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Britain will this week turn to China and Russia to try to stop Afghanistan sliding further into chaos, after recriminations between London and Washington over US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of American troops.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s government is also working closely with France — with whom relations are strained after Brexit — to try to engineer a UN response to the crisis in Afghanistan.
While UK ministers were privately scathing about the manner of the US withdrawal, Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister who took British troops into Afghanistan 20 years ago, said Washington’s strategy was based on “an imbecilic political slogan about ending the ‘forever wars’”.
His comments were a reference to Biden’s promise to remove US forces from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks.
Downing Street has denied any rift between Johnson and Biden, but the British prime minister’s foreign policy — heavily dependent on the US — has been shaken by the crisis and has forced London to court other capitals.
Johnson, anxious to show that the UK is still relevant as a “convening power” when he chairs a virtual summit of the G7 on Tuesday, tweeted that the group of wealthy nations would co-ordinate efforts “to ensure safe evacuations, prevent a humanitarian crisis and support the Afghan people”.
The US and the UK governments have come under intense criticism since the Taliban seized power a week ago in the wake of the American troop withdrawal.
Efforts to evacuate Afghans who worked for western militaries and other organisations have been blighted by chaos as thousands of desperate families have thronged Kabul airport. Britain’s defence ministry said on Sunday that seven Afghans died in crowds in the capital.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary who was criticised for remaining on holiday in Greece as Kabul fell to the Taliban last week, confirmed that he would contact Beijing and Moscow over Afghanistan.
“We’re going to have to bring in countries with a potentially moderating influence like Russia and China, however uncomfortable that is,” Raab told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
Both Russia and China have engaged with the Taliban.
A meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — China, France, Russia, UK and US — will this week discuss how to deal with a nascent Taliban regime, including aid and counter-terrorism policy.
“This is a big moment for the UN,” said one British official.
UK officials were moderately encouraged by a call between Raab and Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart, last week, but no call has yet taken place with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Britain is also working with France to craft a UN Security Council resolution on Afghanistan, prompting some to argue that Johnson needs to recalibrate his foreign policy towards European allies after the bitterness of Brexit.
“One lesson we should draw is that if Britain and the EU countries in Nato want to play a significant role militarily we will need to work together closely to develop a capability which means we don’t have to depend on an American presence,” Damian Green, a former Tory cabinet minister. “The sooner we start along this path the better.”
A senior UK military officer agreed. “This government has put all its eggs — and the whisk and bowl — into the US basket,” he said. “The only “forever war” Britain has is with the EU. It’s ridiculous.”
Johnson’s allies argue that the US has long been on a path to extricate itself from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as Washington’s focus turns to Asia.
UK defence minister James Heappey said efforts to evacuate Britons and eligible Afghans from Kabul had improved over the past 24 hours, with more than 1,700 people airlifted out of the country.
Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, repeated on Sunday that Biden’s August 31 deadline for a total American troop pullout might have to be extended. Britain has indicated to Washington it would welcome an extension.
A UK official said the evacuation timetable was “tight” with the UK still trying to bring out people said to number “in the low thousands”.