The closure of Britain’s consulate in Basra marks the end of an inglorious episode in our military history. This ought to have been the city where Britain would forever be seen as the liberator, given that it was our troops who supplanted Saddam Hussein’s forces almost ten years ago. Instead, Basra’s darkest moments came after the invasion: death squads moved in to fill the security vacuum Britain left behind. Our government failed to commit enough resources to make Basra safe. The massacres, executions and tortures that followed Britain’s withdrawal were brought to an end only when the Iraqi army reinvaded Basra. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were so determined to present a narrative of success that they refused to admit to any setback.
The untold scandal of Iraq is not of the lies that took us in, but the lies told to get us out. Britain eventually justified withdrawal by pretending we were officially handing over to a peaceful Iraqi government and a brand new police force. In fact, we were scarpering from a city we had long ago handed over unofficially to Muqtada al-Sadr’s private army. We had just 200 troops patrolling a city of 1.3 million, with predictable results. As circumstances in other parts of the country showed, such an outcome was not inevitable — it was, effectively, a choice. As our enemies looked on with glee, our allies watched in horror.
As David Cameron prepares a retreat from Afghanistan, he faces the same nightmare. There can be no doubt over the nature of the Taleban regime to whom we would be passing control. A Pakistani girl from the Swat Valley lies in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, making good progress after doctors removed the bullet that was put in her head by the Taleban as punishment for writing an online diary about girls’ education for the BBC. For years, we were told about how Britain’s legacy would be good schools and a stable country. Now, it seems the country is so dangerous we will not dare to evacuate our own military hardware.
Ignoring the lesson of Basra makes political sense. But it does nothing to help our leaders learn how to use force in an increasingly dangerous world. Although we seem able to have an inquiry into nearly everything else in the country, from the West Coast Mainline to a minister swearing at a policeman, there is little willingness to investigate our failure in Basra. Yet with British troops now embroiled in another increasingly futile conflict in Helmand, regularly dying in a mission that long ago lost its purpose, the failure to learn has become not merely theoretical but visible. And it costs lives.
Like his predecessors, Mr Cameron repeats the refrains. He continues — rightly — to laud our armed forces. Most Wednesdays, he has to rise in the House of Commons to issue more condolences to the families of our servicemen and women. Doubtless he, like many others, fears any statement or strategy that implies our young men and women have died in vain. But it is becoming harder than ever to escape this conclusion.
Our troops are all due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. As in Basra, the military commanders are understandably intent on losing as few British soldiers as possible. This is a perfectly noble aim, but it raises serious questions about what we are doing there at all. If the troops are not engaged in worthwhile fighting, why drag it out till 2014? If we have given up on pacifying Helmand, and have resigned ourselves to some kind of civil war afterwards — while Hamid Karzai is left to defend Fortress Kabul — then what is the wider objective?
As we retreat from Afghanistan, Cameron might be tempted to repeat the Blair deception: that we are leaving a peaceful country, having handed over to Afghans as if this were an end in itself. But as with Basra, it will be a lie it does no good to repeat. The politics of retreat may be back, but Cameron owes it to our country and our armed forces to do better than his predecessor. He needs to be honest about why we are going, why we are staying for another 18 months, and what we are in fact going to leave behind.
It does not dishonour the dead to point out that none of the tangible things which have been created in the way of Afghan civil society will long survive the withdrawal of 2014. We never had the means or the patience. In the end, the old Taleban saying proved right: we had the watches, they had the time. Nation-building may be a mission that can be embarked on by nations at the height of their powers. We are currently some way down the road from there.
Britain is, and can yet remain, a force for good in the world. But we owe it to ourselves and to our allies to admit the chasm that has opened between our diminished capabilities, and the aspirations to which our politicians give voice.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012