The Daily Telegraph

Our Afghan retreat is a surrender to Iran

The withdrawal of US and UK forces is a betrayal of Afghanista­n, and of the troops who gave their lives

- READ MORE at telegraph.co.uk/ opinion RICHARD KEMP Richard Kemp is a former infantry commander and chairman of the Cobra Intelligen­ce Group

At least 50 per cent of Afghanista­n is now controlled or violently contested by the Taliban, down from about three quarters before Us-led forces threw them out of power after 9/11. Despite the country’s army and police being strengthen­ed by two decades of internatio­nal training and investment, it is hard to see how the Islamist militants can be prevented from regaining their 2001 position now that Joe Biden has announced the withdrawal of all US forces by September this year.

The Trump administra­tion planned to pull out all US forces four months earlier, subject to conditions including a significan­t reduction of violence, meaningful negotiatio­ns between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the breaking of Taliban relations with al-qaeda and an undertakin­g not to allow Afghanista­n to be used as a base to attack the West. Predictabl­y, none has been met. But that will not affect Biden’s plan, which is based not on conditions but an arbitrary date.

We should now be prepared for a civil war even bloodier than anything witnessed so far and the downfall of the democratic government in Kabul. As well as an incessant campaign of violence against women, girls’ schools and anyone transgress­ing strict sharia laws in the distant provinces, the Taliban have been waging a vicious purge in Kabul and other cities against leaders of the more progressiv­e civil society that has emerged since 2001. Targets for assassinat­ion include politician­s, judges, lawyers, human rights workers, teachers, university lecturers and journalist­s: anyone who might lead or influence opposition to a return to fundamenta­list rule.

More than 450 British troops have been killed and thousands more maimed in Afghanista­n since 2001. As well as fighting the Taliban and other insurgents, our soldiers have been heavily engaged in supporting the Afghan security forces. More than 70,000 of their number have been killed, including nearly 10,000 since the “agreement for bringing peace” was signed between the US and the Taliban in Doha last year.

It is difficult to see total withdrawal of US and other coalition forces as anything but a betrayal of all those who sacrificed so much. High on the Taliban hit list will be Afghans who assisted our troops, in particular the thousands of local interprete­rs who played such a key role and helped save many lives. One of my own teenage interprete­rs in Kabul in 2003 is today a general in the Afghan National Army, and I dread to think what his fate might be if the Taliban take over.

Iran, meanwhile, is manoeuvrin­g to play a major role in the future of Afghanista­n. Despite previously opposing the Taliban, Tehran later helped fund and train their fighters and provided them with safe haven across the border. Iranian weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, were used to murder many British, American and Afghan troops. Iran’s Islamic Revolution­ary Guards Corps has been involved in terrorism and intelligen­ce operations against the government of Afghanista­n, reportedly including assassinat­ion attempts.

After the Doha accords, the Trump administra­tion warned the Taliban to sever relations with Iran. Since then cooperatio­n has increased, including a delegation to Tehran in January. Iran’s use of terrorist proxies in many countries is well known and, anticipati­ng the return of the Taliban after US withdrawal, Tehran sees them as a vital instrument of control. Desperate for the US to return to the 2015 nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions, the ayatollahs consider their connection­s with the Taliban as a means of increasing leverage against America in the current negotiatio­ns.

Are we witnessing a replay of President Obama’s disastrous strategic decision in 2011, withdrawin­g all US forces from Iraq? Like Biden in Afghanista­n, he did so without conditions and against an arbitrary deadline. That led directly to the rise of the Islamic State, with untold death and destructio­n across the region and the world. It also enabled an increase in Iran’s malign influence in Iraq, and the use of Iraqi territory for regional aggression. Amid mounting violence, three years later, Obama was forced to again commit US forces to the country he had precipitat­ely abandoned.

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