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Tory MP Tom Tugendhat slams British Army for Afghanistan withdrawal

‘Stripped down’ British Army can no longer endure conflicts abroad Tory MP Tom Tugendhat warns as he slams Afghanistan withdrawal while Taliban sweep across the country

  • Tom Tugendhat has blasted military chiefs over their decision to pull soldiers out
  • The Tory MP said that it meant the UK can forget about influencing other nations
  • Last British troops are to leave ‘within days’ as US forces expected to go on July 4
  • More than 200 Black Watch soldiers will fly home – ending the UK’s 20-year fight
  • It comes despite fighting still gripping Afghanistan as Taliban battle government

The ‘stripped down’ British Army is no longer an expeditionary force if it cannot even maintain the conflict in Afghanistan with the ‘very small number of soldiers’ there, a Tory MP has warned.

Tom Tugendhat blasted military chiefs over pulling troops out of the country this year – branding it a ‘major strategic mistake’.

The chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who served in the Middle East for four years, said it meant the UK can forget about influencing other nations.

The last British soldiers are to leave ‘within days’ after American forces brought forward their withdrawal date to mark US Independence Day.

More than 200 Black Watch soldiers will fly home, ending the UK’s 20-year deployment which started after 9/11.

But it comes as fighting still grips Afghanistan as hostile forces wage war on the government across the country.

Authorities on Saturday said hundreds of Taliban insurgents were killed in fierce battles across several provinces.

Tom Tugendhat (pictured) blasted military chiefs over the decision to pull troops out of the country this year, branding it a ‘major strategic mistake’

Mr Tugendhat told the Today programme: ‘In 2009 we were engaged in combat operations all over the country.

‘But today, well in the last year when this decision [to withdraw] was made, British troops haven’t been engaged in combat operations.

‘In fact they haven’t been engaged in combat operations for a number of years – we’ve been engaged in training.

‘So this is really much like pulling out of Germany in 1960 than refusing to finish the war in 1945.

‘This is a very very different decision and in that case I think it’s a major strategic mistake.’

He said: ‘What we’re demonstrating very publicly, very clearly, to many different adversaries and indeed sadly also to allies is that the US and her allies won’t stay.

‘Now if you don’t have the ability to persist you can forget about influencing others. Nobody will care what you think if you’re not going to be there tomorrow.’

The last British troops in Afghanistan are to leave ‘within days’ after American forces brought forward their withdrawal date to mark US Independence Day. Pictured: M Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines, during operation against Taliban forces in Barikyu, Nothern Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2014

Dozens of looters moved onto the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan early Thursday morning,  just hours after the final group of US troops vacated the base without telling local officials. Pictured: An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at the base after they managed to regain control on Friday 

The Tory MP for Tonbridge and Malling said when the decision to leave was taken there were fewer than 1,000 British soldiers making up the 10,000-strong Nato force.

He said the Army has more soldiers deployed on operations in Cyprus and the US’s 2,500-troop presence was dwarfed by how many there were in Washington DC.

Mr Tugendhat, who served in the Territorial Army as an officer, continued: ‘These are very very small numbers of soldiers.

‘If the decision is you can’t even endure that, then you can forget about influencing people over different parts of the world where the damage might be greater.

‘What you’re doing by withdrawing is you’re encouraging enemies and you’re dissuading allies – that’s dangerous.’

Asked whether the British Army can engage in warfare without American support anymore, he added: ‘Well if you’re saying the British Army alongside RAF enablers and perhaps some others cannot maintain an operation of 10,000 men or 10,000 personnel this far from home, then what you’re saying is the British Army is no longer an expeditionary force.

‘Now that’s a very big change in British government policy and sadly I think you’re right.

‘The British Army is now sadly being stripped down too far to maintain these kind of operations alongside the other that could do it alone.

‘And that means the UK has withdrawn from global Britain and decided not to operate in such a way.’

The last Union flag of Great Britain flying above the skies of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, is lowered by Captain Matthew Clark and Warrant Officer 1 John Lilley in October 2014

Bagram: the abandoned air strip that became America’s main Afghan base

The airfield was built by the Soviet Union back in the 1950s against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s snow-capped mountains. It became a vital post for Soviet Union after it invaded Afghanistan in 1979. 

However, the Soviets withdrew from the country in 1989 and by the late 1990s, the abandoned air strip was composed of bombed-out hangars and watchtowers without electricity.  

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, US forces quickly occupied the air strip, using it as the Soviets had before them as their main base in the country.

In the early years of the war under President George W. Bush, the CIA used Bagram as a ‘black site’ detention center for terrorism suspects, subjecting them to abuse that President Barack Obama would later acknowledge as torture.

Later, as the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan grew, so did the base. A second runway was built, as were pools, gyms and classrooms. 

A Pizza Hut, a Subway and a Green Beans coffee shop even popped up on the base. 

By 2007, Bagram had become a huge base, with three rings of security, processing arriving troops before they were flown to frontline positions.

At its peak in 2012, Bagram saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops and NATO service members pass through its sprawling compound. 

US presidents visited frequently to meet the troops, most recently Donald Trump, who dropped in for Thanksgiving in 2019. Robin Williams, Jay Leno and Kid Rock were among the celebrities who visited over the years.

In 2007, while then-Vice President Dick Cheney was in the country, a suicide bomber struck Bagram, killing up to 23 people and injuring 20.

The last British troops in Afghanistan are to leave ‘within days’ after American forces brought forward their withdrawal date to mark US Independence Day.

More than 200 Black Watch soldiers will fly home, ending the UK’s 20-year deployment which started after 9/11.

Before leaving they will take part in a flag-lowering ceremony alongside US forces to honour the 456 British troops killed there since the campaign began.

The UK’s ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow is expected to attend the event in Kabul. He is staying on in Afghanistan after the troops have left.

Their departure follows the pull-out of Italian and German troops this week. Other Nato countries have been bringing their forces home over the past month.

Thousands of British personnel have been wounded in battle against the Taliban. More than 38,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and 70,000 injured.

Meanwhile hundreds of Taliban fighters were killed in fierce battles with government forces across several provinces of Afghanistan, officials said on Saturday.

Over the past 24 hours, more than 300 Taliban fighters were killed in fighting with government forces, the ministry of defence said Saturday.

Scores were killed in air strikes, including a pre-dawn assault, in Helmand, where the insurgents and government troops have regularly clashed.

There have been fears Afghan forces would struggle without the air support the US has provided.

Attaullah Afghan, a member of Helmand provincial council, said: ‘In recent days, the Afghan air force has intensified its air strikes against the Taliban hideouts and the insurgents have suffered casualties.

The Taliban rejected the government’s claims. Both sides often exaggerate each other’s casualties and their claims are difficult to independently verify.

But since May 1 when the US military began its final withdrawal of about 2,500 troops, the two warring sides have clashed fiercely across the rugged countryside.

As a result, the Taliban have seized dozens of districts in blistering assaults targeting government forces.

Even as the fighting rages, the Pentagon pressed on with its withdrawal to end the US’s longest war.

US and NATO troops left Bagram Air Base on Friday, signalling the military involvement for coalition forces was finally nearing its end.

Explainer: When is the war in Afghanistan really over?

Thousands of British personnel have also been wounded in battle against the Taliban. More than 38,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and 70,000 injured

As the last US combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, the question arises: When is the war really over?

For Afghans the answer is clear but grim: no time soon. An emboldened Taliban insurgency is making battlefield gains, and prospective peace talks are stalled. Some fear that once foreign forces are gone, Afghanistan will dive deeper into civil war. Though degraded, an Afghan affiliate of the so-called Islamic State extremist network also lurks.

For the United States and its coalition partners, the endgame is murky. Although all combat troops and 20 years of accumulated war materiel will soon be gone, the head of US Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, will have authority until September to defend Afghan forces against the Taliban. He can do so by ordering strikes with US warplanes based outside of Afghanistan, according to defence officials.

US officials said on Friday that the US military has left Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years. The facility was the epicentre of the war to oust the Taliban and hunt down the al Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. Two officials say the airfield was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defence Force in its entirety.

Here is a look at the end of the war:

What is left of the combat mission?

Technically, US forces have not been engaged in ground combat in Afghanistan since 2014. But counter-terrorism troops have been pursuing and hitting extremists since then, including with Afghanistan-based aircraft. Those strike aircraft are now gone and those strikes, along with any logistical support for Afghan forces, will be done from outside the country.

Inside Afghanistan, US troops will no longer be there to train or advise Afghan forces. An unusually large US security contingent of 650 troops, based at the US embassy compound, will protect American diplomats and potentially help secure the Kabul international airport. Turkey is expected to continue its current mission of providing airport security, but Gen McKenzie will have authority to keep as many as 300 more troops to assist that mission until September.

It is also possible that the US military may be asked to assist any large-scale evacuation of Afghans seeking Special Immigrant Visas, although the State Department-led effort may not require a military airlift. The White House is concerned that Afghans who helped the US war effort, and are thereby vulnerable to Taliban retribution, not be left behind.

When he decided in April to bring the US war to a close, President Joe Biden gave the Pentagon until September 11 to complete the withdrawal. The army general in charge in Kabul, Scott Miller, has essentially finished it already, with nearly all military equipment gone and few troops left.

Gen Miller himself is expected to depart in coming days. But does that constitute the end of the US war? With as many as 950 US troops in the country until September and the potential for continued air strikes, the answer is probably not.

How wars end

Unlike Afghanistan, some wars end with a flourish. The First World War was over with the armistice signed with Germany on November 11 1918 – a day now celebrated as a federal holiday in the US – and the later signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

The Second World War saw dual celebrations in 1945 with Germany’s surrender marking Victory in Europe (VE Day) and Japan’s surrender a few months later marking Victory Over Japan (VJ Day) following the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Korea, an armistice signed in July 1953 ended the fighting, although technically the war was only suspended because no peace treaty was ever signed.

Other endings have been less clear-cut. The US pulled troops out of Vietnam in 1973, in what many consider a failed war that ended with the fall of Saigon two years later. And when convoys of US troops drove out of Iraq in 2011, a ceremony marked their final departure. But just three years later, American troops were back to rebuild Iraqi forces that collapsed under attacks by IS militants.

Victory or defeat?

As America’s war in Afghanistan draws to a close, there will be no surrender and no peace treaty, no final victory and no decisive defeat. Mr Biden says it was enough that US forces dismantled al Qaida and killed Osama bin Laden, the group’s leader considered the mastermind of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.

Lately, violence in Afghanistan has escalated. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and civilians have intensified and the group have taken control of more than 100 district centres. Pentagon leaders have said there is ‘medium’ risk that the Afghan government and its security forces collapse within the next two years, if not sooner.

US leaders insist the only path to peace in Afghanistan is through a negotiated settlement. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that said the US would withdraw its troops by May 2021 in exchange for Taliban promises, including that they keep Afghanistan from again being a staging arena for attacks on America.

US officials say the Taliban are not fully adhering to their part of the bargain, even as the US continues its withdrawal.

Nato mission

The Nato Resolute Support mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces began in 2015, when the US-led combat mission was declared over. At that point the Afghans assumed full responsibility for their security, yet they remained dependent on billions of dollars a year in US aid.

At the peak of the war, there were more than 130,000 troops in Afghanistan from 50 Nato nations and partner countries. That dwindled to about 10,000 troops from 36 nations for the Resolute Support mission, and as of this week most had withdrawn their troops.

Some may see the war ending when Nato’s mission is declared over. But that may not happen for months.

According to officials, Turkey is negotiating a new bilateral agreement with Afghan leaders in order to remain at the airport to provide security. Until that agreement is completed, the legal authorities for Turkish troops staying in Afghanistan are under the auspices of the Resolute Support mission.

Counter-terror mission

The US troop withdrawal does not mean the end of the war on terrorism. The US has made it clear that it retains the authority to conduct strikes against al Qaida or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan if they threaten the US homeland.

Because the US has pulled its fighter and surveillance aircraft out of the country, it must now rely on manned and unmanned flights from ships at sea and air bases in the Gulf region, such as al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. The Pentagon is looking for basing alternatives for surveillance aircraft and other assets in countries closer to Afghanistan. As yet, no agreements have been reached.

Reporting by Associated Press  

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