The unveiling of a memorial to Camp Bastion at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire brought a moment to reflect on the heroes of our armed forces who served in , and to remember the 453 British soldiers who never came home.
But more than seven months after the flag was lowered in Bastion for the last time, this should also be a moment to look back on a campaign in which our country was engaged for longer than both world wars combined.
I first deployed to in 2005, as part of a small reconnaissance team planning which southern province should become part of an expanded British mission. I remember talking through the options with our team leader at a tiny US base amid the stark beauty of the Uruzgan mountains.
On that same mission we strolled through the bazaar in Sangin in Helmand– the province where our troops would be deployed. When I next went there, the only way to get in without getting shot or blown up was by helicopter. Standing there in the Afghan hills, I knew we might have to fight. I also knew that if fighting was all we did, we would fail.
With Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan now complete, we don’t have the neatness or finality of knowing who has won or who has lost. There are some signs of hope. A political compromise has secured a broad-based government, the new Afghan administration appears to have a genuine will to tackle corruption and the Afghan security forces are slowly growing in capability. Nor should we forget just how much progress has been made since 2001, with significant improvements in health indicators and the education of girls, for example.
Yet the situation is incredibly fragile. The suicide bombings continue. Fighting has intensified this year and spread to new areas. Corruption is widespread, and it is unclear whether the administration can tackle it. Successive elections have been undermined and the authorities in the provinces are still seen as lacking legitimacy.
The basic fact is that the war that Britain gave so much to win is still being fought, and its outcome is uncertain.
In my view, there are aspects of the Afghan campaign that could and should have been done differently – from the loss of focus after the intervention in Iraq to the empowerment of abusive warlords, the handling of the counter-narcotics issue, to the failure of the international community to prevent their own spending fuelling corruption.
Our battle was always about creating lasting political solution rather than purely overcoming the Taliban.
Why do I think we need to revisit the military campaign? Partly for my own selfish reasons. I lost good friends in Helmand. We owe it to them to consider what went wrong and what lessons we can learn from Afghanistan to inform how we combat complex new threats .
But more important because the this year provides an opportunity. The review, which the government will be supervising, should contain a specific remit to examine the conduct of the campaign and draw informed judgments for the future conduct of British foreign policy. The public expect this to happen and only by demonstrating that we’ve done this we will we have their trust to make these important foreign policy judgments in the future.
Ultimately, the measure of success in Afghanistan is not how many Taliban are killed but whether the country has a political settlementthat reduces conflict rather than creates it; whether the rule of law is strong enough to keep corruption and abuses from fundamentally undermining the state and alienating the population; and whether the government is representative and responsive enough to hold legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.
That means that the outcome of the wider war was only ever partly in the hands of our armed forces. Our battle was always about creating space to build a lasting political solution rather than purely overcoming the Taliban.
Among the hard questions we should now be asking is why more was not done to make use of the space for political progress that Afghan, British and Isaf troops bought at such great cost – and how we can best adapt the support we are still giving to match that goal.
But these questions apply beyond the borders of Afghanistan. In our struggle against Islamic State and radical Islamism across the world there will be debate about military action, but we should contemplate it only if it is an absolutely essential element in a wider, coherent political strategy.
The coalition’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review was a flawed exercise that acted as a crude cloak for cuts rather than setting a strategic course for Britain’s role in the world. We must ensure that doesn’t happen again. Looking back at what happened in Afghanistan would be a good start.
Our soldiers played their part with honour. They deserve our quiet tributes. But part of that should be to soberly examine the conflict in which they put their lives on the line, and how it shapes Britain’s future.