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LONDON — A call between the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations was meant to buy more time for a coordinated response in Afghanistan. Instead, it was over before it began.
All the G7 leaders could muster was a set of conditions for dealing with the Taliban, with no agreement on extending troop presence to assist with evacuations beyond August or a resettlement program for refugees.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking after the virtual summit on Tuesday, vowed to airlift people out of Kabul “right up until the last moment that we can,” tacitly acknowledging that a last-ditch bid to change U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind had failed. There was no mention of his other key ask, that countries match the U.K.’s aid commitments to Afghanistan, although the EU did pledge earlier in the day to nearly quadruple its humanitarian aid offering.
The meeting came against the backdrop of a striking Taliban proclamation: foreigners could keep leaving until August 31, but Afghans not pre-approved for foreign travel now couldn’t.
So instead, Johnson and other G7 leaders focused on a “roadmap” for dealing with the Taliban as the militant group becomes the de facto government after swiftly seizing the country.
But moments after the British prime minister announced the plan to the media, it transpired the leaders couldn’t even agree on the comms; an EU official disputed the term “roadmap,” while German chancellor Angela Merkel simply said there had been an agreement on developing one.
After being blindsided by the United States’ determination to fully withdraw despite the Taliban’s rapid advance, it was the U.K. and France that led the push for an emergency G7 summit. Biden’s administration was lukewarm about such a gathering and had to be “bounced” into it, according to officials from both the British and French governments.
With bilateral relations between the White House and Downing Street in a state of disrepair, Johnson saw an opportunity as chair of the G7 to convene the group and apply pressure on Biden for an extended military presence as a last resort.
The option of a NATO effort without the U.S. had already been ruled out. Ben Wallace, the U.K. defense secretary, told the Daily Mail that he had tried to appeal to “like-minded” nations but they were “not interested.”
It was clear even before the summit that European leaders’ call for an extended deadline was a desperate one, facing opposition not only from the U.S. but from the Taliban.
A Pentagon spokesman said ahead of the G7 call that America remained focused on “getting this done by the end of the month,” and a senior White House official confirmed shortly afterward that Biden had no intention of changing his mind.
It also appears the U.S. may have discussed the August 31 deadline with the Taliban the day before the G7 meeting. According to multiple reports, Biden dispatched his intelligence chief, Williams Burns, to Afghanistan to meet with a Taliban leader on Monday, the most senior in-person gathering between the two sides since the militants entered the Afghan capital.
In comments to journalists following the meeting, Johnson would not lay blame at Biden’s door, but said the U.K. “can be very proud of what we’re achieving.”
Merkel stressed the need for a “united” approach with the U.S., admitting that nothing was possible without their presence: “Just as we are shaping this evacuation operation together now, we want to be consistent in how we approach Afghanistan going forward.”
Western leaders are facing pressure to construct secure routes out of the country for the tens of thousands of displaced or anti-Taliban Afghans that may want to leave. They are simultaneously trying to prevent a resurgence of terrorism in the country and protect Afghan women, who faced severe oppression under the Taliban rule in the 1990s.
An Élysée official said “G7 members agreed” to make it a priority that the Taliban break ties with terrorist groups. “It’s a priority of the G7 and of the U.N.”
The terms of engagement with the Taliban, foregrounded by Johnson, include pledges that the West could unfreeze billions in assets if the Taliban insurgents guarantee safe passage for refugees, continue to educate girls up to the age of 18 and prevent a return to terrorism or an “anarcho-state.”
That did not stop British politicians from lamenting Johnson’s inability to shift the dial. Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chairman of the defense committee, said there was “a lot of soul searching to do” after the meeting, while Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy called it “a dark moment for the U.K. government and for Afghans.”
Why the G7?
Tom Tugendhat, Tory chairman of the foreign affairs committee, said the outcome was “not surprising,” adding: “I now look forward to India, and other regional partners being included in future discussions. They have a greater stake than some other G7 members.”
The notion that the G7 had never offered the best forum for an international response was also hinted at by European leaders. Speaking after the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel said “we need to speak to other members of the international community.”
The broader G20 might be the next forum for that. That group includes countries like India and Turkey, which could bear a greater regional burden in handling Afghan refugees. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is currently organizing an extraordinary G20 summit on Afghanistan.
“The G20 can help the G7 in involving other countries that are very important,” he said Tuesday.
High on the agenda will be the need for a unified approach to resettling Afghan refugees, with few EU countries indicating how many people they are prepared to accept, some already pledging to take none and the European Commission stressing the importance of supporting refugees going to regional neighbors.
In the meantime, attention will turn to the scramble to evacuate as many people as possible before western troops leave Afghanistan for good.
With the deadline unchanged, that’s less than a week away.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Hans von der Burchard and Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting.