Over the years Britain’s own foreign policy strategy has shifted from the blind presumption of the Blair years to a hard-nosed realism
The most remarkable thing about America’s decision to cut and run from Afghanistan was that it took so long to come about. This is not to suggest that President Biden’s decision to pull the plug on two decades of attempted nation-building is wise or just, simply an acknowledgment of the limits that the western democratic system places on overseas military commitments.
The US-led mission in Afghanistan has encompassed multiple Republican and Democrat presidencies and involved the substantial deployment of US troops in a hostile setting for twice as long as was the case in Vietnam.
Given the nature of the political cycle, with another crucial election always being around the corner, it is surprising that it has taken until the Biden presidency for the White House to play the “bring the troops home” card, though the move was considered at various times by Barack Obama and committed to by Donald Trump.
In his mealy-mouthed statement last night, Biden spoke of having directed US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to “support President Ghani and other Afghan leaders as they seek to prevent further bloodshed and pursue a political settlement”.
The very idea that diplomacy can persuade the Taliban to suspend its rapid advance, while the demoralised Afghanistan army is further deprived of crucial Western support is absurd and risible. So too is President Biden’s insistence that his hands were effectively tied by Trump’s 2019 deal with the Taliban, reducing American troop numbers to just 2,500. As the Commander-in-Chief of US forces, he could easily have reversed that.
But when it comes to the court of public opinion the President will have known he was on firmer ground when he said: “I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not and will not pass this war onto a fifth.”
A growing war weariness among the US public is baked into its overseas engagements and at some point will always prove too strong a force for a president to resist.
There is a lesson in all this for Britain too. For all the attempts of successive prime ministers to set out a principled case for our own commitment in Afghanistan, the harsh truth is that America is the only western superpower and what it says generally goes, as was shown during the Suez crisis of 1956.
As Defence Secretary Ben Wallace ruefully admitted, his efforts to cast around for international partners to continue the Afghanistan deployment in America’s absence proved fruitless. And as Boris Johnson added: “I think we have got to be realistic about the power of the UK or any power to impose a military solution.”
Such hard-nosed realism is a very long way from where we started. When Tony Blair signed Britain up to the invasion of Afghanistan, he immediately sought to cloak the mission with wider purposes than simply smashing Al Qaeda and giving the Taliban a bloody nose.
He left delegates at the 2001 Labour conference in no doubt that exporting western-style freedoms to that benighted land was in the forefront of his mind, telling them: “Look for a moment at the Taliban regime. There is no sport allowed, or television or photography. No art or culture is permitted. All other faiths, all other interpretations of Islam are ruthlessly suppressed. Those who practice their faith are imprisoned. Women are treated in a way almost too revolting to be credible. First driven out of university; girls not allowed to go to school; no legal rights; unable to go out of doors without a man. Those that disobey are stoned.”
Blair also linked the Afghanistan mission to a wider duty to advance human rights and topple repressive regimes, adding: “When Milosevic embarked on the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo, we acted…and look what happened: we won, the refugees went home. And I tell you if Rwanda happened again today as it did in 1993, when a million people were slaughtered in cold blood, we would have a moral duty to act there also.”
And he seemed to see no downside to the impending entanglement in Afghanistan, predicting: “This is a battle with only one outcome: our victory not theirs.” These were all noble sentiments but constituted the political equivalent of seeking to cash a cheque without having enough capital in the bank to cover its value.
So, given our status as America’s junior partner, what open-ended commitments should British PMs feel entitled to make and the British public think it reasonable to believe? Our ongoing deployment in the Falkland Islands passes the test precisely because it is ours alone and based on a profound commitment to allow British people to carry on being British. Public opinion will never go soft on that, and any British premier who does will not hang around for long.
But to construct a great moral case for other engagements when the US could pull the rug from under them at any moment is asking for trouble. So is the Blair-era presumption in favour of sending British soldiers around the world in the slipstream of Uncle Sam without first nailing down exactly what the commitments will entail.
Harold Wilson’s decision not to send British forces to the war in Vietnam was much less exciting than Blair’s later choices to commit them to Afghanistan long-term or to Iraq at all. But can anyone really say it was less astute?