Article published in The Colchester Gazette, 18 August 2021. © Richard Kemp
In the last few days we have witnessed scenes of chaos in Kabul and its airport as Afghans and foreign citizens desperately try to escape the Taliban. Colchester-based soldiers, mainly from the Parachute Regiment, are on the streets of Kabul, working with the Royal Air Force to get our people out amidst a dangerous and volatile situation.
Sir Laurie Bristow, British Ambassador to Kabul, who was a pupil at Colchester Royal Grammar School, has remained in situ, personally issuing visas and working to help British citizens, locally-employed staff and Afghans who helped our forces to operate during the last two decades and are now under intense danger of Taliban reprisal.
The current situation was totally avoidable. It is the direct result of President Biden’s disastrous decision in May to pull American forces out of the country. Our Defence Secretary apparently tried to cobble together a NATO coalition to remain in Afghanistan without the Americans. This was no more than a pipe-dream. Decades of savage cuts to British forces meant we could not continue to operate there without American backing and anyway no other NATO country was willing to play ball.
Not only was the decision to withdraw wrong, it was implemented in the worst possible way. It was so rapid that the Kabul government and forces did not have time to plan and prepare for a totally different situation. To make matters worse the pull-out was executed during the Taliban fighting season. Had it been delayed to late autumn or winter the security forces would have had more opportunity to consolidate in their new situation.
We went into Afghanistan to remove the Taliban and Al Qaida following 9/11 — the worst ever terrorist attack anywhere in the world, which killed more British citizens than have died in any other single act of terrorism. We stayed there for one reason: to prevent another serious attack on the West emanating from the country. In other words it was forward defence, not, as President Biden claimed recently, to fight an Afghan civil war.
Those who claim the 457 British military deaths in Afghanistan were in vain are wrong. Their sacrifices, and those of the many who lost limbs and sustained other life-changing wounds, saved lives of British people who would have died in terrorist strikes launched from and inspired by jihadists in Afghanistan. Many of those who fought and died came from Colchester or were based here. This includes men from our local regiment, the Royal Anglians, whose 1st Battalion completed more tours of duty in Afghanistan than any other unit in the British Army.
The threat we were there to prevent hasn’t gone away and we should not have withdrawn our relatively small presence, most of which has not been involved in direct combat for years. But NATO and its air support underpinned the Afghan fighting troops who contained the Taliban until recent days. When that was suddenly pulled from under their feet the Afghan army collapsed. Afghan troops are very different from British and American forces and were unable to stand on their own feet.
Withdrawal of US backing hit morale very hard. And not just in the forces. When they saw the writing on the wall many provincial governors packed up and left or went over to the Taliban taking their local militias with them. Morale is the single most important factor in war, and the morale of Afghan forces was already very fragile. They are tribal people and few had allegiance to the corrupt and incompetent government in Kabul who abused and neglected them, often failing even to pay their wages.
We witnessed sheer desperation as locals clung to American planes taking off from Kabul airport. They knew their future will be characterised by brutal subjugation: women forcibly covered from head to foot and forbidden to leave their homes without male “guardians”; girls denied education; adulteresses stoned to death; transgressors of harsh sharia codes beaten, executed, imprisoned and feet and hands amputated. We have already seen much of this in the cities conquered by the Taliban in recent days.
In the region, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia, all of which supported, funded and armed the Taliban, will now be cashing in their chips, pillaging Afghanistan’s natural resources and using their new-found leverage there against the West. Taliban victory in Afghanistan will likely increase instability in Pakistan which has its own powerful Islamist insurgency. The prospects for nuclear material falling into jihadist hands just increased.
Events in Afghanistan have been celebrated by jihadists around the world, who have seen a resounding victory for their cause with the US and its allies vanquished. Recruiting will snowball and they will be inspired to reinvigorate jihad against the West, launching knife, car-ramming and explosive attacks. Al Qaida and the Islamic State both have strong presence in Afghanistan. They will plan attacks around the world, secure in the knowledge there will be no further Western intervention. Thousands will flood there to join them as they did for years before 9/11. We face a terrorist threat greater than that from the Islamic State at its height.