Countless volumes will be written about the last few weeks of the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan and the evacuation crisis that engulfed it. It would be easier to wait for the last airlift plane to take to the skies before writing anything about it. However, we hope that the three separate views in this article will help the reader to start thinking critically about what went wrong and the lessons that must be learned. Perhaps the Dominic Raab affair offers us a colourful start to the discussion. This happened in the UK, but it could have happened elsewhere.
The Dominic Raab affair
For the readers in the U.S., Dominic Raab is the UK Foreign Secretary, i.e., the counterpart of U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. As the crisis in Afghanistan intensified and Taliban fighters encroached on the Afghan capital, on Friday, August 13, 2021, Raab was advised by his staff to make immediate contact with the Afghan Foreign Minister Hanif Atmar –this was first reported by The Mail and corroborated by other media outlets. The call was in relation to urgent assistance with the evacuation of interpreters who have worked with the British forces. He failed to make the call. Raab was not even in the UK at the time. He was on holiday in Greece. His reply, “the call was delegated to a minister of state because I was prioritising security and capacity at the airport [from a resort in Crete] on the direct advice of the director and the director general overseeing the crisis response …”. It later transpired that no call by a junior minister was ever made.
Subsequently The Times also revealed that the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (Sir Philip Barton), the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (Matthew Rycroft), and the Ministry of Defence Permanent Secretary (David Williams) were also on leave. For the readers outside the U.K., Permanent Secretaries are the government’s principal civilian advisers, so Rabb is part of the government and Sir Barton is one of his principal advisers.
To round up this snapshot of the political class in the UK at the time the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating rapidly, Sky News uncovered that Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, the minister of state directly responsible for South Asia (including Afghanistan), was on ‘staycation’ as the Taliban marched into Kabul. Moreover, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was also on holiday; at least he returned to Downing Street on Sunday, August 15th, to chair emergency meetings.
Collectively, they lost the moral authority to request the U.S. for an extension to the withdrawal deadline. The precious time lost during those few days will come back to haunt all of them!
A key question emerging from this affair is whether the intelligence briefings prepared for British government ministers were so out of focus for them to behave in such a way? Were they solely relying on American projections and failed to do their own assessments? What about the other coalition partners or NATO? How is it possible that the best intelligence services in the world failed to anticipate the scenario that unfolded in August? Questions like these have crossed the mind of the people following the situation in Afghanistan for the last two months. Above all, was this primarily an intelligence or a political failure?
Getting anxious about the slow evacuation of civilians
There is no hindsight here. This is a brief account of our growing anxiety since April 14, 2021, when U. S. President Joe Biden announced the imminent and full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Firstly, we must remember that ‘a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire’ was designated as an ‘item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations’: part 4 of the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America. The Agreement, signed in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020, was sponsored by the Trump administration. However, the intra-Afghan negotiations never fully materialized and the Taliban’s roadmap to Kabul was characterised by a continuation of the usual attacks on governmental and symbolic targets. This was an unsettling issue calling for more in-depth intelligence and the re-evaluation of preliminary evacuation plans.
Already noted in the Quarterly Report to the United States Congress by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) of April 30, 2021, ‘Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and others have intensified, so military and civilian casualties remain high despite the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement.’ Among other noteworthy examples, on May 8, 2021, a car bombing outside the Sayed ul Shuhada high school in Kabul resulted in up to 85 casualties and 150 injured –an attack not confirmed by the Taliban leadership at the time. Whether the attack was committed by a Taliban faction or a different belligerent group (the difference matters), this was something else to worry about.
In this light, the map below incorporates the dates in which key cities in Afghanistan were captured by the Taliban. Escalation and strategy are detectable in the attacks. For instance, by mid-July the main border crossings were seized. Would disruptions to main transit routes and hubs follow? Maybe at this point it was a good idea to pressurise expats, as well as the Afghans who worked closely with the coalition forces, to leave the country. In addition, there was the issue that the pandemic could slow down evacuations –Afghanistan was in the middle of the Delta variant wave. To be fair, plenty of emails were sent by the U.S. government to the Americans registered as living or working in Afghanistan reminding them to leave the country as soon as possible; other countries in the coalition might have done the same. However, not much changed. There was no sense of urgency in the air.
Fast forward to August 11, 2021, when it was widely reported that U.S. intelligence sources conceded that the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30-60 days and capture the city within 90 days. Given the widespread low sentiment (on the ground and online) and defections across the country, those intelligence projections should have been crosschecked by the coalition partners and evacuation plans gone into overdrive –if it did not happen before, now it was the critical moment to do it. Nevertheless, did you hear of any intelligence projection originating in any country other than the U.S.? Ironically, this happened at the time those British ministers decided to go on holiday. When they returned from holiday evacuations did go into overdrive, but precious time was lost.
It will be years from now, after the many public inquiries, when we will know who knew what and when and what they did about it. At this stage, however, there are reasons to suspect that, on the one hand, the intelligence projections underpinning evacuation scenarios were out of tune with the realities on the ground and, on the other hand, many politicians failed to rise to the challenge to deal with the crisis more imaginatively. Fortunately, the troops remaining in Afghanistan have done an admirable job and for a moment it felt as if they were filling the political void.
Adding legal and political complexities to the mix
When one listens to public testimonies prior to the Taliban seizing control of a significant part of Afghanistan one gets the impression that the peace dialogue between all the relevant parties was progressing and only needed strengthening. Away from Western capitals, however, it is possible to argue that the Taliban felt empowered upon the signing of the Doha Agreement and did not see the need to engage in peace negotiations with the Afghan government. Intelligence aside, perhaps the constant Taliban attacks speak for themselves concerning this issue. After all, the Agreement was between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Afghan government was not a signatory of the instrument ‘for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’.
With regards to ‘Peace’, there was no ceasefire other than with American forces. In the July 2021 SIGAR Quarterly Report, for instance, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs David F. Helvey is quoted on his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee of May 5, 2021, stating that the Taliban “did comply with their agreement not to conduct attacks against the U.S. or Coalition forces … with some very minor exceptions.”
There is also the report from Reuters (neither confirmed nor denied at the time) about a secret annex to the Agreement guaranteeing Taliban protection to western military targets from attacks from rogue Islamist groups. Part II (1) of the Agreement only states that the ‘Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies’. Whether there is a secret annex or not, the quasi entente cordiale with the Taliban suggests that much more has been happening than we know and that the Afghan government under erstwhile President Ashraf Ghan was only a secondary player. This is a distorting factor that might have affected the production of intelligence, as the precise nature and scope of the relationship between the U.S. and the Taliban must have been known to only very few people.
In parallel, particularly outside the U.S., there was an element of disbelief that the U.S. would be withdrawing from Afghanistan despite the Agreement and its endorsement by President Biden. Even contractors thought that the party would go on for much longer. Political inertia can be quite powerful, and an element of groupthink might have plagued also the decision-making process across the coalition. Only time will tell if this truly happened.