I suspect you are like me. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing when you learn that a British serviceman or woman has been killed in Afghanistan – for a moment your heart just sinks.
That’s how I felt when I read of the death of Gunner Zak Cusack, a former Longton High School pupil, at the age of just 20.
The news filtered through to us as family and friends of another Potteries soldier – 27-year-old Lance Corporal Barry Buxton – were saying their goodbyes.
Each death is, of course, a great personal tragedy. Each one also begs the questions: ‘why were UK troops sent to this hell-hole in the first place and how long must they remain?’
At present the war in Afghanistan has the feeling of an endless conflict with ever increasing numbers of casualties.
Believe it or not it was October 7, 2001 – less than a month after the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States – when the American-led coalition actually went to war.
Its soldiers have now been fighting and dying in Afghanistan for the best part of 10 years.
That is roughly the same amount of time the Russian army spent being bamboozled in the mountains of that same country by Mujahideen resistance fighters.
The Soviet Union threw bombers, helicopters, tanks, landmines and napalm at the Mujahideen, but was still forced to retreat – losing at least 15,000 men.
Afghanistan is referred to as ‘the graveyard of empires’ for good reason.
If you recall, the stated aims of the 2001 invasion were: to track down Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking Al-Qaeda members and put them on trial; to destroy the structure of Al-Qaeda; and to remove the Taliban regime which supported and harboured Al-Qaeda members.
While notable successes have certainly been achieved against the terrorist organisation it is fair to say that only one of the three core objectives has so far been accomplished and that is the removal from power of the despicable Taliban.
Thus, as the conflict approaches a decade in length and with the arrival of a new Government, observers will understandably be asking exactly what our current objectives are.
One thing is becoming clear. It is highly unlikely that all British troops will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of the life of this current Parliament – which is intended to be five years.
As the death toll of UK service personnel approaches the grim milestone of 300 it would be easy to join the growing chorus of calls for all our boys and girls to be brought home immediately.
If only it were that simple.
Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the invasion we must focus on the here and now.
Aside from the Americans, Britain currently has the second largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan – some 9,500 – which dwarfs the contribution of countries such as Germany and France, for example, who are committing 4,600 and 3,700 personnel respectively.
That is a grossly unfair burden for one European nation to shoulder.
Thus the first foreign policy objective of the new government should be to do everything within its power to ensure the load is shared more equally. It is high time our NATO allies pulled their weight.
Secondly, despite dwindling public appetite for the war itself Whitehall must ensure that our troops finish the mission.
The British people may be uncertain about our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan but you can be damn sure that the vast majority of them stand full square behind our boys and girls.
The harsh truth is that we simply cannot abandon the Afghan people militarily until their own security forces are in a position to maintain law and order.
To do that would be a gross betrayal and render the sacrifices of brave men like Zak Cusack and Barry Buxton meaningless.
British armed forces personnel are the finest in the world. They know exactly what is expected of them and they know the risks.
Perhaps this is why their families are able to bear themselves with such remarkable dignity and resilience through the most trying of times.
On Saturday, June 26, we can demonstrate how proud of them all we are by supporting the veterans’ parade in Stoke on National Armed Forces Day.
Let’s show them we are behind them, give them the strength to finish the job in Afghanistan, and welcome them home as soon as possible.