Image Credit: Corporal Andrew Morris (RAF)
The past month has seen the UK and its NATO allies complete a hasty exit of nearly all security forces from Afghanistan as US President Joe Biden’s decision to bring American troops back by 11 September made it impossible for the UK and others to maintain their military presence. The West will leave Afghanistan, not with a flourishing civil society or a strong and effective military force, but with the Taliban overrunning government forces across the country and demolishing the progress made over the past 20 years.
To understand why the UK has left Afghanistan when the country stares down the barrel of Islamic fundamentalism and civil strife, we must turn to the crucial negotiations between the Taliban and former President Donald Trump last year. Fulfilling a campaign pledge to finish the US’s “endless wars” in the Middle East, the Americans struck a deal with the political branch of the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in February last year. The deal outlined a framework for the reduction of US troop numbers over the next 3 years and a complete withdrawal by 2025 in return for an assurance that the Taliban would not allow terrorist organisations to base themselves in Afghanistan.
This deal, though it took place without any input from neither the Afghan government nor much consultation with the UK and NATO, at least gave all parties a chance to make the necessary preparations for Afghanistan to move forward. However, Biden’s decision to set a new and unconditional target date of 11 September caught the UK off guard and set in motion the rushed withdrawal of the remaining 750 British soldiers in Afghanistan. Over the entire intervention, the US has provided the overwhelming majority of resources in Afghanistan and the political lead. In this context, Britain has faced no choice but to scramble out of the country too because without American support, the British, and wider NATO mission lacks the credibility to maintain an effective presence.
When the US-Taliban agreement was signed, the UK could look to Afghanistan and identify signs that the country had improved significantly since the arrival of British troops in 2001. The main security target of preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base to launch terror attacks on Britain and the wider West has been achieved. More than that though, the presence of British and international forces did provide the security for a civil society to emerge. Up until last year 6 million Afghan children were in school, compared to just over 1 million in 2001, and 40 percent of them were girls. The international presence appeared to facilitate the creation of the institutions that are necessary for stable government; however this success obscured the reality that the Afghan government was still totally dependent on foreign assistance.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen in the dire straits in which the Afghan National Army (ANA) find themselves in. Although the UK ended combat operations in 2014, the military still worked closely with the ANA in providing training and logistics support for example and, crucially, the Americans provided significant air support which gave the ANA a decisive advantage. With all of this now gone, the Taliban have bulldozed most ANA resistance across vast swathes of the country, with even Kabul being threatened by the most aggressive Taliban commanders.
In large parts of Afghanistan, the government’s presence has all but disintegrated and so have many of the gains that Afghans have enjoyed over the past decade which British soldiers gave their lives for. Although publicly the Taliban political branch says that there will be no return to the style of governance that defined the late 1990s, multiple news outlets have reported widespread human rights violations. The Times has reported that in Taliban controlled areas, village elders have been forced to provide lists of women aged between 15 and widows under 45 to be married to Taliban fighters and the Observer has heard that Taliban forces which find any person who cooperated with British and NATO forces will be shot when they enter an area.
It is important that when examining the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, at a time when the country faces the prospect of a humanitarian disaster, the firm desire of the Americans to leave effectively made it impossible for the UK to maintain a credible presence. However, the UK’s departure must be seen within the broader context of a changing debate on foreign policy. The 40 percent cut to the foreign aid budget passed on 13 July, which will directly affect Afghanistan which was the third highest recipient of aid in 2019, shows the difficulty the UK government has with matching the rhetoric of a “Global Britain” that stands up for democratic values with the reality that there is not always the political and financial ways and means to do so. This policy dilemma, however conceptual in Britain itself, will have brutal consequences for Afghans who lack the means to withstand the Taliban’s relentless advance and fear the imposition of the medieval programme of rule that characterised the 1990s.
Over the past 20 years, British soldiers have made enormous sacrifices to promote a programme of reconstruction in Afghanistan and sought to make real the political promises made at the start of the century. The events of the past few months appear to show a country under attack by the same enemy which the UK, US and NATO sought to remove 20 years ago. And once again the fate of ordinary Afghans appears in the balance.