As the West prepares to ‘Exit with Honour’ from Afghanistan, it is difficult to remember why we were there
Can anyone tell me what has been accomplished by over ten years of American and British boots on the ground in Afghanistan? The Taliban is poised to retake control where they don’t already run things and by all accounts the Afghanistan government and people are ready to let it happen. Women are still treated like dirt – with child brides being bought and sold as a normal practice. According to Medica Mondiale and UNICEF, 57 per cent of Afghan females are married under the age sixteen without their consent, with girls as young as eight and nine being taken as wives by 50 year old men.
And the west is not even talking about the resurgence of Bacha Bazi – the infamous tradition of dressing boys as girls for use as ‘entertainment’ by older men. Sexual abuse of children is a cultural norm that our leaders seem to tolerate – just like they tolerate other Afghan cultural norms such as child brides, the mutilation of women and the continuing abuse, rape and murder of non-Muslims living in Islamic societies.
Islam is enshrined as the state religion in the ‘new’ Afghan constitution. Bibles and other non-Muslim religious texts are forbidden in the country and people have been sentenced to death under the ‘new’ government for leaving Islam, or insulting Islam or the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Anyone who converts to Christianity is sentenced to death by the government courts.
What outcome were we looking for? What is the definition of ‘victory’ in this war? How will we know it is time to leave? Why not now? What will change in another six months or two years?
Last weekend as I dug through an old box of Dad’s things, I came across a thirty-five year old softcover book: A Rumour of War by Philip Caputo. A “Hatchards, Piccadilly, London” card was inside, I presume as a bookmark. I smiled and started reading. Three hours later when I looked up the sun was gone and I hadn’t moved.
From the first page, all I could think about was Afghanistan. I’ve typed out the first page and a bit for you – if you want more you’ll have to buy the book…
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars…
~ Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1
This book does not pretend to be history. It has nothing to do with politics, power, strategy, influence, national interests, or foreign policy; nor is it an indictment of the great men who led us into Indochina and wholes mistakes were paid for with the blood of some quite ordinary men. In a general sense, it is simply a story about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them. More strictly, it is a soldier’s account of our longest conflict, the only one we have ever lost, as well as the record of a long and sometimes painful personal experience.
On March 8, 1965, as a young infantry officer, I landed at Danang with a battalion of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first U.S. combat unit sent to Indochina. I returned in April 1975 as a newspaper correspondent and covered the Communist offensive that ended with the fall of Saigon. Having been among the first Americans to fight in Vietnam, I was also among the last to be evacuated, only a few hours before the North Vietnamese Army entered the capital.
Although most of this book deals with the experiences of the marines I served with in 1965 and 1966, I have included an epilogue briefly describing the American exodus. Only ten years separated the two events, yet the humiliation of our exit from Vietnam, compared to the high confidence with which we had entered, made it seem as if a centre lay between them. Continue reading