MY heart sank. When I heard of the death of another six young men – five of whom were local boys from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment – I found it incredibly depressing, not just because I know and admire that Regiment, and not just because I know and admire Yorkshiremen, but because I hoped such things had come to an end.
Now, I’ve been a soldier and I know full well that war is a chancy, brutal and nasty business and that – even in the dying days of a campaign – people get killed, the fate of the Duke of Wellington’s that is now part of 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment.
However, it has been some months now since we have had an almost daily litany of dead from Afghanistan and, I suppose, I was hoping that this was a sign that the end was in sight.
Of course it isn’t; casualties have been reduced because of a change of policy – under political pressure our troops are being less aggressive, concentrating on the job of developing the Afghan police and army so that that country is able to stand on its own feet when Allied Forces withdraw in 2014-15.
But, this all begs the question of how on earth our soldiers can be motivated to face the enemy when we already know that the mission is coming to an end. I’ve had enough of biting my lip. President Barack Obama’s decision to announce to his enemies a specific date when his troops would withdraw from Afghanistan is simply incomprehensible.
Once he had done it, of course, every other nation had to follow, but it must go down as one of the greatest blunders of modern war. Obama’s problem is that he is a politician first and a Commander in Chief second – and a politician who’s in grave danger of losing his job. And that’s why he’s willing to gamble with the lives of his fighting men.
Imagine Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt saying to Adolf Hitler in 1943: “Look, our electorates might take our jobs away, so we’ll mollify them by telling you that if you’re not beaten by 1945, we’ll just give up.”
Essentially, that’s what Obama has done and it leaves the troops and their commanders in a desperately difficult position.
All this comes on the back of a war that has never been properly explained to the British public.
I believe passionately that we should be in Afghanistan and that we should be fighting to win. But I don’t believe in the nonsense that the last Government pedalled about why we were in that country in the first place.
We heard all sorts of things – that we were there to control the drugs trade, that it was all about equal rights for women and, most laughable of all, that conventional military operations in Afghanistan would keep the streets of Britain safe from terrorists.
Let’s dissect this last point. The most recent, successful attack by terrorists in this country was in 2005 and if that had been carried out by Afghans, trained in that country, then I might be able to follow the argument which has been put forward. However, those bombings were carried out by Yorkshiremen, much of whose training was in the Lake District.
Certainly, these men were motivated by Jihadists from Afghanistan and some of their training did occur in Pakistan but nothing that we are doing in Afghanistan at the moment is going to stop similar groups of individuals being radicalised in a similar way.
The real reason for the war and why the lives of these young soldiers have not been wasted is entirely credible. Britain and the Alliance are part of a regional war that stretches from the borders of Iran to those of Russia and encompasses nuclear tipped Pakistan.
That country is at much at risk of collapse as Afghanistan and unless the West props up the whole region with social, economic, political and military resources then we will see a catastrophic spiral into chaos that will fundamentally threaten our stability.
Imagine a rampant Taliban aiding and abetting al-Qaida and its associates with direct access to the nuclear weapons of a failed Pakistan. It’s obvious that such a threat is so much more serious than the already deadly threat of bombers like those we saw in 2005.
We made a mistake going into Afghanistan without a clearly identified end state. While I have criticised Obama, his decision to announce a withdrawal does at least mean that Afghanistan’s government has now got to concentrate on developing her forces.
And that’s why our troops will stick to the job of preparing the Afghans to handle their own destiny. It’s going to be a long, difficult and bloody couple of years, but thank God that we have got men of the courage and stature of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment – Yorkshire’s finest – to forge that path.
I hate the idea that these men have died, but they died for a right and proper cause.
*Patrick Mercer is a former soldier and the Conservative MP for Newark