When UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace broke down during a media interview on Monday, admitting that the UK may not be able to get all remaining UK nationals and their local allies out of Afghanistan, the scale of the challenges facing the UK and other Western countries as a result of the fast-moving events in Afghanistan became clear.
Wallace did not try to gloss over the situation, saying that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan was a defeat for the US, the UK, and NATO and could have dreadful consequences.
It is too early to predict all the strategic repercussions of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban 20 years after they were expelled from power by US-led international coalition forces. But some of the results are already clearly visible. There is the humiliation and indignity suffered by coalition forces leaving Afghanistan, defeated, in the absence of a political process, and with a humanitarian crisis looming, even as there is no guarantee that the country will not become a haven for international terrorism.
No wonder Wallace choked up during the interview on the UK channel LBC Radio when explaining why it would be difficult to rescue all British citizens and Afghans with links to Britain and bring them home because of the chaos in Afghanistan.
“Our obligation has to be to get as many people through the pipeline as possible,” Wallace said. “Some people won’t get back. And we will have to do our best as third countries to process those people,” he added.
Asked why he felt the emergency evacuation so personally, Wallace, a former captain in the British army, said “because I’m a soldier … because it’s sad.” He added that “the West has done what it’s done. And we have to do our very best to get people out and stand by our obligations and 20 years of sacrifice.”
The UK’s rescue operation, involving 600 troops, is attempting to evacuate around 4,000 British nationals and eligible Afghans out of Kabul in the coming days. The speed of the Taliban takeover suggests there may be only a short period to get people out.
British Ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow, who is still in Kabul, was said to be helping diplomats process applications by Afghans keen to leave the country.
Wallace acknowledged that the Taliban are now fully in control of Afghanistan and insisted that British forces would not be returning to fight them. “I mean, you don’t have to be a political scientist to spot that’s where we’re at,” he told the UK channel Sky News.
While US President Joe Biden has said he stands “squarely” behind the US exit from Afghanistan, he faces withering criticism in the US and from European countries. “How many more American lives is it worth,” Biden asked, referring to the situation in Afghanistan. He said that despite the “messy” pull out, “there was never a good time to withdraw US forces” from Afghanistan.
However, European allies of the US say the timing was worse than anticipated scenarios.
“This is an absolute blunder, with long-term strategic consequences,” said Tobias Ellwood, chair of the UK parliament’s defence committee and a former defence minister. “We were distracted by Brexit, by Covid-19, and we were too willing to assume the narrative that the Americans were peddling that it’s time to go home and leave Afghanistan to sort its own problems out, and that wasn’t the correct reading of the situation, nor the correct understanding of the consequences of our departure,” he said.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it had been impossible to predict the Taliban would retake Afghanistan so swiftly after the withdrawal of international troops, arguing that “no one saw this coming.”
“The truth is that across the world people were caught by surprise,” he told Sky News. “I haven’t spoken to an international interlocutor, including countries in the region, over the last week who hasn’t been surprised.”
After the first UK government emergency meeting in the wake of the fall of Kabul, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was “fair to say the US decision to pull out has accelerated things, but this has in many ways been a chronicle of an event foretold.”
He urged the West to come together to stop Afghanistan becoming a “breeding ground for terrorism” after Ellwood warned of terrorist attacks on the West “on the scale of 9/11”.
Wallace was also blunt in condemning the administration of former US president Donald Trump for its handling of the talks with the Taliban. He said the withdrawal agreement negotiated in Qatar by the Trump administration was a “rotten deal” that the UK had tried to resist at the time.
Asked how big a mistake it was to withdraw the troops, Wallace said that “at the time of the Trump deal with, obviously the Taliban, I felt that it was a mistake to have done it that way. We will all in the international community probably pay the consequences of that.”
“I’ve been pretty blunt about it publicly, and that’s quite a rare thing when it comes to United States decisions, but strategically it causes a lot of problems and as an international community, it’s very difficult for what we’re seeing today,” he added.
For Britain, exiting Afghanistan in such a hasty, scrambled fashion without a plan for “what comes next” is doubly bitter. In addition to the deaths of British and American soldiers, and the deaths of Afghan soldiers and civilians, the British government has revealed that the war in Afghanistan has cost the British taxpayer about £23 billion since it began.
The final cost is likely to be higher because the bill disclosed by Junior Defence Minister James Heappey only counts cash from the treasury. There is also Ministry of Defence spending on equipment and weapons.
The families of British soldiers who died on previous tours of Afghanistan have had sharp words to say of the UK and US governments’ handling of the withdrawal.
Graham Knight, whose son, 25-year-old airforce sergeant Ben Knight was killed when his aircraft exploded in Afghanistan in 2006, said that the British government should have started evacuating civilians “a week ago”.
The 69-year-old told the UK’s PA news agency that “the Taliban made their intent very clear that as soon as we went out they would move in.”
“As for whether people’s lives were lost through a war that wasn’t winnable, I think they were. I think the problem was we were fighting people that were native to the country. We weren’t fighting terrorists; we were fighting people who actually lived there and didn’t like us being there.”
Ian Sadler, whose 21-year-old trooper son Jack died when his vehicle struck a mine in Afghanistan in 2007, told the PA that “why did they think the Afghan national army would be able to keep the Taliban back based on just numbers alone? Why did our government and allies have so much confidence in them?”
“When the NATO forces were pulled out so suddenly, the Afghan national army was left without any direction.”
There are now complex calculations facing Europe, as Afghanistan may once again become a haven for terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). That could open the door to a massive wave of immigration to Europe.
But the main question for the time being is how to deal with the Taliban.
During a phone call between Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, it appeared that the two countries have not yet taken a final decision regarding their approach towards the Taliban. Most likely, consultations will continue for several months before deciding whether to recognise a Taliban government or not.
This decision will not be taken by western leaders in a vacuum but will be based on the behaviour of the Taliban on the ground, their record on women’s and girls’ rights, and their relations with organisations such as Al-Qaeda and IS.
However, whatever decision is taken will determine a lot regarding European security, the prospects of a new refugee crisis, the legacy of the Afghanistan war, and the West’s ability to intervene in any future international conflict under the slogans of nation-building, human rights, or advancing democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly