In many ways, [Boris] Johnson’s hands have of course been tied by his heavy reliance on the Americans. Joe Biden’s refusal to shift his political commitment to the August 31 withdrawal deadline has driven events, though the US president’s failure to keep allies like the UK in the loop has left a bitter taste for many of them.
But while Biden’s boast at the G7 summit in Cornwall – “America is back” – rings hollow, Johnson’s own “Global Britain” mantra has been brutally exposed too. The prime minister’s bigger failure this week was not in shifting Biden’s deadline, it was the woeful lack of concrete pledges on issues like overseas aid. We still have no detailed ‘road map’ for G7 policy on Afghanistan.
Johnson had explicitly said before the virtual meeting that he wanted other nations to “match the UK’s commitments” on development. Yet afterwards, there were no such specifics, only vague ambitions. One reason was perhaps that the UK had forfeited any hope of global leadership on aid when it decided to actually slash funds to Afghanistan last year, only to this summer realise it would have to restore them.
Although Dominic Raab has stressed he began contingency plans in April, he’s had to admit he was caught out by the speed of the Taliban takeover. Raab is in for a very difficult session next week before the foreign affairs committee, not least as he admitted “with hindsight” he should have come home earlier from his Greek holiday after Kabul fell. Unlike defence secretary Ben Wallace, who is seen by MPs on all sides to have been accessible and acting cross-party, Raab is viewed as distant and defensive.
MPs are also increasingly furious with the Home Office for failing to set up its own briefings for them on how to deal with constituents and relatives desperate to get out of Afghanistan. Stella Creasy tells me: “Ministers tell the press the evacuation has ended, but can’t even be bothered to speak to those dealing with these distraught people to help them advise on what next.”
The lack of UK engagement is also upsetting the Pakistan government too, other MPs say. When ministers talk about ‘phase 2’ of the evacuation going through land borders, they really mean Pakistan, yet the country has been given no real clue to the hard cash support needed or details of categorisations of national status and employee status needed for evacuation.
Again, Johnson holds a wider responsibility too. Insiders say Pakistan’s Imran Khan called off a planned visit to the UK this July in part because he felt the PM had no concrete agreement lined up on issues like Afghan refugees.
The huge cost in both money and lives, British and Afghan, deserves a full “lessons learned” account. As we pull up the drawbridge in Kabul airport, today’s British casualties only add to that moral imperative.