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The fall of Kabul shows that the UK is totally out of the loop

Tuesday 31 August 2021

At no point since the Second World War has the UK been so marginalised in the so-called “special relationship” with the US. If that is to change, the PM must transform the way he operates – and fast


There has been a grisly inevitability to the way in which Boris Johnson’s foreign policy ineptitude has been exposed by the Afghanistan crisis. In his head, he is Churchill – albeit with lots of hair and no comb.

In reality, a combination of Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones and Private Pike – younger readers should Google Dad’s Army – is closer to the blustering, blundering, incoherent leadership we have seen before, during and since the fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban.

Far more surprising has been what the crisis has revealed about Joe Biden. Elected as president in large part by not being Donald Trump, Biden has signalled a real change of direction on Covid, climate change, infrastructure and plenty more. 

Yet the early stages of his presidency, and perhaps his entire term in office, risk being defined by his determination to follow a Trump policy – the come-what-may withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Whereas Trump’s foreign policy, like his presidency, was chaotic and narcissistic, Biden’s many decades at the top table of national security gave him a contrasting USP: experience allied to basic competence. As for character, in contrast to Trump’s chronic egomania, Biden was known as an affable “people person”.

Experience, competence, empathy… the combination worked, and it played a significant role in getting him to the White House. So, in this sense, his reputation on all three fronts has been badly hit by recent events. With all that experience, how come he presided over such a badly executed withdrawal, and made so many overly confident assumptions and promises? Where was the laser-like attention to detail that one associates with competence?

And though there was teary-eyed empathy for the 13 US military personnel killed in the Isis-K airport suicide bombing, there was all too little for the Afghan military and the Afghan people being left behind at the mercy of the Taliban – and not that much either for the Allies, chief among them the UK, upon whom the US has depended so often for support.

As a journalist, I covered the respective relationships between Reagan and Thatcher, and Bush Sr. and Major – and then worked in Downing Street during the Clinton-Blair and Bush Jr.-Blair period. On the basis of those years of experience, I cannot imagine how a policy so consequential for both countries, including our military on the ground, would have been carried out without genuine consultation, at all stages, at all levels, with the UK. 

That such consultation so clearly didn’t happen is partly a result of Johnson’s failures as a practitioner of statecraft. He lacks the reputation, the tactical nous, the work ethic, and (frankly) the interest required to ensure that UK thinking properly penetrates the US system. His one demand on the G7 emergency call he eventually chaired on 24 August – a delay to the 31 August withdrawal deadline, to enable more evacuations – was rejected out of hand.

Such inefficacy might have been expected of Johnson. More of a surprise was Biden taking an approach that more clearly bore the stamp of “America First” (© Trump) than of “America is Back” (© Biden – and one of the principal reasons that so many millions around the world rejoiced at his election).

The president’s defenders point out that, regardless of the deal Trump did with the Taliban behind the backs of Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan government – a deal that unleashed thousands of fighters and fundamentally changed the facts on the ground – Biden had long been deeply sceptical about continued US military involvement in Afghanistan.

He was unpersuaded that the Taliban could be defeated militarily; wary of a history showing that foreign military interventions in Afghanistan always end badly; and unconvinced the country would ever be anything other than a failed state bedevilled by warlords and corruption.

A few years ago, official papers revealed that the then Vice-President Biden was virtually alone in Barack Obama’s administration in arguing that the “troop surge” of 30,000 planned in late 2009 was a huge mistake, and would not achieve its stated goals. The documents revealed that both the George W. Bush administration (on whose watch the war in Afghanistan had been launched) and Obama’s (which continued operations for eight years despite an election pledge to end US military involvement there and in Iraq) knew that the official objective of a prosperous, pluralistic, politically stable Afghanistan was well-nigh impossible. 

In place of nation-building, Biden argued for a strategy of counter terrorism, with fewer troops: making greater use of special forces, modern surveillance, targeting and drones (so-called “over-the-horizon” tactics) to attack terrorist networks. This strategy became known as “the Biden Plan” for Afghanistan – but was rejected by Obama.

Biden, who felt the generals had captured the debate, was fiercely criticised by Robert Gates, Defense Secretary under both Bush and Obama, who often commented that Biden was “wrong about everything”. In fact, one could make the case that he was right then, with the first Biden Plan for Afghanistan, which was at least orderly and thought-through – but is wrong now, with what might be called “Biden Plan Two” and is essentially a date- and politically-driven, chaotic pull-out.

You can just about argue that Biden has indeed suffered a major tactical setback, but that his recent actions are at least consistent with a strategic approach to Afghanistan in which he has long believed. The problem is that the strategy has unravelled before the eyes of the world, with serious consequences for the whole international community.

Because Biden Plan Two (get out quick) has gone so badly wrong, he has, in practice, been forced by the mayhem in Kabul to revert, without preparation, to Biden Plan One (launching attacks against specific terrorist targets). Naturally, this rushed pivot has emboldened those who want to dent American confidence and weaken America’s place on the world stage.

There is no doubt, for example, that Beijing sees fresh opportunities in the fallout from recent days. Though far from being Taliban enthusiasts, the Chinese are likely to recognise them as a legitimate government before the West does so, and will exploit that to enhance their own security and economic interests. Not for nothing did China’s foreign minister Wang Yi host Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in late July – almost certainly to warn him not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a haven and training ground by the persecuted, mainly Muslim Uighur minority.

Economically, there are trillions-worth of mineral deposits to be exploited: gold, silver, platinum, iron ore, copper, bauxite, zinc, and the lithium that is central to renewable energy and batteries for electric cars. Afghanistan would usefully be incorporated into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the Chinese are already building a highway through the Wakhan Corridor which connects the province of Xinjiang to Afghanistan. It has always been seen as a complement to the road network built through Pakistan and Central Asia as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an essential part of the BRI. “China is a friendly country and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen is on record as saying.

Above all, perhaps, China, Russia, Iran and all traditional enemies of America have been gifted a propaganda narrative about US decline, as follows: “You cannot trust the US to stay for the long-term – look how they left Afghanistan in the lurch; they are not competent – look at the chaos they left behind; their system can’t deliver on its goals – so much for the American dream, so much for democracy. Stick with people who stick with you for the long-term, but don’t wage war.”

Beijing’s chosen narrative for the world is that China is on the rise, and America in decline; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative for Europe is that he delivers strength and stability for his country, whereas Europe’s great democracies fail to deliver either for theirs. Leaving Afghanistan, and the manner of that leaving, have helped the enemies and detractors of the US and UK on both fronts. 

Meanwhile, dictators and would-be dictators the world over have been given something of a boost by the spectacle of American retreat, and the accompanying disorder. The gains of 20 years are being lost in real time on our screens: Afghan women locked out of university, newsreaders broadcast surrounded by armed Taliban heavies, the new regime driving through the streets showing off the vast quantities of military hardware abandoned by the Americans in the rush to leave. 

The risk is that all this strengthens the impression that the West actually agrees with the charge of its enemies – namely, that those gains were so slim and fragile as not to be worth fighting for. All the more tragic, then, that this idea should be gaining traction at precisely the moment that the desperation of those seeking to escape shows how wrong it is, and how important the liberation of Afghanistan, however imperfect and incomplete, truly was. 

This leaves many in democratic societies wondering whether our relatively short electoral cycles have led us to lose the will, and the capacity, to stick with tough challenges for the long-term. That sort of malaise supports the strategies and ambitions of dictators abroad, and of the hard Right at home.

I’ll readily admit to my bias against Johnson. But it is the product of knowing him and watching him at work over many years. Having observed prime ministers dealing with presidents in all sorts of contexts – often in the most intense and complex of situations – I do believe that the UK is especially ill-served by this PM and his Cabinet of Brexit yes-men and women, governing the UK at this particular moment. 

Given my role working for Tony Blair, you might be unsurprised to hear me say he would have done a much better job. But so would the other Conservative PMs I mentioned. No prime minister is above criticism. But there is something uniquely and worryingly terrible about Johnson’s conduct in Number 10.

Nothing seems to nudge him from his default position. Life and death, war and peace: he remains Johnson the journalist-news manager, and Johnson the sloganising campaigner. Where is Johnson the serious prime minister, or even Johnson the statesman? 

If only as much political effort had gone into getting Afghan interpreters out in time, as went into the fight to keep Dominic Raab in his post as foreign secretary. If only the same urgency with which restless backbenchers were fed political messaging had been applied to getting messages to UK support staff, unsure about whether and how to get to Kabul Airport. Soldiers and diplomats did a remarkable job in horrible circumstances, but never did the phrase “Lions led by Donkeys” seem more grimly apt.

The parliamentary debate on Wednesday 18 August (to which Johnson only agreed under political duress) exposed a sad reality about today’s Tory Party; that its best people are either on the backbenches – not one of them spoke in favour of the Johnson-Raab policy – or out of parliament entirely.

That both the PM and foreign secretary were simultaneously on holiday at the height of the crisis was mind-blowing. But for Johnson it was just another irritating inconvenience to get over, with the help of a largely acquiescent media that, in the absence of an actual government strategy, tends to go along with its lazy communications strategy on these lines: play down a problem; belatedly admit the problem; call a Cobra meeting; do a pooled TV clip with a compelling soundbite for the next news cycle; move on… repeat a few days later. 

The line “we will shift heaven and earth to get them out”, at precisely the moment the evacuation process was being formally ended, struck me as an especially egregious example of this comms model. I was reminded that the same “heaven and earth” formulation was used by Johnson as foreign secretary in the case of the still incarcerated Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – an incarceration, do not forget, that was extended because he had failed to read the brief about what he should and should not say about her in public.

The truth is we have a deeply unserious prime minister for deeply serious times, and a hopelessly inadequate team in some of the most important ministerial positions. To be fair to Johnson, he has had more than his share of crises. But those caused by Brexit are largely of his making; those caused by Covid have been compounded by his political and character flaws; and the same goes for Afghanistan.

This crisis has demonstrated, yet again, the awful suite of defects: lack of seriousness; lack of foresight; lack of planning; lack of interest in detail; appointing people to key positions on grounds of loyalty rather than ability; denying realities; preferring to view the world as he wants it to be, rather than as it is; an addiction to the mythology of British exceptionalism and superiority; caring more about the effect on the media of his words than the effect on real people of his deeds; absence of a genuine strategy focused on the long-term.

Brexit itself was and is, self-evidently, an event of enormous long-term significance. Yet it lacked, and still lacks, a short-to-medium-term, let alone long-term, plan to match. The slogans are easy: “Global Britain”, “Take Back Control”, “Sunlit Uplands”. Yet how hollow they ring in the present crisis – as we observe the unfolding of a huge foreign policy decision, of profound significance to our security and strategic interests, taken with next to no input from London. 

The “Special Relationship” always meant more to the UK than the US – which is why successive post-war British prime ministers had to work hard to ensure it meant anything at all. Johnson has failed on that front, not least because of his cavalier approach to peace in Northern Ireland (an issue taken very seriously in Washington, DC). And he has done so even while allowing relations with the major European powers to deteriorate, cutting the size of our armed forces, and slashing overseas aid. For a politician who claims to be driven by fierce patriotism, he has a funny way of showing it – presiding, as he is, over the systematic shrinkage of Britain’s power, standing and reputation in the world.

So what next? When I was arguing recently with a former US official about the need for Biden to reset, and perhaps embrace a “Plan Three” for Afghanistan, he replied: “How many 78-year-olds have you ever met who have changed their ways?” Fair enough, I suppose.

Johnson, at 57, is 21 years younger. If there is one thing he has shown in his life and career, it is the ability to change and adapt; look no further than the liberal-leaning, immigrant-embracing London mayor of a decade ago, and compare him with the sado-populist nationalist we have in Number 10 today.

So let us assume, for the sake of the argument and in the interests of the country, that this political chameleon is still capable of a reset. What form should it take? 

Much as I might want it to be, Brexit is not going to be reversed any time soon. But what is the post-Brexit economic, industrial, diplomatic and geopolitical strategy for the UK? How do we make our relationship with the US less about our shared history, and more about shared challenges now? 

Should the focus be narrowed to areas where we know it works well, such as intelligence and economic co-operation? How do we leverage our residual leadership role in major institutions such as the UN Security Council, Nato, the Commonwealth? How do we properly take account of the enormous change in those bodies since their creation? How do we develop and further enhance our soft power? (A good start would be for the government to cease its insidious undermining of the BBC, the civil service, the judiciary and the cultural sector – all of them hugely important to the UK’s global reach and reputation.)  

Perhaps most importantly of all: what relationship do we wish to have with the countries Johnson calls “our friends and partners in the EU” – yet which in word and deed he tends to view and treat as enemies, with predictable, and damaging, consequences? The campaigner determined to say all is well with Brexit would doubtless run a mile from talk of forging stronger defence ties with European allies inside Nato. 

Yet that is what is needed: Britain helping Europe develop greater strategic autonomy and countering Russia’s never-ending hybrid warfare. Likewise, the government should be exploring, not least with the French, how we can help develop European defence companies capable of competing against, and making us less dependent on, the American giants.

There is an enormous job of work to be done in all and any of the above. It requires sustained, serious, strategic thought, something to which Johnson continues to show a strong aversion. There is a major opportunity here for the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, but to seize it he has to elevate his own messaging from point-by-point critique of Johnson’s many mistakes and flaws, to a compelling vision of serious leadership for such serious times.

And the Tory Party needs to decide if it is happy just to carry on as things are, on the grounds that the polls aren’t dreadful, or grasp the deeper dynamic: that the Johnson shtick long ago wore thin for most if not all of the serious politicians in countries large and small, and is increasingly wearing thin at home, for all but his most loyal fans and supporters.

At a minimum Johnson needs to change his Cabinet. But can he change his modus operandi? There has been a lot of lazy talk of “Taliban 2.0”. Johnson would be wise to work out what a Johnson 2.0 (or is it Johnson 3.0?) might be. 

Without such a transformation, I suspect the only way for him is down. Far more importantly, he will take the UK’s reputation – and prosperity – down with him. Labour can stop that from happening, but only by winning an election that is almost certainly some time off. 

The Tories can slow the process, by changing leader (something they tend to do with great ruthlessness when they judge it necessary). Johnson can do something about this mess, by changing his spots. But will he?

It is hard not to be pessimistic. But the fall of Kabul should be a wake-up call to the British political class, Britain’s military and diplomats, the British media and public. We are watching, virtually helpless, as a nation we sought to save from brutal theocratic tyranny 20 years ago is handed back to its original captors. We are struggling to explain to the families of 457 dead British soldiers why they died if the freedoms for which they fought could be so quickly abandoned. 

And we are facing a new reality, that when it came to the key decision, the UK was, more than at any time since before the Second World War, completely out of the loop. Are we really prepared simply to accept this slide into national decline and global irrelevance?   

Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy and also an adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The eighth volume of his diaries, Rise and Fall of the Olympic Spirit, 2010-2015 is published by Biteback

Photograph by U S Marines/ZUMA Press Wire