Ben Wallace also contrasts his department’s handling of Afghanistan crisis with Foreign Office response
Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence secretary, suggested the US could no longer be considered a superpower in an interview where he also contrasted his department’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis with that of the embattled Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
The pointed comments – coming at a time of heightened transatlantic and domestic tensions over the messy retreat – feature in an interview in the Spectator magazine, given days after the final western forces evacuated from Kabul.
Asked whether the exit from Afghanistan demonstrated the limits of British power on the world stage, Wallace started by saying: “It is obvious that Britain is not a superpower,” before appearing to switch focus to the US.
“But a superpower that is also not prepared to stick at something isn’t probably a superpower either. It is certainly not a global force, it’s just a big power,” the defence secretary added.
Those close to the defence secretary acknowledged his remarks could be read as being aimed at the US. An insider argued that the British minister was emphasising the importance of political will as well as sheer military power.
Wallace also contrasted the Ministry of Defence’s handling of the evacuation crisis with the FCDO. Over the weekend, it emerged that officials from Dominic Raab’s department had failed to read thousands of emails from MPs and charities detailing urgent cases of Afghans trying to escape from Kabul.
But the defence secretary argued the MoD was on top of its own cases, largely a well-defined group of Afghan interpreters and their families, about 1,000 of whom remain trapped in the country after the RAF airlift ended over the weekend.
“All of us have big email inboxes, we have already analysed ours, we’ve sent defence intelligence analysts around Whitehall to help deal with that,” Wallace said.
Individuals on the ground were being discussed so frequently, the minister added, that he had “got to the point where I recognised the names being circulated because so many people were emailing the same person”.
The defence secretary said he first thought that “the game is up” in Afghanistan and the western-backed government would fall “back in July” – and that plans to remove British diplomats, Afghan interpreters and others had to be accelerated.
On Wednesday, Raab, the foreign secretary, told MPs that he had believed the Afghan capital would remain safe until next year, a view supported by the prevailing intelligence assessment.
The foreign minister went on holiday to a luxury hotel in Crete on 6 August, not returning until after Kabul had fallen 10 days later – during which time Wallace was in the UK, deploying British troops to the airport as the Taliban advanced.
It is not the first time that Wallace has publicly criticised the US – in mid-August, as the Taliban were beginning to make sweeping gains in Afghanistan, the defence secretary described Donald Trump’s 2020 peace deal with the Taliban as “a mistake” that “strategically … causes a lot of problems”.
The final withdrawal, however, was authorised by Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, in April – a decision that disappointed the UK, which had wanted to remain. But without US forces, Britain could not rally together a credible alternative defence force and was forced to join in the mass evacuation last month.