Biden’s Afghanistan Decision Draws Mixed Reaction From British Veterans

“How can we cope with this?” That was Patrick Bury’s thought after attending his first in-country briefing in 2008 at the headquarters of British forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Then a second lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment, Bury wrote in a subsequent memoir that he was left reeling by the three-hour briefing. “The situation is so complicated, there are so many tribal, cultural, political, religious and military dynamics, that I am overwhelmed,” he noted.
He added: “It seems that we soldiers, primarily trained to fight conventional wars, need to be friendly police, social workers, government representatives, aid workers, bomb detectors, engineers, killers, medics …the list is as endless as the problems we face.”   
The announcement this week by U.S. President Joe Biden that he intends to withdraw all American armed forces from Afghanistan has brought back the war memories for Bury and other British war veterans, and the American leader’s decision is drawing mixed reactions, with some questioning the whole mission, others saying it was worth the effort.   
President Biden said this week that it was time to end America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan.  
The drawdown will be completed on September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which triggered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Britain says it will work in tandem with the U.S. and withdraw its remaining 700 troops. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance will withdraw about 7,000 military personnel from the country.
Britain sent forces to Afghanistan to contribute to the U.S.-led mission to root out al-Qaida and to prevent future terrorist attacks against the West being planned from Afghanistan, say British officials. At the height of the Afghan war, NATO had more than 130,000 troops from 50 nations deployed in Afghanistan.  About 9,500 of those were British.
Bury thinks the effort in retrospect was a “noble” one, despite the doubts he harbored while serving there when he struggled with the question of whether it was a country worth saving. “It is a deeply, deeply fragmented and troubled society, even if you can call it that,” he says. “The idea we could fix it was unrealistic. It is beyond the power of the West,” he adds.
Now an academic at Britain’s University of Bath, he told VOA that the announcement brought back memories of “what we went through.” Above all he thinks about the Afghans who he encountered during his tour. “I do remember the Afghan people and the kids especially, and the ones we tried to help.” And he is left wondering: “How are the cadets we trained, and the soldiers we worked with, and the decent people going to get on?”FILE – British troops prepare to depart upon the end of operations for U.S. Marines and British combat troops in Helmand, Afghanistan, Oct. 27, 2014.He adds: “But now, you know, you have to move on. Unless you want to go and live there, you have to let it go.” He accepts it is time for Western forces to leave. “You have to draw a line at some point, don’t you? Otherwise, it would just go on forever. There is never a perfect moment,” he says.
Bury’s reaction to the withdrawal announcement is echoed by other British veterans, including Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British Army commander who specializes in chemical and biological warfare.  
“I think it is probably correct as the greatest threat to the UK is jihadists in Syria and Iraq and our focus should be there,” he told VOA. “Like many military people I’ve lost friends and colleagues in Afghanistan and it’s a sad time but we must focus where the threat is highest now,” he says.  
He worries, though, that the Afghanistan experience is leading Western leaders to draw the wrong conclusions about Western interventions. “It appears that politicians are unwilling to get involved in Syria and Iraq and this would be an error in my opinion,” he says.
“It’s the Afghan interpreters and soldiers who I fought and patrolled alongside who I’ll be thinking of in the coming months …whose livelihoods and families will be at risk,” Robert Clark, another British veteran tweeted. Clark, now a research fellow at Britain’s Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank, fears the gains made in the past 20 years by the Western intervention in Afghanistan likely will be undone when the allies withdraw in September.
He is not alone in forecasting the Taliban will be quick to exploit the weakness of Afghanistan’s government.  
Toby Harnden, author of the book Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Defining Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan, says many British veterans believe this “withdrawal will lead to further bloodshed in Afghanistan, and the deaths of brave Afghans who worked with the U.S. and NATO forces.” That in turn is prompting a “sadness and a questioning of what all the sacrifices were for,” he told VOA.
“There’s also a fear that by leaving no residual force, there will be a vacuum that could be filled by al-Qaida and eventually lead to attacks on the U.S. — the very thing the invasion after 9/11 was designed to stop,” he says. “Soldiers have not forgotten how the hasty withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of ISIS,” he adds.  
He and others are predicting that the U.S. and Britain will still be involved, by drone strikes and special forces, after September, especially if there are signs of an al-Qaida resurgence. “You can bet good money, they’ll get walloped,” says Bury.  
The Afghanistan campaign claimed the lives of 454 British servicemen. Several British veterans mentioned to VOA that on Saturday they will watch the funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip and it is lost on them that the “Last Post” bugle call for the queen’s husband will be sounded by Sergeant Jamie Ritchie. The 31-year-old Ritchie performed the Last Post for fallen comrades during his four-month tour of Afghanistan.
And as the Last Post sounds Saturday at Windsor Castle, they say, they will remember their fallen friends.

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