National Security & Defense

What the Fall of Afghanistan Means for Britain

British soldiers with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 6, 2020. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
The crisis is already reverberating in British politics, in some ways that are obvious, and in other ways that are yet to be fully understood.

For the first time since the U.K. joined the U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS in 2014, the British Parliament was recalled for an emergency session this week to respond to the crisis in Afghanistan. The chaotic withdrawal has been condemned as being a “dishonorable” act and the worst foreign-policy disaster for Britain in decades. Coverage of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan might lead you to believe that it concerns only two nations: that country and the United States. But the crisis is already reverberating in British politics, in some ways that are obvious, and in other ways that are yet to be fully understood.

Since the war began in 2001, 457 British personnel have died — more than in the 1982 Falklands War. Britain has spent £27.7 billion on its Afghan operations and £3.3 billion in aid to help build a stable nation-state. Although most British personnel left Afghanistan in 2014, Britain has made a significant contribution toward the NATO mission over two decades.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the fifth British leader to oversee his country’s responsibilities in Afghanistan, but it was not his choice to see the British presence end. When President Biden announced that he would be proceeding with the peace deal negotiated under his predecessor, Britain and other NATO allies had to follow.

As shocking images and stories flowed out of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s advance, the moral outrage of British parliamentarians burst in the House of Commons. Frustrated with the poorly planned U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the Afghan government, those who spoke during the debate asked how this could happen after two decades of nation-building and counterterrorism efforts. With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks fast approaching, they are asking what the point of the lost blood and treasure was now that the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan.

British parliamentarians, especially from the Conservative Party, expressed their disappointment and launched attacks on President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and on the British government’s response to the crisis. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and a veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, delivered the most powerful speech of the debate. Tugendhat said, “I have watched good men go into the earth, taking with them a part of me and a part of all of us. This week has torn open some of those wounds, has left them raw and left us all hurting.”

Former prime minister Theresa May, who has stayed on as an MP, also made a forceful speech. Despite the failure of her Brexit strategy during her time in office, May is still largely seen as having led a competent foreign policy, especially her response to the 2018 poisoning attack by Russian agents on British soil. It is for that reason that May’s speech made such an impact, generating significant news coverage across the British media: “I am afraid that this has been a major setback for British foreign policy. We boast about global Britain, but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul? A successful foreign policy strategy will be judged by our deeds, not by our words.”

Britain was certainly caught off guard, along with the rest of the world, with key members of the British government away on holiday, including the prime minister. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab delegated a phone call with his Afghan counterpart to a junior minister while he was away on vacation in Crete. The lack of preparation for withdrawal has triggered questions about Britain’s share of the responsibility for the crisis. The reliance on U.S. decision-making and the failure of European NATO members to step up has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the Western alliance. It has also raised questions about America, and about Britain’s relationship with it, that few expected to have to answer.

The Taliban have already begun to resume their brutal and oppressive treatment of the Afghan people, turning back the clock on the progress made since 2001. It also remains possible that the Taliban will allow the country to become a breeding ground for terrorist activity again. More than that, they have ended the U.S.-led project to build a liberal and democratic Afghanistan where women, girls, and all minorities enjoy equal opportunities, rights, and justice. That project is gone for good — that is, if it ever could have been realized. Putting aside how willing the Afghan people were to defend this project, its demise is the result of years of unclear goals, poor intelligence, and the naïveté of decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Disillusion with the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars has also dampened public support in Britain for interventionism and fueled fierce opposition on both the populist right and the socialist left. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party provided a home for anti-Western politics that portrays America as the real aggressor and makes apologies for authoritarian regimes from Caracas to Tehran. The radical Stop the War Coalition, which led the major 2003 protests against the Iraq War, has even called for reparations to be made to the Taliban, which has been echoed by a Labour parliamentarian and close ally of Corbyn’s.

For the foreseeable future, there is no military solution to the crisis. Britain certainly does not have the military power to act alone, and European NATO members want nothing more to do with war in Afghanistan. President Macron has been pugnacious in his focus on European interests. That has not stopped Johnson from persuading G7 partners to take part in a virtual summit next week to address the crisis after a prolonged period of silence from the White House.

After the hostile and severe reaction from the House of Commons, Johnson is working to get his government back on the front foot and demonstrate leadership. British home secretary Priti Patel announced a five-year resettlement scheme for 20,000 Afghan citizens in addition to 5,000 Afghan staff and their families. But even these actions have been criticized by parliamentarians for moving too slowly in response to an incredibly fluid and unpredictable situation.

Afghanistan is a major test for the future of Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy. As foreign secretary and then as prime minister, Johnson has been crafting his agenda for a “global Britain,” proving that Brexit would not mark a retreat into isolationism and protectionism. Instead of ignoring the world, Britain would have the chance to play a more active role in the international community, free from the constraints of the European Union. It is a worthy ambition, but it also must recognize that the geopolitical situation is vastly different from the world of 2001.

Britain can no longer position itself solely as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe. Deeper engagement with allies across the world, especially the Asian democracies, is the key to maximizing British influence and countering the global spread of authoritarian politics. It also requires a sense of strategic patience that has been lacking in Western diplomacy for a long time. Afghanistan has clearly shown the true cost of short-term thinking. Both Britain and America must learn from their failures if they are going to stop such powers as China and Russia from winning the 21st century.

David A. Cowan is a writer based in London who graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Master of Philosophy in Political Thought and Intellectual History.

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