Former UK army chiefs predict terrorist safe haven and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

Helmand capital Lashkar Gah is expected to fall, with other cities likely to capitulate

A member of anti-Taliban militia fires a heavy machine gun during an ongoing fight with Taliban insurgents in the village of Mukhtar, an outpost on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. AFP
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Afghanistan will become a haven for terrorists again when Kabul falls to the Taliban, British military figures told The National.

With the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah on the cusp of capitulating to the insurgents, former forces chiefs believe major cities will soon follow – and they predicted Kabul’s demise by “September or October at the latest”.

They made withering criticisms of US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, saying the collapse of the Afghan government is inevitable and it will be followed by a humanitarian crisis. Refugees are streaming into neighbouring countries.

Hours after Kabul sent hundreds of commandos to the area, Taliban militants were seen on Monday near the centre of Lashkar Gah. The city was the headquarters of British Army operations from 2006 to 2014.

Taliban fighters assaulted at least two other provincial capitals – Kandahar and Herat – after a weekend of heavy fighting in which thousands of civilians fled.

In interviews with The National, former high-level British officers decried what they believe is the inevitable imposition of Taliban rule on Afghanistan, with women's rights suppressed and widespread summary executions.

They also lament the sacrifice of British and Nato troops who tried to help build a country and military strong enough to resist the Taliban, only to see it collapse within months.

“President Biden has decided to give up on Afghanistan, and we deserve an explanation for that and from the British government that has meekly followed suit,” Gen Lord David Richards said.

“The key point is, what is the plan now? What will be the wider international effort to prevent the Taliban taking over again with all the risks of a return to the pre-9/11 era in which ungoverned space allowed Al Qaeda and in which future terrorist groups will flourish?”

Despite 20 years of work to stabilise the country where 454 British and 2,300 Americans were killed, the former head of the British military said a collapse would be “a significant failure of western geopolitical strategy”.

Gen Richards, who commanded Nato troops in Afghanistan in 2006, condemned British and American reticence.

“We’re hearing nothing about what they intend to do to ensure that things don’t pan out in the way they are now, which is a return to Taliban rule.”

Col Richard Kemp, a retired officer who commanded British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, said the loss of Helmand’s capital to the Taliban would have “a devastating effect on morale of the security forces around the country, which leads in itself to a collapse”.

It could create a domino effect, with Afghan troops surrendering cities such as Kandahar and Herat, leaving only Kabul in government hands.

He said the withdrawal of international troops had “made the situation a great deal worse and will likely lead to the total collapse of Afghanistan”.

Lashkar Gah’s loss would damage Britain’s reputation, as Helmand province was the key battleground for the military between 2005 and 2012.

“British soldiers died fighting to keep the Taliban out of Helmand, so this will be a devastating blow to Britain’s reputation and certainly for those who lost family,” Col Kemp said.

“They will wonder what the hell it was all about. I would say it could have been avoided by retaining international forces there.”

Tobias Ellwood, MP, chairman of the UK government’s defence select committee and a former army officer, said Lashkar Gah’s loss would be “a massive symbolic and totemic” moment for the Taliban, who had “once again seen off the former colonial masters tasked to defend Helmand”.

“This will infuse and energise the Taliban to pursue victory and leverage these gains to take Kandahar, which for them is their symbolic capital,” he said.

“The mothers, father, sisters, brothers of all our dead and wounded can all genuinely ask what was it all for when we’ve squandered everything? It is heartbreaking for them.”

Sir Nicholas Kay, Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, expressed a more hopeful view. He said the Afghan government and military were stronger than those that fought the Taliban in the 1990s.

“There is nothing inevitable about a Taliban victory. We need to hold our nerve and focus on what we can do and not just despair,” he told the BBC’s Today radio programme.

“Part of me is saying ‘This is a movie I’ve seen before’ … but actually another part of me says, ‘This Afghanistan and the world is a very different place to what it was in the 1990s’. Can the Taliban really hold an urbanised, youthful, modern, connected, Facebook Afghanistan? I’m not sure.”

But Col Kemp suggested that with international forces abandoning the country, Afghan troops were thinking: “‘Why are we fighting for an inept government or for something that we don’t we believe in?’ They will be more inclined to surrender or run away if there’s not that backstop of international forces.”

Gen Richards agreed that once Afghan troops see the Taliban ascendant, confidence will collapse.

“All this depends on the high morale of the Afghan National Security Forces, which will inevitably erode. The West has deserted them and their government is apparently incompetent. If I was in the ANSF, I’d think twice about it because if I’m cornered by the Taliban at some point in the future, I know what’s going to happen to me.”

An Afghan general, Sami Sadat, told the BBC that he did not believe the Taliban would be able to sustain their attack, but said the fighting might inspire extremists elsewhere.

"This will increase the hope for small extremist groups to mobilise in the cities of Europe and America, and will have a devastating effect on global security," he said.

The US and British embassies in Kabul said on Monday that the Taliban may have committed war crimes in southern Afghanistan by carrying out revenge murders of civilians, a charge the insurgents denied.

Gen Richards said that before the decision to withdraw the last 2,500 American troops and the subsequent pull-out of Nato’s 7,500 personnel, there was an “adequate strategy being pursued until President Biden changed his mind”.

That strategy had been to sustain the Afghan security forces “until there was a generational change within Afghanistan”.

A similar point was made by Mr Ellwood, who said the West was giving up on 40 million Afghans who “we promised to help” and let go a “substantial piece of real estate” to combat terrorism and curb China’s influence.

He, too, agreed that the West’s departure was “opening up a safe haven for terrorism which we will pay the price for”.

A senior military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The National that Kandahar could be taken “within the next two weeks” and Kabul will fall by October with the British and American embassies abandoned.

Military sources confirmed that advanced planning was under way for the exit of remaining service and diplomatic personnel.

The officer also blamed politicians who “stuck their nose into the military effort and didn't know what they were doing”.

“We could have been successful if we had deployed the right number of troops early on, but we lost the initiative as there was no appetite for a fight in Whitehall,” he said. “We also did the typical British colonial thing of going in there and thinking we know better.”

He said a “big concern” was that China would move in for business development and potentially give military support.

There was also a consensus that the Afghanistan debacle would lessen the public appetite for foreign interventions at a time when terrorist groups such as ISIS were growing in power, particularly in Africa.

A collapse would also lead to a “much bigger humanitarian crisis than we’ve already seen,” Gen Richards said. “This is going to impact us in the West, but did anybody think of that before they packed in?”

He said that even if Kabul was about to be taken by the Taliban, he did not think the international community had “the capacity or the political will” to send forces.

“Then it is likely we will revert to the warlords of the early Nineties, which was a very bloody period in Afghan history,” he said. “Only then will some sort of peace be brokered because it will be the Taliban calling the shots.”

Updated: August 03, 2021, 12:36 PM