UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admits 20-year Afghan military campaign ended in failure

Monday marks a year since the Taliban swept into Afghanistan's capital Kabul and retook power

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said he was proud of the evacuation effort and subsequent Afghan relocation scheme. PA
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A year after the Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said the West's two-decade military campaign in the country ended in failure.

Hundreds of UK troops lost their lives in the campaign and Mr Wallace revealed he feared their bereaved parents would ask: "What was it all for?"

Monday marks a year since the Taliban swept into Afghanistan's capital Kabul and toppled the West-backed Afghan government practically unopposed ― an extraordinary end to 20 years of foreign occupation.

It is also a year since the launch of Operation Pitting, Britain's largest evacuation effort since Second World War, during which more than a thousand British troops were sent to rescue stranded UK citizens.


Mr Wallace told the Mail newspaper that he worked round the clock throughout the operation, and also suffered sleepless nights after being sent death threats from animal rights activists who believed he should have prioritised the menagerie of animals owned by UK armed forces veteran Pen Farthing, who ran a sanctuary in Kabul.

There is a prevailing sentiment that Operation Pitting was simply too slow to scale up, an accusation Mr Wallace said was unfounded,

"When we started the relocation scheme they were not queuing up in their thousands, the country was stable enough. What we hadn’t done then was bring many people back," he said.

"But suddenly, as the fabric of the country began to fold, these people became very vulnerable. We didn’t just turn up at the airport and there was a coherent plan. Given another 10 days, we would have got almost everyone out."

Mr Wallace said in endeavours of the scale and logistical difficulty of Operation Pitting, it was inevitable that there would be some uncertainty over the outcome.

"We’d done a reconnaissance visit some months beforehand but even so, when the Paras and 16 Air Assault went down there, they didn’t know what they’d find," he said.

British citizens and dual citizenship holders board a military plane at Kabul airport on August 16 last year as part of the Operation Pitting evacuation effort. EPA

"Nobody could have predicted such a rapid collapse of the Afghan government. In the aftermath, we didn’t know whether the Afghans were going to turn nasty."

Thirteen US troops and at least 170 Afghans were killed outside Kabul's Hamid Karzai airport on August 26.

It was a tragedy consonant with two decades of bloodshed on both sides. Yet despite acknowledging the occupation ended in failure, Mr Wallace said he was proud of the evacuation effort and subsequent Afghan relocation scheme - a scheme which is costing the UK government one million pounds a day, it was revealed on Friday.

"I don’t have regrets. I am proud of the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy ― it is still going and will keep going," he said.

"More people are arriving here every week. We stood by our word and got those people out. On my watch, we did our very best."

Watch: Eyes on ... Afghanistan refugees

Updated: August 13, 2022, 3:36 PM