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The Integrated Review and the withdrawal from Afghanistan

The Integrated Review in context: One year on
Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Visiting Professor in the School of Security Studies

28 April 2022

The United States withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaos which surrounded it has been widely credited with encouraging President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The effects of the British evacuation will be less dramatic but have impacted the ambitions described in the Integrated Review (IR). What was lacking was a holistic cross-government consideration of the effects of the withdrawal on British foreign policy in general and the IR in particular.

In the months following its publication the Integrated Review (IR) has faced an ordeal by fire; firstly with the evacuation of Afghanistan, then the AUKUS affair and finally from President Putin’s war in Ukraine.  

The rights and wrongs of leaving Afghanistan after twenty years will be debated for years to come. Whatever the realities on the ground in Afghanistan it is clear that the United States was losing the political will to continue. This was not just the view of President Donald Trump and of his successor Joe Biden but also large swathes of the United States diplomatic and intelligence community. The US military continued to believe in the mission but were vulnerable to the charge of having overstated both their achievements and their expectations over many years.

In Britain the first the public heard of British opposition to the US withdrawal was when Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Sir Nick Carter appeared on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme on 16th April and remarked that it was “not a decision we hoped for”. In August, as the fiasco at Kabul airport unfolded, the cracks in alliance thinking about the Doha Agreement and the planning for the withdrawal became more apparent. Furthermore tensions emerged within the British government, particularly between the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Minimalist references to Afghanistan in the IR

There were only two references in the IR to Afghanistan.

“We have close historical links with Pakistan and will continue to develop a strong, modern relationship focused on security, stability and prosperity. We will continue to support stability in Afghanistan, as part of a wider coalition.” (p.64)


“To disrupt the highest-priority terrorist groups overseas using the full range of our CT capabilities. These include our high-end PURSUE capabilities, through targeted military activity, intelligence-sharing and cooperation with international partners. Under persistent engagement, our armed forces will continue to contribute to the Global Coalition against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, provide support to the Government of Afghanistan and support French operations in the Sahel.” (p.83)

Both mentions are somewhat minimalist given the extent of UK’s diplomatic and military commitment to Afghanistan over the previous 20 years. It is also puzzling that neither paragraph makes an explicit reference to the Doha Agreement which was signed on 29th February 2020, over a year before the IR was published on 22nd March 2021. The wording was doubtless chosen to encompass a range of potential outcomes but evidently not the possibility that the Taliban would take power and that Afghanistan’s role in a CT (Counter Terrorist) context would change so fundamentally.

Organisational impediments

In discussion with HMG officials in the weeks following the Kabul evacuation it became clear that the meagre references to Afghanistan in the IR reflected the reality in Whitehall that Afghanistan was viewed as a “legacy issue”. A senior official described how the policy focus had switched from “the old agenda” of Iraq and Afghanistan to the “four Cs”; China, Cyber, Climate Change and Covid. The Secretary of State at the time, Dominic Raab, was known to regard Afghanistan and Counter Terrorism as subordinate to “great power competition”.

Afghanistan was viewed as a legacy issue.– Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey

In the FCDO there was the additional distraction of two important structural reorganisations. The big one was the integration of the former Department for International Development (DfID) into the former FCO. Guidance had been issued that this crucial (and controversial) development should be given priority. The merger was anything but straightforward. Whilst the FCO had long hankered after DfID’s huge budget and for aligning DfID effort more closely with British foreign policy objectives there was concern in DfID that funding should not be diverted for purely national interests. In the MoD there was also a privately-expressed worry that DfID would bring additional “soft-power” focus to an FCO which was less and less accustomed to (and comfortable with) tough diplomacy.

The second change was the removal of Afghanistan and Pakistan from the former South Asian Directorate and its integration with Iran as a new Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran Directorate (APID). This was less than ideal at the time given that the JCPoA (the Iran nuclear deal) was being renegotiated in Vienna. There was also a gap between the departure of the former Director South Asia and the arrival of the new Director APID. Working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic added to the sense of organisational drift at a time of looming crisis in Afghanistan.

This therefore was the bureaucratic background to a key moment in British foreign policy. In truth there was no chance that HMG could have changed Biden’s mind; indeed Biden’s opposition to the Afghan campaign had a long history. However UK could have used its influence to amend some of the detail including the timetable. A delay of a further two months would have made it far harder for the Taliban to seize power during the Afghan winter. The US decision to abandon huge quantities of military materiel should have been challenged and UK could have done more to predict the effects on the Afghan economy of a Taliban takeover and the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster over winter.

But above all the UK missed a golden opportunity to press the case for a regional settlement to Afghanistan at a time when all Afghanistan’s neighbours plus India and Russia wanted an inclusive administration in Kabul. Only Pakistan still favoured a Taliban government although its position seemed to be softening in the weeks before August 2021.

UK missed a golden opportunity to press the case for a regional settlement to Afghanistan.– Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey

General Carter’s efforts

The only evidence of British activism came from General Carter himself in a determined effort to remedy some of the implications of the Doha Agreement. In his attempts to persuade Pakistan to support a more broad-based government in Afghanistan he relied heavily on Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa who (whatever his private views) proved unable to change Pakistan’s longstanding ambition for a Taliban victory. In Kabul General Carter was also influenced by former President Hamid Karzai whose naïve opinion that the Taliban were “country boys” owed much to his two decades of isolation in Kabul’s green zone. The fact that the terrorist Haqqani group had strengthened its position within the Taliban received insufficient attention in Whitehall. Indeed, during this whole process, Carter needed heavyweight FCDO support to avoid the myriad diplomatic pitfalls. He received that support in Pakistan but, for much of the time, the Ambassador’s position in Kabul was also gapped.

Nobody seems to have taken a holistic view of the wider effects on British foreign policy.– Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Even General Carter’s valiant efforts still viewed Afghanistan in isolation as a self-standing issue. Nobody seems to have taken a holistic view of the wider effects on British foreign policy and the implications for the IR. The most immediate connection was with UK’s Counter Terrorist requirements which were considerably weakened by the loss of a reliable and secure base in Afghanistan.

UK’s ambitions for enhanced relations with India and the wider Indo-Pacific were also at stake. India had been mentioned 17 times in the IR and the related concept of the Indo-Pacific on a further 32 occasions. One key extract reads:

“The UK-India relationship is already strong, but over the next ten years we seek transformation in our cooperation across the full range of our shared interests. India – as the largest democracy in the world – is an international actor of growing importance.” (p.64)

And on the Indo-Pacific:

“Indo-Pacific: we will pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific in support of shared prosperity and regional stability, with stronger diplomatic and trading ties. This approach recognises the importance of powers in the region such as China, India and Japan and also extends to others including South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. We will seek closer relations through existing institutions such as ASEAN and seek accession to the CPTPP” (p.24)

The impact on IR ambitions

The ambition for UK-India relations was considerable, especially given that the relationship has underperformed over the past 75 years. However, HMG was determined to seize a rare moment when two Prime Ministers enjoyed a good personal and political relationship and at a time when it seemed that the UK had finally managed to de-hyphenate its Indo-Pakistan relations. Indeed this was one of the key reasons for the FCDO to separate Pakistan and Afghanistan from the new Indo-Pacific Directorate.

However the withdrawal from Afghanistan has inflicted some damage to UK’s reputation in New Delhi. To Indian eyes, it signalled a waning British interest in an issue of fundamental importance to India. Not only is Afghanistan on India’s putative trade route to Central Asia but the Taliban are also close to several terrorist groups which directly target India in Kashmir and more widely; including the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and the Jaish-Mohammed (JM). The UK’s knowledge of Afghanistan and regional terrorism was highly valued in New Delhi.

To Indian eyes, it signalled a waning British interest.– Professor Tim Willasey-Wilsey

Even more importantly the British withdrawal from Afghanistan will inevitably breathe new life into the UK-Pakistan bilateral relationship because, without its Afghan presence, the UK is going to be more reliant on Pakistan for Counter-Terrorist support. If this begins to look anything like re-hyphenation then UK can expect a return to New Delhi’s traditional scepticism about Britain’s balancing of relations between India and Pakistan.

In other areas of the Indo-Pacific the withdrawal from Afghanistan might even be welcomed. In Singapore, Japan and South Korea there has long been frustration that Whitehall was too fixated on its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan detracting from a sufficiently clear focus on the challenges presented by a rising China.

AUKUS and Ukraine may provide opportunities for Britain to overcome the Afghan debacle and lay to rest the charge that it represented “the biggest foreign policy failure since Suez” However one of the most disappointing aspects is that insufficient cross-government rigour was brought to bear on the wider implications for an IR which had been published only months before.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG is Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London and was a senior British diplomat who served in Pakistan and focussed on the South Asian region from 1993 to 2008. Tim writes for a number of newspapers, websites and journals in the United States, Britain and India.

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