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The last British troops in Afghanistan are withdrawing, ending a two-decade presence in a move condemned as a “retreat” by some of Boris Johnson’s own MPs.
Following the example of US President Joe Biden in reducing his country’s military presence, UK Prime Minister Johnson told MPs on Thursday that Britain “needs to be realistic about our ability alone to influence the course of events”.
The Biden government confirmed this week that its own withdrawal should be completed by the end of August. It comes amid warnings that Afghanistan could plunge further into civil war in the face of a Taliban insurgency.
Despite these dire predictions about Afghanistan’s future, Johnson painted a “very different” picture than what led Britain to support the US-led invasion of the South Asian country following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“The training camps were destroyed,” said Johnson. “What is left of the al-Qaeda leadership no longer resides in Afghanistan, and there have been no terrorist attacks against western targets from Afghan soil since 2001. We should never lose sight of these essential facts. “
More than 450 British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan during the British period. The UK’s last combat troops left the country in 2014, but hundreds of British forces remained on a NATO mission to train Afghan forces.
In tribute to their “courage” and “sacrifice”, Johnson insisted that Britain would continue to push for “a stable Afghanistan, but by other means in our hands”.
Still, several senior Conservative MPs were devastating about Britain’s decision to go in step with Biden.
Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan and now heads the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said the achievements Johnson listed were “made with the blood of my friends and I can point him to the graves where they now lie” . Her legacy, he warned, was now “genuinely in doubt, and we know it”.
“Can he explain to me how British foreign policy works in a country like Afghanistan, if persistence does not persist, if perseverance does not hold, how can people trust us as allies? How can people see us as friends? “
Britain’s foreign policy, he warned, must mean more than “God bless America”.
Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier who chairs the bipartisan defense committee, admitted the gravity of the decision Johnson faces. However, he said, “If an overseas operation lasts two decades, kills hundreds of Britons, costs taxpayers billions of pounds, and ends up in retreat, it would be a breach of duty not to ask what went so wrong.”
Ellwood urges a public inquiry into British intervention in Afghanistan and warns Johnson that the UK will now “leave the country to the fate of the insurgent organization we were primarily trying to defeat”.
Johnson, who admitted on Wednesday that he was “concerned” about the fate of Afghanistan, dismissed the request for an autopsy and tried to reassure MPs that “we are not going away”.
Britain will maintain its embassy in Kabul and continue to try to push for a “negotiated settlement” by urging neighboring Pakistan to convince the Taliban that “there can be no military way to victory”.
“At no point was this intended to be an indefinite undertaking or commitment by the British armed forces in Afghanistan,” he said. “We didn’t intend to stay there forever.”