When it emerged a few months ago that Boris Johnson had told Joe Biden of his dislike for the term ‘the special relationship’, it was as if the Prime Minister had committed an act of diplomatic blasphemy.
Some critics claimed the comments were evidence of ‘the gulf’ that existed between him and the US President.
Others held it up as proof of Britain’s post-Brexit global isolation. The consensus was that he was playing characteristically fast and loose with the historic alliance forged by Churchill and Roosevelt in the furnace of the Second World War.
This morning we can see that consensus was wrong. Boris was simply recognising and accepting a new reality. The days when George Bush and Tony Blair could recklessly roam the globe like a modern-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are over. And no matter how much they and their cheerleaders attempt to leverage last week’s final, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, they’re not coming back.
‘We didn’t need to do it,’ raged Blair, furiously denouncing those who had the temerity to bring an end to his two-decade-long Afghan adventure.
It was Iraq which ushered in the isolationism embraced by both the Republican and Democratic candidates in last year’s presidential election. And it was that isolationism that gave Britain no option other than to mount our own desperate scramble for the Afghan exit
‘We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending “the forever wars.” ’
But we did need to do it. And one of the reasons we needed to do it was because of Tony Blair himself.
Our retreat from Kabul was not – as was erroneously claimed at last week’s inquisition by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – the ‘biggest foreign policy failure since Suez’. That dubious distinction goes to Blair’s own catastrophic invasion of Iraq.
It was Iraq which turned public and political opinion in the US and beyond decisively against any further sustained foreign interventions. It was Iraq which ushered in the isolationism embraced by both the Republican and Democratic candidates in last year’s presidential election. And it was that isolationism that gave Britain no option other than to mount our own desperate scramble for the Afghan exit.
This truth hasn’t prevented a furious backlash on both Left and Right against the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. And, as ever, much of that fury has been fuelled by hypocrisy, hindsight and opportunism.
They have been criticised for not accurately predicting the sudden implosion of the Afghan army – even though the main intelligence estimate was that it would take between three and six months from the conclusion of a US withdrawal for the Taliban to seize full control of the country.
When it emerged a few months ago that Boris Johnson had told Joe Biden of his dislike for the term ‘the special relationship’, it was as if the Prime Minister had committed an act of diplomatic blasphemy
They have been criticised for going on holiday in advance of a crisis they couldn’t foresee, leaving the Government rudderless – even though the Prime Minister has had just four days off this summer.
It is true that one Foreign Office risk assessment warned of the possibility of ‘a fall of cities, collapse of security forces’. But lots of things are possible. Policies are actually taken on the basis of what is probable. And the fact is once President Biden had confirmed his decision to withdraw, only two viable options were left on the table.
One was what a Whitehall insider called a ‘condition-based withdrawal’. In that scenario, the Taliban would have been required to give specific guarantees before US and other forces left.
But as the official explained: ‘We rejected that option because the judgment was the Taliban simply wouldn’t meet any of the requirements. They wouldn’t be prepared to compromise. And then if we didn’t withdraw, they would have started to intensify their attacks on us. That in turn would have required us to redeploy more forces.’
That only left the choice of a specific, date-based withdrawal. With the results the world has seen.
There was, of course, one other solution. Not to withdraw at all.
‘Though immensely fragile, there were real gains over the past 20 years,’ Tony Blair argued, ‘and for anyone who disputes that, read the heart-breaking laments from every section of Afghan society as to what they fear will now be lost. Gains in living standards, education particularly of girls, gains in freedom.’
But that was not the mission. We were not in Afghanistan on a school run.
We invaded for a specific reason – to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, and destroy his terrorist network. And we succeeded.
The actions we do take have to be part of a clear strategy, with well-defined aims and achievable objectives. What are they here?
So if people now want to change the mission, fine. But then they have to set out clearly what the new one is. Education? According to Unicef, 4.2 million Afghan children are currently out of school, including 2.2 million girls. Gains in living standards? Ten million Afghan children need humanitarian assistance just to survive. Gains in freedom? More than 430,000 Afghan women and children are internally displaced.
Are we simply going to seek to maintain this as the status quo? Is this what ‘mission accomplished’ looks like? And if not, and we want to make additional ‘gains’, how much more blood and how much more treasure are we willing to expend?
‘Just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything?’ claim the critics of our Afghan retreat. And they are right.
But the actions we do take have to be part of a clear strategy, with well-defined aims and achievable objectives. What are they here?
‘We owe a debt to the people of Afghanistan,’ has become another fashionable rallying cry. Fine. But then we also owe one to the people of Iraq. And Libya. And Syria – who we also pledged to defend until Barack Obama decided that he’d let Assad cross his red line on chemical weapons use after all. When do we plan to start to repay our debt to them?
Yes, the critics of our retreat have been passionate and eloquent. Especially those who have served – and watched others die – in Afghanistan’s lonely mountains and dusty streets. But that eloquence cannot wish away the hard choices that have had to be made. And it shouldn’t. Tom Tugendhat delivered one of the great Commons speeches. But his most quoted line was also the most dangerous. ‘Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have,’ he said.
But that’s not how it works. Those of us who don’t carry guns do get to scrutinise and, if necessary, criticise the men who do. It’s what sets us apart from the Taliban.
In the United States, the people – and their elected leader – have made their decision. They want to withdraw. And not just from Afghanistan. There will be times in the future when America judges its strategic interest requires it to again act as the world’s policeman. But it is no longer going to act as the world’s social worker.
Boris recognises this reality, even if his critics cannot. So Tony Blair can continue to dream of a world where democracy and justice are administered at the point of a US Air Force drone.
Others can fantasise about a European Army – presumably with the likes of Emmanuel Macron, Viktor Orban and Micheal Martin in joint command – charging gallantly into the Hindu Kush, and sweeping out the Taliban in the name of civil liberties.
But someone has to deal with the world as it actually is. And away from the playschool politicking about sunloungers and missed phone calls, Boris and Dominic Raab are at least attempting to do that.
Which is just as well. Because despite the anguished reaction, soon our gaze, and that of the rest of the world, will be elsewhere.
In May, Isis-K terrorists detonated bombs outside a school in Kabul – 68 people were killed, most of them schoolgirls between the ages of 11 and 13. There was no emergency debate in Parliament. There was no Twitter storm. There were no urgent demands to save the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban’s clutches.
The days of paying – and being asked to pay – the ‘blood price’ to maintain our special relationship with the United States have ended.
And, as a result, Tony Blair’s forever war is finally over. Whether he likes it or not.