Revealed: UK mistakes and confusion at heart of Afghan retreat

Politicians investigating what officials understood about the Taliban and the consequences of decisions

As British parliamentary investigations into the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan got under way last week, a leading Kabul expert framed the vital question: "How did you understand the Taliban's strategic decision-making and how did you respond to any such assessment?"

The issue raised by Michael Semple, a former EU official based in Afghanistan and now an expert at Queen's University Belfast, cuts to what politicians are trying to establish about the western retreat from the country. What went wrong?

Mr Semple was speaking at a meeting of the UK Parliament's foreign affairs committee. Others who spoke included David Petraeus, the retired US general and Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan politician and former ambassador to Norway, while at another session Stephen Lovegrove, the UK's National Security Adviser was grilled.

The meeting was set against the backdrop of the release of diplomatic messages from the UK ambassador to Afghanistan and his staff over the summer, the crucial period identified by Mr Semple. “The Taliban,” the Foreign Office diplomatic cable stated, are “positioning to take major population centres.”

The militants, it stated in calm, measured terms, at the time held almost twice as many of Afghanistan’s 421 districts as the government. They were now awaiting the “ongoing threat from US air power” to depart before launching a major offensive.

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

The US withdrawal, Gen Petraeus told MPs, was “based on an assumption that the Afghans were going to continue to prevail for quite an extended period of time”.

But that was “a serious miscalculation”, the former US Iraq and Afghanistan commander said. The 18,000 foreign contractors maintaining the very sophisticated US-provided helicopters, planes and jets “were crucial to the Afghan security forces”. Without them the military could not function.

The British ambassador could see the effects on the ground but it appears his warning went unheeded – then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab and senior civil servants heading off for summer holidays despite the intelligence – is among the lessons to be learnt 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 US and British special forces quickly dispatching the Taliban and Al Qaeda soon after the 9/11 attacks, ended with as a rapid reversal for the occupiers.

The light “footprint” of special forces allied with the precision strike from 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 big force,” the Afghan elders had warned, “we will fight you.”

Keen for military success after failure in Iraq, the advice was ignored and what became an initial presence of 3,000 British troops in Helmand in 2005 rose sharply to 10,000 who, joined by 20,000 Americans, were enough to hold the main towns.

“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 whole provinces like Helmand was probably mistaken, it should have been special forces operations, rather than large-scale infantry operations.”

Brig Ed Butler, who led the first large-scale British mission in Afghanistan, agreed. “We could have just kept a very light touch, making it a counterterrorism mission. We might have kept a lid on it, making sure the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership could not rearm, plan or prepare.”

In the end it was agreed that Nato’s first foreign mission would be a major enterprise in nation-building. Precisely how that would be done remained unclear.

“All it should have been really was to ensure that Afghanistan didn't again become a safe haven for terrorists,” said Mr Kemp. “But the strategy for the whole campaign became extremely confused and, in hindsight, the lesson was that we should not have attempted to take the whole country by military force.”

The confusion with “multi-missions” surrounded whether the focus should have been on counter-narcotics, humanitarian, building government institutions or military defeat of the Taliban.

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

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

“You've got to apply the same approach if you're going to go into nation-building, that it will cost tens of billions and take up to 40 years.”

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

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

“The Taliban always knew we never had the stomach, resources, appetite or public support to stay there for the long run,” one former British officer said.

The lack of a tougher stance on preventing Pakistan assisting the Taliban was another crucial failure, said Mr Kemp. “I don't believe that their campaign could have succeeded or had the energy it had without the support of Pakistan.”

The West should have put more effort into “compelling Pakistan” to end the help, he said. “In my view, without Pakistan we wouldn't be in the same situation we're in now.”

A serving military commander bemoaned the lack of troop numbers and cash to fund the operation. “It took 80 per cent of our time and effort just to survive, let alone get involved in fighting against an enemy well-prepared and well-trained who we always knew were going to fight.”

All the mistakes of the previous two decades could have been less catastrophic if the British ambassador’s more strident warnings were heeded. Mr Bristow said in June that the Taliban would wait until it believed that "military international withdrawal is irreversible”.

This occurred on July 2 when, with barely any notice, the US pulled out of its major airbase at Bagram, removing its main aircraft strike centre.

“That was the biggest strategic mistake,” said Mr Butler. “I haven’t heard any sensible or sound tactical explanation why they gave up Bagram airfield because they gave up their best strategic asset.”

Another major US tactical error was withdrawing at the height of the summer fighting season rather than waiting for the harsh Afghan winter that would have impeded the Taliban.

It is argued that a Western military presence for another 10 years would have allowed the Afghan military to gain the training, knowledge and experience to be confident and largely self-sustainable.

Instead the intelligence picture was built up by Nato commanders responsible for training Afghan brigades, giving a false impression of their capabilities. That became a very significant factor that fed into the intelligence failure by suggesting that the Afghan government could rely on its force of 300,000. Instead those troops were likely more loyal to the US than the corrupt Kabul government and quickly surrendered to the Taliban.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence committee, has called for a full inquiry into the failures of Afghanistan.

“We need to learn the lessons of what went wrong and there needs to be a government inquiry,” he said. “We squandered the relative peace of the first four years of our presence in Afghanistan. And we should also examine why the Taliban were excluded from peace talks in 2001.”

Whitehall sources suggest that a full-scale inquiry is unlikely.

It will be left to the words of those reporting from the ground that will inform the public of where the West went wrong in Afghanistan. Mr Semple's question is a long way from getting an answer.

Updated: October 24th 2021, 3:30 AM