As leaders of the G7 prepared for their “virtual” summit this week, Boris Johnson made a very public plea for the US to extend its presence in Afghanistan beyond the agreed 31 August deadline. This always seemed very unwise. There were simply too many reasons why an extension, however modest, was not going to happen.
All countries engaged in the evacuation from Kabul have been living on borrowed time, with the tragic results of the twin explosions at the airport highlighting the danger involved in the operations. Their operations depend not just on the security provided by US forces, but also – humiliating though it is – on the cooperation of the Taliban victors. The US had agreed the August deadline. For president Joe Biden even to hint at a change could be seen as disrespectful by a movement, now a de facto government, acutely sensitive to honour; he would have been tempting fate in a wholly irresponsible way.
Elementary diplomacy advises that you should never ask in public for something you are unlikely to get. But this is not the main criticism of Johnson following his abortive request. It is rather that he was too optimistic about the UK-US relations, sparking a new bout of soul-searching about the state of the supposed “special relationship”. Does it really exist? (Only in the eyes of some, mostly on this side of the Atlantic). What use is it, if it can’t be invoked successfully in an emergency? (Not much – and not at all if the US sees its own national security under threat.) Does the UK have more clout in Washington than other allies? (Less and less.) Has Brexit altered the balance of the relationship, making the UK at once more needy and less useful to the US as a bridge to Brussels? (Probably)
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