Opinion: 'We did our duty' – a personal perspective on Afghanistan

Maj Mark Nicholas (centre) and colleagues in Helmand in 2010

Maj Mark Nicholas (centre) and colleagues in Helmand in 2010 - Credit: Mark Nicholas

Those of us who deployed to Afghanistan over the last 20 years will have felt an incredible sense of despair watching the scenes at Kabul International airport. After such a huge investment of emotional and physical energy, as well as sacrifice, we sincerely hoped that our actions would help provide for a better way of life for the Afghan people for the long term.

When Tom Tugendhat spoke in the House of Commons during the Afghan debate, he spoke for us all as he described his anger, grief and rage at what was happening. This sense of despair will have been felt keenly by the veterans and soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment, whose battalions have deployed to Afghanistan for nine tours of duty.

Countless numbers of our men, many from Norfolk, have also deployed with other formations and with training units. The human cost has been high – 16 soldiers from the 1st Battalion alone lost their lives and scores injured – physically – and many still to this day bear the emotional and mental scars of the conflict.

Over the last couple of weeks I have reflected on my own involvement with Afghanistan, which varied from in-country, elsewhere in the middle East or back in the UK; the Afghan campaign dominated my Army service of nearly 20 years. Deployments to the country were life-changing experiences; everything about Afghanistan is so different to our comfortable and safe western lifestyle. Underneath its war-torn appearance is a country of striking natural and cultural beauty, and a proud people.

Two tours of duty stand out. I recall arriving in Kabul in early 2002 when the International Security Assistance Force was being established to fill the security vacuum that followed the routing of the Taliban by the Northern Warlords soon after the 9/11 attacks.

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The devastation of that conflict had taken its toll on the city which in large part lay in ruins. Armed crime was rife and an uneasy atmosphere hung over the city. The provision of security by the Royal Anglians was essential to enabling the Loya Jirga – a grand gathering of tribal leaders – the first for many years – to take place.

I was privileged to work directly for the Commander of international forces and witnessed at first hand discussions with Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani and numerous power brokers about how to help the fledgling Interim Administration stabilise the country.

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Fast forward to 2007 and the Taliban had re-established themselves, not least in Kandahar and Helmand. I deployed to Helmand with the Royal Anglians for what would become the defining experience of our lives and to this day the most demanding tour of duty ever conducted by the 1st Battalion.

The intensity of fighting the Taliban on their home patch, in the dust and heat of an Afghan summer, was mentally and physically exhausting for all. Adrenaline ran high mixed with the emotions of fear, anxiety and confusion. Yet this is what we had trained for and the fighting spirit demonstrated the best of a well-trained and motivated battalion of infantry.

This tour came with a heavy cost – nine soldiers lost their lives – including Cpl Daz Bonner from Gorleston and LCpl Alex Hawkins from Beetley. Fourteen years on barely a week goes by when I don’t remember the men we lost. On this same tour the real progress made was the reconstruction efforts in towns such as Sangin. All sorts of projects were completed including irrigation work, repairing electricity transformers, clearing bomb damage, building wells and schools and helping enable girls to be educated.

The result of these efforts was a tangible swing of public support away from the Taliban to the Afghan government.

Following the Taliban’s lightning take-over, we might well ask what was it all for? For 20 years we provided relative peace and security in that war-torn country and denied terrorist groups the ability to operate from Afghan soil. We enabled a fledgling national government, and then a democracy to develop, we helped to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and we helped train a national army. We did exactly what was asked of us. Nobody knows how the consequences of the political decision to withdraw, and the manner of our withdrawal, will play out, but we should be proud of our service.

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