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How The U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Has Affected Its Relationship With The U.K.


After the September 11 attacks, then Prime Minister Tony Blair famously promised that the U.K. stood shoulder to shoulder with America. In practice, that has meant British troops have shared the cost of two decades of war in Afghanistan, and it means the U.K., too, is dealing with the chaotic end of that war after President Biden's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops. Dame Karen Pierce is the U.K.'s ambassador to the U.S., and she joins us now to talk through what this week might mean for the transatlantic relationship. Ambassador, welcome.

KAREN PIERCE: Thank you very much.

KELLY: May I start by mentioning that before you were ambassador to the U.S., you were ambassador to Afghanistan. It's a country you have called home. What went through your mind on Sunday as you watched the Taliban roll back into Kabul?

PIERCE: Oh, I think it's very sad. I wasn't just ambassador there. I worked very closely with the then (ph) administration immediately after 9/11 on all the things that took place at the end of 2001. So I think I watched it with deep regret but also some hope that all the gains that we've achieved since 9/11 might somehow be preserved because that's so obviously good for Afghanistan and good for Afghanistan's economy.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about how the end of this war looks from Britain's perspective. What is the status of British diplomats, other British citizens? How many people are you working to get out?

PIERCE: So we don't have that the total figure. We think it's around 5,000 perhaps. But what's happening on the ground is that our ambassador, Laurie Bristow, is there with a diplomatic staff - skeleton staff. He's reinforced by 800 British military. Evacuation is our biggest priority. We've got out 1,500 since Sunday. So far, we've got out over 3,000 Afghan staff who've worked for us and their families. And we've made a commitment to resettle 20,000 of those in the U.K.

I think the big problem is, how do people get to the airport? Once they get to the airport, there's a good system in place - American and British and others - to get people on planes. But getting to the airport seems to be a problem, and we do appeal to all parties to let people travel to the airport.

KELLY: Did the United States adequately consult and coordinate with the U.K. over timing, over how this withdrawal would happen?

PIERCE: Well, Afghanistan, as you said in your introduction, Mary Louise, has always been a shared endeavor, particularly between the U.S. and the U.K. And we lost over 450 servicemen and women there. So it has been a big enterprise for both of us. And since NATO agreed the decision to withdraw, we've been in regular, almost daily touch with the administration and the military in Kabul and in capitals and at NATO. So there's been a lot of close working.

KELLY: I'm asking in part - I'm sitting here looking at an article in the FT, a British newspaper, and it is headlined, Chaos Of Kabul Exposes Fault Lines In U.K.-U.S. Special Relationship. The backdrop here - your government disagreed with President Biden's decision to pull out. The head of Britain's armed forces has called it not a decision that we hoped for. I was watching very sharp criticism yesterday in Parliament of President Biden. Has the winding down of this war damaged the U.S.-U.K. relationship?

PIERCE: No, I don't think so. I don't recognize that picture. As I say, it's a shared endeavor. We've invested a lot in Afghanistan. Feelings, as you've just described, are very high. But we are absolutely committed to working with the U.S. to get the evacuation completed, to get out everyone who needs to come out, and then to sit down and plan next steps and the way ahead. And our prime minister talked to President Biden on Tuesday. They agreed to hold a G-7 leaders meeting next week. We want to sit down and work out how to preserve the gains of Afghanistan, how to stop it becoming a breeding ground for terror or returning to its pre-9/11 stage. And those aims are shared by both the U.K. and U.S. And I think, as I say, it's a shared endeavor.

KELLY: I am wondering, though, what your reaction is to the address that President Biden delivered here to the United States but also, of course, to a global audience. He defended his decision to pull out, and he did so largely in terms of the United States' national interests. Does that raise any concerns about the reliability of the U.S. as an international partner?

PIERCE: No, I don't think so. The U.S. has been a staunch partner to the U.K. and vice versa for very many years. I mean, things that we are where we are - I think the prime minister made that very clear in the House of Commons...

KELLY: Your predecessor - if I may, your predecessor, the former ambassador to Washington, Peter Westmacott, was quoted in The New York Times saying this week brought, and I'll quote, "fresh indications that America really doesn't see foreign policy as much more than an extension of domestic politics."

PIERCE: I think any American administration, going back a very long way, sees American interests as the starting point. I don't think that's unusual. I don't think other countries do it differently, to be honest. It's just that America has so much influence and power in the world and is the main driver for action that's being taken in Afghanistan that if America starts to do something differently, it affects all our allies. But there will be a NATO meeting at the end of this week tomorrow. Secretary Blinken will go. Our foreign secretary will go. They've been in close touch throughout, and we will try and craft a way forward together.

KELLY: Speaking of relationships, will the U.K. recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan?

PIERCE: We typically, as the U.K., tend to recognize states rather than governments. But what the prime minister's been saying is that we now need a process to get an inclusive Afghan political leadership, and any acceptance of a new Afghan government should actually be discussed among partners and allies so that we're all working on the same basis, so that we all understand the priority we want to give to countering terrorism, to human rights, to regional stability and to humanitarian issues.

KELLY: Oh, that's interesting. So you're helping to coordinate that. Do you know if your government has had contact yet with the Taliban?

PIERCE: To the best of my knowledge, that has not happened.

KELLY: Something to watch for. That is Dame Karen Pierce. She is Britain's ambassador to the United States. Thank you very much for your time.

PIERCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Gabe O'Connor