Mistakes and confusion in the UK at the heart of the Afghan retreat

As British parliamentary inquiries into the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan began last week, a prominent Kabul expert framed the vital question: “How did you understand the strategic decision-making of the Taliban and how did you you reacted to such an evaluation?

The question raised by Michael Semple, a former EU official based in Afghanistan and now an expert at Queen’s University in Belfast, touches on what politicians are trying to establish about the country’s Western withdrawal. What didn’t go well?

Mr Semple was speaking at a meeting of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Other speakers included David Petraeus, the retired US general, and Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan politician and former ambassador to Norway, while in another session Stephen Lovegrove, the Kingdom’s national security adviser. -Uni was toasted.

The meeting took place against the backdrop of the dissemination of diplomatic messages from the UK Ambassador to Afghanistan and his staff over the summer, a crucial period identified by Mr Semple. “The Taliban,” the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic cable said, “are positioning themselves to take the main population centers.”

The militants, he said in calm and measured terms, at the time held nearly twice as many of Afghanistan’s 421 districts as the government. They were now waiting for the “permanent threat of American air power” to leave before launching a major offensive.

Written on June 28 by British Ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow, it displayed both prescience and insight. Five weeks later, another note with the headline “the gloves are off” suggested quite accurately that the Taliban were heading for victory.

The US withdrawal, General Petraeus told MPs, was “based on the assumption that the Afghans would continue to prevail for quite a long time.”

But that was “a serious miscalculation,” said the former US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 18,000 foreign contractors maintaining the highly sophisticated helicopters, planes and jets supplied by the United States “were critical to the Afghan security forces.” Without them, the army could not function.

The British ambassador was able to see the effects on the ground, but it seems his warning went unheeded – then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and senior officials leaving for summer recess despite intelligence – part of the lessons to be learned from the Afghan campaign.

Mistakes were clearly made, both military and political, and the word “confused” was often used when The National spoke to military commanders.

A campaign that had started so well, with American and British special forces quickly sending the Taliban and al-Qaeda soon after the September 11 attacks, ended in a rapid turnaround for the occupiers.

The slight “imprint” of the Allied Special Forces on the precision strike of combat aircraft should have been the main military contribution. Indeed, this was recommended by SAS commanders after a reconnaissance mission before the main British force arrived in Helmand in 2005. “If you come with a large force,” the former Afghans had warned, “we will fight you ”.

Concerned about military success after the failure in Iraq, the advice was ignored and what became the first presence of 3,000 British soldiers in Helmand in 2005 rose sharply to 10,000 who, joined by 20,000 Americans, were enough to hold the main cities.

“We certainly presented a lot more targets for the Taliban,” said Col. Richard Kemp, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan in 2003. “Trying to control entire provinces like Helmand was probably a mistake, it should have been a mistake. special forces operations, rather than large scale infantry operations.

Brigadier Ed Butler, who led Britain’s first full-scale mission to Afghanistan, agreed. “We could have kept a very light touch, doing a counterterrorism mission. We might have kept it a secret, making sure that the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders could not rearm, plan or prepare. “

Ultimately, it was agreed that NATO’s first foreign mission would be a major nation-building endeavor. It was uncertain how exactly this would be done.

“All it really should have been was to ensure that Afghanistan did not again become a haven for terrorists,” Kemp said. “But the strategy for the entire campaign became extremely muddled and, looking back, the lesson was that we should not have attempted to take the whole country by military force.”

The confusion with “multiple missions” revolved around whether the focus should have been on drug control, humanitarian aid, building government institutions, or defeating the Taliban militarily.

Mr. Butler, now retired, believes a business approach similar to that used by oil and gas companies should have been taken.

“The long-term planning and the financial and resource commitment weren’t there. You had to understand that this was a 30-year commitment. If you talk to the big oil and gas industries or the extractive industries, they go to a remote place in the world and take a 30-year view.

“You have to apply the same approach if you want to embark on nation building, it will cost tens of billions and take up to 40 years.”

A business-led approach, with the military providing security, could have created jobs for thousands of Afghans, giving them contentment and their jobs depriving Taliban recruits.

Many analysts also point to the moment when then-US President Barack Obama declared in 2010 that US combat troops would be gone by 2014, as giving the Taliban a signal that victory could possibly be theirs. .

“The Taliban have always known that we never have the stomach, the resources, the appetite or the public support to stay there for the long term,” said a former British officer.

The lack of a tougher stance to prevent Pakistan from helping the Taliban has been another crucial failure, Kemp said. “I don’t think their campaign could have been successful or have the energy it had without Pakistan’s support.”

The West should have done more to “force Pakistan” to end aid, he said. “In my opinion, without Pakistan we would not be in the same situation as we are now. “

A serving military commander lamented the lack of troops and money to fund the operation. “It took us 80% of our time and effort just to survive, let alone get involved in the fight against a well-prepared, well-trained enemy that we always knew was going to fight. “

All the mistakes of the previous two decades could have been less catastrophic if the British Ambassador’s more vocal warnings had been heeded. Mr Bristow said in June that the Taliban would wait until they believe “the international military withdrawal is irreversible”.

This happened on July 2 when, without warning, the United States withdrew from its main air base in Bagram, removing its main air strike center.

“It was the biggest strategic mistake,” Mr. Butler said. “I have not heard of any reasonable or sound tactical explanation why they abandoned Bagram Airfield because they gave up their best strategic asset.”

Another major US tactical mistake was to pull out during the height of the summer fighting season rather than wait for the harsh Afghan winter that would have hampered the Taliban.

It is argued that a Western military presence for another 10 years would have provided the Afghan army with the training, knowledge and experience necessary to be confident and largely self-sufficient.

Instead, the intelligence image was constructed by the NATO commanders responsible for training the Afghan brigades, giving a false impression of their capabilities. This became a very important factor which contributed to the intelligence failure by suggesting that the Afghan government could rely on its strength of 300,000. Instead, these troops were probably more loyal to the United States than the corrupt government. Kabul and quickly surrendered to the Taliban.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defense committee, called for a full investigation into Afghanistan’s failures.

“We have to learn from what went wrong and there has to be a government investigation,” he said. “We have ruined the relative peace of the first four years of our presence in Afghanistan. And we should also examine why the Taliban was excluded from the peace talks in 2001. ”

Sources from Whitehall suggest that a full-scale investigation is unlikely.

It will be in the words of those reporting on the ground who will inform the public of where the West went wrong in Afghanistan. Mr. Semple’s question is far from being answered.

Update: October 24, 2021, 3:30 a.m.

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