Boris Johnson has responded to criticism that the rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan has undermined Britain’s 20-year involvement in the country, by telling those who served that the gains made there will not “swiftly be undone”.
In an open letter to current and former military personnel, the prime minister said they “should take the greatest pride” in their achievements in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion. He said they had succeeded in the “central mission” of keeping the UK safe from attacks masterminded from the country.
“I know that the events of recent weeks will have been hard for the armed forces community to watch unfold,” he writes. “Over the last two decades, many thousands of you dedicated years of your lives to service in Afghanistan, often in the most arduous conditions. I realise this will be an especially difficult time for the friends and loved ones of the 457 service personnel who laid down their lives.
“So I want to take this opportunity to offer my profound thanks for everything you did and to say without hesitation that you should take the greatest pride in your achievements. Our purpose in Afghanistan was simple – to protect the United Kingdom from harm – and you succeeded in that central mission. In the last 20 years, not a single terrorist attack has been launched from Afghan soil against the UK or any other western country.”
Students at a school in Kunduz province: ‘Education, once imparted, can never be taken away,’ Johnson says. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock
He also disputed claims that the Taliban takeover would see many of the gains made in women’s education disappear. “Your achievements can be seen in the homes that have electricity for the first time, the fields that were once strewn with landmines but are now safe for cultivation, and in the schools where 3.6 million girls are gaining an education,” he writes.
“I do not believe that any of these gains could swiftly be undone. Education, once imparted, can never be taken away. And this progress would never have happened without your effort and sacrifice. Whether you are still serving or a veteran, a loved one, a relation or a friend, you all played your part… You fulfilled the first duty of the British armed forces – to protect our country – and we will be forever grateful.”
But his optimism was disputed by senior Tories. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee and a former army officer, said he feared Afghanistan had been left in a dangerous state.
“Forces have done an outstanding job, not just in the hardship they endured in Helmand province, but also in their incredible efforts to manage this evacuation,” he said. “Where I part company is in the idea that we’ve left a legacy and made a difference.
“That difference is being unpicked. It’s being erased every single day. The situation in Afghanistan is worse than we found it. The Taliban are not just back in power; they’re back in power with sizable amounts of military equipment, which they’ll use to their advantage, and they’ll now be propped up by China. So the circumstances are very, very different. We leave Afghanistan, and the world, in a more dangerous place.”
Johnson said he had been “lost in admiration” at the past fortnight’s evacuation effort. “There has been nothing like it in speed and scale, certainly in my lifetime,” he says. “Your efforts in difficult and hostile circumstances have seen the evacuation of thousands of British nationals, alongside Afghans who worked with us, and who will now start new lives in the UK.”