The real reason Biden was prepared to let Kabul fall

The speed of the Taliban’s advance, culminating in Sunday’s capture of Kabul, has been widely put forward as proof that Joe Biden was wrong: that his decision to end the 20 year-old Afghan mission was a historic mistake that will blight his presidency. For all that, as he himself has said, he was the fourth president to preside over the war and he would not hand it over to a fifth, he could go down only as the president who lost Afghanistan. Maybe. But is this really how the United States — and allied — flight from Afghanistan will be seen with the benefit of even a little hindsight? Much,

Katy Balls

Boris faces a backlash from Tory MPs over Afghanistan

After the Taliban took over Kabul and announced victory in Afghanistan, a scramble is underway by diplomats and many Afghans to flee the country. There are videos overnight of distressing scenes at Kabul airport where crowds have assembled in an attempt to get out. The US embassy has since issued an advisory to American citizens and Afghan nationals not to travel to the airport until notified. As the chaos unfolds – and both UK and US estimates on the likely speed of the Taliban advance prove embarrassingly wide of the mark – anger is building among MPs over the government’s handling of the situation. Dominic Raab has flown back from

Our moral obligation to the Afghans who took us at our word

The speed of the Taliban’s advance in Afghanistan is remarkable. Even those who thought that the Trump / Biden policy of withdrawal was a folly, did not expect that Kabul would be surrounded before the end of August. Their only mistake was to believe our assurances about having an enduring commitment to the country What makes the whole situation, with all the suffering that ordinary Afghans will endure and the damage being done to the US’s reputation for being a reliable ally, so exasperating is that after years of failure the US and Nato had found a relatively low cost way of maintaining a form of stability in the country. This

More diplomacy won’t stop the advance of the Taleban

On 11 August, at Russia’s initiative, an ‘extended troika’ will meet in Doha, Qatar to take stock of the Taleban’s major offensive to take over Afghanistan. The United States, scheduled to withdraw its forces by the end of this month, has been invited to this ‘Moscow format’, as have China and Pakistan. As of yesterday, the violent Islamist group had taken control of six provincial capitals in Afghanistan – though not the most important cities in the country. The US negotiator at Doha, Zalmay Khalilzad has warned that ‘a Taleban government that comes to power through force in Afghanistan will not be recognised.’ But so far the militants have refused

What we can learn from our mistakes in Afghanistan

After two tours of Iraq as a soldier, I spent six months in Afghanistan in 2007 as part of Operation Herrick VI. My deployment came a year after the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, said we would be ‘perfectly happy to leave the country in three years’ time without firing one shot’. However, the very first night I arrived in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, troops were battling the Taleban across the province, with thousands of shots fired every day. Plans were being made about how we would evacuate our camp if it was overrun. Today, 14 years on, as the final US troops depart, left behind are more

China is the latest victim of Pakistan’s Islamist problem

Nine Chinese engineers were killed in an explosion near Pakistan’s Dasu hydroelectric dam last Wednesday. The government initially said that their bus suffered a ‘mechanical failure’ after it plunged into a ravine, but officials eventually admitted that the incident was a terror attack after Beijing decided to send its own investigators. China has now postponed work on the $65 billion (£47 billion) China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a network of roads and infrastructure projects. The programme represents Beijing’s largest overseas investment and is a critical part of its Belt and Road Initiative. While no one has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, the blast was orchestrated at a time when multiple militant groups

Leave, convert or perish: The fate of Afghanistan’s minorities

President Biden’s decision to ‘end the war in Afghanistan’ means the complete withdrawal of 3,500 US troops by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. However, what may be domestically popular — particularly among Trump voters — will soon have consequences for the Afghans left unguarded by foreign troops. The Taleban and other jihadist militias are already making significant territorial gains while nuclear Pakistan will be strengthened by the vacuum left by the US military. But it is Afghanistan’s non-Muslims who will really suffer. Extinction is a word normally associated with dinosaurs — but it’s no exaggeration to say some minority religions (including my own) will now face that fate at the

Triumph of the Taleban: the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan

There’s an apocryphal story, told and retold by journalists many times over the course of America’s longest war. A Taleban prisoner is sitting, relaxed, across the table from an American interrogator: ‘You may have all the watches,’ the prisoner says, ‘but we have all the time.’ Now, the Taleban’s patience is finally paying off. President Joe Biden has promised that the last US soldier will be out of Afghanistan by the heavily freighted date of 11 September. In fact, all the troops may be back on American soil by the even more symbolic date of 4 July. Other Nato soldiers — including a small British training mission — are hastily

In Afghanistan, Trump and the Taleban want the same thing – Americans out

‘Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!’ As morning alarms go, this one leaves a lot to be desired. Normally I wake up to the long, trippy build-up of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, which I used to love in the searing heat of Mogadishu. But this is Kabul and the occasional grating siren is part and parcel of life in the Green Zone. It turns out to be a false alarm, but not before I have thrown myself to the floor in my duvet and buggered my back. Talking of bed linen, Al-Shabaab suicide bombers once attacked the Somali capital’s presidential compound where I lived. They missed the president but killed my best friend

Quiet terror

They don’t like to use the ‘Q’ word in counter-terrorism. It’s a bit like blurting out the name of the Scottish Play in a theatre. At Christmas parties, members of the security agencies insisted they had never been busier but once the year had turned and they were no longer tempting fate, they were prepared to admit that 2018 was a bit ‘quieter’. There were, for instance, far fewer arrests for ‘attack planning’, as opposed to downloading or sharing instructional and propaganda material. Last year, there were only four foiled attacks and one unsuccessful vehicle attack on Parliament. Right at the last gasp, with three hours to go to New

How to beat terrorism

Until a few years ago, Pakistan was one of the most dangerous countries on earth. The tribal areas in the north were infested by the Taleban, whose bases stretched to within 100 miles of the capital, Islamabad. Western intelligence agencies feared that the Taleban could seize one of the country’s nuclear installations, then hold the world to ransom. Large parts of the country elsewhere were lawless or terrorised by armed groups. It would be foolish to claim that Pakistan’s security problems are over. But something extraordinary and unexpected has certainly happened. Since it fails to fit the established narrative of Pakistan as a dangerous nation, it’s gone unacknowledged in the

My longed-for wishing lamppost

Once I read about a wishing lamppost that answered wishes in a place where nobody believed in them. My wish for a first female president didn’t come true and I am still wishing the UK will take in Yazidi sex slave survivors, that Russia will stop bombing Aleppo and that all children can go to school. Ten years ago in a muddy field in Helmand surrounded by Taleban, I wished more than anything not to die. Somehow, miraculously, that wish was granted. But I have never wished anything more than when my son was born 11 weeks early weighing less than a bag of sugar and in a scary intensive

Show business

Sport has never held much appeal for me, so I rarely venture into stadiums. But I do appreciate their peculiar power: I was present at the 2012 Paralympics when George Osborne ill-advisedly turned up to award a medal while engaged in a campaign against disability benefits, and was roundly booed by the entire stadium. It was a transporting lesson in the joy of crowds and the proudest I have ever felt to be British. The stadium, ostensibly a facilitator of mass spectatorship, is actually a machine for producing such feelings. The Greeks were explicit about the ritualistic, community-forming function of their games, but it was the Romans who secularised the

If the Taleban takes Helmand, then Afghanistan could go the way of Syria

Even by Afghan standards, it is an unorthodox cry for help. The governor of Helmand province, Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, has posted on Facebook tagging in Ashram Ghani, the Afghan president, to tell him that some 90 members of the security forces have killed in the past month fighting insurgents and that the province – under British control for so long – may be about to fall to the Taleban. He apologised for using Facebook, but said he was unable to make direct contact with the President by other means. He had this to say:- “Your Excellency, Facebook is not the right forum for speaking with you, but as my voice hasn’t been heard by

Afghanistan’s new agony

Amid all the chaos in the Middle East, the breakdown of borders and states, a new threat is fast emerging. The key strategic bulwark to stabilise the region is a strong Afghanistan. But after 15 years of occupation by western troops and a trillion dollars spent, it now appears to be going the way of the Levant. A weak government in Kabul has proved unable to forge a political consensus. The Taleban is resurgent, while other similar groups control much of the Afghan country-side. And this — with the potential spread factor of Isis — means that Afghanistan is probably worse off today than when foreign forces intervened in 2001.


Toxic virus or Taleban: it’s funny how the mild-mannered Liz Kendall has attracted for her Blairite associations the most violently pejorative terms. Hardly had the Labour leadership contest begun before her allies were being called ‘Taleban New Labour’. No one thought New Labour was really much like the Taleban. That’s why the metaphor was effective: it suggested generalised maleficence. Many people presume that the Taleban is some immemorial movement within Islam, like the Hanbali school or the Wahhabi sect. But it dates back no more than 20 years, to the exiles who returned to Afghanistan having developed strict practices while students of Islamic law in Pakistan. Talib, more fully talib

Portrait of the week | 6 August 2015

Home Tom Hayes, aged 35, a former City trader who rigged the Libor rates daily for nearly four years while working in Tokyo for UBS, then Citigroup, from 2006 until 2010, was jailed by Southwark Crown Court for 14 years for conspiracy to defraud. The government sold a 5.4 per cent stake in Royal Bank of Scotland, for 330p a share, against the 500p or so that it paid six or seven years ago to save the banking group; the government now owns 73 per cent of RBS. Monitor, the regulator for health services in England, sent out letters ‘challenging the plans of the 46 foundation trusts with the biggest

Lost in the telling

This is a thriller, a novel of betrayal and separation, and a reverie on death and grieving. The only key fact I can provide without giving away the plot is that Caroline, the film-making wife of Michael, the novel’s main protagonist, is killed in the badlands of Pakistan by a drone controlled from a facility near Las Vegas. Caroline is filming Taleban leaders when they and Caroline are killed. Michael, who is ‘an immersive journalist’, has spent some years on a project with gangs in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is dangerous but rewarding work, and after a few years his findings are published to some acclaim under

The man feminists seemed to think was worse than the Taleban

Feature writers aren’t often acclaimed for their courage, but Neil Lyndon deserves a bronze plaque in St Bride’s. Twenty-two years ago, he wrote a book called No More Sex War in which he questioned some of the assumptions underlying the modern feminist movement. He pointed out that many of the advances made by women over the past 200 years have been made with the help of men and suggested that men should be regarded as allies in the war against injustice, not defenders of the status quo. Perfectly reasonable, you might think. Not a misogynistic tract, but a progressive critique of radical feminist ideology. Yet that wasn’t the way it

Does Jonathan Powell really want to negotiate with the Islamic State?

I think I’ve finally worked out the time-honoured Jonathan Powell formula for promoting a new book: take which-ever group constitutes the most bloodthirsty terrorist organisation of the day — in this case IS, the warped Islamist force currently enslaving and beheading its way across Iraq and Syria — and create a media fizz by boldly declaring that sooner or later we’re going to have to negotiate with them. Powell’s predicted circumstances in which the ‘talking’ to IS should actually happen, however, are hedged with unrealised conditions. At other moments he will daringly hint that talking is best without any preconditions at all. During the Northern Ireland peace process, one of