The chaos in Kabul exposes the fault lines in the special relations between the United Kingdom and the United States


Nearly two decades ago, Tony Blair, then prime minister of the United Kingdom, vowed to his American counterpart, George W. Bush, “I’ll be with you, whatever.” The sentiments for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 proved valid and have remained so during the hasty and chaotic withdrawal of the past few days.

However, the UK has made it clear, publicly and privately, that it does not agree with President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw 2,500 US troops by the end of August. General Sir Nick Carter, the UK’s chief of defense staff, admitted just two days after Biden’s announcement in April that this “was not a decision we had hoped for”.

The split over Afghanistan has exposed the first major rift in UK-US relations since Biden took office in January. His election in Whitehall and Downing Street was greeted with relief after the uncertainty from the Trump administration. On NATO, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson felt he had found an ally.

President George W. Bush listening to then British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001, prior to joint operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. © Joe Marquette / AP

In contrast, the Biden administration has relied on the UK to take joint action on sanctions and human rights issues, while finding in foreign policy challenges, such as Belarus or Myanmar, London is a major supporter.

But Biden’s televised address on Monday, in which he stood directly behind his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, shocked many in Whitehall. A senior official involved in British foreign policy criticized “ruthless and relentless language” and “lack of humility about a humanitarian catastrophe”. A senior conservative called Biden’s speech “absolutely exceptional,” adding that it was “not America first, but America alone.”

There is also concern among some British diplomats that the Biden administration views France as its primary European partner. “[Antony] flash [US secretary of state] He gave two major French TV interviews and a zero for the British media. “This shows where his priorities lie,” said one of the MPs.

Boris Johnson meets Joe Biden in Cornwall ahead of the G7 summit in June © Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The US president also came under direct criticism from lawmakers in the House of Commons on Wednesday in a prominent parliamentary rebuke to Britain’s closest ally. Several members of Parliament called his criticism of the Afghan army “shameful” while Sir John Redwood, a former cabinet minister, accused Biden of unilaterally withdrawing “without agreeing and negotiating a plan with the Afghan government or NATO allies”.

Joe Biden is defending his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan this week. © Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Before Biden’s decision to end what he called an “eternal war” in April, Johnson and British diplomats tried to persuade the United States to change course. But once it became clear that this was futile, they turned attention to creating an alternative military force to partially fill the gap that the departing American forces might leave.

Ministers considered mobilizing the NATO Allies to stay after the departure of US forces. There were also discussions about maintaining a British ambassador’s presence for a longer period either in Kabul or at the city’s airport, according to people familiar with the government’s plans.

Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense minister, told the Financial Times that he, along with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, had tried to speak with “a number of key countries” that would remain in Afghanistan after US forces left. “Although some [being] If he wills, the thing holding this figure back is their parliaments.”

Stoltenberg denied knowing of any discussions about the continued presence of troops when asked by reporters this week, but emphasized that no European country or Canada was ultimately willing to replace US military support, which he said had “bear the brunt of the war.” burden” during the Afghan operation.

The American flag is lowered as American soldiers hand over control of the Antonik camp in Helmand province to Afghan forces in May. © Afghan Ministry of Defense / Associated Press

Experts in contact with the Biden administration have discovered another relationship fault when it comes to Afghanistan: Washington considers the United Kingdom more sympathetic to Pakistan’s views on the Taliban than Biden, who has not yet contacted his Pakistani counterpart.

Despite all the tensions revealed by last week’s events – and long-running concerns about a new US-UK trade deal and the fallout from Northern Ireland’s exit from the European Union – other British diplomats insist that the special relationship will not suffer in the long run.

They particularly noted that the UK received the first call after Biden was elected president, and the first call after the fall of Kabul. Biden has also dedicated personal time to the relationship, visiting the UK in June ahead of the G7 summit – part of his first overseas trip since becoming president – and meeting the Queen.

Meanwhile, State Department officials in Washington have tried to downplay talk of the rift.

“Well, we certainly have an extraordinary partner in the British government,” Foreign Office spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday, adding that the United States had discussed the withdrawal with its NATO allies at a meeting in Brussels in late March. “We have worked closely with our British allies on this matter.”

He criticized US lawmakers during an emergency debate on Afghanistan on Wednesday. © Roger Harris/UK Parliament

Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said the priority for Johnson’s government was to ensure that “the current tendency toward isolationism in the United States does not get worse”. “The ties go much deeper than anyone in the White House or Downing Street,” he added.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Secretary of State and Defense, also argued that the split would not have a “substantial destructive effect” on transatlantic relations. The United States, especially under President Biden, understands perfectly well that even as the world’s largest superpower, it needs allies when pursuing its foreign policy across a whole range of different areas on different problems around the world. If the UK is not their closest ally, the question should be, who? “

But the UK’s unwilling withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about its standing abroad, particularly in the wake of Brexit and Johnson’s “Global Britain” agenda. Some have expressed fears that the withdrawal could undermine Britain’s credibility abroad as the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier deployed to Asia seeks to publicize the UK’s strengths as an ally.

“What is the price of the UK’s promises and commitment to people at risk? Together with the US, I fear they are worthless,” said General Lord David Richards, former head of the British Armed Forces. “The impact of this tragedy on Britain’s influence, reputation and ability to do so world-wide things that will last a long time.”



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