This Monday and Wednesday, at 9pm, BBC 2 is showing a documentary I made about the Victorian and Soviet invasions of Afghanistan. I’m not sure I’m ever going to make a documentary again. I began it before I was elected to parliament. The editing was finished last year. And it was cancelled just before it was due to be shown in March. Apparently the BBC were worried that it might interfere with the London Mayoral election. Exactly how my reflections on the retreat from Kabul in 1842 would affect the Boris-Ken race is unclear. But I was able to interview some extraordinary people while making it and I learned a great deal.
First, I learnt from Politburo papers how reluctant the Soviet Union had been to invade Afghanistan in 1979, how they had intended to topple the regime, train up the Afghan army, and leave within a year. Eight years later, after almost a million Afghans had been killed, they left with nothing. But it wasn’t for lack of effort. In a snow-bound village, fifty miles outside Moscow, I interviewed a Soviet official who had spent nearly twenty years on the ground in Afghanistan, and while serving vodka, talked to me in the northern Afghan language, with a flawless Kabuli accent. I heard from a Soviet development worker about the employment projects he’d run, about a rural cinema he’d built, and about the progress they’d made in female education in Afghanistan. They were deeply proud of what they’d achieved, personally, but did not believe foreigners could ever build a state in Afghanistan. General Aushev, one of the great Soviet war heroes, said “Do I have a message for the American troops? Yes. Go home. Now.”
I also learnt that our 19th century policy was in some ways more rational than our 21stcentury policy. That is not to say that the Victorians didn’t make catastrophic mistakes. After all, Britain decided to invade Afghanistan in 1839, and 1879, and were humiliated twice. In 1842, General Elphinstone led 15,000 people out of Kabul with the British army of the Indus. Eight days later, only one of them, Doctor Brydon, rode alive into Jalalabad. The Victorians were as prone as we are to produce elaborate and surreal justifications for these unnecessary wars. Like us, they exaggerated the threat posed by Afghanistan. Like us, they were reluctant to acknowledge failure. But, despite all the cries to remain, the Victorians were not trapped, as we have been, for more than a decade on the ground: instead, on both occasions, they got out within three years. Despite all the national security arguments, the Victorians concluded, in the words of General Roberts of Kandahar “we have nothing to fear from Afghanistan, and offensive though it may be to our amour proper, the less they see us, the less they will dislike us.”
It struck me making the documentary that governments have become ever worse at acknowledging failure. Partly it is the absence anyone to challenge policy. In the nineteenth century we had many deeply knowledgeable officers, who’d spent their whole careers on the ground in British India, and on the Northwest Frontier, working with local communities, in local languages, who had learnt through long experience what could and could not be done, and were not afraid to disagree with government policy. Today, by contrast, our officials live much more isolated lives, know much less about the countries in which they serve, are much more memorized by abstract jargon, and find it more difficult to challenge policies, even when they sense that they are wrong. And although Parliamentary debates in 1842 included a great deal of bluster, scaremongering and boasting, (particularly from the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, who kept insisting that nothing had gone wrong in Afghanistan, and that any withdrawal would ‘bring a blush to the cheek of every Englishman’), nobody talked about troops having “died in vain”. Instead our predecessors believed that a soldier’s life and sacrifice was not diminished by the mistakes of politicians. Today, many people are afraid to admit that a war is not working, because they are afraid someone will accuse them of disrespecting soldiers, and of implying that the soldiers have died in vain. Thus guilt traps us, and deaths lead to more deaths.
But in retrospect, I focus so much on these things in the documentary, that I wonder whether I have not been in some way scarred by my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is perhaps because, over a decade, I witnessed nations ultimately spending a hundred billion dollars a year keeping nearly a hundred and fifty thousand troops on the ground. I heard them talk confidently about creating a “gender sensitive, multi ethnic, centralized state, based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”. They refused every year, to acknowledge that their mission was not succeeding. And when there was doubt, rather than reducing their investment, they increased it.
This experience still stays with me when I’m arguing about Town centre planning in Penrith, or about environmental schemes that crush farmers, or discussing House of Lords reform. When I hear the great slogans of ‘sustainability’, ‘participation’, ‘transparency’, ‘democracy’, look at the feasibility studies and strategic plans, I worry that like the thousands of schemes I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of our projects at home are also incoherent, unwanted and impracticable. It has left me with a deep suspicion of jargon and of theories. And worse, a sense of the potential for madness – I do not think that is too strong a word – in all governments.