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From the file

Retreat from Kabul: 11 days in August | Matthew d’Ancona investigates what was happening in Westminster and Whitehall as the West abandoned the country it had liberated 20 years before

Retreat from Kabul: 11 days in August – Part I

Retreat from Kabul: 11 days in August – Part I


As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, and Western troops and desperate Afghans scrambled to leave, Britain found itself frozen out of decision making and incapable of influencing events. It was a stark illustration of the UK’s status, made worse by catastrophic misjudgements at the top of government

Listen to part 2


Breaking news now, Taliban fighters have reached the Afghan capital Kabul. Some reports say they’ve been entering the city but a spokesman for the militants says that they’ve been told to wait.

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Tonight, an abrupt and devastating end to America’s longest war. 20 years after US forces first arrived in Afghanistan, the Taliban completing it’s stunning takeover in little more than a week. 

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We begin with Afghanistan and the dramatic fall of the capital. Just today President Biden sending more troops, a total of 6000 now, to speed up the emergency evacuation of embassy staff and some Afghans who helped the US such as interpreters and their families. 

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It has moved extremely quickly. We knew that the Taliban were very near but they’re now in town.

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Matt d’Ancona, narrating: August 15, 2021: a day that deserves to be remembered by posterity as one of global infamy. 

The day that the Taliban – ousted from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan in November 2001 – returned to take control of the city.

And, by grim coincidence, this geopolitical crisis unfolded just before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – almost as a book-end to that terrible assault upon America and the West. 

The Islamic fundamentalist force that had given sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda – and was driven from power after the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 – was back in command in the Presidential Palace, the citadel known as the Arg.

The world looked on in horror as a desperate scramble ensued to escape from Kabul, from the sudden triumph of the Taliban and from the prospect of a renewed regime of barbarous Islamic law or Sharia and the systematic repression of women – all of this compelling many thousands to try to get out immediately from Kabul International Airport, 5km from the city:

We’re getting new images of the truly desperate evacuation from Afghanistan. Look at what is going on in this cargo plane.

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Another startling image, one of the US’s largest cargo planes, laden with Afghans who did not want to be left behind.

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This is onboard a C-17 that left Kabul International Airport, in desperation, the panic, the incredible effort to get out the country from what is pretty much the only international gateway. Some 640 people aboard that plane: men, women and children. 

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Matt, narrating: Even in a year of pandemic, a make-or-break Cop summit and the storming of the US Capitol by far Right militias, seeking to overturn the presidential election, the abandonment of Kabul stood out as an extraordinary geopolitical moment, and one of deep shame for the international community.

How did things ever get to this point? Was the 20-year Western presence in Afghanistan, in the end, a waste of blood and treasure? 

457 British service personnel had paid with their lives. Since 2001, £27.7 billion had been spent on military operations in Afghanistan and £3.8 billion on aid. Was that all now being sacrificed on the altar of boredom, impatience and indifference? 

And – three months on from the airlift, as the cruel winter drives hundreds of thousands of Afghans towards starvation, and women and girls adapt as best they can to the ferocious rolling back of the rights they enjoyed for a generation – all subject to new restrictions, many forced into hiding – is anyone beyond the borders of Afghanistan serious about helping them?

I’m Matt d’Ancona, an Editor at Tortoise, and I want, in this two-part report, to go back to the crucial 11 days in August when the West finally deserted the country it had released from theocratic captivity in 2001. 

This is the first of two episodes in which I’ll examine the crisis in detail.

In particular, I want to look at what was going on in Westminster and Whitehall in that extraordinarily intense period: the rows, the gossip, the indignities and, perhaps above all, the crash course that the crisis represented in post-Brexit Britain’s power on the global stage, or, more accurately, its lack of power.

To try and piece the picture together, I’ve spoken to more than 30 senior ministers, officials, diplomats, NGO activists, intelligence sources, counter-terrorism specialists, back-channel negotiators, and others from outside the UK. 

All spoke on background, as one might expect so soon after the events in question. That’s normal enough when you’re reporting on politics or geopolitics. 

But there was something extra in this case, that I’ve never encountered before: and that was a collective sense of shame; a recognition within the governing class in this country that, as a nation, we blew it. 

Yes, other nations fumbled and faltered, too. But the fall of Kabul, like the 1956 Suez crisis, was a punctuation mark in the story of modern British influence and power, and not a happy one. Those at the top are still reeling from the experience, as well they might.

It’s a story of one nation’s fall – that’s Afghanistan – and another’s decline – that’s the UK. 

It’s a story of the West, and how that idea now means less and less in practical terms. 

And it’s a bleak case study in the 21st Century British state’s dysfunctions and fault-lines, and how – as we’ve also seen so often in the government’s handling of Covid – bold, boosterish language used by ministers is light years distant from the grim reality on the ground.

Digging into this drama, we’ll have to scroll back and forward sometimes. None of this happened out of the blue and the official audit of what went wrong is only now beginning – and that at a snail’s pace.

But let’s start the story of these transformative 11 days on Friday, August 13.

The Taliban were 50 miles from Kabul. Cities like Kandahar were starting to surrender. There was a steady stream of Afghans at Kabul airport. 

And – particularly important – after a two-week siege, the city of Herat in the north-west of Afghanistan finally fell to the Taliban.

Gunfire rings through the streets of Herat. Afghanistan’s third biggest city, now reported to be under Taliban control. The militant group breaking open a jail to release the prisoners inside, many of whom are likely to be sympathetic to their cause. 

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Matt, narrating: Bordering Iran to the west, and Turkmenistan to the north, Herat Province is strategically important and vital to Afghanistan’s trade. But it was the symbolism of Ismail Khan – veteran warlord of the region and leader of the anti-Taliban resistance – surrendering to his sworn enemy that alerted the world to two things.

First, that the Taliban strategy – colonising rural heartlands, and then squeezing cities till they caved in – was working.

Second, and more importantly, that this strategy was working very fast indeed, and that the national Afghan regime, under President Ashraf Ghani, was now in serious danger. Herat had fallen. So did Ghazni in the southeast and as we’ve seen Kandahar in the south.

In Whitehall, after months of disagreement, bickering and inertia about the pace of change in Afghanistan – a failure of political leadership and intelligence to which we’ll return – there was, at last, growing recognition that, sooner rather than later, the Taliban were going to be, at the very least, the dominant governing force in Afghanistan. Perhaps as part of a coalition, perhaps a single-party regime.

As one senior minister told me: “Friday the 13th was a mad day. The direction of travel had been clear enough for a long while, but this felt different. It felt like things were accelerating very fast, and that we had been caught napping.”

The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, a former Captain in the Scots Guards, alerted his colleagues to the scale of the threat, and the high probability of imminent crisis. But – as it turned out – not all his colleagues were around.

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, was in Crete, on holiday with his family. He had taken elaborate steps to ensure that he had full secure comms at his resort and was determined not to return.

As one Conservative MP sympathetic to Dominic Raab says: “Look, Dom had been working flat out both with his own department and during the pandemic. He had waited and waited for this break. He’d forked out a tonne of cash. So his thinking was: does it really make any difference if I’m sitting in the Foreign Office or not? I’ll be making the same calls.”

In fact, making calls was exactly what officials back at the Foreign Office in King Charles Street in Whitehall wanted their boss to focus on. 

In particular, they were encouraging him to speak directly and as a matter of urgency to his opposite number in Afghanistan, the foreign minister Hanif Atmar. 

An evacuation crisis was already beginning and there was deep concern in the Foreign Office and at the Ministry of Defence about the fate both of British nationals and of Afghans who had worked for Her Majesty’s Government as interpreters, office staff, guides and in many other capacities. 

As one Foreign Office source puts it: “The worry was that the Taliban wouldn’t make much of a distinction between Afghans that had worked directly for us and those that had worked with us.”

In April, Ben Wallace, in tandem with the Home Office, had launched ARAP – the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy – as the basic infrastructure for those Afghans. Now, they really were in mortal peril, and there was an urgent need for Dominic Raab to speak to his counterpart in Afghanistan to emphasise the importance of the evacuation process, and the obvious need for the Afghan government to lend every possible support.

But the Foreign Secretary didn’t make that call. Amazingly, no Foreign Office minister did.

What Dominic Raab did find time to do was to secure permission from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to stay on holiday for a couple more days.

Was he asked to come home? Here’s the Foreign Secretary in an subsequent interview with Good Morning Britain on August 25:

Dominic Raab: With the benefit of hindsight, of course it’s easy to say, but I wouldn’t have gone on holiday, and would’ve come home earlier. But just to be clear, it would’ve made no difference to the call to the Afghan foreign minister which we’d delegated and put in the request because by that point he was already on his way out of Afghanistan, he departed on the Sunday.

Journalist: But what about the Friday when you were told by your advisers to come home and that phone call had been made on Friday, as you clearly are saying that every hour is so important, something different could have happened, different conversations could have been had two days earlier. 

Dominic Raab: No, so it’s wrong, I was not told by my officials to come home and the advice that we received was late Friday, Afghan time, around six o’clock. So the idea that on Saturday, when departure plans had been made by the Afghan government, they would’ve suddenly been able to deal with one or other element, is I’m afraid just wrong.

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Matt, narrating: Notice that Dominic Raab denies being urged to return to the UK by his own officials – a carefully worded response, which doesn’t mean that he wasn’t subject to pressure from other parts of government.

Did the PM tell his Foreign Secretary and nominal deputy prime minister to get back immediately?

It may not surprise you to learn that Boris Johnson’s message was – well, a bit garbled. 

One Number Ten source puts it this way: “I’d say he wanted Dom to come back. But Boris also believes in holidays and stuff, and didn’t really think there was any intrinsic value in Dom rushing home just to be around. It was all symbolism. So he was pretty lenient, as it goes.”

The same source also points out – which is probably the key to the Johnson-Raab exchange – that, even as the Taliban marched on Kabul, the Prime Minister himself was still planning to go on holiday to Somerset – which he did, the next day.

Back to Friday 13th. As one Whitehall permanent secretary puts it: “It was a defining day, for sure. There were two dynamics at work. You could see the military and the embassy in Kabul gearing up for the very worst. And then back in London – very different – there were lots of discussions about the etiquette of holidays. I’ve seen my fair share of crises but never one where there was such a – well, such a disconnection.”

So, on the one hand, Ben Wallace was furiously busy deploying 600 British troops to the Afghan theatre to assist with the evacuation of diplomatic staff and selected Afghans.

Johnson hosted a hastily convened meeting of COBRA – the government’s committee for national emergencies – and told his colleagues, many of them dialling in onscreen, that there was no longer a military option for the UK in Afghanistan – though he also insisted that the 20-year-campaign had not been fought in vain and that the threat of al Qaeda had been dramatically reduced.

It was announced on the same day that the British embassy would be moved from the outskirts of Kabul’s green zone to a safer location – or two locations, to be exact: part of the military base at the airport for security and, 200 metres away, the Baron Hotel , where, as the evacuation proceeded, a total of about 20 Foreign Office staff plus 13 Border Force officials – a rapid deployment team or RDT that had been waiting in Dubai to be despatched – would oversee the formalities of the airlift strategy – until, that is, the US-imposed deadline of August 31.

Number Ten was naturally keen to encourage the impression of action and real-time responsiveness.

But the truth is that, under the Whitehall bonnet, the engine was barely audible. In fact, the UK government was basically on holiday – not just Dominic Raab and, from Saturday, the Prime Minister, but the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for Afghanistan, Lord Ahmed of Wimbledon.

Those MPs who had served in the army, several of them in Afghanistan itself, looked on in horror as ministers who should have been at their desks, body-surfed or reclined on sun loungers. 

It also soon transpired that the three key departmental permanent secretaries were also all on holiday: Sir Philip Barton, Matthew Rycroft and David Williams, the top officials at the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, were all absent.

As one parliamentary veteran of the Afghan conflict puts it: “It was just fucking unbelievable.  We’re watching what looks like a historic humanitarian disaster in the making on our TV screens. And all the important people are away. I mean, some you could just about get your head round. But everyone?”

 Saturday August 14th. 

In Afghanistan the last major city in the north of the country, Mazar-i-Sharif, had fallen. The Taliban were closing in on Kabul. The lines outside Kabul airport were growing in size. And President Joe Biden authorised an additional thousand U.S. troops to help with evacuations. 

In spite of all this, Boris Jonson headed off to his Somerset holiday – quietly confident that the crisis was not going to come to a head imminently.

In Kabul, meanwhile, Sir Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, could not afford to think that way. Operation Pitting – the official evacuation plan – was now underway – and our man in Kabul faced a very difficult personal decision.

Should he leave with the majority of his diplomatic colleagues or stay behind? There was an immediate calculation to be made which involved a potentially lethal balance of probabilities.

Once the withdrawal accelerated, the Green Zone – an interconnected area of 22 city blocks, with integrated services and security – would essentially cease to exist.

That meant that until troop reinforcements arrived Bristow and anyone else who stayed behind would be extremely vulnerable. At this point, it was impossible to know how bad things would get at the airport – but the crush of dehydrated and desperate faces at the fences was alarming to say the least.

Not until a number of ship containers were repurposed as barriers could the remaining British contingent feel anything like safe – and that was before they took into account known unknowns such as how the Taliban would act towards Brits when they arrived, or, even worse, what to expect from the hundreds of ISIS-K terrorists who had been released from prisons such as Pul-e-Charkhi on the eastern outskirts of Kabul. 

ISIS-K, incidentally, is an offshoot of the original Islamic State, taking its K from Khorasan, a historic region that covers vast terrains in Iran, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. 

Equally murderous in their hatred of the West and the Taliban, they would indeed go on to kill 175 civilians and 13 US soldiers in an attack outside Kabul Airport on August 26. 

Bristow’s trepidation, in other words, was well justified.

In consultation with his military colleagues, however, he decided to stay. Lurid stories have circulated Westminster ever since about the ambassador being ordered off a plane by a senior Marine officer – but these rumours are not true. 

For a start, Bristow had authority equivalent to a three-star general and out-ranked any of the officers in question. Secondly, such a confrontation could easily have led to a court martial. One of the military personnel involved said: “It was a tense decision for everyone, but it’s just not true that Laurie was ordered off the plane.”

The mythical story – which really took root in London rather than in Kabul – is best understood as a measure of the febrile atmosphere in Westminster and Whitehall as well as in the Afghan capital, and the head of steam that was growing behind the idea that the military was yet again being let down by the civilians – lions led by donkeys. 

To be fair to Laurie Bristow, nobody who was involved in the evacuation – especially the first few days when he and his colleagues were extremely vulnerable – seriously questions his courage or application; qualities, indeed, that are often contrasted with the shakier performance of the politicians back home.

Early on the morning of the 17th, Bristow was awoken in his makeshift quarters by the distinctive roar of C-17 aircraft landing – which meant that military support was arriving and that he and his staff would no longer be effectively at the mercy of the Taliban and ISIS-K.

But let’s go back to Sunday August 15.

As many as 18,000 Afghans had applied for US visas. Thousands of civilians were surging to break through the gates of Kabul International Airport. The volume was so overwhelming that security forces fired gunshots into the air to force people back.

In spite of all this, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President, was still almost as confident as Boris Johnson that a Taliban victory was not imminent. He consulted friends within and outside Afghanistan, pledging his undying devotion to the people of his nation and to the office he had held since September 2014.

I have spoken to sources within Ghani’s circle at the time and they are emphatic that the president, though conscious that his days in office were numbered, was definitely not planning to cut and run on the Saturday.

This confidence was still intact on the morning of Sunday August 15. At 8:31am, Kabul time (three and a half hours ahead of British Summer Time), Matin Bek, Ashraf Ghani’s well-regarded chief of staff, tweeted: “Don’t panic! Kabul is safe!”

But here’s the same Matin Bek in a subsequent interview with the BBC’s Lyse Doucet about the extraordinary events of August 15, and what happened with Ashraf Ghani and Hanif Atmar, the foreign minister.

After becoming sure that Taliban would not enter the city, because they announced it, things were back in control, that was our understanding together. And we made Ghani give a statement after it all finished, after putting everything in order, he said I will go home. So we said bye to him, he went home and then after lunch, around 2:45, we’re walking back and I saw a helicopter take off. And then Atmar came and he told me, “where’s the president?” I told him he was with us half an hour ago, and he went home. He said, “no, he ran away.” And I said no, everything’s okay, why should he run away? He said, “no, he ran away.”

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Matt, narrating: President Ghani’s flight was a ‘game over’ moment. Without the head of state, the faltering Afghan government was doomed and Taliban victory assured.

Why had Ashraf Ghani changed his mind? Had he misled his chief of staff and other most senior lieutenants?

Not exactly. The truth, I have learned, is at the heart of this story, and reveals the shocking extent to which even the Afghan President – let alone the British government – was kept out of the loop when it really mattered.

The Taliban were on the edges of Kabul, with no overwhelming desire to enter until the messy business of evacuation was mostly complete.  They communicated this desire to the US government via a back-channel overseen by the CIA.

The message from the Taliban to the Americans was: take your time, a fortnight or more, we will wait before we enter the capital. We have absolutely no desire to preside over the evacuation.

The astonishing response to the Taliban from the US was: no thanks. You need to get into Kabul and maintain order now. The Afghan government is a lame duck and Nato certainly isn’t going to take responsibility for the city.

In other words: over to you, boys. Enjoy running the country.

President Ghani’s chief of intelligence was tipped off to this nerve-shredding development, and told his boss immediately. As soon as he learned that the Taliban had secretly received the green light from the Americans, he knew that he was in mortal danger. 

He fled immediately, without a second thought, taking refuge in the United Arab Emirates.

Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has gone, he’s left the country, as Taliban leaders push for what they say is a peaceful transfer of power in Kabul. 

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Matt, narrating: As underhand as this US-Taliban back channel may seem it is essentially consistent with what had happened in the preceding 18 months as Donald Trump and then Joe Biden accelerated the US withdrawal from Afghanistan begun by Barack Obama in 2014.

To understand what was going on in Kabul that fateful August Sunday, we have to scroll back to February 2020, when President Trump signed the so-called Doha Agreement with the Taliban, committing the US – without reference to the Afghan government – to full withdrawal by May 2021.

The US and the Afghan Taliban have just signed a long awaited deal, aimed at paving the way to peace and the departure of foreign troops within 14 months, if the Taliban honours it’s part of the agreement. 

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Matt, narrating: None of this was a surprise from Trump, a nationalist who proudly declared his lack of interest in “shithole countries” and made the slogan “America first” the touchstone of all US foreign strategy.

The mistake that many in the international community made was to imagine that Biden – different, of course, in so many ways to his predecessor – would necessarily reverse his approach to Afghanistan.

Yes, President-elect Biden reassured the world that “America is back”. In his inaugural address on January 20 he was quite explicit:

The world is watching today. So here is my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we have come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example. We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.

President Joe Biden inaugural address

Matt, narrating: Some interpreted this as a promise that the new President would resume the interventionist foreign policies of Bill Clinton and George W Bush. 

Certainly, he was committed to doing much more than Donald Trump on climate change, to engage afresh with Iran on nuclear capacity, and to rebuild bridges with Europe. 

But anyone who had been listening with even half an ear would know that Biden had expressed grave reservations about US involvement in Afghanistan before and during his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-presidency. 

His moral compass in this respect later became his beloved son, Beau, who died of cancer aged only 46 in 2015 – a disease his father was persuaded he might well have contracted from proximity to military burn pits during his army service.

Joe Biden had always believed that the US engagement in Afghanistan had suffered absurd mission creep from the original task in 2001 of driving out al Qaeda and their Taliban protectors to full-blown (and, in his view, pointless) nation-building.

His son’s death only strengthened his conviction that he would under no circumstances put more US troops in harm’s way to fight so-called “forever wars”.  

It suited Biden, of course, to say that his hands were tied by the Trump deal with the Taliban. But the truth is that he was basically content with the essentials of the Doha agreement. He wanted out of Afghanistan, and quickly.

On April 14, the President made his intentions unambiguously clear:

I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth. After consulting closely with our allies and partners, with our military leaders and intelligence personnel, with our diplomats and our development experts, with the Congress and the Vice President, as well as with Mr. Ghani and many others around the world, I have concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war.  It’s time for American troops to come home.

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Matt, narrating: The only amendment was to the detail of the Trump timeline – in that Joe Biden extended the deadline for full US withdrawal from May 2021 to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. He had bought some more time for evacuation. 

But he had also – essentially – handed the Taliban a route map back to power. And he was, and remained, completely unapologetic about choosing this course.

And that course would leave Ghani’s regime effectively defenceless. Yes, the Afghan government had acquired an extraordinary military infrastructure from the Americans. 

But this also involved a totally unsustainable dependency culture which meant that once their US technological enablers – principally contractors – withdrew and took their expertise with them, most of the Black Hawk helicopters were grounded, the more complex comms systems were effectively useless and bomb disposal capacity was almost non-existent. 

Why rake over all this? Because it is impossible to understand what was happening in the UK in these fateful days in August – the strange combination of chaos and inertia – without spelling out the clarity and ruthlessness of Joe Biden’s decision and also the extent to which its implications had not been fully understood by Boris Johnson and many of his fellow Cabinet members.

By July of this year – a hard core of parliamentary military veterans were in regular contact with one another, seriously alarmed by what they saw happening in Afghanistan. 

They included: Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, a Territorial Army Lieutenant Colonel who had served in Afghanistan and helped to set up the government in Helmand province; Johnny Mercer, former veterans minister and commando captain; Tobias Ellwood, a captain in the Royal Green Jackets; Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a major in the Parachute Regiment who had served in Helmand; and Rory Stewart, former International Development Secretary who stood down as an MP in 2019, but had been an officer in the Black Watch and Foreign Office diplomat, and stayed in close touch with his former comrades and contacts.

Now, there was no formality to this group. In fact, it is better described as an informal network of deeply concerned, patriotic ex-soldiers who saw more clearly than almost all UK ministers that Afghanistan was about to be abandoned, that this would put hundreds of British nationals and thousands of Afghans in danger – and, crucially, that the UK government was not remotely ready for what was coming.

If the network had a representative in the Cabinet, it was Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary. Their relations with Wallace were not always smooth – but he was a former captain in the Scots Guards, who had served in Germany, Cyprus and Northern Ireland and been mentioned in dispatches. 

They also had respect for James Heappey, the armed forces minister, who had served in Afghanistan twice as a major in the Rifles, and, they knew, genuinely lost sleep about getting evacuees out.

As one of these soldier-politicians puts it: “Ben could get side-tracked by Whitehall in-fighting, especially with Dominic Raab, but unlike Raab he was a soldier and he was smart and he knew what was at stake.”

Most significantly, Wallace read the runes exactly as the worried MPs did. In an interview with Katy Balls of The Spectator in September, he said: “I remember back in July arguing that whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing.”

Nobody disputes that Ben Wallace was the first senior minister to spot the scale of the threat and its gathering pace. But Boris Johnson was not buying it – not yet, anyway. 

In a statement on Afghanistan to the Commons on July 8, the Prime Minister appeared confident – sanguine, even – that there would be a smooth ending to the withdrawal process.

There is no military path to victory for the Taliban. There must be a peaceful and a negotiated settlement for the political crisis in Afghanistan, and the UK will continue to work to ensure that that takes place. I believe that can happen — I do not believe that the Taliban are guaranteed the kind of victory that we sometimes read about. 

House of Commons debate

Matt, narrating: During this debate, Tom Tugendhat and a handful of other MPs tried to impress upon the Prime Minister quite what was at stake.

Here’s Tugendhat, referring first to the origins of his friendship with the Labour MP Dan Jarvis: 

This is an enormously personal issue for me. I did not meet the hon. Member for Barnsley Central here or in any of the clubs or think-tanks around Westminster—I met him about 20 miles to the west of Garmsir in the desert, as we were fighting side by side against the enemies the Prime Minister has just listed. The achievements he listed were won with the blood of my friends. I can point him to the graves where they now lay.

That legacy is now in real doubt—we know that and we know that it is not just the Prime Minister’s decision and that the US decision to withdraw forces was fundamental here. But can he explain to me how Britain’s foreign policy works in a country like Afghanistan? If persistence is not persistent, if endurance does not endure, how can people trust us as an ally? How can people look at us as a friend? The situation reminds me not of Vietnam, but of Germany in 1950, at a time when we could have walked away. We could have said, “It is too expensive; it is too difficult to rebuild. Let’s let Stalin have it and see what happens.” But we did not. We stayed and, in doing so, we liberated the whole of Europe peacefully. 

House of Commons debate

Matt, narrating: Consider this: more than a month before the fall of Kabul, Boris Johnson was being warned by MPs on his own side of what lay in store and how much was on the line. But it suited his temperament and his goldfish attention span not to pay too much attention. 

At the same time, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, was frantically trying to put together an alternative military coalition that did not involve the Americans but would buy the Afghans more time. He was not having much luck. And he was failing to engage the Prime Minister, who always seemed more interested in something else; sometimes in anything else.

As one Downing Street source put it to me laconically: “It’s fair to say that Afghanistan was not top of the boss’s mind in July. Let’s just leave it at that.”

So – instead – let’s return to Sunday August 15: the news of Ghani’s abrupt departure spread like wildfire throughout Kabul and beyond, prompting a scramble to the airport.

Two scenes capture the shock of what unfolded that day: scenes that flashed across screens all over the world and, in a matter of hours, turned a regional crisis into a growing geopolitical scandal.

The first was of the Taliban in the presidential palace, celebrating the dawn of the new Islamic Emirate, and patrolling the streets of the capital, brandishing AK-47s, restored to power after 20 years in exile:

We just learned that the presidential palace was officially handed over to the Taliban, just remarkable images coming in all day long of this transfer of power. 

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Matt, narrating: The second was the horrific spectacle of people clinging to the wing of a Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft as it took off from the airport – and plunging to their deaths.

Later a plane takes off, and what you’re about to see is disturbing, as the plane ascends, two objects, or people, appear to fall from the fuselage. 

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Matt, narrating: Oh – and in case you were wondering – both Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab had decided to come back from their respective holidays. 

Fresh off the train from Taunton, the PM convened another COBRA meeting.

And, faced with the first such crisis of his premiership – a geo-political fiasco and potential humanitarian disaster in which the Brits were deeply embroiled – his tactic was vintage Johnson: to claim that he wasn’t remotely surprised.

We’ve known for a long time that this was the way things were going. 

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Matt, narrating: But, as one senior diplomat puts it: “He bloody well hadn’t, and that was going to cause big problems in the days that followed.”

As dawn broke on Monday August 16, the night-team at the Foreign Office in King Charles Street was already overwhelmed by the number of emails arriving from all over the world seeking assistance with evacuation – the backlog would soon rise to no fewer than 5,000 messages – and officials struggled both with the scale of the task and the fact that much of the information about people seeking help was incomplete and often duplicated existing requests.

According to one senior Conservative who tried to work out what was going on that Monday morning: “There were basically three completely different systems at the Home Office, Foreign Office and MoD running in parallel. Nothing was joined up. And the biggest problem of all was that there was really nobody in Number Ten you could call up or WhatsApp for guidance or a decision.”

I heard this refrain again and again as I was researching this story: that there was no one-stop shop, no coordinating unit in Downing Street where MPs, NGOs and media could get clear advice on what to do to save lives, minimise suffering and pass on information. 

In theory, the natural point of contact ought to have been Sir Stephen Lovegrove, the National Security Adviser, or David Quarrey, the PM’s International Affairs Adviser and Deputy National Security Adviser. And to be fair, the duo was in constant communication with diplomats in Kabul.

What was lacking, however, was a sense of outreach in Westminster and Whitehall. Those with memory of David Cameron’s government noted, too, that the National Security Council appeared to be meeting much less frequently than one would expect in such a crisis – with the result that there was no real sense of coordination and message discipline.

As MPs’ inboxes. Twitter DMs and WhatsApp groups started to fill with messages from Afghans or their representatives, desperate for immediate assistance, they found themselves being sent round the houses in Whitehall, calling in favours as best they could, but never really sure that there was a system in place to which they could appeal with confidence.

In other words: at exactly the moment that grip was needed at the centre of government, things could hardly have been looser.

And just to bring this side of the story up to date, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is ready to bring forward a 25-year-old Foreign Office whistleblower, who, I am told, will recount his total unpreparedness for working with these life-or-death cases from home, who had no experience of Afghanistan and its profound complexities – and is now suffering from PTSD. 

Back to Monday August 16: Interviewed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari Ben Wallace became emotional as he confronted the horrible reality that, in these rough-and-ready circumstances, no evacuation strategy was going to be completely effective:

It’s a really deep part of regret for me, some people won’t get back, some people won’t get back and we will have to do our best in third countries to process those people.

News clip

Matt, narrating: Back in Number Ten, the PM was starting to experience a different emotion: that of being out in the cold. 

He and his staff put in a request for a one-on-one call with President Biden – a routine ask for a UK Prime Minister in the middle of a crisis – and were very surprised to be given the polite run-around.

Yes, the President was very keen to speak to the Prime Minister but he was very busy – so he would get back to him very soon.

To put this in context: the importance of the so-called special relationship between the US and Britain has often been exaggerated, and – to say the least – not every President has taken to every Prime Minister. Bill Clinton, for instance, never forgave John Major for the Tory Party’s investigations into his past as an Oxford student – looking for dirt to help his opponent in the 1992 presidential elections, George Bush Sr.

But, in times of conflict and crisis, the alliance has been a powerful force on the global stage since the Second World War. In the early stages of Operation Enduring Freedom – the liberation of Afghanistan in 2001 – the US National Security Council was practically patched into Tony Blair’s Number Ten. No significant decision on the war was taken without, at a minimum, consultation between George Bush Jr and the then Prime Minister.

President Obama may have wanted to end the “war on terror” and to pivot US strategy to the Pacific – but he and David Cameron still referred in joint statements to the “essential relationship” between the US and the UK; and, reluctant though he was to do so, Obama gave Cameron the basic military assistance he needed in 2011 against Colonel Gaddafi’s genocidal regime in Libya after almost daily phone calls.

So, ten years later, where was Boris’s phone call? 

It’s essential to understand why this mattered so much to the PM, leaving aside his vanity. Naturally, what  diplomats call the  “mechanical” aspects of their profession – the routine daily and sometimes hourly contacts between UK government members and their US counterparts, on trade, consular, legal and other everyday matters – well, that all continued as usual. It wasn’t as though America was about the break off formal relations with the UK.

What stopped was what one Foreign Office veteran described to me as “real diplomacy – all the extra stuff”. Which is to say: the private call between president and prime minister, or between Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary; the secure tip-off from the US National Security Adviser to his opposite number in Whitehall; the friendly text from the American ambassador in London to someone known to be close to the PM that something officially classified is about to happen.

All that was conspicuous by its absence. As one Number Ten official puts it ruefully: “It was as if the special relationship stopped for a fortnight.”

And ignominiously so. I know I wasn’t the only political journalist contacted by a senior UK government member asking: ‘What have you heard from Washington?’ or words to that effect.

In practice, Downing Street had to wait like the rest of us to hear President Biden’s statement in the East Room of the White House at 4:02pm Eastern Time on Monday 16th. 

The US commander-in-chief was, as it turned out, decidedly unsympathetic to those who wanted him to pause the withdrawal or even show a measure of contrition for the chaos unfolding in Kabul:

American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars.  We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. The Taliban does not have an air force.  We provided close air support.  We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.

President Joe Biden in the East Room

Matt, narrating: Harsh words, or so it seemed to many in the UK who had fought or worked alongside the Afghans in the previous 20 years.

As President Biden’s uncompromising statement sunk in, the question hovering over Whitehall was: why are we being left out in the cold?

To some extent it wasn’t personal: the Americans were, as the military put it, “running hot, and running solo.” There was to be no global focus group on a withdrawal that the White House knew would be messy and would generate a lot of diplomatic outrage around the world. 

Nato itself was now being effectively reduced to a subsidiary of US foreign policy. Why ask permission for something you’ve already decided to do?

On the other hand, the exclusion of the Brits was especially pointed. And this reflected personal and structural factors.

Joe Biden and his entourage had decided that they could work with Boris Johnson but that he was not their kind of guy. He seemed a bit too much like a well-educated Donald Trump – all swagger, no substance – and he had not been forgiven for his artless reference to Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” ancestry in 2016.

Worse was the firm opinion of Dominic Raab held by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State. According to a friend of Blinken: “He just thinks Raab is ridiculous, not a serious person. He thinks Brexit and the Brexiteers are absurd. He’s a smart guy who hates wasting time.”

Blinken also speaks perfect French and, according to the same source, would much rather spend half an hour on the phone to Jean-Yves Riand, the French foreign minister, than five speaking to Dominic Raab.

Much more significant, however, were the structural problems underpinning this general lack of personal affinity and chemistry between the principal protagonists in the US-UK relationship.

Brexit itself was not a deal-breaker – “dumb but not decisive,” is how one American diplomat describes it. Indeed, the US-UK-Australia submarine pact in September was to show that America was still always happy to do business with the Brits when it was expedient.

But what the UK could never be again was a gateway for the US to the European Union; or a go-between when relations frayed between the White House and what the late Donald Rumsfeld, former US Defense Secretary, called “Old Europe”. 

If the Brits wanted to go it alone, a buccaneering galleon on the high seas noisily declaring the virtues of “Global Britain” – well, that was their business. But it made them a whole lot less useful or interesting to any US President, of whatever party.

At the Pentagon, the Americans continued to admire Britain’s special forces capability and its intelligence services, especially what GCHQ had to offer the National Security Agency in cyberwarfare. But when it came to heavy lifting – well, the UK Army was shrinking fast, set to be reduced to 72,500 soldiers by 2025. 

It all fit a pattern, as far as those inside the Beltway were concerned. In November 2020, it did not escape the attention of US Britain-watchers that Chancellor Rishi Sunak had cut the UK’s international development budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP. All this was consistent with the retreat of a once-great nation from its former prominent role in world affairs. 

According to one UK minister: “That silence from Biden on the Monday was really instructive. I started by being outraged, you know, thinking: how dare he not call the Prime Minister of this country? But then I started to realise I was asking the wrong question. I mean, to be honest: why would he call us?”

This was, in other words, a light bulb moment of the ugliest sort. Here we are, in the midst of a huge airlift, disengaging from a 20-year conflict in which Britain was closely involved at every stage and many British lives were lost and we don’t even get a phone call from the President.

What did that say about the shrinking power and presence of Britain on the global stage? It was starting to dawn on the governing class in Westminster and Whitehall that the answer to that question was bitter indeed.

In the second episode of this newscast, we’ll learn of the desperate attempts by MPs to get Afghans out of Kabul, the playground politics in Whitehall, a historic debate in Parliament, and the legacy to the world of these 11 Days in August.

Next in this file

Retreat from Kabul: 11 days in August – Part II

Retreat from Kabul: 11 days in August – Part II

In Kabul, the Taliban’s takeover was assured. In London, an ignominious retreat, and the betrayal of former comrades in the Afghan army, was more than a group of ex-soldiers, now MPs, could stomach

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