America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan: a retreat into isolationism?

Twenty years ago, the 9/11 attacks “catapulted the US and the UK” into an intense “security partnership”, said Peter Ricketts in The Guardian. The first world leader to visit Ground Zero, Tony Blair promised that Britain would “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the US; and the UK duly became a lead nation for the Nato mission in Afghanistan, triggered by the US and its allies invoking Article 5 of its founding treaty (the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all) for the first time in the alliance’s history.

In the next two decades, the UK provided the largest number of troops after the US, and suffered the second-largest number of combat deaths. Yet when President Biden began his withdrawal of US troops last month, none of that seemed to count for much: Britain was not invited to play any part in decision-making. On the contrary, with Biden reportedly refusing to take his phone calls for 36 hours, Boris Johnson was forced to plead with him through the media for more time in which to complete the pull-out – only to be turned down flat.

There was something “ice cold” and “careless” about the way Biden dismissed the fears of US allies in Afghanistan, said Iain Martin in The Times. If this was a blip, brought on by the “fog of war”, we might get over it. But it’s not: what we are seeing is the acceleration of a “retreat into isolationism, generated by a cross-party consensus since the Iraq War”.

The “brutal” truth is that we and the rest of the “democratic West” can no longer rely on the US, and must look for new ways of protecting ourselves. Some senior Tories are already thinking along these lines, said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has mentioned France as a partner, in supporting African countries besieged by extremists.

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And in Europe, there is talk about the need for a new defence partnership. The UK could be a useful external member of it, but there is a “snag”. Such an alliance would require “respect and trust”. Post-Brexit, those are in short supply, and Johnson is hardly the man to rebuild the burnt bridges.

Yet talk of the US’s retreat is premature, said Christopher Meyer in The Daily Telegraph. “In his selfish unilateralism”, Biden is no better than Trump. But in justifying the withdrawal from Afghanistan last week, what he said was that the US would embark on no more big operations to “remake other countries”. In other words, he is ending America’s hubristic mission to spread its democratic values from the barrel of a gun.

This is not isolationism, it is a “doctrine to align intervention abroad with American interests and achievable goals”. We don’t yet know how Biden will apply it, but it’s not wrong in itself.


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