Bill Carmichael: The debt we owe to our Armed Forces

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THE Union Flag was lowered for the last time in a solemn ceremony at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan this week to mark the end of 13 years of combat operations by British troops in that benighted country.

During those years 453 British troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan and the cost to the British taxpayer is estimated at some £19bn.

If the atmosphere among the troops in Camp Bastion was sombre and dignified, the mood at home was much more sour.

A survey conducted by the BBC revealed that 68 per cent of Britons believed that our involvement in Afghanistan was not worthwhile, compared to 51 per cent of Americans who felt the same way about the US’s actions.

So will this bleak verdict match the judgement of history? Will the Afghanistan conflict be seen as a terrible blunder by the West that expended much blood and treasure without improving things either in the streets of Kabul or here in the West?

It is easy to see why some believe so. Afghanistan is far from settled or peaceful with widespread corruption and a Taliban insurgency that is claiming lives on a daily basis.

But before we rush to condemn the Afghanistan war as a pointless waste of life, it is worth pausing to consider what the situation was back in 2001.

Then Islamist militants of al-Qaida were able to carry out the biggest terror attacks on modern times that claimed the lives of almost 3,000 innocent civilians in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Those attacks were planned and financed from Afghanistan, where al-Qaida terrorists were free to operate under the protection of equally fanatical members of the Taliban who ruled the country with an iron fist.

That’s why the US, with overwhelming international support including the Labour-led British government, demanded the Taliban hand over the al-Qaida leadership, including Osama Bin Laden.

When the Afghans refused, the international coalition sent in armed forces to topple the Taliban and destroy the terror training camps.

Was that really such a dreadful failure as it is now made out to be? In Afghanistan the picture is mixed. Perhaps our biggest error was the mistaken belief that we could persuade Muslims to be more tolerant of one another. Sadly, that hasn’t happened and the sectarian slaughter continues, as it has done for the last 1,400 years.

But let’s look at the evidence closer to home. Since 9/11, the Islamist terror groups have failed to mount any attacks in the West on anything like the scale of 2001.

Mass attacks continued for a while, such as the Madrid train bombings of 2004 which killed 191 commuters, and the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 – carried out by home-grown Islamists – which killed 52 people.

But since then the large scale “spectaculars” have been absent. 
In more recent years the jihadists 
have been reduced to small scale “lone wolf” operations such as the murder 
of Fusilier Lee Rigby in London and 
the recent killings of two soldiers in Canada.

This is no accident. The terrorists’ ability to inflict suffering on civilians has been much degraded because our Armed Forces destroyed their infrastructure.

Imagine for a moment that the Afghan war had not happened. There is no doubt that al-Qaida would have continued to operate with impunity in Afghanistan and would have continued to plan and execute large scale terror attacks in Western cities, with huge loss of life.

The fact that hasn’t happened is down to the courage and determination of members of our Armed Forces who have put their lives on the line to make us safer at home.

Many of them return from the battlegrounds scarred by their experiences and, as this week’s report from the Commons Defence Select Committee demonstrated, some struggle to re-integrate into society.

Some suffer from post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems and MPs found high levels of alcohol abuse amongst soldiers returning from combat.

The best way we can honour those who lost their lives in recent conflicts is to ensure that their comrades who survived are properly looked after – physically, mentally and financially – when they return home.

We owe them a great debt and as Remembrance Day approaches we should all pause for a moment to give thanks for their bravery and sacrifice.