Tony Blair has branded US President Joe Biden’s ‘imbecilic’ decision to withdraw American troops from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, calling the scuttle ‘tragic, dangerous and unnecessary’ and claiming the move had ‘every Jihadist group round the world cheering’.
Mr Blair, who was in Downing Street when London sent British troops into the Middle Eastern country 20 years ago following the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington – said Britain has a ‘moral obligation’ to stay until ‘all those who need to be are evacuated’.
In a 2,700 article on the threat of ‘radical Islam’, the former British prime minister said the exit was not in the West or Afghanistan’s interest as he lamented the likely reversal of gains made during the occupation, with the Taliban reasserting itself across most of the country in recent days.
Mr Blair issued a stark warning to Boris Johnson that the manner of the US’ handling of the exit indicated the UK could be relegated from the top division of international powers, with reports Britain was largely kept in the dark about when American armed forces would leave.
He also claimed that ‘Russia, China and Iran will see and take advantage. Anyone given commitments by Western leaders will understandably regard them as unstable currency’. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have suggested that Britain will now have to turn to Beijing and Moscow to assist with exercising a ‘moderating influence’ over the Taliban post-withdrawal.
Relations between Britain and US are strained, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace warning ‘no nation will be able to get everyone out’ of Afghanistan as Mr Biden’s August 31 date makes the mission even more time-pressured, in what is likely to be seen as a plea to Washington.
‘For Britain, out of Europe and suffering the end of the Afghanistan mission by our greatest ally with little or no consultation, we have serious reflection to do,’ said Mr Blair. ‘We don’t see it yet, but we are at risk of relegation to the second division of global powers.’
His comments come as the US President signalled he wanted evacuations from Kabul airport completed by the end of the month as he prepares to withdraw all American troops – a move that would likely force Britain to wrap up its operation at the same time.
Tony Blair has branded Joe Biden an ‘imbecile’ over his ‘tragic, dangerous, unnecessary’ decision to withdraw the US troops from Afghanistan, and claimed that the move had ‘every Jihadist group round the world cheering’
Mr Blair issued a stark warning to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the manner of the US’ handling of the exit indicated the UK could be relegated from the top division of international powers, with reports Britain was largely kept in the dark about when American armed forces would leave
A U.S. Navy Corpsman with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command, hands out water to children during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport
A baby is handed over to the American army over the perimeter wall of the airport for it to be evacuated, in Kabul
An evacuee holds up a peace sign after being manifested for a flight at Hamid Karzai International Airport
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier, right, and Taliban fighter stand guard on their respective sides at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan
But Mr Blair urged for there to be ‘no repetition of arbitrary deadlines’ – a reference to Washington’s Doha agreement with the Taliban, committing to vacate Afghanistan in time for the 9/11 anniversary – in the rescue mission.
‘We must evacuate and give sanctuary to those to whom we have responsibility – those Afghans who helped us and stood by us and have a right to demand we stand by them,’ said the former Labour Party leader.
‘There must be no repetition of arbitrary deadlines. We have a moral obligation to keep at it until all those who need to be are evacuated. And we should do so not grudgingly but out of a deep sense of humanity and responsibility.’
Mr Blair defended his own decision making in 2001 when he worked with former US president George Bush and NATO allies to avenge the New York World Trade Centre attack. After the Taliban refused to evict al Qaeda, the terror group that masterminded the hijacking of the planes in 2001, Mr Blair said Western allies, who feared worse attacks were to come, felt there was ‘no safer alternative’ than to strike.
He continued: ‘There is no doubt that in the years that followed we made mistakes, some serious. But the reaction to our mistakes have been unfortunately further mistakes.
‘Today we are in a mood which seems to regard the bringing of democracy as a utopian delusion and intervention virtually of any sort as a fool’s errand. The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics.
‘We didn’t need to do it. We chose to do it.
‘We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago, in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months.’
The former Middle East envoy said that, although ‘imperfect’, the ‘real gains over the past 20 years’ were likely to be lost following the Taliban victory, including advances in living standards, education particularly of girls, and other freedoms.
British soldiers desperately shouted for medics and stretchers, as unconscious people were carried away, many being pronounced dead and covered in white sheets
For some, it was here on this dusty road yesterday that their lives ended, crushed beneath the feet of stampeding families who, like them, were desperately seeking a way out of their benighted country
A soldier carries someone amid the chaos at Kabul airport in Afghanistan yesterday, with thousands desperate to flee the country
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier, right, and Taliban fighters stand guard on their respective sides at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Torkham, in Khyber district, Pakistan
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier, front, and Taliban fighters, stand guard on their respective sides while a truck moves to cross at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan
Hundreds of Afghans desperately trying to flee the Taliban are pictured outside Kabul airport
UN warns Afghanistan faces ‘absolute catastrophe’ of famine, homelessness and economic ruin as Tory MP says organisation MUST be brought in to deal with Kabul airport chaos
The United Nations has warned that Afghanistan faces an ‘absolute catastrophe’ of famine, homelessness and economic ruin, as the Tory chairman of the Commons Defence Committee urged the organisation’s ‘immediate’ intervention before Kabul descends into ‘complete disorder’.
Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the UN’s World Food Programme’s country director for Afghanistan, told the Observer swift coordinated action was critical ‘otherwise, an already horrendous situation is just going to become an absolute catastrophe, a complete humanitarian disaster’.
She added: ‘We need to get supplies into the country, not only in terms of food, but the medical supplies, the shelter supplies. We need money and we need it now. Delay for the next six or seven weeks and it’s going to start becoming too late. People have nothing.
‘We have to get food in now and get it to the communities in the provinces, before roads are blocked by snow.’
Ex-Army officer Tobias Ellwood, who together with Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the scuttle, told Sky News: ‘If you do want to withdraw from a country you don’t pull out your military first and then choose to allow the civilians to depart.
‘This is the wrong order in which we’ve done things, and this situation is simply not sustainable, it’s getting worse every single day. The airport cannot manage this and with the terrorist threat growing the chances are the airport will implode.
‘What I will say is the United Nations and its agencies must be brought in immediately before complete disorder breaks down. The relationship between the US and the Taliban is very very fragile indeed, the US has frozen Afghanistan’s assets, the economy is in freefall.
‘Many of the civil servants that help run the country and indeed run the airport have already departed. We require some serious international leadership immediately.’
He called for the UK, in its role as president of the G7 this year, to help coordinate an international response to ‘hold the new regime to account’.
The UK Government has been working diplomatically to ensure there is no unilateral recognition of a Taliban government in Afghanistan, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab refusing to rule out applying sanctions if the militants renege on their promise to be more inclusive, especially in their attitudes towards women, than when last in control.
Mr Blair said: ‘We need to draw up a list of incentives, sanctions, actions we can take including to protect the civilian population so the Taliban understand their actions will have consequences.
‘This is urgent. The disarray of the past weeks needs to be replaced by something resembling coherence and with a plan that is credible and realistic.’
The Prime Minister’s feelings about America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan have been variously described by sources as ‘furious’, ‘a betrayal’ and ‘let down’.
Downing Street dismisses the claims – it is in neither country’s interests to stoke tensions when the future of Afghanistan hangs in the balance – but there is little question that the UK has been left exposed by the speed of Washington’s pull-out.
No 10 also denies claims that the Prime Minister was disappointed by Mr Biden’s victory in the Presidential elections and had declared that it would have been ‘better’ if Donald Trump had won a second term, and say it is ‘categorically untrue’ that Mr Johnson employs the President’s derogatory nickname of Sleepy Joe during jocular conversations.
Across Whitehall and in British embassies around the world, officials and diplomats are adjusting to the fact that Mr Biden has adopted an America First policy every bit as isolationist as his predecessor’s.
There are also whispered concerns that the 78-year-old might be, in the words of one Government source, ‘a bit doolally’ – unable to exert full executive grip on the White House and with a world view forged decades ago and out of step with the demands of leadership in the 2020s.
The Times claimed yesterday that Mr Johnson finds Mr Biden ‘lightweight and inward-looking’.
Observers of the two men’s relationship believe that there is a degree of wariness, with Mr Biden regarding Mr Johnson as a ‘mini-Trump’ because of his personality-driven style of politics and the pair talking far less frequently than Mr Johnson and Mr Trump did.
There are also policy differences, with Washington reluctant to accede to the UK’s demand to ramp up spending on ‘green’ policies ahead of the COP26 climate change summit being hosted by the UK in November.
Of particular irritation in London during the Afghan endgame has been the fact that British military commanders have been cut out of discussions between the US and the Taliban.
But a No 10 source said yesterday that Mr Johnson had not expressed any anger over the US withdrawal, and said the two men had enjoyed a ‘warm and constructive’ phone conversation on Tuesday evening.
A Downing Street spokesman said: ‘These claims are categorically untrue. The Prime Minister has not criticised President Biden, and they have a very strong working relationship.
The President’s first call to a leader outside of North America after his election win was to the Prime Minister.
They have worked together on a range of issues, including at the recent G7, where they secured an additional one billion Covid vaccine doses for developing countries, and signed the Carbis Bay Declaration to improve global health co-operation and prevent future pandemics’.
President Biden cancelled plans to spend the weekend at his home in Delaware. Instead he is meeting his national security team ‘to hear intelligence, security and diplomatic updates on the evolving situation in Afghanistan,’ the White House said.
TONY BLAIR: America’s retreat is imbecilic – and tells our enemies we don’t have any interests or values worth defending
By TONY BLAIR FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours.
In the aftermath of the decision to return the country to the same group from which the carnage of 9/11 arose, and in a manner that seems almost designed to parade our humiliation, the question that allies and enemies alike pose is – has the West lost its strategic will?
By that I mean, is it able to learn from experience, think strategically, define our interests strategically and on that basis commit strategically? Is ‘long term’ a concept we are still capable of grasping? Is the nature of our politics now inconsistent with asserting our traditional global leadership role? And do we care?
As leader of our country when we decided to join America in removing the Taliban from power in 2001, and who saw the high hopes we had of what we could achieve for the people and the world subside under the weight of bitter reality, I know better than most how difficult are the decisions of leadership and how easy it is to be critical and how hard to be constructive.
Tony Blair pictured addressing British troops in Basra, southern Iraq, in May 2003. The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours, the former prime minister writes
Twenty years ago, following the slaughter of 3,000 people on US soil on September 11, 2001, the world was in turmoil. The attacks were organised out of Afghanistan by Al Qaeda, an Islamist terrorist group given protection and assistance by the Taliban.
We forget this now, but the world was spinning on its axis. We feared further attacks, possibly worse. The Taliban were given an ultimatum: yield up the Al Qaeda leadership or be removed from power.
They refused. We felt there was no safer alternative for our security than keeping our word. We held out the prospect, backed by substantial commitment, of turning Afghanistan from a failed terror state into a functioning democracy on the mend. It may have been a misplaced ambition, but it was not an ignoble one.
There is no doubt that in the years that followed we made mistakes, some serious. But the reaction to our mistakes has been, unfortunately, further mistakes.
Today we are in a mood that seems to regard the bringing of democracy as a utopian delusion and intervention virtually of any sort as a fool’s errand. The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was driven not by grand strategy but by politics.
We didn’t need to do it. We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even ten years ago, in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months.
We did it in the knowledge that though worse than imperfect, and though immensely fragile, there were real gains over the past 20 years. And for anyone who disputes that, read the heartbreaking laments from every section of Afghan society as to what they fear will now be lost. Gains in living standards, education, particularly of girls, gains in freedom. Not nearly what we hoped or wanted. But not nothing. Something worth defending. Worth protecting.
We withdrew because our politics seemed to demand it. And that’s the worry of our allies – and the source of rejoicing in those who wish us ill. They think Western politics is broken. Unsurprisingly, therefore, friends and foes ask: is this a moment when the West is in epoch-changing retreat?
Royal Marines of 40 Commando, Bravo Company, arrive at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan – part of the lead element of an International Peace Keeping Force – in December 2001
British citizens and dual nationals residing in Afghanistan board a military plane for evacuation from Kabul airport on August 16
I can’t believe we are in such retreat, but we are going to have to give tangible demonstration that we are not. This demands an immediate response in respect of Afghanistan. And then measured and clear articulation of where we stand for the future. We need to work out a means of dealing with the Taliban and exerting maximum pressure on them.
This is not as empty as it seems. We have given up much of our leverage, but we retain some. The UK as the current G7 chair should convene a Contact Group of the G7 and other key nations and commit to coordinating help to the Afghan people and holding the new regime to account. Nato – which has had 8,000 troops still in Afghanistan alongside the US – and Europe should be brought fully into co-operation under this grouping.
We need to draw up a list of incentives, sanctions and actions we can take, including to protect the civilian population so the Taliban understand their actions will have consequences.
But then we must answer that overarching question. What are our strategic interests and are we prepared any longer to commit to upholding them? Afghanistan was hard to govern all through the 20 years of our time there. And of course there were mistakes and miscalculations. But we shouldn’t dupe ourselves into thinking it was ever going to be anything other than tough when there was an internal insurgency combining with external support – in this case Pakistan – to destabilise the country and thwart its progress.
Wing Commander Matt Radnall carries a carefully folded Union Flag under his arm and back home to the UK as he leaves the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2014
Blair pictured with ex-Afghan President Hamid Karzai at 10 Downing Street in January 2006
We have not had another attack on the scale of 9/11, though no one knows whether that is because of what we did post 9/11 or despite it.
The World Trade Center attack exploded into our consciousness because of its severity and horror. But the motivation for such an atrocity arose from an ideology many years in development.
For want of a better term, I will call it Radical Islam – an ideology in different forms and with varying degrees of extremism that has been almost 100 years in gestation.
Its essence is the belief that Muslim people are disrespected and disadvantaged because they are oppressed by outside powers and their own corrupt leadership, and that the answer lies in Islam returning to its roots, creating a State based not on nations but on religion, with society and politics governed by a strict and fundamentalist view of Islam.
In the West, we have sections of our own Muslim communities radicalised. Islamism is a long-term structural challenge because it is an ideology utterly inconsistent with modern societies based on tolerance and secular government. Yet Western policymakers prefer to identify Radical Islam as a set of disconnected challenges each to be dealt with separately.
We are in the wrong rhythm of thinking in relation to Radical Islam. With Revolutionary Communism, we recognised it as a threat of a strategic nature that required us to confront it both ideologically and with security measures. It lasted more than 70 years. Throughout that time we would never have dreamt of saying, ‘Well, we have been at this for a long time, we should just give up.’
Ex-Prime Minister Blair meets British troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, during a surprise visit in November 2006
We knew we had to have the will, the capacity and the staying power to see it through. This is what we need to decide now with Radical Islam. Is it a strategic threat? If so, how do those opposed to it, including within Islam, combine to defeat it?
We have learnt the perils of intervention in the way we intervened in Afghanistan, Iraq and indeed Libya. But non-intervention is also a policy with consequence.
What is absurd is to believe the choice is between what we did in the first decade after 9/11 and the retreat we are witnessing now; to treat the full-scale 2001 military intervention as of the same nature as the secure-and-support mission in Afghanistan of recent times.
Intervention can take many forms. We need to do it learning the proper lessons of the past 20 years, according not to our short-term politics but to our long-term strategic interests.
But intervention requires commitment. And not time-limited by political timetables but by obedience to goals. For Britain and the US, these questions are acute. The absence of consensus and collaboration, and the deep politicisation of foreign policy and security issues, is visibly atrophying American power.
And for Britain, out of the EU and suffering the end of the Afghanistan mission by our greatest ally with little or no consultation, we have serious reflection to do. We don’t see it yet. But we are at risk of relegation to the second division of global powers. Maybe we don’t mind. But we should at least take the decision deliberatively.
There are, of course, many other important issues in geo-politics: Covid 19, Climate, the rise of China, poverty, disease and development. But sometimes an issue comes to mean something not only in its own right but as a metaphor, as a clue to the state of things and the state of peoples. If the West wants to shape the 21st Century, it will take commitment. Through thick and thin.
It will require parts of the Right in politics to understand that isolation in an interconnected world is self-defeating; and parts of the Left to accept that intervention can sometimes be necessary to uphold our values.
It requires us to learn lessons from those 20 years from 9/11, in a spirit of humility, and the respectful exchange of different points of view. It also requires a sense of rediscovery that we in the West represent values and interests worth being proud of and defending. And that commitment to those values and interests needs to define our politics – and not our politics define our commitment.
This is the large strategic question posed by these last days of chaos in Afghanistan. And on the answer will depend the world’s view of us and our view of ourselves.
This is an edited version of an article originally published on the Tony Blair Institute website.