Afghan stress test
How the events around Afghanistan have affected US-British relations and the domestic political situation in the United Kingdom
The catastrophe in Kabul, despair, chaos, the massacre at the airport and the mass evacuation of all Western forces from Afghanistan shocked the world. All of this has shaken confidence in United States President Joe Biden, called into question American leadership and US allies’ belief in Washington’s readiness to support democracy around the world.
At the same time, the events of the last month have severely damaged the government of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson. They have shown that, despite British talk of a “special relationship” with the United States, it is in fact an illusion. The United Kingdom was the country with the second largest military presence in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban, and the most reliable US support among the Allies in the operation. However, Johnson failed to persuade Biden to extend the airlift, or to help European allies evacuate all Afghan translators and assistants who had worked with European forces for the past 20 years. The sudden fall of Afghan power came after Biden’s unilateral announcement of the withdrawal of US troops by September. He did not discuss the decision in advance with British Prime Minister Johnson, there were no negotiations or consultations among allies actively involved with the United States in the long-running struggle against the Taliban. Clearly, the message was that Washington did not intend to consult for decision-making on matters considered to be of US interest. NATO solidarity is now as weak as it was under President Trump.
Stunned by the events, the British, of course, attacked Johnson with criticism. Not only is the opposition Labor Party blaming him for his lack of leadership and the fact that he has not previously evacuated translators and other Afghans who helped Britain. Generals and soldiers who served in Afghanistan are outraged; mothers and families of servicemen who died there. It is clear that they consider the US decision to withdraw troops premature and poorly planned. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair called Biden’s decision “idiotic.” But they also stress that Britain has failed to do anything to change that decision, despite Johnson convening a G7 summit in London and urging Biden to extend the airlift. Without US support, no other Western power has been able to stay in Kabul on its own.
The main striking question now is: was the British intervention in Afghanistan a waste of time, a colossal political and strategic mistake? Critics say that in 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, analysts warned that the swamp of Afghanistan would drag on Western forces. During the empire, Great Britain fought in three wars against Afghanistan, beginning in the 1840s, when a British army sent from India died trying to leave Kabul after a three-year mission; only one wounded soldier managed to return to India. No Western or Russian army has ever achieved a lasting victory in Afghanistan, as the Soviet Union did, paying a heavy price in the 1980s.
Questions also arise about the goals of the war. They have changed. Initially, the goal was simply to defeat al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban government, which sheltered the terrorist group. However, later the goals expanded: to rebuild and develop Afghan society, to send teachers and specialists, to support women’s education, to bring a democratic government to power. In retrospect, critics now say these were illusory goals and Britain should not have tried to change the way of life in a distant country with a completely different history and society.
Johnson tried to reassure the veterans that their efforts and sacrifices were not in vain; it was worth trying to bring freedom and education to the new generation in Afghanistan, he said. However, his statement was drowned out by his government’s clumsy response to the Taliban’s surprise victory. The British Foreign Secretary was on holiday in Greece at the time and, despite urgent calls for him to return and take over the evacuation from Kabul, refused to interrupt his holiday. He also refused, despite a government request, to call his Afghan counterpart, who was in trouble. He later apologized, but his reckless behavior severely undermined his authority and the authority of the entire government.
At the same time, British diplomats from Kabul were publicly criticized by the Secretary of Defense for fleeing quickly and not helping British troops process documents of Afghans trying to leave. Worse, diplomats seemed to be in such a hurry that they did not destroy a large number of confidential documents that recorded all the names and contact details of Afghans working at the embassy or with British troops. As a result, their lives are now in danger as the Taliban begin to hunt and kill all Afghans suspected of “collaborationism” with Western forces.
This failure of British diplomacy in the wake of the Afghanistan crisis has highlighted another fact that hurts the Johnson government: Britain’s growing isolation from allies and partners. After Brexit, London has less influence in Europe and a weaker position in the eyes of Americans. The United Kingdom will no longer be able to use the diplomatic leverage that should ensure membership of the UN Security Council.
Of course, even critics of Johnson do not accuse him of the fall of the Afghan government and the failure of the army. Everyone understands that this failure of Western diplomacy will be exploited by Russia and China, which rejoice when the West is humiliated and embarrassed. Compatriots glorify the courage of British soldiers. In total, the Royal Air Force evacuated more than 15,000 British passport holders and Afghan allies from Kabul airport, far more than expected. This was the largest air transfer of troops since the post-war Berlin crisis. Afghan refugees who have arrived in the UK have received a warm and sympathetic welcome, and great efforts are now being made to provide them with asylum, post-traumatic psychological assistance and housing.
However, there are fears that hospitality will cool, especially as the West prepares for a new wave of refugees trying to flee across the border into Pakistan. Johnson promised to “turn the mountains” to help them escape. But if they succeed, they may not be happy in the UK, as hostility to migrants is growing in the country.
The main challenge for the Johnson government today will be to re-establish ties with Washington. Johnson will try to show the people that the ally on whom Britain depended more than any other country since World War II remains a close ally and will not turn away from London. This will not be easy, especially given the United Kingdom’s difficulties due to the economic consequences of Brexit, which have made trade with Europe much more difficult. Britain needs to conclude a new trade agreement with the United States. But now in Washington, everyone is focusing solely on domestic politics and the political aftermath of the Afghan catastrophe. It will be difficult for London to survive the impending political upheaval.