Almost 40 years ago, as a young correspondent in Vietnam, I found myself aboard a vast U.S. transport plane, travelling back to Saigon, after reporting on a battle in the Central Highlands.
The only other passenger beside our TV crew was an American sergeant in a green body-bag, on his way home for burial with his possessions — hi-fi, guitar and suchlike — stacked sadly beside him.
I spent much of that long ride through the darkness thinking about the wretchedness of losing one’s life in the final convulsions of a dying war.
Killed: Sergeant Gareth Thursby (left) and Private Thomas Wroe (right)
were shot by a man in Afghan Police uniform on Saturday
It seems especially futile to go when everyone knows you have given your life for nothing.
Everyone knew that the bad guys were going to win in Vietnam, and so they did.
For people like me who have been there before, it becomes an especially melancholy business to watch the last act of the Western campaign in Afghanistan starting to unfold.
On Saturday, Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Tom Wroe were shot dead by a supposed comrade in arms — an Afghan.
Their deaths brought to 51 the total of Nato soldiers killed so far this year by Afghans wearing the uniforms of government soldiers or police.
One in five British fatalities in Helmand this year has been so-called ‘green-on-blues’— shootings by our allies rather than our enemies.
The result of this carnage — friendly fire on a shocking scale — is that Nato headquarters in Kabul yesterday announced that routine joint patrolling by Western and Afghan troops will no longer take place. Some pairings will be authorised on a case-by-case basis — which presumably means when commanders think they can trust specific Afghans. But the general rule will be that joint operations will happen only on battalion scale, or bigger.
|Untrustworthy: After 51 'green-on-blue' killings so far this year, |
NATO has called an end to joint patrols with Afghan forces
This decision had become inevitable.
The morale of American, British and other Western troops has suffered severely from having to go out to fight the Taliban accompanied by Afghans who might at any moment empty an AK-47 automatic rifle magazines into their backs. Four Americans died at the weekend in this fashion, as well as the two British soldiers.
It seems absurd to blame the regime of the West’s puppet, President Hamid Karzai, however. This is a ramshackle government amid a society stuck in a time-warp, centuries behind our own, lacking the means or will to run a proper army or police.
Of course, some Afghans in uniform are brave, effective, honest and loyal. They want to help to move their country into the 21st century, to save it from the Taliban’s committed medievalism.
Carnage: It is unlikely that President Hamid Karzai's corrupt and incompetent, but cooperative, government will outlast the NATO withdrawal
Unfortunately, for every one like that, there are 20 Afghans who have put on government uniforms only for the money. They have spent their entire lives in a warlord society, where betrayal and corruption are endemic. Afghans are pragmatists: they back the people most likely to run the place in the future.
The government of President Karzai is a byword for corruption and incompetence. Every Afghan knows that Nato is quitting in a couple of years. Almost no one thinks the Karzai clan either deserving or capable of keeping power for long afterwards.
The country will probably end up being divided between the Taliban and local warlords, or some partnership of the two.
I was among those who supported the limited 2001 commitment, for the specific purpose of evicting Al Qaeda. But in 2006 the madness of mission-creep set in. Nato committed thousands of troops to the impossible task of trying to stabilise and civilise the country.
In this, of course, we have failed. The name of the game now is to save face; to try to arrange matters so that our soldiers can march out of Afghanistan with dignity, instead of joining an unseemly scramble for the door.
Saving face: The British Government is anxious to avoid a panicked withdrawal from Afghanistan
A government minister told me yesterday: ‘This mustn’t turn into another Basra.’ He referred to when the British Army was seen to leave Iraq in 2007 with its tail between its legs.
Everyone is desperately anxious that we should not stage a repeat performance in Helmand province.
But the consequence is that every day our soldiers are risking — and regularly sacrificing — their lives, in the name of national prestige, ‘coming out with our heads high’ or whatever other pompous words you choose to attach to our policy.
The Army’s morale in Afghanistan is still much higher than you might fear. Most of the courageous and adventurous young men posted there still get a kick out of putting themselves in harm’s way, as I was foolish enough to do myself when I was their age.
But it seems another matter, whether we as a society or David Cameron as Prime Minister should much longer acquiesce in this ritual dance of death.
It was pointed out to me yesterday by a Whitehall source that, even if we start immediately taking steps towards quitting Afghanistan, it will be the best part of two years before we can remove all our expensive and bulky infrastructure and equipment, unless we simply want to leave it for the Taliban.
This is a fair point: there are good reasons for taking our luggage when we go.
Futile: Allied forces cannot break the hold of the Taliban and Afghan warlords
But no one should be in the slightest doubt about the futility of our continuing presence, and of the casualties this incurs.
Whatever is going to happen to Afghanistan will happen anyway, heedless of what our troops do between now and packing their bags.
The courage and tactical successes of our soldiers count for nothing when there is no coherent local political structure for them to join up to.
The overwhelming majority of Afghans simply want all foreigners to go away and leave them in peace — or maybe in war. They do not care for us, and never will.
Think how ridiculous it has been, to try to win their hearts and minds, when only a handful of Nato personnel in the entire country speak any Afghan dialect.
Consider, too, how idiotic is a British Government which has sent not one, but two successive women to serve as heads of our civil aid mission.
This was Whitehall PC gone bonkers, when few Afghans of any political persuasion recognise the right of women to an education, never mind to advise them on how to run their country. But that sort of folly is history.
If all deaths in all wars are tragedies, every further young man who is killed or maimed in Helmand is doubly so.
We have lost in Afghanistan.
The weekend’s deaths in Helmand remind us that it is long overdue for our leaders to stop trying to hide from that cruel reality.