Interview

‘Europe Runs the Risk of Becoming a Global Strategic Victim’

Retired British Gen. Richard Barrons warns that the United Kingdom and European Union can no longer simply rely on the United States for their security.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
uk soldiers afghanistran
British soldiers march through the streets following a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan on Dec. 1, 2010 in Blackburn, England. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

On the 102nd anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Great Britain on Thursday, British soldiers and diplomats were frantically evacuating Britons and Afghan helpers from Kabul’s international airport. Back in London, meanwhile, members of Parliament had just held a searing all-day session examining what went wrong for NATO in Afghanistan—and what Britain’s role in the world really is today, especially considering that its efforts to form and lead a successor mission had failed miserably.

Retired Gen. Richard Barrons, who commanded Britain’s Joint Forces Command until 2016, served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, his commands included the International Security Assistance Force’s reintegration unit, tasked with incentivizing Taliban fighters to surrender their weapons and take up civilian jobs. “The idea is that you get the whole community benefiting and turning against the insurgency,” Barrons explained at the time. That scheme didn’t last, nor, of course, did other ones aiming to reform Afghan society.

Barrons remains known as one of the British military’s most strategic thinkers.

On the 102nd anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence from Great Britain on Thursday, British soldiers and diplomats were frantically evacuating Britons and Afghan helpers from Kabul’s international airport. Back in London, meanwhile, members of Parliament had just held a searing all-day session examining what went wrong for NATO in Afghanistan—and what Britain’s role in the world really is today, especially considering that its efforts to form and lead a successor mission had failed miserably.

Retired Gen. Richard Barrons, who commanded Britain’s Joint Forces Command until 2016, served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, his commands included the International Security Assistance Force’s reintegration unit, tasked with incentivizing Taliban fighters to surrender their weapons and take up civilian jobs. “The idea is that you get the whole community benefiting and turning against the insurgency,” Barrons explained at the time. That scheme didn’t last, nor, of course, did other ones aiming to reform Afghan society.

Barrons remains known as one of the British military’s most strategic thinkers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisabeth Braw: In Parliament this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged the “hard reality” that “the West could not continue this U.S.-led mission … without American logistics, without U.S. air power, and without American might.” Is he right?

Richard Barrons: Yes. We need to confront the reality that NATO without the U.S. is a very limited concept and very limited force. In Afghanistan, there was enthusiasm from the U.K. and one or two other European countries to pick up the mantle that the U.S. was putting down, but when they looked at it, they found that even if they could find the infantry they simply couldn’t field the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; the command and control; the logistics; and the training that supported the Afghan army. They couldn’t even get themselves to Afghanistan and sustain themselves, let alone sustain an Afghan army of 300,000.

We also need to recognize that Afghanistan is [hundreds of] miles from the sea. This mission has never been tenable except with the cooperation of Pakistan for logistics support. Even if we could have fielded the forces, it would have required the cooperation of Pakistan in its moment of triumph.

But the wider question is phenomenally important, and if there’s anything genuinely strategic that comes out of the Afghan debacle, it is that the world we’re going to inhabit, a world that is dominated by the rise of China and the centrality of Asia, a world of profound instability and population growth and climate change, and the transformative ability of good and ill of the digital age, in this world we Europeans are telling ourselves that our future is far more challenging and far more uncertain.

And yet we have just illustrated very colorfully that we have neither the will nor the means to intervene even in a very limited set of circumstances to protect our security, our prosperity, and our interests. Until it addresses that imbalance, Europe runs the risk of becoming a global strategic victim.

The price to impose a decisive outcome on Afghanistan is so enormous, and so much greater than its strategic value, that inevitably, when the going gets hard, people tend to give up.

EB: And that means that if the U.K. canvassed its member partners now that we’re seeing the chaos caused by the U.S. absence, it wouldn’t have any more success?

RB: No, because the capability doesn’t exist. But we need to distinguish between the problem of Afghanistan and the problem of Europe. The problem of Afghanistan is that it’s a very hard environment, it’s very difficult to get to, and it just doesn’t matter enough. It’s by no stretch of the imagination a vital strategic interest to Europe. The conundrum Afghanistan has faced for hundreds of years, from a Western perspective, is that the price you have to pay—in terms of force, money, blood, reputation—to impose a decisive outcome on Afghanistan is so enormous, and so much greater than its strategic value, that inevitably, when the going gets hard, people tend to give up.

But in the world going forward, things will occur that are genuinely of strategic importance to Europe. These are things to which we must respond and for which we’ll need the capability. We need to distinguish between a world where we respond to something that’s a bit peripheral—which is what Afghanistan was—and a world where we respond to something that really matters. Lacking capability to respond to something that matters is really serious and needs to be addressed.

EB: So how do Europeans address it? The U.S. has a defense budget of more than $700 billion, whereas the U.K., France, and Germany are around $50 billion.

RB: Our security is only affordable and deliverable through collective security, and that has to mean more than sitting on the shirttails of the U.S. taxpayer. But holding our end of the log doesn’t just mean more investment in ships and tanks and aircraft. One of the cheapest things you can do with very capable European forces is help partners abroad build their own capacity. But securing our interests involves a lot more than the armed forces. It involves development aid and influence. Especially if you consider the risk of hybrid aggression, such investment would make a big difference. But we also have to rediscover how to intervene. And lastly, we European members of NATO also need strategic command-and-control capability and strategic logistics, and here everyone should be able to contribute. What we have been doing is simply relying on the U.S.

EB: Without that, we get to a point that former Prime Minister Theresa May articulated in Parliament. She asked, “What does it say about us as a country, what does it say about NATO, if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral position taken by the U.S.?” What does it say about us?

RB: It says that we have relegated our security and prosperity, and our interests, to the will of U.S. national politics. For most of the post-Cold War era, perhaps the alignment and the lack of threat were such that that was a rational thing to do. In the future, the risks will be different, and our ability to rely on the U.S. will be less, which means we have to restore our ability to protect our own interests. That means we’ll have to make different choices about what we do with the public purse.

EB: Coming back to your suggestion of training partner forces: The West’s efforts, including in Afghanistan, have involved a lot of money and goodwill, but the result hasn’t really been that impressive. Iran, meanwhile, builds highly successful and loyal proxies. A crazy suggestion perhaps, but could the West learn from Iran?

In the art of proxy war, we need to build proxies that want to fight and are helped to fight in a way that they are really good at.

RB: We need to support forces that want an outcome as much or more than we do. What we have seen is that we have created armed forces, and paid them, and equipped them, and trained them, and the result is that they’re often professionally quite competent, but they don’t have the will to fight for places we’d like them to fight for. It’s not about capability, it’s about will; that’s what we saw in Afghanistan last week. So, we need to find partners and proxies that want to do what we’d like them to do. You can’t manufacture will.

A second aspect is that in the name of modernization we’ve tried to apply a Western military template to forces in other parts of the world, but those forces neither want to nor are capable of operating in a European or Western way. We’ve wasted an awful lot of money trying to mold them into a template that is, frankly, beyond them—and, bar some enthusiasts, they don’t want to do it. In the art of proxy war, we need to build proxies that want to fight and are helped to fight in a way that they are really good at.

The U.S., who is really good at this, has had a strategy of training, advising, assisting, and accompanying. The Americans go into the fight with their proxy and deliver leadership, advice, air power, and logistics. The proxies feel that they’ve got a really powerful ally standing with them. European countries have for a long time been trying to get away with train, advise, assist, wave off at the camp gate. They don’t go into the fight. If we’re going to do capacity-building, which is far cheaper than intervening yourself, we have to be good enough, bold enough, and brave enough to accompany them and deliver the air power that makes this really stick. If we don’t do those things, we’re just not competitive.

EB: At the moment, an ugly situation involving Belarus is getting uglier by the day. Belarus began by bringing Iraqis and others to the border with Lithuania so they could illegally cross the border, and now that situation is spreading to Poland and Latvia. It’s not an Article 5 situation, but it’s also not nothing. If the U.S. government were to say, “it’s not something we’re going to get involved in,” would the U.K. be able to head up some sort of response?

RB: We’re used to the idea of the U.S. as a global police force that would turn up to even peripheral things and leading interventions, and we followed with the bits that we chose to throw in. Now we’re seeing a U.S. that won’t do that. The U.S. will absolutely intervene again when its vital interests are in jeopardy. We shouldn’t assume, because of Afghanistan, that the U.S. won’t defend what it considers its vital national interests. You know it’s a vital interest because the public opinion will be telling the government to act. When public opinion says that, you need to have the capability, whether you are the U.S. or another NATO member state.

Belarus doesn’t feel very significant if you live in Wyoming. It does feel significant if you live in much of Europe, and Belarus’s current actions illustrate that Europe restoring collective security will need to involve more than military power. It’s a profound conversation that needs to take place, and it’s happening, but it’s completely out of step with the dangers. If anything good has come out of the Afghan catastrophe, it would be it spurring the EU and NATO in some sort of partnership to restore collective security. Then we Europeans could be sure of our place in the world. Until and unless they do that, both those institutions will fail to deliver the security that we all need.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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