Does the retreat of Afghan forces in the absence of UK and US forces dictate an error in judgement of British and American foreign, security and defence practitioners? Of course it does not. The UK nor its military counterparts can wage an endless military campaign in Afghanistan and the UK certainly cannot do so alone.
The myopic spectator who insists on regurgitating popular discourse will suggest that the recent surge of violence across Afghanistan, coupled with Afghan troops retreating into neighbouring Tajikistan, presents conclusive evidence that the UK, US and other NATO forces were wrong to withdraw, have deserted Afghan security forces and made redundant their two-decade fight against the Taliban. Military officials are right to be alarmed by the pace of Afghan security forces’ retreat, and whilst concerns that this will stifle security arrangements are not altogether mistaken, it is facile to suggest that the UK should have maintained its military presence.
Whilst the cessation of conflict will always be rife with difficult trade-offs, the trade-off between counter-terrorism and the cessation of war is arguably one of the most difficult calculations. Nevertheless, elongated military responses can crowd out other forms of intervention and have baleful legacies, detrimental to long-term peace.
In the deal brokered between the Taliban, the US and its NATO allies, Western troops agreed to withdraw from the country in exchange for the Taliban’s agreement to prohibit any extremist groups to operate in areas under its control. The Taliban did not, however, agree to a ceasefire between itself and Afghan forces.
The success was in UK and coalition forces having succeeded in their original mission, stated twenty years ago, to reform Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists. With this mission complete, further international military presence would likely cause more harm than good. Moreover, having the UK and US situated as external actors allows them to assume a privileged position on account of no longer forming a warring group. As such, the US deal with the Taliban and corresponding UK, US and NATO withdrawal paves the way for a meaningful peace process in Afghanistan, albeit balanced with cautious oversight, which the UK Foreign Secretary is right to welcome.
Ultimately, UK decision-making exhibits a considered response to the ever-evolving situation in Afghanistan, with the UK being “involved in ongoing discussions with US and international allies regarding the future of our support to Afghanistan,” according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Defence. Moreover, during President Ghani’s 2019 visit to the UK, £170 million in humanitarian aid was pledged by the UK government to support millions of civilians in Afghanistan over the following five years. The UK has far from deserted the people of Afghanistan.
The road to peace in Afghanistan will be long and arduous but a continued military presence would not have negated this hardship. The threats to the UK from violence, extremism and illegal migration have been suppressed and it is time for British troops to return home.
Headlines may attempt to condemn the British withdrawal, but peacebuilding will never be straightforward or without its setbacks. The UK, US and other allied forces should be vigilant of the situation and may need to change tack in the future, but for now fear-mongering should not be allowed to cloud the UK’s judgement.