What Keir Starmer called “a sad and a dark day” for the UK’s role in Afghanistan just got sadder and darker. The latest news, that two British nationals and the child of a British national were among those killed by the suicide bomb attacks outside Kabul airport, underlined the sense of unfolding tragedy.
While the primary responsibility for the murders undeniably lies with barbaric Islamist terrorists, Boris Johnson is now facing even greater political pressure over his own handling of the wider policy on Afghanistan.
In many ways, Johnson’s hands have of course been tied by his heavy reliance on the Americans. Joe Biden’s refusal to shift his political commitment to the August 31 withdrawal deadline has driven events, though the US president’s failure to keep allies like the UK in the loop has left a bitter taste for many of them.
As for the so-called “special relationship” between the UK and US, the phrase feels even more of a polite fiction than usual. Despite British ministers having gone public in calling for an extension to the airport evacuation, it took Biden just seven minutes into his conference call with the G7 this week to announce he was not budging.
Ministers have privately been scathing about the White House’s handling of its pullout and Tory frustration was perhaps typified by backbencher Alicia Kearns (an ex-MoD and FCO staffer) yesterday when she tweeted her anger at the bomb blasts.
“I’m livid, and I’m heartbroken and I’m furious,” Kearns posted. “The deals being done without UK input by ‘allies’. Taliban checkpoints stopping our people but not terrorists.” She deleted that tweet soon after, but the sentiment was well understood and shared by her colleagues.
But while Biden’s boast at the G7 summit in Cornwall – “America is back” – rings hollow, Johnson’s own “Global Britain” mantra has been brutally exposed too. The prime minister’s bigger failure this week was not in shifting Biden’s deadline, it was the woeful lack of concrete pledges on issues like overseas aid. We still have no detailed ‘road map’ for G7 policy on Afghanistan.
Johnson had explicitly said before the virtual meeting that he wanted other nations to “match the UK’s commitments” on development. Yet afterwards, there were no such specifics, only vague ambitions. One reason was perhaps that the UK had forfeited any hope of global leadership on aid when it decided to actually slash funds to Afghanistan last year, only to this summer realise it would have to restore them.
The self-harm to Britain’s soft power caused by the aid cuts was just one example of a lack of joined up strategy. France managed to evacuate 600 of its Afghan employees as early as April, seeing the looming threat to their safety from that month’s Biden decision. Although Dominic Raab has stressed he began contingency plans in April, he’s had to admit he was caught out by the speed of the Taliban takeover.
Raab is in for a very difficult session next week before the Foreign Affairs Committee, not least as he admitted “with hindsight” he should have come home earlier from his Greek holiday after Kabul fell. Unlike defence secretary Ben Wallace, who is seen by MPs on all sides to have been accessible and acting cross-party, Raab is viewed as distant and defensive.
MPs are also increasingly furious with the Home Office for failing to set up its own briefings for them on how to deal with constituents and relatives desperate to get out of Afghanistan. Stella Creasy tells me: “Ministers tell the press the evacuation has ended, but can’t even be bothered to speak to those dealing with these distraught people to help them advise on what next.”
The lack of UK engagement is also upsetting the Pakistan government too, other MPs say. When ministers talk about ‘phase 2’ of the evacuation going through land borders, they really mean Pakistan, yet the country has been given no real clue to the hard cash support needed or details of categorisations of national status and employee status needed for evacuation.
Again, Johnson holds a wider responsibility too. Insiders say Pakistan’s Imran Khan called off a planned visit to the UK this July in part because he felt the PM had no concrete agreement lined up on issues like Afghan refugees. The offer of a brief meeting, followed by the photo-op of Khan appearing at an England-Pakistan cricket match, was seen as inadequate.
The biggest factor in the Afghan tragedy of the past few weeks has been Biden’s long-held conviction that after 20 years enough is enough. This feels very much like Johnson’s own “if not now, then when?” argument on ending Covid restrictions. Just as Johnson feared the British public’s lockdown fatigue, Biden believed American voters were weary of their Afghan commitment.
There are realities and flaws in both approaches. A focused Nato presence in Afghanistan could have continued, just as a minimum of lockdown curbs (working from home, masks) may have helped stem the ominous rise in Covid cases we’re now seeing. An honest assessment of the trade-offs of “living with the virus” ought be matched by a similar transparency on “living with the Taliban”.
Yet the real comparison is one of political will and leadership. The British armed forces, just like the NHS, will always deliver professionally and with incredible skill and courage. But they rely on governments to set coherent and competent strategies, including “exit strategies”.
That’s why there really is a case for an independent public inquiry not just into Covid but into UK policy on Afghanistan since 2001. It will be uncomfortable for both Labour and the Conservatives, but now is more necessary than ever. Johnson seemed to shrug off Tobias Ellwood’s call for an inquiry last week, yet MPs across the House will surely clamour for one.
The huge cost in both money and lives, British and Afghan, deserves a full “lessons learned” account. As we pull up the drawbridge in Kabul airport, today’s British casualties only add to that moral imperative.