After years of covert politics or hiding itself behind the United States, Britain has once again returned to the policy of direct intervention in Afghanistan to start a new adventure there and bring about geopolitical and structural changes in Afghanistan. It can be said that the idea of creating the Taliban in the 1970s and 1980s, besides defeating the Soviets, has had other long-term goals. The fact that Britain with the help of Pakistan, is seeking to establish a joint Taliban-led government in Afghanistan to make up for its past defeats in the country or is looking for instability and insecurity in the South Asia region is under question. But, what is clear is that Pakistan's approach in the region is aligned with Britain’s policy, and Britain’s policy has always been based on lure, division and dispute, although it may lead to peace in the short term.
By: Maedeh Karimi Ghohroudy
Britain’s presence in the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan dates back to the 19th and 20th centuries. In the second half of the 18th century, Britain began to dominate over the Indian subcontinent. From 1838, due to the need for the presence of a reliable ally on the western border of British India, Britain leaned towards Afghanistan, which led to three wars between the British and Afghan forces. Although the British troops were defeated by the Afghans and were forced to leave the subcontinent after more than a century of colonization, the British forces left deep crisis for Afghanistan, such as the Durand Line, the secession of Baluchistan (the Goldsmiths' Treaty), and the Kashmir conflict, to which the Afghans are still grappling with.
Since then, the British behind-the-scenes policy in Afghanistan, including the idea of creating the Taliban or presence of British troops in Afghanistan after the September 2001 attacks, has not stopped. But, over these years, Britain has not been in charge of South Asia and Afghanistan and other countries such as the United States has had the upper hand, while trying to align Britain's strategy with that of the United States. However, given the prolongation of the US war in Afghanistan, Britain has started some movements. The visits of General Nicholas Patrick Carter, head of the British Army, to Afghanistan and Pakistan and their talks in Bahrain and Kabul are among these movements.
In general, Britain’s policy towards Afghanistan has always been in line with the interests of Pakistan or in cooperation with it. If we look at the past, the Durand Treaty and partition of parts of Afghanistan were in the interests of the British India, which is now part of Pakistan’s territory. While Islamabad wants this line to be accepted as the official border line between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Afghan governments have so far abstained to do so. In the 1980s, the geography of the formation of the Taliban was the territory of Pakistan and its backing, was the support of Islamabad. Now, the Taliban is being recognized as a group which is created by Britain and is supported by Islamabad.
We are already witnessing that Britain is playing an important role in Afghanistan and its main partner in this process is Pakistan. The simultaneous visit of Patrick Carter and Gneral Bajwa, the head of the Pakistani army, to Kabul can clearly confirm this scenario. Undoubtedly, this move has not come into being all at once and its preparations have been made for several years. Therefore, as in the past, there are two important points in the recent developments. First, Britain's foreign policy towards Afghanistan has been defined in partnership with Pakistan. Second, the topics which are on the top of Afghanistan’s issues have already been raised by the British officials and are being pursued with a Pakistani approach: negotiations with the Taliban, the Durand Line and the formation of the Afghan National Army.
London-Islamabad relations in the last two decades
If we look at the British approach towards Afghanistan over the last two decades, we will find that Britain’s intervention in the country has been made by the strategic cooperation of Pakistan. In January 2006, the first British troops were sent to the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, and in December 2006, the British government signed a 10-year development partnership with Pakistan and doubled its aid to the country. This turned Pakistan into one of the largest recipients of the British aid. The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament in 2010-2011 also confirms this fact. According to the report, Britain's goal was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. It also added that Britain should enter into a long-term strategic partnership with Pakistan with four goals: Helping Pakistan to address its long and short term structural challenges in the face of violent extremism; helping the country to counter its long-standing challenges in governance, economy and development; working together to create greater security in the region in the light of Pakistan's legitimate interests; and deepening bilateral relations. At this time, until the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan in 2014, we witnessed numerous interactions between the security and political officials of the two countries.
Following several years of pause in Pakistan-Britain relationship that occurred after the withdrawal of British troops, we can call 2018 and 2019 as the peak of bilateral interactions between Pakistan and Britain over Afghanistan. The travel of Gareth Bale, UK’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Islamabad for discussion about peace in February; British Army Commander Patrick Carter’s travel to Pakistan and his visits to Baluchistan as well as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border line in April; Britain’s decision to send 450 British troops to Afghanistan in May; the British secretary of defense’s call for negotiation with the Taliban on May 22; and designation of Nicholas Kay, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan (2017-2018), as the next senior civilian representative of NATO on December 5 were among the most important developments of 2018, which were continued by the Afghanistan conference in London in February 2019.
Following the developments of 2018, Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed by the United States in September of that year as the country’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite some differences between the United States and Britain, it can be said with certainty that Britain and the United States have had a division of labor in response to the developments of Afghanistan in these years. For example, Britain, in cooperation with Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been prepared the ground for talks with the Taliban so that the United States can openly manage it.
But, twenty years after the beginning of war in Afghanistan, the role of the United States and Britain is changing and Britain is turning into the leading actor in Afghanistan. Moreover, the newly appointed British ambassador to Afghanistan holds a military degree from the NATO Defense College. One of the reasons for this change could be the prolongation of the US war in Afghanistan and the subsequent withdrawal of the US forces, or even Britain’s unilateralism in the wake of Brexit. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s position is also important in this change, because the controversial relations of the US and Pakistan are one of the reasons behind the unfavorable situation of Afghanistan. The Islamabad-London relations, however, are deep and continuous. The reasons behind Britain's close relationship with Pakistan, which has led to cooperation in Afghanistan, are as follows:
*As clearly stated by the British officials, the deep historical and family ties resulting from years of British colonization of the Indian subcontinent have connected the two countries. British culture has become an inseparable part of Pakistan’s society.
*Britain has significant ties with and influence within the Pakistani political leaders. Pakistan has been one of the British-influenced countries in the South Asian region since its secession from India, and this influence is evident in Islamabad’s domestic and foreign policies. Britain has been one of the main destinations for the Pakistani political and military leaders. London also hosts a large community of Pakistanis and has turned into the destination of wealthy Pakistani businessmen and also a safe haven for the Pakistani expatriates, from Altaf Hussain and Baluch leaders to General Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif.
*As a result of distrust atmosphere between Pakistan and the United States as well as lack of stable relations with Russia, Islamabad needs to have the support of a strong country. Hence, Britain is considered as a reliable partner for Pakistan. Pakistan is at the forefront of the countries which are receiving Britain’s aid and has a strategic priority for receiving this aid.
*Due to the failure of Britain in establishing a buffer state in Afghanistan against the Soviets as well as its failure in fight against the Afghan people, London has given Pakistan a lot of leeway to intervene in Afghanistan.
Accordingly, Britain has handled Afghanistan's affairs in a way that Pakistan can play a role or that be in line with Islamabad interests. Britain’s most important measures in this regard are as follows:
*Britain was the main sponsor of the idea of creating the Taliban with the help of Pakistan, the United States and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Therefore, UK can handle it better than any other government or country. In late May 2018, the British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson claimed that some countries had malicious motives for intervention in Afghanistan, and so it was important that the peace process be promoted by Britain itself. This was the first time since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that a British minister was speaking about the necessity of negotiating with the Taliban. Earlier, British informal envoys were the first officials who met with the Taliban in 2007 in Musa Qala. The meeting was held after the withdrawal of the British troops from the district in 2006 and its capture by the Taliban, as the only Taliban-dominated city at the time.
Britain’s presence in Afghanistan can be interpreted in this way: the challenge of Afghanistan has remained unresolved after years of the US war, and now London itself have to directly intervene in the region.
*One of Britain's goals in Afghanistan, which has been raised since the London Conference in 2010, is transferring the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan forces via training and advisory measures. Although Britain has been tasked with training some troops since leaving Afghanistan in 2014, the reduction of the British troops in Afghanistan as well as long distance forced the country to find a middle ground. Pakistan can help Afghanistan via its high military and security capabilities. It should be noted that India has also trained the Afghan forces in the recent years but it is no more compatible with the presence of Taliban in power as well as the will of Pakistan. Therefore, the rumors about a Pakistan-Afghanistan security agreement, the training of the Afghan troops by Pakistan and conducting joint military operations in this context are worth considering.
*The claimed threat of Al-Qaeda and the ISIS has been on the rise in Afghanistan in recent years. In 2018, Mark Field, the British minister of state for Asia and pacific, announced that the Taliban was not the only security concern in Afghanistan and that the ISIS, based mainly in Nangarhar, was a global network which could receive help from beyond Afghanistan's borders. Then British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also said that the ISIS had not disappeared and that it is necessary to dry up its roots. Thus, one of the goals of legitimizing the Taliban - Which was in accordance with the wishes of Pakistan- was to justify confrontation with a larger threat such as the ISIS or al-Qaeda. But, the fact that how real the ISIS treat is or what is the Taliban's current relationship with al-Qaeda and the ISIS is still unclear.
*Durand Line is one of the main Afghan-Pakistani challenges drawn up by the British will and is still an excuse for Britain to monitor Afghanistan. But Durand Line is an issue that was not even recognized by the Taliban in the 1990s. Therefore, the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan depends on finding a solution for this Line, in a way that does not threaten Pakistan's interests. Britain needs Pakistan to stabilize this Line. This approach has been continued even in the recent years. At a meeting of House of Lords International Relations and Defense Committee (2019-2021), one of the member said about the Durand Line that Britain recognizes Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan and should continue to work closely with Pakistan in this regard.
This statement, which shows the long-standing London-Islamabad cooperation on the Durand Line, can be confirmed by Pakistan's joint border fence operation since 2017 and even granting Pakistani identity cards to the tribal leaders along the Durand Line over the past few months. It should be noted that confirming this border or establishing military bases in Durand to monitor it, will not be a permanent solution to this long-standing challenge and it can deepen Afghanistan's resentment against Pakistan and weaken Kabul's leverage to counter Pakistan’s policies. So far, however, Kabul has failed to take an effective action to challenge Pakistan's position.
Despite UK's convergence with Pakistan, the British officials always avoid to completely unchain Pakistan. On the other hand, due to close ties with India as well as New Delhi's pressures for recognizing India’s place in Afghanistan’s developments, Britain is monitoring Pakistan’s behavior and will use a stick if necessary. The Indian foreign minister's visit to the United States- which was the first visit of an Indian official after Biden’s inauguration- as well as a virtual meeting between Modi and Boris Johnson, the prime ministers of India and UK, and the announcement of the 2030 strategic partnership roadmap in May are among these issues.
After years of covert politics or hiding itself behind the United States, UK has once again returned to the policy of direct intervention in Afghanistan to start a new adventure there. In fact, UK is trying to bring about geopolitical and structural changes in Afghanistan under the pretext of resolving challenging issues. It can be said that the idea of creating the Taliban in 1970s and 1980s, was not only for defeating the Soviets and has had other long-term goals. The fact that Britain is seeking to establish a joint government with the Taliban in Afghanistan- with the help of Pakistan- to make up for its past defeats in the country or is looking for instability and insecurity in the South Asia region is under question. But what is clear is that Pakistan's approach in the region is specifically aligned with Britain’s policy; a policy which has always been based on lure, division and dispute, although it may lead to peace in the short term.
Maedeh Karimi Ghohroudy, is a PhD Graduat of Political Science, the University of Tehran