Nineteen years ago, I went to that war-torn country with British soldiers to report for this newspaper on how they were trying to lift the shadow of oppression and terror cast by the Taliban, and repair the damage wrought by decades of conflict.
It was a few months after British and American troops had fought to clear the major cities of Taliban control, but Afghanistan remained extremely dangerous.
The RAF transport plane bringing us in to Kabul extinguished all lights and landed at night to minimise the risk of missile attack from the ground, and then all aboard – soldiers and civilians alike – had to sprint for cover in pitch darkness because of the threat from snipers.
The landscape was infested by landmines and concealed roadside bombs, booby-trapped to kill or maim, and their most frequent victims were children. Sanitation and clean water systems were non-existent in large parts of Kabul, and the occupants shivered at night in often semi-derelict buildings.
Even those with a roof over their heads huddled against the wind howling through windows with no glass in them, because the Taliban had ordered every pane shattered. In their extreme philosophy, anyone catching sight of their reflection in the glass was a sinner against Islam and could expect punishment by flogging.
Fear pervaded the lives of all the Afghans I met. It was the fear that the black-clad fighters of the Taliban would return. Now they have. I shudder to think how the soldiers I was privileged to meet in 2002 must be feeling now that the country they gave so much to liberate and rebuild has been abandoned to renewed savagery.
They lost comrades to booby-traps and ambushes, but their courage was matched only by their compassion for people long forgotten by the rest of the world. They came not as invaders, but friends who wished to help. And so they cleared landmines at extraordinary personal risk and ensured there was clean water.
I watched, intensely moved, as Afghan girls denied education shed tears of joy when men of the Royal Engineers led them into a building they had turned into a school. What was it all for? What, today, is there to show for all that sacrifice, the 457 British dead and the scores more wounded, in many cases left disabled?
The withdrawal of US military support for the Afghan government that has allowed the Taliban to seize power insults those who gave their lives and health. Less than a year into his presidency, Joe Biden has committed a foreign policy blunder that will be judged as harshly as Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the unwinnable war in Vietnam or George W Bush’s gung-ho invasion of Iraq.
The president who said America would once again reach out to the world has instead withdrawn the helping hand the people of Afghanistan so desperately need. And in doing so, President Biden has made the world a more dangerous place.
In less than a month’s time, America will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Mr Biden will be at the centre of the commemorations, solemnly remembering the victims. That ought to remind him those atrocities were masterminded from Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was not only tolerated but venerated as honoured guests by the Taliban.
Does he really believe Afghanistan under the Taliban will not once more become the command centre for worldwide Islamist terrorism? Our own Government thinks it will, because the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, said as much last week, which is no surprise given that the United Nations has already identified more than 20 separate known terrorist groups fighting under the Taliban flag.
With eyes wide open, the US has given the most virulently anti-Western factions in the world a free pass to engage in a whole new campaign of terror in which innocents will become victims, just as they did in the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre.
At a time when parts of the Middle East are riven by conflict, a new headquarters for those who would stoke it has been handed to them on a plate. The people I witnessed emerging cautiously onto the newly-liberated streets of Kabul all those years ago, able at last to meet and work as they pleased without forever looking over their shoulders in fear of transgressing some arcane law that would see them brutally punished, did not deserve what has happened.
Nor, especially, did the girls I watched go to school for the first time. They will have children of their own now, and it is to the eternal shame of the US that they have been condemned to live in subjugation.
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