Afghanistan withdrawal: It’s hard to exaggerate what a morale boost we have given terrorists the world over

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 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

As the historian AJP Taylor warned in his book, How Wars End, conflicts tend to conclude “raggedly”. In spite of all the grand declarations of closure and finality, it is “very difficult to define the moment” when hostilities truly cease. Sometimes it is impossible.

Last night, President Biden announced a formal end to the conflict that George W Bush launched with Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001. “The past 17 days have seen our troops execute the largest airlift in US history,” he said. “Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended.”

But has it ended — or is it simply on furlough? There are at least 250 Americans still seeking evacuation from Kabul and tens of thousands of Afghans potentially in mortal danger from the new regime because of their association with the US military, media and NGOs.

As for Britain’s position in this geo-political fiasco, Boris Johnson conceded on Sunday that “we would not have wished to leave in this way”. Add up the remaining UK nationals, those Afghans still formally seeking evacuation under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) and the many more who are now at risk because of their association with the former British contingent, and you quickly reach a total of about 7,000 who should be on our collective conscience and exfiltrated by any means necessary, as soon as possible.

Yesterday, the UN Security Council called in its silken prose for the Taliban to allow “safe passage” for those still seeking to leave Afghanistan. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has proposed the creation of a UN-monitored secure zone at Kabul airport to facilitate this process. But as the Foreign Office minister James Cleverly observed yesterday on the BBC’s Today programme, “certain options are made difficult, perhaps even impossible, without a significant military deployment on the ground”.

There has been no shortage of warm words from the Taliban about the safe exit of those left behind. But this rhetoric is very much at odds with reports of door-to-door house searches, intimidation and manhunts for suspected collaborators with the West. As ministers and UN officials busy themselves with lofty statements, a makeshift network of supremely courageous individuals — campaigners, ex-diplomats, contractors and journalists — is emerging to give covert assistance to those Afghans seeking sanctuary: the so-called “Underground Railroad” of the Kabul crisis.

Biden’s brash declaration of closure is further undermined by the global security implications of the rushed US withdrawal. Yesterday, US General Kenneth McKenzie said there were already about 2,000 “hard-core” IS fighters in the field in Afghanistan. To this (probably conservative) estimate, one should add the hundreds of high-value al Qaeda terrorists released by the Taliban from the prison at Bagram Air Base on August 15.

It is hard to exaggerate what a morale boost this will represent to the jihadis of the world, from the most organised guerrilla units to the DIY loners. Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons defence committee, was quite right to warn on Sunday that terrorism “will raise its ugly face again” as a consequence of this withdrawal; as was Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, in his bleak assessment that the UK faced “the greatest danger from terrorism since Islamic State at its height”.

It is a dangerous delusion to imagine, in our interdependent, interconnected world, that an act of withdrawal such as this one marks an ending of any sort. To study the past 30 years of the fight against Islamist terror is to grasp that jihadis prey on weakness and relish any sign that the West is in retreat.

Another lesson is that Afghanistan has long been and still is central to that global struggle. It is the sanctuary, training ground and haven of worldwide jihadism. The one certainty in this awful quagmire is that we will be back.

What do you think about how the UK and US have handled the Afghanistan crisis? Let us know in the comments below.

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