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“You make shit decisions, people will die”. That’s the blunt assessment of Johnny Mercer, army veteran and former veterans minister, after a week of recriminations in government over the fallout from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
As the UK scrambles to get its own nationals as well as thousands of translators, workers and refugees flown out from Kabul, back home the debate has not just been about how this crisis was allowed to happen, but what it means for so-called ‘Global Britain’ going forward.
And if the US retrenchment really does mean the end of the American Century, then what comes next, and where do we stand?
Parliament was recalled in part to discuss just that, after Islamic militants managed to sweep through Afghanistan in only a few days: something Boris Johnson and Joe Biden both proclaimed last month was not going to happen.
There was anger in the Commons at the Prime Minister from his own MPs, not least from Mercer and his fellow ex-servicemen, but many Tories laid the blame on the US President, whose unrepentant language about withdrawing the remaining American troops in the wake of Afghanistan’s collapse to the Taliban has rankled Conservatives.
One foreign policy expert said the MPs were really upset by the fact that Biden’s unilateral move has shown the UK to be “powerless on the global stage”, and with little influence on our supposedly closest ally.
Government figures have freely admitted once the US made the decision to pull out its final military presence, a process begun by Donald Trump and finished by his successor, Britain was forced to do the same.
In his response to barbed comments from his predecessor Theresa May, Johnson told the Commons: “The West could not continue this US-led mission without American logistics, without US air power and without American might.”
The UK was heavily involved in America’s decision to get into the Middle East conflict, but it was cut out of the negotiations which saw it leave.
Trump’s deal with the Taliban in Doha didn’t involve Britain, and there are reports military figures and officials have not been privy to discussions around the current withdrawal.
This military disengagement, though drawing criticism for how it is being handled, has been popular for several years with an American public fatigued with costly overseas interventions.
Appetite for getting involved in foreign conflict is on the wane in the UK too, meaning the government must create a new identity on the global stage out of America’s shadow.
The former Cabinet minister David Gauke has argued recent events “strengthens the case for EU member states to be more engaged with the rest of the world and less reliant on the US,” and for the UK to work more closely with Europe.
Indeed in recent years the UK has been more aligned with continental partners in tackling both insurgency in Africa and Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
But for a government swept into office on the promise to cut ties with Brussels and look out to the rest of the world, politically it will be very difficult to ascribe ‘Global Britain” to mean closer partnership on defence and foreign policy matters.
Brexit and the ongoing row over the Northern Ireland protocol weigh heavy over diplomatic relations with the EU, and appetite for further military intervention beyond existing deployments in Libya and elsewhere is not high among European voters.
Another option is to become a humanitarian power broker around the world, something which appeals to Johnson, and his move putting the foreign office in charge of the aid budget was meant to help wield the country’s soft power in pursuit of strategic goals.
But there are fears a controversial slashing of the UK’s overseas funding budget this year has diminished the UK’s global standing, and persistent and deep cuts to the armed forces have vastly reduced our deployment capability.
It will also require a change in migration strategy, as figures show the UK has taken in less than 10,000 Afghan refugees in recent years, compared with almost 150,000 in Germany.
To be taken seriously the government will have to rapidly expand the current scheme announced by the home office to welcome another 20,000.
Mercer thinks that is unlikely, accusing home secretary Priti Patel of “making decisions that have made the Afghan resettlement programme harder”.
He told PoliticsHome the way campaigners on the resettlement scheme have been treated “is an absolute scandal”.
Last month Mercer joined more than 40 leading former military commanders in signing an open letter calling for efforts to resettle Afghan interpreters in the UK to be stepped up.
They said the existing Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) was a “positive step”, but the policy is not “being conducted with the necessary spirit of generosity required to protect our former colleagues from an indiscriminate and resurgent Taliban”, saying “far too many applications” to settle in the UK are being rejected.
In response Patel and defence secretary Ben Wallace hit back, writing: “There has been considerable misreporting of the scheme in the media, feeding the impression the government is not supporting our former and current Afghan staff.
“This could not be further from the truth and since the US announced its withdrawal we have been at the forefront of nations relocating people.”
“I’m just not going to put up with that, I’m afraid,” Mercer said, as he explained why he is continuing to speak out against his own government, that he was a part of until April.
“Many people have tried to change the resettlement scheme over many years, I mean I started only really getting involved this year, but there’s others who tried to change it for years and years,” he said.
“For example, from 2014 onwards we employed people as contractors rather than directly employed by the UK military, which meant they couldn’t then seek resettlement until recently when we got that changed.
“That’s what I mean by ministers making decisions that will end up costing lives.”
On the consequences of the way the Afghan resettlement has been run, he added: “The reality is that you make shit decisions, people will die, that’s the bare bones of the matter.
“You know anybody else who works as a surgeon or a pilot, they understand that. You know, in politics it’s all a game isn’t it.”
The politician at the centre of this, foreign secretary Dominic Raab, has found himself under fire for the chaotic situation which unfolded as insurgents took back the Afghan capital last weekend, as he remained on holiday in Crete.
Leaks from the Foreign Office also suggest he failed to speak to UK ambassadors in neighbouring countries in the run-up to last week’s events, and reports this week have attempted to paint him as a poor diplomat.
In truth the foreign secretary is a convenient scapegoat for a much larger issue, which is how the UK confronts the power vacuum left by the US withdrawal.
Tom Fletcher, a former ambassador to Lebanon and foreign policy adviser to three Prime Ministers, said attention will soon turn to the potential for Afghanistan “to export security, drugs, instability, migrants”.
He tweeted that those who wished the discussion to move beyond that must make their case “Argument by argument, policy by policy, election by election.”
“Those hills to fight on include restoration of aid budget; investment in foreign policy; renewal of UN/ international system; painstaking coalition rebuilding; education as upstream diplomacy; practical, expedient and moral case for compassion and expertise in how we handle [the] world.”
Fletcher, who also led a review of British diplomacy for the Foreign Office in 2016, added: “We cannot start until we learn some lessons. Our systems are woeful at doing this: most lessons are not new, but get overlooked or neglected in fog of policy making, frenzy and churn of modern politics.”
From here on, much Afghan policy will be about dealing with costs of our actions. Much Syria policy will remain about costs of inaction.
These are tough choices, and there are no right answers. We cannot avoid them. So we can and we must get better at them.
— Tom Fletcher (@TFletcher) August 20, 2021
Earlier this year Johnson’s big foreign policy review acknowledged the problems of a White House pursuing ‘America First’, but suggested it was an opportunity for Britain to play a new role shaping the world.
The government’s web page for ‘Global Britain’ talks about “reinvesting in our relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage”.
But all that seems to have disappeared among the chaos at Hamid Karzai airport, and as May put it in her closing comments in the Commons: “We boast about Global Britain, but where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?”
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