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Old Alliances, New Challenges: Afghanistan, the US, and the UK

Image via Sky News

The United States’s withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this year was one of the most profound foreign policy choices the Biden Administration has made so far. While the move was broadly popular among the US population, politicians across the aisle vocally criticized the decision. Interestingly, politicians in the UK, often coy about openly expressing anger at the United States, also expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision with a notable degree of sharpness. 

Understanding why there was such pronounced opposition to the withdrawal in the UK is a useful reminder that significant cultural differences still remain between these two closest friends; the conflict, and subsequent withdrawal, meant very different things to the UK than it did to the United States. It is vital to understand that one war can be framed and viewed through multiple perspectives, even among allies.

To understand disapproval of the withdrawal in the UK, it is important to highlight the nature and extent of anger directed at the United States. As in the United States, leaders and influential politicians made particularly strong statements on the issue. The chair of the foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat, called the withdrawal “the biggest single foreign policy disaster since Suez,” and the UK Defence Secretary broke down over his inability to evacuate all at-risk persons in Afghanistan, saying: “It’s sad that the West has done what’s it done.” Interestingly, not only are both these figures members of the ruling Conservative Party, but the Defence Secretary is also a member of the government that had to carry out the withdrawal.

These criticisms are no different from the US response; politicians in the United States, on both sides of the aisle, were clear in their critiques of the decision. Yet, the US public broadly stood behind Biden’s decision, with one poll showing 54 percent of adults supporting the withdrawal. Such a phenomenon is less clear in the UK, and there is some evidence to suggest that the UK population has been broadly in line with their politicians’ criticism of Biden. For example, in one poll, 48 percent of people opposed the withdrawal with less than 20 percent supporting it. Importantly, this criticism cuts across the aisle among the public as well as just among politicians, with 56 percent of Conservative voters opposing the withdrawal alongside 54 percent of Labour voters. Thus, it is possible to make a tentative hypothesis that UK politicians’ criticisms of Biden represent a wider opposition to the withdrawal not present in the United States.

It is important to note that UK anger towards the withdrawal is not necessarily suggestive of any war-loving spirit. Indeed, the British public, sensitive after past experiences of intervention, shows general hesitancy to foreign intervention. In an analysis of UK attitudes to intervention, the British Foreign Policy Group found that by November 2018, 52 percent of adults opposed military intervention overseas. Thus, if military intervention broadly is not an overwhelmingly popular concept, there must be specific reasons related to Afghanistan that stirred British opposition. 

To some extent, UK opposition may not be solely caused by the decision itself, but by the nature of the decision. Constantly anxious to maintain the ‘special relationship’ between the two nations, British governments dislike when the United States acts, or appears to act, unilaterally. The withdrawal seems a clear example of the United States acting without extensive consultation with the UK. As the BBC’s North America Editor Jon Sopel reported, Biden was “not much interested…by the warnings delivered from London” concerning issues with the withdrawal. 

Beyond specific concerns over Afghanistan, there are underlying fears about America’s reliability that may also motivate opposition to the withdrawal. Hopes were high for a return to normal relations with the United States in Europe after the election of President Biden. Many expected a return to a reliable and dependable United States that was prepared to play a prominent and assertive role on the world stage to uphold democracy and liberty. President Biden’s withdrawal, and the sudden and unilateral nature of his decision making, leaves serious questions over the reliability of the United States. 

Yet while this may explain the anger of UK politicians intimately involved with the withdrawal, most of the British public were obviously not involved with planning the withdrawal, and have limited knowledge about Biden’s cooperation, or lack of cooperation, with the British government. Therefore, one must look to the decision itself, beyond simply the decision-making process, to explain the opposition present among the general public. 

One potential factor is that in the UK, the humanitarian nature of the mission was often emphasized equally or more so than solely the military objective to fight the Taliban. This is arguably why the condemnation of Biden’s decisions touched all parts of the UK’s political spectrum. Indeed, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, a seeming ideological offspring of Biden, was critical of the decision, crucially highlighting the “important developments…particularly for women and girls” during the US presence in Afghanistan. 

A poll found that 65 percent of Brits echoed this sentiment, agreeing with the statement that, “The West has let down the women and children of Afghanistan.” While in the United States the Afghanistan deployment originally stemmed from the tragic events of 9/11 and thus the mission perhaps had been defined within a narrower scope, in the UK, broader ideas about rights and equality have taken an equally prominent role. 

Above all else, the UK committed huge amounts of resources and political will to the effort to stabilize and develop Afghanistan: Over 100,000 UK soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan over the course of the conflict. The UK lost 457 servicemembers in Afghanistan. Thus, the UK is understandably not willing to forget their reasons for committing to Afghanistan and leave in a hurry. 

Of course, the United States also incurred huge costs during the Afghanistan conflict; yet when a nation that has committed so much sees its politicians forced into a withdrawal it seemingly does not want, anger cannot be a surprise. Biden’s lack of consultation and transparency with nations who made serious sacrifices for a mission to which they believed the United States was committed is a serious error of judgement. Again, this may struggle to explain the anger present among the public as well as just the politicians, but it is still an important dynamic to be aware of. It is not only the United States who has a stake in the future of Afghanistan.

Whilst the United States and UK were seemingly engaged in the same conflict, their reasons for being in such a conflict contain significant points of departure from one another. Historical, societal, and contemporaneous reasons have led to a markedly different reaction in the UK to the withdrawal than in the United States, with the UK public and politicians displaying hostility to the actions of the Biden administration. 

The UK, like other nations involved, possesses a unique history that motivated its deployments, and it is its contrasting background to the United States that has led to such tensions in the wake of the withdrawal. This by no means has to indicate a fundamental divide between the two nations: Allies may well embark on the same mission together, yet their reasons for doing so may differ. Recognizing these divides, within a fundamentally strong alliance, is vital for future US-UK cooperation.