Some of its fighters had set up a roadblock an hour outside Kabul. The Taliban members we met were polite; they gave us lunch and seemed serious about their intentions. Two years later, the group seized the country and used ruthless violence to impose its unforgiving ideology.

Animals of war

On the way to Helmand our drivers, and compulsory armed Talib bodyguard, stopped at dusk to pray at Maiwand. In 1880, during the Second Afghan War, it was the site of a famous defeat for the British empire. The past is inescapable here. In August, as Kabul fell to the Taliban, the former Royal Marine Pen Farthing conducted his controversial animal rescue. In 1880 there was a dog drama in Maiwand concerning Bobbie, a mongrel from Reading who was the faithful companion to a British soldier. Despite both being wounded, the pair made it home and were decorated by Queen Victoria. Bobbie was later killed by a Hansom cab. His stuffed body and his medal can still be seen in the Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum.

Fashion tips for the future

Sharp-eyed viewers of BBC News might have spotted me wearing shalwar kameez, the outfit worn by men in southern Afghanistan. Afghan colleagues recommended that it would be polite to respect the local dress code. A tailor in Kabul ran up what we needed at around £25 per set. That may have been the foreigners’ price. It consists of a long tunic worn over generously cut trousers cinched in with a drawstring. It is loose and airy, superbly appropriate for the formidable heat of the south. Perhaps as the planet warms more of us should wear them in the UK.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor.

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This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age