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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

The great game lost

Britain’s 13-year-long war in Afghanistan was a saga of misadventure and miscalculation against an enemy we never knew, says Ahmed Rashid

The first British troops scheduled to fly into Bagram airbase outside Kabul in November 2001 nearly didn’t make it. Northern Alliance (NA) leaders, who had driven the Taliban out of the city with the help of US Special Forces a few days earlier, refused to allow the British plane to land. Their leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was furious that London was sending troops without asking permission first. He telephoned the head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, and informed him with some alarm that “the British are invading!”—as they had, twice, in the 19th century. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, recalled that “all hell broke loose.” Eventually, the NA leadership calmed down and allowed the Brits to land.

The first British soldiers had next to no warning of their deployment, no strategic plan and were lacking the right equipment. Coming just two months after 9/11, such confusion and lack of preparation was perhaps understandable. But Whitehall was repeatedly unprepared in the years ahead, too. It was a grim opening salvo.

Theo Farrell’s book is entitled Unwinnable, and with good reason: what followed for the next 13 years was an unremitting tale of miscalculation, confusion, overstretch, poor planning and political paralysis. The British were caught between high-minded promises made to Afghanistan and backroom deals with America and Pakistan. The US had its eyes on Iraq, which always seemed a more important prize. And the Afghans, sensitive to imperial meddling, had conflicting priorities of their own. Winning here was all but impossible: as Farrell suggests near the opening of the book, “in retrospect, Britain should have probably quit while it was ahead” in late 2002. By the time UK forces formally withdrew in 2014 (some personnel are still there in an “advisory capacity”) 453 British soldiers had been killed and 2,000 wounded, 600 receiving “lifechanging” injuries. The estimated cost was £37bn.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February 2018 issue: John Naughton, James Ball, Yuan Ren, Hannah Jane Parkinson and Houman Barekat outline the ways in which our lives are controlled by big tech giants. Naughton argues that Facebook and Google have created a new “surveillance capitalism” in which they battle to grow user engagement of their products and monetise our lives for their own gain as they do so. The cover package also explores how “bots,” fake social media accounts, influenced the US presidential vote and the Brexit referendum as well as the effects of removing net neutrality in the US. Elsewhere in the issue: Samira Shackle asks what happens to ordinary civilians affected by Islamic State as they attempt to move back to their homes and rebuild their lives; Shahidha Bari asks whether we can continue to appreciate the work of actors, filmmakers and writers who have been disgraced; and Christine Ockrent profiles Michel Barnier.