LONDON -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Thursday that most British troops have left Afghanistan, almost 20 years after the U.K. and other Western countries sent troops into the country to engage in what they described as a “war on terror.”
Johnson stressed that the threat posed by al-Qaida to the U.K. has substantially diminished, but he sidestepped questions about whether the hasty military exodus by his country and its NATO allies risks undoing the work of nearly two decades or leaves Afghanistan vulnerable to the Taliban, who have made rapid advances in many northern districts.
The prime minister declined to give details about the troop withdrawal, citing security reasons. But he said that “all British troops assigned to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan are now returning home,” adding that “most of our personnel have already left.”
Most U.S. and European troops have also pulled out in recent weeks.
“We must be realistic about our ability alone to influence the course of events. It will take combined efforts of many nations, including Afghanistan’s neighbors, to help the Afghan people to build their future," Johnson said. “But the threat that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place has been greatly diminished by the valor and by the sacrifice of the armed forces of Britain and many other countries.”
He stressed that Britain remains committed to helping achieve a peace settlement in Afghanistan through diplomacy.
“We are not walking away. We are keeping our embassy in Kabul, and we will continue to work with our friends and allies, particularly with the government of Pakistan, to try to bring a settlement,” Johnson said.
Britain will continue to fund education, especially girls' schooling, in Afghanistan, he said. The U.K. will also back the Afghan government with over 100 million pounds ($138 million) in development aid this year, as well as 58 million pounds for the Afghan security forces.
A total of 150,000 British servicemembers have served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, and 457 have died — a much higher death rate compared to the U.K. involvement in Iraq. Britain’s last combat troops left Afghanistan in October 2014, though about 750 remained as part of a NATO mission to train Afghan forces.
Britain’s Defense Ministry has said the withdrawal of the last troops would be “complete within a few months.” A “small number” of U.K. military personnel will stay on temporarily as part of the transition to the new phase of British support to the country.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that the last 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. soldiers and 7,000 allied NATO soldiers would depart Afghanistan.
On Tuesday the U.S. military said 90% of American troops and equipment had already left the country, with the drawdown set to finish by late August. Last week, U.S. officials vacated the country’s biggest airfield, Bagram Air Base, the epicenter of the war to oust the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has said the U.K. had been put in a “very difficult position” to continue the mission once the U.S. announced its decision to leave.
Gen. Nick Carter, head of the British Armed Forces, said Thursday there was now a danger of “state collapse" as half of Afghanistan's rural districts are now under Taliban control, but he said he did not believe the Taliban could gain complete control of the country.
He held out hope that the Afghan government could work with the Taliban to reach a political settlement.
“It is entirely possible that the Afghan government defeats the Taliban for long enough for the Taliban to realize that they have to talk,” he said. “I think the Taliban recognize that they can’t rule all of Afghanistan without a compromise.”