August 23, 2021
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows parliamentarians reacting to Prime Minister Boris Johnson (bottom) during an extraordinary session to discuss the collapse of the Afghan government, Aug. 18, 2021. (Roger Harris/ UK Parliament/AFP)
By Jamie Dettmer | VOA News
U.S. officials are not alone in facing blame for miscalculating the speed of the Taliban offensive. European leaders and their security advisers are also coming under mounting criticism for misjudging how rapidly events would play out in Afghanistan once President Joe Biden had decided on withdrawing American forces from the central Asian country.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his top ministers are being accused by lawmakers from their own party as well as by opposition politicians of failing to have evacuation plans ready ahead of a possible Taliban surge as U.S. and NATO troops were being withdrawn.
With recriminations flying over the lack of apparent evacuation preparation and amid chaotic scenes at Kabul’s airport, a senior member of Johnson’s ruling Conservative party, Tobias Ellwood, a former British defense minister, complained Saturday of lack of coordination between NATO governments.
Ellwood questioned the overall thinking which saw NATO forces being withdrawn before the evacuation of the Afghan civilians they needed to get out. “You don’t get your military out first, you get the civilians out, then you retreat yourselves?” he told “Times Radio,” a British station. “We’ve done it the other way round.”
“Incompetence. Poor judgment. Lack of preparedness. Untruths. Confusion. Complacency. Delay,” was the editorial judgement Sunday of Britain’s Observer newspaper on what has been unfolding at Kabul’s airport of continuing chaos.
Pressure is mounting on Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to resign over the handling of Britain’s evacuation program with lawmakers infuriated that he remained on vacation with his family in Crete last week as the Taliban rolled into Kabul. Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, fumed to the BBC that Raab’s absence showed a “ministerial lack of urgency.”
Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, said Sunday that the response of Boris Johnson’s government has been characterized by “complete and utter complacency from start to finish.”
Merkel under fire
In Germany, too, which withdrew its last contingent of around 570 soldiers from Afghanistan in June, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is also facing a storm of criticism for not having finalized before the fall of Kabul evacuation plans for Afghans who worked with German forces.
According to Der Spiegel magazine, top German officials started discussing in April what to do about local hires, including translators, drivers, and cooks, but for weeks disagreed about who deserved to be evacuated — whether it should be all 50,000 Afghans who had worked for the German military mission since 2013 — or only those who have worked the past two years.
There were months-long disputes about whether scheduled flights from Kabul should be used, with the evacuees paying their own way, or whether the German government should arrange charter flights, according to minutes of meetings seen by Der Spiegel.
At various times over the past two months, as more towns and districts fell to the Taliban in a quickening tempo and as the Islamists drew nearer the Afghan capital, appeals were made to Chancellor Merkel to intervene in the multi-agency disputes.
Four weeks ago, when half of Afghanistan had already fallen under Taliban control, lawmakers, drawn from government and opposition parties, sent a joint letter to Merkel asking her to sort out evacuation plans. “We are appealing to you urgently and therefore publicly because time is very short and Germany is in danger of betraying its commitments to local hires in Afghanistan,” they wrote.
The failure to finalize evacuation plans is being put down to a miscalculation — also made in Washington — at the speed of the Taliban offensive as well as misjudgments about when the Afghan government and army might give up. Like their American counterparts, European intelligence and security agencies thought they had more time.
Two weeks ago, General Nick Carter, chief of Britain’s defense staff, wrote in an article in The Times newspaper that it was much too soon “to write off the country.” “There are increasing signs that the population is rallying in defiance,” he said. In late July, Germany’s intelligence service, commonly known by its German acronym BND, was also suggesting a much longer time frame for a Taliban victory, saying that it would take around three months, according to German media reports.
German intelligence officials predicted Taliban fighters would besiege Kabul until the government surrendered. They did not reckon on the sudden flight of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Forty-eight hours before the Taliban seized Kabul with hardly a shot being fired, the BND changed its assessment but forecast the capital would not fall before September 11.
A key reason for the miscalculation is that the BND, like other Western intelligence agencies, apparently failed to pick up an infiltration strategy the Taliban had launched months earlier involving moving fighters stealthy into position in key cities ready to emerge when needed, concede some European military officials speaking, on the condition of anonymity, with VOA. In many towns, including Kabul, Taliban fighters were already on the ground.
And in some cases, within the ranks of the Afghan National Army, says Ali Nazari, a spokesman for Ahmad Massoud, the son of a charismatic warlord assassinated by al-Qaida, who is forming a nascent anti-Taliban movement in the mountainous Panjshir region. He says the impression given by some Western reports of a Taliban blitzkrieg rolling across Afghanistan is wrong.
“There were a lot of Taliban loyalists in the army, a lot of sympathizers and supporters,” he told VOA. They just surrendered to the Taliban. “There was a conspiracy inside the army itself,” he adds.
Nor were Western intelligence agencies fully aware, officials say, of the quick progress the Taliban had been making in striking since May surrender deals with tribal elders and local warlords as well as some leaders of Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities, including the country’s Hazara, who have long faced violent persecution from the Taliban because of their ethnicity and Shi’ite Muslim adherence.
Another factor was the failure to appreciate the hollowness of the Afghan government and the demoralization of the country’s national army, German foreign minister Heiko Maas admitted last week. “There is no talking this up. All of us — the federal government, intelligence services, the international community — misjudged the situation,” Maas told a press conference in Berlin.
Taliban are also surprised
In the defense of Western officials, American and Europe, Taliban leaders also appear to have been taken aback by the ten days that shook the world. They, too, had not anticipated such quick success with their two-month-long outside-in military strategy, which saw them slowly tightening their grip on rural districts before securing regional capitals.
“It is an unexpected victory,” Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the Taliban leaders, said in a video message last week. Taliban leaders had been negotiating with Afghan President Ghani for a transitional arrangement that would have delayed their entry into Kabul, notes Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a research institution in Washington D.C.
“The Taliban were keen on that as they didn’t think they had the capacity to immediately take control of the city,” Nasr, a former senior advisor to the U.S. State Department on Afghanistan, said during an online discussion hosted by the Asia Society, a global non-profit.