Cameron claims Afghanistan ‘mission accomplished’

Talking turkey: The prime minister’s traditional Christmas visit to troops © Getty Images

During a visit to British troops David Cameron has declared victory in the twelve-year war on the Afghan Taliban. Is his optimism about the country well-founded, or did he speak rashly?

Sitting down to a festive meal far from home is one of the traditions of Christmas in the armed forces. But when they are involved in an ongoing conflict, they can expect an unannounced goodwill visit from the sitting prime minister as well.

All British combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, so this year’s visit to Camp Bastion by David Cameron was meant to be particularly cheering – barring some unforeseen major setback, they won’t be there next year.

The prime minister shook hands and chatted to the soldiers, accompanied by former England footballer Michael Owen, and said they could ‘come home with their heads held high’.

But Cameron then went on to deliver a very controversial – and in some quarters shocking – pronouncement.

‘To me, the absolute driving part of the mission is a basic level of security so [Afghanistan] doesn’t become a haven for terror… That was the mission and I think we will have accomplished that mission and so our troops can be very proud.’

Other objectives of the 12-year-long military campaign have included building a functioning Afghan democracy, establishing respect for human rights and improving the position of women, combating the heroin trade, and training up an effective domestic security force, including army and police.

One by one most of these aims, part of an ambitious nation-building strategy, have been watered down or abandoned: now, it is only the Afghan security force and the weeding out of terrorism that have remained achievable. But the approaching withdrawal of troops and next year’s election could be the focus, experts and military planners fear, of a renewed onslaught of violence by the insurgents.

Wishful thinking?

Some of the relatives of those servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan have become profoundly disillusioned and angered by the course the campaign has taken: they have been demanding an immediate withdrawal for some time. But many of their political masters have said that leaving before the mission could be declared accomplished would betray the fallen by making their deaths count for nothing – so the decision to leave gradually by the end of next year is a compromise.

The Times newspaper agreed with the prime minister that the allied troops could be proud of their courage during the 12 years of war in Afghanistan. But it summed up the reaction to David Cameron’s end-of-year message to the British forces: even if he would like to reward their bravery and endurance by telling them Afghanistan is being left in a fit state to flourish, ‘wishing it does not make it so. Saying it despite depressing evidence to the contrary is simply foolish.’

You Decide

  1. Is the UK right to be pulling troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014?
  2. ‘The best we can say now is that we have created an opportunity for the people of Afghanistan, but it’s up to them whether they take it.’ Do you agree with Sir Menzies Campbell’s verdict?


  1. David Cameron would like to see a football match at Wembley between England and Afghanistan: can you think of other ways to mark the British troop withdrawal? Think about mood and public reaction.
  2. Research the history of Afghanistan and prepare a presentation explaining what led to its recent troubles.

Some People Say...

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’Sun Tzu”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is the West involved in Afghanistan anyway?
War in Afghanistan was a direct result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America in 2001. The group which plotted the attacks, al Qaeda, was being protected by the Afghan Taliban, another extremist Islamic organisation. So the US and its allies, including the UK, invaded. But the task of hunting down al Qaeda and crushing their Taliban hosts dragged on and on.
And what does it matter to me?
To the rest of the world, even in very distant places, Afghanistan matters mainly because it has been for so long a base from which terrorists could mount their operations. If it slides back into a lawlessness or Islamic extremism after 12 years of efforts to build a functioning state, that changes how coming generations will view interventions overseas, too.

Word Watch

In 2003, the then president of the USA, George W Bush declared the Iraq invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime was ‘mission accomplished’, but soon after that the allied troops were sucked into an increasingly bloody civil war. So many commentators were surprised to hear the prime minister, David Cameron use a similar phrase now for an equally complicated and even more prolonged military campaign.
Under the Taliban government, which was crushed by the 2001 invasion, human rights were not respected and extreme punishments were imposed on ordinary Afghans for infringing a strict Islamic code. Music and dancing were banned, women were not allowed to be educated or leave the house without a male family member. Summary executions were commonplace.
The drug trade from opium poppies in Afghanistan was one of the main ways the Taliban funded itself, but attempts to wipe it out have failed. The crop is up 36% this year according to the UN, which is leading to concerns about increased supplies of illegal street drugs across the world.
The construction of a functioning state, often after a period of war, especially civil war. After an invasion or the deployment of an international peacekeeping force by the UN, NATO or some other military coalition, it is often difficult to get agreement on how to leave the country concerned in a fit state to remain peaceful.

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