The world is beginning to accommodate itself to the return of Taliban government in Afghanistan. It is a sobering moment for those who value democracy and freedom, and a chastening one for those who believe in western military intervention in support of those values.

After 20 years of effort and investment into training and equipping the Afghan military its total disintegration has taken only days. An army of 300,000 soldiers – three times the size of the British Army – trained and equipped to US standards has evaporated like an early morning mist on a summer’s day.

On television we are confronted with desperate scenes of flight and evacuation. For many of those who have served in Afghanistan and their families these are bitter scenes to witness. The more so if injury or loss was sustained.

The immediate challenge is the evacuation of our own people and the moral responsibility we owe to providing safe shelter to those Afghans who served alongside and supported our forces. We need to have regard to others who face immediate danger. The world will be watching to see if global Britain is willing to shoulder its part of its global responsibility in terms of welcoming people to our shores.

The consequences of Afghanistan falling once again to the Taliban will resonate for years to come. We need a robust and frank look at what has gone on here over the last 20 years and Britain’s part in it. Too many British politicians and commentators are spending too much time criticising President Biden and not enough time facing up to what it means for us here at home in terms of military effectiveness and diplomatic influence. 

Biden is the third successive US president to commit to ending the Afghan deployment. Presidents Obama and Trump both moved the US steadily in that direction. He has been consistent and public about his determination to withdraw US troops. His commitment was widely supported by US public opinion. 

Time will tell whether such support survives the results of the decision. To any British or European politician or commentator who laments the decision, they simply have not been paying attention to the US domestic politics of the last 12 years.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, confronted with the fallout of a commitment to Afghanistan he had nothing to do with, and a decision to withdraw that he had no part in, is doing the best that he can to avoid criticising a president to whom he is not close and to provide some cover to the glaring and uncomfortable reality of Britain’s limited role in the decision making. 

For a prime minister committed to a post-Brexit renaissance in Britain’s role on the world stage it is a tough reminder of where hard power at scale decision-making actually rests.

Britain has the finest military in the world but it is limited by economic reality. We need to make the best of the hand that we actually have. Our military needs to be deployed carefully and thoughtfully, in alliance to a strong diplomatic and political effort. Too often in the recent past politicians have relied too heavily on an over-optimistic military and an over determination to support the US no matter what, whatever the cost. 

A more thoughtful and nuanced approach to foreign and military policy is long overdue. This cannot and should not be left to diplomats and armed forces personnel to deliver. This is where we need a huge new investment in political thinking and leadership. 

As a former foreign secretary himself, the Prime Minister is well placed to lead this much needed renaissance in how Britain conducts itself on the world stage to gain most benefit and have the best impact. Although he is not known for his diplomatic skills, the PM must draw on the country’s diplomatic clout and considerable soft power to spread goodwill in such turbulent times.