Afghanistan: The error of withdrawal

19 August 2021

4:05 PM

19 August 2021

4:05 PM

Like many veterans, this last week has been one that has seen me struggle through anger, grief and rage. The feeling of abandonment, not just of a country but of the sacrifice that my friends made. I’ve been to funerals from Poole to Dunblane; I’ve watched good men go into the earth, taking with them a part of me and a part of us all. And this week has torn open those wounds, left them raw, left us all hurting. I know it’s not just soldiers. I know aid workers and diplomats who feel the same way. I know journalists who’ve been the witnesses to our country in its heroic effort to save people from the most horrific fates.

This isn’t just about us. The mission in Afghanistan wasn’t a British mission, it was a Nato mission. It was a recognition that globalisation has changed us all. The phone calls that I am still receiving, the text messages that I have been answering, putting people in touch with our people in Afghanistan, reminds us that we are connected. Afghanistan is not a far away country about which we know little. It is part of the main. That connection links us also to our European partners, to our neighbours and our international friends.

And so it is with great sadness that I now criticise one of them. Because I was never prouder than when I was decorated by the 82nd Airborne after the capture of Musa Qala. It was a huge privilege to be recognised by such an extraordinary unit in combat. To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with — to claim that they ran. It is shameful.

Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have. Because what we have done, in these last few days, is we’ve demonstrated that it’s not armies that win wars. Armies can get tactical victories and operational victories that can hold a line. They can just about make room for peace, make room for people like us, parliamentarians, to talk, to compromise, to listen. It’s nations that make war. Nations endure. Nations mobilise and muster. Nations determine, and have patience.

Here we have demonstrated, sadly, that we, the West — the United Kingdom — does not have patience. Now, this is a harsh lesson for all of us and if we are not careful it could be a very, very difficult lesson for our allies. And it doesn’t need to be. We can set out a vision, a clear articulated vision, for reinvigorating a European-Nato partnership, to make sure we are not dependent on a single ally, on the decision of a single leader, but that we can work together with Japan and Australia, with France and Germany, with partners large and small, and make sure we hold the line together.

We know that patience wins. We know it because we have achieved it, we know it because we have delivered it. The Cold War was won with patience. Cyprus is at peace with patience. South Korea, with more than ten times the number of troops that America had in Afghanistan, is prosperous through patience.

So let’s stop talking about ‘forever wars’, let’s recognise that forever peace is not bought cheaply — it is hard. It is bought through determination and the will to endure. The tragedy of Afghanistan is that we are swapping that patient achievement for a second fire and a second war.

Now we need to turn our attention to those who are in desperate need, to supporting the UNHCR, the World Food Programme and so many other organisations who can do so much for people in the region. Yes to support refugees, though it’s unnecessary to get into the political auction of numbers. We just need to get people out. So I leave with one image. In the year that I was privileged to be the adviser to the governor of Helmand province, we opened girls’ schools. The joy it gave parents, seeing their little girl going to school, was extraordinary. I didn’t understand it until I took my own daughters to school about a year ago. There was a lot of crying when she first went in, but I got over it.

But there is a second image that I must leave you with and it is a harder one. But I am afraid it is one I think we must all remember. The second image is one that the forever war that has just reignited could lead to. It is the image of a man whose name I will never know carrying a child who had died hours earlier, carrying this child into our base and begging for help. There was nothing we could do. It was over. This is what defeat looks like: when you no longer have a choice of how to help. This doesn’t need to be defeat — but at the moment, it damn well feels like it.

This is an edited transcript of a speech given by Tom Tugendhat to the House of Commons yesterday.

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