Biden’s fateful Afghanistan decision – Strategic implications
Strategic implications for Europeans?
European leaders have little right to complain about American actions given the weakness of the European effort in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. Most Europeans were only present in Afghanistan out of a sense of obligation to the US following the September 12th, 2001 invoking of NATO Article 5 collective defence. Few of them ever really believed in the campaign and all of them in one way or another, with the possible exception of the British, limited their commitment and scale of their operations, as well as their rules of engagement to such an extent that a required level of unity of effort and purpose was never possible to achieve.
Therefore, the failure in Afghanistan must be seen as much European as American and should severely challenge European ideas of security in which values and interests are merged to the point where policy becomes little more than strategic virtue signalling. It is only to be hoped that something of substance finally emerges from the September 2nd meeting of EU defence ministers and calls for a potentially 50,000 strong Initial Entry Force. Such a force would be designed to carry out precisely the kind of evacuation missions most Europeans were incapable of over the past week. European Rapid Reaction Force redux? If not then the implications are clear for if Europeans are not prepared to enter a theatre in which their interests are threatened unless they can leave the place better off then they will not go anywhere.
It is high time Europeans came of age as strategic actors because that will be the only way to save NATO. French ideas for European Strategic Autonomy will enable the EU to undertake any operation of any robustness any time soon are fanciful. Far better to use the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept to buttress the transatlantic relationship and better share burdens by strengthening the European pillar of the Alliance. It is no good Europeans complaining about American policy and actions if time after time it is Americans bearing the overwhelming burden of risk and cost.
That does not mean EU security and defence ambitions should be abandoned. However, for almost three decades Europeans have been touting a values-based approach to security whilst relying on the US for their own hard defence. The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) should be a vital stabilising component as part of a broad approach to stabilising Europe’s fractious and dangerous strategic neighbourhood. The ability of Europeans to put an EU flag on complex operations, other than a NATO, US or other national flag, remains an important political contribution to crisis management and co-operative security.
However, both CSDP and ESDP have been in existence for over twenty-five years and yet its tiny missions bear little or no relation to the claims Brussels routinely makes for them, or the real impact they have on the ground. It is as though Europeans are eternally practising for a return to the real world whilst never quite making it, whilst at the same time expecting Americans to defend them even as they criticise the Americans for so doing. That is in no way meant to disrespect the sadly many brave Europeans who gave their lives in Afghanistan, but the debacle therein must finally mark the bonfire of false European assumptions and strategic illusions. European weakness is in fact European isolationism and the danger now is that the failure in Afghanistan will only reinforce the delusion that somehow soft security can substitute for hard reality, particularly where it really matters in Europe, Germany.
The above begs the answer to the hardest of questions. Was the sacrifice of so many Afghan and Coalition lives for nothing? To answer that question is it important to go back to December 2001 when the West was reeling from 9/11 and another such attack seemed both imminent and inevitable. Afghanistan was an ungoverned space in which Al Qaeda was training its fighters.
The US and its Allies swiftly prevented that and for twenty years prevented Afghanistan again being used as a base for such attacks. The campaign in Afghanistan has not been a success, but then the very idea of ‘success’ for such a mission in such a place is misplaced. And yes, things could and should have been done a lot better, but it is hard on balance to suggest, as some are, that the sacrifice was for nothing. What has changed are the circumstances and the threat.
Strategic implications for the West
Where next? Firstly, in an effort to mitigate this disaster the Biden administration will need to do something that might seem counter-intuitive – embrace the Taliban by holding them to the calming words the leaders have been uttering over the past two weeks, even about women’s rights. Sadly, experience of those areas of Afghanistan that have already been under Taliban control for some time now reveal a large gap between their words and their deeds.
The US and its allies will also need to exert more pressure on Pakistan to help reign in the Taliban even if Islamabad fears India will seek to exploit the situation in Southern Afghanistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has said the Taliban victory had “broken the shackles of mental slavery” (he is a very different Imran Khan than the one I met at Oxford). Given Pakistan’s internal contradictions Prime Minister Khan might soon come to regret what he wished for.
The US and its Allies also need to engage China, India and Russia and seek some level of common cause, particularly over the issue of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will also need to be persuaded to limit funding of Madrassas (schools). If not, then Afghanistan could well indeed once again become the cauldron of Great Power competition.
Above all, President Biden needs to take a long hard look at himself. It was strange listening to a US president, the leader of an administration that prides itself on human rights, particularly women’s rights, making a statement that British High-Victorian imperialist Lord Palmerston would have been proud of. America has neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, just interests? If there is one lesson for the Americans above all others from this debacle it is that America needs friends more than ever, albeit capable friends. What the Afghanistan failure has revealed is an America and a wider West that twenty-years on from 911, and some thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, does not really know for what it fights and why beyond vague aphorisms about happiness, prosperity and the American/European Way. And yet, implicit in the war in Afghanistan was a struggle between institutionalised multilateralism and red in tooth and claw Realpolitik with violent extremists the world over emboldened, as well as the two great strategic autocrats, China and Russia.
The hard truth is that the West, Americans, Canadians and Europeans alike no longer have any real idea what their security goals are or how they should achieve them in a complex dangerous world beyond endless blah, particularly in Europe. The retreat from Kabul was also the retreat of Western liberalism in the face of ultra-conservatives and ultra-nationalists and European liberals in particular are clueless what to do about it.
There are few principles and little doctrine with the result that policy is inconsistent and red lines meaningless because no-one believes the West writ large any longer has the strategic backbone, political will or strategic patience to enforce them. The Chinese, Russians, Iranians, Taliban and their ilk certainly do and in the wake of Afghanistan it is their anarchic vision of state-of nature, self-interested chaos which now has far more chance of prevailing given a Western retreat which turned a withdrawal into a defeat and then a political rout.
In the end Afghanistan found out the US and its Allies like it has so many before them and the implications for NATO in particular will be profound. The Americans will refocus their attention on warfighting and ‘pivot’ (to use that ghastly phrase) towards China and preparations for some hi-tech, high-end, robotic future war. The British will go with the Americans as far as the British can, although the British will also claim they have gone far further than they actually have, just as the British always do. The French will join them, for all their empty rhetoric about European strategic autonomy (and if they can ever get over Brexit), and the Poles will be their usual brave but marginal selves. Germany, Italy and the rest? Can Europeans ever stop being addicts of the irrelevant?
Global democracy in action?
The future? As Kabul was falling another event was taking place. Seventy-five years to the day after Indian independence from Britain the INS Tabar (Battleaxe) sailed into Portsmouth, the fleet headquarters of the Royal Navy. The strategic meaning was clear. Democracies the world over face a growing range of threats and to maintain the peace nothing short of a new idea of multilateralism must now be forged.
So, the West, Europeans in particular, have a choice to make at what is clearly a point of strategic inflection because the post-Afghanistan, post-COVID world is going to be very bumpy indeed. They can collectively retreat into themselves and reinforce the catastrophic loss of strategic self-belief from which Western leaders are clearly suffering, or they can re-group and rebuild the Alliance for the twenty-first century by reaching out to like-minded others.
That will mean having the political courage to learn the many hard lessons from the Afghanistan fiasco. The world will need democracies the world-over to continue to engage danger together. At the very least, vacuous, risk-averse political leaders must no longer send a few well-intentioned civilian and military personnel to do their bidding and expect them to succeed if they the leaders have neither the political will nor determination to see such campaigns through. If they do then expect more Afghan-type disasters.
The West will continue to have more watches than time (to paraphrase that well-worn Afghan aphorism that also turned out to be a truism), but unless it learns again to have strategic patience and match ends and ways with means then there will be more Afghanistans. There were failures and mistakes were made by commanders in the field that were inevitable given the complex nature of the place and the mission.
However, ultimate responsibility for this disaster must rest with political leaders primarily in the US and Europe who indeed willed the ends without the ways or the means. The men and women of both Operation Enduring Freedom, NATO International Security Assistance Force and NATO Operation Resolute Support did their utmost to make flawed strategy and policy work, but they were let down by their respective capitals and forced to try and close a political gap which was not of their making and for which many paid with their lives. Ultimately, the disaster in Afghanistan is due to a catastrophic failure of political leadership.
In August 1842, British Indian forces under General Pollock returned to Afghanistan, inflicted a massive defeat on the Ghilji as revenge for the destruction of the British column a year earlier and in September of that year re-entered Kabul. They also captured Dost Mohammed Khan, one of Afghanistan’s most powerful tribal leaders and the first commander of what might be called the Afghan Army. He asked his British captors a question. “I have been struck by the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country”. Neither could President Biden or most European leaders.