When the collective focus is concentrated on when our troops are coming home, it’s pretty hard to say farewell to a loved one who is only just departing.
My nephew Alex leaves any day now for the Afghanistan hell-hole of the Helmand Province. We’d quietly hoped and prayed as a family that our boys would have pulled out before this day arrived. Instead, he and his fellow marines are among the last batch going in.
“I’ve got my head around it Uncle Steve — it’s going to be okay. We just want to get there now and get on with the job,” he said, with a mechanical matter-of-factness that is a by-product of his training.
It’s easy, as a family, to become selfishly over-protective and ask what that “job” is and why on earth we are there. Many friends have spoken of the “futility” of his mission and cannot begin to understand what possesses a young man to join the ‘War on Terror’ today.
From the armchairs of the western world, it is easy to view this conflict via the warped prism of television news, and to define its worth by the number of body bags returned home. In the most emotional analyses, Afghanistan is viewed as “the next Vietnam” — something you often hear repeated as parrot-speak in America and Britain.
The ghosts of Vietnam may well lie behind much of the widespread cynicism but the comparison doesn’t stack up because of three key differences:
a) Vietnam never posed a direct threat to the West whereas Al-Qaeda does;
b) the Vietcong had grass-roots support in South Vietnam whereas the Taliban is loathed for its tyranny and rules its people by fear
c) Vietnam wasn’t located next to a nuclear tinder box as Afghanistan is to Pakistan and, more notably, the fragile Kashmir region. (I was in Kashmir when Musharraf and Indian PM Vajpayee placed nuclear war-heads into the elevated position, and that was some scary sabre-rattling)
Lest we also forget that Al Qaeda is recruiting and training more individuals with Western passports than it was when the twin towers fell. They’re doing this, in the sanctuary of Pakistan’s tribal regions, with one mission in mind: to attack the West.
Afghanistan is a complex region and this debate is a complex, multi-faceted argument that is also impacted by a drug-trade and local government-sponsored corruption that ran seemingly unchecked throughout the Bush and Blair administrations. And God knows the lives and resources that have been wasted on the phoney war in Iraq, but one illegitimate war should not blight the legitimacy of this one.
We are in Afghanistan – and servicemen like Alex are heading there – to take on an invisible enemy and dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda’s network. That is both the reason and the goal. The moment we think it futile, and retreat prematurely, is the moment we become reckless. The nation-building within Afghanistan is the same as nation-protecting in the West.
It was hard saying farewell to Alex this morning, especially by phone at long-distance from Los Angeles to Brighton. To hear the steel in his good faith, determination, purpose and courage was as heartening as it was difficult to accept. “We don’t speak about fear. We speak about the job,” he said, “We can’t take fear in there with us, we can only take our training.”
In the past eighteen months, and from afar, I’ve watched this young, sensitive boy be turned into a man and a Royal Marine who qualified with the elite Commando Medal; a marine so disciplined and dedicated that he has found his passion and purpose in life; a citizen turned fighter who’ll never forget the reasons he’s there, even if the rest of the world might.
So here’s looking to the moment when he’s home, safe and sound, and celebrating Christmas with my sister and his mum. In the meantime, our pride in him will be as strong as his courage for us. Godspeed kidxx