WHO can forget the fall of Saigon? The desperate struggle to board those last helicopters from the US Embassy roof.
Are we about to see similar scenes in Kabul in a few weeks’ time?
Britain wouldn’t be sending in the Paras if we weren’t now preparing for the sudden collapse of the Afghan forces in the face of the Taliban.
Forces that we, the US and Nato trained, equipped and financed for 20 years. Forces that are now suddenly left fighting for their lives.
It’s always easy to blame the Americans. Yes, President Trump’s impetuous decision to pull out gave the Taliban the one-sided peace deal they wanted.
But this was a Nato mission too: Our 30-nation alliance failed to stay the course. In the end, we saw the truth of that old Taliban taunt, “You might have the watch but we have the time.”
Some 457 British lives were lost, hundreds more of our troops seriously wounded. But their sacrifice, and the bravery of more than 100,000 British servicemen and women who deployed there, did help to prevent Western- oriented terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
For 20 years they kept the Taliban and al-Qaeda at bay, giving millions of Afghans the right to choose their government, and Afghan girls the right to a proper education.
‘Tackling terrorism is not optional’
But it wasn’t enough. We stopped combat operations seven years ago.
But I was struck from my first visit as Defence Secretary, more than a dozen years after our troops went in, that it still wasn’t safe to drive the road from the airport to our embassy compound.
Rockets once landed next door during my dinner with the US military. Western troops ended up protecting each other.
On every visit I certainly saw signs of hope: tough Afghan special forces, dynamic female MPs, a huge effort to deepen civic society and build new institutions beyond the old tribal loyalties. But there were other failings too – endemic corruption throughout the government, powerful warlords profiting from ever bigger poppy harvests, porous borders and malevolent neighbours unwilling to tackle the terrorism on their own doorstep.
The biggest lessons, however, are for us. Tackling terrorism is not optional for the West.
If we want to preserve our freedoms, we must be ready to fight for them. If new terror groups threaten our cities and way of life, then we have to help throttle them at source.
If new terror groups threaten our cities and way of life, then we have to help throttle them at source.
If fragile democracies ask for our help, as Iraq did facing the Daesh death cult in 2014, then we must respond.
Why? Because we have the air power, technology, intelligence and counter- terrorism techniques. But also because our values – the right to live peacefully, to be able to throw out bad governments, the right of girls to full schooling – are not just Western values. They belong to all of us, even those in the remotest valley of Helmand province.
It’s not just Trump and Biden who’ve ducked out. Nato – our Nato – left too much of the campaign to the US. We shouldn’t be so dependent.
Seven years ago, Nato agreed to spend more on defence and security, a minimum of two per cent of GDP, yet only 10 (including Britain) of the 30 members meet that target today.
But Paris, London, Berlin and Brussels have been terrorist targets as much as New York. Neither the Taliban nor al- Qaeda have disavowed their fanaticism or their hatred of the West in general.
No words can compensate for the death of a loved one. But for the families of those 457 British servicemen and women, we must do better next time.