“War. What is it good for?” On Kabul and the failure of war

“War, what is it good for?” Edwin Starr and many others sang the anthem of the beginning of the 1970s. It picked up the mood of the moment. I recall as an underage drinker roaring out “Absolutely nothin’!” in response to the question at weekend discos. We were all talking about the war in Vietnam, not then aware of war in Cambodia. But most of what I had learnt about war was from history books and the occasional classroom lecture. It was distant, even anodyne.

This August, we face what is being described “Biden’s Saigon moment”. Kabul could fall with days and one of the mightiest powers in the world, the USA, is beating a hasty retreat from three decades of occupation. Behind the retreating armies, women will lose rights that many have only just begun to exercise. Democracy will be crushed under the wheels of departing miltary trucks.

The loss of reputation of western powers to solve world problems by shooting and bombing will be more than collateral damage from the withdrawal. One of the most significant weapons in the armoury of the USA and Britain, war, will have again been shown to be one of the least effective solutions to world problems.

This question has been in my mind since before sixth form. War? What is it good for?

Too many of us lose friends and family or see them return from battle zones physically injured or mentally traumatised. But the reality is that for most of us war is distant. Only in recent years have we seen significant respect and increased care for veterans.

The predictions that Kabul will fall to the Taliban unnerves me.

I watched the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on screens in Ottawa. The mood of that city and of the western hemisphere changed in a few hours of drama that was both compulsive and repulsive viewing. One of my team, Bill, ever more prescient than myself, picked a copy of the Globe and Mail that had been pressed a few hours after the attack. “Might as well have a record of the day the world changed”, he said gloomily.

The day after, I arrived early on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. There was nervous humour as we public got caught up in a hastily scripted rehearsal. Most of us cried in incomprehension at the horror that had occurred almost on our doorstep. I know that on that day I did not appreciate what was to come and I don’t think my Canadian friends did so either.

The War on Terror followed. Iraq. Afghanistan. Other nations. Asymmetric warfare of mighty powers against “insurgents” who were often regarded as little more than bandits by the west.

Well, it looks like the bandits are about to win. The consequences of that are not for this article.

But why is the default action of nations, their leaders and, sometimes, their peoples to wage war to impose their model of “civilisation” on the world?

As Bush and Blair’s second Gulf War began, I was researching in Los Angeles. Most nights, I tipped back glasses of cold beer with a crowd at the local bar. When I said I did not support the war, I was nearly drummed out of the bar with chants of “Freedom Fries”. When I returned on a second research trip a couple of months later, the guys at the bar were bemoaning the body bags and agreed I had been right.

All of us, even when we are not combatants, are caught up in wars. The lessons I was taught in my youth were that the First World War was a mistake and the Second World War was our country’s most glorious moment. Maybe but most of the wars this country and our ally America have been involved in have been abject failures.

People have died for wars that have achieved nothing and, in many cases, the wars have made matters worse.

Even if we don’t know anyone fighting, we cannot escape the consequences of war. It is one of biggest political weapons. If nations are religiously, politically and economically different, then war is too often seen as a way of levelling up.

As the western world withdraws from Afghanistan, the losses for democracy, freedom and for women will be huge. But have we got anywhere trying to resolve those issues through waging war?

I ask again the question I have asked almost every day my since schooldays.

“War. What is it good for?”

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Simon McGrath 14th Aug '21 - 8:19pm

    Well war has been pretty good until recently in keeping the taliban from controlling Afghan cities ….

  • Charles Smith 14th Aug '21 - 8:52pm

    The Taliban have captured a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan in a major setback for the government, and the insurgents are approaching the capital less than three weeks before the U.S. hopes to complete its troop withdrawal.

    The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city — which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend — hands the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan, confining the Western-backed government to the centre and east.

    The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. They now control about 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, leaving the Western-backed government with a smattering of provinces in the centre and east — as well as the capital, Kabul.

  • Nigel Jones 14th Aug '21 - 9:05pm

    Mary Dejevsky in the ‘i’ on Friday argues that military intervention to try to build a new order in a country, as opposed to repairing its government, is always bad judgement. She supports this with a quote from Teresa May around 2016 saying “the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over”.
    So Jo Biden’s decision is simply acknowledging an existing complete failure to permanently establish better government and she argued earlier in the week that it was probably a huge mistake to go there in the first place.
    On the other hand, Paddy Ashdown felt it might be achieved but warned in 2011 that our policy there was wrong and failing badly: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/paddy-ashdown-
    an article entitled “What we must do to win this war.”
    He said that in this kind of situation soldiers were there not to kill but to help gain the support of the people, bring aid and establish better governance as far as possible throughout each small part of the country. He was so concerned because leaving a complete vacuum in Afghanistan will have bad consequences for everyone, including Pakistan and the Middle East. Personally I wonder if anything could be achieved of this kind without world-wide active participation, especially including Russia and China as well as the big western nations, bringing pressure on Pakistan also.

  • There was little opposition to the war in Afghanistan in the way there was to the Invasion of Iraq. The principle of collective defence is enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
    The Taliban were harbouring Al Quaeda and Osama Bin Laden at the time of the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on the USS Cole off Aden in 2000. The 9/11 attack was a major escalation on American soil and the straw that broke the camels back in this case.
    It remains to be seen if Afghanistan once again becomes a base for Islamist terror groups. However, if it does fall back into that quagmire, I fear the inevitable pressure to ‘do something’ will be based on the dictum of the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz that “”War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

  • And the General was correct, as was the Chinese bloke back in the day.

  • John Marriott 15th Aug '21 - 8:17am

    Afghanistan has been a thorn in the West’s side for generations. In fact, quite a few Muslim nations have been and still are. In terms of religion most are still where Christianity was in the Middle Ages. Trying to graft on what we like to call democracy has largely produced disastrous results.

    Today’s Afghanistan resembles 1960s South Vietnam in so many ways. A corrupt regime, bolstered by western military powers facing an insurgence from a determined ideologically driven force, a decision by these powers to throw in the towel, a humiliating evacuation at midnight. The BIG difference is that the unified Vietnam has survived relatively unscathed. I just cannot see this happening in Afghanistan. Besides a potentially bloody civil war, one doubts the competence of the Taliban to run the country without assistance from some quarter, probably, as Joe Bourke opines, by providing a safe haven for terrorism. After all, they more or less gave up the ghost the last time they were in charge. We could be in for a few more years of suffering and death, no thanks to Donald Trump, whose ‘negotiations’ with the Taliban left his successor holding the baby.

  • Matt Wardman 15th Aug '21 - 9:37am

    An article that asks good questions, but fails to provide any answers. The second is the hard part. My comments:

    The number of people murdered in the 9/11 attacks was 2977 in one day. That is 650 more than US personnel who have died in Afghanistan in 20 years.

    The current reporting is in part (no idea how much part) a media narrative. They love simple narratives, especially if they can get a hit on their own Governments, and hate doing the hard work of providing balance. I think that there is a lot of PR in the Taliban activity. A recent occasion where our media entirely missed the story was the Clapham Common Demonstration where I have not seen anyone (except a brief report on Sky) pick up that unrest was fomented by groups exploiting the existence of a vigil, including the young woman arrested.

    The intervention in Afghanistan by NATO was significantly in response to local demands. I can remember various reports and Vox pops at the time. TBF, it was also tied up with NATO searching for a new “strategic concept”. I think currently the security situation, and the comprehensive self-absorption of the European Commission perhaps demonstrate the need for NATO.

    The groups that complain about intervention failing as we withdraw seem to me to be the same groups that complain about too much spending on defence, then demand that “something must be done because we have a moral responsibility”, then complain that we do not have the capacity to do what they want. Some reflection required.

    So, my question: What should have been done? Should we leave it to Russia, China or Iran – who don’t care whether 1k or 20k of other people get killed, as long as their interests are served?

    The best answer I can come up with is that we stayed 15-18 years too long, and should probably have handed over to a UN Peacekeeping Force. And Biden withdrew far too rapidly for a decent handover time, because if the USA pulls the plug nobody else can carry on on their own.

  • A couple of points interested me. One was that there are many reports that the Taliban were able to move so quickly in many places was that those defending welcomed them.
    As one commentator pointed out this morning it is likely that the Taliban are already there in Kabul helping to plan the takeover of the city.
    The other point is that a neighbour of Afghanistan is China. Afghanistan may be of little strategic importance to most of us, but it is of enormous importance to China. It will be interesting to see what China does in an evolving relationship with its neighbour.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Aug '21 - 5:18pm

    It’s clear that allied forces were applying a plaster to a festering wound. Whether they knew how weak their hold on the country was is for historians. The Taliban must have been planning for this event for years. Why they were in such a hurry is unclear.

  • Most of the comments on the subjects in recent hours seem stuck in the moral maze, agreed only that we must help the inevitable refugees that will soon be flooding out of Afganistan.
    Many, perhaps even most of the party were instictively against British military involvement in Afganistan and I am not going to criticise that position, which was taken for the highest and most noble reaons. War is indeed a dreadful thing and should never be undertaken lightly. In addition, the harrowing media coverage pre 2013 of planes returning to this country bearing the mortal remains of our service men and women, and of hearses proceeding through Wootton Bassett, inevitably created a public mood that made made our disengagement from the conflict politically inevitable. In the coming days we will all learn to live with the consequences of that societal distaste for western involvement.
    What is war good for ? Well, if you have a group of armed militants whose object is to stop women enjoying basic rights, to roll back any form of democracy and to impose their own particular brand of religious fervour, and who will impose their will with a dreadful barbarsism, what option do we have ? If we really think these rights matter, not just for us in the UK, but for men and women across the world then I fail to see how else we proceed but through military action. I sense many here will the ends, but are very reluctant about the means.

  • Denis Mollison 16th Aug '21 - 9:47pm

    @Chris Cory – “If we really think these rights matter, not just for us in the UK, but for men and women across the world then I fail to see how else we proceed but through military action. ”
    But why “we”? Why military action? Why should the UK / US / Nato be the policemen of the world? If the rule of the Taliban is abhorrent to “men and women across the world” it should be the UN that acts. That the UN is today not in a position to do that is largely the responsibility of the kind of unilateral action the US and its allies have taken time after time.
    We have intervened in Afghanistan selfishly and disastrously every 40 years or so since 1839, except ca. 1960.
    I was against intervention there in 2001 – and would have been even more strongly against it if I had appreciated just how self-fulfilling George Bush’s concept of a war on terrorism would prove to be.
    Of course we should do all we can short of killing to reduce the collateral damage we have caused, especially to the women and children of Afghanistan.
    But can we please make a resolution never to intervene there miltarily again.

  • nvelope2003 18th Aug '21 - 1:35pm

    Denis Mollison: I am sure most people would be glad if we never intervened in foreign conflicts but the sight of women being stoned to death and reports of people being murdered for supporting the wrong side or girls being prevented from going to school will provoke calls for action. What do we do then ?

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