Amid the anger and emotion of the Afghan tragedy that so rapidly unfolded in August, it is easy to lose sight of the strategic issues at stake. The palpable humiliation of the United States and its allies in seeing the Taliban sweep into Kabul, and the chaotic scenes at its international airport, will remain sharp international images that may haunt both the Biden Administration and – by extension – the government of Boris Johnson. Michael Clarke discusses some of the broader strategic implications.
Many argued that though the West’s Afghanistan involvement had become undeniably messy over the last five years, it no longer involved western fatalities and – at relatively small cost – it was continuing to buy more time for the Afghan government to deliver on some of its myriad promises. That policy was evidently not working, but in short order, a failing policy was turned into an outright defeat by former US President Trump, and thence into a catastrophe by current US President Biden.
The Trump Administration initiated disastrous negotiations with the Taliban in Doha that gave away at the outset every card in its hand – setting May 2021 as an immovable date for US withdrawal – before Taliban negotiators had offered anything. And that elementary negotiating failure was turned into a political rout by President Biden’s determination to double down on it by setting September as the final date to wind up US military involvement in Afghanistan. If the US was leaving, it was neither politically nor practically feasible for other western allies to stay. The outcome was then inevitable, albeit happening faster than most observers anticipated.
With that, twenty years of expensive and painful engagement in Afghanistan was telescoped to nothing. Donald Trump was settling for what had readily been on offer back in 2001; President Biden settled for something strategically worse than the situation prior to the 9/11 attacks – a Taliban state, with terror groups already baked into it, with nowhere else to turn for major support than to Beijing.
Just as the ultimate strategic winner from the US invasion of Iraq was Iran, so the ultimate strategic winner from the Afghan intervention is likely to be China, largely through the Afghan/Pakistan axis it will be able to create to further its influence and economic reach across central and south Asia.
China can easily pursue its mining interests in the north of the country now that Afghanistan is under new management. More importantly, it has a major opportunity to strengthen its Belt and Road Initiative network across the region. Chinese officials have already held talks with Taliban leaders about economic support to a post-war Afghanistan and better Afghan transport links with Pakistan. A Peshawar-to-Kabul motorway would be a key element that would create an Afghan/Pakistan core to its BRI ambitions centred on the growth of Gwaidar port and the link to Taxkorgan (Tashkurgan), just inside Xinjiang on the border with Afghanistan. China will press for Afghanistan formally to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), notwithstanding fierce Indian opposition to it. The only possible upside to this scenario is that, though China will hardly care about human rights and gender outrages in a Taliban Afghanistan, it will be in Beijing’s interests to prevent outright instability across its BRI routes.
What does this leave amid the debris of United Kingdom strategy in Afghanistan? In long-term perspective, we might conclude that the UK’s over-riding grand strategy over Afghanistan was simply to stick with the US – good or bad, right or wrong, through thick and thin. Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Jim Callaghan, Harold Macmillan, perhaps even Clement Atlee, might have done the same in the aftermath of 9/11 when the initial commitment to Afghanistan was made.
Staying close to the US in most security circumstances may turn out to be sound reasoning, notwithstanding the fact that US/UK relations have never been entirely unconditional. (Consider how the UK distanced itself from US policy in Vietnam for more than a decade from 1963-75.)
That desire to stay close to the US manifested itself in a complex cocktail of reasoning in Afghanistan. It had almost nothing to do with preventing terrorist attacks within the United Kingdom – it certainly didn’t prevent a big uptick of plots and jihadist conspiracies between 2005 and 2011. Rather, the UK was operating in Afghanistan to help save a failing US strategy, to give long-suffering Afghan society a chance, to demonstrate commitment to western ideals of law and international stability, to help hold the line against predatory Russian and Chinese geo-political influence in South Asia. Above all, the UK was in Afghanistan to demonstrate to Washington that it remained its most reliable and significant military ally.
In the latter case, perhaps it has done that. But if the UK’s grand strategy in Afghanistan was really no more than to stay close to the US, then London naturally shares more than most US allies in the ignominy of Washington’s defeat.
What other consequences may mark this ignominy? A surge in successful terrorist attacks against the UK is unlikely to be one of them. It is entirely possible that the Taliban government will be unable to prevent Al Qaeda or Islamic State from operating along the borderlands with Pakistan, even if it wants to prevent them. That, after all, was how the relationship between AQ and the Taliban developed after 1996 – AQ were unwelcome visitors that Taliban leaders only subsequently felt bound to support. But the essence of keeping the UK safe from successful terror attacks has always resided in good intelligence and policing work much nearer to home. The UK’s counter-terrorist capabilities are a great deal stronger than in 2001 and foreign terror attacks on the UK are already planned in countries as diverse as Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Iraq – not to mention within our own inner-cities. Putting Afghanistan again on the list certainly adds to the humiliation of the current collapse, but it is hard to see it making any practical difference to the terrorism ‘threat equation’, in which the UK generally performs well.
More telling will be the difference between the long-term reputation of US policy in the world, as opposed to that of the UK. The US remains a strategically significant player in all parts of the world and on all issues in which it chooses to take an interest. Retreat from Afghanistan does not, in itself, constitute a national US retreat. For the UK, however, its share in this defeat cannot easily be offset against other geopolitical successes. The UK’s share in this defeat may be set instead against some of the blithe statements made just six months ago in the Integrated Review – that the UK will be ‘a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation’, that it already demonstrates a ‘willingness to confront serious challenges and the ability to turn the dial on international issues of consequence;’ that the UK will embody ‘a sharper and more dynamic focus in order to adapt to a more competitive and fluid international environment… and …’shape the international order of the future’. (Global Britain in a Competitive Age, CP 403, March 2021, p.6-7, 11-12.)
It may be hard to square these breezy ambitions with the practical effects of the strategic gains that defeat in Afghanistan is gifting to China and Russia. It may be more difficult to convince the ‘new security partners’ the UK anticipates in the Indo-Pacific region that the country is a useful – let alone a significant – strategic partner.
Perhaps most significantly, the very foundation of the western democracies as the current bedrock of the liberal status quo in the world will take a big credibility hit in the eyes of the autocracies and the uncommitted. It may result in more assertive challenges to the status quo as the west’s adversaries test the resolve of a wounded United States to uphold its ‘values’ when its own hard interests are not directly at stake. It is not difficult to envisage circumstances in zones such as Southeast Europe, the Mediterranean, East Africa or the South China Sea, where new challenges might arise. If that begins to happen, policy-makers across Whitehall should have another hard look at the Integrated Review and decide just how much ‘global Britain’ can exercise any independent influence at a strategic level. Current examples are not encouraging. Recent history in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Afghanistan all indicate that the going is getting much tougher for the western democracies. The UK has been involved in all these struggles but its inability to make a strategic difference to any of them should – after the anger and emotion of the current tragedy – be something on which the UK’s policy establishment might reflect more honestly.
Michael Clarke is the author of The Challenge of Defending Britain, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018. He is the co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I. B. Tauris, 2019; and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris, November 2021, forthcoming.
Photograph: © Crown copyright 2013. See, MOD News License: http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/rsrc/20130715_Crown_Copyright_MOD_News_Licence_V2.pdf