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The Aftermath of Withdrawal

27 Aug 2021
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Afghan evacuees disembark a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Aug. 22, 2021. NAS Sigonella is currently supporting the Department of Defense mission to facilitate the safe departure and relocation of U.S. citizens, Special Immigration Visa recipients, and vulnerable Afghan populations from Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Young)

The United States and its NATO allies have been defeated by the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is a serious blow to the Western alliance and to President Joe Biden’s lofty ambitions of providing American leadership to the world’s remaining democracies.

Ten days of harrowing coverage the desperate plight of Afghan families as they try to break through the perimeter fence of Kabul airport must surely have convinced us that the United States is an unreliable ally. But this is just the most recent example.

It is just nine weeks since President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a revitalised Atlantic Charter. It was their first face-to-face meeting, which took place in Cornwall, England ahead of a G7 summit. They signed up to a modern-day version of the 1942 Atlantic Charter – a mid-Atlantic World War II agreement between President Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that embodied the principles of the post-war Western alliance, which has survived ever since.

The next G7 meeting, held virtually on 24 August, was a very different occasion. Called hastily with the express purpose of persuading Biden into postponing his pre-set deadline to remove all American troops from Afghanistan by 31 August, Johnson aimed to enable the evacuation of Afghans and others whose lives were at risk because they had worked as interpreters, translators, security guards, office staff, or cleaners for the 20-year NATO operation.

This attempt was doomed even before the meeting started. Irritated by Johnson’s personal criticism for a lack of consultation within NATO over troop withdrawals, Biden said he was minded to stick with his deadline. Within hours the Pentagon released a statement saying the deadline would stand, also making it clear that the US forces would need a 24-hour window to manage their own departure. Not only that, but the Taliban leadership refused point blank to agree to any extension, ordering all Afghans away from the airport area. A Taliban spokesman said Afghan women had been asked to stay at home because fighters had not yet been trained to respect them.

The virtual G7 meeting was a hollow affair. European leaders were reluctant to accept Biden’s assurance that the US was on track and working “at pace” to end its two-decade military involvement in Afghanistan. Biden warned that the longer US forces remained on the ground, the greater the risk to US and NATO troops from terrorist groups at large and operating in the area. The G7 leaders expressed concern at this prospect and said the Taliban administration would be judged mainly by its ability to prevent a return of Al Q’aeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups to the country. The G7 communique called on the Taliban to allow free passage to all those who wish to leave Afghanistan, a demand that was promptly rejected, although it appears that over two million people fled to Iran and Pakistan before the Taliban took control.

For the British, the collapse of Kabul, was a multiple humiliation. Although widely predicted in nightly BBC newscasts, the foreign secretary remained on holiday in Crete, rejecting a belated summons from 10 Downing St to return to London until two days after the Taliban were not only at the gate but in charge. Most British forces had been withdrawn by David Cameron from Afghanistan seven years earlier in October 2014, so there had been plenty of time to arrange the safe extradition of Afghan accomplices who needed a safe haven in Britain. But in the final hours before the 31 August deadline, Britain had just 1000 troops, working day and night and living on kitbag rations, processing desperate people, some with inadequate documentation, on to waiting aircraft.  “Where was Global Britain when Kabul fell?” Theresa May asked Boris Johnson. The scorn and contempt in the voice of the PM’s predecessor said it all.

There is no point in blaming President Biden for the defeat in Afghanistan. He announced the drawdown in April, and while the manner of the withdrawal is open to question, US Allies and Afghans seeking asylum should have taken him at his word and accelerated plans for departure.

There is never a good way to end a war, and defeat is ugly. People always gets hurt, witness the carnage on Thursday that left at least ten US marines and dozens of Afghans dead. Not every accomplice of the Americans, Canadians, Europeans, or Australians will escape the wrath or rough justice of the Taliban. The job of world communities, led by the UN, is to ensure the Geneva Conventions are understood and observed by Kabul’s new rulers. The last week has seen one of the UN’s biggest failures.

The two-decade conflict had its roots in 9/11, a series of terrorist attacks that shook America and the world to the core. I worked at the Financial Times then, and we gathered round the newsroom television watching the catatonic blaze after an American Airlines flight crashed into the north tower of New York’s tallest building, the World Trade Centre. Then a United Airlines aircraft came into view. I watched aghast as took lethal aim and flew straight into the south tower.  Within the hour, another American Airlines jet hit the Pentagon in Washington, and a second United plane crashed in Pennsylvania, brought down after brave passengers had wrestled with the terrorists. The rest is history.

President George W. Bush was under pressure to hunt down and bring to justice the architect of 9/11, Al Q’aeda leader Osama bin Laden. Bush ordered special forces into Afghanistan, where the CIA had identified as his location. By the time they reached bin Laden’s redoubt, he had slipped across the Pakistan border to Tora Bora. It took almost ten years for US Seals, on President Barack Obama’s orders, to catch and kill their prey in a compound in Abbottabad, also in Pakistan. By this time, US and NATO forces had engaged in an unintended mission:  fighting the hard-line Islamist Taliban movement, and nation building in Afghanistan.

What of the future of the Western alliance?  Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has already cast doubt on whether the Americans can be relied upon to defend the 25,000 people of Taiwan should China decide to invade. In Europe many leaders not confident the United States can be relied upon for support should President Vladimir Putin continue his pressure on former Warsaw Pact countries in the European Union. The problem for them is that their investment in defence, particularly in support of NATO, is so meagre that they can hardly call the shots. At US$2.7 billion, the American contribution to NATO is twice the total of all the remaining members. Britain’s Johnson was forced to admit that once US troops leave Kabul, UK forces have no choice but to leave also. There is talk of forming a European army, but it does not amount to much.

A similar kind of debate continues in Australia. In the Weekend Australian, AIIA Fellow Paul Kelly argued that allies including Australia must do more to exert influence on US decision-making and to insure against American isolationism. Writing on whether Australia was making a significant contribution in return for the protection of the US nuclear umbrella, Kelly said that Australia must “pay its dues” with more than token contributions.

But as Boris Johnson has discovered that within his deluded notion of Global Britain there is, when the chips are down,  no special relationship between Biden and his government and the Biden administration. Johnson’s Brexit disaster has lost Britain any influence in the chancelleries of Europe and, regardless of the revived Atlantic Charter signed in Cornwall, Biden will put America first. And as his defence secretary made clear in Singapore recently, the US would prefer the UK use its limited military assets in Europe rather than showing off its new flagship in the China seas.

Biden, I fear, has a similar view of Scott Morrison, whom he remembers nurtured the same kind of chumminess with the odious Donald Trump as Johnson.

For those guiding Australia’s foreign policy, the lesson of the sacking of Kabul is clear. We need to upgrade our level of alert against Islamic terrorism, particularly Isis K who claimed responsibility for Thursday’s atrocities at the Kabul airport perimiter. The Hugh White concept of a choice between China and the US is dead. Australia’s ally remains Washington, but Canberra needs to build more self reliance, switch to French nuclear submarines rather than those on order, and engage much more urgently in regional security talks aimed at allowing China to take its rightful place at a global leader while seeking to persuade Beijing or limit its military expansion. Here the current talks between Japan and Taiwan provide a good example of what is needed.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.