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Prime Minister insists UK's commitment to Kabul will continue, despite MPs claiming exit is a 'catastrophic defeat for the West'

By Dominic Nicholls, Defence and Security Editor and Danielle Sheridan, Political and Defence Correspondent

Telegraph Online 8 July 2021

British forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict and 457 deaths, it has been announced as the Prime Minister said there could never be a "perfect moment" to leave.

Addressing the Commons, Boris Johnson said: 

"We and our Nato allies were always going to withdraw our forces. The only question was when, and there could never be a perfect moment."

Mr Johnson confirmed to the House that "most of our personnel have already left", as he urged MPs not to "leap to the false conclusion that the withdrawal of our forces somehow means the end of Britain's commitment to Afghanistan".

"We are not about to turn away, nor are we under any illusions about the perils of today's situation and what may lie ahead," 

he said. 

Speaking ahead of the Prime Minister's statement, General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, confirmed it was on June 24 that the last Union flag in Afghanistan was taken down in a secret ceremony, as previously revealed by the Telegraph

It was handed by Brigadier Olly Brown, the outgoing commander of Operation Toral, the UK's contribution to Nato's mission in Afghanistan, to Sir Laurie Bristow, the UK ambassador in a final "flag-lowering" event conducted without media for security reasons.

A small number of British troops will remain in the country to train the Afghan army, with additional military support available should the region pose a security threat to the UK in the future.

Mr Johnson added: 

"The threat that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place has been greatly diminished by the valour and by the sacrifice of the Armed Forces of Britain, and many other countries. We are safer because of everything they did."

He confirmed that the withdrawal was "a follow-up" to the end of military operations in 2014 and that the Government will back the Afghan state, "with over £100 million of development assistance this year, and £58 million for the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces".

"We will, of course, continue to work alongside our Afghan partners, against the terrorist threat," he said.

Mr Johnson added: 

"The legacy of the UK in Afghanistan is a proud one and will be a lasting one."

He cited the "millions of children educated" and the "millions of girls in school", as well as "the reduction in the terrorist threat in that country for decades", and the "chance of a political negotiated settlement involving the Taliban", as some of the UK's achievements in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.

General Sir Nick admittedthe news from Afghanistan was "pretty grim", adding the Taliban now hold "nearly 50 per cent of the rural districts" in the country.

However, he insisted that the country was now very different to 2001 when British forces first deployed and paid tribute to veterans, saying they can "hold their heads up very high".

General Sir Nick said: 

"I am immensely proud of the tactical excellence that our military showed on the battlefield. They were never defeated on the battlefield. They showed extraordinary adaptability [and] phenomenal courage throughout that campaign."

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, also paid tribute to those who had served in Afghanistan. He said: 

"Operation Toral is drawing to an end, but our enduring support for the Afghan Security Forces and Afghan government has not.

"We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those who have served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, particularly those who lost their lives. Their efforts have helped prevent international terrorism and set the country on the path to peace. We hope the deal struck last year will form the basis for progress.
We will now continue this important work as we transition to a new phase in Afghanistan."

It comes as many senior Tory MPs criticised the withdrawal of troops, questioning whether the intervention had been worth it.

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee who also served in Afghanistan, described Mr Johnson's statement as "an enormously personal issue for me", as he questioned what the UK's "legacy" would be.

He told the Commons: 

"The achievements that he has listed were worn with the blood of my friends and I can point him to the graves, where they now lay, because that legacy is now one that is in real doubt."

Sir Edward Leigh denounced it as "a catastrophic defeat for the West" and a "very sad day for tens of thousands of British personnel whose life work may now lie in ruins".

He also accused the Government of an "abandonment of all our friends in Afghanistan".

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee who also served in Afghanistan, told the Prime Minister that it would be a "dereliction of duty not to ask what went so wrong", as he called on him to launch an inquiry into the war.

"We now abandon the country to the fate of the very insurgent organisation we went in to defeat in the first place," he said.

However, Mr Johnson said he did not believe such an inquiry, like the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, was "not the right way forward at this stage".

Dr Julian Lewis, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, asked the Prime Minister if he accepted that a 

"fanatical brand of Islamist terrorism, sheltered and supported by Taliban extremists, has not only attacked the West before, but is highly likely to do so again", 

and asked if he would consider how to conduct "selective strikes" with allies from "strategic bases" to prevent "a total terrorist takeover of Afghanistan".

Mr Johnson pledged that the Government would "certainly look at" to what extent counter-terrorist activity can be conducted from outside Afghanistan, on an "outside-in" basis.

Complete Taliban control 'unlikely' 

Amid the growing criticism that the withdrawal of international troopshad left Afghanistan on the brink of collapse, General Sir Nick said no provincial capital has fallen to the Taliban and government forces are "consolidating" their positions. He insisted it is "unlikely" the Taliban will ever take complete control "if it chose to fight to the end over the whole of Afghanistan".

"If provincial capitals don't fall and the Taliban recognise that they can't achieve their outcome militarily, then that is something that would lead to the Taliban recognising they have to talk," 

he said.

Less than a third of Afghans now live in urban areas, with about 10 per cent of the population roughly three million people in Kabul.

The implications of recent Taliban advances in rural areas should therefore not be overblown, General Sir Nick said, although he accepted as "plausible" a potential collapse of the Afghan government's authority across the nation.

"The Taliban recognise they can't rule all of Afghanistan without a compromise," 

he said. 

"And of course the Taliban, I don't think any longer, want to be international pariahs.
They want to be regarded as internationally legitimate and they recognise that they're not going to retain international legitimacy if they continue to fight and they don't talk.
The Taliban also know that it's a very different Afghanistan to the one that they were last involved in governing in up until 2001.
Now that foreign forces have gone, it's very difficult for the Taliban's Ulama, the council of religious scholars, to argue that they are genuinely engaged in a jihad. The recent joint announcement by the Afghan and Pakistani ulumas, which took place under the aegis of the Grand Sheikh in Saudi Arabia, made it very clear that the war now no longer is legal under Islamic law.
That is an uncomfortable place, I would suggest, for the Taliban to find themselves."