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British troop exit from Afghanistan stirs questions at home over mission

British and US military bases in Helmand Province have been handed over to Afghan forces. Some former British military officials question the strategy of their military's 13-year combat mission. 

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    The British military ended combat operations Sunday in Helmand Province, where they lowered the Union Jack at Camp Bastion.
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British combat operations in Afghanistan officially ended Sunday, and Britons are asking a difficult question: Was it worth it?

While the public is likely to debate that question for years ahead, certain facts about Britain’s involvement are unambiguous. Its 13-year military campaign, a deployment that lasted longer than World War II, ended with 453 British troops dead and thousands more injured while serving as part of NATO's mission to Afghanistan. 

A BBC poll showed 68 percent of respondents thought the operation was not "worthwhile" for Britain.

In Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province, where the majority of British casualties occurred, conditions have improved. The BBC reports that roads are better, schools have opened, and security has gotten better, at least in heavily populated areas along the Helmand River.

But two key aims of the operation – to defeat the Taliban and cut poppy growing – have been a failure. As British troops leave, the Taliban are stronger than ever and mounting their most determined attempt to retake the province, and poppy growing is at record levels.

And the mixed picture in Helmand is reflected nationally. On the war's original limited aims – to punish al-Qaeda for 9/11, and dislodge the Taliban from power – it can be measured as a success. But it quickly turned into a full-scale military intervention, and effort to reconstruct a nation.

The end of Britain's combat operations offered current and past leaders a chance to reflect on the decisions made in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC on Sunday that “mistakes were made militarily and mistakes were made by the politicians at the time.”

Gen. Sir Peter Wall, the former head of the British army, said in a newly released BBC documentary that Britain's military miscalculated the magnitude of the conflict in Afghanistan. But he said in the long term, the mission would prove successful.

"The lasting impact we will have had is not just to sanitize the threat to allow the development of governance and economy, but to be a witness to and stimulus for very significant social change, with an improving economy, with jobs, with much developed farming opportunities in contrast to narcotics,” he said.

However, Afghan farmers have shown little interest in exiting the lucrative poppy trade, a major component of the global heroin trade. Afghan poppy production hit an all-time high last year, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as farmers were “trying to shore up their assets as insurance against an uncertain future."

US Marines accompanied British forces in departing Helmand on Sunday, when troops lowered their countries’ flags for the final time at the joint base of Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion. The base is the largest one the coalition has handed over to Afghan forces, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Combat operations in Helmand are likely to be studied and scrutinized for years by military planners, US commanders told The Washington Post. But Brenda Hale, a British widow whose husband died in a bomb blast in the province in 2009, has made up her mind on the mission's success.

We have to believe that it was worth it,” she told the Belfast Telegraph. “I think history will judge that their deployment has made the world a safer place.”

The NATO-led international force will officially end all combat operations in Afghanistan on Dec. 31. Its replacement mission will focus on supporting the country’s newly trained army and police as they take over the fight against the Taliban, Reuters reports.

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