Afghan exit will fuel terrorism worldwide, says former UK cabinet secretary

By on 07/09/2021 | Updated on 07/09/2021
Sedwill says Western governments will need to work with their “adversaries” on a regime of incentives and potential sanctions to deal with the potential security threats of extremism and drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy Lt. J. G. Joe Painter, Department of Defense via Flickr

The withdrawal of NATO-led troops from Afghanistan was “an act of strategic self-harm” that will fuel terrorism, former UK national security adviser Mark Sedwill has warned.

The move has strengthened the hand of the West’s “authoritarian adversaries”, while security threats have risen since the Taliban took power, said Sedwill, who was also head of the UK civil service and cabinet secretary until September last year.

“This is, in my view, a bad policy, badly implemented,” Sedwill said at an event hosted by think tank Policy Exchange.

“The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will undoubtedly fuel extremism and terrorism worldwide, whether or not it is directed from there. The security threats have undoubtedly gone up and the wider geopolitical consequences are obvious.

“If you are one of our authoritarian adversaries, you will be, right now, going around the rest of the world to those countries that are in play, saying to them: ‘You see, we told you so, we have the strategic patience and they don’t’.”

Western governments do not yet have a coherent plan in place to deal with the impending refugee crisis that is likely to follow the Taliban take-over, said Sedwill, who served as UK ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011.

In addition to a second evacuation for relatively small numbers of remaining Afghans who had worked for NATO-led forces, a bigger operation was needed to deal with the “much broader, potential problem of refugees”, most of whom will go not to the West but to neighbouring countries, he said.

A major humanitarian effort would be needed as neighbouring countries had already taken millions of refugees and could not afford more in those numbers, Sedwill said. “They deserve a better future – an alternative to life under the Taliban or life in a refugee camp.”  

Western governments also needed to work with their “adversaries” on a regime of incentives and potential sanctions around Afghanistan to deal with the potential security threats of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking from the country.

“That is in everyone’s interests and the UN Security Council is probably the place for that,” he said.

Sedwill served as national security adviser to the UK government from April 2017 to September 2020 and was appointed to the parallel roles of head of the civil service and cabinet secretary in June 2018. He was ousted as part of a major Whitehall shake-up orchestrated by prime minister Boris Johnson’s then chief aide Dominic Cummings and minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove.

His stint at the helm of the UK civil service followed four years as permanent secretary to the Home Office and a distinguished 21-year diplomatic career, which included serving as director-general for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and later director-general, political, at what was then known as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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