British MPs see 'retreat' as Boris Johnson confirms Afghanistan exit

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The last British troops in Afghanistan are leaving, ending a two-decade-long presence in a move some of Boris Johnson’s own MPs condemned as a “retreat.”

As he follows the lead of U.S. President Joe Biden in drawing down his country’s military presence, British Prime Minister Johnson told MPs Thursday the U.K. must be “realistic about our ability alone to influence the course of events.”

Biden’s administration confirmed this week that its own withdrawal is on track to be completed by the end of August. It comes amid warnings that Afghanistan could plunge further into civil war in the face of a Taliban insurgency.

Despite such grim predictions about Afghanistan’s future, Johnson hailed a “very different” picture to the one which prompted Britain to support the U.S.-led invasion of the south Asian country in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

“The training camps have been destroyed,” Johnson said. “What remains of al-Qaeda leadership no longer resides in Afghanistan, and no terrorist attacks against Western targets have been mounted from Afghan soil since 2001. We should never lose sight of these essential facts.”

More than 450 British soldiers have been killed during Britain’s time in Afghanistan. The U.K.’s last combat troops left the country in 2014, but hundreds of British armed service members remained as part of a NATO mission to train Afghan forces.

Paying tribute to their “valor” and “sacrifice,” Johnson insisted Britain would continue to push for “a stable Afghanistan, but with different tools in our hands.”

Conservative criticism

Yet several senior Conservative MPs were scathing about the U.K.’s decision to move in lockstep with Biden.

Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan and now chairs the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said the achievements listed by Johnson “were won with the blood of my friends, and I can point him to the graves where they now lay.” Their legacy, he warned, was now in “real doubt, and we know it.”

“Can he explain to me, how does Britain’s foreign policy work in a country like Afghanistan, if persistence isn’t persistent, if endurance doesn’t endure, then how can people trust us as an ally? How can people look at us as a friend?”

Britain’s foreign policy, he warned, must amount to more than “God bless America.”

Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier who chairs the cross-party defense select committee, acknowledged the gravity of the choice facing Johnson. Yet, he said, “when an overseas operation lasts two decades, costs hundreds of British lives, billions of pounds to the taxpayer and ends in retreat, it would be a dereliction of duty not to ask what went so wrong.”

Ellwood is among those pressing for a public inquiry into Britain’s Afghan intervention, warning Johnson the U.K. now leaves the country “to the fate of the very insurgent organization we went in to defeat in the first place.”

Johnson, who admitted Wednesday he is “apprehensive” about Afghanistan’s fate, brushed off the call for a post-mortem and tried to reassure MPs “we are not walking away.”

Britain will, he said, maintain its embassy in Kabul, and will continue to try to press for a “negotiated settlement” by urging neighboring Pakistan to convince the Taliban “there can be no military path to victory.”

“This was never intended at any stage to be an open-ended commitment or engagement by the U.K. armed services in Afghanistan,” he said. “There was no intention for us to remain there forever.”

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