31 August 2021

Why is the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US under strain?

31 August 2021

Concerns about the future of the “special relationship” between the UK and US have emerged following the withdrawal from Afghanistan

Worries about a “blame game” over errors during the withdrawal have led to suggestions the close partnership is in turmoil.

– What is the special relationship?

The special relationship is the name for the close tie between the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

The term was coined in a speech made by Winston Churchill in 1946, and has been employed since to emphasise a close working relationship in war, the economy, diplomacy, politics, and a shared culture and language.

Winston Churchill (OnFife/PA) (PA Media)

After 9/11, the special relationship was used to justify joint military action in Afghanistan from 2001, and later when then-prime minister Tony Blair proposed following the US into the Iraq War in 2003.

– Why is it under strain at the moment?

The UK had called for the US to extend its stay in Afghanistan. But the US, which had the largest number of troops in the Central Asian country and led the military coalition, would not agree to this.

There has also been a “blame game” with each country accusing the other of making dire mistakes in the final weeks.

For example, Conservative MPs have blamed US president Joe Biden for the crisis at Kabul airport as the withdrawal drew to a close on August 31.

And leaked papers from the Pentagon suggest the US blames the UK for a terrorist attack at the airport on August 26.

Smoke rises from an explosion outside the airport in Kabul (Wali Sabawoon/AP) (AP)

– Why did the UK call for the withdrawal to be extended?

In recent weeks, UK Government ministers have criticised the decision by the US to withdraw from Afghanistan before September 11 this year, calling for a withdrawal based on a series of conditions instead of a date.

At an emergency G7 meeting on August 24, Boris Johnson tried to put pressure on President Biden to extend the US stay in Afghanistan so that the evacuation effort could continue for a longer period of time.

But the US did not agree to an extension, citing the increasing risk of terrorist attacks and the uncertainty of how the Taliban would react to a longer withdrawal.

– What are the accusations from the US?

Leaked documents, seen by Politico, suggest the Pentagon is unhappy with the UK.

The documents allege the UK asked to keep a gate at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport open to “accelerate the drawdown” of British troops and civilians.

However, the UK Government has denied ever making such a request, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman saying: “It’s simply not true to suggest that we pushed to keep the gate open.”

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood has said it was “more to do with an unhelpful blame game”.

Tobias Ellwood (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

Despite this denial, reporting in the Times suggested the US blames the UK for the suicide bombing that took place outside the airport’s Abbey Gate on August 26 as large crowds still gathered there.

At least 130 Afghans and 13 US forces personnel died in the attack.

– What have UK politicians said?

On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reaffirmed that he had an “excellent working relationship” with the US secretary of state Antony Blinken.

He also said it was “just not true” to suggest the UK called for the airport’s Abbey Gate to be left open for part of its exit operation.

Mr Raab told Sky News: “We co-ordinated very closely with the US, in particular around the Isis-K threat which we anticipated, although tragically were not able to prevent, but it is certainly right to say we got our civilians out of the processing centre by Abbey Gate.”

He added: “But it is just not true to suggest that other than securing our civilians inside the airport that we were pushing to leave the gate open.

“In fact, and let me just be clear about this, we were issuing changes of travel advice before the bomb attack took place and saying to people in the crowd, about which I was particularly concerned, that certainly UK nationals and anyone else should leave because of the risk.”

Former Conservative party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith blamed the US and President Biden for the terror attack at Kabul airport.

Speaking to LBC, he said: “President Biden was responsible for those decisions which, I believe, were critical in the course of the events that we’ve seen unfolding.

“I do think now to attempt to try and brief against the UK on the suicide bombing is reprehensible really, because, you know, if the American government or the American military were very serious about shutting the gates, they would have shut the gates.”

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