We Can No Longer Rely on the US: We Must Have Our Own Independent Foreign Policy

Gautam Kambhampati reflects on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and why the UK should seek to have a more independent foreign policy.

On Wednesday, one MP after another stood up to condemn the way in which the United States has conducted its departure from Afghanistan. The names are from across the Commons: Tom Tugendhat, Sir Ed Davey, Chris Bryant, Tobias Ellwood, Khalid Mahmood, Dan Jarvis, Alicia Kearns, and even Theresa May, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and David Davis. When our leader was asked by Sir Iain if he would join the House in condemning President Biden’s remarks regarding the fortitude of the Afghan National Army’s soldiers, Sir Kier responded that

… to overlook the fighting of the Afghan troops and forces, and the fact that they have been at the forefront of that fighting in recent years, is wrong.

The reality is that the US systematically failed to prepare the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan Air Force (AAF) for their departure. They forced the AAF to replace their Russian craft ─ for which spares and know-how are easily available ─ with American Black Hawks [1]. Maintenance of these Black Hawks, as well as the ANA’s artillery, weapons, and Humvees, was entirely reliant on American contractors. These contractors left when the US troops did [2]. For Biden to claim that the Afghans are cowards under these circumstances forced on them by a perfidious ally is disgusting.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, under President Trump the US decided to unilaterally cut a deal with the Taliban. They did not even consult the Afghan government, let alone their NATO allies. Allies who ─ let’s not forget ─ had been compelled to join them in 2001 by their invoking of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. President Biden then decided to plough on with his predecessor’s plan. The one change he did make, moving the withdrawal date from 1st May to 11th September, had the effect of placing the US retreat slap-bang in the middle of the Taliban’s fighting season [3]. The Biden administration could not have picked a worse time to finish their withdrawal: all for the symbolism of ending exactly 20 years after 9/11.

Despite pushing back their withdrawal deadline by several months, they failed to prepare a coordinated plan with NATO for evacuating personnel and Afghan partners. This shambles of an evacuation effort, which is only occurring thanks to the ‘largesse’ of the Taliban, is the result.

Reports on the ground [4] suggested that American forces were holed up in Kabul airport, teargassing and beating anyone who tried to get through their gate, regardless of what passports or documents they held. Those lucky few that did manage to battle their way through Kabul to get on an American evacuation flight will be slapped with a bill of at least US$2,000 [5] ─ more for non-citizens, which naturally will include all asylum seekers and refugees. Meanwhile, British forces were, apparently, presenting the very best of this country. They roamed the streets picking up evacuees [6][7] and allowed anyone with a valid asylum claim to any friendly country to pass through the British gate [8].

Our soldiers on the ground did all of this in the face of an ally that might abandon them at any moment [9] and a British government that has been woefully underprepared for this scenario. We have known about Trump’s deal with the Taliban for years now, and we have also known that Biden had every intention of sticking with it. Assuming the Taliban continues to be cooperative, our forces do, in fact, have the capability to hold Kabul airport for a short time. All it required was some proper forethought and planning. It seems that Johnson and company blindly followed American reassurances that such planning on our part was unnecessary [10]. That it would all be fine on the night. It wasn’t.

It is time we grew a backbone. There is a tendancy, on this side of the political spectrum, to be overly defeatist about the UK’s military and diplomatic capabilities. Guardian opinion pieces [11] lament quixotically, and somewhat pathetically, that we are too weak to do anything but follow US policy whilst also complaining about the moral quandries that this puts us in. In fact, we are entirely capable of conducting an independent foreign policy with allies other than the US. We have many concerns which the US does not have a strong interest in.

Much of our non-EU shipping, for example, reaches the UK via the Suez canal. It is, therefore, strongly in the UK and Europe’s interests that the region surrounding the canal and the seas leading to it are stable and secure. Currently, this region is anything but. The state of the region is such that the Suez is almost impossible to traverse safely by anyone but huge corporations with state backing and the ability to bribe everyone from Egypt [12] to Somalia. Yemen is the site of a terrible proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Somalia is an unstable state whose impoverished people take to pirating merchant ships and pleasure yachts alike [13]. Our blind following of America’s aggressive posture against Iran endangers British-flagged shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, between Oman and Iran. It is in our interests to help stablise Yemen and Somalia. A more functional relationship with Iran will help to protect British shipping and British people alike ─ in 2011 there were nearly 85,000 Iranian-born people in the UK [14], who will have families they wish to vist and businesses they want to nurture. The US has no incentive to do any of these things, as most of their shipping comes via the Panama canal. Note that the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden is an EU-British one, not a NATO one.

Similarly, it is in our ─ and the EU’s ─ interests to help maintain peace in North Africa. An unstable North Africa means an unstable Mediterranean. It means many, many more migrant crises. Of course, when there is a migrant crisis it is only right and proper that we take our share of refugees and asylum seekers. However, it would be more practical, and ethical, to deal with the problems at their sources. Again, the US has no interest in North Africa, for they do not experience the consequences of instability in that region.

This does not mean we should abandon our alliance with the United States. We must continue to work with them, alongside Australia, Canada, India, Japan, and others, in the Indo-Pacific. It simply means that the time has come for us to take our own path in our own backyard, just as the US takes its own path away from Europe and the Near East.

Gautam Kambhampati is a PhD student at Imperial College London and editor of the Tamarind Literary Magazine. He is a member of the Fabians’ Defence and Security Committee and the Young Fabians’ Technology, Defence, and Cybersecurity Committee.

You can find him on Instagram via @gautampk and his LinkedIn is linkedin.com/in/gautamkambhampati.

[1] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-08-16/we-all-lost-afghanistan-taliban
[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/58243158
[3] https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-end-of-afghanistan%E2%80%99s-spring-fighting-seasons-and-the-demise-of-the-afghan-national-secu
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RdC2m0B4_k
[5] https://twitter.com/JerryDunleavy/status/1428449620997414919
[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ze7eHyoeT0k&t=579s
[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58266554
[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDySMZ9cO1w
[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/18/britain-fears-us-forces-may-pull-out-kabul-airport-within-days
[10] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-08-20/biden-assured-allies-in-june-u-s-would-ensure-kabul-s-stability
[11] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/19/afghanistan-crisis-britain-foreign-policy-delusional
[12] https://macn.dk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/MACNAnnualReport2017.pdf
[13] https://www.sailing.org/tools/documents/YachtingPiracyBulletinupdatedOct2013-[14289].pdf
[14] https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census/2011censusdata

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