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The End of Britain’s Military Campaign in Afghanistan: Is It Time to Reconsider Their Position For The British?
Polat Üründül – PhD Candidate at Middle East Technical University
Following the United States of America (USA)’s decision to end the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan, the last United Kingdom (UK) troop and diplomat have left the country, marking the end of a 20 year British military campaign. As Britain’s mission in Afghanistan is over, Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that the UK has achieved to degrade the Al-Qaeda and provided support for the Afghans for two decades. However, the humiliation that NATO allies faced in Afghanistan recalled the interventionist failures of the past within the British public, and raised questions on the UK’s position in the world as well as the credibility of the alliance with the USA. Even though there are expectations that recent incidents in Afghanistan can transform the UK into an isolated and introverted actor in world politics, the UK’s new ‘Global Britain’ strategy which was set out in March 2021 requires Britain to pursue a more active and assertive foreign policy, relying upon its smart power. Therefore, the failure in Afghanistan may not affect the UK’s future strategy.
The role of the UK in Afghanistan
Before the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban regime had provided the Al-Qaeda shelter and this circumstance enabled terrorists to plan and carry out attacks around the world. 9/11 attacks occured in such an environment. When the USA decided to intervene in Afghanistan and topple the Taliban regime so as to prevent the Al-Qaeda from attacking the world, the UK backed the American invasion of the country together with other countries involved in NATO/ISAF-led military operation. In mid-2002, most of the Al-Qaeda members and Taliban leaders were killed, captured or they fled from Afghanistan (Farell, 2017). For Farell (2017), the UK troops should have left the country at that point. However, the British decided to stay, and they continued to be involved in different operations since then. By 2021, more than 100.000 British soldiers had been deployed in Afghanistan. In 20 years of deployment there, 457 UK armed forces personnel passed away, and “operations Herrick and Toral have cost around £27.7 billion” (Dempsey, 2021) for the British. As a result of an international military campaign in which the UK was involved, 350.000 Afghan security forces were trained, and different projects were carried out to improve daily lives of Afghans. Before the Taliban returned in 2021, millions of Afghan children were able to go to school, more than half of the population were able to access the health services, the GDP was increased and a system of democracy was established (GOV.UK, n.d.). With the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan after 20 years, such gains of Afghan people may be in peril, and terrorists may gain ground in the country once again.
What is next for Britain on the international stage?
After Americans’ rapid pull-out from Afghanistan, questions on the UK’s role in the international arena arose in the British public. To exemplify, Ingham (2021) questions the USA’s ‘America First’ strategy which left NATO allies ‘high and dry’ in Afghanistan, and she argues that the UK’s defence and security understanding should be reassessed too (Ingham, 2021). Whether the UK’s 20 years campaign in Afghanistan can be seen as successful or not can be a controversial issue. However, recent developments may increase ‘isolationist’ voices within the public. Indeed, the UK’s new foreign policy vision following Brexit was released in recent months, and it envisaged a ‘Global Britain’ in a competitive world. Considering the policy paper published in March 2021, it can be understood that the UK seeks to be among leading trading nations, to play a part of a broker in international crises, and to be the super power in science and technology (GOV.UK, 2021). For the British, advancements in science and technology is an important matter for their security as they think that cyberspace will be the new battleground, and a new cyber forces unit is a must to protect Britain (Urundul, 2021). It may also be understood that the UK will continue to increase its military spending for adjusting the British military’s capabilities to the latest technology. Hosting COP26 and G7 Summits in the UK, standing up to Russia when necessary and echoing human rights violations around the world, the British already demonstrated that they will play a more active role in the world. In the new term after Brexit and Afghanistan, it may be expected that the UK will rely on its smart power and try to increase its influence in different geographies with the help of its economic, diplomatic and scientific capabilities. Because the Western way of life is considered to be in danger against autocratic and oppressive regimes around the world, the UK may have to play a bigger part in defending it, but this may not necessarily mean military interventions.
It can be understood from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s remarks in the interview conducted by The Spectator that the British policy makers are aware that the UK is not a ‘superpower’. In the interview, Ben Wallace complained about his country’s inability to field a mass army for 50 years, and he also referred to soft, economic, scientific and cultural elements of power (Balls, 2021). Therefore, it may be argued that the British are aware of their capabilities and they already pursue policies in this direction. Even though the UK may be prepared to defend itself and allies in case of significant military threats, they may attach more significance to diplomacy, trade, technology and innovation than plans for military interventions. This may be a way for the UK to achieve its “Global Britain” aims in a competitive age, but an isolated Britain can be more dangerous for the world where other European powers may be considered too weak to challenge Russia and China, and the USA seems very reluctant to carry out the duty it once performed. Therefore, the British foreign policy makers may find it more convenient to maintain cooperation with the USA and European allies as well as perpetuating their active stance in international politics.
Balls K (2021) ‘Britain is not a Superpower: An interview with Ben Wallace. 4 September. The Spectator. Available at https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/britain-is-not-a-superpower-an-interview-with-ben-wallace.
Dempsey N (2021) Afghanistan statistics: UK deats, casualties, mission costs and refugees. House of Commons Library. Available at https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9298/.
Farrell T (2017) Unwinnable: Britain’s war in Afghanistan, 2001–2014. Random House.
GOV.UK (2021) Global Britain in a Competitive age: The Integrated review of Security, Defence, development and foreign policy. 2 July. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy.
GOV.UK (n.d.) The UK’s work in Afghanistan. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uks-work-in-afghanistan/the-uks-work-in-afghanistan.
Ingham S (2021) With our Closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it’s time to junk the pieties about Britain’s role in the world. Conservative Home. Available at https://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2021/09/sarah-ingham-with-our-closest-nato-ally-leaving-us-high-and-dry-its-time-to-re-assess-the-pieties-about-britains-role-in-the-world.html.
Urundul P (2021) Brexit Sonrası İngiliz Dış Politikası: Yeni Bir Rol. 31 August. Foreign Policy Institute. Available at https://foreignpolicy.org.tr/brexit-sonrasi-ingiliz-dis-politikasi-yeni-bir-rol/.