Flat White

Afghanistan’s fall — and our disgrace

18 August 2021

3:12 PM

18 August 2021

3:12 PM

If you go into someone else’s house and trash it, you have a moral as well as a legal obligation to either restore the damage you have caused, or compensate the homeowner.

So it is with the West in Afghanistan.

Whether or not it was right for George W. Bush and his coalition – including Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – to go into Afghanistan to remove an al-Qaeda haven in the dark shadow of 9/11 is not the issue for debate this week. The fact is we did go in, stayed for two decades, and then got out even more quickly, trashing our moral authority in the process.


The West sought not only to drive the Taliban out, but reform and modernise Afghan society and governance. The men and women now desperately painting over shopfronts in Kabul were encouraged to embrace Western values including democracy, market capitalism, the emancipation of women and, above all for an Islamic community, a secular rather than a religious state and government.

It was plain to see that all of these, and more, would be destroyed if the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan.  Yet, in the West’s addiction to instant gratification, we thought our project could succeed virtually overnight. The fact that consolidating such a modernisation project would take not just two decades but the whole of this century was an inconvenient truth.

So what did we do? We cut and ran, and this week’s unfolding tragedy brutally reinforces the truth that we fled the Afghan house we trashed without making restitution. We had an obligation to fix the mess we made after 2001: we cravenly rejected it, and have left almost 40 million people to their fate.

Far worse is how we failed at a more personal level. Abandoning those men and women who helped us in our Afghanistan mission is morally reprehensible.  To hear the Prime Minister speak yesterday of the difficulty of getting former interpreters, military officers and others who helped our troops out of the Taliban’s clutches with a half-hearted, ‘oh, we’ll do our best but can’t guarantee anything’ message was a disgrace and a betrayal of those who risked their lives, and their families’ lives, to help us.

These people, and the whole now benighted country, deserve better.  Whether the defeated Afghan regime was incapable of defending itself or not, we owe those people far, far more than we are giving them now.

Terry Barnes edits our daily newsletter, the Morning Double Shot. You can sign up for your Morning Double Shot of news and comment here.

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