Britain’s evacuation of Kabul began with an admission of defeat. Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said that the UK would probably leave having failed to assist everyone who had been promised safe passage. ‘Some people won’t get back,’ he said in tears in one interview. When asked why he was taking it personally, he replied: ‘Because I’m a soldier.’
He’s the first defence secretary for 29 years to be able to make such a claim. He served with the Scots Guards in Germany, Cyprus, Belize and Northern Ireland before entering politics. His experience in uniform, he says, has given him different insights into the job: in this case, recognising just how unpredictable retreats can be.
‘There was really no point kidding the public through the process,’ Wallace says when we meet over Zoom after the last flight has left Afghanistan. ‘It was a bit of a shock when Herat fell. Some of these big places had historically been resistant to the Taliban. When they fell, literally without a fight, I think the game was up. I remember back in July arguing that whatever we think, the game is up and we have to do what we can to accelerate whatever we’re doing.’
In the days before Kandahar fell on 13 August, he made the decision to send 600 troops to Kabul to conduct Operation Pitting, the evacuation mission that has since been dubbed ‘Dunkirk by WhatsApp’ due to the number of people called forward via their mobile phones.
Around this time, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, was in a five-star hotel in Greece, but Wallace is too diplomatic to make the point. For his part, Raab has been blaming military intelligence failures for the humiliation of Kabul. So who was to blame? ‘I’ve already seen some lines about the failure of intelligence,’ Wallace says.