Twenty years ago, large swathes of the media and political establishment defended the invasion of Afghanistan – now, as the Taliban recaptures the country, the confidence feels horribly ill-judged

“The bombing is working,” wrote the Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn in November 2001. “Remember, we were told the bombing wouldn’t work – well it did.”

Back in 2001, the media and leading politicians justified intervention in Afghanistan as a moral crusade to free women from the oppressive, Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which had ruled the country since 1996 – as well as to improve national security. “Bombs are a price worth paying to beat terror,” explained Trevor Kavanagh in the Sun, ignoring that it wasn’t a price he himself would be paying. 

“We can do the war in Afghanistan for compassionate reasons (the starving hordes) or for selfish ones (our long-term security),” suggested the Spectator magazine in October 2001 when Boris Johnson was its editor. “Victory is the only exit.” 

Now, in August 2021, Johnson is Prime Minister and his old magazine’s promise that victory is the only exit has been replaced by a catastrophic defeat, forcing him to recall Parliament to discuss what will happen next.

The shocking and terrifying scenes beamed from the war-torn country across the world show the devastating hubris of the UK’s early claims. The Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan. Women are fleeing the country, afraid for their rights, their freedoms, their lives. As militant fighters marched into the capital of Kabul, the US flew out from helicopter pads, firing flares as they went to deter anti-aircraft guns. The country’s citizens, as well as people around the world, are less safe. 


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‘The Bombing Is Necessary

Analysis by the London-based charity Action on Armed Violence for Byline Times of newspaper editorials and headlines, as well as interventions from politicians, military leaders and the church in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan, demonstrate both how distanced commentators were from the lives on the ground in the country, and the confidence with which people believed that the war was instantly winnable. 

In many ways, they suggest that not much has been learned since the promises in August 1914 that it would ‘all be over by Christmas’. 

Commentators argued for the liberating potential of bombs: Kavanaugh again saying that “bombing is necessary”; while Brian Reade in the Telegraph explained that “war is necessary”. Paul Routledge in the Mirror said that he felt “calm about the air attacks on Afghanistan” – presumably because they weren’t happening above his head. 

Irish independent Catholic bishop, and former Roman Catholic priest, then Bishop Pat Buckley – writing in the News Of The World – defined intervention as a “surgical war” and a “hurt that would bring greater healing”. 

The certainty of victory, which appeared to come from a jingoistic self-regard, was fully on display too. In the Daily Mail, the British-American historian Niall Ferguson explained how the Taliban would have to go, and “past experience suggests that this should, in fact, be relatively easy”. It was an odd display of confidence, considering that the Taliban had won the last war against the Russians in Afghanistan. 

A year on, and author Ben MacIntyre wrote in The Times in August 2002 how “we won the war using high explosives and the newest technology, with almost indecent ease”. Military leaders praised Operation Snipe, with Gerry Duffy and Harry MacAdam arguing in the Sun in July 2002 that “it made Afghanistan safer, so the country could start to rebuild”. 

Nick Parker’s May 2002 article in the Sun quoted the former Royal Marines commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Roger Lane, who explained that people calling it a “phoney war” simply “misunderstood what we are trying to do… to deny al-Qaeda and the Taliban the safe sanctuary from which they train terrorists to mount operations across the world. Operation Snipe has achieved just that”. The al-Qaeda terror organisation was behind the 9/11 attacks. 

The problem was, the war was not yet over. The Taliban may have been defeated, but as we were to learn 19 years later, that defeat was only temporary and it wasn’t one the West was willing to enforce.

Echoes from the Past

Some of the justifications aired by the media in the early 2000s were repeated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he responded to the Taliban takeover.

He explained how the UK should be proud of helping to “educate millions of girls” in Afghanistan and reminded the public that the efforts of the UK armed services meant there had been no al-Qaeda attacks on the West for “a very long time”. The Taliban had banned girls from going to school. 

It is, of course, the case that the 2001 intervention did overthrow the Taliban, allowing girls to get an education, and opened up opportunities for women to go to work, including as MPs. Regime change removed the worst extremes of the regime’s misogyny and created democratic structures such as elections. 

However, the coup exercised by the Taliban shows that its power was only ever on hold. The humanitarian justifications for intervention seem distant, now the promised liberation of women only lasted two decades. While Johnson praised the efforts to educate girls between 2001 and 2021, before heading off on holiday, what about the girls scared to go to school tomorrow? 

Johnson added in a further statement that Afghanistan must “not become a breeding ground for terror”. But this is to ignore the deterioration of the security situation that has included the recent rise of the violent fundamentalist ISIS group in the country, leading to suicide attacks, territory takeovers, and clashes with the Taliban. In 2019, it was reported that Afghanistan had become the strongest branch of ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria. 

Back in July, the former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Alex Younger, told Sky News that “the terror threat to Britain will grow if the West abandons Afghanistan”. The Taliban is already releasing ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters from the nation’s prisons.

The confident proclamations of newspaper editorials in 2001 ring hollow today, then. Britain is less safe. Afghanistan is ruled by the ‘easy to defeat’ Taliban. Women’s images are being painted over; and many men, women and children are fleeing for their lives. 

“The hubris of liberal interventionism gripped the imagination of highly educated people,” observes the journalist Paul Mason, reflecting on how the war was spoken of in 2001. “What we deserve from Britain’s military-political elites, before any further bright suggestions about projecting force in the world, is an explanation. How did this thing, which you were so wedded to, and which captured your imaginations so thoroughly, go so horrifically wrong?”

Additional reporting by Jessica Freeman


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