What the fall of Afghanistan says about US leadership abroad

Boris Johnson and Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden declined a request by G7 leaders to extend the Aug. 31 evacuation deadline from Afghanistan. The UK has been a secondary actor in the crisis, faculty experts say. Brendan Smialowski/AP

The rapid U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has exposed divisions with Britain, which has supplied the second-highest number of troops to the 20-year conflict. The future of the trans-Atlantic partnership is now in question, according to Sara Raimondi and Pablo Calderon-Martinez, political and international relations experts at Northeastern’s New College of the Humanities in London. 

This week’s G7 virtual meeting of the world’s seven most powerful countries, hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was an example of the “dissonance” between the United States and everyone else. U.S. President Joe Biden rebuffed the other nations’ request to extend the U.S. exit from Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31, citing fear of Taliban violence.

“It’s clear that Britain did not agree with this [decision by Biden], nor did many other countries in Europe and pretty much anywhere else in the world,” says Calderon-Martinez. And, he adds, “it’s clear that their opinion didn’t really matter at all.”

In a rare display of public criticism, former British prime minister Tony Blair, who led the United Kingdom into Afghanistan two decades ago, called the quick U.S. exit “imbecilic” and wondered “has the West lost its strategic will?”

Raimondi and Calderon-Martinez talked to News@Northeastern about the long-term implications for the U.S.-British relationship.

Their comments were edited for brevity and clarity.

Sara Raimondi and Pablo Calderon-Martinez, political and international relations experts at Northeastern’s New College of the Humanities in London.

What message did Biden send to other countries by not agreeing to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31?

RAIMONDI: On the one hand, the G7 really sparked and brought to light the divisions and the differences among European powers who are directly concerned with the refugee crisis.

What is also important to keep in mind is to consider the G7 within the broader network of international organizations and institutions. Some of the leaders that took part in the G7―the U.S., U.K. and France in particular―are members of the [United Nations] Security Council. They are pressing the Security Council for a motion to tackle the security and humanitarian situation.

CALDERON-MARTINEZ: The meeting was further evidence of the slow erosion of the traditional liberal international order. We can see a clear division between the United States and the rest of the G7 members, and we can see divisions between European members.

It goes beyond the situation in Afghanistan. Just look at the response to the pandemic. This is very problematic because we are seeing an increasing vacuum of power and a complete lack of international coordination on everything. No leadership, no organization, no coordination, and no proper way to organize a response.

What is likely to be the outcome of the “special” relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom that political leaders have long heralded?

RAIMONDI: It demonstrates the difficulty of the U.K. to be an actor, to be able to put pressure in any meaningful way on the U.S. Going back to the imbalance of power, it is very visible in the short term. It could become even more of an issue in the long term dealing with whatever form of government would come out of the Taliban. It reveals in both the short term as well as in the long term how the UK has been a secondary actor in the crisis so far.

CALDERON-MARTINEZ: If the U.K. was seen as perhaps the junior partner to the United States before, it has now deteriorated even further to being an afterthought. It’s been proven that the coalition, without the United States, cannot do anything in Afghanistan.

They can’t even hold the airport for a day. They’re completely powerless. Again, it evidences the vast imbalance of power between the U.S. and the rest of the members, but also symbolizes the lack of leadership from the U.S. When the U.S. is not leading the way, it’s chaos.

How did you interpret Tony Blair’s comments about the U.S. withdrawal being an “imbecilic” decision?

RAIMONDI: We need to put his words into context, especially if we compare it to the international landscape which Blair was dealing with 20 years ago, which probably was still on the triumphant side of liberal internationalism and the language of democracy promotion.

His words also point to the moral underpinnings of the war on terror and the role that Britain was playing as a global actor at the time. Blair’s words come out of the reality that motivated his foreign policy 20 years ago. I’m not sure they can be taken as an accurate analysis that we are dealing with now, particularly after 20 years in Afghanistan.

CALDERON-MARTINEZ: Imbecilic is really not having an ounce of self-reflection and the capacity to look at your own mistakes. He refuses to take any of the blame. The fact that Tony Blair now criticizes the very own policy he started is laughable.

What important story is not being told in the Afghanistan conflict that people need to be aware of?

RAIMONDI: One aspect of the current Afghan crisis is what it reveals about geopolitics and the changing international landscape that we’re seeing now compared to the late ’90s or even 20 years ago.

Afghan society has changed a lot in the past 20 years, and one aspect that is important to consider is not only how the Taliban forces have positioned themselves in the international landscape, but also what kind of resistance might they find on the ground that will ultimately determine the type of government and the type of society going forward.

We already have seen signs of grassroots organizations, women’s organizations, that are willing to stand up [to the Taliban] and resist. This will be one factor that needs to be added to the matrix, not just the broader geopolitical analysis, but also how Afghan society itself will factor into the unfolding situation in the coming months.

CALDERON-MARTINEZ: If something good comes out from this Afghanistan debacle, I hope it is that we finally move away from this idea that there has to be a war on everything―a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on COVID-19.

I understand that’s how states react. But it doesn’t work. Hopefully this will lead to something else. What, I don’t know. But something else, something different. The war on terror has proven to be an unmitigated disaster. Trillions of dollars spent, thousands of deaths, and still the Taliban is back in power.

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