Weeks before Kabul fell, the head of Britain’s MI5 security service said that a crisis in Afghanistan could provide terrorists with inspiration and unguarded hinterlands from where they might plot against the UK.
Ken McCallum told an invited audience that MI5 had been advising ministers for months that a Nato withdrawal was likely to give the Taliban a role in Afghanistan’s future.
While the official line was the Taliban had no choice but to negotiate with the Nato-backed government, there was concern among the security services that any talks could become one-sided.
The head of the UK’s armed forces, Gen Sir Nick Carter, acknowledged in early August that it had “never been possible to defend all of Afghanistan”. Deaths among Afghan security forces had climbed as Nato support was cut.
But Gen Carter predicted that “the battle will take time and it will be an intense struggle”. He said the key was to hold cities and provincial capitals, especially Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south.
Six days later, both cities fell to the Taliban, who soon completed their rout of Afghan forces with the capture of Kabul on August 15.
The Taliban victory unleashed a wave of recriminations in British politics. Former soldiers rounded on Nato leaders during an impassioned debate in Parliament.
Land warfare analyst Ben Barry, a former British Army brigadier and senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, told The National that an inquiry should follow into how the “bad guys won”.
“Was it a case of US, UK or Afghan intelligence that didn't pick up the Taliban preparations?” he said. “Or was there a degree of optimism based on senior military working with the Afghan forces that led them to take too charitable a view of their capability?”
But as questions mounted over intelligence failures, evacuations and the future of Nato, ministers quickly found themselves sidetracked.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had, it turned out, been on a Greek holiday while Afghanistan fell and had asked a subordinate to call Kabul.
The call never happened – an omission which critics regarded as a chance missed to ensure the safety of people stranded in Afghanistan.
Mr Raab had not been lounging on the beach, he said – “the sea was actually closed” – but the government spent days fielding calls for his resignation.
If that were not enough of a circus, ministers soon had a flock of animals to contend with. A public feud with charity chief Pen Farthing was the latest twist.
Mr Farthing’s supporters flooded ministerial inboxes with calls for cats, dogs and charity staff to be airlifted out. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace drew their ire with his remark that he would prioritise “people over pets”.
The dispute went as far as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who denied rumours that he had intervened at the urging of his wife Carrie, an animal rights campaigner.
Mr Farthing, a former Royal Marine, told ministers they had “picked on the wrong person”. The saga stretched into the airlift’s final hours.
Controversies over closed seas and the fate of rescue dogs aside, ministers were full of praise for the evacuation efforts that brought nearly 15,000 people home from Afghanistan.
The next stage of the crisis threatens different perils. Analysts said ministers will soon have another security challenge on their hands as they grapple with the possibility of a terrorist threat at home.
Officials hope to prevent Afghanistan becoming the haven for terrorism that it was when Al Qaeda used it as a base to plan the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
They hope to use frozen Afghan funds and the prospect of international engagement with the Taliban to influence the new regime in Kabul.
Mr McCallum believed “extremists of various sorts” would portray the situation as a “victory for extremist Islam”.
He said terrorists could seek to use areas of uncertain Taliban control in Afghanistan to set up training camps and plan attacks.
“You might imagine that if pockets of ungoverned space open up, some terrorist groups might seek, for example, to re-establish some training facilities there as we've seen in the past,” he said.
An attack directed from Afghanistan is “clearly a possibility to which we must be alert".
Sir John Jenkins, a former UK diplomat who led a government review into the Muslim Brotherhood, expressed concern that the fall of Kabul would renew Islamist movements' momentum.
“Islamists have this narrative of trial and success. It reinforces that narrative that Islamism is destined to triumph,” he told The National.
“It’s about the hearts and minds. We don’t take this seriously enough, I don’t think, and we don’t pay enough attention.”
MI5 has spent years monitoring people who have travelled to the Afghanistan and Pakistan region and returned with training on bombs and firearms.
One example was Rashid Rauf, a baker's son from Birmingham, England, who fled to Pakistan and became a prolific Al Qaeda fixer.
In 2018, North London gas fitter Khalid Ali was found guilty of planning a terrorist attack in the UK after carrying out reconnaissance on Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament.
His fingerprints were found on 42 locations on Taliban-made bomb components found in Kandahar in January and July 2012.
The new reality in Afghanistan raises the prospect that the likes of Rauf or Ali will decide to travel there. At least one person of concern was identified returning on a UK military flight during the airlift.
Officials who worked with Nato say it must improve its intelligence capabilities after the speed of the Taliban advance caught nearly everyone by surprise.
David Lowe, a senior fellow at Leeds Beckett University who researches terrorism and security, said Britain should seek to improve its intelligence sharing with allies and Afghan neighbours.
He said the experience of ISIS fighters travelling to Iraq and Syria through Turkey showed the importance of working with third countries such as Pakistan, which is regarded as a crucial player.
“Even though we will most probably have no travel to Afghanistan while the Taliban’s there, we’re going to see inventive ways,” said Dr Lowe, a former police officer.
“A lesson that we learnt with Syria and Iraq when they were attracting individuals to go over and fight – they used their own tradecraft to disguise why they were trying to get there.”
Hearts and minds
In addition to monitoring and intelligence work, security services face a challenge in countering propaganda from Islamists basking in reflected glory.
Sympathisers in Britain have praised the Taliban’s tone of magnanimity and described their victory as a defeat of colonialism and imperialism.
Mr Jenkins added that ministers should be more forthright in their defence of liberal democracy and the rule of secular law in the UK.
“This is something that governments have been very weak on for the last 30 years,” he said. “It may be that the Johnson administration has other things on its plate.”
The Islamist field is crowded. ISIS-K – the affiliate that carried out an attack at Kabul airport – is a threat in Afghanistan.
ISIS already has a grip on the more extreme elements in the country. It attacked a maternity hospital in a Shia-dominated area of Kabul last year, killing 24.
Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi, of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said ISIS-K quickly gained a reputation for an "uncompromising attitude". Al Qaeda also remains a threat.
It is unlikely that the Taliban is capable of controlling all its territory, or is structured enough to keep every local commander in line.
“Whether the Taliban would be so stupid as to allow Al Qaeda to carry out international attacks as they did in the early 1990s and early 2000s, I don’t know,” Mr Jenkins said.
“My guess is that Al Qaeda will try to keep a low profile for the moment.”
Distractions are left, right and centre, and not only of the farcical kind. Officials at the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre face parallel threats from far-right extremists and from dissidents in Northern Ireland.
The continuous security threat recalls the adage that terrorists “only have to be lucky once”, Dr Lowe said.
“What we’ve got to get across is the enormity of the task now,” he said, as security services face the latest challenge. “They will have their hands full.”