Despite the protestations by Ministers that the operation to evacuate British citizens and Afghans who helped our forces is under control and going well, the soldiers’ expressions tell a different tale.
It is one of chaos and a humanitarian disaster. A situation that is under control does not see Afghan mothers passing their babies over razor-wire barricades to soldiers to get them to safety, or crowds besieging the airport desperate for a flight out being whipped or killed by their new Taliban masters.
These images, along with those of people falling to their deaths from transport aircraft they had clung to, will live long in Britain’s memory. And they should trouble the consciences of the most senior members of the Government for even longer.
The pictures speak volumes about a lack of preparedness, a failure of intelligence and the state of relations between Britain and the United States, all of them issues that raise serious questions about our ability to shape world events ahead of today’s ‘virtual’ summit of G7 leaders.
Though blame for the catastrophe in Afghanistan rests squarely with US President Joe Biden, whose withdrawal of military help handed control of the country to a gang of savages, Britain is diminished by what has happened. Any talk from now on of there being a special relationship between Britain and the US is going to ring very hollow indeed. How can any such thing conceivably exist when the US unilaterally, and without informing Britain, decided to set a deadline to withdraw its troops, leaving our forces to shore up an unseemly scramble that ministers admit will end with people who need to be evacuated for their own safety being left behind?
Tony Blair’s characterisation of President Biden’s actions as “imbecilic” at the weekend is hard to disagree with, even though his language was exceptionally harsh, especially when aimed at an ally.
Mr Biden condemned himself from his own mouth when interviewed about Afghanistan last week, coming across as shambling and incoherent, barely able to string together a sentence that made any sense whatsoever. Even his predecessor, Donald Trump, regularly jeered at for his ineptitude, rarely came across as so woefully out of his depth as Mr Biden did.
But if he has been left floundering by events in Afghanistan, then so have Boris Johnson and his Government. Britain has neither the military clout nor public appetite for going it alone in Afghanistan. We were always the junior partner of the Americans, whose operation it has been for 20 years. Yet that does not absolve the Government of responsibility for the unfolding tragedy that could get even worse as the August 31 deadline for US forces to leave draws near.
Questions about its handling in the past weeks surround Mr Johnson. Did neither he, nor his officials, keep abreast of news reports which daily showed the Taliban racing across Afghanistan, taking control of city after city as government forces melted away or surrendered without a fight? Was there no intelligence on the likely scale of the rout of these forces? If not, why not? Or was it that Mr Johnson and his senior Ministers, in the midst of the August political doldrums, simply didn’t have their eyes on the ball?
The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, obviously did not. On holiday and declining the urgings of his officials to call his opposite number in Afghanistan in the hope of making evacuations run more smoothly, Mr Raab stands accused by some Tory colleagues of dereliction of duty.
Whether such a call to an official of a government that was collapsing would have made any difference is questionable, but the attempt should have been made. Sacking Mr Raab over this won’t make matters better for either the Afghans or British forces, but it is a failure that will follow him.
But it is another phone call – or the absence of it – that raises the most profound questions for Britain. Boris Johnson has boasted ever since Mr Biden came to office that he is the first name on the president’s call list. Why then was the Prime Minister not on the phone to White House weeks ago demanding to be kept fully informed about American plans for Afghanistan and putting forward proposals for a joint approach that would manage any withdrawal in as orderly a fashion as possible?
Throughout this crisis, and in the emergency debate in the Commons last week, the Prime Minister has looked like a man caught on the hop, lacking both authority and information even as British troops were being deployed. That raises perhaps the most fundamental question of all, one that will resonate even after Afghanistan is finally abandoned at a likely terrible cost for its people. Where does all this leave Britain’s influence in the world?
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