Almost two decades ago Tony Blair, then UK prime minister, pledged to his American counterpart George W Bush “I will be with you, whatever”. The sentiment proved true for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and has remained so during the hasty and chaotic withdrawal of the past few days.
And yet the UK has made it clear, both publicly and privately, that it did not agree with President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out the US’s 2,500 troops by the end of August. General Sir Nick Carter, the UK’s chief of the defence staff, admitted just two days after Biden’s announcement in April this was “not a decision we hoped for”.
The split on Afghanistan has exposed the first major disagreement in UK-US relations since Biden took office in January. His election was welcomed in Whitehall and Downing Street with relief after the uncertainty of the Trump administration. On Nato, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, prime minister Boris Johnson felt he had found an ally.
In turn, the Biden administration has relied on the UK for joint action on sanctions and human rights issues, while on foreign policy challenges, such as Belarus or Myanmar, it has found London to be a key supporter.
But Biden’s televised speech on Monday, in which he stood squarely behind his decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, shocked many in Whitehall. One senior official involved in British foreign policy criticised “the unyielding harsh tone” and “the lack of humility about a humanitarian catastrophe”. One senior Conservative described Biden’s speech as “completely extraordinary”, adding it was “not America first, but America alone”.
There is also concern among some British diplomats that the Biden administration sees France as its primary European partner. “[Antony] Blinken [US secretary of state] has given two major French TV interviews and zero to the British news media. That shows where his priorities lie,” one MP said.
The US president was also directly criticised by MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday in a notable parliamentary rebuke to Britain’s closest ally. A number of MPs labelled his criticism of the Afghan army as “shameful” while Sir John Redwood, a former Cabinet minister, accused Biden of unilaterally withdrawing “without agreeing and negotiating a plan with either the Afghan government or the Nato allies”.
Ahead of Biden’s decision to end what he described as the “forever war” in April, Johnson and UK diplomats tried to persuade the US to change course. But once it became clear this was futile they switched attention to the creation of an alternative military force to partly fill the gap that would be left by departing American troops.
Ministers looked at rallying a coalition of Nato allies to stay on after US personnel had left. Discussions also took place about maintaining a longer British ambassadorial presence either in Kabul or at the city’s airport, according to people familiar with the government’s plans.
Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence secretary, told the Financial Times that he, alongside Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, had tried to speak with “a number of key countries” who would stay in Afghanistan after the US troops had left. “Despite some [being] willing, the thing holding a number back were their parliaments,” he said.
Stoltenberg denied knowledge of any discussions about a continued troop presence when asked by reporters this week, but confirmed that no European nations or Canada had ultimately been prepared to replace the military support provided by the US, which he said had “carried the brunt of the burden” during the Afghan operation.
Experts in touch with the Biden administration have spotted another faultline in the relationship when it comes to Afghanistan: the UK is judged by Washington as being much more sympathetic to Pakistan’s views on the Taliban than Biden, who has yet to call his Pakistani counterpart.
For all the strains exposed by the events of the past week — and long running concerns over a new US-UK trade deal and the fallout for Northern Ireland from Brexit — other UK diplomats insist the special relationship will not suffer in the long run.
They privately point out that the UK received the first call after Biden was elected president, and the first call after the fall of Kabul. Biden has also personally devoted time to the relationship, visiting the UK in June ahead of the G7 — part of his first overseas trip since becoming president — and meeting the Queen.
Meanwhile, in Washington, state department officials have tried to play down talk of a rift.
“Well, we certainly have an extraordinary partner in the British government,” said Ned Price, state department spokesperson, on Wednesday, adding that the US discussed the withdrawal with its Nato allies at a meeting in Brussels in late March. “We have worked very closely with our British allies on this.”
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, said the priority for the Johnson government was to ensure that “the current tilt towards isolationism in the US doesn’t get any worse”. He added: “The bonds are much deeper than whoever is in the White House or Downing Street.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign and defence secretary, also argued that the split would not have “a fundamental disruptive effect” on transatlantic ties. “The United States, and particularly under President Biden, fully understands that even as the world’s greatest superpower, it needs allies when pursuing its foreign policy across a whole spectrum of different areas on different problems around the world. If not the United Kingdom as their closest ally, the question has to be, who?”
But the UK’s unwilling withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about its standing abroad, particularly in the wake of Brexit and Johnson’s “Global Britain” agenda. Some have expressed concerns that the withdrawal undermines Britain’s credibility overseas at precisely the moment when its Queen Elizabeth carrier deployment to Asia is seeking to advertise the UK’s strengths as an ally.
“What price the UK’s promises and commitment to people in jeopardy? Along with the US, I fear, pretty worthless,” said General Lord David Richards, former head of Britain’s armed forces. “The impact of this tragedy on Britain’s influence and reputation and ability to do things globally will last for a long time.”