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23 August, 2021 - 12:11am
23 August, 2021 - 12:11am
It is Johnson, not the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who bears ultimate responsibility for this lethal shambles. It is Johnson, not the US president, Joe Biden, who ordered British forces to follow the Americans in their grossly mismanaged withdrawal. It is the prime minister, more than anyone else, who must be held accountable for what leading Conservatives, Labour, senior military figures and much of the public regard as Britain’s worst overseas humiliation since Suez.
The heart-wrenching, terrifying scenes at Kabul airport, where tens of thousands of people are trying to escape the Taliban regime and gunmen bent on revenge, might have occurred in any event, given the swift collapse of the Afghan army. But the government lost crucial time last weekend in organising the life-or-death evacuation of translators, interpreters, local UK embassy staff, security guards and others for whom Britain is morally if not legally responsible.
How did this happen? Johnson, incredibly, had set off on holiday on Saturday as Kabul tottered on the brink, only to return to Downing Street the next day in a panic. What had he been thinking? Does he not watch the news? Raab, meanwhile, was sunning himself on a beach in Crete. He rejected officials’ urgent advice to phone the Afghan foreign minister to seek help with the evacuation. Clinging stubbornly to his paddleboard, Raab continued his vacation as Kabul fell on Sunday. He returned to his post the following day.
The absence in Westminster of political leadership and an overall strategy was compounded in Whitehall by the absence of top civil servants, who were on leave. Ministers fought among themselves. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, fumed that Raab had let the side down. He grew tearful over those left behind in Kabul who, he said, “won’t make it”. Behind the curve as ever, the home secretary, Priti Patel, began a last-minute scramble to admit limited numbers of refugees who do make it, though she plainly did not relish the prospect.
As the crisis deepened, Johnson flapped about ineffectually, trying to sound as if he was in control. It has emerged that Biden refused, for more than a day, to speak to him, an extraordinary rebuff, given the situation. When he addressed the Commons on Wednesday, Johnson was evidently unprepared for the fury that greeted him from all sides. More disturbingly, he appeared not to understand it, so feeble is his grasp of his duty and responsibility.
True to form, Johnson blamed others. It was America’s fault for pulling out in the first place. It was the Afghan government’s fault for running away. It was the Europeans’ fault for refusing to stay and fight alongside Britain, even though, contradicting himself, he admitted the idea of a coalition without US involvement was an “illusion”. He even suggested it was the Taliban’s fault for winning too quickly.
Unforgivable, too, is the way Johnson’s incompetence has diminished Britain in the eyes of the world. As his predecessor, Theresa May, asked, where does “Global Britain” stand now? Like Johnson himself, Britain looks weak, shambolic, shabby and unreliable. A public inquiry into this debacle is essential and must be instituted immediately. Parliament must insist on it.
Raab’s refusal so far to resign is disappointing, though unsurprising. The foreign secretary fell seriously short of what’s expected at a moment of acute national crisis. He should go before he is, sooner or later, pushed. Yet the Tory press’s pillorying of Raab must not be allowed to deflect attention from his boss, the man who truly owns this fiasco. It is surely evident to all that his chronically poor judgment and smug, lazy, irresponsible behaviour render him unfit for the job he holds.
It remains desperately unclear how and when the immediate crisis in Kabul will be resolved. British troops and officials are bravely holding on at the airport, but they rely on finite US military support and Taliban co-operation, which could be withdrawn at any moment. As an arbitrary US deadline for an end to evacuations nears, security is likely to deteriorate further. With thousands still stranded or in hiding around the capital, food running short and medical services suspended, there is a real prospect of tragedy heaped on tragedy and a humanitarian crisis.
In Kabul as elsewhere, the true nature of Taliban rule remains uncertain at this early stage. Deeply worrying is a UN-backed report that the militants, contrary to their spokesman’s promises, are conducting door-to-door hunts for “collaborators”. This is fiendish and renders worthless other Taliban pledges to honour women’s rights and create an inclusive government. It will accelerate a refugee exodus for which Britain and the EU still appear unprepared.
The bigger picture also remains cloudy. There is talk of a revived resistance movement based on the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban in the 1990s. With China and Russia filling the vacuum, it’s unclear what leverage, if any, the US and Europe may have in future. No one yet knows for sure whether the Taliban takeover will lead to new international Islamist terrorist threats.
What is certain is that the past week has witnessed a historic and devastating defeat for Britain, for the Biden presidency, for Nato, for the west, for democracy, for moral decency and for universal human rights. Numerous questions about how and why this was allowed to happen require serious answers. The coming inquest will be long, hard and unforgiving – and so it should be.
23 August, 2021 - 12:11am