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Thursday, 25 July 2024
“Global” Britain and Afghanistan
Ian Black
It’s been a vivid sign of the worldwide impact of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan that it has affected faraway national politics so intensely. President Joe Biden has been clear in bluntly defending his controversial and unilateral decision to end America’s longest “forever war” – in the face of both domestic support and international criticism. But in the UK Boris Johnson’s government has faced searing condemnation of its incompetence.

Last Wednesday, the British parliament was recalled – despite the summer recess – for the first time since Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. Johnson had announced on July 8 that most British troops had pulled out of Afghanistan. And he defended his acceptance of Biden’s withdrawal by arguing that the UK was not in a position to remain in Kabul alone “without American might.”

Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, excoriated the prime minister for his lack of focus and callousness towards Afghan refugees. But criticism was not confined to the opposition. In the debate that followed Johnson’s Conservative predecessor, Theresa May, was scathing in her questioning of his government’s failure to foresee what was likely to happen.

Another high-profile Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, called the stunning victory of the Taliban the worst moment for British foreign policy since the Suez crisis of 1956. Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence select committee, spoke with sadness of the “dire consequences of us timidly following America’s departure.”

Immediately after the fall of Kabul, demands multiplied to dismiss Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, because of his failure (while on holiday) to telephone his Afghan counterpart. The topic was the evacuation of Afghans who had worked for the British army or embassy over the past 20 years. Raab refused to resign and was defended by Johnson and cabinet colleagues who claimed that the sheer speed of the Taliban’s takeover rendered the call irrelevant. “The only thing that could get a minister sacked is telling the truth about Brexit,” as a well-known journalist tweeted.

Raab’s lack of responsibility symbolised the overall failure of the UK government to predict the future of Afghanistan in the wake of President Donald Trump’s Doha deal with the Taliban in February 2020, and Biden’s commitment to more or less follow the timetable of the pullout dictated by his Republican predecessor.

Raab’s refusal to resign was followed by a demand for an investigation by parliament’s security watchdog to see the secret intelligence analysis behind the chaotic retreat from Afghanistan after ministers asserted that they were caught unawares by the Taliban takeover. This would prove whether Johnson and Raab were right to say that the sheer pace of the collapse of the Kabul government was not anticipated.
In the US, a former CIA counter-terrorism chief claimed that both the Trump and Biden administrations were warned by their intelligence community that the Afghan army’s resistance to the Taliban could collapse “within days” after an over-hasty withdrawal.

Intelligence agencies in Britain have also come under pressure in the aftermath of the Taliban conquest, although the domestic security service MI5 indicated shortly after Biden’s decision was announced, that a rapid victory for the insurgent group was one of a number of possible scenarios. British military chiefs, however, tried to paint a total takeover as the least likely of several scenarios, the favourite of which was a negotiated deal between the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s government that was ousted so easily.

It is important to remember that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban was seen, in western countries, as a success – certainly compared with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Afghanistan was rightly seen as launching-pad for al-Qaida terrorism. By that limited benchmark, the military presence has been successful, but it is uncertain whether that success will now be reversed by al-Qaida and other jihadi organizations. Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister in 2001, warned that the return of the Taliban “will see every jihadist group round the world cheering”.

The exit from Afghanistan came as the UK redirects its post-Brexit focus to the Indo-Pacific. Britain’s pivot to Asia includes forging closer economic ties with countries like Japan and Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. Accession talks have begun for the UK to join the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, that includes them as well as southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

Underlining the Afghan fiasco is the conviction that Johnson’s hubristic talk of a post-Brexit “Global Britain” is sImply self-serving nonsense. Events in Afghanistan “were a pretty cold shower to those who thought Britain would be operating as one of the great powers of the world after Brexit,” was the conclusion of Lord Peter Ricketts, a former senior diplomat and national security adviser. “It has without doubt underlined the fragility of British foreign policy.”

It is also hard to disagree with the withering line from Theresa May, who told a packed House of Commons: “I’m afraid this has been a major setback for British foreign policy. We boast about ‘Global Britain’, but where is ‘Global Britain’ on the streets of Kabul?” levant

by: IAN BLACK levant