Britain “is not walking away” from Afghanistan, the prime minister told Parliament on Thursday, as he confirmed that nearly all UK troops had left the country.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Boris Johnson promised that Britain would try to ensure stability in Afghanistan but was under "no illusions about the perils of today's situation and what may lie ahead”.
As the last of the UK’s 750 troops depart the country, alongside US and other Nato forces, the Taliban are reported to be making widespread gains.
Mr Johnson was told that serious questions remained over the future stability of Afghanistan that could see a regrowth of terrorism posing a threat to the wider world.
“We simply cannot wash our hands, or walk away”, said Angela Rayner, MP, the opposition's deputy leader. “It's hard to see a future without bloodier conflict and wider Taliban control. Already, they are on the brink of gaining control of provincial capitals and Afghan security forces are at risk of being overwhelmed.”
Gen Nick Carter, the head of the military, gave a bleak briefing on the outlook, saying news of the Taliban advance was "pretty grim". The general said it was "fair to say the Taliban now hold nearly 50 per cent of the rural districts in Afghanistan”, but not any cities. While noting the Afghan army was still resisting the group's spread he warned it would face more challenges when it would “no longer have access to [Nato] air power”.
Mr Johnson cautioned against suggestions of a Taliban takeover, saying this was potentially overstated. “I don't believe that the Taliban are guaranteed the kind of victory that you sometimes read about, we are not walking away”, he said.
He added that the British Embassy would remain and that is was inevitable that the Taliban would be accepted into government in any long-term settlement.
He also hinted at some future special forces involvement and air force strikes to keep the terrorists at bay. “We will of course continue to work alongside our Afghan partners, against the terrorist threat.”
Since Britain’s forces entered Afghanistan alongside the Americans shortly after the Al Qaeda September 11 atrocities in 2001 it had managed to achieve a great deal in stabilising the country, Mr Johnson said. “In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, virtually no girls attended school. Today, 3.6 million girls are going to school in Afghanistan, seizing their chance to escape from illiteracy and poverty.”
He added that five million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, aided by the clearance of 8.4 million landmines that has helped restore 340,000 acres of land.
More than 150,000 British troops had served on operations over the last 20 years, mostly in Helmand, and 457 had been killed.
However, they could not remain there indefinitely. “We cannot stray from the hard reality of the situation today,” Mr Johnson said. “The international military presence in Afghanistan was never intended to be permanent. We and our Nato allies were always going to withdraw our forces. The only question was when, and there could never be a perfect moment.”
He said it would require a united regional effort for peace, with countries such as Pakistan taking a leading role. “It will take the combined efforts of many nations, including Afghanistan's neighbours, to help the Afghan people to build that future”, he said.
Rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of war would be “a generational undertaking”, but Britain would do everything it could "to support a lasting peace settlement within Afghanistan”.
Britain would also spend £100 million ($138m) on supporting the Afghan government and a further £58m on its security forces this year, he said.