When British service personnel arrived in Sangin, the then defence secretary, John Reid, announced he would be happy to see them leave “without firing a shot”. That quickly proved hopelessly naive. Troops battled heroically just to defend their own bases, let alone complete the intended mission of reconstruction and economic development. Some 106 soldiers died in the years that followed.
With news that the Taliban have overrun Sangin, families of those wounded and killed understandably ask if their loved ones’ sacrifice was in vain. Diane Dernie, mother of Ben Parkinson, who lost both legs near Sangin in 2006, says she feels “a desperate sense of waste”. British personnel have now flown back to help prop up Afghan forces. But therein lies part of the problem.
The ambitious plan that John Reid and Tony Blair hoped to implement failed to take account of two lessons. The first is that it is pretty hopeless to rely purely on local forces who, owing to their ethnic background, lack the will to defend a part of the country they do not truly consider their own. In ethnic Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, ethnic Tajiks can feel as foreign as soldiers from Stockton-on-Tees, yet without the experience and training. Therefore, as Con Coughlin points out below, the West must continue to support Afghan forces.
The second problem is financial. In southern Afghanistan, the opium trade and Taliban control are inextricably intertwined. The West hoped to knock out two birds with one stone. But as Colombia has discovered recently, taking on and reforming an entrenched drugs economy can bring a country to its knees.
Capturing territory has never been a problem for our brave soldiers. Devising a way of holding it against extremists has proved much harder for our politicians. As we consider the future of Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and now Syria, this is the question that most needs answering.