Gen Sir Nick Carter the Chief of the Defence Staff, said the current regime in Kabul was different from the original Taliban – who took over in the 1990s – and was ruling over a population who had seen what a modern state could offer.
Giving evidence to the Commons Defence Committee, he said it was too early to say the collapse of the Afghan government in August following the withdrawal of foreign forces represented a defeat for the UK and Nato.
“Taliban 2.0 is different. There are a lot of people in Taliban 2.0 who would like to govern in a more modern way, but they are divided among themselves, as political entities so often are,” he said.
“If the less repressive elements end up gaining greater control… then I think there is no reason to suppose that Afghanistan over the next five years might not turn out into a country that is more inclusive than it might have been otherwise.
“I think it is to early to say that defeat has occurred. Victory here needs to be measured in the results and not some great military extravaganza.”
He added: “I am very proud of what our armed forces achieved on the battlefield. They were never defeated by a very cunning, ruthless and innovative opponent.”
He defended controversial comments he made during the chaotic evacuation of Kabul, saying people should be “very careful” about using the word “enemy” when referring to the Taliban.
Millions of dollars were changing hands... that is a very Afghan way of buying allegiance
Gen Sir Nick Carter
Gen Carter, who stands down at the end of the month, said that when he called the Taliban “country boys” he was quoting former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
“The reason I said that was that I had 1,000 troops on the ground and we were trying to evacuate what turned out to be 15,000 Afghans,” he said.
“I wasn’t exactly, at that particular point in time, going to call out the people who could have quite easily made my life very uncomfortable on the ground.”
He said the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government – largely without fighting – in the face of the Taliban advance had been very difficult for Western intelligence to foresee.
He added: “What was going on in the provincial capitals – Herat, Lashkar Gah, Kandahar – was that millions of dollars were changing hands.
“There wasn’t any fighting except in Lashkar Gah. That is a very Afghan way of buying allegiance.
“What happened there was that allegiance changed over a period of a week. It is very hard to monitor that.
“Yes, there were questions about judgment and how quickly all this happened. But, to be fair to the analysts, most people thought the Afghan government wouldn’t hack it.
“It was just a question of how long it would take before it fell.”