Saturday, September 18

The UK and US are feuding over the Afghanistan withdrawal, with British ministers calling the president’doolally’ and Biden ignoring Boris Johnson’s calls


  • UK and US officials are sniping at each other in the wake of the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.
  • Biden ignored Boris Johnson’s call for three days, and Johnson has revived the “Sleepy Joe” nickname, reports say.
  • The two countries will survive this damage, but they have to be careful, a former minister said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A furious war of words between the US and UK over the chaotic troop withdrawal from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has seen a British cabinet minister call President Joe Biden “doolally” and the US president ignore the prime minister’s calls.

It exposes serious fault lines in the two countries’ “special relationship” at a time when the growing threats of China and radical Islam mean international cooperation is more important than ever.

So-called “briefing wars” — in which officials snipe at each other via comments to the press, often anonymously — between London and Washington were, perhaps, inevitable given the scale of the chaos in Afghanistan after Biden announced in April that he would withdraw remaining US troops from the country.

While Boris Johnson’s government initially went along with the decision, there has been fury and indignation in Westminster toward Biden following the chaotic scenes in Kabul, where both countries scrambled to evacuate nationals and allies after the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of the country.

There was renewed anger in London after Biden last week ignored pleas from the UK to extend the deadline to evacuate people from Kabul airport, meaning many people the UK planned to evacuate were left behind.

One British cabinet minister — who was not named — called Biden “doolally” and “gaga” in comments to The Mail on Sunday last week, which made their way to the White House after they were reprinted in The Washington Post.

And according to The Sunday Times, Johnson had started referring to Biden as “Sleepy Joe“— Reviving former President Donald Trump’s favorite nickname — and sees Biden as”lightweight and inward-looking.”

Joe Biden points while sitting next to Boris Johnson at the G7 Summit

Johnson and Biden at the 2021 G7 summit in England.

Getty


Washington has returned fire. Pentagon sources told Politico that UK officials had pushed the US to keep open a gate in Kabul’s airport which was later struck by a deadly bomb attack — an allegation which drew a furious denial from UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

Biden also ignored Johnson’s phone call to discuss Kabul for three days, The Telegraph reported.

Biden, well known for his ability to hold grudges, has long demonstrated wariness towards Johnson, calling the prime minister a “mini-Trump” as recently as last year. Indeed, reports about Biden’s grudges have resurfaced this week following the briefing wars.

Transatlantic relations would appear, then, to be at a low ebb, and Biden also appears to have damaged US standing within NATO.

Lord Robertson, who was secretary general of NATO when its member forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, described the withdrawal in a Thursday Policy Exchange event as a “hasty, crassly handled surrender to the very people that we fought and defeated 20 years ago.”

“NATO and the west, whatever we like to think, have been weakened, that remarkable solidarity of 20 years ago has been damaged, and the mighty United States of America has been humiliated,” he added.

UK Afghanistan evacuation

Members of the UK Armed Forces taking part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Afghanistan in August 2021.

LPhot Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/Handout via REUTERS


But there are compelling reasons to believe that the transatlantic relationship will survive this damage.

It appears abundantly clear that the UK government prefers working with Biden, and his commitment to multilateral institutions like NATO and the UN, than they did working with a mercurial and unpredictable Trump — even as Johnson reportedly said offhand last week that “we would be better off with Trump.”

This transatlantic relationship has also survived plenty of low ebbs before, and has frequently demonstrated an ability to survive personal antipathy between its leaders.

“I’ve always worked broadly on the basis that the depth of the relationship between the US and UK is so strong that individuals can’t affect it,” Alistair Burt, a former UK Foreign Office minister for South Asia — which includes Afghanistan — told Insider.

“It’s too strong to be affected by individuals and it’s too strong to have been affected by something like this.”

But if the briefing war doesn’t end soon, that damage in the coming years may become more severe.

“The public briefing war has got to come to an end as quickly as possible,” Burt said.

“There is nothing to be gained from widening a rift between the US and the UK in relation to this. All it can do is please the enemies of both.”

Those “enemies” range from ISIS-K, to Russia and China, whose geostrategic positions are only strengthened by division among NATO powers.

“Understandably in the heat of the circumstances and the misery of Kabul, sharp comments can be expected,” Burt said.

“But now that has come to an end, everyone must realize that going forward the relationship between the US and the UK — on defence, security, and intelligence — remains as close as possible.”





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