The Observer view on Afghanistan: withdrawal should be a cause for lasting shame in Britain and the US

9 April 2023
Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are still failing to take responsibility for abandoning the Afghan people to the Taliban

The fall of Kabul in August 2021 and the accompanying chaotic evacuation of US and UK forces, foreign nationals and limited numbers of Afghan civilians marked the end of a 20-year, western war-fighting and nation-building intervention in Afghanistan begun after the 9/11 attacks.

It also marked the starkest, most humiliating reverse for US and British foreign policy in recent memory. It is extraordinary that, almost two years later, no one in either government has taken responsibility for this fiasco.

report on the Afghan collapse, published last week by the Biden administration, perpetuates this brazen refusal to accept that ministers, senior officials and intelligence chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic fell down on the job. At least President Joe Biden and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, were actually at their desks as the crisis unfolded. Boris Johnson, the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, the Afghanistan minister, Tariq Ahmad, and the Foreign Office permanent secretary, Philip Barton, all went on holiday.

The US report reads like a schoolboy’s excuses for failing to do his homework: defensive, self-justificatory, unapologetic and even self-congratulatory. It is crystal clear that what the report calls “the intelligence and military consensus” in early 2021 that the Afghan army and security forces “would be able to effectively fight to defend their country and their capital, Kabul” after an allied withdrawal was hopelessly, foreseeably wrong.

It is also clear that, despite a “deliberate, intensive, rigorous, and inclusive decision-making process”, Biden’s pressing ahead with the withdrawal ordered by Donald Trump was rash and mistaken and led to disaster. US troops paid with their lives in the Hamid Karzai airport suicide bombing at its Abbey gate. Innumerable Afghans died as Taliban insurgents closed in for the kill. They are still dying.

For some, the report looks like a partisan attempt to shift blame on to Trump, when Republicans are investigating Biden’s actions. While politically self-serving, its skewering of Trump is fully justified. The master deal-maker condemned Afghanistan to a Taliban-ruled future through his giveaway 2020 Doha agreement, which excluded the Afghan government and pledged a rapid US military withdrawal and prisoner releases in exchange for risibly vague Taliban promises to talk peace. To some extent, the agreement tied Biden’s hands.

The US report uncomfortably recalls the UK government’s self-exculpatory Afghan post-mortem, published last year, partly in response to excoriating criticism by the Commons foreign affairs committee. It conceded that there were “areas of its crisis response which need improvement”. Tom Tugendhat, former committee chair, was blunter. “It is clear that leadership within the Foreign Office fell desperately short before, during and after the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he said. As we have suggested before, it is never too late for Raab to resign.

Retrospective inquiries are important but do little to help the Afghan people, day-to-day victims of a huge humanitarian crisis and a violently oppressive, misogynistic Taliban regime. Yet what is the government doing? It is slashing UK aid to Afghan women and girls while abjectly failing refugees and evacuees. The fall of Kabul represented a great betrayal. The betrayal continues.

The Observer view on Afghanistan: withdrawal should be a cause for lasting shame in Britain and the US