A briefing note for POTUS: the United Kingdom after Afghanistan

Eric Gates imagines a very necessary briefing for President Biden in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan:

Mr President

With the main elements of the US drawdown from Afghanistan complete, it is perhaps appropriate to brief you on the impact that this has had in the United Kingdom.

I appreciate that many Americans have been completely unaware that European and other allies have also been engaged in the Afghan campaign and that the UK has been our most significant partner. The UK has a long history of intervention in Afghanistan, going back to 1839 and it has seldom been happy. For them, this was the fourth such war.

In the US, one of the key images of the withdrawal from Kabul was of the helicopters evacuating the embassy, as a reminder of Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam war. In the UK, the resonance has been with the Suez crisis of 1956.

To US eyes, the circumstances are entirely different, but from the UK perspective, Suez was the moment when US actions punctured British illusions of world power status. America’s pressure on the UK, France and Israel, following their invasion of the Egyptian canal zone, demonstrated to the British that they could no longer act independently, without tacit US support. Indeed, Suez was noteworthy for the US voting against the UK in the United Nations. The then Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, did not long survive the crisis and his successor, Harold Macmillan, effectively set the UK policy towards the US that has held to the present day. 

This has been described as “hanging onto Uncle Sam’s coat tails”. In essence, the UK retains its global status by aligning itself as closely as possible with the US, to give the impression of independent importance. Since that time, the only significant example of unilateral UK action has been the Falklands war, in which the US avoided direct engagement but was swift in covering gaps in the UK’s weaponry. The reality is better illustrated by the UK’s “independent” nuclear deterrent, which is US supplied and maintained. Without the status that that endows, the rationale for the UK’s seat on the Security Council at the United Nations would be hard to sustain.   

The emergency debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday 18 August was significant in a number of ways. Many of the most withering comments came from members of Johnson’s own political party – most pointedly from former military personnel who had served in Afghanistan and also from his predecessor Theresa May. There was a real feeling that the US had failed its friends by putting America first and, while this was almost expected of the Trump regime, it struck home when a Democrat President followed the same line. British legislators felt that they had been abandoned by the US in much the same way as they did in 1956. 

Whether the surprise at the turn of events was justified is perhaps another matter. The date for withdrawal had been set for some months and the French were able to carry out an evacuation of their allies and citizens in May and early June. In Britain, senior military officers had pressed for the evacuation of interpreters weeks ago: it appears that this became bogged down in the anti-immigration stance that has been adopted by the British Home Office. In any event, little appears to have been done.

Incredibly, with the Afghan regime collapsing, both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary went on holiday at the same time. Whitehall appears to have been left with nobody in charge. It also seems that the Foreign Secretary had not done any groundwork in the preceding months with neighbouring governments to coordinate action in the event of the withdrawal. The result gives an impression of a Cabinet made up of dilettantes.

An outcome of the debate is a question about the options that remain for British foreign policy. America is clearly going to put its own interests first and the message received here is that the United Kingdom does not feature highly in its priorities. Indeed, your interest in the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland is seen as ominous. Brexit has comprehensively burned the UK’s bridges with its European neighbours and the need to blame the EU for all the consequences of Brexit will continue to make cooperation difficult. The result leaves the United Kingdom looking particularly isolated despite the “global Britain” rhetoric. “Standing alone” will no doubt evoke all kinds of historical allusions, but it may become a very uncomfortable place in a rather dangerous world.     

There has also been one uniquely British sub-plot. In the middle of the chaos that has surrounded the evacuation from Kabul, the UK media has been preoccupied with the plight of a retired Royal Marine who had run an animal rescue centre known as Nowzad in Afghanistan. Eventually, he was successfully evacuated, together with 94 dogs and 79 cats, but none of his Afghan staff.

Evidently the Taliban were happy to lose some stray cats and dogs, of which an ample supply remains, but reluctant to lose people who have learned animal husbandry skills. The story has been a useful deflection from any failings of the Government but also a huge distraction for those trying to manage a major crisis under difficult circumstances. Up to 1,000 Afghans who supported the British in various ways are believed to have been left behind.  The British love their animals.