In mid-August, the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, just less than 20 years after American, British and other allied forces ousted the theocratic regime from the city. As the evacuation efforts got underway, throngs of Afghans literally ran to Hamid Karzi airport in an attempt to escape, while images of women on billboards across the city were whitewashed in anticipation of the Taliban’s arrival. Twenty years of military operations, tens of billions of pounds, and over 400 British military lives lost, and Afghanistan is almost back where it started – absent Al Qaeda, although other jihadi terrorist groups such as Daesh may soon raise their heads.
The recriminations started quickly. For some, President Joe Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan by an arbitrary date – 31st August – was difficult to understand given the resources the United States (US) has poured into the country over the past twenty years. In the United Kingdom (UK), second only to the US in terms of forces lost and money spent in Afghanistan, the criticism has been particularly pronounced, even though the UK ended combat operations in 2014. During the emergency debate called in the House of Commons on 18th August, parliamentarians criticised the US president’s decision to withdraw based on an arbitrary timetable; the failure to foresee the speed of the Taliban’s advance and takeover of Kabul; Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s seeming inability to influence Biden’s decision-making; and the UK’s apparent failure to muster a new coalition to take over from the US once Biden had decided to leave.
At this stage, the geopolitical implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan remain unclear. At the very least, fresh attempts by countries like the UK and US to reconstruct countries, or even militarily push the balance of power in the favour of preferred foreign domestic political forces, not least in remote regions, have probably fallen out of favour. Although an entire generation of Afghani girls and women have received education – perhaps paving the way for longer term change – operations Herrick and Enduring Freedom have proven how difficult ‘nation building’ actually is, especially when it is likely to outlast several American administrations and British governments. Indeed, the leitmotif of recent US and UK security strategies has not been counter-terrorism and nation-building but the return of ‘great power’ or ‘intensifying geopolitical’ competition.
Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are unlikely to gain much from the situation in Afghanistan, at least in the longer term. Although Beijing and the Kremlin have made much hay of the US withdrawal, they will make for strange bedfellows with the Taliban, not least because of the brutal treatment of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Moreover, the analogies drawn by The Global Times, the CCP’s mouthpiece, between the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the US commitment to Taiwan are almost certainly off-track.
Indeed, just as the UK has focused more on containing the excesses of the Kremlin since 2014, the US is now gearing up for a long period of sustained struggle with the PRC. Although the PRC has surpassed the US across several metrics of power, including many aspects of industrial production and infrastructure development, its emergence as a superpower of equal strength to the US is not preordained. That said, the CCP has already generated the means and the will to contest American structural power in East and Southeast Asia, to say nothing of the broader Indo-Pacific – the world’s new economic fulcrum.
It is in this sense that the withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be misconstrued as a more general American retreat, but as a realignment. For over a decade, the US has been increasingly aware of the PRC’s growing strength and it has slowly refocused its attention to address it. Biden alluded to this when he addressed the American people on his withdrawal from Afghanistan on 23rd August. In his words:
I’m clear on my answer: I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past – the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of US forces. Those are the mistakes we cannot continue to repeat, because we have significant vital interests in the world that we cannot afford to ignore.
After all, once Al Qaeda had been dislodged from the country, Afghanistan became increasingly peripheral to American interests, to say nothing of the other allies and partners who supported it. Indeed, far from weakening the US, the withdrawal from Afghanistan may even strengthen its ability to deter rivals. This is because it frees up US resources and attention for deployment elsewhere, not least to East and Southeast Asia, where American interests are far deeper and more pervasive.
That being said, the way the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan generates two critical questions for the UK. First, to what extent, in future, should HM Government be prepared to effectively offer a military carte blanche in support of US policy, particularly when that support might be of an unknown duration, outlasting several presidential administrations, one of which might decide to arbitrarily change its approach based on the increasingly unpredictable American domestic political scene and/or a changing calculation of national interests?
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how can the UK generate the means to act independently of the US, not only for itself, but also for the interests of its allies and partners – existing and potential? Granted, Britain is no longer a superpower, but it should not be forgotten that the UK is the only democracy other than the US with broad global strategic reach and the demonstrated political will to undergird alliances and, when necessary, use force.
Potentially, there are three ways HM Government could increase its room for manoeuvre:
- Develop the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to enhance collective security across the wider Euro-Atlantic area, including in North and West Africa and the surrounding maritime approaches to Europe in the Indo-Pacific. This is particularly important given the growing US focus on the Indo-Pacific. But as Kosovo and Afghanistan have shown, NATO is too large and unwieldy to take swift and decisive action. Moreover, since Russia unnerved most Eastern European allies by annexing Ukrainian territory in 2014, NATO’s role as a collective defence alliance has been steadily reinforced. Most NATO allies are interested in territorial defence, not out of area operations.
- ‘Plug in’ and reinforce the EU’s attempts to generate expeditionary capabilities. The idea of an EU military capability remains deeply attractive across the European continent. However, even if domestic British opposition could be overcome and active UK support were to push the project along – assuming an institutional arrangement could be agreed to give Britain sovereign equality with the EU – it is still unlikely to succeed. The EU has been attempting to create military capabilities since the Helsinki Headline Goal in 1999. Each initiative has ended in failure or thin gruel. The problem is that most large wealthy Western and Southern European countries – Germany above all others – are inward looking, unwilling to take defence seriously, and/or increase investment in their armed forces.
- Boost British defence spending – beyond the large increases announced by Boris Johnson in November 2020 – and generate greater sovereign capabilities, particularly in surveillance, reconnaissance, strike, and command and control. In other words, take the Integrated Review to its logical conclusion. This would involve reaching out to an exclusive group of existing allies and new partners from around the world with shared interests – such as Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, India, and Poland – in an attempt to engineer a coalition of ‘middle powers’. This group may never seek to intervene in Central Asia, but under British leadership it could enhance the ability of free and open countries to dissuade and deter threats to the open international order in the mid-21st century, particularly when the US is disinterested in intervening or later opts to disengage.
Ultimately, given the problems with each of the three options, there may be no easy answer to the conundrum born of the growing American geostrategic focus on the Indo-Pacific and the increasingly unpredictable US domestic political scene. Condemning the unilateralism of particular US administrations is easy (not least when the UK has already disengaged). For all the British frustration over the nature of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US remains Britain’s most powerful ally. In many instances, there will be close alignment between the two countries across multiple areas of policy.
However, as the storm clouds gather on the horizon, the UK needs additional options to protect its interests, as well as its allies and partners. Britain should therefore be more prepared to break free of the post-Cold War straightjacket and redevelop the ability to lead new coalitions. If HM Government is willing to provide resources and leadership, the main geopolitical consequence of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may not be the resurgence of the Taliban or Chinese and Russian aggrandisement, but a reinforced open international order with a second centre of strategic decision-making.
James Rogers is Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
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