The withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, agreed by President Trump and confirmed by Biden, demonstrated the further decline of the world’s only remaining superpower. US imperialism, following the exit from Iraq and Afghanistan, can no longer pose as the world’s cop, militarily intervening at will to defend its strategic interests. While this has global implications, it also demonstrates the further decline in the position of British imperialism. In Afghanistan the UK was completely entangled with the US invasion of 2001. Twenty years later the failure of the US is also a disastrous failure for the UK.
As Boris Johnson admitted in the parliamentary debate after the fall of Kabul:
“In view of the American decision to withdraw, we came up against this hard reality that since 2009, America has deployed 98% of all weapons released from NATO aircraft in Afghanistan and, at the peak of the operation, when there were 132,000 troops on the ground, 90,000 of them were American. The West could not continue this US-led mission—a mission conceived and executed in support and defence of America—without American logistics, without US air power and without American might.”
Ever since the Blair government agreed to join Bush’s coalition, the British ruling class has claimed that it was defending specific British interests in the region. The stated intentions of Operation Enduring Freedom were to destroy terrorist camps that the Taliban had allowed to flourish in Afghanistan, and to capture or kill leading members of Al-Qaeda. In practice the US wanted to mobilise other western countries as part of the attempts to contain growing chaos in the world, but they were only partially successful. The days of mobilising against the threat from the Russian bloc were long over. Britain wanted to show itself as the best lieutenant to the US, in contrast to countries like France and Germany. But when it came to the killing of Osama bin Laden, that was done by the US alone. Britain did have a military presence in the region, but had to follow US policy, with no influence on Uncle Sam’s strategic goals. But none of the big powers is able to deal with the effects of decomposition through military means. This applies to the US despite its military budget being greater than the next 10 countries’ military spending combined. In Afghanistan this meant that when the US realised that it was time to leave, Britain had no choice but to follow with its tail between its legs, even if, as we can see from Johnson’s rather bitter speech, it did its best to pin the blame for the debacle on the Americans.
In Germany the debate within the bourgeoisie, following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, concentrated on solidifying European alliances in the light of the unreliability of American imperialism. In Britain politicians have tried to take up the idea of Global Britain, of somehow being able to masquerade as a major power, able to act independently of the EU, following Brexit, and independently of the US. However, as a Conservative MP pointed out “The fall of Kabul, like Suez, has shown that the UK may not be able to operate autonomously without US involvement. It may be that our foreign policy is decided as much in Washington as it is in London.”
The idea of Global Britain is a myth that has no basis in the military or economic strength of British imperialism. The reference to Suez is appropriate. In 1956 the US put used its whole propaganda machine and economic pressure to force Britain and France to stop their attack on Egypt. If this confirmed that these old colonial powers had been reduced to a second-rate status, then the retreat from first Iraq and now Afghanistan is a further major step in the descending status of British imperialism.
Ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair has written of his opposition to the withdrawal, and attempted to draw out the consequences: “For Britain, out of Europe and suffering the end of the Afghanistan mission by our greatest ally with little or no consultation, we have serious reflection to do. We don’t see it yet. But we are at risk of relegation to the second division of global powers”. This is not only an overestimation of Britain’s existing position, it is a classic example of denial, of an unwillingness to grasp the real state of imperialist relations in the world. Following the Second World War Britain already had a reduced status as, in the Cold War period of great imperialist blocs, there were only two superpowers, the US and the USSR.
Blair thinks that the UK-US should have stayed in Afghanistan, but you can see so many examples of the impotence of the British position. Just look at the attempt to organise the evacuation of refugees from Kabul who had British connections. It was obvious that without the US this was impossible. Moreover, thousands were left behind. The so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the US was always enormously one sided, involving the overwhelming domination by the latter of the former. While some right-wing figures in the US still champion the importance of the UK-US alliance, Joe Biden has shown no taste for honouring it, leaving Britain out of intelligence, consultation, and any influence.
Aukus agreement confirms UK’s subordinate role
The recently-agreed Aukus agreement, while infuriating French imperialism, will not be on equal terms between the US, Australia and the UK. For Britain this was demonstrated when Boris Johnson went to the States in September. Not only did he fail to come away with a trade deal, but Biden made it very clear that the US was not going to tolerate any interference with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland. The Aukus agreement is, however, confirmation of the US’s turn toward the growing threat of Chinese imperialism. As we put it in the recent resolution on the International Situation from the ICC’s 24th Congress “there is no doubt that the growing confrontation between the US and China tends to take centre stage. The new administration has thus demonstrated its commitment to the ’tilt to the east’ (now supported by the Tory government in Britain) which was already a central axis of Obama’s foreign policy.”
In the imperialist situation “The chaotic departure of the US army from Afghanistan after 20 years, and the return to power of the Taliban, is a further sign of the inability of the great powers to guarantee global stability, particularly in areas where tensions and rivalries between states are rampant.” While the US has “now become the main vector of the chaos and instability which marks the phase of capitalist decomposition”, the UK has vain hopes of being able to act as an independent force. It is no longer part of Europe and it can’t rely on the US. The idea of a Global Britain is completely delusional, a façade behind which the UK desperately attempts to hold onto its position against the cutthroat rivalries of competing imperialist powers.