Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

After Afghanistan

2014 is the last year of British military involvement in Afghanistan and the end of a long phase of ‘nation-building’ efforts since 9/11. While David Cameron has unconvincingly declared ‘mission accomplished’, in reality the next Labour government will wrestle with an agonising set of dilemmas about the UK’s future involvement in stabilising failed and failing states. Iraq and Afghanistan cast a long shadow.

Does Labour, given our recent history, have a heightened long-term responsibility to the people of an Iraq in turmoil and an Afghanistan that may yet slide back into civil war? Do the disappointments of Basra and Helmand mean we should avoid sustained British military commitments of their sort or draw lessons to ensure our efforts elsewhere enjoy greater success? And should British foreign policy prioritise the countries where the risks to those populations and international stability are objectively the gravest, or focus primarily on those states where we have the deepest relationships and longest historic ties? In future articles in the series we will explore the development and diplomatic dimensions of these questions in greater depth, as well as broader quandaries about the future of the British military. But the news over the Christmas period – from the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria and beyond – makes these among the most urgent questions facing the foreign policy shadow team as politics resumes this month.

Two leaders’ responses to the last decade’s experiences in the Greater Middle East illuminate why this remains such a bitter debate inside the left.

Excerpts from former US defence secretary Robert Gates’ controversial memoir, with its claims that he ‘doubted Obama’s support’ for the troops’ mission in Afghanistan, have reinforced the picture of a president who was never comfortable with the lengthy deployment of American military power or its focus on counterinsurgency. While the president fought his first election campaign on the claim that Afghanistan was the right war and Iraq the wrong one, he has ultimately conflated them as one long mistake. With success now defined around how to withdraw in a face-saving fashion, drone strikes and the upgrading of US capacities to defend its allies in east Asia have been given the nod over long-term bases in Afghanistan, and there has been a profound hesitation about taking on any new commitments. Although targeted killings have been pursued with alacrity from Yemen to Pakistan, in more complex cases the default White House position has been inaction. When Barack Obama wondered aloud ‘How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?’, no one believed it was because he was drawn to deeper involvement in the heart of Africa.

Another president of the left has become the reluctant symbol of the alternative approach. After coming to power pledging an expedited drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, François Hollande has since committed France to high-risk missions in Mali and the Central African Republic and been willing to go out on a limb over Syria. Against a backdrop of acute budget pressures and lagging polls, he has maintained a robust conception of French responsibilities to avert genocide, save states from collapse and prevent civil war, particularly in France’s traditional sphere of influence.

Obama and Hollande differ on these questions in part because they have drawn radically divergent lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq. For one, it is that the west has been dangerously overreliant on the use of military power to shape outcomes in the world and no longer has the public will to sustain it. For the other, it is that the mistakes of the past can change how we exercise our foreign responsibilities, but can’t alter their fundamental nature. The Élysée has concluded that the recent failures of military power to achieve major transformations in the Middle East do not nullify its value to more limited operations in Africa when there are no good alternatives.

We know that Ed Miliband is much closer to the Obama analysis about the past, but we can hope he may yet prove a little closer to Hollande about the future. When Labour last took office, Britain was in the midst of successful stabilisation efforts in the Balkans and would soon go on to oversee a decisive intervention in Sierra Leone. If Miliband becomes prime minister a few months after British troops end their long deployment in Afghanistan he will face a very different context. After its achievements in Bosnia and Kosovo, the British military went into southern Iraq believing that its extensive experience in Northern Ireland and longer-ingrained lessons from colonial administration in Malaya and elsewhere left it better placed than the Americans to do ‘population-centric’ security. By the time British troops were handing over their responsibilities in southern Afghanistan, this belief had largely evaporated and the reputation had long been lost.

Yet despite its bleak experiences in Helmand and Basra and significant budget cuts, Britain’s remains one of the only militaries with the capacity for high-intensity and enduring interventions: our responsibility to act outstrips that of other countries because our ability to act does too. Moreover, the UK’s historic sphere of influence stretches to a quarter of the globe and both those populations and the significant British expatriate communities they host have legitimate expectations of our continued concern.

Given those two factors, should a Labour government be ready to engage again to maintain stability in an Afghanistan that could see its security seriously unravel in 2015, or have we exhausted not just public sympathy but realistic avenues for impact? Should the UK engage more regularly in operations with Europe’s other principal military power, even in countries that form part of France’s traditional sphere of influence? Does the end of the UK’s commitment in Afghanistan provide a fresh opportunity to support EU-badged missions and even a return to more active involvement in UN peacekeeping operations? Have we struck the right balance between the military and civilian aspects of state-building in recent interventions?

If Labour had hoped to escape the worst of these dilemmas with an election happening the year after the Afghanistan withdrawal we have miscalculated just how live so many of these crises will remain. A new government committed to building one nation will soon find itself debating just how many others it must stop from failing.


Questions to discuss 

1) What are the main lessons to draw from the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq?

2) Does 2014 mark the end of an era for the British military or the start of a new phase?

3) How should we pick which crises to prioritise? Those which are the worst, those where our chances of successful resolution are highest, or those in Britain’s traditional sphere of influence?


Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall


Photo: Soliders Media Center


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Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He tweets @ajwsmall


  • Questions to discuss [Addendum]:
    4. Ask the troops what they think about all this [hint: Gen Doughnits persmisso first is advsable]

  • UK voters at GE May 7 2014 will be shivering from another cold Winter. Survival from the elements not the elementals will be uppermost for 65% of voters. A war scenario is always a possibility, but UK has some good military types to look after that. What the ordinary Joe will vote for is the party who gives him or her a decent job to pay for his kids’ welfare — without any State help whatsoever. Where are the jobs? EDs 2015 Manifesto.(1) Create Jobs not War and (2) Ban War

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