Afghan resolve is put to test after Nato handover
Will Nato's handing of Afghan security to Kabul ensure peace? If not, Northern Ireland service personnel's sacrifice will have been in vain, says Richard Doherty
Our security and defence forces will now be in the lead. From here, all security responsibility and all security leadership will be taken by our brave forces."
So said Afghan president Hamid Karzai as the Nato coalition handed over operational responsibility for security operations to Afghanistan's military and police.
But can Afghan forces deal with continuing violence, attacks by Taliban and other terrorist groups, and ensure the safety of the country's people?
Of course, the official line is that they can. They have, after all, been trained by Nato and are equipped for that task. That they have been trained well is not in doubt. What is in doubt is their continuing willingness to take the heavy casualties this war is exacting.
The problems the Afghan forces face are many. Those who have worked with them point to the huge improvements that have taken place in the Afghan army.
It is now capable of planning and executing operations on a level not imaginable even six years ago. It has grasped the art of logistics, a major failing in the past. And it's producing good leaders, essential for the future. So, in theory, all should be well. Difficult times there will certainly be, but good leadership, professionalism and high morale should sustain the police and army.
But the high levels of corruption endemic in the ruling regime place a much greater question mark over the country's future than does the quality of its army and police.
High hopes of importing Western-style democracy have evaporated. Political pragmatism has reigned for years now. Whether the judgment of Western leaders will prove sound is the big question now.
And the answer to that question lies with the people of Afghanistan. Will they look to their own government, flawed though it is, for security? Or will they turn to the Taliban, the drug barons and the warlords?
Afghanistan will have a better future if its people take the first course and even peacefully change political leadership in the future.
It has no future if the Taliban can slip back into power. That way lies continuing civil war, with pain and grief for too many of its people.
In the West, we can only hope that the outcome is positive. That the shedding of the blood of so many young men and women from Nato countries has not been in vain.
Closer to home, we remember the sacrifice of young personnel from Northern Ireland and the Republic. Last October, it was Lance Corporal Channing Day of the Royal Army Medical Corps, an exemplary young woman from Co Down.
Remember also the men of the Royal Irish Regiment who died in Helmand province. Lance Corporal Stephen McKee and Rangers Aaron McCormick and David Dalzell lost their lives in Helmand – Ranger McCormick on Remembrance Sunday 2010, while helping to clear IEDs.
Ranger Justin Cupples, from Co Cavan, died in September 2008 when an IED exploded while he was patrolling near the town of Sangin in northern Helmand. And Lance Corporals Luke McCulloch and Paul Muirhead were killed in 2006, as was Ranger Anare Draiva, one of a number of Fijians who have served with the Royal Irish.
Add to those names the many who suffered life-changing injuries and the price paid was very high. And I haven't mentioned those from the Irish Guards and other units, who also came from Northern Ireland.
Has the West pulled out too soon? Only time will tell. But it is ironic that the handover was made on Waterloo Day, the 198th anniversary of the battle that finished Napoleon and in which a predecessor regiment of the Royal Irish played a significant role.
Did they notice in Washington and Downing Street? In years to come, will we remember June 18, 2013 as another Waterloo? And, if so, for whom?
Richard Doherty's Helmand Mission: With 1st Royal Irish Battlegroup in Afghanistan is published by Pen & Sword (£19.99)