Nigel Farage is wrong to compare the Evacuation of Afghanistan to the Dunkirk Evacuation

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation, IWM Non Commercial Licence

On 31 August, Nigel Farage took to his show on GBNews, to lambast President Joe Biden and the evacuation of US and other personnel from Afghanistan. In his talk, he made much of the military hardware that has been left behind, now in the arms of the Taliban.

Joe Biden has left Afghanistan and left behind $85 billion worth of up to date, modern, functioning American military equipment. … Now, can you see, [the Taliban] are all dressed in American combat uniforms with night sights. And they’ve just discovered … helicopters and they frankly look like kids in a sweetshop. I find it difficult to believe that Biden could have left them with all this equipment.

Further, he compared the leaving behind of this material to Operation Dynamo — the Dunkirk Evacuation of nearly 340,000 allied troops from France in 1940. According to Farage, ‘When the British left Dunkirk they made sure that every gun barrel was spiked, that no vehicle was operative, they smashed and destroyed everything.’ This downbeat analysis of the situation in Afghanistan and the comparison to the Dunkirk evacuation is problematic for four key reasons.

First, the US did not simply abandon most of this equipment. Rather, it was primarily supplied to the Afghan armed forces, therefore not necessarily to hand to be destroyed by departing US troops — which had been reduced to just 2,500 by Farage’s friend, President Donald J. Trump. By contrast, the Allied forces evacuated from France in 1940 were doing so in the face of a rampant invading German Wehrmacht. The Allies knew full well that the armaments left behind would fall into enemy hands. One might criticise the Biden administration for failing to predict the extremely rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army, but the comparison between Dunkirk evacuation and the evacuation of Afghanistan, based on captured armaments, is incoherent.

Second, Farage’s claims regarding the equipment left behind in France by the departing Allied troops is simply untrue. According to John Norris, in all, the British lost some 63,879 vehicles — including tanks — of a total of 68,618 shipped to France. These were in addition to a further 20,548 motorcycles, 11,000 machine guns, 90,000 rifles, 2,472 artillery guns and 500,000 tons of stores. Much of this equipment was abandoned by the roadside and on the beaches. The Germans made significant use, for instance, of Beutepanzer, which translates as loot tanks. Abandoned Matilda Mk II tanks — the Queen of the Desert in North Africa — were gladly incorporated by the Heer into its arsenal. These tanks were designated Panzerkampfwagen Mk.II 748(e), the ‘(e)’ denoting their English origin. British Bren gun carriers were similarly incorporated by the Heer, these were redesignated Gepanzert Maschinengewehr Träger Br 731 (e), and some of these were even used in the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Even if destroyed the Germans could salvage equipment for vital parts.

British anti-aircraft guns lie abandoned at Dunkirk in 1940, IWM Non Commercial Licence

Third, Farage apparently misunderstands the nature of advanced military hardware in the modern era. Yes, very great quantities of US military hardware have been seized by the Taliban. General McKenzie has confirmed that at least 73 aircraft were left behind, as were 27 Humvees and many tens of thousands of other pieces of military equipment. However, Farage’s claim that the US has necessarily “armed” the Taliban with this equipment, at least for long, is uncertain and indeed unlikely. Particularly in the case of the vehicles, which require significant training to operate and maintain. They require fuel, munitions and spare parts all of which will likely prove difficult to obtain. They also degrade quickly. In the case of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, the maintenance regime imposed by the US army is necessarily considerable, highly regular and time-consuming. Unsurprisingly, keeping these aircraft functioning for even a short period, particularly in unfavourable, dusty environments like Afghanistan, requires numerous highly trained technicians and specialist parts. They also require skilled pilots and jet fuel. It is difficult to envision how the Taliban could supply all, if any, of these requirements. Farage apparently confuses changing the rotor system of an MD-530 helicopter with replacing the blade on a 2-Stroke lawn mower.

Neil Peacock, Blackhawk over Afghanistan, CC BY 3.0

It also isn’t the first time large quantities of advanced weaponry have been left in Afghanistan by a departing power. From 1979 to 1989, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This was in support of the Moscow backed government, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), which was fighting a mujahideen insurgency. When the Soviet Union eventually withdrew its forces in 1989, it passed vast quantities of armaments to the DRA Army, including 990 armoured vehicles. Soviet military aid to the DRA did not end then. From 1989 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, the Soviets supplied the DRA with $3–4 billion in military aid each year. This included ‘54 military aircraft, 380 tanks, 865 armored personnel carriers, 680 anti-aircraft guns, 150 R-17 rocket launchers and thousands of tons of fuel,’ in 1990 alone. Once Soviet support ceased, the DRA soon collapsed and Afghanistan fell into a new civil war. Were these various groups to arm themselves with this heavy, highly sophisticated Soviet military hardware which fell under their control? Perhaps in some cases, but Afghanistan is scattered with the graveyards of Soviet military hardware. These vehicles were left unattended and unmaintained, now they are rusted hulks.

Gregology, T-54–55s outside Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, CC BY-SA 4.0

Where Afghanistan’s warring factions in 1991 and the Wehrmacht are different, is that the Wehrmacht was the armed forces of a major military power, with a vast industrial-military complex behind it. The Heer was replete with trained technical crews and the heavy industry of Germany and the occupied territories could churn out munitions and parts. Captured Allied vehicles, weapons and supplies could be placed to good use by the Wehrmacht and were. By contrast, Afghanistan, which has been scarred by decades of war, is one of the most impoverished nations on earth. The nation’s GDP in 2019 was around $19 billion and it is listed by the United Nations as one of the Least Developed Nations in the world. Far more likely, if the Taliban can make significant use of this hardware at all, it will be the small arms and, as appears to already have begun, by generating money through exporting the captured equipment.

Finally, Farage is also wrong because he is propagating Taliban propaganda and talking points. There is a reason why the Taliban have been keen to show off to the world their newly captured trophies, and that is because it projects an image of power and demoralises their enemies.

In short, it is misleading and unhelpful to compare the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation to the 2001 Afghanistan evacuation. In doing so Farage has done a disservice to his audience, confusing their understanding of both.

UK based academic historian. Lecturer