James Landale, Diplomatic Correspondent, BBC News, provides a commentary on the diplomacy surrounding the Afghanistan evacuation
It was the best of diplomacy, it was the worst of diplomacy. It was a policy of wisdom, it was a policy of foolishness. It was a strategy of hope, it was a strategy of despair. The evacuation of Kabul by western powers in august was a Dickensian masterclass of diplomatic success and failure, both sides of the account given sharp relief by their proximity and intensity.
Take the positive. The fact that more than 120,000 foreign nationals and Afghans wishing to leave were processed and flown out in a matter of days was an extraordinary feat. President Biden said nothing like this had ever happened in history. And this was a result – in part – of old-fashioned administration. Many of those carrying that out were diplomats doing what they do best: drawing up lists, negotiating private deals, engaging with hostile parties, reassuring fearful civilians, marshalling scarce resources, liaising with military commanders, and fending off demands from their capital cities, all the while working and living in tough, sparse and at times dangerous conditions. This was the kind of hard diplomatic graft that goes largely unseen, a world away from the popular caricature of smart receptions and ceremonies.
Just think of the choices these officials were having to make, about who got on a plane and who did not. How do you decide who is a family member? How do you prove who they are? What do you do if one member of a family hasn’t quite filled out the form correctly? These are decisions made by diplomats operating in that grey area where bureaucracy meets humanity. These are decisions that diplomats have to live with afterwards.
Sir Laurie Bristow, Britain’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, epitomised this: a slight figure in a crumpled blue shirt and grey Kevlar vest, peering quizzically through his spectacles. “Cerebral with no ego,” was how one colleague described him, a reassuring figure amid the chaos, processing the visas personally with colleagues in and around the airport.
His example was matched by diplomats from other western powers, doing exactly the same thing for their own nationals. Diplomacy may at times mean representing your government at the highest of levels, engaging with heads of state in the corridors of power. But it can also involve dealing with the reddest of red tape in conditions of extreme stress.
If events in Kabul showcased good diplomats, they also revealed poor diplomacy. There was a lack of warning from the United States which at times acted unilaterally, failing to consult allies including the United Kingdom. American forces were withdrawn from key bases often without informing their Afghan hosts. There was a lack of preparation by western powers for an evacuation that in hindsight seemed at the very least a high probability. There was poor analysis of intelligence so that few NATO members believed the Afghan government would fall so quickly. There was a lack of consultation with regional partners, the countries that will take in many of the refugees seeking to leave Afghanistan and that will have to deal with the fallout of any instability. There was a lack of planning by many in the international community on how to deal with the Taliban once they formed a new government.
This is not a criticism of the decision by the US to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. But it is a commentary on the diplomacy surrounding the way the policy was carried out.
What it showed is that diplomacy benefits from having a precise objective. An instruction to evacuate nationals and others from Kabul could not have been clearer. Difficult to achieve maybe but easy to understand. We saw a similar exercise last year when COVID started ravaging the earth and thousands of nationals had to be repatriated home. Diplomats over the world rose to the occasion and haggled and hustled their tourists and expats onto aircraft to get them home. They had a clear task and they carried it out.
Where those objectives are more ambiguous and translucent, then the diplomacy gets harder. The American decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was driven by domestic politics with less thought about the diplomatic consequences. Nations focusing on the challenge of, say, China, had taken their eyes off Afghanistan, seen by many as yesterday’s diplomatic news. If there had been differences of opinion among western powers about why they remained Afghanistan, so too were there different priorities as they left. Some diplomats who had invested so much of their careers in Afghanistan were perhaps too willing to give the status quo the benefit of the doubt.
If the exit from Kabul was a diplomatic failure, then the future provides a new diplomatic challenge. As Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, said: “The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun.”
In practical terms, that means temporary missions being established away from Kabul, largely in the Gulf. The British Embassy to Afghanistan was “temporarily” relocated to Doha. The diplomacy, as well as the drones, will now have to come from “over the horizon.”
But the biggest test will come for those diplomats having to engage with the new Taliban government. How will they deal with an administration that they do not officially recognise? How will they cooperate on some security issues where they have a shared interest – such as tackling the local Islamic State group known as ISIS-K – while competing militarily over others such as Al Qaeda? Will the offer of humanitarian aid, financial support and political legitimacy be enough to give western diplomats leverage in their discussions with the Taliban?
The answer, of course, is that diplomats will do what they can and see what works. In the meantime, in a quiet corner of foreign ministries the world over, groups of officials will begin to learn the lessons of August 2021, the successes and failures of the diplomacy that characterised that long summer month that saw the United States follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union and the British Empire and leave Afghanistan with its diplomatic tail between its legs.