UK Strategy in Afghanistan, 2001-2014: Narratives, Transnational Dilemmas, and 'Strategic Communication'
Cawkwell, Thomas William
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
This thesis is the basis for a book to be published in late 2015.
The difficulties faced by the United Kingdom in realising its stabilisation objectives in the War in Afghanistan (2001-2014) have precipitated a change in rhetorical approach by successive British Governments, from one based on liberal normative principles to one that emphasises traditional, rationalist precepts of ‘national security interests’. This transformation of ‘narrative’ is identified in this work as chronologically analogous with the institutionalisation of ‘strategic communication’ practices and doctrine emanating from the defence establishment of the British state. In this work, I argue that changes in narrative approach and the emergence of strategic communication can be understood as a consequence of an overburdened British state attempting to free itself from a ‘transnational dilemma’ (King 2010): that is, to find a means of appealing coherently and succinctly to the benefits of participation in collective security whilst avoiding threatening the viability of collective security membership by acknowledging its costs. This transnational dilemma has been exacerbated by intra-state competition over the material and ideational aspects of British strategy in Helmand, and is traceable by close empirical analysis of three competing ‘policy narratives’ for Afghanistan: stabilisation, counter-narcotics, and counter-terrorism, respectively. Intra-state competition can, in turn, be conceptualised as the result of embedded inter-state relationships of political obligation and military cooperation referred to by Edmunds (2010) as the ‘transnationalisation’ of defence policy. UK policy in Afghanistan has been guided by transnational issues, specifically the maintenance of NATO as a collective security apparatus and of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, through which Britain secures and projects its national interest. I argue that the UK’s grand strategic commitment to transnationalisation underscores an ‘unstatable’ ultimate policy of meeting the expectations of the United States and NATO, and that the development of various policies and narratives for Afghanistan can be understood primarily in such terms. In Afghanistan, transnationalisation and the concordant pursuit of satisfying American and NATO expectations has come at the cost of a significant divestment of strategic autonomy, which has uprooted traditional, nationally-based concepts of strategy and policy to the transnational level and resulted in a strategic vacuum wherein intra-state competition has flourished. This, I argue, has compromised the ability for Britain to link policy to operations (to ‘do’ strategy)d in Afghanistan, a point which can be empirically measured by reference to the discordant and contradictory aspects of aforementioned policy narratives, which have been rooted in the institutional interests of various elements of the state. Strategic communication has arisen out of this situation as a means for the state to overcome the transnational dilemma by promoting a unified ‘strategic narrative’ for Afghanistan that has reconfigured the narrative for the conflict to one that emphasises the conflict not in terms of collective security but in ‘national’ terms. This work concludes by arguing that, in sidestepping rather than confronting the core dilemmas of British strategy, the emergence of strategic communication can be seen as posing as many problems as solutions for the UK state.
PhD in Sociology