Afghanistan: the inside story of the withdrawal

A soldier carrying a child evacuee

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

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

A key figure in the evacuation was the UK’s last ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow – now president of Hughes Hall, Cambridge. Here he talks about his new book Kabul: Final Call: The Inside Story of the Withdrawal from Afghanistan, August 2021 and the lessons we should learn.

This was not an easy book to write and it’s not meant to be an easy read. I wrote it because what happened 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 the country. 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 the support needed to keep control of the airport and to manage the evacuation were still arriving at the time of the collapse. 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.

Sir Laurie Bristow's book and Sir Laurie

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 20 years. And just before the evacuation ended, there was a terrorist attack on the airport’s Abbey Gate, very close to our evacuation centre.

Evacuees in a plane; troops in a plane; evacuees on the runway

Why did all this happen? It was the failure of a 20-year campaign. It wasn't lack of resources. The Afghan state and military were dependent on the US and allied 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, and some of which were made worse.

The Doha Agreement - Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban - was 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 for the Taliban to agree a political settlement and it pulled the rug out from under the Afghan state, its armed forces, and its people.

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.

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 from Kabul 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.

A soldier helping an evacuee; evacuees waiting; a soldier talking to child evacuees

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.

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, then it’s a very expensive learning opportunity lost; in terms of geopolitics but above all in terms of the human cost of those wars.

Sir Laurie Bristow with soldiers; soldiers during the evacuation

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.

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 5,000. 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.

Sir Laurie Bristow; Flight Lieutenant James Langan, Sir Laurie and Mary Hockaday; Flight Lieutenant James Langan

Laurie would like to thank Mary Hockaday and Flight Lieutenant James Langan (whose photos illustrate this feature) for joining him, and the college community, at an event to mark the launch of the book.
Mary, who chaired the discussions, 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. James, whose imagery has become internationally synonymous with the evacuation and other major international and geopolitical events, is currently a student at Trinity Hall, and a serving RAF Officer, awarded a Fellowship to study at Cambridge.

Published 03 June 2024

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


Images: Flight Lieutenant James Langan (UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021) and Hughes Hall.