Post Brexit UK: A World role marred by US unilateralism

Stephen Bell Stop the War Coalition
Claudia Naomi Webbe*, MP
Professor Rodney Shakespeare

Tuesday 14th September 2021

This time fifty years ago, the United Kingdom was completing its withdrawal from all areas East of Suez. Several Gulf countries gained their independence at the time. The move followed the decision by the Labour Government in 1968 to end the UK’s presence in the region. It was the end of an era, a  quarter of a century after the end of WW2. 

Now some British politicians aspire to see a new international role for UK. The commissioning of two aircraft carriers (Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales) at a cost of over £6 billion appears to underpin this policy. This also comes after UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit). Lastly the sudden departure from Afghanistan following the US abrupt decision to leave that country may have confused the situation. 

We like to explore the future of the  UK’s role in the world, its relations with former allies especially in the Gulf region, its vision on countering China’s expanding influence in the world and how the UK could perform in the absence of a US clear policy. Will the UK pay greater attention to democracy and human rights within its mission? Or will it return to its imperial politics?

Stephen Bell: The ending of NATO’s war on Afghanistan is a defeat for US imperialism.  The Taliban has returned to government, despite the war’s aim to exclude them.  

The reactionary character of the Taliban will limit the social progress that can be achieved through the establishment of an independent state in Afghanistan.  It also threatens the viability of that state, as a genuinely national and inclusive policy is vital to avoid a break up of the state.

The announcement of the formation of a “caretaker” government demonstrates the problem.  Of the 33 members, not one is a woman – unfortunately not a surprise.  All of them are Taliban members.  31 are from the Pashtun ethnicity, with one a Tajik, and the other an Uzbek.  Precise figures on Afghanistan’s ethnic composition are not available –  there has never been a countrywide census.  Most estimates put the Pashtuns as just over 40%.  94% of government occupancy is obviously unbalanced.

With the withdrawal of NATO, the neighbouring countries are decisive to the future development of Afghanistan.  China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all share its borders.  And all, with the exception of China, have major kin overlaps with Afghanistan’s ethnic-linguistic communities.  India and Russia are close neighbours with historic ties and common concerns for regional development and stability.

As the Taliban will need international recognition, it is quite possible that the “caretaker” nature of the government is to allow for negotiations on additional personnel from the country’s diverse communities.  Such an option would aid its domestic and international security.

For over-enthusiastic people suggesting the Taliban has fundamentally changed, the government includes 14 people who were officials from the 1996-2001 Taliban government.  It also includes 5 former prisoners of Guantanamo.  Some of the ministers remain on the US Foreign Terrorist Organisation list – which the Taliban is claiming breaches the Doha agreement, negotiated with President Trump.  Doubtless the years of exile and insurgency have greatly elaborated the Taliban’s political and military skills, without apparently having changed its fundamental programme. 

The best scenario is that the Taliban’s interest in securing its power leads to systematic cooperation in economic development with its neighbours.  Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen said that it sees China as its “main partner” in rebuilding Afghanistan.  It has strong links to Pakistan, who had recognised the first Taliban government, and sheltered it since 2001.  Iran and the Taliban have been in serious contact for some years.

The economic and social situation after the war is dire.  Afghanistan is the poorest Asian nation, and is poorer that Haiti.  There was almost no expansion of capital investment from the start of the 1950’s to 2003.  The growth of the country’s GDP after 2001 was primarily artificial, being linked to servicing the NATO occupation.  According to the UN, 75% of public expenditure comes from foreign donors.

Imperialism’s response to its defeat has been to freeze Afghan assets and aid. Afghanistan’s GDP has been around $20 billion a year.  Afghan assets overseas worth $9.5 billion cannot now be accessed by the Afghan Central Bank.  Aid to Afghanistan has been frozen by the US, UK, EU and others.  The decision of the UN organised donors conference yesterday was to pledge $1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan.  This is very welcome.  I hope it is all new money rather than previous aid offers repackaged.

Yet we must be aware that this is money to address an immediate humanitarian crisis.  It will not address the problems of Afghanistan’s economic crisis – let alone its development.  UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, warned yesterday that such assistance, “…will not solve the problem if the economy of Afghanistan collapses.  And we know that the risk is enormous, and that there is a dramatic lack of cash.”  

The current humanitarian crisis is profound.  Only surpassed by Yemen, Afghanistan has nearly half of its population in humanitarian need.  More than half of its children will face acute malnutrition in 2021.

72% of Afghans are living on no more than one dollar a day.  According to the UN’s Asia Director, Kanni Wignaraja, this could rise to 97% by mid 2022, if aid dries up and a third wave of covid is unaddressed.  China has offered an immediate $31 million in aid, including vaccines.

Despite these circumstances, the Biden administration may still opt for destabilisation via aid restrictions and sanctions.  US imperialism may also utilise the internal armed opposition of the “National Resistance Front”.  The value of preventing stabilisation would be to ensure that China and Iran are unable to cooperate in economic development due to a precarious security situation.

This needs to be followed.  One sign is the coordination of Iranian “reformists” with Afghan refugees in protests inside Iran.  These rallies condemned the Iranian government for not supporting armed resistance inside Afghanistan, and called the Taliban “terrorists”.  The Iranian government is pursuing a line of dialogue, and aiming particularly for the peaceful inclusion of the Farsi speaking Hazara people in the country’s future.

The failure of the US, and its abrupt withdrawal, has impacted upon NATO allies.  Inside the EU the Defence Ministers meeting on 2nd September concluded that the EU needs to accelerate building the EU’s military capabilities to ensure its strategic autonomy.  EU High Representatives on Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, stated that Afghanistan showed that the EU had “an inability to respond”, and needed a “first entry force”.  French President Macron had previously spoken of the EU being unable to accept a “bi-polar world made up of the US and China”.

The impact of the defeat has been even greater in Britain, given its glaring international isolation.  This was highlighted by Boris Johnson’s failure at the G7 conference, and elsewhere, to create some sort of alliance to maintain the intervention.  This confirmed the collapse of a major plank of the foreign policy pursued by successive British governments since 2001.

To weigh this impact we have to consider comparisons like the Suez debacle of 1956, which demonstrated the inability of the British government to pursue a foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa independent of the US.  Or the defeat experienced by British imperialism in Aden and South Yemen which led to withdrawal in 1967; the abandonment of military bases east of Suez, and the independence of some Gulf states. 

The immediate response of pro-war British politicians has been to deny the failure.  Johnson has argued that the intervention was a success because Al Qaeda were defeated in Afghanistan, and there was some social progress.  Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy have argued in a similar manner.  They have confined their criticisms of the Tory government to its evident lack of preparedness in the face of Trump’s endorsement of the Doha agreement on withdrawal.  Yet they cannot claim to have alerted the British public to the need to prepare for withdrawal after the February 2020 signing.  On the contrary, they wished to maintain the intervention and were as unprepared as the Tories.

Yet the extent of the failure of the pro-war policy cannot be hidden.  The “Global Britain” policy, endorsed by both the Tories and Labour’s Front Bench, lies in tatters.  Britain’s international influence has been shown to be non-existent on such a serious issue.  No wonder Tony Blair was prompted to a hysterical defence of his legacy failure, when he characterised Biden’s withdrawal as “imbecilic”.  Theresa May bemoaned in parliament the obvious inability of the British government to make a difference.

The British ruling class will want to pass over this debate as quickly and quietly as possible.  The labour and progressive movement must insist upon a real reckoning of the failure.  Twenty years of warfare and occupation is the issue, not just the manner of leaving.

To do this, we must first make clear that the withdrawal is an unmitigated good – whatever the justifiable criticisms of its execution.  The people of Afghanistan now have the possibility of deciding upon their own future.  It is easier to address a domestically reactionary government if it is not supported by US imperialism’s military.

Most of the social “gains” under the occupation were confined to the cities.  The trumpeted growth in education, health services, and involvement of women were confined to urban areas.  Many facilities recorded by western powers had the same ghostly character as the Afghan security forces.  These facilities were mostly paper expressions of overseas finances disappearing into government aligned networks of warlords and militias.  Documentation of this corruption is abundant and available.

We must insist that the people of Afghanistan are not now subjected to sanctions, a freeze of assets or aid reduction.  We must highlight the fact that the humanitarian crisis is a direct result of the NATO intervention.

Stop the War has raised the demand “no more foreign wars”.  Immediately there must be an end to the British government support for the war and siege of Yemen.  This must include a freeze on arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and withdrawal of British armed forces from Yemen, and the Saudi command centre.  Equally, the British government’s support for Biden’s shift to concentrate on the cold war against China must be rejected.

The campaigns welcoming Afghan refugees are a major and excellent initiative.  The government’s refusal to end deportations, and refusal to accept Afghan refugees who cross the English Channel must be condemned.  The government’s decision to bar entry to dozens of interpreters who worked with the army should be overturned.

Some caution is required in dealing with calls to isolate the Taliban from a “left” perspective.  It is certainly right to support Afghan women’s rights, limited though they are.  But it is vital that the labour movement does not take up slogans such as “Don’t recognise the Taliban”.  Asking the British government to act in such a manner is to endorse forms of hybrid war against Afghanistan.  Effective solidarity needs broad unity.

There must be no cover up for the failure of imperialist intervention. The people of Afghanistan need our continuing practical support.     

Claudia Naomi Webbe: Thank you to everyone at the Gulf Cultural Club for inviting me to this important event. It is a pleasure to talk to you. It has never been more important to broaden connections across the world in the service of peace and justice.  The UK’s current policies cannot be separated from the enduring legacy of the British empire which left a legacy of instability which continues to this day. Military intervention must be seen within the historical context in which Britain and other Western countries still believe that they can act with impunity in a region from which they have violently extracted resources over the centuries.

I was elected on a manifesto which pledged to end the bomb now talk later approach to national security. An audit has to be conducted of Britain’s colonial legacy so we can understand our contribution to violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule.

This last policy is incredibly important. This year there has been an appalling demonisation of refugees and asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are often arriving from countries where the UK has contributed to their disruption by arming the conflict with an enduring legacy of colonialism.

The time has come for former empires to take responsibility for the countries and individuals who have endured their cruelty.  No where is this more apparent  than in Afghanistan. The rapidly accelerating crisis has been heart breaking.  Even more heart breaking has been the cruel and ignorant response of the UK. They have been one of the key architects of the disaster.

The rapid advance of the Taliban and the widespread and devastating chaos demonstrates the devastating error of the UK’s bombings and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This was  a war without a just cause undertaken by colonial ambition to set in motion a cycle of imaginable suffering.

The crisis in Afghanistan showed that Western intervention only serves to create power vacuums  that  acerbate the suffering of the people.  The legacy of these violent adventures also has to be considered. Investigation by an organisation called the Intercept found that the defence stocks outperformed the stock market by 58 percent during the Afghan war. The top five defence contractors have profited handsomely from 20 years of suffering. 

While the war has been an unmitigated failure at the political and military level it has been a success for a handful of wealthy shareholders. We cannot allow such profiteering from suffering to continue. The military industrial complex must not be allowed to determine Western foreign policy.

 The defeat of the US military in Afghanistan means that this intervention joined those in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. These are calamities that have cost tens of thousands of lives for no purpose. Therefore it is time to see that colonial intervention and forever wars are abandoned for good.

Due to the UK’s role in destabilising  Afghanistan and the wider region we now have a unique obligation to welcome as many refugees  as possible and to support Afghan asylum seekers in the UK. There is no reason why Afghan asylum seekers should be suffering to this day in immigration deportation centres.

 Due to the government’s inadequate support many Afghan refugees will be forced to try and claim asylum and navigate the unnecessarily onerous system in place under the appalling Nationality and Borders Bill.  This is the typical pattern of neo colonialism. On the one hand the UK will bomb a country and on the other will create an asylum system that prevents vulnerable people from safely fleeing the chaos that the West has created.  This is a cycle that we cannot allow to continue in our name.

It is also vital that UK government calls on the international community to put pressure on the new regime in Afghanistan  to be fair to all religious minorities, trade union leaders and also to provide a safe escape route. We have a humanitarian role to play in making sure that the UK government is consistent in its condemnation of human rights violations. It is commendable that the discriminatory practices of the Taliban have been condemned yet the same condemnation cannot be found when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf oil states who have an equally shocking record on human rights.

 Human rights and equality must become unshakeable principles and not be used as tools for political convenience.  Above all else the government must learn the lesson of the failed forever wars and intervention and adopt international corporation as a means of solving conflict. The war on terror must now be consigned to the dustbin of history along with all the other neo colonial projects.

In March 2020 as you have just heard the UN Secretary General called for a global ceasefire. Many of us hoped that the pandemic would provide a unique opportunity for peace. I supported these moves. Although the UK backed the proposal it is almost as if they were gas lighting.  There is no evidence of any action being taken on the ground.

The Yemeni conflict has spiked during the pandemic.  It is now more than six years since the start of the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen began. The Yemen conflict is not only the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It is also one of  the worst atrocities of the modern era. Eighty percent of the population need aid and protection while a third of the population are relying on food aid to survive. Ten million people are facing food insecurity. The conflict has displaced over four million people. Twenty million people lack access to clean water making disease prevention almost impossible.

And in November 2020 the United Nations found that almost 250,000 Yemeni people have died. It is therefore shameful especially as the UK is a pen holder on Yemen at the UN Security Council and should therefore be ensuring the country ‘s safety and not funding this misery.

The UK alongside the US have supplied the weapons that are providing the crucial military support to the Saudi-led coalition which is responsible for the highest number of reported civilian fatalities. The UN verified the death of at least 7700 civilians from 2015. Sixty percent of these were due to bombing raids by the Saudi-led coalition.

 In the summer of 2019 the sale of British weapons to Saudi Arabia was halted by a legal challenge. After another court ruling in June 2020 the UK resumed these sales despite clear evidence that they would be used against Yemeni civilians in violation of international humanitarian law.

Not long after the court ruling there were more than 500 Saudi air raids which are in breach of international law in Yemen. An increase of over 200 in two and a half years. This contradicts the flimsy justification on the basis that there have been only isolated war crimes without any pattern. This is atrocious. 

£6.7billion worth of arms have been sold to Saudi Arabia since 2015 and strategic military advice has also been provided including information about  targets. At  the UN high level event on  the humanitarian situation in Yemen on 1 March 2021 the UK pledged over  82 million which is almost half of the 164 million pledged at the same conference last year. – a reduction of 131 million since 2019.

The UN Secretary General described these cuts as a death sentence for Yemen. They come just weeks after the UK announced 3.6billion in new arms licences to Saudi Arabia. The amount of aid given to Yemen last month is a mere 1.3 percent of the value of arms licenced to be used in Yemen since 2015. The UK’s duplicity is shameful. With one hand they sign resolutions to end the conflict yet with the other they continue to facilitate the suffering of the Yemeni people by providing the weapons which reign down on civilian houses.

American has decreased its funding contribution and the new president Joe Biden has stopped sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia that are used in offensive operations. The UK continues its support by providing the weapons that are constantly used against civilian targets. For all of us in the UK we cannot allow this suffering of the Yemeni people to continue in our name. British companies must not be allowed to profit from the suffering of the Yemeni people. The UK government must accept its humanitarian philosophy and it must follow the lead of countries around the world by ensuring that no weapons made in our country are used to further the conflict. This horrific war must be brought to an end.

We must follow the lead of Joe Biden which calls for an end to American intervention in wars across the world. I take issue with many things that have happened under Joe Biden’s watch but the  withdrawal from military intervention is a great policy shift which is deserving of our full support and of a similar recognition from the UK government. It is time we abandoned the legacy of the British empire. So thank you for inviting me, solidarity to you all. Long may this forum continue.

Professor Rodney Shakespeare: The first thing to notice since Brexit is that the UK has become even more American than it was before. It had to happen like that because once you go out alone in a big nasty, world you  go from people with whom you have associated to what you hope is protection and cover. So you get all this nonsense about American being in a position to help the UK with its economy. 

Look at the consequences in the last two or three months. The UK sends a destroyer into the Black Sea to show the Ruskies what is what and who is who. When bullets were fired in front of the destroyer it turned round and rushed out. 

 The UK then sent a brand new aircraft carrier the Queen Elizabeth up into the China Sea. It turned round and withdrew. In respect of that aircraft carrier the UK is forgetting that the aircraft carrier was a very successful weapon of war seventy five years ago.

If you want to understand American global policy it is pig headed and aggressive. If you want to understand American global policy I will tell a little story which illustrates how they are still going on in the same old ways and have not seen that the world has changed. 

Listen to this story. It is the extraordinary story of Kamala Harris who visited Vietnam about two weeks ago. She went there under the slogan America is back. She was forgetting the two million Vietnamese who were scorched by napalm. She said here we are – we are back. And then showing that she is completely tone deaf she went to a memorial in Vietnam. This memorial commemorates the shooting down of an American bomber which was piloted by John McCain who became Senator John McCain. 

McCain piloted 23 bombing missions. So that stone memorial is a recognition of Vietnam’s triumph against somebody who played a very big part in killing two million Vietnamese. To this day there are land mines and the effects of agent orange in Vietnam. But Kamala Harris thought this memorial was a way of saying come back America. And she then said we commemorate John McCaine’s sacrifice in Vietnam. He did not die. He got out alive. Yet in her mind he was making a sacrifice and she adds the sacrifice of our men and women in service. It was 50,000 Americans to possibly three million Vietnamese.

That sums up American global policy to which the UK is inextricably linked.  If you go to the West Asia region America and UK invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They are in Syria. They back the barbaric medieval regime in Saudi Arabia which is slaughtering the Yemeni people and they back the killer Khalifa in their aggression against the  people of Bahrain.

And of course America and the UK want to destroy Iran. Don’t forget America and the UK support Zionist Israel as it occupies and annexes the lands of other people. You want to look at the number of MPs who are members of the Anglo-Israeli Society. Those MPs are a majority in the Conservatives, they are a majority in the liberals and they are somewhere  possibly just under half in the Labour Party. That is possibly why there is no change in policy.

So whether the UK likes it or not something is happening. The tectonic plates of world geo politics are changing. Afghanistan is in fact is an indication of that change. The effects of  economic sanctions are forcing the Shanghai Corporation Organisation into a much tighter unity. Iran is probably going to be welcomed into that military and economic organisation. In particular nobody has said now trust the USA to keep its word on anything. And that lack of trust even extends to Saudi Arabia.

The USA has just removed its missiles from Saudi Arabia to send them off to fight China. If you betray your Afghani supporters as the Americans have done do you think the Saudis are sleeping securely in their beds at night.

America is continuing in the old ways but the tectonic plates are set to change. I don’t think that either America or the UK is capable of making that change and I want to say why. At the heart of all this, behind all this, behind American and British policy is the global financial and economic system. Me and my colleagues have identified that it is based on 59 false assumptions. These assumptions are all interlinked. And the chances of the USA and the UK really changing their policies or understanding that their policies are misguided and wrong and are producing disasters even for the UK and the USA are pretty slim. The UK and America are very interlinked. In a bone headed way they are carrying on in a way that is likely to produce disaster.

And the underlying reasons for why they are carrying on is that you are looking at an empire of global finance and the 59 false assumptions.  Nobody ever queries these assumptions. You can’s just change two or three of them because they are all interconnected. 

So I have given you a pessimistic view. It will carry on as it is and is likely to produce a major disaster militarily and politically. We are also moving towards a global economic disaster as well.

*Claudia Naomi Webbe, MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East. Born in Leicester, she was previously a Councillor in the London Borough of Islington and served as its cabinet member for energy, environment and transport. She was also previously an advisor to the first Mayor of London and elected twice to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, which she held from 2016 until her election to parliament in 2019.

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