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A Tortoise 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

First published
Monday 22 November 2021

Last updated
Monday 22 November 2021

Why this story?

Sometimes, the door on a long chapter in British history closes slowly, other times the hinge snaps shut – and those sudden events seem to have a particular power to tell us that something has changed about Britain’s place in the world. The withdrawal of western forces from Kabul in the summer of 2021 is one of those moments. Like the Suez Crisis, it unfolded at baffling speed. And, like Suez, future generations will study it as an inflection point which dramatised a truth about the UK’s status which we will look back upon and say should have been obvious all along. Before Brexit we were a declining, middle-sized power within the European Union. Post-Brexit, for better or worse, we are truly on our own.

Matthew d’Ancona has dug deep into the Kabul moment; 11 days in August which marked the end of a 20-year British involvement in Afghanistan. The real tragedy of the withdrawal is being felt now by the millions of Afghan people who are already verging on starvation, and by Afghan women and girls whose rights have been tossed aside in the Taliban takeover. By contrast, the farce which played out in Whitehall as troops and civilians scrambled for the exit in Kabul was an order of magnitude less important. 

But Matt’s reporting is devastating. It reveals a British government and civil service which, too often, appeared not to take their own responsibilities seriously, and were then appalled to find that they were not, themselves, taken seriously as an ally by the United States. It demonstrates the brutal clarity of the US decision to leave – including a cynical, back-channel deal with the Taliban to let them into Kabul – and the meaninglessness of the “special relationship”. And it underscores how strategically short-sighted Britain’s view of the world has become. For all the talk of Global Britain, we seem close to becoming a single-issue country.

The litany of failures during the withdrawal is long. Some of them were moral, despite a number of good people trying to do the right thing, but many were practical; failures of foresight and judgement and – most of all, perhaps – a failure to understand that the world has moved on. The idea of The West has shrunk and, during those 11 days in August, Britain’s place within it had shrunk almost to irrelevance. Ceri Thomas, Editor