The UK’s aspirations for the future risk being stifled by the mistakes of the past.
The war in Afghanistan is not going well. Twenty years into the conflict, the Taliban controls between 50% and 70% of the country, depending on the definition of control. The Afghan security forces are taking more casualties year on year, with a five-fold increase over the past decade. Between 30 and 40 soldiers are killed every day.
Given this bleak trajectory, it is curious that the UK’s Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy – described as the most radical reappraisal of the country’s foreign policy since 1998 – only mentions Afghanistan twice: once to reaffirm the UK’s commitment to supporting some rather illusive ‘stability’, and again as an example of where the UK will continue to pursue its counterterrorism strategy. Like the NATO Secretary General’s Annual Report, launched on the same day as the IR, the response to the grim challenge of Afghanistan is to flog a dead horse, in hope of its resurrection.
The IR does not try to be a set of country strategies. But it does purport to offer a strategic framework and theory of change for shaping the UK’s foreign policy decisions over the next decade. In practice, however, its recommendations risk being contradictory. On the one hand, it advocates a draw down from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan facilitated by promoting stability and building partner capacity to enable these states to manage their own security challenges. On the other hand, it doubles down on the failing approach already in place, which offers no prospect of ‘stability’ any time soon.
This might seem like a tacit admission that the UK intends to step away regardless, but this too is doubtful. The IR also advocates pursuing counterterrorism at source. Problems like those in Afghanistan are not ones from which Western governments feel they can simply walk away. Assessments in the intelligence community differ as to how soon Al-Qa’ida would begin using Afghanistan as a base for international operations against Western targets if Western forces withdrew completely. Some say 12 months, some say 24. But the outcome is not in dispute.
From a tactical perspective, the minimal application of force to suppress threats from terrorists is a viable approach. There is a cynical view that so long as terrorist groups are being actively engaged on their turf, they must concentrate on trying to survive and will struggle to mount operations further afield. Left to establish havens, they gain the breathing space to plan offensive activities. There is an empirical evidence base to support this view. But this essentially means committing to a strategy that has no prospect of stabilising or securing those countries that have become the battlefield, while requiring the persistent application of force across a large and growing proportion of the world.
For the UK, the problem with such an approach quickly becomes one of capacity. If the UK has a strategy of continuing a small footprint counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan, seeking to stabilise partner governments through capacity building, while increasing counterterrorism operations in the Sahel, then it follows that the UK is expanding its commitments, without deploying sufficient resources to expect to resolve and thereby draw down from any of them. This broadening activity is supposed to be achieved with fewer personnel, suggesting that the IR has – like previous reviews – failed to seriously balance ends and means.
Indeed, the IR does not suggest reducing the UK’s commitments anywhere. NATO remains the core focus for defence. The UK promises to not just contribute but play a leading role in the Alliance. New security commitments are offered in the Indo-Pacific to prospective allies. There is little mention of the Middle East in the document, but the basis upon which the UK has deployed forces to the region is reaffirmed, while in Africa the geographical scope of UK activities is expanded.
Given these tensions, it is perhaps unsurprising, if telling, that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s explanation in Parliament for why the UK retains its commitments to Afghanistan when launching the IR made no reference to the theory of change or strategic framework outlined in the document. Instead, he justified the ongoing operation by citing the importance of ensuring that UK soldiers’ lives had not been lost in vain. Yet, if policy in specific instances is to be based upon sentimentality rather than strategy, then it must be doubted whether the IR will in fact ensure coherence in policymaking.
The IR has much to commend it. Many of its judgements are well evidenced and in isolation constitute accurate descriptions of the UK’s interests. But it is also fundamentally incomplete, and its contradictions risk the UK gaining commitments while failing to resource the resolution of its existing challenges. If the UK is not to be diverted from its aspirations towards NATO and the Indo-Pacific tilt, then it is important that the government fleshes out its order of priorities to support the IR’s vision.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare