Retreating from Afghanistan has never been a task at which the British military has excelled. Our first incursion in 1839 resulted in the wholesale massacre of an entire division, save for an army doctor by the name of Dr William Brydon, who was spared only so he could tell the tale. Troops fighting the Second Afghan War of the early 1880s only avoided a similar fate through the exertions of General Frederick ‘Bob’ Roberts, who rescued a British force on the outskirts of Kandahar as it was on the point of being overrun. Now we are about to attempt this tricky business for a third time.
Not that you’d know it from listening to David Cameron — whose attention has moved on to Mali and Syria — but the attempt to extricate our army from Afghanistan will be one of the most daunting challenges ever undertaken by the British military. Retreat is often the most dangerous part of a deployment, especially when the military falls below the critical mass required to protect itself. Our plan depends on trusting Afghan troops who have already shown a worrying ability to switch sides. No wonder army wives have begun to pass around copies of Florentia Sale’s hair-raising account about the first retreat from Kabul — and shudder.
The first great danger for all troops was exemplified horrifically this week. Two American soldiers were killed on Monday when their Afghan ‘trainee’ turned his gun on them during a morning meeting. The US military denounced the attack as a ‘betrayal’, but it fits a trend of ‘green on blue’ killings over the past few months. As the allied forces grow thinner, far more British and American lives will depend on the soldiers of the country we are leaving — having failed to reach a political settlement with the Taleban, far less defeat them.
We have been here before, of course, during our ignominious retreat from Basra during the Iraq conflict, when Gordon Brown’s unilateral decision to halve the strength of the British contingent left it at the mercy of the Mahdi Army militias. To save our own skins we abandoned Basra to the death squads, with the result that the Americans had to retake the city. This sent a message: the Brits have no staying power. When Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith led Britain’s Helmand taskforce five years ago, he told The Spectator that ‘this is a task which one measures in decades’. In Washington and London, they decided differently and a 2014 withdrawal deadline was set two years ago.
Few of our senior military officers have much enthusiasm for the manner of our departure from Afghanistan. They mutter darkly about the Obama administration having pulled the rug from under what was a perfectly well-conceived counter-insurgency campaign, and fear all the gains and sacrifices of recent years will be for nothing. Even if we could rest assured that the Afghan troops would cover our backs, the logistics of withdrawal are mindboggling.
The scale of Britain’s military investment in Afghanistan has grown beyond all recognition from the modest base at Camp Bastion I first visited six years ago. Then, the beleaguered garrison was overseen by Brigadier Ed Butler and comprised a few air-conditioned containers and tents. Today Camp Bastion, which is situated to the northwest of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, is a vast, sprawling complex, four miles long by two miles wide. It accommodates around 28,000 people.
It’s the sheer volume of material that needs to be shifted that makes things so tricky. Britain has an estimated £4 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan, including 3,000 armoured vehicles. And what can safely be left behind? In their euphoria over the Soviets’ defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 (where 15,000 Russians were killed), Washington paid insufficient attention to recovering all the equipment, such as shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, which had been supplied to the mujahedin. Consequently the CIA was obliged to spend much of the next decade desperately trying to retrieve the weapons to ensure they did not fall into the hands of al-Qa’eda militants to be used in attacks against civilian aircraft.
Defence officials in London pooh-pooh the suggestion that we might make similar mistakes, and the laborious task has already begun of extracting high-value equipment, such as the latest generation of armoured vehicles and communications equipment, (which is being flown out in the RAF’s giant C-17 transporter aircraft). But more basic equipment, such as large stockpiles of military tyres or the air-conditioning units that have been in such great demand in the sweltering heat of Helmand, will be abandoned. And the rest of the kit must be brought out overland.
This brings us to another difficulty. In 2006, Pakistan provided the main supply route. Equipment unloaded at the port of Karachi was then transported overland through the forbidding mountain passes leading to Afghanistan. But the deterioration in relations between Washington and Islamabad caused by the bin Laden assassination mission two years ago means that Pakistan is being far less co-operative.
In the time-honoured tradition of frontier politics, the Pakistanis have demanded the payment of hefty bribes to guarantee the safe passage of Nato men and equipment — although Americans already make a $2 billion contribution into the pension pot of the Pakistani military. And even if we roll over and let ourselves be blackmailed by Pakistan, there is still no real guarantee of safe transit. Withdrawal has only just begun, and the Taleban has already made targeting Nato convoys one of its main priorities. Then there is the Pakistani corruption factor to be considered: Canadian officials estimate around a quarter of their equipment went missing while in transit through Pakistan when they withdrew in 2011.
All of this explains why British and American officials have turned their attention to the north, where the landlocked republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have suddenly become every western diplomat’s favourite watering hole. The dictatorial regimes of these countries’ respective leaders, Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, may not top an international good governance poll but they do offer the prospect of a safe and uninterrupted passage out of Afghanistan. The hunt for safe passage is already shaping government policy.
Philip Hammond, the cost-conscious defence secretary, has become a regular visitor to Tashkent and Astana, where he has negotiated deals whereby the British military can make good use of the Northern Distribution Network, a modern-day version of the Silk Route, which is currently used to ship supplies into Afghanistan. Large quantities of British equipment will soon be shipped 4,000 miles overland to the Baltic port of Riga, where it will then be shipped back to Britain.
When Britain withdrew from Iraq, the government did so under the cover of a necessary fiction: that Basra had been pacified and we were handing over to local police. This time, fewer claims are being made about pacified Afghanistan. The opium industry is back with a vengeance: recent reports indicate that cultivation rose by a fifth last year. The Taleban has long been running its own parallel government structures, in preparation for the withdrawal. Karzai, feeling abandoned, has gone so far as to suggest this week that the US and the Taleban have a common goal in destabilising his country.
If this is the way our supposed Afghan allies view our exit strategy, then Britain’s attempt to undertake a dignified retreat from Kabul has all the makings of yet another Afghan disaster.
Con Coughlin discusses the Afghan retreat in this week’s podcast, The View From 22 www.spectator.co.uk/podcast
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 March 2013