02 Sep The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence on Afghanistan: Five Key Insights
On 1 September 2021, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in an emergency session following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the withdrawal of allied troops. The Committee’s interrogation spanned the past, present and future – questioning the preparedness of the Government ahead of the evacuation, the current situation in Afghanistan, and how the UK will manage relations with the Taliban. Here are five key insights from the session:
- The West failed in its intelligence on Afghanistan.
Questions throughout the session were raised regarding why the UK and other allies did not have the correct intelligence to foresee the fall of Kabul in a matter of months following the withdrawal of troops – and was challenged as to why the warnings made in the FCDO’s principal risk report in July of such a collapse was not heeded. Dominic Raab countered that he had 40 meetings over six months regarding the situation in Afghanistan and that intelligence was based on a central assessment from both the Joint Intelligence Committee and the military. He explained that everyone was taken by surprise by the speed in which the situation unfolded, and that this was not a particular weakness on the British side but a collective failure amongst Western allies to gather and interpret information about both the Taliban’s intent and capacity.
- The UK and its allies simply did not have the collective heft and capability to match America’s military and security presence in the region.
Speaking on the decision to withdraw, Dominic Raab reiterated that it was clear that he believed the United States had made up its mind and that our allies had an “optimism bias” that its mind could be changed. He rejected the concept of forming a coalition to maintain a presence in the region as “wishful thinking” and said the notion of scrambling a replacement security aparatus would simply have been beyond the will and capabilities of America’s allies.
- The Home Office is becoming a more substantial pillar in the UK’s foreign policy apparatus.
One of the most significant aspects of the UK’s withdrawal operations has been the evacuation of vulnerable Afghans and the interpreters and other staff that supported the UK’s mission in Afghanistan. The Foreign Secretary defended the decision to have three separate routes of resettlement for Afghan arrivals to the UK as essential to ensuring the security of our borders, arguing that a single channel would undermine the processing system due to the varying needs and risks associated with different migrants and asylum-seekers. The extensive discussions about the evacuation and resettlement process underscores the increasing significance of immigration as an instrument in the UK’s foreign policy arsenal – a year on from the decision to create pathways to citizenship for British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders in Hong Kong.
- The UK will seek to play a brokerage role in facilitating the next phase of international activity in Afghanistan.
Dominic Raab sought to diminish focus on the strains facing the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the United States, and rather highlighted the importance of the UK’s standing as a broker within the international community. He particularly emphasised the role the UK played in securing the UN Security Council resolution on Afghanistan, despite difficulties posed by China and Russia, and in securing commitments from the G7 nations to work together to ensure safe passage for those who wish to leave, to collaborate on counter-terrorism efforts, to encourage regional stability, and to coordinate humanitarian responses. The Foreign Secretary’s framing here reflects the idea set out in the UK’s Integrated Review earlier this year, which positioned the nation as a negotiator, diplomat and a leader amongst equals, promoting collective exposure and burden-sharing.
- The UK’s era of nation-building may be over.
One of the most striking aspects of the Foreign Secretary’s evidence was the reticence he expressed towards the future of the UK’s role in nation-building, drawing a distinction between “promoting liberalism” and building societies from the ground-up. The theory of nation-building has been an important component of the UK’s international strategy, seen as integral to achieving the promotion of the UK’s interests and values, and an area of specific capability for the UK given our particular strengths in designing standards, regulations and governance frameworks. The Foreign Secretary’s remarks suggests that the UK is entering a new era in which we limit the projection of our moral mission to a space of diplomacy and global governance rather than its past expression within our proactive military operations. This shift can be seen as an admission of defeat, but perhaps is driven more by an understanding of the wearing domestic appetite for such activities and a pragmatic assessment of the fragmenting and proliferating risks we face in a period without a singular ideological ‘enemy’.