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7 September, 2021  ▪  Michael Binyon

Afghan stress test

How events around Afghanistan affected US-British relations and the domestic political situation in the United Kingdom

The disaster in Kabul, the despair, chaos and carnage at the airport and the mass evacuation of all Western forces from Afghanistan have shocked the world. They have severely dented President Biden’s credibility, called into question American leadership and shaken the faith of US allies in Washington’s readiness to support democracy around the world.

 At the same time, the events of the past month have inflicted massive damage on Boris Johnson’s government. They have shown that, despite all the British talk of having a “special relationship” with the United States, this has proved to be a delusion. Britain was the second largest contributor of forces in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, and the most stalwart of US allies supporting the operation. But Johnson was able neither to persuade Biden to prolong the airlift nor to help his European allies to evacuate all the Afghans translators and assistants who had helped European forces over the past 20 years.

  The sudden collapse of the Afghan government came after Biden’s unilateral announcement that he would pull all US forces out before September – a decision that he did not share with Johnson in advance and over which there were no talks or consultations among the allies most closely involved with the US in the long fight against the Taliban. The message is clear: in matters seen as vital to US interests, Washington has no intention of sharing its decision-making. Commitment to Nato solidarity is now just as weak as it was under President Trump.

  Inevitably, Johnson has been blamed by those in Britain appalled at what has happened. It is not only the opposition Labour party that has criticised him for a lack of leadership and for not evacuating interpreters and other Afghans who helped Britain out of the country earlier; senior generals, soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and the mothers and families of servicemen killed there have been appalled. They have naturally seen the US decision to leave as premature and ill-planned. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, called Biden’s decision “imbecilic”. But they have also noted that London has been unable to do anything to change the decision, despite Johnson calling a meeting in London of G7 leaders and urging Biden to continue the airlift for longer. Without US support, none of the other Western powers was able to remain in Kabul for any longer on their own.

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   The main question now being asked is stark: was the entire British involvement in Afghanistan a waste of time, a colossal political and strategic mistake? Critics point out that in 2001, after the 9/11 bombing of the twin towers in New York, analysts warned that Afghanistan would prove a quagmire for Western forces. Britain fought three wars against Afghanistan during the days of empire, beginning in the 1840s when a British army sent in from India was massacred as it tried to leave Kabul after three years there; only a single wounded soldier on a horse was able to return to India. No Western or Russian army has ever triumphed in the long term in Afghanistan, as the Soviet Union found to its cost in the 1980s.

   Questions are also being asked about the war aims. These changed. At first the aim was simply to eliminate al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban government which had sheltered the terrorist group. But later the aims were expanded to include rebuilding and developing Afghan society, sending in teachers and experts, supporting women’s education and introducing democratic government. With hindsight, critics now say that this was an elusive goal and Britain should never have agreed to try to change the way of life in a distant country with a very different history and society.

  Johnson has tried to reassure veteran soldiers that their efforts and their sacrifices were not in vain; the effort to bring freedom and education to a new generation in Afghanistan had been worthwhile, he said. But his claim has been undermined by his government’s fumbling response to the sudden victory of the Taliban. Britain’s foreign secretary was on holiday in Greece at the time, and despite urgent calls for him to return to take charge of the evacuation from Kabul, he refused to break off his holiday. He also refused to put through a phone call to the beleaguered Afghan foreign minister, despite a request from his office to do so. He has since apologised, but his nonchalant behaviour has severely damaged his standing and that of all the government.

  At the same time, British diplomats in Kabul have been publicly criticised by the minister of defence, who blamed them for all leaving quickly and not staying to help the British troops process the papers of Afghans trying to leave. Even worse, it appears that the diplomats left so quickly that they failed to destroy a mass of sensitive papers that gave all the names and contact numbers of those Afghans who had worked in the embassy or with British forces. This will put all their lives in danger from the Taliban, who are now starting to hunt down or kill all Afghans they suspect of being “collaborators” with the Western forces.

  This failure of British diplomacy at a moment of crisis underlines another fact damaging the Johnson government: Britain’s increasing isolation from its allies and partners. After Brexit, London now has less influence in Europe and a diminished standing in the eyes of the Americans. Britain is no longer able to use the diplomatic leverage that its membership of the United Nations Security Council should give it.  

  Of course, even Johnson’s critics do not blame him for the collapse of the Afghan government and its army. It is recognised that this failure of western diplomacy will be exploited by Russia and China, who are both happy to see the West humiliated and confused. At home, the bravery of British soldiers has been saluted. In all, the Royal Air Force was able to evacuate more than 15,000 British passport holders and Afghan allies from Kabul airport – a number far bigger than what was expected, and part of the biggest airlift ever undertaken since the postwar Berlin airlift. The Afghan refugees who have arrived in Britain have been given a warm and sympathetic welcome and a huge effort is now being made to shelter them, give them counselling after the trauma and find them homes.

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Nevertheless, there are worries that this welcome will begin to cool, especially as the West braces itself for another flood of refugees who will try to escape over the border into Pakistan and make their way to the West. Johnson has said he will “move heaven and earth” to help them escape. But if they do, they may not be welcome in Britain, where there is growing hostility to migrants.

  The big challenge now is for the Johnson government to try to rebuild its links with Washington. Johnson will try to show that the ally on whom Britain has depended more than any other country since the end of the Second World War remains a close ally and is not about to turn its back on London. It will not be easy, especially as Britain is now struggling with the economic effects of Brexit, which has made trade with Europe much more difficult. Britain needs to conclude a close new trade agreement with the US. But at the moment, no one in Washington is focused on anything except domestic politics and the political fall-out from the Afghan disaster. It will be tough for Britain to weather the coming political turbulence. 

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