Written evidence submitted by Jay Mens, Executive Director at the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum, and Harry Halem, Research Associate at the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum (AFG0001)
The Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum is a think-tank based at the University of Cambridge researching the politics and international relations of the MENA region, with a view to improving and strengthening British foreign policy.
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- The US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Afghan government’s subsequent collapse should spark a reassessment of British foreign policy.
- America’s exit from Afghanistan indicates the power of three intellectual currents in the American foreign policy establishment. The first is what we term the “fallacy of overconcentration”. The second is an American deficit of what the late Anglo-American strategist C.S. Gray termed “strategic culture”, resulting in regional neglect. The third is a penchant for “business-school strategy,” resulting in a means-ends rather than world-historical understanding of grand strategy.
- We assess that the United States will continue to concentrate its forces in the Indo-Pacific, effectively ceding the Middle East to hostile powers. The resulting gains for Russia, China, and Iran, and the damage to American credibility, will undermine any improvements in the Indo-Pacific military balance that an Asian pivot will provide.
- The UK can further British, European, and American interests by emphasising the Middle East, rather than the Indo-Pacific, and playing a greater military and political role in the region to ameliorate the impact of American withdrawal.
- A Middle Eastern “tilt”, rather than an Indo-Pacific one, would also be far more reasonable given the UK’s military capabilities.
The Fallacy of Overconcentration:
- We define the “fallacy of overconcentration” as the view that one region deserves overriding policy concentration in the context of global great power competition. This problem has been endemic to Anglo-American strategists since the turn of the 20th century.
- British strategic planners tacitly reached a similar conclusion between 1895 and 1910. The UK faced the threat of a rising Germany that would, if unchecked, dominate Europe and threaten the British home islands. But it also maintained interests in the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic given its global empire.
- Rather than expanding its navy, the UK shed its non-European commitments, reaching an explicit understanding with Japan in 1902, and a tacit one with the US soon after. The logic was that absent non-European commitments, the UK could concentrate in the Euro-Atlantic, ensuring its margin of superiority over the German Navy in the North Sea.
- Ultimately, this policy failed to deter German ambitions through naval superiority. It did facilitate the “far blockade” of Germany that undermined its economy. But after the First World War, Britain lost political leverage in Eurasia’s non-European littorals, leading to extreme vulnerability in East Asia and a deficit of negotiating power after the Second World War.
- American planners also suffer from this affliction. Throughout the Second World War, US planners objected to President Roosevelt’s “Germany First” strategy, arguing that Japan was the overwhelming threat.
- During the Cold War, European security, not Eurasian competition, was the foreign policy establishment’s strategic hermeneutic. In the late 1970s, the US considered shrinking its Navy to such a point that it could not simultaneously guarantee Asian and Euro-Atlantic sea control. The Carter administration’s brief dalliance with this policy resulted in a surge in Soviet military pressure in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola, and an increasingly aggressive Soviet naval posture in the Eastern Mediterranean and South Atlantic.
- The US also lacks what the late Anglo-American strategist C.S. Gray termed “strategic culture”, despite its operational experience and technological advantages.
- The US is not a maritime nation; it is a continental nation with maritime interests. Unlike the UK or Japan, it has access to the vast resources and territory of an entire continent, and apart from the northeast, an agrarian or industrial culture, rather than a maritime one.
- While individual American statesmen have recognised the link between maritime power and American prosperity, Americans tend to view Eurasia as a humbug, meriting intervention only in specific circumstances and sub-regions. This theme is recurrent in American strategic history.
- The US refused to intervene in the First World War until the German threat became obvious to domestic audiences. Franklin D. Roosevelt had to guide the US to war 20 years later despite extreme resistance from the policy class and population. Even the name of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a nod to the American distaste for Eurasian engagement.
- The issue is that all modern international competition is Eurasian competition, and the United States has yet to grasp this fact.
- Like the UK, the U.S. is a sea-power. China is a land power. Maritime balancing against continental rivals has defined geopolitical competition for nearly three centuries.
- Concentrating force in the Indo-Pacific plays to American strengths by leveraging America’s naval capabilities and Indo-Pacific geography. However, the U.S. has not accounted for China’s ability to pivot inland and gain support throughout Eurasia’s littorals, circumventing American concentration.
- Russia and Iran are China’s “fellow travellers” in China’s quest for hegemony. Growing Chinese power, and more frequent challenges to the US, serves their independent geopolitical and domestic-political goals by affording them greater control over their perceived spheres of influence.This confluence is non-accidental. Chinese strategists understand the mortal disadvantages of naval weakness.
- China’s response is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It aims to circumvent the Malacca and Lombok Straits, the South China Sea’s western exit points, both by creating separate maritime access points in the Middle East’s littorals and alternative overland routes for goods, fuel, and strategic resources. This would complicate an American “far blockade”, thereby removing a key pressure point on China during a conflict.
- While BRI has gained currency in the media, Western politicians and policymakers do not understand Chinese actions as part of a coherent strategic whole, instead viewing it as a regional initiative
- This reflects a subset of problems in American grand strategy, namely the rise of “B-School (Business School) Strategists.”
- In American, and indeed British officers’ schools, the classics of management are taught alongside the likes of Clausewitz and Jomini. Strategy is understood in terms of resource management and “ends-ways-means” apportionment to the detriment of language, culture, geography, and history.
- The “Pivot to Asia” is premised on the notion that strategy is the efficient deployment of a finite resources. Yet because this view is economical rather than historical, it does not consider the historical dynamics of Eurasian competition, thereby missing obvious strategic linkages. Similar thinking drove in the U.S.’ “superbase” structure in Asia, a choice that prioritises economisation over combat survivability; the US only now has begun to correct this.
- Domestic pressure also drives this thinking: It is easier for an American administration to sell efficient military spending to the American public than the much-maligned task of “being the world’s policeman”.
- These strategic irrationalities resulted in severe miscalculation in severe miscalculation in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Debacle:
- Contrary to popular belief, the cost and scale of the American presence was limited.
- U.S. federal debt between 2001 and 2020 rose to $17.7TN; the highest estimated cost of the War in Afghanistan was $2.3TN. The highest estimated cost of the War in Afghanistan was less than 20% of the increase in the debt.
- The U.S. spent less than 1% of GDP a year on the war, or barely a fifth of the projected cost of COVID-19 to the U.S. economy.
- In Afghanistan, the United States lost 1,847 troops and had 20,149 wounded from 2001-2014; 66 were killed and 571 were wounded during 2014-2021. This is compared to the 36,516 dead and 92,134 wounded in the Korean War and at least 57,000 dead and over 100,000 wounded in the Vietnam War.
- Despite the small scale of the conflict, the U.S. rushed in withdrawing 2,500 troops and approximately 10,000 technical contractors from Afghanistan.
- The chaotic exit resulted in 13 American deaths in a suicide attack; American global humiliation; the Taliban’s exuberant victory; and the abandonment of an unknown number of Americans, allied citizens, and NATO-affiliated Afghans to Taliban reprisal.
- Taliban victory was neither inevitable nor desirable, and the enduring links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda are known and well-documented. Moreover, Taliban leadership exercises varied control over the organisation’s constituent parts, allowing other jihadist groups to operate in Afghanistan.
- A common retort is that, since al-Qaeda’s stronghold was destroyed by 2006, it and other terrorist groups have adapted by decentralising and franchising, reducing the relevance of weak states. This is partially true. ‘Lone wolves’ radicalised online will persist.
- But the Afghan case is more dangerous than the ostensibly similar cases of Nigeria, Mali or Cameroon. The latter countries have governments that beseech Western assistance. Terrorist organisations are typically local insurgents that affiliate themselves with global movements but lack foreign fighters.
- Conversely, Afghanistan is now ruled by an organisation that is 1) actively working to create the sort of ultraconservative, anti-Western Islamic emirate that Jihadists aspire to build globally, 2) has long-standing and deep political, ideational, and financial ties to al-Qaeda, which will attack Western targets, and 3) is secure from air and naval assault needed for effective counterterrorism.
- Nevertheless, the renewed terrorist threat from Afghanistan is a secondary consideration. The primary considerations are geopolitical.
- Afghanistan’s new regime will enable China to position itself between Pakistan and Iran. China’s regional objective is to fuse Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran into a strategic corridor, the major component of which is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
- CPEC is a collection of infrastructure projects and special economic zones connecting China and Pakistan, circumventing Malacca and Lombok and countering American naval power.
- Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is now controlled by a ‘government’ that effusively welcomes Chinese investment and views China as a systemic alternative to the United States, therein resembling Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq and Lebanon.
- Although Chinese public statements remain ambiguous, a Chinese-friendly Afghanistan is a boon for BRI – Afghanistan’s incorporation into BRI is now viable.
Anglo-American Relations and Middle Eastern Vacuums:
- Strategically, American withdrawal from Afghanistan must be understood as part of a broader attempt to expedite the “Pivot to Asia” by departing from from the Middle East.
- Overcompensating for the Iraq War and transparently looking forward to the 2024 election, the Biden administration is rapidly over-concentrating American military might in the Indo-Pacific, in an obvious reflection of the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy.
- The Biden administration intends to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2021, has withdrawn US-operated missile defence systems from Saudi Arabia, and enthusiastically hopes to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran has interpreted this enthusiasm as desperation, maintaining proxy pressure in Iraq despite Qassem Soleimani’s death and Israeli regional pressure.
- The same forces that led to the Afghan withdrawal drive are expressed here: deep-seated American domestic pressures, Mr Biden’s personal outlook, and the policy establishment’s faith in the Asian pivot.
- A speedy withdrawal from Iraq amidst Iranian proxy pressure, planned soon after an already-controversial Iraqi election, alongside re-joining the JCPOA and thereby furnishing Iran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, would hand a major geopolitical victory to Tehran.
- This policy’s aggregate result is the denouement of American Middle Eastern primacy, and in turn a decline in confidence of Western allies in this crucial geographic region.
- To this point, we note that six officials from four friendly Middle Eastern countries were interviewed for this report; nine of them agreed that the current course of American policy corroborated the argument for American decline. All those interviewed confirmed extant doubts about America’s willingness to commit even minimal resources and attention to questions that are existential for regional powers.
- In aggregate, American policy will prompt hedging by heretofore pro-Western states against perceived hegemonic decline.
- We anticipate greater explicit engagement with Russia, regional Chinese economic expansion, and a larger appetite in the region for Russian and Chinese weapons. Chinese economic actions have a clear dual purpose; the CCP will use its new leverage over Middle East to secure its petrochemical supply and preclude a far blockade.
- From a broader historical point of view, we note that neither the United Kingdom nor the United States have never, at any point in history, experienced a situation wherein a hostile non-European coalition contests the Middle East’s littorals. We are arriving at such a situation.
- Moreover, growing Chinese political-economic power in the Middle East serves China in the Indo-Pacific: Japan, South Korea, India, and other countries that have an adversarial relationship with China remain dependent on oil, and are least likely to transition rapidly from carbon fuel generation.
- Mounting Chinese influence in the Middle East could translate into economic pressure against these countries, ironically weaponising the same economic tool that the U.S. seeks to use against China. American energy guarantees are of equal importance to American regional security agreements. The U.S.’ Indo-Pacific allies could thus be forced to accommodate China even absent a shift in the military balance.
Tilting Closer to Home:
- The current British government seeks to “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific. It hopes to transform the UK into a significant military actor in what is now perceived as the most consequential geopolitical region. Its strategy is to employ the Royal Navy’s higher-end capabilities in concert with the U.S. and its allies to influence the regional military balance.
- Yet to best act in concert with the U.S., the UK and other capable European allies should prioritise freeing American capacity to act in the Indo-Pacific and mitigating the potential for vacuums elsewhere in Eurasia’s littorals.
- Our previous arguments indicate the Middle East’s importance in this scheme; thus it merits British and European attention. Greater British Middle Eastern presence would generate two strategic benefits.
- First, it would make the notional “far blockade” of China during an Indo-Pacific war, a blockade of the Straits of Malacca and Lombok, far more feasible. By controlling the Middle East’s maritime littorals, the UK could resist Chinese pressure to disrupt the West’s regional alliances, ensuring the leverage of ‘turning off the tap’ on China’s energy supply.
- Second, a permanent presence would give the UK much greater sway as a prospective broker and mediator over regional conflicts, allowing it to support a coherent anti-Iranian entente and prevent those states’ gravitation towards a Sino-Russian axis.
- Extant British capabilities and basing architecture enable Middle Eastern presence far more clearly than Indo-Pacific presence. The UK is intent on forging a global path after its exit from the EU. Operating in the Middle East would allow the UK to do “more with less”.
- The Eastern Mediterranean would be the most viable area for immediate engagement, followed by the Persian Gulf and Western Indian ocean.
- RAF Akrotiri has a 2,700-metre-long runway, capable of hosting almost every combat aircraft in the RAF’s inventory. It is a viable air base for Middle Eastern operations, as has been demonstrated in anti-ISIS operations.
- A greater RAF presence in the Eastern Mediterranean would reduce pressure on the UKCSG’s air wing. The UKCSG could rely on the RAF’s land-based P-8 Poseidon variants for anti-surface and anti-submarine support; possibly Protector RG-1 UCAVs if they are equipped with maritime ISR/T technology; and on land-based range extenders at RAF Akrotiri for longer-range operations.
- British operations in the Middle East could alleviate American capacity in the Gulf. Operable American base infrastructure already exists. The UAE’s Jebel Ali Port is capable of hosting U.S. carriers, making it a viable station for Elizabeth-class ships. The UK’s Joint Logistics Support Base in Duqm, Oman can also host Elizabeth-class carriers operating in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.
- Moreover, the RAF already maintains bases in Oman and the UAE jointly with and independent of the US, again making land-based air support viable.
- Thus, it is reasonable to expect that the UK, within the next two years, could have a semi-regular carrier and ground-based air force presence in the Middle East’s maritime littorals, and have a permanent carrier and air force presence once the HMS Prince of Wales reaches the fleet in 2023.
- Despite their limitations, the Elizabeth-class carriers can influence the Middle East’s balance of forces far more than they can the Indo-Pacific balance.
- Since 2014, the US has used a combination of CSGs and Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs) to maintain its Middle Eastern naval presence.
- An American ESC centres upon a big-deck amphibious warship like the America-class LHA – the “Flight 0” LHAs have only a slightly smaller fixed-wing CVW than the Elizabeth-class.
- Iran does have a shorter-range anti-ship missile arsenal, but defeating its conventional anti-ship and anti-air capabilities is far less difficult than defeating China’s comparable capabilities.
- The F-35B’s smaller payload when compared to non-stealth carrier-launched aircraft is far less problematic in the Middle East than in the Indo-Pacific, given the largely irregular, below-threshold nature of the threat Iran and jihadist organisations pose to British and allied interests.
- Additionally, British basing would be far more secure in the Middle East than Indo-Pacific, given Iran’s more limited missile capabilities when compared to China, and the proven success of systems like Iron Dome in countering intensive bombardment attempts.
 We refer here to the Napoleonic Wars (France versus Britain), to the First World War (Britain versus Germany), to the Second World War (Britain and the U.S. versus Germany), to the Cold War (the U.S. versus the Soviet Union).
 David Cutler and Lawrence Summers, October 12, 2020. “The COVID-19 Pandemic and the $16 Trillion Virus”, JAMA, 324:15 (2020), 1495-1496.
 See Barbara Ellis, “Why the Taliban Won’t Quit al Qaeda”, Foreign Policy (21 September 2021), accessed via: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/21/taliban-al-qaeda-afghanistan-ties-terrorism/.
 “China offers $31m in emergency aid to Afghanistan”, BBC (9 September 2021), accessed via: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-58496867.