We were not defeated in Afghanistan, UK defence secretary Ben Wallace says

‘Aim your anger at the US’ for signing deal with the Taliban, defence secretary tells MPs

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 26 October 2021 22:04
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Nato was not defeated in Afghanistan, says defence secretary

Britain's defence secretary has denied that the Afghanistan war ended in defeat, two months after the retreat of Nato forces and the Taliban's retaking of Kabul.

Speaking at a parliamentary committee on Tuesday Ben Wallace said the US, British and other Nato forces had lacked "resolve" – while pointing the finger at the US.

Mr Wallace said it was "reasonable" to expect the Afghan army, which melted away in the face of a rapid Taliban advance as soon as Nato troops withdrew, to have held out longer.

And he told an MP angry at the consequences of the withdrawal: "If you want to aim your anger at the US: I didn't sign the Doha agreement. The Doha agreement was done by the United States."

Asked whether Nato forces had been defeated in the country, which immediately reverted to Taliban control after 20 years of occupation, Mr Wallace said: "No, I don't, I don't think we were defeated.

"I think if we had chosen to stay as the force we had, or indeed, if we wanted to continue, we were... our resolve was found wanting is what I would say, rather than defeated.

"I don't think we were militarily defeated if we had stayed at force levels that were required. We always had a military advantage until we started reducing [troop numbers]."

The Taliban was largely vanquished during the initial invasion of 2001 but gradually retook large swathes of territory in the country in the intervening two decades.

But the final withdrawal of the last US and Nato combat forces saw those gains accelerate rapidly, with practically the whole country falling to the Taliban in a matter of days.

Mr Wallace told the committee: "Many people across the international community felt that there was an Afghan army, there was a significant sized, well resourced Afghan army with actually lots of equipment, that I think people had thought might have stayed longer in role.

"Whatever you we think about the internal conditions about the Doha agreement, which I felt was a rotten deal, even with that and the conditions, I don't think it was unreasonable for many people to have thought that all those Afghans, hundreds of thousands of people under arms, who have been trained and equipped."

He painted a picture in which the UK had little input to US strategic decisions about withdrawal, despite being the second largest combat force deployed in the country,

"I would meet the United States Secretary State of defence , and he would say we're planning to do this by then. And then a few weeks later, those timetables might change. And then we'd just have to take the cue," he said.

On the question of whether the retreat from the country was a defeat, Mr Wallace said: "The US Doha deal, and then NATO chose to draw down, to leave.

"They could have said, we're not doing a deal, and we're staying there. And yes, we would have continued to lose men and women of our armed forces.

"But it was never the case that militarily the forces available to NATO weren't overwhelming. But we took a decision, or the Doha deal in cause of the deal to do it."

Conservative MP Mark Francois, who sits on the committee, suggested that it was "sophistry" to claim the Nato withdrawal was not a defeat. Accepting that the US and UK had not been defeated in the field, he asked: "What's the difference?"

Mr Wallace said: "I think the difference is NATO were there to enable a political resolution and political campaign and I think that is what failed.

"We were enabling: the military were there to put in place the security environment in order to try and deliver that. When that was withdrawn that's when you find out whether your political campaign has worked.

"And I think what we discovered is it didn't work. And so it was the the Western resolve and the Western political narrative or political foundations they had laid, failed. And I think there's lots of searching questions there for all of us.

"Whether that was did we overlook corruption? Did we have optimism bias in the capacity of the Afghan forces to want to stand against the Taliban, bearing in mind their significant casualty rates."

The Doha agreement was signed by US president Donald Trump in February 2020 and committed to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May 2020. The agreement, negotiated with the Taliban’s leadership, was honoured by Joe Biden, though its deadline was extended. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to prevent Al Qaeda from operating from areas under its control.

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