“The bird, a nest; the spider, a web; man, friendship,” William Blake reminded us in 1790. Much earlier, Confucius warned in the 5th century BC, “Have no friends not equal to yourself.” Seneca was ahead of his time and certainly not thinking of the business lunch when he noted that cultivated friendships for personal gain were of limited duration.
When it comes to countries, we have been informed repeatedly, there are no friends … just interests. So it is with Afghanistan, from which the US decided to withdraw unilaterally and quickly. Allies such as Britain who still have a presence there were caught off-guard. Not altogether happy, slang words like ‘doolally’ have been used to describe President Biden who was also reluctant to respond promptly to British prime minister Boris Johnson’s urgent calls, and kept him waiting several days. So much for the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries.
It wasn’t always a cosy relationship. Quite frosty for the first hundred years or so after American independence, it included an attack on Washington and the city’s temporary capture. During the Civil War they helped the Confederacy surreptitiously but as American power and industrial might continued to grow, the British realized an accommodation would be to their advantage and proceeded to emphasize ties of kinship, language and even democracy. In the event, they even persuaded the US government to help in two world wars and even join them eventually.
Next, consider the case of England and France. After the Normann conquest in 1066, French became the court language and continued so for a good three hundred years. But the relationship also started a rivalry often with claims and counterclaims of being the rightful ruler, which sometimes led to war. Following the French revolution came the Napolionic wars and their devastation, culminating in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo and French defeat.
The 19th century also saw the German states being united by Bismarck, and, through industrialization, turned into a single powerful country. Viewed as a threat by both Britain and France it brought about an entente cordiale … a rapprochement between centuries old implacable enemies.
Their efforts to choke off German growth could have only one result in the end — war. And the 20th century suffered two with devastating loss of life. The plan to help Germany (at least the western half) recover after the Second World War had flattened it, brought it within the US ambit. Lest anyone think the aid was entirely altruistic, far from it, for a new threat had arisen … that of the mighty Soviet Union, and a quivering Western Europe was trying to shore up its side. Yes indeed, countries do not have friends … only interests.
And so the Afghans who helped the US (the translators and such like) tried to get away during the withdrawal; with the rapid Taliban takeover, they could feel the threat to life and limb in their bones, and some knew they were on lists. Many did leave on the American planes but out of the crowds packing Kabul airport, most were left behind.