After twenty years in Afghanistan, what was it all for?

Andy Mayer

August 18, 2021

I remember where I was on September 11th 2001. Work stopped at our London digital agency, where we researched the virtual dreams of tomorrow, to focus instead on real life – a nightmare unfolding on our screens.  Planes exploded and debris fell, shortly followed by the plunging doom of those trapped inside.

The mobile phone networks failed as millions tried to reach their friends in New York. There was little social media upon which to declare yourself safe.  The feeling of danger was palpable.

Then the collapse, the dust, office workers and officers choking through the haze of twisted steel and rubble. We looked across our City – would we be next? The existential terror of attack fused with the despondency of powerlessness.

Then the response. The drums of war. We were taking the terror to the terrorists. We were going to annihilate their ideology. Enemies within, enemies without. Bombs on buses. Bombs in buildings. Knives in markets. Iraq, Afghanistan; the dominos fell. Mission accomplished.

And now the falling men are falling again. Not this time from the burning pinnacles of our civilisation, but clinging to the last flights from barbarism. The Taliban have reoccupied Kabul. Al Qaeda are oozing back into their death cult training camps. The emerging institutions of a free society are now chattels for wolves. 20 years of war; what was it for?

We allowed this to happen. We allowed the delusions of our dominant superiority to unlearn basic lessons of conflict and peace: to have clear goals and the commitment to deliver them. Don’t make deals with snakes. Don’t fight a land war in Asia. Have a plan to get out.

The populist nativist right and the parochial woke left are equally culpable for this retreat. Liberal imperialists for the advance, conservatives and socialists alike for its inadequacies.

I remember where I was on 16th August 2021 at the fall of Kabul. I was looking into the eyes of friends we may never know, trapped, and seeking our help. Surrounded, falling down, autumn leaves before the winter to come. We did this. We need to get those who helped us to safety.


  • Andy Mayer

    Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer and environment, energy and infrastructure analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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