The head of the armed forces has admitted “everybody got it wrong” over the pace of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, but denied there was a failure in military intelligence.
General Sir Nick Carter said many assessments suggested Kabul would fall this year, despite Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab having said intelligence put this as “unlikely”.
Boris Johnson and his Foreign Secretary have been coming under sustained criticism for their handling of the crisis, with thousands of vulnerable Afghans feared to have been left behind.
Mr Raab, who was holidaying in Crete in August while the Taliban marched back to power, said the central assessment of the military and wider intelligence community was that it was “unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.
However, Sir Nick, Chief of the Defence Staff, denied to the BBC on Sunday that the military intelligence was wrong.
“No. The first scenario I think also would’ve said is it was entirely possible that the government wouldn’t hold on that much longer,” he told The Andrew Marr Show.
“Indeed, many of the assessments suggested it wouldn’t last the course of the year and, of course, that’s proven to be correct.”
Sir Nick said “there’s been a lot of talk about a failure of intelligence” but that he said back in July that “there are a number of scenarios that could play out and one of them certainly would be a collapse and state fracture”.
“I think everybody got it wrong,” he said.
“It was the pace of it that surprised us and I don’t think we realised quite what the Taliban were up to.
“They weren’t really fighting for the cities they eventually captured, they were negotiating for them, and I think you’ll find a lot of money changed hands as they managed to buy off those who might have fought for them.”
Sir Nick said even the Taliban did not expect to take back power of Afghanistan so swiftly as the US pulled out its troops ahead of the August 31 deadline.
“At the moment they suffer from what we military call catastrophic success. They were not expecting to be in government as quickly as they have appeared and the reality is they are trying to find their feet,” he said.
“We need to wait and see how this happens and recognise that they’re probably going to need a bit of help in order to run a modern state effectively and if they behave perhaps they will get some help.”
Under questioning from MPs this week, Mr Raab suggested the intelligence was wrong on how quickly the Taliban would take Kabul, which fell on August 15.
He told an emergency session of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the “central assessment” from the Joint Intelligence Committee and the military was a “steady deterioration” after troops withdrew in August and “it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace countered to say he argued in July that the “game was up” in Afghanistan and suggested “it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence”.
On Sunday, senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood called for the public blame game between the ministers to end, saying it had caused the UK “further reputational damage”.
“This unseemly, unprofessional squabbling must stop,” the Commons Defence Committee chair wrote in the Observer.
Conservative former prime minister Sir John Major attacked the “strategically very stupid” withdrawal from Afghanistan led by the US and said the failure to evacuate all Afghans who worked for Britain was “shameful”.
More than 8,000 former Afghan staff and their family members were among the 15,000-plus people evacuated by the UK since August 13.
But up to 1,100 Afghans deemed eligible were estimated to have been left behind, though that figure will fall short of the true number the UK would wish to help.
Sir John, speaking at the FT Weekend Festival on Saturday, said: “I think we were wrong to leave Afghanistan, I think we were wrong morally but we were also wrong practically.
“I think it was shameful that we weren’t able to take out those who had worked for us in one capacity or another, or who had worked carrying out the changes to Afghanistan that the Taliban won’t approve of.”
Either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary is expected to give a statement to the Commons during the week.