The first rule of politics according to the British Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan was: ‘Don’t invade Afghanistan’. It was a rule born of wit but also of wisdom. Wounded in the First World War and bitterly aware of the cost of combat, Macmillan, who fell from power 50 years ago this year, would be aghast at the cavalier fashion in which Labour prime minister Tony Blair led Britain to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq.Considering how unhappily these interventions turned out, it is puzzling that Britain’s present Prime Minister, David Cameron, should be a leading advocate of the case for arming the Syrian rebels. Certainly, there is little appetite among the British public for fresh foreign entanglements of any kind. There would be less still if greater understanding existed of precisely what the British military has achieved, or rather signally failed to achieve, since 2001 when the UK joined the US and other Nato forces in a mission grandiosely named ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, pledged to eradicate Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and topple the Taleban regime that hosted them. Though Nato forces are due to quit Afghanistan by the end of 2014, their exit could yet be messy and protracted. In his rigorously well-documented new book, Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, Frank Ledwidge throws a flood of shaming light on Britain’s part in what has been a monumental act of Western folly. The work of former British naval reserve intelligence officer with experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, the book portrays a British governing elite with a penchant for espousing wrong-headed objectives and indicts politicians and generals alike for launching rash military ventures and justifying them in specious terms. He recalls how in 2012 he dined with a senior British politician who was about to go before the media to offer a reaction to news of fresh British military casualties in Afghanistan. What would he say? ‘The usual’, the politician replied. ‘These men died to make Britain secure’. Asked if he really believed that, the politician confessed: ‘No one really believes that do they, but what else can I say?’The pious platitudes of British politicians mask the cynicism and poverty of motive from which the Afghan operation sprang. The truth is that Tony Blair sent British soldiers into Afghanistan and Iraq to prove his country’s fealty to the United States, to demonstrate to the world that Britain enjoyed a uniquely special relationship with the nation that in 2001 was projecting itself as an unchallengeable military titan. But this shallow-minded British leader and his so-called ‘sofa government’ were acting with fatal impetuosity, unwilling or unable to grasp that they were embracing open-ended commitments likely to place crippling pressures on the British army’s resources.At the outset of the deployment in 2006, Britain’s then Secretary for Defense, John Reid, appeared optimistic that the British army could accomplish its Helmand mission ‘without a shot being fired’. Two years later, British soldiers had fired four million bullets. Ledwidge records that 542 non-combatants have been killed in Helman by British and Nato forces, with countless more victims of life-changing injuries.The reality is that the threat posed by Afghanistan as a base for Al Qaeda was speedily dealt with in 2001 and that ever since the West has been embroiled in a neo-colonial enterprise.  The message of Frank Ledwidge’s unforgivingly candid book is that in Afghanistan, at catastrophic cost in lives and resources, the UK has been helping the US to chase shadows.

nCourtesy Khaleej Times.