Ever since Joe Biden made the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Boris Johnson has been scrambling to catch up with events. The situation in Kabul has deteriorated faster than many anticipated so ministers have been found on the hop (and in some cases on holiday) as they have had to ramp up rescue missions to evacuate UK citizens and Afghans in need. While both the defense secretary Ben Wallace and minister James Heappey have admitted they won’t be able to get everyone out, there is still a question as to who carries the blame for any such failure.
In recent days a new government line has emerged: that Johnson wants Biden to extend the pullout date for US forces past August 31. British ministers say that once US troops leave, there is no option for the UK to remain as it is the Americans who have secured Kabul airport. While the Taliban is reluctant to go along with any delay, the idea is that with US pressure something could be negotiated. On Tuesday, G7 leaders will meet for talks on the situation in Afghanistan where Biden will face pressure to keep a military presence for longer at the airport so as to allow more people to be evacuated. The current line from the US president is that he hopes to be able to stick to the current deadline.
The intervention from Johnson is interesting from a political perspective too. Over the past week, Johnson has faced a hostile reception from his own MPs while ministers are clashing over the response. In the debate in the Commons chamber on Tuesday, it was clear that Johnson had few supportive friends sitting behind him. Instead, many of the harshest critics were in the Tory party.
Part of the reason the events in Afghanistan have led to such an angry reaction in the Tory party is that it cuts through to how many of its politicians view their government’s place in the world. The party has prided itself on its commitment to defense, its special relationship with the United States and the ability to wield both hard and soft power on the global stage. But the fact the UK was bounced into withdrawal in Afghanistan with little in the way of consultation from the Biden administration means all three have been called into question.
If Biden refuses to bend to pressure to extend the stay of US troops, it will no doubt lead to heavy international criticism and see the President blamed further for the escalating humanitarian crisis. It would also play to the growing fear in the Conservative party that a once special relationship is now at risk of irrelevance.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.