'Everything we’ve done has been for nothing': Scottish veterans reflect on Afghanistan chaos
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Amid chaotic scenes in Kabul showing desperate Afghans clinging to the side of a moving US military plane in an attempt to flee the resurgent Taliban, those who served in Britain’s longest war of the modern era have been left asking whether the military’s grave losses have been in vain.
Some 457 British personnel have died in the conflict, 17 of whom served in the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
With the capital falling to the Taliban and growing concerns over reprisals against Afghanistan’s civilian population, the rapid pace of developments has given many cause to question the planning underpinning the allied retreat and reflect on their own losses.
For those families whose loved ones paid the ultimate price, the emotions are being felt even more acutely.
Janette Binnie, whose son Sean, was killed in Afghanistan in May 2009 aged just 22, said the scenes of the Taliban clawing back power had “really taken me back” and left her unable to stop “sobbing inside”.
“I don’t understand the government’s reasoning for pulling out so sharply,” she said. “Why put everybody’s lives at risk and come out for nothing? What was the point?”
Sergeant Binnie was shot dead after coming to the aid of soldiers caught in a firefight with insurgents near Musa Qala in Helmand. His mother said she would always be proud of her son’s actions that day, but has been left asking one question.
“Why? Why?” she added. “What was his life for if everything has just descended back in 24 hours?”
Dickie Bennett spent the best part of a decade trying to fend off the threat of the Taliban and improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. The former Royal Marine, who served in Arbroath-based 45 Commando, said he found it hard to watch the country slide back into Taliban control.
“It’s tragic – it seems everything we’ve done has been for nothing,” said Mr Bennett, who has since set up Breaking Ground Heritage, an archaeology group designed to offer respite to fellow veterans.
“A lot of our beneficiaries are Afghan veterans who are dealing with a whole range of issues, whether they be psychological, physical, or both. Speaking to some of them today, the overwhelming consensus is that their sacrifice was in vain.”
The veteran’s own legacy from Afghanistan is a painful one. He was first deployed at the outset of the conflict in 2001 and went on to serve three more tours of duty. But when he was injured in both a vehicle collision and by an anti-personnel mine in 2011 during Operation Herrick, he was medically discharged.
He suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and his life-changing physical injuries have left him unable to walk without use of an aid.
Last week, he travelled to the Commando Memorial in Spean Bridge, where he paid his own private tributes to his fallen comrades and thought about what their losses meant.
“Obviously, the presence in Afghanistan had to end at some point, and the plan was always to give the country back to the Afghan people in a better way than we found it,” he said.
“But when I was looking at the memorial plaques of several of my friends ... it’s galling.
“It feels like a kick in the teeth and it makes you wonder, especially with things capitulating so quickly, it makes you think about the past 20 years.”
Like many who served in Afghanistan, Mr Bennett said he believed it was “inevitable” the Taliban would come back to power regardless of how the withdrawal of British and US troops was managed.
“The Afghan army has just rolled over and it makes you wonder how many of them are in cahoots with the Taliban,” he explained.
“They’re facing overwhelming odds and have a choice of siding with the Taliban or being killed. You can’t blame them for that.”
Emma Davies, from Broxburn in West Lothian, served as an Army reserve officer from 2002 until 2015, when she retired with the rank of major.
Tomorrow marks the 11th anniversary of her deployment to Afghanistan, where she served for eight months, before returning to Britain to train those who followed in her footsteps.
Having had cause to reflect on her time in Afghanistan, Ms Davies said she too believed it was always a foregone conclusion the Taliban would have enjoyed a resurgence, but claimed the speed of that was hastened by the Allied withdrawal strategy.
“When I was in Afghanistan 11 years ago, one of the phrases bandied about by the Taliban was ‘the US and UK have the fancy watches, but we have the time’,” she recalled.
“They always knew that we were never going to be there forever and a day, and that they just had to bide their time.
“We’ve seen that happening and I think the pace of how they have regained control has surprised a lot of people. I think they’ve been planning this for a long, long time.
“Did it need to happen the way it did? My conjecture is probably no, not if the withdrawal had been slower. The Taliban has gained such momentum that it has overwhelmed the Afghan security forces.
“If the withdrawal had been slower, yes, the Taliban might have come back, but they might not have been able to get such a foothold, and the Afghan security forces might have been able to maintain the courage and will to fight.”
The 36-year-old, the founder of Joint Force Alba, a dedicated ex-military recruitment consultancy, said the past few weeks had been a “really difficult time”, with veterans asking if their sacrifices were worth it. For her, however, the question of what the legacy of Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan looks like had yet to be answered.
“We tried to create a space for the Afghan civilian population to live an existence which didn’t revolve around fear or medieval practices,” she said.
“They've had that for a generation and it’s looking gloomy just now, but part of me wonders whether or not the Afghan people will accept the Taliban coming back to power.
“I think at the moment they’re deploying shock and awe tactics and that is providing them with momentum, but I think it’s a case of watch this space.”