‘The most important determinant of strategic culture is recent historical experience’. This was the opinion of Professor Paul Schulte, given during a discussion on The Past and Future of UK Foreign Intervention at the recent FFP launch event. The Iraq war, for example, was influenced by the preceding conflict against Kosovo and the resulting concept of ‘preventative war’. Now, as both Schulte and fellow speaker, Neil Best, agreed, recent experiences in Afghanistan have changed the nature of UK military intervention abroad for at least a generation to come. Whatever the state of Afghanistan when UK troops complete their withdrawal, the result will never be what was originally hoped for, and this failure has repercussions for all future military excursions abroad. In effect, the era of big military intervention is over. If this is the case, what will future UK involvement overseas likely look like? Will we move into a position of isolationism, unwilling to become involved in the affairs of other nations no matter the issue? And if we will no longer be sending large numbers of British troops to war zones, what consequences is this going to have on international affairs?
When it comes to isolationism, the UK is unlikely to retreat completely from the international scene, despite the negative experiences of Afghanistan. For one thing, Britain has a long and entrenched history of shaping global events and this is unlikely to change so drastically. Indeed, students of British history will know that foreign policy is often cyclical. There were numerous times during the twentieth century when the UK sought heavy involvement in the affairs of the Middle East and Asia, only to retreat when it failed to export political and economic stability. The twenty-first century will be no exception to this pattern. In this age of globalisation, isolationism is also an unrealistic option. Instead, as Schulte and Best explained, intervention abroad will still continue, albeit likely in a rather different form. For, whatever the final result, lessons have been learnt from the conflict in Afghanistan, including in regards to tactics, sharing of information and the use of soft skills. Most of all, however, the strategic lesson to be learnt has been one of limitations. Early but limited involvement will inevitably be the order of the day for future foreign interventions. The UK will seek to engage with foreign institutions from an early stage in order to prevent more entrenched problems in the future – helping, for example, to train native troops and strengthen organisations of justice and human rights in troubled countries. UN involvement will also be sought early on in any international crisis (although the recalcitrant attitude of Russia and China will have long-term repercussions on what the UN can actually do).
There will also likely be a greater focus on containment – preventing the over-spill of problems into neighbouring regions. And if the UK is pulled into military engagement in other countries, it will look much different to Afghanistan. It will involve more special forces, fewer boots on the ground and greater use of technology – particularly drones. Drone warfare is controversial, however, as Schulte noted, those who are against the use of drones are often those against military intervention in the first place. Yet these two issues – drone technology and military intervention – need to be disentangled. Whether armed intervention in a foreign country is justified or not, there is an argument to be had that once troops are on the ground, their government has a duty to protect them in any way possible – which would include the use of drones. Importantly, whatever the form of future military intervention and the technology used, it is unlikely to include the promise of after care. Short military strikes followed by quick withdrawal is the future of UK intervention. The French incursion in Mali earlier this year, for example, is likely to be the blue-print for intervention, involving as it did UN backing, collaboration between both foreign and national troops and limited parameters of action.
And what of the consequences of the UK no longer mounting mass military operations overseas? Undoubtedly there will be humanitarian fall-out. As unsavoury as it sounds, in plain terms more people will die as a result of civil war, regional conflict and persecution, at least in the short term. And the west will have to come to terms with the idea that instability will prevail in certain regions of the world. This will make for uncomfortable viewing for a time, but it is to be hoped that out of the chaos, nations will emerge stronger and better for having been left alone to resolve their problems without western interference. The fact is, that Afghanistan has altered the nature of military intervention for the UK for some time to come and while we can try to predict what the future will look like for international affairs, we have yet to realise the full repercussions.