At the year’s end there could hardly be a more resonant or tragic story than the loss of the Afghan town of Sangin to the Taliban. Contrary to the media’s many critics, the news cycle, like human nature, favours good news stories. It favours things getting steadily better, whether that is medical advances or political or social liberation.
Despite the gruesome reality on the ground the story of Afghanistan over fourteen long years has been one of wishful optimism and hopeful improvement. Western troops may not have made the country entirely safe and Afghanistan’s politicians may hardly have made the country an un-corrupt liberal democracy, but at least girls can go to school. The loss of Sangin reminds us that all this can go the other way too and raises deep questions about our whole involvement in Afghanistan.
In the years since 2006 more than 100 British soldiers died in fighting in Sangin. Indeed the deaths of British troops in Sangin comprise almost a quarter of the UK military deaths in Afghanistan. Last year the nearby base of Camp Bastion was handed over from British to Afghan troops with enormous fanfare. Today, as a meagre international coalition attempts to send too few people too late to stem the Taliban’s hold over the whole Helmand province it is clear that we might as well not have been there in the first place if this was to be the outcome.
The critics of the post-9/11 wars claim that these wars have exacerbated extremism and insecurity. In fact it is the failure to sustain these missions which has led to this situation. It was the pre-emptive withdrawal from Iraq ordered by President Obama that has led to the fracturing of both Iraq and Syria. The demonstration that we want out as soon as possible rather than whenever the job is done is the best possible incentive for any enemy. Internationally the same problem has been posed in Afghanistan. What is the point of scrambling for a dignified exit if the result within a year is the unravelling of everything that has been achieved over all the years before?
This has, it must be said, always been a problem for democracies. The exigencies of the democratic process do not favour sustained decision-making. The advantage of the terrorists and the autocrats is a grim-faced consistency. When President Obama came to office he promised an end to the wars. In reality all that happened was that he ended America’s leadership in these wars, making the conflicts infinitely worse in the meantime. But the President satisfied his base, as others will satisfy theirs.
Likewise the UK government realised that the British public was wearying of Afghanistan and that the mission had been justified on too many and too varied grounds. It was not an easy call to make. Retain a presence and tolerate a constant drip-stream of casualties? Or get out and accept that the problem is for the Afghans?
These are not easy questions and nor are there any easy answers. But the story of Sangin and Helmand as a whole should be kept at the forefront of our minds. To forget this sorry tale would be the surest way of repeating it.
FROM THE DIRECTOR’S DESK
We may be approaching the end of the year, but it appears to be business as usual for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox Christmas may be a little later than the Western variant, but Mr Putin this week served up an early present for democracy activist, philanthropist and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky – who served ten years in jail on trumped up tax charges while his company Yukos was dismembered – with the news that he was wanted on murder charges for a contract killing in 1998.
As is well known, the Russian criminal justice system is absolutely under the control of the Kremlin. It has repeatedly served up obscure charges to discredit and lock up Mr Putin’s opponents, such as the jailing of opposition activist Alexei Navalny in 2013 for embezzling large amounts of timber. Mr Khodorkovsky himself has had previous experience of new charges coming to light, such as those that saw his original sentence extended when it looked likely he might be released too early for the Kremlin’s liking. The new allegations against him seem particularly farcical when considering that they did not come to light at a time when his personal and business activities were being combed through in great detail by those seeking to find excuses to lock him up.
So what has changed? Khodorkovsky himself believes the Kremlin has simply “gone mad”. In truth, as he knows, the madness started some years ago, when Mr Putin decided there was room for only one politician in Russia’s political system – himself. Since then, not only have all forms of political and media opposition been driven underground, out of business or even expunged – as in the recent mysterious murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov – but Russia has also embarked on an aggressive neighbourhood and foreign policy.
It seems Mr Khodorkovsky’s real crime is simply to have believed that even while out of Russia, his support for a restoration of Russian democracy would be tolerated by the increasingly paranoid Kremlin. Russia today is reeling from the economic effects of the global commodity price collapse, and with international sanctions beginning to bite, Mr Putin is well aware that the compact between the Russian people and him – where he delivered economic growth at the expense of political freedom – is breaking down.
Russians may not yet be demanding Mr Putin’s immediate ousting. But he is right to be worried, for revolutions come quickly in this part of the world. The next time Mr Khodorkovsky sees Moscow, it is more likely to be in the context of a newly democratised Russia than in a show trial staged by the ancien régime.
Dr Alan Mendoza is Executive Director of The Henry Jackson Society
Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanMendoza
EDITORS NOTE: The featured image of British soldiers in Sangin, Afghanistan is courtesy of Ministry of Defense/Crown Copyright/PA.