For one veteran, withdrawal from Afghanistan set clock ticking on Nato return

British MP Johnny Mercer warns Afghan special forces soldiers are being slain by the Taliban

Johnny Mercer when he served in Helmand, Afghanistan. Photo: Johnny Mercer
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It was among the tree-lined fields and mud-brick compounds of Helmand that Johnny Mercer saw first-hand the capricious nature of war.

Every day when he stepped out on patrol down dusty footpaths and across water-filled irrigation ditches, he knew there were Taliban fighters who wanted him dead or seriously maimed.

But he was also surrounded by a beautiful, unspoilt if underdeveloped country, whose people were both striking in their looks and deeply gracious in hospitality.

In June 2010, pressing into the former Taliban heartland of Marjah, carrying a heavy radio vital for calling in artillery or air power in his role as a joint fires controller, Cpt Mercer knew there was real danger of brutal close-quarter combat. Then the shooting began.

“The rounds were single shot from the same two enemy positions, trying to pick me off,” he recounted. “They were kicking up the dirt around me.”

Then his comrade and close friend L/Bdr Mark “Bing” Chandler, 32, was felled next to him by a single shot.

“That was the hardest part, dealing with him,” Mr Mercer said. “I cradled him like a baby as he died.”

After three hard tours of Helmand, calling in close fire support as a captain in 29 Commando, Royal Artillery, it was the toughest moment he had faced.

That harsh reality of death and war became grimmer when six months ago he saw that enemy, which Afghan and Nato forces had fought so hard to contain, was now jubilant in Kabul.

It continues to be a point of frustration for the former UK minister. Despite the loss of life and Nato’s shrunken credibility, he believes that Western powers will again have to intervene in Afghanistan within 10 years to thwart Taliban-inspired terrorism.

Already he notes a campaign of terrorism against former Afghan special forces soldiers is in full swing with a former colleague kidnapped and likely killed only last week, on the six-month anniversary of the Taliban seizing power.

Mr Mercer left the British Army after his last tour, and using the grit found in Afghanistan he went on to seize a parliamentary seat for the Conservatives that had been a Labour stronghold.

The MP became a defence minister, representing veterans of war, and used every bit of his experience to help those Afghans he had served alongside out of the imploding country.

Six months on, the former officer still feels a sense of betrayal and futility after he soon realised that hundreds of former colleagues would be stranded despite the mass evacuation in late August.

“These Afghans crossed a threshold to work with us, they took a huge risk to stand on our side of the line and to have left them behind, which we have done for the majority of our people, really stinks,” he told The National.

Former Afghan comrades-in-arms to the British ex-commando officer, including interpreters and soldiers, have been murdered in revenge killings by the Taliban, he said.

The chaotic state being run by the Taliban, with many facing starvation and the country in danger of becoming a terrorist training ground, meant it was inevitable that another foreign intervention would be needed, said Mr Mercer.

“I just cannot see how the West endures a Taliban-led Afghanistan over the next decade without any interference," he said. "Last time under the Taliban, it became a breeding ground for terrorism in the United States so I don't know how we're not headed in the direction of relearning that lesson.

"I can’t see another outcome. I'd love to see Taliban Mark 2 but in my experience, these are the same murderous, criminal paedophiles that I remember from my time."

While he managed to arrange his former Afghan special forces operator Naveed – who now works in his Plymouth constituency office – to be flown to safety, he fears others left behind are being rounded up.

“Last week a former Task Force Triple Three [special forces] operator was kidnapped at a checkpoint just north of Kabul.” Mr Mercer has since been told it was likely that the soldier was murdered.

“The Talibs are still exacting revenge,” said Mr Mercer, 40. “While some think they need to show a more professional front to the world so that people come home, others are on a vengeful mission and then a lot of them are just mad. It's hard to understand what their motivation factors are. It's not religion or money, often it's just power.”

Before the Taliban offensive last summer, he was among many who thought that if the Afghan security forces could keep the Taliban at bay, the country might prosper.

“I was certainly hopeful for a different outcome to this but there was always a fear that the worst outcome would be the Taliban take over the whole country," he said. "Even up until the last few days, I still thought the country would hold out, largely because of the amount of training, resources and assets we put into the Afghan special forces' capability. But in the end, the whole thing collapsed and we need to take away the lessons from that.”

Like others, he blamed much of that collapse on the rapid American military withdrawal that also led to the vital foreign “enablers” – such aircraft technicians – leaving, essentially grounding the Afghan air force.

He was “astonished” that the British or Americans did not set up a second evacuation base at the vast Bagram airbase, about 40 kilometres from Kabul airport, which also fell when it was abandoned on August 15.

Mr Mercer said that given the UK’s £40 billion annual defence budget, "you’d have thought that we might be able to hold an airfield”.

“Clearly we abandoned the majority of people who we said we would get out,” he said.

The desire to help war veterans who were neglected after years of service was what drove the former soldier into politics.

“I was lucky I got away Scot-free, whereas a lot of people lost their lives, or suffering broken bodies and broken minds, and I can't imagine how they feel about this defeat,” he said. “We made a big issue of sending troops to war and did very little to help them when they got back."

His passion for helping service personnel led to Mr Mercer being appointed Veterans’ Minister until resigning in April last year when he said the government had not done enough to protect soldiers from vexatious prosecution during overseas deployments.

He does not think that the two decades of Nato presence in Afghanistan was entirely wasted – and it might even have led to permanent changes. “For a period of time, the majority of people in Afghanistan will have experienced a level of security and peace that was not perfect but was there. I hope that Afghans can take that forward despite the huge challenges they now have with their daily lives,” he said.

“We were just simply trying to create a bit of time and space to allow politics to take hold and to get to a position where the population could choose something other than the Taliban government that had sheltered al Qaeda and led to 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

The West’s defeat and the Taliban's return has led to “quite a painful soul-searching exercise” for those who had “committed a great deal to that country”.

While he developed strong bonds during his time in Afghanistan, he largely despairs for its future.

“It's a beautiful but very underdeveloped country and there are some beautiful people in Afghanistan but it has endured years of conflict," he said.

“While the West has to recognise the Taliban government, I can’t see it ending well. There's going to be a human catastrophe in Afghanistan.”

Updated: February 15, 2022, 3:16 PM