LONDON: The terrorism threat to Britain will rise following the US-led coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, members of the UK’s security establishment have said.
Sir Alex Younger, former head of MI6 — Britain’s foreign intelligence service — said the threat from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh would grow if the UK turns its back on Afghanistan.
He added that the most likely outcome of the withdrawal is a civil war between a resurgent Taliban and the NATO-backed government in Kabul.
The former spymaster warned that history risks repeating itself following the Soviet invasion and eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, where “neglect” gave rise to extensive terrorist-training networks.
Recalling intelligence the UK uncovered upon invading Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks that year, he told Sky News that there “was a level of terrorist infrastructure that could only have been imagined before we got there — training camps that would’ve been not out of place in a sort of conventional military or special forces barracks.”
He added: “I’ve talked about the significance of the date of Sept. 11, 2001. I think the other very significant date is Feb. 16, 1989, which is when the Russians left Afghanistan. What the West then did is turn their back on that country, with all of the consequences that I’ve laid out. And I think … it would be an enormous mistake for us to do that again.”
Sir Alex said after the West’s two decades of involvement in Afghanistan, “there are groups there, we’ve been very successful in disrupting both Daesh and Al-Qaeda. They’re on the back foot. But it would be wrong, patently, to claim that they’ve gone away. And they have the capacity to regenerate.”
A UN report in June warned that some 500 Al-Qaeda fighters remained in Afghanistan. Other sources say roughly 2,000 Daesh fighters are also present but in smaller groups.
Sir Alex said: “I think if terrorist groups are allowed to regenerate somewhere like Afghanistan, it will lead to more threat on the shores of our country and our allies.”
Analysts have shared his sentiments. “Abandoning Afghanistan in this way is resetting the conditions that drew us in, namely 9/11,” Kyle Orton, an independent geopolitical researcher, told Arab News.
“With NATO out of the country, terrorists will have greater freedom to organize attacks against us — not only Al-Qaeda, which will come back into power with the Taliban, but the increasingly powerful Daesh branch in the country.”
Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan, told Arab News: “The West’s withdrawal, combined with the Taliban expansion and possible eventual takeover of the country, will likely set the conditions for terror organizations both old and potentially new to use Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a coherent global terror training ground.”
He added: “This will potentially have not just an impact on regional stability but on the export of terror globally.”
Stephen Lovegrove, the UK government’s new national security adviser, told MPs that the world is now “likely to be more dangerous.”
Despite the NATO withdrawal, and amid rising concern for Afghanistan’s security, Britain’s Defense Minister Ben Wallace told Parliament that London will continue to work with Kabul and “focus on the threats that emanate from Afghanistan and may grow to emanate towards the UK and our allies.”
Debate is now raging inside Downing Street and Britain’s defense establishment about how the UK can continue to have an effect in Afghanistan while abiding by the Doha agreement signed with the Taliban, which requires all foreign troops and security contractors to leave the country by September this year.
The use of special forces to continue to advise and support the government in Kabul is being considered, and questions have been raised over the security of the British Embassy in the capital, which Downing Street says will remain open.