We were wrong to invade Iraq, but that doesn’t mean we can walk away from Afghanistan

Posted: 07/12/09

The Chilcot inquiry into the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and the decision to commit more troops to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan bring foreign affairs back up the agenda, though in truth the years of calm on the international stage were few and far between. More accurately still, the recent years in which the UK itself was directly involved in overseas conflict were few and far between- only really between the Falklands War and the defence of the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo, if Northern Ireland is considered separately. Yet this time of relative peace for us coincided with horrific conflicts which claimed the lives of millions, from the Iran/Iraq war to the Congo, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda and beyond. British troops may have seen little action outside Northern Ireland in that period, but the blood was certainly flowing fast enough.

Twenty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is hard to imagine that people then seriously contemplated the idea that we were seeing ‘the end of history'(to borrow the title of Francis Fukuyama's famous book). The great conflicts were over, it was thought. Democratic capitalism had won and, to all intents and purposes, the smaller nations could fight each other or their own people, without disturbing that settlement. How wrong this world view turned out to be.

One of the many factors underestimated by the optimists was the extent to which localised conflicts would inevitably impact more widely upon a globalised world. Failed states, for example, don't just blight the lives of their inhabitants, but force millions of refugees around the world, destabilise their neighbours, and provide a base from which perils from terrorism to the drugs trade can thrive.

I have always believed that the world cannot turn its back on failed states, for self-interested as well as humanitarian reasons. I remain cautiously of the view that intervention in Afghanistan is the right thing to do, although aspects of the conflict such as the unmanned US missile drones that have killed so many civilians are repugnant and counter-productive. If we walk away now, the collapse of the Afghan government could unleash even deeper horrors on its people, and send another two million people over the borders as refugees- as happened before 2001. The war itself causes instability in Pakistan, and for entirely understandable reasons angers many muslims, but what dangers must follow from the return of the Taleban to power?

Listening to the evidence being given to Chilcot, I remain equally sure that we were wrong to join the invasion of Iraq- just as I did when I voted against the government in the run up to war. Toppling Saddam Hussein was greatly to be desired, but it seemed clear then and clear now that the coalition was not prepared for the aftermath, and could not guarantee safety for the Iraqi people in the carnage that followed. Intervention remains a necessity- it may, in fact, become even more essential as climate-driven conflict adds to the world's woes. Yet the lessons of these two conflicts that have claimed the lives of many brave British soldiers and so many Afghans and Iraqis is that we must be clear and consistent about the reasons; accept that military action alone is but a small part of the story, and know that we will rarely be able to walk away in a hurry.