+44 (0)1223 330484

“The evacuation was a success; the fact that we had to do it was a strategic failure.”

It is nearly three years since the US and the UK withdrew from Afghanistan.

One of the key figures in the evacuation was the UK’s last ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow – now president of Hughes Hall.

Under Operation Pitting the UK airlifted more than 15,000 Afghans and British nationals out of the capital Kabul as the Taliban seized control of the country.

Laurie has just written a book which chronicles the lead-up to and the events of August 2021. Here Laurie talks about Kabul: Final Call – The Inside Story of the Withdrawal from Afghanistan, August 2021 and what we should learn from the events of 2021.

“Operation Pitting was the absolute limit of what we could have achieved.”

This was not an easy book to write and it’s not meant to be an easy read. I wrote it because what happened in Afghanistan in August 2021 was a huge failure of policy and strategy. But it was more than that. It was a human tragedy for the people of Afghanistan and for all those who had been involved in the 20-year campaign to bring stability and security to Afghanistan. We need to understand what happened and why it happened – otherwise, we will not learn from it.

The world saw what happened. The forces and support needed to keep control of the airport, and to manage the evacuation, was still arriving at the time of the collapse and the subsequent loss of control of the airfield. There were thousands and thousands of desperate people coming across the runways, coming through the barriers, taking over the terminal, standing on planes, holding on to aircraft whilst they were taking off.

“This was not an act of generosity; it was an obligation.”

Why did we need to do it?  The evacuation focused on those Afghans who had worked for us and with us, and whose lives were at great risk if they stayed in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Military interpreters and people who had worked for the Embassy. But also people who had worked to build a modern society: judges; civil society activists; journalists; cultural leaders. They were our colleagues and partners in a shared enterprise.

The conditions in and around the airport deteriorated. There was intense heat, there were children and old people killed in the crush. The evacuation was only possible because of an uneasy truce with the Taliban, the men with guns who we’d fought for twenty years. And just before the evacuation ended, there was a terrorist attack on the airport’s Abbey Gate, very close to our evacuation centre.

“It was my job to get people through it all. The youngest of my staff was 25 years old. The youngest of the soldiers was just 18. They did things that nothing in their lives could have prepared them to do.”

Why did it happen? It was the failure of a 20-year campaign. It wasn’t lack of resources. The Afghan state and military were dependent on our military presence. They quickly collapsed when the US and allied military left. We had not achieved an inclusive political settlement that would have created the conditions for our military to leave. We were dealing with a broad range of political and societal problems which could not be fixed by military means. Some of them were made worse by the military campaign.

The Doha Accord – Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban – was in my view, a strong contender for the title of worst deal in history. It set a timetable for the US-led military to leave, but it did not set binding conditions on the Taliban to cease their military campaign against the government of Afghanistan or to engage seriously in peace negotiations. In doing so it removed any incentive on the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement and it pulled the rug out from under the Afghan state, its armed forces, and its people.

“This operation, this twenty-year operation, finished with Islamic State conducting a suicide bomb attack at the American controlled gate killing 170 Afghans and 13 US servicemen and women.”

We – the international community and governments who supported Afghanistan – bear a very large degree of responsibility for what happened. We supported the government and armed forces of Afghanistan, but we had not created the conditions that would enable us to safely withdraw our military support. The Afghan army was completely dependent on the forces that we were withdrawing. But the United States and its allies pressed ahead with the military withdrawal anyway, even when it was clear that this was leading to disaster. All the expert political and military advice was saying don’t do this.

In the years leading up to the collapse in August 2021, there had been a debate about whether somehow, over the years, the Taliban leadership had changed and understood that there was a place for women and girls in the society. It would have been great if true. But I didn’t see any evidence whatsoever for that being the case. And events since – particularly the Taliban’s complete dismantling of women’s rights – has demonstrated that it was wishful thinking.

“If there is no education for girls that is a failed state. Bad things come out of failed states and that is everyone’s problem.”

One of the things I’m trying to do now is to help Afghans, particularly Afghan women, speak for themselves about this. They are the people paying the highest price for what happened in 2021. Many of those we helped evacuate were leading women journalists, judges, politicians, cultural leaders. They would be extremely vulnerable under Taliban rule. We should also look at what we can do to help Afghan girls get access to education. Their exclusion from school, and university, and opportunity, is an affront to everything that a university like ours stands for.

When we put out calls for volunteers to go to Kabul to help with the evacuation, we had more volunteers than we could use. The people who went to Kabul to help with the evacuation paid a heavy price. But the most important point is they knew why they were doing it. They knew what needed to be done, and they were willing to do it. It was my job to get people through it all. The youngest of my staff was 25 years old. The youngest of the soldiers was just 18. They did things that nothing in their lives could have prepared them to do.

“This was not an easy book to write and it’s not meant to be an easy read. We need to understand what happened and why it happened – otherwise, we will not learn from it.”

During my time in the Foreign Office there were two big interventions, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Different interventions for different reasons. I worked on both, like many of my generation of diplomats. They both went catastrophically wrong, and we will be living with the consequences of both for a very, very long time. It is important we all ask what we can or should learn from these events – as individuals, communities, policymakers, academics, peacekeepers, human beings. If we don’t learn from that it’s a very expensive learning opportunity lost; in terms of geopolitics but above all in terms of the human cost of those wars.

There are sharply different views on those wars, as there are on all conflicts. One of the points I try to get across in the book is about what public service looks like – whether it’s briefing the Prime Minister or speaking to the media, or just getting the job done in the worst situation you can imagine. And it’s about being able to look your colleagues in the eye to explain what you and they did or didn’t do.

“There are some questions to which the answer is military force; there are many questions to which the answer should never be so.”

Perhaps the question is, what is diplomacy for, or what does good diplomacy look like? The short answer is ‘finding a workable political settlement’ but that is easy to say and hard to do. The Americans found it impossible to talk to the Taliban after 9/11; the Taliban found it impossible to talk to the Americans. But unless you bring all these people, and by implication their supporters, into a process that leads towards a workable political settlement you will not find a way out of fighting. Each side needs to work out what it really wants and what they’re prepared to pay or compromise to get it. This is the basis of diplomatic negotiation.

The main thing I learned during those weeks and months is that people are capable of doing really incredible things. We thought that the absolute maximum number of people we might conceivably get out was maybe 5000. In the event we brought over 15,000 people to safety and the chance of a new life.

Laurie Bristow is President of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge. He was previously a British diplomat, serving as UK Ambassador to Afghanistan, Russia and Azerbaijan.

Laurie would like to thank Mary Hockaday and Flight Lieutenant James Langan for joining him and the college community to mark the launch of the book; an opportunity to hear first-hand about the people and the events leading up to the fall of Kabul in August 2021.

Mary, who chaired the discussions at the college event to mark the book’s publication, is Master of Trinity Hall and was controller of BBC World Service at the time of these events. Whilst Laurie was in Afghanistan securing the safe evacuation of vulnerable Afghans and UK nationals, Mary was in the UK, working to bring BBC staff safely out of Afghanistan too.

James spoke at the event, alongside Laurie, about his work documenting these events as part of the two-strong, award-winning Combat Camera Team embedded in Kabul. He is currently a student at Mary’s college, Trinity Hall, and a serving RAF Officer, awarded a Fellowship to study at Cambridge.

James’s imagery has become internationally synonymous with this and other major international and geopolitical events, and he continues to document largescale military operations, prioritising the stories of vulnerable and oppressed people, and working to provide a platform – and give a voice – to those most affected by military activity, displacement and conflict.

Laurie’s book is available online.

For media enquiries, email comms@hughes.cam.ac.uk; 01223 330584.

You can also read about this on the University of Cambridge’s website: www.cam.ac.uk/stories/afghanistan-inside-story-of-the-withdrawal 

Image credit: All images used are taken by the award winning, Combat Camera Team on the ground in Kabul during August 2021: Flight Lieutenant James Langan and Petty Officer Ben Shread. UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021.

4th June 2024