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Angela Tilby: Afghanistan has been abandoned

20 August 2021


Afghans in the area around Kabul airport, on Monday

Afghans in the area around Kabul airport, on Monday

WHILE we have watched the establishment of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, it is poignant to call to mind the 2004 election, held three years after the Americans had defeated the Taliban. It was a real dawn of hope. Women lined up to vote, including those enveloped in full blue burqas, signalling a cheeky thumbs-up to the camera. But Afghan democracy has crumbled before our eyes. We can only guess what will happen next, and the omens are not good. “Someone please stop this,” Rada Akbar pleaded on social media, on behalf of Afghanistan’s women and girls. But no one will.

Like many others, I have hardly been able to contain a personal sense of anger and disappointment. It feels like the end of “The West” as a moral power, and a sign of the United States’ slide into self-pitying isolation. I think of the relatives of those killed in what they were convinced was a just and necessary war, and those still bearing the physical and psychological scars. I think, too, of a desperate email that I received in 2008 from a chaplain in Helmand, asking for prayer. And the engineers persecuted for failures of British tanks whose designs were wrecked by shaved budgets. Jobs lost, lives ruined, memories permanently darkened.

And yet there did seem to be a genuine purpose in it all. Afghanistan was not to be written off, as some frankly racist pundits did, as a primitive country run by savages. Our media rarely reported it, but, in the years after the West’s initial intervention, there was an extraordinary transformation of the lives of many ordinary Afghans. New freedoms gave birth to ambition and enterprise, especially for girls and women. There was free speech and a flourishing of culture. Although Afghan democracy was far from perfect, the West’s intervention could claim moral justification.

No one feels more incensed by the abandonment of Afghanistan than Rory Stewart, the former Prime Ministerial candidate. He spent two years walking from Iran to Kabul. His wife ran a charity in the city. Later, as International Development Secretary, he helped to form government policy. In an interview with The Times last Saturday, he blamed the Western powers for a kind of attention-deficit disorder, an incapacity for serious, sustained thought, and the patience to pursue long-term goals.

A symptom of Western nonchalance is that those who commended the withdrawal of troops simply did not foresee the chaos that would result. They expected a slow unravelling of the gains of the past 20 years, not that the country would fall to the Taliban within days. We are right to be appalled by what is happening. We have a part in the decline of the West, with our irreligion and moral myopia. We have lost belief in the universal human dignity which Christianity once inspired.

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