British MPs bemoan 'catastrophic miscalculation' of Afghanistan as post-mortem begins

·6 min read
Members of the British armed forces who were deployed in Afghanistan disembark a C-17 aircraft after landing at Brize Norton, near Oxford, U.K., on Sunday.  (Peter Nicholls/Reuters - image credit)
Members of the British armed forces who were deployed in Afghanistan disembark a C-17 aircraft after landing at Brize Norton, near Oxford, U.K., on Sunday. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters - image credit)

To hear the British foreign minister tell it, the biggest mistake made by some in his government — and many others across Europe — in the lead-up to the fall of Afghanistan was "optimism bias."

Essentially, having too much hope that U.S. President Joe Biden would change his mind and keep American troops in Afghanistan longer than the Aug. 31 deadline, so as to avoid the catastrophic humanitarian crisis many fear has started.

"There was some wishful thinking in some quarters internationally that the Biden administration would change.… But the election campaign had baked in some finality to this," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told British MPs Wednesday during a grilling before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

Biden, of course, had held firm to the deadline, fulfilling a campaign promise to see all U.S. troops exit Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 — even as chaos erupted at Kabul's international airport, as thousands of fearful Afghans flooded the area in an attempt to flee the Taliban.

According to Raab, that same wishful thinking is also the reason why NATO planners were unable to predict the extremist group's rapid march across the country: They simply didn't want to believe it was possible.

Intelligence failures

British parliamentarians have just begun the job of trying to get to the bottom of a series of intelligence failures that preceded the Taliban's takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, which ultimately left tens of thousands of Westerners and Afghans who had worked for Western forces trapped inside the country as the mass airlifts ended this week.

Raab — who has faced scathing criticism for being on holiday in Greece as Taliban forces entered Kabul — has also faced repeated calls for his resignation for not predicting the stunning speed of the Afghan government's collapse.

Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Henry Nicholls/Reuters

There have been other blunders, too.

In the rush to close the U.K. Embassy in Kabul, papers detailing the names of Afghans who had worked with British forces were found by the Taliban. Raab told the committee all those mentioned in documents have since made it to safety.

The foreign minister has also acknowledged that thousands of emails detailing the pleas of Afghans trying to get to the U.K. went unread by his office.

And while Raab emphasized that the U.K. military managed to rescue some 15,000 Afghans and Westerners from the war-torn country in those final chaotic two weeks of August, he admitted Wednesday that the U.K. government isn't certain how many people remain in Afghanistan who would be eligible to come to Britain.

Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown via Reuters
Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown via Reuters

'Special relationship'

The MPs on the committee, along with many others in British Parliament, clearly have another agenda, too: Assessing whether the so-called "special relationship" with the U.S. that's endured since the end of the Second World War is really still so special.

The Biden administration's unilateral decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, followed by the decision not to extend the exit deadline as the Taliban took hold, has infuriated many governments across Europe.

WATCH | U.S. President Joe Biden discusses the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan:

While American troops made up the majority of the NATO contingent in Afghanistan over the 20-year conflict, Britain's forces were No. 2. More than 100,000 British soldiers and air personnel served in the country, suffering nearly 500 combat-related deaths.

Yet in the end, the decision to strike a deal with the Taliban and to hold to the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline was made by the White House — with little input from NATO allies.

Looking inward

"This is a significant change in U.S. foreign policy," Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood said in an interview on the BBC

With the U.S. becoming more inward-looking and shifting its focus to confronting China, Ellwood said traditional allies in Europe need to respond with a more robust security policy that doesn't involve reliance on the Americans.

"It's confirmation of just how weak the West has become in shaping our world for the better. And we should not underestimate the geopolitical significance of what we're witnessing," he said.

Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via Reuters
Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via Reuters

The opposing Labour Party, which took Britain into the Afghanistan conflict in 2001 under Tony Blair, has been scathing in its criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government and the Biden administration for making what it calls a "catastrophic miscalculation."

"We've completely traduced the British reputation for standing by those who stood by us," said Labour MP Chris Bryant, as he decried the fact that hundreds, possibly thousands, of Afghans who worked alongside British Embassy staff or armed forces didn't make it out before the last evacuation flights took off on Monday night.

Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, however, doubt the hand-wringing in the U.K. Parliament will last long, nor will it lead to significant changes in the structure or work of NATO.

New alliance?

"The structure of this operation … was that the Americans would control it. And not only was it something the Europeans accepted, it was something the Europeans actively wanted," said Jeremy Shapiro, research director with the European Council on Foreign Relations, an international think-tank.

"So to show up at the last moment and say, 'We don't like what you're doing, you didn't consult' is to pretend they didn't acquiesce to that structure for the past 20 years — and that's disingenuous at best."

Mark Andries/U.S. Marine Corps via Reuters
Mark Andries/U.S. Marine Corps via Reuters

The reality is that there is nothing to take the place of a U.S.-led alliance such as NATO, nor is there much appetite in Europe's capitals to spend what it would take to create one, said Julie Norman, a lecturer on international relations at University College London.

"I don't see many European states wanting to further increase budgets for military and security that would make up for a gap of walking away from the U.S.," she said in an interview.

WATCH | British MP calls Taliban takeover of Afghanistan 'predictable':

In their official statements, British ministers have been extremely careful not to be overly critical of the Biden administration — even earlier this week, when anonymous sources in the U.S. military appeared to blame the U.K. for contributing to the carnage from the deadly suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26.

At Wednesday's committee hearing, Raab was grilled repeatedly on whether the U.K. could trust — or even needed — the U.S. partnership anymore. But he remained steadfast in his support.

"I have no doubt that for all the criticism of the U.S. … the U.S. will bounce back," he said. "It is indispensable. And we work with it closely."

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