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Sometimes, the world order changes subtly. It takes years and is hard to spot. Other times, it happens with a blinding flash. A big bang that forces an immediate paradigm shift.
Afghanistan looked like the latter this week. The US Air Force C-17 transport jet taking off with Afghans hopelessly clinging to its fuselage is the galling image that the world will remember for decades. The US, cutting and running. Flying off the world’s stage to America First and isolationism, leaving devastation and mayhem in its backdraft.
One of those it left behind was Britain, its partner of 20 years in the Afghan mission. The US’s closest military ally, that it didn’t even bother to consult.
Yesterday, in the House of Commons, it fell to Boris Johnson to try to explain what on earth had happened to packed rows of MPs seething at the nation’s humiliation and its own Afghan betrayal. He was resolutely fatalistic. “The West could not continue this US-led mission without American logistics, without US air power and without American might,” the Prime Minister insisted.
Once the US decision was made, an Afghan debacle was inevitable, he argued.
Except it wasn’t, Tory grandee after grandee got up to tell Johnson. Why didn’t he and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab try harder to talk the Biden administration into staying, Iain Duncan Smith demanded to know. Why was it left to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to try — and fail — to construct a new alliance of more patient Nato members to take the US’s place, Tom Tugendhat asked. The speed of events, was his answer. “The collapse has been faster than I think even the Taliban themselves predicted”.
Then rose Theresa May, who ground Johnson’s thinly spread defences to smithereens under her kitten heels. “Was our intelligence really so poor?” the former PM asked. “Or did we just feel we had to follow the United States, and on a wing and a prayer it would be alright on the night?”
Watch: Theresa May slams Boris Johnson over handling of Afghanistan
All of a sudden, Johnson was naked. The truth is the Afghan debacle wasn’t one of those big bang paradigm shifts. It was a slow moving glacier, decorated with huge signposts. America did not withdraw from the world one Kabul morning in August. The writing has been on the wall for a decade.
It began with Barack Obama prematurely drawing down combat troops from Afghanistan in 2012. His refusal to get involved in Syria followed the next year, cheered on by Joe Biden. Obama handed on the baton of isolation to Donald Trump in 2016, who handed it back to Biden this January. A continuum that the UK Government had years to mitigate.
Johnson’s misfortune is that the music stopped on his watch, and he had prepared no other song to play in its place. That’s why yesterday was a key test for the PM, to enunciate Britain’s new place in the world now that the US has walked off the pitch. To step up and offer a lead to our other allies who are also now adrift amid the West’s crisis of self-doubt.
Someone must, and that moral responsibility now falls on Britain, as Nato’s second biggest contributor, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and with Johnson the current chair of the G7.
But it was a test Britain’s PM failed, and to his own MPs’ palpable fury. “He was nothing. No substance, no understanding,” pronounced one disappointed senior Tory in the chamber yesterday.
For Afghanistan it is too late. That ship has sailed, as anyone who cares about that country and has spent time there like me must now painfully accept.
But for Johnson it is not yet too late. In an ever more precarious world, the next international disaster is not far away. It will come in Somalia, Mozambique or Nigeria, which are all under the growing threat of Islamist takeover. Or in Taiwan, which Xi Jinping’s China is eyeing up. Or in one of the Baltic states, which fear a Russian incursion like Ukraine’s. Or with Iran and it’s hardliners’ takeover.
Johnson needs to learn how to lead on the international stage, and fast. Before the next Afghanistan erupts and reveals Britain has no foreign policy left at all.
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio
What do you think of how Boris Johnson has handled the situation in Afghanistan? Let us know in the comments below.
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