The UK-US 'special relationship' is at breaking point

After twenty years of co-operation in Afghanistan, British politicians and soldiers are furious at America's government

From the moment America opted for military intervention in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks carried out by Al Qaeda 20 years ago, arguably no country has been a more staunch and reliable ally in the war against Islamist extremism than Britain.

After the then British prime minister Tony Blair declared that Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US, the UK was unflinching in its support for the American-led coalition effort in Afghanistan.

British special forces took a lead role in the original operation to overthrow the Al Qaeda-allied Taliban government in late 2001, and Britain has been the second largest contributor after the US to the subsequent Nato mission that was set up with the aim of bringing stability and security to Afghanistan.

In doing so, Britain has also suffered significant casualties, with a total of 457 deaths and thousands more suffering serious injury.

And yet, despite Britain’s unstinting commitment to Washington’s war effort in Afghanistan spanning nearly two decades of relentless combat, the British government has been left nursing a deep sense of betrayal over US President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s involvement in what the White House has labelled America’s “forever war”.

Mr Biden’s decision last April to end American involvement, moreover, was effectively a unilateral move which was taken without the White House properly consulting with the British government about its own concerns on the issue. His announcement that Washington would withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan in time for the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks prompted a rare display of public criticism of American policy from Britain’s most senior military officer.

Normally, in order to preserve the importance of Britain’s so-called “special relationship” with Washington on military and intelligence-sharing issues, any criticisms of policy by either party tend to be voiced in private for fear of causing unnecessary tensions.

But after Mr Biden made his withdrawal decision, General Sir Nick Carter, the head of Britain’s Armed Forces who has held several senior command positions in Afghanistan, took the highly unusual step of criticising the American policy, remarking in a BBC interview that it was “not the decision we hoped for”.

Now the ill feeling between London and Washington has deepened even further following the Biden administration’s chaotic mishandling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has resulted in the Taliban seizing control of the country, raising serious questions about the future of the transatlantic alliance.

Just as happened with Mr Biden’s initial decision to withdraw US forces, the President made little effort to communicate with his British allies as the final withdrawal arrangements were put in place. It took Mr Biden two days to contact British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, and he then caused further upset in London by refusing Mr Johnson’s request to extend the deadline for the evacuation of foreign nationals from the country.

Mr Biden’s disdainful treatment of the British government on the Afghan withdrawal issue has certainly caused major tensions, with politicians on both sides of the Atlantic indulging in a blame game over the handling of the crisis.

In London, anger among politicians at Westminster has resulted in unprecedented public criticism of the American president, with one unnamed British minister reported to have described the US leader as "doolally" and "gaga". The comments infuriated the White House after they were reprinted in the Washington Post. After Mr Biden refused to take Mr Johnson's calls at the height of the Afghan withdrawal crisis, Mr Johnson was reported to have referred to the US leader as “Sleepy Joe”, echoing former president Donald Trump’s favourite nickname for him, and telling aides that he regarded Mr Biden as being “lightweight and inward-looking”.

Even Mr Blair, who was instrumental in authorising the deployment of British forces to Afghanistan, has entered the fray, claiming that the hasty withdrawal was a “tragic, dangerous and unnecessary decision” which will see “every jihadist group around the world cheering”.

The Biden administration has responded by blaming the British military for the suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed 60 Afghans and 13 American troops, claiming UK officials had pushed to keep open the gate that was targeted in the terrorist attack.

The bitter war of words between Washington and London in the aftermath of this debacle certainly raises a number of questions, especially about the prospect of future military cooperation between the US and Britain on major security issues.

On one level, the American withdrawal has proved embarrassing for London because, even though British ministers and senior military officers argued in favour of maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan, they soon realised that this would be impossible without American backing, which illustrates the inability of British and other European forces to conduct military operations independently of the US.

There are also concerns about the damage inflicted on the credibility of the Nato alliance. Lord Robertson, who was secretary general of Nato when its member forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, has denounced the withdrawal as a "hasty, crassly handled surrender to the very people that we fought and defeated 20 years ago”.

“Nato and the West, whatever we like to think, have been weakened, that remarkable solidarity of 20 years ago has been damaged, and the mighty United States of America has been humiliated," he said.

Certainly, if this is how Washington treats its allies on a major security issue such as Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine that countries like Britain will readily commit their military forces to fight alongside their American allies when future crises arise

Published: September 9th 2021, 3:19 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

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