It’s hard to know whether the British government was truly surprised by the fall of Afghanistan, particularly Kabul, 11 days ago.

On Thursday, August 19, Stuart Crawford, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment, wrote an excellent analysis for The Scotsman: ‘Afghanistan fell to Taliban because West underestimated its enemy and lacked commitment’.

His article begins with a short précis of British involvement in the country (emphases mine, unless otherwise stated):

We British are no strangers to disasters in Afghanistan. In past centuries, Britain fought three wars there with the dual purposes of expanding its control from its Empire base in India and opposing Russian influence there, the latter part of the so-called “Great Game”.

None of them ended satisfactorily. At the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, Afghanistan was independent, the British withdrew, and the Afghans entered a period of special relationship with Soviet Russia.

Eventually that relationship soured too, leading to the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Russians left ten years later with their tails between their legs having suffered 15,000 dead. Not for nothing is Afghanistan known as the graveyard of foreign armies.

This brings us to the present day:

And now we are witnessing the end of yet another military adventure, this time the US-led Nato invasion in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. What sets this newest withdrawal apart from the others, however, is the speed at which the Afghan government has collapsed.

Things looked good nearly 20 years ago, three months after US and UK forces invaded Afghanistan:

… the western powers entered Afghanistan in 2001 and drove the Taliban from power thereby denying al-Qaeda a safe base of operations there. It only took three months, with many Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives fleeing across the border into Pakistan.

However, Bush II switched priorities to Iraq whilst maintaining a presence in Afghanistan, as counterterrorism expert Malcolm Nance recently explained to talkRADIO.

Stuart Crawford recounts the losses by the US and the UK during the fruitless adventure of trying to turn Afghanistan into a Western-style nation:

Over the next 20 years, the US and its allies poured billions of dollars into military operations to counter a resurgent Taliban and into reconstruction and civil aid projects. When the main fighting died down in 2014, the Americans had lost roughly 2,500 servicemen and women, the UK around 450, plus many other casualties from allied militaries. Estimated losses for the Afghan security forces are approximately 69,000.

Crawford outlines the reasons for the West’s failure:

First and foremost, the West was naïve in assuming that the Afghan people would welcome a western-style liberal democracy

Next, we made the unforgivable sin – in military circles – of underestimating the enemy. After the rapid successes against the Taliban in 2001, it was all too easy to dismiss them as “a bunch of blokes in open-toes sandals on motorbikes”, but they were and are good at what they do.

They are still there and we are leaving.

Also, what we probably didn’t understand or chose to ignore is the long-established Afghan practice of negotiated arrangements between opposing forces in conflict, whereby there are agreements not to attack or interfere with your enemy.

Finally, it was an overall tale of too few resources committed too late by the West. After the initial invasion in 2001, little attention was paid to nation building for the next five years. When focus was shifted to it, the horse had already bolted. We were always playing catch up from then on in.

It also has to be said that, despite the impressive numbers of troops deployed during the height of the military campaign, they were always too few for the task in hand. Some pretty poor tactical decisions were taken on the ground, not least by the British army in Helmand.

When British troops were allocated Helmand in 2006, their intended role was to provide safety and security for various reconstruction projects. But their arrival there provoked a furious reaction from a reconstituted Taliban. Our soldiers found themselves in very different circumstances to what they expected.

What is difficult for Westerners to understand is how complicated and fluid Afghan alliances are internally. They do not think in terms of good guys and bad guys. Crawford writes of:

a network of tribal and kinship ties which sometimes saw members of the same family supplying soldiers to both sides. This to some extent guaranteed some element of safety and amnesty for the vanquished.

Part of the reason, therefore, that the Afghan government forces have collapsed so quickly – after, it has to be said, fighting hard for many years with us in support – is that such arrangements have been in place for many years.

Corruption, lack of resources, and poor leadership added to the mix, and many Afghans must have wondered exactly what they were fighting for. The Taliban, on the other hand, knew exactly what they were fighting for and sought to achieve.

In Helmand province, the British were spread too thinly and ended up needing help from the Americans:

only 9,700 troops were expected to secure an area of over 58,500 square kilometres containing over 1,000 villages and settlements with a population of over 1.5 million inhabitants. It was a hopeless task, doomed to failure from them outset.

For reasons never properly explained, the decision was taken to spread British troops across 137 bases and checkpoints, dispersing forces and literally making them hostage to fortune as the Taliban were attracted to attack these small, isolated outposts as bees are to honey.

After much bravery and heroism against a more numerous foe, and despite the advantages of superior technology and air power, the British army had to be rescued by the Americans. This military defeat, added to the similar debacle in Basra in Iraq, did much to tarnish the British army’s hard-won reputation.

Even worse, the United States has been defeated:

The biggest takeaway from the whole Afghan affair, however, is that potential future adversaries now know how to defeat the USA.

Today, the airport in Kabul was attacked. The incident killed at least 60 people, including 12 American soldiers. Later in the afternoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a COBRA meeting; the British evacuation efforts will continue.

Earlier on, James Heappey (pictured below), Britain’s Minister for the Armed Forces, warned of an attack on the airport:

The news has not been well received by Guido Fawkes’s readers. The last two comments follow from Guido’s thread about the airport in Kabul, which ends with this (emphasis in the original):

Despite these stark warnings, crowds of people remain outside of Kabul airport waiting to be processed. Britain has now evacuated over 11,000 Afghans with a suspected 400 people left to process. The countdown continues despite the ordered evacuation…

I have edited the spelling and grammar in the following comments.

Here’s the first one:

UK caught well and truly with their pants down, and why, because they believed Biden would never be as stupid as he turned out to be. As the UK media, indeed the Western media, decried Trump at every opportunity, they praised Biden as the sensible, reliable face of American politics, now they scramble around like floundering fish trying to defend his mass genocidal decision to leave Afghanistan in the way he did. They would rather blame everyone else than accept they got it wrong. Well, the bloodshed that’s about to happen will be on their hands as much as it is on Sleepy Joe’s. Meanwhile Europe is bracing itself for another mass flooding of refugees. WE have to seriously consider is America an ally to NATO or not.

This is the second:

“Terrorist Attack Imminent……” What absolute tosh, why would the Taliban carry out an attack at Kabul Airport at all? They have what they want, western powers scuttling out of Afghanistan!.

What the politicos do not want is pictures showing 1000s of Afghans ‘stranded’ at the airport as the last flights leave so what better way to prevent this than by warning them to stay away form the airport area by suggesting “a terrorist attack is imminent….”

It is hard to disagree with either of those analyses.

On Wednesday, August 25, Professor Paul Cornish, who has visited Afghanistan twice during the past 20 years, wrote an article for Cityforum: ‘The Rout of Kabul’.

He has high praise for James Heappey, much less for successive British governments:

In the UK, with one or two notable exceptions such as James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, who manages to combine a sense of empathy with honest political realism and a soldier’s instincts for problem solving, we have had the embarrassing spectacle of high-level politicians, public officials and very senior military officers showing just how disconnected they are from this looming strategic reality. Keen to convince the media and the electorate that this is a temporary politico-military malfunction, from which ‘lessons will be learned’ before the normal service of strategic mastery is resumed, we are assured repeatedly that the Taliban surge was unexpected and unpredictable. Really? Ten years ago, following the second of two visits to Afghanistan, I made the following observation at a conference: ‘withdrawal – whenever it happens – should be seen not simply as the desperate ending of the intervention but as the most complex and dangerous part of the intervention. If this is mishandled or rushed, then we might be talking in five years’ time not just of the resurgence of some very unpleasant extremist and criminal groups, but of a regional conflagration.’ My sense of foreboding was premature by five years but if a visiting academic/think tank analyst could see things in this way then plenty of others, in more influential positions, will have come to a similar conclusion. And if the capture of Kabul was indeed so unexpected, why was there not only a ‘Plan A’ for the evacuation but also a ‘Plan B’? Was the capitulation unexpected, or were we preparing for it? As well as presenting a wholly confused, if not disingenuous analysis, the UK’s strategic leadership has also demonstrated an unbeatably inappropriate choice of actions and words: the Foreign Secretary remaining determinedly glued (some have alleged) to a sunbed in Crete while the crisis grew; or the UK Chief of Defence Staff insisting that the Taliban, an implacable enemy of Britain’s armed forces for many years, ‘has changed’ and that British troops are now ‘happy to collaborate’ with them.

He discusses the toxic mix of the Taliban, terror, Pakistan and China, concluding with this on the West’s failure in Afghanistan:

In this dismal context, uncomfortable questions must be asked about the West’s reputation as a global strategic actor, about its ‘strategic ambition’ and about the relevance of its vision for the world. Both the US and the UK have presented themselves as expert in the high strategic art of combining ‘hard power’ (i.e., the power of coercion and compulsion) with ‘soft power’ (i.e., the power of attraction and persuasion). Does the Rout of Kabul suggest that either of these is functioning as it should, or is as convincing as is claimed? In the UK, the March 2021 review of national security and defence offered a vision of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, finally achieving its destiny as a ‘force for good in the world’, a ‘soft power superpower’, and a country with globally deployable ‘hard power’. Broadly similar rhetoric was heard at the G7 and NATO summits in June 2021. After Kabul, are any of these promises, offers and assurances convincing? And who would rely upon them? Bells that ring as hollow as this should probably not be rung – at least not in public.

Returning to the state of play in Kabul, he says:

Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, August 2021: not a good look for the West, its values, its capability, its staying power, its leadership and their judgement. And it could get worse if the West’s strategic leadership insist that Kabul was a mere technical hitch, unwilling or unable to confront their mistakes and the gravity of what has taken place, and refusing to acknowledge that the West, and all that it stands for, is in deep trouble as a result.

I could not agree more.

There is currently much speculation in Britain and the United States as whose heads should roll over this debacle.

The British media want Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to resign because he did not return sooner from his holiday in Crete to ring an Afghan minister of state. That telephone call, which never took place, would not have made much difference to the final outcome. Events unfolded quickly on the weekend of August 14 and 15.

Some Americans want Joe Biden to stand down in favour of Kamala Harris, despite her poor popularity ratings. However, that would not achieve anything much, either.

The damage is done. It will take decades to recover from this, not only politically but also socially.

More to follow tomorrow on Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.