LONDON — Britain’s Army chief came to DSEI to make a keynote speech about the Army’s transformation plans and efforts to embrace data, digitization and cutting-edge technologies. But reporters were more interested in asking him about Afghanistan and the recent withdrawal, in which the British military played a significant role.
Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, the chief of the general staff, told reporters following a Sept. 15 speech at the London event that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan carriers potential international risks.
“I’m acutely conscience of the risk of potential spillover and regional instability. The decision to withdraw is not necessarily the end of the war, but clearly marks the end of the decisive, direct American phase of that war,” he said.
But he had a warning for the Taliban too: Afghanistan had changed significantly over the 20 years of military intervention by the U.S. and its allies, with a substantial number of citizens buying mobile phones and a high percentage of the population less than 26 years old.
“This is the TikTok, Instagram generation. I can’t predict how it will play out, but that is a very significant genie that is already out of the bottle and may prove difficult even for the Taliban,” he said.
Asked about lessons learned in Afghanistan, Carleton-Smith said the big takeaway is that people must be “realistic about what the military instrument is designed for and therefore can achieve.”
“I always felt that it was entirely probable we could build an indigenous capability to keep the lid on a low-level rural insurgency. But [it’s] incredible to assume that when we left — and there was always going to be a time when we did go — that we would leave behind an entirely benign Afghanistan,” he said.
The general added that Britain underestimated how long it would take to build a secure Afghanistan and underestimated the relative patience of democracies.
He also briefly discussed the role of the United States in Afghanistan.
“It’s not helpful now to argue the relative actions. I think we have to recognize it was an American decision, but it was a decision that was not taken lightly,” he said. “One needs to respect the view that the American administration decided they weren’t in the market for an indefinite commitment and it wasn’t worth the enduring costs.”
“They probably came to that conclusion that, over the last 20 years, the geostrategic context had changed substantially,” he added. “Afghanistan needed to find its own place in terms of U.S. priorities, and what we have seen over this summer is a very clear set of amended American strategic priorities.”