The bewilderment on the faces of prime minister Boris Johnson and foreign secretary Dominic Raab spoke volumes during Westminster’s parliamentary debate over Afghanistan on 18 August. Just days beforehand, Kabul had fallen with shocking speed to Taliban forces. Foreign nationals and their endangered Afghan allies had been left scrambling to evacuate. Traumatic scenes were already developing at the city’s airport. And yet the two politicians seemed stunned by the anger at government impotence and complacency which erupted on the Tory benches.
Their response was yet further indication that neither Johnson nor Raab have the slightest affinity for the military world and the values which underpin it. Neither bothered to visit Afghanistan in their present jobs. Both likely saw the conflict as yesterday’s problem, and left it to Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace. As a result they seem to have failed to comprehend that, for many people, abandoning the country in such a manner is an act of betrayal which besmirches British honour.
The botched pull-out from Afghanistan is also a military humiliation for the US. It does not change the facts of American military power, and may in time prove popular domestically, but it is already doing real damage to the superpower’s global standing. China is likely to be the main beneficiary of the debacle in Kabul. Beijing is well placed to capitalise on its strong links with Pakistan to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, wrap it into the Belt and Road initiative and thereby tighten its grip in Central Asia, all to India’s detriment. Taiwan and South Korea may be revising their assumptions about US staying power as a military ally.
America’s European allies have learned a lot about Biden’s foreign policy. In February, in an attempt to mark a departure from Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign, the new US president proclaimed that “America is back”. But in withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, Biden has instead followed through on Trump’s promise. His first public statements as the Taliban tightened their grip on Kabul were defensive and lacking in empathy for the plight of the Afghan people. And while he and Johnson have belatedly set the wheels of international coordination in motion, the meetings of the G7 and NATO have been focused on the evacuation and the immediate humanitarian priorities.
The longer-term damage will be to confidence in the US as an ally. Its policy on Afghanistan has put domestic politics ahead of collective NATO commitments to the Afghan people. The manner of the withdrawal was a brutal demonstration both of how dependent European members of NATO are on US military might, and how little their views counted when crucial decisions were made in the White House. It has re-energised the debate in EU capitals about their lack of capacity to act independently on security and defence. Improved European defence capabilities would be a good thing. But if under pressure of these events the objective becomes greater European autonomy from an unreliable America, NATO will be further undermined.
Where does all this leave Britain? Five months ago, the government published an Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy. Its central thesis was that the UK’s recovered sovereignty and close links with Washington would enable it to “turn the dial on international issues of consequence” and “shape the international order of the future”. These airy assumptions of British exceptionalism have not survived their first contact with reality, however. As Theresa May asked with withering scorn in the Commons debate “Where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?”
The UK government’s immediate preoccupation is to get as many vulnerable people out of Kabul as possible and to put in place a generous resettlement scheme. The criterion for this should be need not numbers, and given the extent of our engagement with Afghanistan, the UK should be willing to take more than the 20,000-person programme for Syria. But the government also needs to settle on a set of objectives to address the longer term consequences of the debacle in Kabul.
First, stay engaged with Afghanistan. We owe it to the Afghan people to keep the international spotlight on how a Taliban-dominated government behaves. However difficult in human rights terms, we should talk to the new rulers in Kabul. They are best placed to ensure that terrorist groups like ISIS cannot use Afghan territory to threaten Western nations.
Second, recognise the importance of non-military tools of conflict prevention and crisis management, given that the era of major Western military interventions is over, at least for now. The government should immediately restore the £4bn cut to the UK aid budget, and take a lead in buttressing the UN’s peacekeeping and human rights capacities. These are often the best ways of achieving a degree of transparency and accountability in conflict-torn countries.
Third, repair the damage to NATO. As the two leading NATO military powers, the UK and US should talk frankly about how to restore confidence in the battered transatlantic alliance. There is now an urgent need to re-establish a shared sense of strategic purpose, and to rethink how to use military force to achieve political objectives.
Fourth, rebuild a working relationship with the EU on foreign policy. The UK has found repeatedly since Brexit that its interests align most closely with its European neighbours, whether over Iran, striking a balance between cooperation and competition with China, and now coping with the humiliation inflicted on us by US unilateralism in Afghanistan.
This crisis has exposed with surgical precision the delusions of grandeur which have passed for British foreign policy in recent years. It is time at last to define our priorities clearly and pursue them relentlessly.
Peter Ricketts was a British diplomat for 40 years, and is the author of Hard Choices: What Britain Does Next (Atlantic Books, 2021).