The UK's not happy with Biden's handling of the Afghan issue

Mr Biden’s failure to consult fully with his allies has caused a rift

US President Joe Biden might be completely unapologetic about his controversial decision to end America’s military involvement in Afghanistan, but the high-handed manner in which he has handled the issue has caused deep unease within the Nato alliance.

Speaking in the aftermath of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul this week, Mr Biden insisted that he stood “squarely” by his decision to end American combat operations, even if the move had plunged the country into chaos and gifted control of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Mr Biden’s unilateral decision to withdraw all remaining American combat forces from Afghanistan was primarily aimed at fulfilling an election promise to end what he terms America’s “forever wars”.

Nevertheless, it has had profound implications for key allies such as Britain, the second largest military contributor to the Nato mission to bring stability to Afghanistan. They were left with no option but to follow Washington’s lead and curtail their own operations.

And Mr Biden’s failure to consult fully with his allies before his fateful decision has caused a major rift in the transatlantic alliance, especially in Britain where there is mounting anger at what many politicians and military leaders regard as the Biden administration’s wilful abandonment of Western support for the Afghan people.

Mr Biden’s unwillingness to co-ordinate properly with his European allies was reflected in the fact that it took him fully two days after the fall of Kabul to make contact with another foreign leader, when he phoned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss the unfolding crisis.

Having had an awkward relationship with former US President Donald Trump – Mr Johnson bridled at the comparisons that were often made between himself and the American leader – the Prime Minister has been keen to forge a close alliance with the Biden White House. This much was evident during June’s G7 summit in Cornwall, where the two men agreed to co-operate on issues like climate change.

Indeed, with the Cop26 climate change summit due to be held in Glasgow in November, Mr Johnson is keen to enlist the American president’s support for his ambitious targets to limit global warming.

Even so, the scale of the crisis now happening in Afghanistan has obliged the British leader to take a firm stand towards Washington, telling Mr Biden not to sacrifice the “gains made in Afghanistan” during the past two decades.

But while Mr Johnson has tried to keep relations with Mr Biden on an even footing, many of his political colleagues, as well as a number of prominent British military leaders, have expressed outrage at the American leader’s handling of the Afghan issue.

The true extent of the anger felt in British political and military circles was evident during a session of Parliament specially convened on Wednesday to discuss the crisis. During the emergency debate, Mr Johnson himself appeared to place the blame squarely on Washington for the chaotic scenes unfolding in Kabul, arguing it was an “illusion” to suggest the British could continue to maintain a presence in Afghanistan after the American decision to leave.

A number of prominent MPs were even more scathing of Mr Biden’s conduct. Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said that Mr Biden, as well previous US President Donald Trump, should be “deeply ashamed”, while former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith accused the American leader of making “shameful excuses”.

But by the far the most powerful intervention came from the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who served as a military reservist in Afghanistan. “I’ve watched good men go into the earth, taking with them a part of me, a part of all of us,” he told a hushed Commons. “This week has torn open some of those wounds and left them raw, left them hurting...This doesn’t need to be defeat, but right now it damn well feels like it.”

A number of senior British officers, such as General Sir Nick Carter, the head of Britain’s Armed Forces, have also expressed disquiet at Washington’s handling of the crisis, while Lord David Richards, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan, has said he feels “ashamed” at the way the withdrawal has been handled.

The strong feelings expressed in the Commons and elsewhere in Britain raise serious questions about the future of the transatlantic relationship, with many senior British policymakers openly questioning Washington’s value as an ally.

There are also growing concerns about how Afghanistan will be run now that the Taliban has seized control of the whole country.

To date, Taliban leaders have sought to portray themselves as taking a different approach to the previous Taliban regime that ruled the country in the 1990s and became renowned for its uncompromising interpretation of Islamic law.

At the Taliban’s first press conference since seizing power, Zabiullah Mujahid, the movement’s spokesman, indicated the Taliban would adopt a different, more moderate approach to running the country, so that ordinary Afghans could live their lives “with full confidence”.

Nevertheless, concerns remain in the West that, under Taliban rule, Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for Islamist terror groups such as Al Qaeda. One of the Taliban’s first actions on reaching Kabul was to release hundreds of Al Qaeda prisoners held at Bagram Air Base – once the nerve centre of the US-led military mission – and other prisons around the capital.

The Taliban’s takeover of the country has certainly been a cause for celebration among extremist militants. Social media accounts sympathetic to Al Qaeda published an unsigned message shortly after the Taliban takeover congratulating the movement on their victory.

“Afghanistan is conquered and Islam has won”, read one message documented by the SITE intelligence group, which monitors extremist media.

When Mr Biden announced his decision to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan, he said he remained committed to ensuring the country did not become a safe haven for Islamist terror groups. But with the Taliban back in power, that is not something that can be taken for granted.

Published: August 19th 2021, 4:00 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National