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Tony Blair has launched a furious attack on Joe Biden's "imbecilic" withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the airport at the centre of evacuation efforts was forced to shut on Saturday amid horrific scenes.
In an extraordinary attack, the former prime minister, who took Britain into Afghanistan in 2001, said the "deep politicisation" of US foreign policy was "visibly atrophying" American influence, and claimed the debacle over the withdrawal risked Britain being relegated to the "second division" of global powers.
Mr Blair broke his silence as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, concluded that Britain would have to turn to Russia and China to assist with exercising a "moderating influence" over the Taliban, as the UK presence in the country comes to an end, despite a deep mistrust of both regimes.
On Saturday night, Mr Raab told The Telegraph: "We're going to have to bring in countries with a potentially moderating influence like Russia and China, however uncomfortable that is."
Kabul airport was shut down on Saturday and US citizens were urged not to head there in their attempt to flee Afghanistan, amid reports of people dying after being crushed or succumbing to sweltering temperatures in the crowds as individuals and families sought refuge from the Taliban.
The British military says seven Afghan civilians have been killed in the crowds near the airport.
The Ministry of Defence said in a statement on Sunday that "conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible."
The US State Department announced it was closing the airport for at least 48 hours to concentrate on processing the hundreds who had already managed to get inside.
US blamed for chaos
Amid deteriorating relations between UK and US figures, government sources insisted that Mr Johnson was not among ministers who had criticised the US, adding that he had a "good working relationship" with Mr Biden.
However, other government sources claimed that the Americans were partly to blame for the chaos at Kabul airport having invited "everyone to come at once". Pentagon officials on Saturday night described the situation at the airport as "fluid and dynamic", saying it was "changing by the hour".
Senior ministers were furious at public remarks by Mr Biden last week, privately accusing the US president of being disingenuous by claiming that Britain and its allies "had a choice" over whether to remain in Afghanistan after America pulled out.
'Devoid of reality'
Senior Government figures believe that Britain's hand was forced by the US taking the decision to leave. On Saturday, one Whitehall source said that Mr Biden appeared to be "slightly devoid of reality".
In an article published on the website of his global change institute, Mr Blair says it is "obvious" that the decision of "the West" to withdraw from Afghanistan "in this way" was driven "not by grand strategy but by politics".
In a thinly veiled attack on the Democratic president, whom Mr Blair had praised in January as "the right man in the right place at the right time", he writes: "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, in circumstances in which troop numbers had declined to a minimum and no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months."
Although Mr Blair avoids mentioning Mr Biden by name throughout the 2,700-word article, the "forever wars" slogan he attacks was at the heart of the former vice president's election campaign last year, with his official website from the election stating: "Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.
"As he has long argued, Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on al-Qaeda and Isis."
In April, following his election, Mr Biden said: "We were attacked, we went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is degraded in Afghanistan, and it's time to end this forever war.''
In his article, Mr Blair claims that "every jihadist group around he world" is "cheering" the withdrawal, and that "Russia, China and Iran will see and take advantage. Anyone given commitments by Western leaders will understandably regard them as unstable currency."
The former prime minister, who left office in 2007, calls for a "tangible demonstration" that the West is not in "epoch-changing retreat", as he compares the West's fight against "radical Islam" to its confrontation of revolutionary communism over 70 years.
In a move that will be seen as responding to claims of inaction, Mr Raab has revealed that Britain has been drawing up plans for an international "contact group" of countries that would together attempt to hold the Taliban to account. A similar group was formed in response to the crisis in Bosnia in the early 1990s.
Controversially, Mr Johnson and Mr Raab have concluded that they will need to work alongside Russia and China in order to exert influence over the Taliban. The P5 group of permanent members of the UN Security Council are due to discuss the proposal this week.
Russia and China: moderating influence
Mr Raab said: "We're going to have to bring in countries with a potentially moderating influence like Russia and China, however uncomfortable that is. The UK has initiated a P5 meeting this week, with a view to setting up a contact group for Afghanistan.
"If we want to exercise maximum moderating influence on the Taliban, then we need to work with India, Pakistan and China and others who are concerned about terrorism, and about refugees.
"It will give us a group to exercise greater influence and better convey our messages to the Taliban. The UK paper to the G7 was well received – we’re feeling our way, but we need to take the initiative – that’s what Global Britain is all about."
A senior Government source said a "UN-led process" was needed, "that protects Afghans and prevents a collapse into chaos".
The final withdrawal
According to a senior serving defence source, the US State Department has said US forces will end their operation on August 30, meaning that other nations will have to leave beforehand.
The Norwegian military field hospital is expected to be withdrawn on August 26. However, a senior Government source said: "The situation on the ground is in flux – it would be unwise to impose a rigid deadline at this stage. Our priority is getting our people out, as safely and as quickly as possible.”
At one stage on Saturday the US military had resorted to dispatching helicopters into Kabul to ferry terrified evacuees unable to reach the airport terminal.
However, the airport gates were locked to those still outside on Saturday afternoon, with US officials saying no more people would be allowed in until the huge backlog of refugees and fleeing nationals had been cleared.
Senior US officials on Saturday night said potential threats by Islamic State group against Americans in Afghanistan were forcing the US military to find new ways for evacuees to reach Kabul airport.
There were chaotic scenes outside the airport perimeter fence as tensions grew, with families (several waving UK passports) begging British soldiers to let them in.
There were reports that Downing Street had told Mr Raab to return from his holiday in Crete on August 13, but Mr Raab asked for an additional two days away.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, also wrote to Mr Raab alleging people were being "shot at, beaten and raped" as they waited to be called forward at the airport.
Trump says Taliban respects him
Former President Donald Trump has launched a sustained attack on Mr Biden's handling of the retreat of US forces from Afghanistan, which he called "the greatest foreign policy humiliation" in US history.
Mr Trump, a Republican who has dangled the possibility of running again for president in 2024, has repeatedly blamed Mr Biden, a Democrat, for Afghanistan's fall to the Taliban, even though the US withdrawal that triggered the collapse was negotiated by his own administration.
"Biden’s botched exit from Afghanistan is the most astonishing display of gross incompetence by a nation’s leader, perhaps at any time," Mr Trump said at a boisterous rally packed with his supporters near Cullman, Alabama.
Mr Biden has said he inherited a bad withdrawal agreement from Mr Trump.
At the rally, Mr Trump blamed the situation on Mr Biden not having followed the plan his administration came up with and bemoaned US personnel and equipment being left behind as troops withdrew.
"This is not a withdrawal. This was a total a surrender," he said.
Mr Trump said the Taliban, with whom he had negotiated, respected him. He suggested the quick takeover of Afghanistan would not have happened if he was still in office.
"We could have gotten out with honour," Mr Trump said. "We should have gotten out with honour. And instead we got out with the exact opposite of honour."