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.
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”.