Summer Essay: A Failure of Will and Competence


Julian Lindley-French

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security.  They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom.  When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

Edward GibbonDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Abstract: This food for thought essay considers the wider strategic implications and lessons for Europeans and their future defence in the wake of the defeat in Afghanistan. The core message is that for the sake of the transatlantic relationship and Europe’s own defence if European leaders continue to adhere to a political culture marked by strategic illiteracy, political short-termism, and defence pretence Europe could well be heading for disaster. Unfortunately, liberal European political leaders, particularly those in Western Europe, seem to have little idea about how to address the twin threats posed by ultra-conservative violent extremists and ultra-nationalist Great Power Competitors.  NATO is the only institution capable of mounting both credible deterrence and dealing with the worst transnational threats. American political fatigue and military over-stretch has also revealed the extent of Europe’s wilful weakness which only a profound change in European political and strategic culture is likely to change.  NATO is making much of the need to strengthen the political cohesion of the Alliance.  In fact, political cohesion is a metaphor for the threat that the North American and European pillars of NATO could be decoupled.  To succeed the NATO 2030 Agenda will need proof of European willingness to share far more of the burdens of their own defence.  A Europe Agenda 2030 should place the strengthening of the NATO European pillar at the very core of the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept. 

September 6th, 2021. 

Four American presidents…

After four American presidents, tens of thousands of lives destroyed and broken, and billions of dollars spent the Western-led coalition has succeeded in replacing the Taliban with the Taliban.  Why did the West abandon Afghanistan so catastrophically, and what are the strategic implications for Europeans? The real reason was not just the pre-conceived ‘America First’ view of President Biden.  What led to his holding that view was a long-held belief that the war was unwinnable.  Dig deeper and one finds growing US concerns about the cost to them of a lack of European unity, political will, bureaucratic competence and military capability and capacity all of which are steadily undermining NATO and which again threatens to decouple the United States from its European allies.  Naturally, political distraction machines are at operating high speed on both sides of the Atlantic to mask the scale of the failure.  For all the spin liberal Europe’s now many ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist enemies which surround it will not have missed the essential point: Europeans no longer have the will, the competence, the political fortitude, or the strategic patience to face them down. 

There were failures of strategy in Afghanistan.  In spite of all the efforts to ‘de-conflict’ tensions between the counter-terror, stabilisation and reconstruction and counter-narcotics campaigns such frictions were at times all too apparent.  Depending on who was in command, and some new commanders did have a tendency to re-invent the wheel, the campaign was a bit like conducting the strategic bombing campaign against Germany from the air, whilst implementing the Marshall Plan on the ground.  This was not a failure of structure. In three reports I wrote for commanders between 2008 and 2014 it was evident that political leaderships, particularly in European countries, were ever less interested in military advice.  After 2010 the problem became acute as political leaders egregiously cut European defence budgets even as the military workload grew.  The ends, ways and means crisis that dogged the campaign throughout culminated in a public row between the British Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, and General Sir Richard Shirreff, Deputy Supreme Commander of NATO.  Shirreff had warned that a further cut to the British Army of some 20,000 regular troops (20% of the force) in the middle of the campaign to be replaced by part-time reservists was “one hell of a gamble”.  He was right. Such frictions were not helped by the incredibly long and very varied screwdrivers each national capital applied to each of their respective operations on the ground. Consequently, both the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Operation Resolute Support were not so much a tight coalition of the willing and able, as multiple national mini-operations tied loosely together by Allied Joint Force Command.  A better name might have been NATO Operation Irresolute, Wholly Conditional and Utterly Inconsistent Rules of Engagement. This was not the fault of the many brave men and women who served and too often died on the ground, but the lack of political unity of purpose and effort at the highest levels of European governments.  

When America retreats

The strategic consequences? When America retreats the rules-based international order retreats and replaced by the anarchy of Realpolitik beloved by the enemies of freedom. Some will find that statement challenging given that some US actions have in the past have also appeared been questionable under international law.  It is certainly true that at times the US places itself above international law precisely to preserve it. When President Biden said last week that America no longer wanted to be the world’s policeman he was also saying that America no longer saw itself as the ‘Shining City on the Hill’, just yet another Great Power engaged in Great Power Competition.  By abandoning Afghanistan in the way they did the Americans have also destroyed the very concept of liberal interventionism and the very idea that American and its allies should always leave a place better off when they leave it.  Moreover, by retreating into a deterrence and punishment strategy the Americans and their Allies are also abandoning the very idea that the struggle for the twenty-first century peace is essentially one of values.  Power is now all that matters and international affairs will henceforth be conducted on the battleground ultra-conservatives and ultra-nationalists have chosen.  What is more likely is one of those very Washington periods of frenzied introspection about the nature of American engagement in this Huxley-esque not so brave new world. For all the talk of the new post-Afghanistan American isolationism the Americans will recover. 

Europe?  The withdrawal from Afghanistan has not only demonstrated how little influence Europeans have over US policy, but the extent to which Europeans have become the Great Strategic Pretenders. If Europeans do not escape from the curse of pretence under which they labour and soon they will court disaster.  They already are. The retreat from Afghanistan should remind Europeans that the US might not always be able to be present in strength in Europe all of the time. China and Russia are actively collaborating to stretch US military power ever thinner the world over.  Whatever happens now the future defence of Europe will depend on Europeans doing far more for their own defence.  If Europeans do not better share transatlantic burdens then they could soon find themselves bearing all of those burdens.  

Defeat in Afghanistan has also definitively marked the moment when it was no longer possible to pretend that US and European foreign and security policy goals, such as the latter exists, can be lumped together simply by appealing to shared values. In the twenty years since 911 and the intervention in Afghanistan both America and Europe have changed profoundly. 2001 was a particular moment in history and not simply because of 911.  For a brief American moment neo-conservatives gained power and believed they had achieved global hegemony in what turned out to have been an equally brief unipolar moment. In the immediate wake of 911 Europeans felt duty bound to follow the Americans come what may, if for no other reason to save NATO.  Afghanistan and Iraq soon disabused them of political hegemony and the coalition very quickly dissolved.  And then came the banking and financial crises caused by cowboy capitalists who did more damage to the superiority of the West than any peer competitor.  The crisis they caused catapulted China and Asia to the fore and both America and particularly Europe have yet to recover.  It is no coincidence that the Afghanistan campaign ran out of political steam soon after the crisis.    

The hard truth is that whilst Americans went to war in Afghanistan, the majority of Europeans entered that war with an entirely peacetime mind-set that never changed.  For the campaign in Afghanistan to have had any chance of working it would have required much greater political commitment from the West, far greater control on the money and arms the West shipped into Afghanistan, a far better system of shared and robust metrics to measure progress (or otherwise), a much greater willingness to share the risks of the campaign, and far greater unity of purpose and effort.  The Americans wanted the forces and resources of allies and partners, but also complete control over the campaign.  The Europeans wanted to influence the campaign, but were never willing to invest in the forces and resources needed to do so.  Rather, risk-averse European capitals became ever more concerned about political appearance and an addiction to long screw-driver, box-ticking projects that had more to do with the political situation back home than Afghanistan’s reality. As for the all-important wider regional strategy it simply never happened because China, Iran, and Russia were all too happy to see the West mired in Afghanistan, whilst India and Pakistan were conducting their own parallel cold war. 

NATO: reset or decoupling?

What of NATO? If the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept is to be anything more than another exercise in self-serving European short-termism and defence pretence (and it will need to be) it must be underpinned by political realism.  NATO’s two core missions are deterrence (not defence) and engaging transnational threats both of which rely on political and military credibility.  To that end, the 2022 Strategic Concept will talk much about greater Alliance political cohesion.  In fact, ‘cohesion’ is simply a metaphor for what will be a transatlantic battle to prevent the US and Europe from de-coupling. 

The US is tired, politically divided, mired in debt, and in urgent need of reinvesting in itself, its people, and its infrastructure.  Europeans are increasingly isolationist word junkies, addicted to irrelevance, as the latest iteration of EU hope over experience will attest, the forthcoming and absurdly named EU Strategic Compass and the Initial Entry Force (IEF) will attest. European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) redux? At least back in 1999 Britain was still in the EU and without Europe’s most high-end capable expeditionary power it is hard to see quite where the initial entry bit will come from.  The so-called (missed) Headline Goal and the ERRF was a political exercise to mask Europe’s failings in the wake of the 1999 Kosovo campaign.  The IEF is another such exercise to hide Europe’s embarrassment in the wake of the Afghanistan defeat, simply because the forces of EU Member-States are now so weak they are incapable of securing one airport. 

NATO faces another problem, a lack of leadership from the Alliance’s three major Powers, Britain, France and Germany.  There is no disrespect intended to the likes of Italy, Poland, Spain and others but NATO’s European pillar has always been built around these three states. Liberal Western European high political and bureaucratic elites have shown themselves to be incapable of dealing with ultra-conservative transnational and ultra-nationalist state threats because to do so would require them to abandon their delusional ‘world as they would like to be’ beliefs that have so undermined their competence as security actors. Enhanced ‘political cohesion’ would be meaningless if Western European leaders continue to lack the essential strategic and political will to properly confront the threats they and their Allies face? 

The abandonment of competence in Berlin, London and Paris has been masked by American power but it can no longer be hidden.  Their political and strategic shallowness has now been laid bare together with the obsession with optics over substance and the 24 hour news cycle.  The lazy globalist ideology of such elites also stubbornly refuses that globalisation has a dark side that undermines the very political cohesion and resiliency which is the foundation of any credible NATO defence and deterrence posture or security engagement. Their steady erosion of what might be termed a European strategic culture for fear that some despot somewhere or other shouts ‘imperialism’.  Their deliberate confusion of moderate patriotism with nationalism and the offense it causes to millions of decent citizens who live outside the closed echo chamber of European elites.  Ultimately, this break down in trust between increasingly distant leaders and their citizens reveals Europeans leaders who no longer to trust their people, and European peoples increasingly contemptuous of their leadership caste.  Ancien regime?

A contest of wills

War is a contest of wills. Putin and Xi understand this. They also understand that contemporary warfare starts with the application of disruptive information against the weak seams of fragile societies.  Beijing and Moscow also understand the significance of the West’s defeat in Afghanistan even if the West is in purposeful denial.  That is precisely why Beijing invited Taipei to think hard on the lessons of America’s defeat in Afghanistan.  Would the Americans really defend Taiwan? Are the Americans not in any case committed to the eventual reunification of China?  Putin and Xi also understand the price an increasingly sentimental Western Europe is willing to pay for a comfortable life, unlike their partners in Central and Eastern Europe who understand the price of freedom. That line was crossed back in 2014 in Ukraine and then in Syria in 2015 when Russia moved decisively to fill a Western influence vacuum. There are those who routinely point out that Europe is stronger on paper than Russia, but then paper is pretty much all that Europe can offer.  The pot-marked pike-ways of history are littered with such paper when ostensibly weaker but more ruthless Powers defeated ‘greater’ but far softer ‘Powers’. 

The most important objective now is to disabuse those of their prejudice that the West is weak and irresolute. Credible deterrence will depend on it.  Much of that effort will need to be European. Given the respective GDPs of Western European powers, their defence industrial and technological bases, and their populations much of that effort will depend on the leadership of Britain, France and Germany.  There is no doubt Europeans could mount a much better defence than they do, even in the face of COVID economics. Unfortunately, the usual mantra of Europe’s leaders is either they simply cannot afford their own defence or that no risk exists.  Both responses are contemptuous of Europe’s reality and Europeans will need to do far more for themselves if they are to close the yawning gap between the ends, ways and means of European defence.  What European leaders really mean when they say they are not able to afford Europe’s defence is that they do value security and defence highly enough as a public good to properly invest in it.  As long as the Americans feed their addiction they will continue to claim defence poverty so that they can spend on the very things that get them re-elected but which Americans now also need to invest in: education, health, social care, infrastructure etc. 

Europe also suffers from a profound political crisis over the role and utility of military power in international affairs.  London has all but abandoned the land defence of continental Europe in the wake of Brexit and retreated behind its nuclear deterrent, whilst literally ‘showboating’ Global Britain by sending one of its new but under-equipped and under-protected aircraft carriers into the Indo-Pacific. Paris is forever grandstanding with its hypocritical calls for ever closer European defence integration and ever more European strategic autonomy, even though  Paris is neither willing to give up sovereignty over its armed forces to add substance to such vision nor invest the money required to match words with deeds. Worse, Franco-British relations, the core of any meaningful European defence, are at their worst since at least 1966 and France’s then withdrawal from military NATO.  With Macron’s France pushing the EU hard to subordinate post-Brexit Britain that critical relationship is likely to get far worse before it gets better. 

However, for all the strategic pretence of London and Paris the real problem is Berlin which is fast becoming a pacifist, mercantilist power which wants the benefits of leadership without the responsibility, partly out of fear of itself. The decision to abandon civilian nuclear power and the construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline has led Berlin to rely overly on Russia for much of its energy mix. And yet, without the tight leadership of Britain, France and Germany a vaguely autonomous European defence that could ease the burdens on the US will be impossible.  Unfortunately, Nordstream 2 also drives a pipeline through the credibility of NATO deterrence.  Whilst no state power would consider attacking Germany, let alone nuclear-armed Britain and France, the lack of will and competence in Berlin, London and Paris allied to American military over-stretch is fast leading to a crisis of deterrence at the margins of the Alliance. It is only demonstrable US resolve and power that deters Russia in the Baltics or around North Cape and Svalbard.  The cost of offsetting wilful European weakness will become ever more politically contentious in Washington.  In other words, over the next decade America will only be able or willing to back Europeans if Europeans again do far more for themselves. Period. As the Americans would say.

NATO and Europe Agenda 2030

It seems fitting that I am writing this essay just as the ‘hot phase’ of Russia’s ZAPAD (West) 21 exercise is about to begin.  Some 200,000 participants will take part, 80 aircraft and helicopters, and as many as 800 pieces of military equipment, including some 300 tanks and 10 warships will take part.  Given the pace and scale of the post-Afghanistan threats facing Europe the only show in town remains NATO.  The only plan available is the NATO 2030 Agenda and the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept.  The only real strategic objective Europeans should concern themselves with the strengthening of NATO’s European pillar and with it a more equitable sharing of the transatlantic burdens of European defence.  Given that reality the Europeans do not need yet another exercise in strategic irrelevance such as the EU ‘Initial Entry Force’ which, if it ever becomes more than an EU Military Staff database, will again be too little doing not very much and never very often.  Rather, Europeans must ask themselves what is it they need to do to enable the Americans to continue to provide a security guarantee through NATO.  That means Europeans actually recognising the threats they face, as opposed to only recognising as much threat as they think their social welfare states can bear. Europe’s defence can no longer simply be paid for by what’s left after social security. 

Therefore, to succeed NATO 2030 Agenda needs a Europe Agenda 2030. Firstly, Europeans must now move decisively to ease the threat that the US might become over-extended in the event of multiple engineered crises the world over.  Secondly, Europeans should by 2030 deploy a high-end, first responder, multi-domain future force which is fully plugged into the 2030 US command and control systems and structures, and reinforced by all the emerging and disruptive technologies now entering the battlespace. In other words, Europeans need to go far further than the strategically piddling ‘IEF’.  Specifically, NATO Europe must collectively aspire to the creation of an Allied Command Operations European Heavy Mobile Force of sufficient technological capability, with sufficient autonomous and robust enablers and thus 21st century manoeuvre and all arms ethos, to deter in and around Europe irrespective of pressures on US forces.  A force that will also be of sufficient mass to support front-line states to the south of the Alliance facing a host of transnational threats.  This is because for all the talk about seeking ‘improved’ political cohesion in the forthcoming NATO Strategic Concept the real ‘elephant in the room’ is the renewed threat that European defence is becoming decoupled from the Euro-Atlantic Area. 

Thankfully, the building blocks to construct an empowered and enabled NATO European expeditionary sea-bed to space defence (in future all defence will be expeditionary by nature and necessity) are in place.  However, they must be markedly expanded, equipped with far more strategic enablers, many more robust expeditionary capable forces, kept at a far higher state of readiness.  In September, the Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm will reach full operating capability which will be vital for the future of land deterrence in Europe. The British Carrier Strike Group should form the core of a much enhanced NATO Europe maritime and amphibious capability, along with its French, Italian and Spanish counterparts.  The Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) needs to be widened and deepened and together with the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) help establish a new framework command for coalitions of European allies and partners.  This new NATO Europe will also need a host of new intelligence-gathering efforts and automated indicators that would give real European meaning to NATO’s all-important Warfighting and Deterrence Concepts.  Indeed, the real test of the relevance and realism of the 2022 NATO Strategic will be the extent to which it generates strategic depth by placing those two concepts front and centre together with the Defence and Deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA) and the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC).  Above all, Europeans need to forge a new concept of deterrence with the North American allies across the hybrid, cyber, conventional and nuclear spectrums of future war.  There is one more thing: NATO cannot deal with transnational threats unless it also has a concept of intervention and engagement.  That does not mean more Afghanistans, but it will mean the Allies cannot simply ditch the very idea of stabilisation operations as simply too difficult to contemplate. 

In the end, for all the many challenges posed by Afghanistan the defeat therein was ultimately a failure of political will and that will be the most difficult thing for Europeans to change. Years of avoiding hard choices has left the European political elite strategically illiterate.  Some will point to COVID as the cause of the malaise but as this food for thought paper demonstrates that failure that is European defence is a structural failure that goes back at least as far as the decades I have been working on it.  It is also a profound failure of leadership compounded by an EU mired in its own hyperbole and eternally practising to be a security actor. Twenty years on from 911 the defeat in Afghanistan will have profound implications for the Americans, not least because of the symbolism of its very timing. However, it is Europeans who in the end could well pay the highest price.  

Edward Gibbon, were he alive today, might well have written that when Europeans finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Europe ceased to be free and was never free again.  

Julian Lindley-French