Facing reality is painful for the US and its allies

A US soldier stands with a bouquet of flowers among headstones of those killed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.
A US soldier stands with a bouquet of flowers among headstones of those killed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.

Afghanistan goals were laudable but open-ended

Sir Simon Fraser

The outcome in Afghanistan should not have been a surprise, even if the way it happened was a shock. For foreign policy in general, and foreign military interventions in particular, it is essential to be clear about goals and the capacity to deliver. In Afghanistan, the US and its allies have fallen short on both these counts.

This is a serious reversal for the US and its closest allies, but not a strategic disaster. The threat from Islamist terror will increase, but its significance is sometimes exaggerated and, to some extent, can be addressed by other means.

Afghanistan is a source of risk but not a first order geopolitical problem. Joe Biden’s reputation for competence and his liberal internationalist credentials are seriously damaged, but for most Americans he is still right on the big question – getting out.

The initial intervention was legitimate and justified – unlike the later one in Iraq – as an act of self-defence following an international terror outrage. But it was always likely the goalposts would shift. Dislodging Al Qaida morphed into removing the Taliban, then suppressing drug-related poppy production, occupying regions, protecting and supporting women and girls, building institutions, training armed forces. All laudable but open-ended commitments.

The lesson is familiar. Intervention is not always to be avoided, but be realistic about where it will lead. This was mission creep on a scale the US and NATO allies could not hope to resource adequately in a huge, rugged country, rife with armed factions and corruption, and in a sensitive, contested part of the world. The Iraq intervention in 2003 then added further overstretch as well as undermining legitimacy and confidence.

Policy drifted over the past decade, heavily influenced by military leaders who overestimated what could be achieved with additional resources. US and UK politicians, while trumpeting their commitment, were quietly seeking a way out as public support for the cost in blood and money evaporated.

The withdrawal, which was at some point inevitable, could presumably have been done more skilfully. It is not yet clear whether intelligence on the strength of the Taliban and resilience of the army failed, or NATO allies simply fell into the elementary trap of believing their own rhetoric.

Britain can say it did its best in a good cause, and 20 years of relative stability and progress is an achievement, especially if you consider the counterfactual. But the inability of a ‘Global Britain’ to operate independently in anything other than a minor military theatre has again been illustrated.

US role needs a principled, but realistic, agenda

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri

The rapid exit from Afghanistan has unsettled the search for closure – for many, there will be a sense of relief that an ‘unwinnable’ 20-year war is finally over but, for others, this is overshadowed by multiple realities.

The Taliban has emerged victorious and the West has failed to defeat it, the cost of this war has been exceedingly high on multiple dimensions, there is ongoing uncertainty, humanitarian concern and security risk which spill over beyond Afghanistan’s borders, and in terms of NATO allies, the US appears to have called all the shots.

The war in Afghanistan is likely to have a lasting effect on how the US thinks about its role in the world, especially when it comes to the use of military force. In a historic speech, President Joe Biden outlined the end of an era of US foreign policy that was about ‘major military operations designed to remake other countries’.

This means no more wars of choice, no more nation-building, and that US military force will be deployed only where there is an achievable objective and where US vital interests are at stake. Human rights matter, but military force will not be used to achieve them.

For those on the wrong side of recent US military interventions, this is likely to be a relief. Despite many human rights achievements, the post-9/11 era is littered with anti-human rights practices led by the US, not least extraordinary rendition, torture, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib – all exposing US human rights hypocrisy. The invasion of Iraq also tainted the democracy promotion agenda so much that Barack Obama was initially reluctant to refer to democracy as a core value for US foreign policy when president.

But it is difficult to imagine a US guided solely by realist principles, or that the rest of the world – even US NATO allies – will feel bound, let alone inspired, to follow a US leading on this basis. As the US recasts its global role, it should stay in the values game. Biden has made it clear he intends to do this, but that military force is the wrong instrument for delivering human rights.

In the aftermath of this troubled exit, it is important the US moves quickly to demonstrate its commitment to liberal values. Working in partnership with others to lighten the impact of the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan is an important first step.

The US administration should also use the first meeting of the Summit for Democracy to show that it takes its partners seriously. It is essential to develop a principled, albeit realistic, agenda for fostering open societies and liberal values, not only at home but also beyond US borders. This cannot and should not be done alone.

Learn from intelligence failures for better resilience planning

Dr Patricia Lewis

Since the fall of Kabul, the issue of intelligence has become a hotly disputed topic, both between and within the UK and US governments. Not just about who knew or understood what and when, but who was prepared and if not, why not.

There was a wide range of possible interpretations in making sense of information being collected on the ground and via the airwaves. Predictions of government collapse and the potential for a speedy Taliban takeover were in the mix, but the dominant view was the Afghan army would hold out for longer.

In any complex situation, it is normal to have information from a wide set of contradictory sources, fed into a process of analysis which pieces together information to support or refute existing understandings. A range of ‘most-likely’ scenarios are planned for but it is an inexact science and rarely predicts the future with high certainty.

The 9/11 Commission Report was highly critical of poor communications between intelligence services and law enforcement. Following the 2003 war in Iraq, the WMD Commission, the Butler Review, and the Chilcot Inquiry all addressed the process and communication of intelligence and how analysis is adopted and adapted by decision-makers.

Much has improved, such as the communication between law enforcement and intelligence communities both within the US and UK and internationally. But why the US and the UK can have such good information regarding the imminence of an attack at Kabul airport, but then do so badly on more strategic intelligence understanding needs deeper investigation.

There is a need to create a different framework for thinking about the future, and preparing for worst case scenarios – with adequate resources to do so – should be a priority for the long-term. As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, human societies can easily become complacent regarding safety and security – optimism bias may now be too pervasive. It is vital for being able to see opportunities, but needs to be tempered with a ‘what if it does not work out’ plan.

Preparing for a major refugee crisis needs to happen quickly now but, in the longer run societies and governments need to change the frame to prepare for other worst-case analyses, building in cost-effective resilience measures. If predicting and responding to the events in Kabul can be handled so badly, how on earth will societies successfully survive the impact of climate change?

UK, EU, and NATO must examine costs and consequences

Professor Richard G. Whitman

The Integrated Review, a post-Brexit roadmap for the UK’s foreign, security and defence policy, places considerable stress on the UK as a European power with a heightened ambition for greater prominence beyond Europe, notably in the Indo-Pacific. But the elements of greatest certainty underpinning this appear to be the most unsettled by Afghanistan.

The purpose of the transatlantic security relationship, as encapsulated by NATO bringing Europe and the US together for consensus on shared threats and a vehicle for collective action, is being publicly questioned by some member state governments which are normally more taciturn.

NATO looks set for a period of introspection on the nature of its decision-taking and costs of its collective commitments in Afghanistan. As the lynchpin of the UK’s security and defence policy, any NATO pre-occupation is a UK pre-occupation.

Afghanistan has led to a flurry of calls for action by EU leaders, and that the conclusion to be drawn is a greater impetus for the ambition of European strategic autonomy on security and defence. A predominantly Brussels-centred narrative has already taken hold that the US decision to withdraw shows Europe must be able to think and act autonomously, not least as insurance against untrustworthy American political leaders.

Of lesser attention is that the EU has been ostensibly focused on a security and defence policy expressly for the purpose of conflict and crisis management since the 1990s, with the specific objective of being able to undertake humanitarian and rescue tasks – as was required in Kabul – but member states fail to act collectively.

The UK is no longer at the centre of these EU debates, but is significantly impacted by any extra impetus for enhanced or accelerated EU defence plans so it should attempt to broaden the discussion beyond the confines of the EU. It can play a significant role by demonstrating capacity for an open-minded approach, and by using its bilateral relationships and mini-lateral formats – notably the E3 with France and Germany.

The multinational Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) and the Anglo-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) already show that the UK seeks to be a leader rather than a laggard on enhanced European capacity. For ‘Global Britain’ the best safeguard of a healthy transatlantic security relationship is a wide-ranging, no-holds barred, debate on the costs and consequences for Europe of the fall of Kabul.

Disillusionment breeds frustration in US allies

Professor Roland Paris

The lightning collapse of Afghanistan’s government and the chaotic evacuation from Kabul was a humiliating shock, but also shattered hopes the transatlantic partnership would ‘return to normal’ under Joe Biden’s presidency.

It is not surprising Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal has led to recriminations in Washington but US allies are experiencing a further frustration. They and their citizens were takers – not makers – of the ‘allied’ endgame in Afghanistan, no matter how much they contributed and sacrificed to the effort over the years.

There was no hiding their own lack of capacity to operate independently in the field and their powerlessness to shape decisions in Washington. Although Biden and his team treat America’s allies with far greater respect than his predecessor, a politer version of ‘America first’ remains the keystone of US foreign policy.

The debacle in Kabul has dispelled several illusions. First, the West lost in Afghanistan and every coalition country has a part in that costly failure. To say repeated intelligence failures weakened the Afghanistan mission is too generous. Western governments never understood the context in which they were operating – right to the end.

Second, the US – self-centered and erratic, but an indispensable partner – seems less interested in international leadership, even with a more internationalist president. The honeymoon glow of Biden’s spring visit to Europe for the G7 and NATO summits, where he received plaudits as the ‘anti-Trump’, has faded.

Third, US allies talk a big game but lack the capacity to play a major geopolitical role on their own. But the malaise should not be overstated. Other issues will ultimately rise to the top of the agenda, and convergent interests and values will sustain transatlantic cooperation which has survived much greater strains.

The Afghanistan episode has not been a ‘game-changer for international relations’ as European Union (EU) chief diplomat Josep Borrell asserted, but it has reminded everyone of painful realities they preferred not to face.

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