Britain asks: Is America back or has it turned its back?
International desk || shiningbd
The humiliation of the lightning Taliban takeover in Afghanistan after a 20-year war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives has raised a question for the United States' staunchest European ally: Is America really back as President Joe Biden promised?
Britain fears the Taliban's return and the vacuum left by the West's chaotic withdrawal will allow militants from al Qaeda and Islamic State to gain a foothold in Afghanistan, just 20 years after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace cast the 2020 Doha withdrawal accord struck by US President Donald Trump's administration as a "rotten deal". Wallace said Biden's decision to leave Afghanistan was a mistake that had enabled the Taliban to re-emerge in power.
Such questioning and such emotion - Wallace was on the brink of tears in one interview - is rare for Washington's closest European ally, which has stood by the United States in almost every major conflict since World War Two apart from Vietnam.
After the tumult of Trump's presidency, Biden has repeatedly promised that "America is back". Some British diplomats are questioning not only that assessment but also the implications for long-term national security.
"Is America back or has it turned its back?" one British official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It looks very much as if the Americans have gone home in a rather Trumpian manner - rushed, chaotic and humiliating."
Western security sources fear al Qaeda, whose founder Osama bin Laden was harboured by the Taliban before 9/11, could regain a foothold in Afghanistan within months. Such a scenario, they say, would threaten both the United Kingdom and the wider West.
British diplomats compared the scale of the West's humiliation to the 1975 fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War, or to the 1956 Suez Crisis, a strategic blunder that confirmed the loss of Britain's imperial power.
Biden has repeatedly argued that a continued US military presence in Afghanistan would not have significantly changed the situation unless the Afghan military could hold its own country.
But British diplomats said the Afghan debacle will undermine the West's standing in the world, rally jihadists everywhere and strengthen the arguments of Russia and China that the United States and its allies lack both mettle and staying power.
"We must be clear about this: this is a humiliating moment for the West," said Mark Sedwill, who was Britain's most senior civil servant and national security adviser under former Prime Minister Theresa May.