18 August 2021

The Costs and Consequences of the War in Afghanistan

Anthony Salamone on the Afghanistan crisis and its illustration of the realities of conducting Scottish foreign policy as an independent state

Anthony Salamone

The stunning and disturbing scenes in Afghanistan over recent days have been captivating and terrible in equal measure. As the world watched, the Afghan Government seemed to disintegrate at breathtaking speed. The people of Afghanistan are now faced with grave uncertainty on the new direction and future of their country – and what role they may have in deciding either of them.

While the ongoing worldwide debate on Afghanistan has many facets, the focus must remain on the Afghan people. The instability, fear, desperation and suffering which much of the population endures – from the present crisis, and of course from long before it – are neither acceptable nor compatible with the international community’s collective aspiration for global peace and security. However, the brutal truth is that much of the world will view the situation in Afghanistan through national interest and foreign policy considerations. The fate of Afghans will have a subordinate place to geostrategic calculations. The realities of international relations are often unforgiving.

Scotland is involved in Afghanistan. At present, the Scottish Parliament and Government do not make foreign or defence policy. Nevertheless, we are an integral part of the United Kingdom, which has performed a leading role in US-led efforts in Afghanistan since 2001 – and which has a long and difficult relationship with the country. In that regard, on the foreign policy aspects of the independence debate, our relationship with Afghanistan is not purely hypothetical. We are already involved – the question is how that involvement would be or would have been different if Scotland were an independent state. Exploration of this question yields an informative illustration of how a Scottish state would fit into the world and how its foreign policy would be shaped in practice.

Imperatives of US politics and foreign policy

The extensive engagement of European states in Afghanistan over the past two decades – most prominently, militarily, but also in other ways – begins and ends with the United States. Having activated Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in response to the 9/11 attacks, the US had called upon NATO allies, and non-NATO allies, to contribute to a collective defence and security response. Directly in Afghanistan, this response took principal shape in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2001–2014 and its successor Resolute Support Mission (RSM) from 2014 until last month. The mandate for such intervention was originally UN Security Council resolutions and subsequently authorisations from the Afghan Government. Alongside the US, its allies invested in the development of the Afghan state, its institutions and infrastructure. It was prudent to internalise, however, that the Afghanistan mission was at its core an American one.

Ultimately, the US Government decided that the mission was over. The context for the trajectory towards withdrawal from Afghanistan, the eventual withdrawal and the present evacuation has been well rehearsed. After nearly two decades, American public support for military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan was exhausted (though the Biden administration has taken a different approach in Iraq, maintaining a relabelled residual presence). As candidate, Biden pledged to end in the War in Afghanistan and, as president, he chose to do so expeditiously. In his speech on Monday, President Biden contended that the objective in Afghanistan should have always been only counterterrorism, not nation building. The underlying message was clear: it is time to refocus US foreign policy and prioritise countering the ‘strategic competitors’ of China and Russia.

Yet, regardless of US strategic aims, the current reality in Afghanistan – the complete collapse of the government and military, the ensuing chaos and the frenetic international evacuation – is a significant embarrassment, if not humiliation, for the United States. Distinctions are being made between the general decision to withdraw and its actual execution, particularly with respect to timing and manner. Recriminations are developing around the possibilities of alternative futures that did not involve the collapse of the Afghan republic. More pointedly, the unilateral nature of the final withdrawal timetable must concern European allies of the US. Reports suggest that, despite their investments in Afghanistan, NATO members were largely presented with a fait accompli by the United States on the approach to withdrawal. It was notable that, in his speech, Biden made no reference to the contributions or sacrifices of US allies in Afghanistan. Around one third of all coalition military fatalities were allied soldiers. His only mention of allies at all was to comment on how the US was assisting in the evacuation of allied civilian personnel from Kabul.

These days, the recurring impression of the United States is of a nation which is beleaguered and distracted. The Biden administration surely aspires to develop and implement a cogent foreign policy, after the Trump administration’s inchoate oscillations. However, irrespective of whether the White House discounts it as an unfortunate eventuality in the service of grand strategy, the collapse of Afghanistan as it was can only damage the credibility of the US in the world. The domestic political ramifications of the situation over the longer term remain unclear. Attention turns to the 2022 US federal midterm elections but, given the inward focus of American politics of late, it seems more plausible that issues at home will matter far more than developments abroad. These circumstances reinforce the latent notion that the United States could view Scottish independence, were it to take place, as yet another international distraction. Scotland’s priority would surely be then to dispel the negative connotations associated with change and disruption to the UK and to emphasise the distinct positive contributions which it could make to global affairs.

Relations between the US and European allies

The collapse and crisis in Afghanistan could equally damage cohesion within NATO. European allies invested in the reconstruction and statebuilding of Afghanistan at the US’s encouragement, only for the US to decree withdrawal and then to mismanage the withdrawal. While not possessing a desire to remain in Afghanistan militarily indefinitely, NATO and non-NATO partners must have hoped to ensure the longevity of the political, economic and social gains – however tenuous or fragmented – which they have supported since 2001. Instead, they are now urgently evacuating Afghanistan and wondering what, if any, progress will endure. The United States ostensibly has the aspiration for Europe to assume greater responsibility for its own defence and for it to manage regional challenges to some degree, enabling the US to concentrate more on the Indo-Pacific. That division of responsibilities, while also maintaining the Alliance, will be harder to achieve if trust between the US and its European allies is diminished over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

European governments are acquainted with the nature of US foreign policy and recent trends in American politics. Nevertheless, the Afghanistan episode could prompt more reserved responses the next time the United States turns to its extended family of allies for support and sacrifice – in the initial phase or on longer investments. Some might contend that, given the waned appetite for military conflict among the American public, a similar exercise is unlikely to be repeated in any event. However, such an approach misses the point. One day in the future, the US will turn to NATO and other allies for a significant international response – whatever the exact circumstances, engaging conventional military or otherwise. How will Europe respond? How would Scotland?

It is always challenging to predict with any degree of confidence how Scotland would conduct its foreign and defence policies as a state, beyond basic principles, given that both the foreign affairs debate in Scottish politics and the foreign policy aspects of the independence debate are underdeveloped. We can envision that Scotland would join the EU and NATO – though neither choice is guaranteed. Becoming a state in the world would force Scotland to confront the realities of modern geopolitics often ignored in Scottish politics. Real foreign policy is about more than making speeches or dispensing funding. If Scotland had been independent prior to 2001 and a NATO member, we would have participated in ISAF along with the US and our other allies. In truth, we have participated in the Afghanistan mission through the UK – politically, militarily, diplomatically and via international organisations, NGOs and the media. Scotland has and will continue to pay a cost, above all in the 456 UK military fatalities registered in the war.

To consider a hypothetical and retrospective independent Scottish contribution to the War in Afghanistan, it is logical to assess the roles of Denmark and Norway. Scotland could reasonably resemble these states in defence terms. Collectively, 12,000 Danish soldiers and 9,200 Norwegian soldiers served in Afghanistan. According to NATO ‘placemats’, snapshot ISAF deployment numbers peaked at 780 soldiers for Denmark and 600 for Norway. Denmark registered 44 military fatalities and Norway 10 military fatalities, along with hundreds of wounded each. Both states also invested in Afghanistan in terms of diplomacy and international development. Norway opened an embassy in Kabul in 2001, followed later by Denmark in 2006. Since 2001, Norway has contributed over $1.35 billion in development aid for Afghanistan. For several years, Afghanistan was the largest recipient of aid from Denmark. In 2019, Denmark gave $73 million and Norway $79 million of net Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Afghanistan. Danish and Norwegian NGOs, businesses and other organisations have also operated in the country over that time.

With the collapse of Afghan institutions, the legacy of those contributions is in doubt. In response to the crisis, both embassies have been closed; citizens and associated Afghans are being evacuated; ongoing and future development projects are at risk. Had Scotland been independent, we can imagine a similar history: 10,000 – 12,000 Scottish forces serving in Afghanistan overall; a peak of 500-750 troops deployed at any one time; up to 50 fatalities and hundreds of wounded; an Embassy of Scotland opened in Kabul; hundreds of millions of dollars in military, diplomatic and development spending. With the crisis, Scotland would close its embassy; evacuate its citizens and Afghans who assisted Scotland, the EU and NATO; prepare for new refugees from Afghanistan; and revaluate its approach to aid for the country. Beyond the specific powers of the Scottish Parliament and Government, do Scottish politics and society as they exist today have the mindset to face such circumstances as the Afghan crisis? This question demands serious and profound reflection.

Implications for the politics of Europe

The Afghan Government’s collapse and the resulting instability in Afghanistan will raise major concerns for the European Union and other European actors, including the UK. The future of democracy, women’s rights and the rights of minorities in Afghanistan will be focal points of the political and diplomatic response. Nevertheless, the fact is that one subject will preoccupy many European politicians more than any other: migration. In geographical terms, from Afghanistan it is easier to reach Europe than the United States. External inward migration remains a contentious political issue within the EU and elsewhere in Europe. At present, European states are prioritising the evacuation and resettlement of Afghans who worked with them, along with their relatives, and other individuals at obvious risk. Such efforts are warranted, but they will hardly be sufficient.

The EU and other European actors should prepare to accommodate substantial numbers of new Afghan refugees beyond the evacuation. Some EU Member States may be more forthcoming than others. Moreover, history suggests that the EU will pursue avenues to limit or hinder anticipated waves of migration from Afghanistan into Europe over the months and years ahead. Barely two weeks ago, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and others argued that Afghan asylum-seekers with refused applications should still be deported back to Afghanistan. The EU will have to decide whether it perpetuates the migration politics of the 2010s or forges an alternative direction.

Were Scotland an independent state and an EU member, how would it respond to the question of renewed migration from Afghanistan? We should be straightforward about our circumstances. Scotland is an island nation on the periphery of Western Europe. We have never had to cope with large and sustained external migration like Greece, Italy or Malta has faced. Our population growth is currently dependent on inward migration. The Scottish Parliament and Government do not make immigration policy at present. General expressions of support for migration to Scotland should be understood in this context. What if we were not on the periphery of Europe? What if we did not need immigration for population growth? We should be honest that attitudes to migration in Scottish politics and society could be different. Beyond its crisis evacuation, how many new refugees would Scotland take from Afghanistan, and over what period of time: 500, 1000, 2000?

The War in Afghanistan and its dramatic conclusion – in which Scotland is already involved – provides a vivid demonstration of Scotland’s global role if it were an independent state. It is reasonable to imagine that Scotland would have made a distinct, if modest overall, contribution to the US-led mission in Afghanistan. We would face the Afghan crisis which the rest of the world is now facing. The Scottish-US bilateral relationship could experience strain from disagreement with the US’s approach to the Afghanistan withdrawal. We would make our contributions to the inevitable EU debate on whether to intensify efforts to achieve European strategic autonomy as a result. Scottish foreign policy would surely strive to uphold our values and interests, but it would be shaped by global headwinds and our own domestic politics. Our debates on foreign policy generally and foreign policy with independence will improve when we internalise the realities of international relations and our relationships to the European, transatlantic and global arenas.

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