Afghanistan and the UK’s Illusion of Strategy

Former US President George W Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at a joint news conference in 2002. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The tragedy in Afghanistan offers a sobering story for the UK, as it embarks on its ‘Global Britain’ future in the 2020s.

There will be a great deal of national soul-searching as the tragedy in Afghanistan unfolds before us. Even as Parliament is recalled this week, anger, guilt, cynicism, weasel words and historical comparisons will echo loudly through the national debate.

For all the good that UK military and aid personnel did over 20 years in Afghanistan – and they certainly did quite a lot – there will also be many ugly truths to confront. One of the most unpalatable may not emerge very easily. The fact is that for two decades UK national leaders pretended, to themselves as much as to everyone else, that they were enacting a national strategy for Afghanistan. In reality, they were operating little more than the UK’s tactics within a US strategy over which they had next to no influence.

Strategic Moments

The key strategic choice is always the first one. And that was made instinctively in 2001, almost on the hoof, the day after 9/11, when Tony Blair lined up with George Bush – ‘shoulder to shoulder’ – to cooperate in the removal of the Taliban government of Afghanistan that had hosted Al-Qa’ida. After that, the UK was committed; the only question was the form this commitment would take and the size of the national stake in it.

The next strategic choice was not meaningfully addressed at all. Having removed the Taliban, the Western allies could have gone for the ‘dagger through the brown envelope’ option – to leave a metaphorical note on the table before leaving which said, ‘don’t let international terrorists operate from your country again, or we’ll be back’. In strategic terms, it would have said, in effect, that we don’t care who runs Afghanistan and we have no intrinsic quarrel with the repulsive Taliban, as long as the country does not become a base for international jihadist terror groups. But after the generally successful liberal interventions elsewhere during the previous decade, the sheer cynicism of such a strategically hard-nosed view was impossible to articulate.

So, the allies committed to helping a new Afghanistan emerge. This would have been the strategic moment to bring the defeated and splintered Taliban into a new government as junior partners – to co-opt them when they were weak and to isolate the most militant Taliban leaders outside the Kabul government. Professionals from the Foreign Office argued for this, but the Bush administration would not hear of it. Nor would US policymakers – although not their field commanders – take a more realistic view of how to prevent Pakistan from driving the inner conflicts in Afghanistan and sponsoring the Taliban’s revival.

Troops were committed; development projects began and predictably ran out of steam quite quickly. Then, just when the Western allies needed to commit fully to their objectives in Afghanistan, the Bush administration shifted its attention to a contrived attack on Iraq, with the UK (and Australia) as its only military partners. Again, the Blair government felt it had no choice but to support a dramatic US strategic gamble in Iraq. It became the West’s central counter-insurgency campaign through to the eventual withdrawal in 2011.

UK attention switched back to Afghanistan after 2006 because that mission was by then facing strategic failure. The UK’s troop commitment to Helmand was initially capped at 3,100 but rapidly rose to 10,000, and the pattern was set – repeated every six months as each successive brigade rotated through the operation.

As it went forward, politicians always had trouble getting the public to accept that the UK was ‘fighting in Afghanistan to keep terrorists off our streets’ – chiefly because it wasn’t true. There were constant jihadist attacks and plots in the UK during these years, largely inspired and planned from the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, from Yemen and Somalia, from Uzbekistan, from Iraq and then from Syria and Libya, and indeed, from the UK’s own inner cities. The UK’s military commitment in Afghanistan was barely relevant to the origins of jihadist terror plots or the way they evolved – except insofar as it helped shape the jihadist narrative that justified them.

In truth, UK forces were operating in Afghanistan for a complex mixture of reasons: to save a failing US strategy; to give Afghanistan’s long-suffering society a chance; to demonstrate commitment to Western ideals of law and international stability; to help hold the line against predatory Russian and Chinese geopolitical influence in South Asia; and above all, to demonstrate to Washington that the UK remained its most reliable and most significant military ally.

Yet the hard truth of this position was that having taken on Helmand and the counter-narcotics brief as the UK’s ‘national contribution’ to the international campaign, UK forces jealously guarded their independence of action in Helmand, without ever having the means to make any real strategic choices one way or another. The UK neither had the political room to reduce its commitment nor the resources to increase it to any effect. It was the ‘coping and hoping’ approach – holding on to tactical gains while waiting for something to go our way among the big players. Strategic choice rested with the US in Kabul and in the weight of political and economic resources that Washington could choose to bring to bear – or not.

UK politicians spoke of their ‘strategy’ for Afghanistan, but this was no more than a twice-yearly repetition of a tactical foothold, while waiting first to see whether the US could engineer an effective Afghan government in Kabul; then, what sort of ‘surge’ the US envisaged in 2009 to get the mission finished; and then what date Washington would set for an end to combat operations. David Cameron did decide to draw down the UK contingent in Helmand in 2010, and this was completed in 2014. However, everything was designed to stay in step with the US timetable.

Finally, the UK’s leaders watched with trepidation as the Trump administration initiated disastrous negotiations with the Taliban in Doha that gave away every card in the US’s hand at the outset, agreeing a set date for US withdrawal before the Taliban negotiators had offered anything. And UK officials have watched in sheer dismay as former President Trump’s negotiating failure was turned into a political rout by President Biden’s determination to reinforce it. Trump was settling for what was readily on offer back in 2001, but Biden has settled for something strategically worse than the situation prior to the 9/11 attacks – a Taliban state, with terror groups already baked into it, with nowhere else to turn for major support other than Beijing.

Just as the ultimate strategic winner from the US invasion of Iraq was Iran, so the ultimate strategic winner from the Afghan intervention is likely to be China, largely through the Afghanistan–Pakistan axis it will be able to create to further its influence and economic reach across Central and South Asia.

Strategic Consequences

All of this is another tragedy for Afghanistan and a sobering story for the UK as it embarks on its ‘Global Britain’ future in the 2020s. It marks the end of the UK’s fourth Afghan War, the first of which began in 1839. The UK’s first three Afghan wars were marked by many political reversals and some gruesome battlefield defeats, but in all three cases London’s strategic objectives were achieved: Russia was kept out of India’s north-western frontier. In this fourth Afghan war, there were no battlefield defeats – indeed, the UK enjoyed tactical success throughout – but as is painfully evident, there has been a complete failure to achieve strategic objectives.

Taking a long-term perspective, we might conclude that the UK’s overriding grand strategy has simply been to stick with the US – good or bad, right or wrong, and through thick and thin. Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Jim Callaghan, Harold Macmillan and perhaps even Clement Atlee might have done the same thing in the circumstances of 9/11. And that may turn out to be sound reasoning, notwithstanding the fact that US–UK relations have never been entirely unconditional. (Consider, for instance, how the UK distanced itself from US policy in Vietnam for more than a decade from 1963–75.) Nevertheless, if the UK’s grand strategy in Afghanistan has been driven by a fundamental desire to stay close to the US, then the UK naturally shares more than most in the ignominy of Washington’s defeat.

But the US can ride the effects of a strategic defeat far more easily than the UK. The US remains a strategically significant player in all parts of the world and on all issues in which it chooses to take an interest. Retreat from Afghanistan does not, in itself, constitute a national US retreat. For the UK, however, its share in this defeat cannot easily be offset against other geopolitical successes. This week’s ignominy may be set instead against some of the blithe statements made just six months ago in the Integrated Review: that the UK will be ‘a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation’; that it already demonstrates a ‘willingness to confront serious challenges and the ability to turn the dial on international issues of consequence’; that the UK will embody ‘a sharper and more dynamic focus in order to adapt to a more competitive and fluid international environment’; and that it will ‘shape the international order of the future’.

The UK’s Afghanistan experience demonstrates none of this. Instead, it speaks to a generation of political leaders who have too easily fooled themselves that being Washington’s most reliable military ally constitutes in itself an effective national strategy. Such a relationship may be one element of an effective strategy, but it cannot simply be the strategy.

As a result of the tragedy in Afghanistan, Western democracies will take a big credibility hit in the eyes of the autocracies and the uncommitted of the world. It may result in more challenges to the status quo as the West’s adversaries test the resolve of a wounded US to uphold its ‘values’ when its own hard interests are not directly at stake. It is not difficult to envisage circumstances in areas such as Southeast Europe, the Mediterranean, East Africa or the South China Sea where new challenges might arise. If that begins to happen, policymakers across Whitehall should take another hard look at the Integrated Review and decide just how much ‘Global Britain’ can exercise independent influence at a strategic level.

Recent history in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Afghanistan indicates that the going is getting tougher for Western democracies as they try to maintain the liberal democratic status quo. The UK has been involved in all these struggles, but its inability to make a strategic difference to any of them should – after the anger, the guilt, the cynicism and the weasel words – be something that the policy establishment might reflect on more honestly.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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