KABUL, Afghanistan – A map on the wall at the Gandamack Lodge, a well-worn Kabul haunt for western aid workers, officials and journalists, traces in meticulous detail the disastrous, bloody retreat of British troops from the Afghan capital in January 1842.
It was an unmitigated rout. A British and Indian force of 4,300 troops was wiped out, except for an assistant surgeon who escaped and a handful of prisoners left in Afghan hands.
The end of what history calls the First Afghan War came as the redcoats staged their last stand near a village called Gandamack.
The disaster is still celebrated here and has become part of the cultural DNA of Afghans, particularly the ethnic Pashtun warrior class after whom today’s Taliban like to model themselves as they wage their ruthless, so-called holy war to expel the foreigners.
Canadian training troops will be out of here by the end of the week with a formal lowering of the flag on Wednesday. They’ll be followed by the rest of NATO’s combat force at the end of the year.
Today is not 1842, no matter how Taliban propaganda tries try to spin it.
Yet, the country which western troops are leaving has a siege mentality.
Business in Kabul, both government and private, is conducted from behind blast barriers, razor wire and thick, steel doors.
A trip to the Afghan capital’s main shopping centre finds mall cops in camouflage, armed with AK-47s and speaking to people through narrow slits in heavy steel guard posts.
Anyone who wants in is patted down. Forget about taking photos inside.
Even the grocery store – Spinneys Supermarket – is a bunker shielded behind three green, steel doors thick enough to withstand a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. The bag boys pack assault rifles, as well as groceries.
This is what the coming exodus looks like from the overcrowded streets of Kabul. What can be expected in the coming months and years in western capitals, including Ottawa, is a bout of brutal reflection.
There are some, especially among western military leaders, who say there should be no rush to judgment and that any consideration of the value of the long mission needs careful analysis.
Gen. Sir Nick Houghton, Britain’s chief of defence staff, said the original purpose of the military mission – to destroy al-Qaeda sanctuaries – was achieved. The ensuing nation-building exercise is still a work-in-progress.
“We will have to judge it in the years to come,” he said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
War-weary western countries also need to ask themselves what would have happened had they not tried to stabilize Afghanistan and to think about the spillover consequences of instability throughout a region that is already a tinder box.
“In 2006 there was the very real chance that could have been a schism between the Northern Alliance and the southern Pashtun belt,” said Houghton. “That in and of itself would have been destabilizing across the Pakistan border. It would have destabilized Pakistan, a nuclear armed state, with unknown consequences.”
What NATO leaves behind is a fledgling democracy that is preparing for its first peaceful transfer of power in next month’s presidential election, he said.
A nation-building exercise may not have been the original justification for war, but in the aftermath “you can, with hand on heart, say that the individual prospects of citizens in Afghanistan have improved,” Houghton added.
His sentiment is echoed by Canadian military historian Sean Maloney, who argued in a recent paper, that it was “morally incumbent upon the international community to assist the Afghans in regaining their balance in the post-Taliban world.”
He underscored that the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar was crucial to the stability of the entire country and also asked a tired public to reflect on the “what if” factor, even though the lofty humanitarian goals that coloured the Harper government’s political messages remain elusive.
“Yes, progress in terms of reconstruction was not what it could or perhaps should have been,” Maloney wrote. “Yes, gender equality is not in general practice. Yes, schools remain unmanned. But the alternative was far worse.”
Noor Mohammed, a short-haul truck driver who shuttles machinery and solar lights between Kabul and nearby Logar province, agrees his life has improved since the defeat of the Taliban.
But the impending withdrawal has created uncertainty that cut his business in half over the last year, lowering his weekly earnings to $11 from $22.
“I’m afraid what will happen and that people will become unsettled and start fighting,” Mohammed said in an interview through a translator.
Experts have warned an economic downturn could undo much of the progress of the last few years.
Some, such as Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group, say western forces are leaving behind a security, economic and humanitarian mess after failing in NATO’s stated goal of extending the writ of the Afghan government to all corners of the country.
“What they’re leaving behind is a growing internal war,” said Smith.
The group, which is preparing to release an exhaustive, post-mortem report later this year, has tracked a 15- to 20-per-cent rise in violence throughout the country since 2012.
The West has recently looked on with some dismay at outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security arrangement with the U.S., which would see at least 10,000 troops remaining behind to advise fledgling Afghan forces.
Yet, Smith says he believes one of the reasons Karzai is “hedging so dangerously” is because of the sense that western militaries failed to deliver the security they promised and have contributed to a mounting civilian death toll.
He also challenged the perception, especially in Canada, that the withdrawal of troops means an end to the conflict and the suffering.
“Is it over? No, it’s not over,” said Smith, a former Canadian journalist who lives in Kabul.
“With sufficient backing from the West, the Afghan security forces could still fight their way to a stalemate and from a position of a stalemate negotiate some kind of political settlement.”
Both Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner, Canada’s last mission commander and Canadian ambassador Deborah Lyons were emphatic in separate interviews about their desire to see Ottawa stick with it.
“Canada has invested enormously here in this country, in treasure and blood,” said Lyons.
“We’ve lost 158. We’ve lost four diplomats, government contractors and journalists. Yes, it continues to be a dangerous environment, but we’ve given so much, we’ve invested so much. We need to stay the course.”
The Harper government has committed to three years of funding.
But the enterprise is not entirely in Canadian hands.
At the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, member nations promised $4.1 billion a year in aid to prop up the security forces. The Karzai government was to come up with $500 million a year, but it is having trouble doing even that.
“The Afghan government can’t afford that right now,” Smith said. “The Afghans often underestimate how exhausted, broke and generally fed up the West is with this whole enterprise.
“That’s terrifying to me because policy-makers in the West are not known for their attention spans at the best of times. And they’ve been signing cheques for efforts in Afghanistan for more than a dozen years and they’re tired of it.”
He says the Taliban recognize that and have stepped up attacks, particularly in Kabul and for that reason he sees little prospect of a negotiated settlement in the near term.