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Special Relationship

Joe Biden's defiance over Afghanistan tests global alliances

The downbeat mood in parts of the the West was contrasted by a more pragmatic approach from some other powers.

g7-summit UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson US President Joe Biden in Cornwall in June. PA Images PA Images

WORLD LEADERS HAVE been adjusting to the new political reality in Afghanistan with last night’s speech from US President Joe Biden putting pressure on western alliances. 

The downbeat mood in parts of the the West was contrasted by a more pragmatic approach from some other powers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the return of the Taliban to power as “particularly dramatic and terrible”.

“It is terrible for the millions of Afghans who had worked for a freer society and who, with the support of the Western community, have focused on democracy, on education, on women’s rights,” she said.

It was also devastating for the loved ones of soldiers who paid with their lives in the NATO operation, she said.

Yesterday, Merkel suggested that the US had decided to withdraw from Afghanistan partly because of domestic political reasons.

At a meeting with her CDU-CSU party leadership, Merkel said NATO’s decision to pull out after almost two decades of deployment was “ultimately made by the Americans”, and that “domestic political reasons” were partly to blame. 

Armin Laschet, the leader of Angela Merkel’s ruling party and candidate to be the next chancellor of Germany, described the Afghanistan mission as “the biggest debacle” in NATO’s history.

Biden stands by pull-out

In a defiant 20-minute speech in the White House after which he took no questions, President Biden defended the troop pull-out.

“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces,” he said.

His administration has come under heavy criticism, with even some allies arguing that once the US decided to pull out its troops they had no choice but to follow.

NBC News / YouTube

Biden acknowledged that the collapse of the previous Afghan administration had happened faster than expected.

But referring to the country’s former leaders, he said:

We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future.

In an addition that some have said contradicts Biden’s own past words, the US President also said: “The mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building.”

Writing in Brussels-based news outlet Politico this morning, Alex Wickham said that this line “astonished observers in the British government”. 

The same article also casts doubt over Biden’s claim that the fall of Afghanistan and Kabul in particular could not have been predicted to be so swift, with EU officials previously warning the US about the fate of the capital once western troops left. 

Despite this, Nato’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg today backed Biden’s argument that the military alliance had been let down by the Afghan army it spent years and billions of dollars training and arming. 

Following a meeting of Nato envoys today to discuss the implications of the Taliban’s advance, Stoltenberg said “the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up”

He added that “this failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today”.

Referring to the way that the Afghan armed forces withered in the face of the Taliban offensive, Stoltenberg said that “was a surprise, the speed of the collapse and how quickly that happened”.

He says “there are lessons that need to be learned” at Nato.

Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose country holds the rotating G7 presidency, yesterday called for a virtual meeting of the group’s leaders to discuss the crisis to agree a “unified approach”.

Downing Street says Johnson wants G7 leaders to focus on ensuring Afghanistan does not once again become a source of international terrorist threats.

It also wants the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – which, as well as the UK, includes the US, China, France and Russia – to meet following the full gathering that took place yesterday. 

The UK is set to bolster the number of troops it has in Afghanistan to 900 as part of efforts to bring UK nationals home and secure the safety of selected Afghans.

The US is also set to send troops to assist with evacuation efforts. 

And Johnson is expected to announce a resettlement scheme to allow fleeing Afghans to set up home in the UK shortly. 

The Telegraph reported that the concept could be similar to that used to take in Syrian refugees in 2015, which saw women with children, people with serious medical conditions and survivors of torture prioritised.

The paper said the Government had yet to determine how many Afghan refugees could benefit from a similar initiative, but the Syrian programme enabled 20,000 to be resettled over six years.

Following Johnson’s phone call with French president Emmanuel Macron, in which he raised the prospect of a G7 meeting, the UK and France are expected to work together on a joint UNSC resolution.

In his own TV address last night, Macron said that Afghanistan should not once again become the “sanctuary of terrorism” that it had been until the US-led invasion two decades ago.

“This is key for international security and peace… we will do everything for Russia, the United States and Europe to cooperate efficiently as our interests are the same,” he added.

FRANCE 24 English / YouTube

Perhaps looking towards presidential elections next spring in which he is again likely to be challenged by Marine Le Pen, Macron also outlined that France and the European Union would set up an initiative to prevent large “irregular” migrant flows from the country. 

“We need to be protected from a large-scale influx that can have detrimental effects,” he said.  

Russia, China, reach out

Outside of western Europe, other major powers are being more open-minded about the regime change in Afghanistan. 

Russia, one of the few countries not evacuating its diplomatic staff from Kabul, said it was withholding judgement on the regime.

Foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said Russia would decide on recognising the new Taliban government based on “the conduct of the new authorities”.

He said Moscow had “established working contacts with representatives of the new authorities” and that Russia’s ambassador was due to meet the Taliban today.

Meanwhile, a Chinese government spokesman said that Beijing was ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan.

“The Taliban have repeatedly expressed their hope to develop good relations with China, and that they look forward to China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said.

Iran’s new ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi saw the chance of a positive relationship with the new regime.

“The military defeat and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan should offer an opportunity to restore life, security and lasting peace in that country,” said Raisi, quoted by his office.

With reporting by © – AFP 2021 and Press Association

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