The Taliban has “prevailed” in its battle with the West in Afghanistan, the former head of the British Army has said, as it emerged all UK and US troops will be withdrawn on Sunday.
Writing in The Telegraph, General Lord Dannatt said the mission had been intended to give the Afghan people the choice of a more “moderate and peaceful” life.
“Ultimately, Taliban force of arms has prevailed, and the people of that country have been denied the chance to choose a better way of life,” Lord Dannatt said. “Tragically, a descent into the chaos of civil war seems highly likely.”
During the 20-year conflict, 454 British military personnel were killed while serving in Afghanistan. Taliban forces are now making sweeping gains across rural areas, declaring victory over Nato and its allies.
Lord Dannatt has called for a Chilcot-like “audit” of the campaign to take place, after The Telegraph revealed that the Union flag has been lowered in Kabul, ending 20 years of British presence in the country.
Soldiers help each other up with heavy backpacks and weapons some of the last British troops prepare to leave Camp Bastion, before it is handed over to the Afghan National Army
Credit: Ben Birchall
The Telegraph can now also reveal that a source close to General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the defence staff, confirmed that the remaining British and US forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan on Independence Day.
The source said: “We will all be out on July 4th. The main British mission will also be concluded by July 4th.”
The full withdrawal was initially planned to be completed on September 11, on what will be the 20th anniversary of the Twin Towers attack.
Lord Dannatt: 'The Afghan National Army has seemingly lost the will to fight'
Credit: David Rose for The Telegraph
“The thinking was that there was no point in having a slow extraction and running the risk of having more casualties,” the source added. It is understood that there will still be a presence of international troops around the embassy in Kabul.
As the drawdown of Nato troops throughout the country has commenced, the country has seen a surge in violence, with district after district falling to the Taliban in recent days.
Lord Dannatt added: “The Afghan National Army has seemingly lost the will to fight and many soldiers are abandoning their posts, no longer supported by substantial international air power.”
He warned that “tragically, a descent into the chaos of civil war seems highly likely”.
A senior UK military source told The Telegraph: “There are a lot of us who have served in Afghanistan and inevitably we’ve got a deep attachment to the Afghan security forces that we served alongside.”
He said there remained “admiration” for the forces’ professionalism, along with “a healthy respect for the Taliban”, that has been built up since UK troops entered the conflict in October 2001.
The source added: “We left a lot of people behind. It’s not a secret that we would have preferred to have stayed to continue to see this through and see the security of the country feel more assured.”
Meanwhile, commanders with the militant movement currently making rapid advances against Ashraf Ghani’s government forces likened the withdrawal to the departure of Soviet forces in 1989 and have cheered the moment as one of the main goals of their long-running insurgency.
The Taliban have yet to capture any significant town or city, but the toppling of rural district centres has spread alarm in Kabul and Washington that the momentum may build into a cascade of larger victories.
One 30-year-old fighter who spent five years in prison before being released in a detainee swap last year called the departure “another golden page in Afghan history”.
The Union flag flying over Camp Bastion is lowered for the last time
Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
The militant, who uses the name Muslim Afghan, said: “First the USSR and now the USA have collapsed in Afghanistan. There is no doubt the Taliban smashed the USA in Afghanistan. America never had mercy on the killing of Afghans but despite all their brutality they failed.”
Joe Biden agreed in April to complete a troop pull out first outlined under Donald Trump’s Doha withdrawal deal.
Yet hopes that the departure of troops would soon revitalise stalled talks appear to have been dashed by the Taliban’s advances in parts of northern Afghanistan.
Afghan forces have at times appeared powerless to halt the offensive and the scale and speed of the Afghan government’s reverses have surprised not only Washington and London, but also regional powers such as Pakistan. Few now expect talks to resume quickly, as the insurgents see how far their offensive takes them.
“Why would they talk now if it means handing over some of the districts they have just captured?” said one senior diplomat familiar with the moribund talks.
Troop numbers in Afghanistan
A former Taliban minister said the withdrawal showed that: “We are the winner”.
The Afghan military and police on paper greatly outnumber estimates of the Taliban, and will continue to receive large sums of foreign funding.
Afghan officials have claimed the loss of some districts represents a strategic withdrawal to protect urban centres, while others have been recaptured. Yet morale is low and troops complaining they have been abandoned or left without supplies have often given up with little fight.
Wing Commander Matt Radnall, Officer Commanding 7 Force Protection Wing, tucks away the Union flag
Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Some groups that fear the government cannot protect them have begun to rearm and form militia.
Taliban envoys have attempted to reassure the Afghan government and international community that they will not reimpose their strict emirate of the 1990s, which was notorious for repressing women and executing criminals.
However, one commander said that was exactly what he was fighting for. The man, called Asad Sadaqat, said: “Taliban will establish an Islamic regime and there won’t be much difference with the old regime. Stoning, the adultery death penalty and chopping the hands off thieves are God’s rules. The Taliban can’t show flexibility and compromises on those rules.”
Yet the prospect of renewed civil war appeared to haunt at least one older insurgent commander, who said anarchy could not be deemed victory. The fighter, called Mullah Hamidullah, said he had spent 25 of his 55 years with the Taliban.
“We will certainly enter another civil war with our own fellow Muslims, so instead of being arrogant winners, the Taliban must think for a peaceful Afghanistan.”
He predicted world attention would quickly move on.
“Afghans killing Afghans won’t be noticed by anyone,” he said.