Politics

The UK conflict in Afghanistan is ending, however questions on its failures want solutions

What Keir Starmer described as “a sad and dark day” for the British role in Afghanistan grew sadder and darker. Recent news that two British nationals and a British national’s child were killed in the suicide bombings outside Kabul airport underscores the feeling of the unfolding tragedy.

While the main responsibility for the killings undeniably rests with barbaric Islamist terrorists, Boris Johnson is now facing even greater political pressure over his own approach to the wider Afghanistan policy.

In many ways, of course, Johnson’s hands are tied by his heavy reliance on the Americans. Joe Biden’s refusal to postpone his political engagement until the August 31 withdrawal deadline has driven events, though the U.S. President’s failure to keep allies like Britain informed has left many of them with a bitter taste.

As for the so-called “special relationship” between the UK and the US, the phrase feels even more like polite fiction than usual. Despite British ministers going public calling for an extension to the airport evacuation, it only took Biden seven minutes to make his conference call with the G7 this week to announce that he is not moving.

Ministers have spoken privately about the White House’s handling of its withdrawal, and Tory’s frustration may have been embodied by backbencher Alicia Kearns (an ex-MoD and FCO employee) when she tweeted her anger over the bombs yesterday .

“I’m angry and I’m heartbroken and I’m angry,” wrote Kearns. “The deals are being made without British participation by ‘allies’. Taliban checkpoints stop our people, but not terrorists. ”She deleted this tweet shortly afterwards, but the mood was well understood and shared by her colleagues.

But while Biden’s boast at the G7 summit in Cornwall – “America is back” – sounds hollow, Johnson’s own “Global Britain” mantra has also been brutally exposed. The prime minister’s major failure this week was not the postponement of Biden’s deadline, but rather the lamentable lack of specific commitments on issues such as foreign aid. We do not yet have a detailed “road map” for the G7’s policy on Afghanistan.

Before the virtual meeting, Johnson had expressly stated that he wanted other nations to meet “Britain’s obligations” in relation to development. But after that there were no such specifics, just vague ambitions. Perhaps one reason was that the UK had forfeited any hope of global aid leadership when it decided last year to actually cut funds to Afghanistan only to realize this summer that it needed to restore them.

The self-harm of the British soft power by the aid cuts was just one example of the lack of a common strategy. France managed to evacuate 600 of its Afghan employees back in April, seeing the threat to their security from this month’s Biden decision. Although Dominic Raab has stressed that he started contingency plans in April, he had to admit that he was surprised by the speed of the Taliban’s takeover.

Raab is facing a very difficult meeting before the Foreign Affairs Committee next week, not least because he admitted “in retrospect” that after the fall of Kabul he should have come home earlier from his vacation in Greece. In contrast to Defense Minister Ben Wallace, who is seen by MPs on all sides as accessible and bipartisan, Raab is seen as aloof and defensive.

MEPs are also increasingly angry with the Interior Ministry for not having prepared their own briefings for them on how to deal with voters and relatives who are desperate to flee Afghanistan. Stella Creasy tells me, “The ministers tell the press that the evacuation is over, but they can’t even bother to speak to those who are dealing with these desperate people to help them with what next has to be done. “

The UK’s lack of engagement also angered the Pakistani government, say other MPs. When ministers speak of “Phase 2” evacuation across land borders, they are actually referring to Pakistan, but the country has not been given any real guidance on the cash assistance needed or the categorizations of national and worker status required for evacuation.

Here, too, Johnson has a broader responsibility. Insiders say Pakistan’s Imran Khan partially canceled a planned visit to the UK in July this year because he believed the prime minister had failed to reach a specific agreement on issues such as Afghan refugees. The offer of a brief meeting followed by a photo op of Khan’s appearance at a cricket match between England and Pakistan was considered insufficient.

The biggest factor in the Afghan tragedy of recent weeks has been Biden’s longstanding belief that after 20 years enough is enough. It feels a lot like Johnson’s own “If not now, when?” Argument to end the Covid restrictions. Just as Johnson feared the lockdown fatigue of the British public, Biden believed that American voters were tired of their Afghan engagement.

Both approaches have realities and shortcomings. A focused NATO presence in Afghanistan could have continued, just as a minimum of lockdown restrictions (work from home, masks) could have helped contain the ominous surge in Covid cases we are seeing now. An honest assessment of the compromises in “living with the virus” should be contrasted with a similar transparency in “living with the Taliban”.

The real comparison, however, is political will and leadership. The British Armed Forces, like the NHS, will always deliver professionally and with incredible skill and courage. However, they rely on governments to define coherent and competent strategies, including “exit strategies”.

So there really is a need for an independent public inquiry not only on Covid but also on Britain’s Afghanistan policy since 2001. It will be awkward for both Labor and Conservatives, but now it is more necessary than ever. Johnson seemed to shrug off Tobias Ellwood’s request for an investigation last week, but MPs throughout the House are sure to scream for it.

The enormous cost of money and life, British and Afghan, deserve a full lessons learned balance sheet. As we pull up the drawbridge at Kabul Airport, today’s British losses only add to that moral imperative.

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