Afghanistan: was it all for nothing?


Personal thoughts on the unfolding tragedy

A modest donation to an NGO delivering emergency aid on the ground. A series of tweets expressing shame and anger; even writing this piece itself. They all feel so futile in response to the horror that is taking place in Afghanistan. But they are all I have got right now.

For me it also feels personal. A friend of mine who was an international aid worker was killed in an attack on a Kabul restaurant in 2014. Three and a half years earlier a doctor I knew in the 1990s before she qualified, was murdered with nine colleagues in an ambush in Badakhshan province when returning to Kabul from a mission to deliver eye care to villagers in Nuristan. I had not seen her for years but the report of her death still haunted me.

I have been to Afghanistan only once, as part of an inquiry by the House of Commons International Development Committee back in 2007. It is a long time ago now but memories of the experience will never leave me. Afghanistan is a place that gets to you – however long you have spent there.

Now the people of Afghanistan are being abandoned to a regime that is already terrorising people in areas that it has taken, which enslaves women and girls and which will provide an environment that will again threaten our own security. Although the sheer speed of the Taliban’s takeover has surprised everyone, the fact that it has happened was both predictable and predicted.

But it was not inevitable. The USA did not have to pull its forces out in the way it has and by giving advertised deadlines priority over strategy. And the UK and the rest of NATO did not have to go along with it.

Yes, there have been issues with US and coalition strategy in Afghanistan throughout the last twenty years. Not enough was done to win hearts and minds. There was not enough concrete action to combat poverty in practice. Not enough attention was paid to political reform, to resetting the relationship between Kabul and the provinces and to ending warlordism and corruption. International contractor interests were too often put ahead of those of the Afghan people.

And yes, the story might have been different if the US and UK focus on Afghanistan after 2002/3 had not been confused and diluted by the invasion of Iraq and the way it fed narratives of a Western war on Islam.

But real progress was still achieved. In 2007 I saw for myself the impact of girls being able to go to school in areas where Taliban rule had denied them the opportunity. I witnessed real hope amongst people for a better future, despite the massive challenges they faced. But it was already clear back in 2007 that sustainable change would take many years and that international support was going to have to be there for the long term.

Of course, the tragedy that is now gripping Afghanistan is not all down to a failure of the international community to stay the course. Afghanistan’s own power elites have huge culpability themselves. But that does not change the depth of our betrayal of the millions of Afghans who have never had a say in their future.

As President, Joe Biden did not start that betrayal by the USA. The Trump administration’s Doha deal with the Taliban was a cynical sacrifice of Afghanistan’s future on the altar of “America First.” But what is happening today is still taking place on President Biden’s watch. His promise earlier this year that “America is back” with a commitment to a rules-based international order today feels very hollow indeed. The fact that the UK has simply fallen in line means that we share the shame.

I wish that different decisions had been made in the last few years and even the last few months. Those different decisions may not have transformed international policy towards Afghanistan nor swept away the formidable long term challenges that the country would still have faced. They might, however, still have averted the catastrophe now taking place.

But those different decisions were not made and I wish I knew something I could now advocate to stop the suffering ahead. I don’t. But there are things that the international community – including our own government – can still do to prevent the tragedy becoming even worse. In the emergency airlift of UK and other nationals that is now taking place we must ensure there are places for those Afghans who have helped international efforts and whose lives are now in danger. Ministers are making that promise and it must be delivered in practice. Beyond that we can shoulder our share of responsibility for providing a place of safety for the thousands more refugees who will now flee Afghanistan. We can scale up humanitarian support in Afghanistan itself, conscious of the constraints on delivering aid without security.

And we can urgently take a lead in rebuilding an international coalition to plan a strategy to help hasten the end of Afghanistan’s nightmare and to help lay foundations for the better future its people deserve.

Recent Posts

Richard Burden

Avatar photo

I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Get in touch

You can reach me by email at or use the form on the Contact page to send me a message.