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LONDON — The U.K. might have been blindsided by the speed of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan but Boris Johnson is determined to play a leading role in coordinating the international response.
The British prime minister will attempt to use his country’s G7 presidency as a new locus of international influence as he asks the world’s richest countries to match the U.K.’s aid commitments to Afghanistan. Johnson will chair a Zoom call Tuesday between leaders of the world’s richest countries, plus U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
The U.K. government has thrown its weight fully behind the G7 as a diplomatic forum in the week since the fall of Kabul, underlining both its own foreign policy intentions and the limits of its influence.
The prime minister is expected to urge allies to make similar pledges to those offered by the U.K. on aid donations and resettlement schemes in a bid to stave off a humanitarian crisis following the Taliban’s takeover.
In comments released to journalists ahead of the call, Johnson stressed the importance of international cooperation. “Our first priority is to complete the evacuation of our citizens and those Afghans who have assisted our efforts over the last 20 years — but as we look ahead to the next phase, it’s vital we come together as an international community and agree a joint approach for the longer term,” he said.
“That’s why I’ve called an emergency meeting of the G7 — to coordinate our response to the immediate crisis, to reaffirm our commitment to the Afghan people, and to ask our international partners to match the U.K.’s commitments to support those in need.”
But while the British government may have found a useful diplomatic toehold in the G7, the summit could very quickly lay bare its inability to make much of a difference without the enthusiastic backing of the U.S. — or the permission of the Taliban.
On Sunday, Downing Street briefed journalists that it would use the G7 call to secure support for extending the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. But the following day a Taliban spokesman ruled this out, effectively leaving the plan hanging by a thread. Johnson did not refer to the deadline in his remarks on the eve of the G7 meeting.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the U.K. would seek to lead these efforts as the holder of the G7 presidency.
Johnson has spoken directly to four of the other six G7 leaders in the past week and has consistently stressed the importance of a joint approach by the grouping.
One former minister said: “I’m sure they’ve had to work hard to get the U.S. on board, but as chair of G7, that’s exactly what they should be doing, as well as using that position to take a lead on coordinating humanitarian response and refugee effort.”
But the United States’ apparent unwillingness to front up the global response or offer the U.K. any special treatment has given Johnson’s mobilization of the G7 an extra edge. A French government official backed up reports that the U.K. and France had been pushing for an earlier G7 meeting.
“London are activating the G7 partly because they can as chair and partly because the bilateral channel to Washington doesn’t seem to be working well,” said Peter Ricketts, a former national security adviser.
A former foreign policy adviser to the government said: “Johnson knows he needs to look like he’s gripping the issue, and hopes to pressure [U.S. President Joe] Biden, along with others.”
The U.K.’s embrace of the G7 should be understood in light of the U.S. “reconstituting” its global role, according to Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group.
“This is a kind of wake-up call. U.S. interests will converge with ours in many ways but will not always align, not least of all because of the realities of geography. It’s going to be Europe, and that includes the United Kingdom, that will be most vulnerable to any potential kind of terrorism or migration crises that may stem from this decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and I think that’s been shown really into sharp relief.”
Johnson’s emphasis on aid has also prompted a few raised eyebrows in the context of the U.K.’s cut to its overseas development budget. The U.K. has promised up to £286 million, but House of Commons Library research shows this does not meet equivalent spending before the aid budget was reduced.
Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “Britain is doing the right thing in seeking to organize rich nations to stem the humanitarian crisis now developing,” but added: “As always, other countries will look at what the U.K. is actually spending and calibrate accordingly.”
Even those at the heart of the U.K.’s endeavors tried Monday to manage expectations of what the G7 could achieve.
A senior minister acknowledged: “We’re trying to buy ourselves (and others) as much time as possible, but we’re not holding many aces.”
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