Briefing 06: The withdrawal from Afghanistan

  1. The reaction of parliamentarians to the collapse of the Afghan government has reverberated through the halls of power and coffeehouses of Westminster. Criticism of the United States’ (US) withdrawal from Afghanistan has been expressed on all sides of the House of Commons. Parliamentarians are angry because President Joe Biden no longer considers maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan to be of primary importance to American interests. To quote Biden: ‘This [being in Afghanistan] is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops, who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades, deserve.’ The US is now pivoting away from the ‘Global War on Terror’, of which support for Afghanistan was central, towards a sustained period of strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). American strategists have identified the PRC as the principal challenge to their country’s security.
  1. Parliamentarians are also angry about the nature of the American pullout. Although the withdrawal of US troops was probably inevitable, the character of the withdrawal has been chaotic and clumsy, despite Biden’s attempts to claim otherwise. The lack of a comprehensive withdrawal strategy and accompanying failure to coordinate with allies – including the UK – has led to scenes of increasing disarray and confusion at Kabul airport, echoing scenes from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. Although the collapse of the Afghan Republic was swifter than expected, the Biden administration also failed to adapt to the changing circumstances. Perhaps the most notable failure has been the lack of assistance to Afghans who assisted the coalition, who are now likely to face reprisals from the Taliban.
  1. Undoubtedly, criticism can be heaped on the US: from Donald Trump’s shoddy deal with the Taliban in 2020 to Biden’s decision to accelerate the withdrawal, America has not looked so self-interested or tin-eared for many years. It is not clear whether the decision to withdraw will strengthen the US, either. Granted, leaving Afghanistan frees up American forces for redeployment elsewhere – not least to East and Southeast Asia – but the PRC and Russia are equally keen to exploit the situation in Afghanistan, with both warming to the Taliban. In particular, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mouthpieces have openly used what they call the US ‘abandonment’ of Afghanistan to question the American commitment to Taiwan.
  1. However, is the United Kingdom (UK), to say nothing of other European countries, really in a position to condemn the US for its actions? After all, despite the parliamentary uproar, the UK withdrew the majority of its forces in 2014. Until Boris Johnson’s decision to boost defence spending in November 2020, successive British governments have also made significant reductions to Britain’s military strength, even as the international environment has become more volatile. This has left the UK with few options other than to follow US leadership.
  1. Even if Her Majesty’s (HM) Government wanted to assume the mantle from the US in Afghanistan, it would require a substantial national effort, at significant cost, over a sustained period of time. It would mandate the redeployment of UK forces to Afghanistan – currently located in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, in support of UK allies and partners, to uphold an open international order, and to deter revisionist regimes. Britain would also need to assemble a new coalition, inspiring allies to join it – allies which may be unwilling, not least since many now face strategic threats closer to their own homelands, a problem few suffered in 2001 when Russia and the PRC were far weaker and more inward-looking.
  1. The amount of money required to maintain an operational British force in Afghanistan would also warrant a complete restructuring of HM Government’s spending priorities and strategic objectives. It would require ditching much of the Integrated Review with its maritime and geopolitical focus on the Euro-Atlantic, Indo-Pacific and space, towards substantial reinvestment in the British Army and Royal Air Force, combined with increased numbers of frontline troops and aircraft, to facilitate nation building and counter-insurgency operations. This may have significant implications for Britain’s ability to uphold its strategic interests in other areas of the world, which seems neither geostrategically nor financially prudent at this time.
  1.  This is not to say that Britain’s decision to intervene in Afghanistan in October 2001 was unfounded. A response to the atrocities of 11th September 2001, the invasion led to the dismantling of the Al Qaeda jihadi terrorist group, the removal of the previous Taliban regime, and the education of an entire generation of Afghan girls and women. The UK should be proud of its conduct in Afghanistan, and ongoing care for veterans of this conflict should be a priority for this and future governments. Equally, every effort should be made to evacuate to safety those Afghans who helped the British Armed Forces and civil authorities.
  1. Nonetheless, broader lessons ought to be learnt. Although many parliamentarians are right to condemn the clumsy American withdrawal from Afghanistan and lack of coordination with other allies – not least the UK, which has lost more personnel in Afghanistan and spent more than any other ally other than the US – they should also dwell on overcoming the British Armed Forces’ inability to operate when the US chooses to disengage. This requires increased UK spending on military power and the ability to inspire and mobilise the formation of new alliances and coalitions, particularly in critical geographic areas of British interest.

John Dobson is Policy Relations and Events Coordinator at the Council on Geostrategy

Disclaimer

This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.