The Roots of the Allied Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan Start at Home

Months away from the 20th anniversary of the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, President Biden has called for an end to “America’s longest war” and committed to removing American military personnel from Afghanistan. The withdrawal will be coordinated with NATO allies and the United Kingdom, sending our final 750 troops home, and shifting the Western presence in the region from a security-focused mission to a simply humanitarian role. Like the UK Government, the Biden administration has recognised the powerful social forces bearing down on its capacity to govern, and appreciates that the nation’s foreign policy choices must feel more responsive to and integrated with its domestic policy mandate. This decision, just three months into his first term, provides a tangible example of this new conceptual approach in practice.

President Biden is the fourth American leader to have to grapple with the choices around Afghanistan, and it is worth noting that his predecessor, Donald Trump, also came to power on a pledge to “bring our troops home” from the Middle East. Unlike President Trump, however, President Biden has been a keen observer, adviser and scrutiniser of foreign policy for most of his congressional career. This is Biden’s second time in the decision room on Afghanistan policy, and he has been able to witness first-hand the consequences of both scaling down and scaling up America’s military presence in the region. Having resisted President Obama’s decision to surge troops in Afghanistan a decade ago, President Biden now grasps the rare opportunity for a second chance. And with all the benefit of hindsight, he has come to the same conclusion – that “we cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result”.

The long and convoluted history of Presidents’ dashed ambitions to impose a sense of closure on the War on Terror reflects a landscape devoid of easy choices and one which relentlessly imposes tremendous ongoing costs. These costs are, on one level, deeply human, but they are also financial, and increasingly political. There have been many turning points and ruptures in the public mood towards American military interventionism, but the capturing of Osama Bin Laden, whose presence in Afghanistan originally provided the groundswell on which the allied invasion was predicated, was particularly significant. The removal of one of the key hostile actors with resonance amongst ordinary Americans dramatically lowered the salience of the conflict, diminished perceptions of the direct risks posed by international conflicts, and shifted the balance of the cost-benefit analysis in favour of strategic retreat.

The evolution of public opinion towards the deployment of armed forces in the United States has been mirrored in the United Kingdom. The British Foreign Policy Group’s research makes clear that these conflicts are seen by the British people to be interminable, messy, without clear ‘good’ and ‘bad actors’, and extremely costly – at a time when governments are grappling with scarce resources. Certainly, citizens’ views on foreign policy issues are often formed on weak foundations of understanding of the full scope of issues at stake – a responsibility that should lie with the successive governments which have failed to invest in establishing a more open dialogue with citizens about our security choices and trade-offs. In any case, since the 2008 financial crisis, it has become increasingly politically challenging to ask citizens to absorb an extended period of austerity, without anticipating that they may ask questions of the need to engage in military conflicts that no longer feel ‘our own’.

The BFPG’s surveys in January 2021 made clear that most Britons will now only sanction military interventionism under three concrete circumstances – either in the case of a direct attack on British soil, a direct attack on British assets or overseas territories, or in the event of a large-scale humanitarian genocide. And although Britons remain supportive of the UK’s membership of NATO, and willing to uphold the Article 5 covenant when it is explicitly explained as a responsibility of NATO membership, they are increasingly keen to emphasise the importance of burden-sharing amongst all allied nations. When we drill down into the reasons why Britons are becoming more hesitant towards military interventionism, the consistent refrain is that the UK should focus more on its issues at home, that we have no business fighting others’ battles, and that contemporary conflicts are increasingly abstract and without resolution. In short, public opinion on military interventionism in the United Kingdom remains seeped through to the core with the residue of the collective trauma of the War on Terror.

The statements from President Biden, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab this week made clear that, politically, we are miles away from the enthusiastic triumphalist rhetoric and flag-waving of the early days of the War on Terror. Each made a sombre assessment of the precariousness of the situation the Western allies will leave in their wake. Today, the calculation appears to be that both the ‘war’ against the malignant forces in the region, and their oppressive force over human rights, and the ‘peace’ of establishing a new form of democratic governance, have been proven to be practically unachievable and un-winnable. The decision to leave ultimately reflects a sad realisation that the conditions in Afghanistan and the broader region will remain endemically fraught, prone to instability, and without any prospect for decisive signals of sustainable progress.

Plenty of credible foreign policy actors in both Washington and Whitehall are making the compelling case that, despite the widespread and uneasy sense of sober resignation about the capacity of Western nations to overcome such existential threats to their values, their ongoing presence in Afghanistan provides a sense of stability and strategic purpose that will be missed. They argue that, while the situation isn’t improving, and the status quo is one of insecurity and constant danger, the risk of withdrawal is the further deterioration of a fragile environment. And certainly, by historical standards, the allied presence in the region is relatively small, and the costs – in all senses – appear to be considerably more manageable to Western nations to bear.

Yet, President Biden appears to recognise a deeper, more structural price to these choices. The persistent hopelessness the British and American people perceive in the legacy of the allied invasion of the Middle East has contributed to a profound sense of alienation towards their national foreign policy communities, regarded by large swathes of both populations as detached, opaque and unresponsive. Citizens have come to suspect ulterior motives, and the pursuit of so-called ‘strategic interests’ – viewed as paying few direct dividends to ordinary people, nor upholding the values that define their national identities. The consequences of this erosion of public consent towards military interventionism are meaningful – we need only look to the scenes that played out in Westminster in 2013, when British parliamentarians were asked to support military intervention in Syria.

Sadly, the global landscape set out in HMG’s Integrated Review and the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance report is one of evolving, multiplying and fragmenting threats. Despite the shift to ‘grey-zone’ warfare, much of which operates within the digital realm, territorial conflicts are likely to endure and may even intensify as climate change begins to make its presence truly felt in the scarcity of resources and the inhabitability of certain environments. The withdrawal of the Western allies from Afghanistan can be read as a definitive recognition of the urgent need to renew, repair and restore the social and political cultures of advanced democracies, and the power of public opinion in constraining and shaping foreign policy choices. Equally, it also signals the acceptance that situations compelling further military intervention will continue to present themselves in the future, and Western leaders will wish to go to their citizens with their full powers of persuasion to seek their consent. As long as the long shadow of the War on Terror continues to loom large, the first uphill battle will begin at home.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.