16 August 2021

British troops have been in Afghanistan for almost twenty years. More than 450 servicemen and women have died there. But why were they sent there and why have they been there so long?

British troops were first sent to Afghanistan in 2001 as part of the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA. The Taliban regime that governed Afghanistan from 1996 had sheltered the Al Qaeda terrorist network responsible for the attacks.

After the Taliban regime had been driven out, UK forces stayed in Afghanistan to help provide security for the new transitional government. They became part of a multi-national force, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Most UK troops were based in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul and a small number in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, near where the UK operated a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to help with reconstruction projects.

A paratrooper of Bruneval Company, 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, passes a group of young children during a security patrol in the centre of Kabul Afghanistan, February 2002.
© IWM LAND-02-012-0865

A paratrooper of Bruneval Company, 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, passes a group of young children during a security patrol in the centre of Kabul Afghanistan, February 2002. 

From 2004, NATO’s role in Afghanistan expanded. They had already taken command of ISAF and decided to push troops out across the whole of the country. The UK agreed to send forces to Helmand in the south. Unfortunately, the arrival of British soldiers in spring 2006 coincided with a resurgence of Taliban activity in the region. The result was a series of violent clashes between UK troops and insurgents. The situation worsened after UK forces were deployed to Helmand’s northern towns such as Sangin, and they found themselves overstretched and under fire.

As successive British brigades were sent to Helmand to try to contain the insurgency and improve security, the Taliban were able to adapt their tactics and began using improvised explosive devices (IEDs). UK troops found their freedom of movement between their network of patrol bases was curtailed and casualties increased. Back in the UK, there was increasing unease at the rising toll of deaths and serious injuries.

By 2010, UK troop numbers reached their peak with around 10,000 troops deployed across Afghanistan. Later the same year, discussions began over the withdrawal of NATO forces and in 2011, US President Barack Obama announced the planned withdrawal of US soldiers. Over the next few years, UK forces concentrated their efforts on training Afghanistan’s own security forces, and began handing over key parts of Helmand Province to Afghan forces.

In 2014, Britain formally ended all combat operations in Afghanistan and most UK troops returned to the UK. The following year, NATO launched its Resolute Support Mission, and committed troops, including a contingent from the UK, to train and assist the Afghan security forces. NATO reiterated this commitment in 2018. Britain has continued to play a part in this NATO mission, sending around 1,000 troops to Afghanistan each year, mostly based in and around Kabul.

The UK has also been providing mentors to work in a training and advisory role within the Afghan National Army Officers' Academy, the Infantry Branch School and in other Afghan institutions.

In February 2020, the US and Taliban signed a peace deal that included a conditions-based agreement that all international troops would leave Afghanistan by May 2021, while the Taliban were to reduce violence.  By the middle of summer, almost all international forces had been withdrawn.  

Since then, the Taliban have taken advantage of the withdrawal of international forces, intensifying their efforts to gain territory, initially in rural areas, before moving on to take control of the major cities, something they had not previously managed to do since they were ousted in 2001.  

Over the last twenty years, Afghans have been able to vote in elections and in many places, access quality education. Women’s opportunities have also expanded, and the country has developed a vibrant media sector. Many Afghans, especially women, fear all the hard-won gains of the last twenty years will be lost as the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan.

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