US soldiers stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15 2021, amid a withdrawal of American and Nato troops that lead to the Taliban's return to power. Picture: US MARINE CORP/REUTERS
US soldiers stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15 2021, amid a withdrawal of American and Nato troops that lead to the Taliban's return to power. Picture: US MARINE CORP/REUTERS

Whenever G7 leaders gather, the optics usually say more than the anodyne communiqués issued afterwards. Fortunately for US President Joe Biden, there will be no group photo from Tuesday’s virtual summit to talk about Afghanistan.

The withdrawal debacle has left the world’s pre-eminent power looking like the unreliable boyfriend (to borrow a charge once levied against the Bank of England). Frustration and confusion about America’s aims was a fairly common feature of the Trump era; it wasn’t what people expected from the president who said, “America is back”.

In a withering assessment of the US withdrawal published at the weekend, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote: “We didn’t need to do it. We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago.” Many shared the view that the decision was cynical, made for domestic political reasons rather than strategic ones. 

Tuesday’s gathering can’t repair the damage to US credibility or reverse the new facts on the ground in Afghanistan. But it is a chance to claw back a semblance of unity and agree on a broader purpose. 

The immediate task of the G7 leaders — Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the US, Canada and Japan — is to decide, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson put in a tweet, how “to secure the gains of the last 20 years” in Afghanistan. That means, first, finding a way to ensure the safe evacuation of thousands of remaining Western nation citizens and Afghans whose help for Western forces, human rights advocacy or other work has put their lives in danger. 

That Johnson made his demand first on Twitter is a measure of how strained ties between London and Washington have become. It’s also a reflection of the political pressure the prime minister faces at home.

Harrowing stories of Afghans stranded or trampled while trying to get into the airport have dominated UK and foreign media in recent days. Johnson was reproached from both sides of the House of Commons over the UK government’s failures in Afghanistan. Some of the strongest condemnation came from his predecessor Theresa May and his own backbenches. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab spent days explaining why he didn’t interrupt his island vacation in Crete to call Afghanistan’s outgoing foreign minister and secure urgent help with evacuations.

And then there was the revelation, first reported by Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli, that Biden promised Johnson and other G7 leaders that the US would maintain enough of a security presence to ensure Kabul’s safety. The UK should insist the US keep this pledge, even if it’s more complicated now that a withdrawal has been promised by Aug. 31 and the Taliban have rejected any extensions.

That doesn’t mean Western leaders have no leverage, as Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has emphasised. The US and its allies must now be creative in using the carrot of aid and the stick of sanctions and, yes, military action if needed. The Taliban, by no means monolithic, will have to govern a far more populous, younger and more diverse Afghanistan now. They will need access to frozen reserves and other financing.

A 2020 foreign donor conference pledged $12bn in civilian aid over the next four years; the UK has now promised £286m in 2021. The Taliban would presumably like to see these promises fulfilled, and donors won’t want to be funding a hardline Sharia state that has rolled back rights secured during the past two decades.

Crucially, the G7 must work together to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a breeding ground for terrorists. It is a risk that Biden and secretary of state Antony Blinken have played down, but not everyone agrees with them. “If there is one thing we should have learnt in the last 20 years of war, it’s that if you don’t keep an eye on an Islamist extremist group, it will come back,” US Gen David Petraeus warned in an interview last week in The New Yorker.

The bigger question hanging over this G7 is the one posed by Blair: has the West lost its strategic will? In other words, addressing the challenge of “radical Islam”, like the challenge of revolutionary communism before it, requires long-term strategic commitment. There are lessons to be learnt from the failures of interventions, but that doesn’t mean the right answer is to withdraw. And yet any serious commitment requires cross-bench political support and coalitions. That takes time. 

We are unlikely to get a straight answer on Tuesday. Much depends on how the US administration digests the lessons from the Afghanistan withdrawal. Biden’s posture has been largely to deny there was an alternative, which is absurd. The G6 know that there is no replacement for the economic, military and cultural power the US brings to the table. But they will be looking for a little more humility given what Afghans are suffering, and a sign that the Biden doctrine is more nuanced and coherent than the policies of the Trump era.

Trump once called the G7 a “very outdated group of countries”. Let’s hope he’s not right.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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