Analysis: US president dashes hopes that he might acknowledge damage done by handling of Afghan withdrawal
In the end it took only seven minutes for Joe Biden to pour salt into the wounds of his fractured relationship with European leaders, telling them firmly on a video call that he would not extend the 31 August deadline for US troops to stay in Kabul, as he had been asked by the French, Italians and most of all the British. The rebuff follows Biden’s earlier decision in July to insist on the August deadline previously set in 2020 by Donald Trump for the withdrawal, a decision the US president relayed to his EU colleagues as a fait accompli.
For Europe the episode has been a rude awakening, and a moment of sober reassessment. Only on 25 March Charles Michel had afforded Biden the chance to address a meeting of the European Council, the first foreign leader given the honour since Barack Obama 11 years earlier. Biden after all had said his foreign policy would only be as strong as his system of alliances, the true shield of the republic, and Europe would be at the heart of that system.
Michel, the European Council president, told Biden: “America is back and we are glad you are back. Together we can show that democracies are best suited to protect citizens, to promote dignity, and to generate prosperity.”
European hopes that Biden might acknowledge the damage done by his handling of the Afghan withdrawal by at least accepting the US troops may stay a day or two beyond the 31 August deadline have for the moment been dashed.
The Taliban insistence in a direct meeting on Monday with the CIA director and master of the backchannel, William Burns, that the deadline had to be honoured meant from the US perspective the risk of a military confrontation, or a terrorist suicide bombing by Islamic State, at the airport was too great.
The Pentagon also said the gathering speed of the evacuation was such that it was likely that all US citizens would be airlifted out by the end of this week. The only glimmer of hope, most touted by the Germans but also referenced by the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, in calls with British MPs, is whether a civilian-operated airport inside Afghanistan could be used after that deadline, possibly run by Turkey.
In some ways Biden’s decision is the logical outcome once he announced he would adhere to Donald Trump’s original agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. The Taliban have won, and to the victor goes the spoils.
But Biden’s decision has left Boris Johnson with little on which to cling after making such a public pitch for Biden to extend the deadline.
Putting on a brave face, he said afterwards: “The number one condition that we’re insisting upon is safe passage beyond the 31st, beyond this initial phase, for those who want to leave Afghanistan.” But the Taliban have said they do not want more of their fellow citizens to leave the country, have given no promises about a roadmap on safe passages and, anyway, the UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, has claimed there are credible reports the Taliban are already breaking their promises on avoiding reprisals. The one certainty is that between now and 31 August there will be more of what the prime minister described as “harrowing scenes” at the airport.
So it leaves open the question whether the west, effectively defeated in battle, can in some way retrieve the peace, and influence the still as yet unformed Taliban government.
A somewhat rambling and crestfallen Johnson said after the G7 meeting: “When it comes to engaging with the Taliban, and engaging with the government in Afghanistan, whatever its exact composition, the G7 has huge leverage.” Asked what leverage the west has, he referred to the unfreezing of funds.
But the west is no longer calling the shots, and can only resort to the familiar toolbox of conditional grants, loans, aid, and even sanctions, of which there is no mention in the G7 communique.
The joint communique said: “We will judge the Afghan parties by their actions, not words. In particular, we reaffirm that the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights in particular those of women, girls and minorities and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan.”
The statement adds: “The legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes to uphold its international obligations and commitments to ensure a stable Afghanistan.” But these are the demands the west has placed on the Taliban for months in the fruitless talks in Doha.
Nevertheless, western diplomats are surprisingly hopeful that the Taliban will respond to the leverage, even though the decade-old search for a moderate version of the Taliban has proved so far to be a mirage.
The head of the UK joint intelligence committee, Sir Simon Gass, for instance, spoke by phone to the former Afghan finance minister Omar Zakhilwal on Monday to gain a sense of the scale of the Taliban’s needs, and how they may approach requests for western aid.
He told Gass the Taliban, yet to form a recognisable government, are under massive economic pressure with humanitarian demands throughout the country. Afghanistan, heavily dependent for years on US aid, cannot just wean itself off external support overnight.
Equally Afghanistan’s former central bank governor Ajmal Ahmady said the country’s reserves were only $9bn (£6.5bn) but a majority – $7bn – was held by the Federal Reserve in New York. He pointed out that the government was reliant on the physical shipment of dollars, and these had been stopped by the Biden administration in recent days. The consequences will be food shortages, inflation and collapse of the currency.
Much will depend on the attitude of China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey and even Iran – countries that could easily shore up the new government if they so choose.
That may be the long-term consequence of the US’s defeat – a loss of influence not just in Afghanistan, but across the Middle East, including Iraq and even Saudi Arabia. The Iranian foreign ministry for instance was touting a regional conference next month designed to show the region can settle their differences without the help of the US. An end to Pax Americana in the region is no longer unthinkable.