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UK and Afghan endgame

July 23, 2012


IN Kabul on a surprise visit last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned the Afghan Taliban: “you cannot wait this out till foreign forces leave in 2014 because we will be firm friends and supporters of Afghanistan long beyond then.”

Although the prime minister was brimming with bravado, his statement was tinged with desperation. As the deadline for Isaf troop withdrawal approaches, Britain is increasingly aware that it has much more at stake in a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict than the United States, and that London’s future concerns are quite distinct from those of Washington.

Although the number of British military deaths in Afghanistan stands at 422 after the July 1 shooting of three soldiers in Helmand, and troops are frustrated at returning home only to be deployed for Olympics duty, Cameron maintained an upbeat tone: he expressed full confidence in the Afghan security forces, which will assume control of the country’s security as per a schedule decided during the Nato summit in Chicago earlier this year. The prime minister also committed to establish a Sandhurst-like officer training camp for the Afghan army.

More productively, Cameron emphasised the need for talks with the Taliban, stressing that negotiations offered the only viable option for a stable Afghanistan. Britain came to the realisation that political reconciliation is the best option for an Afghan endgame well before the US, and has been irritated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s stalling of the recently initiated negotiations process.

Cameron’s remarks in Kabul were diplomatically focused on Afghanistan’s future, but really had more to do with Britain. In particular, Cameron’s insistence on including Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in the Kabul meet-up in the hope of improving Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation signalled that the UK is seriously interested in getting the endgame right.

Much earlier and more wholeheartedly than the US, Britain realised that the Afghan conflict has as much to do with Pakistan’s security as Afghanistan’s. Britain knows that a post-2014 civil war in Afghanistan would quickly further destabilise Pakistan; earlier this month, during meetings between Pakistani parliamentarians and British government officials and policymakers, it was stressed that Pakistan — with around 2.5 million Afghan refugees on its soil — is the biggest stakeholder in the Afghan endgame.

Britain has also been quicker than the US to understand (but certainly not condone) Pakistan’s compulsion to cultivate groups such as the Haqqani network — based on concerns about India’s expanding presence in Afghanistan — and also repeatedly acknowledged the irony of this tactic, which has led to Pakistan destabilising itself from within. Either way, the outcome of prolonged conflict in Afghanistan is not good for Pakistan, and by extension, it’s not good for Britain.

Unlike the US, Britain has a sizeable Pakistani diaspora, up to 1.2 million at last count. The British administration knows that a deteriorating security situation in Pakistan will initiate an even greater wave of migration to the UK. This is something Cameron wants to avoid at all costs for domestic political reasons.

Immigration has become the biggest point of contention in British politics, topping the list of voter concerns. The national loathing of migrants — only eight per cent of British citizens outside London like foreigners — has compelled the ruling coalition to promise to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, a significant decrease from 252,000, the number of migrants to Britain in 2011. Public opinion on immigration is so harsh that the Labour Party was forced to revise its stance on the issue, conceding that it had “got it wrong” by allowing in as many migrants as it did.

In this context, a post-2014 flood of migrants and asylum seekers from Pakistan and Afghanistan is seen as toxic across the political spectrum. It is probably no accident that the latest migration-controlling measure, a rule that sets a minimum income threshold of £18,600 for those wishing to sponsor the settlement of a spouse or partner in the UK, primarily targets the South Asian diaspora.

Britain also fears that the wave of future immigrants from Pakistan will bring with it an increased security threat. The 2012 Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrated earlier this summer have put security at the forefront of most British minds. Throughout the year, British broadsheets have been reporting on various terrorist plots to attack the Olympics as detected on jihadi websites.

The gun attacks in France by Mohammed Merah in March this year coincided with security preparations for this summer’s events in Britain and instilled deep fears of terrorist attacks by British nationals who have received militant training abroad, likely in Pakistan. An Associated Press report that Merah had received training along with 85 French nationals and other ‘white jihadis’ in North Waziristan fuelled those fears.

The incident also reminded the British of the killing of three British nationals, one of Pakistani-origin and two white converts, in drone attacks in North Waziristan in October and December 2010, respectively. In short, concerns about migration from Pakistan are closely linked with fears of home-grown terrorism.

Britain’s region- and diaspora-specific concerns are further compounded by low troop morale in the face of austerity measures: 20 per cent cuts to army numbers are planned by 2020. Still, the UK has made a medium-term commitment to Afghanistan, pledging annual funding of £178 million for five years, planning development support until 2017 and offering other support until 2025.

For its own sake, as well as that of Afghanistan and Pakistan, one hopes it keeps up its end of the bargain. More importantly, London should leverage its own stakes in the Afghanistan endgame to induce more coherent strategic planning on Afghanistan in Washington.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf