The UK has provided military, diplomatic, and development support to Afghanistan for for nearly two decades. Now it must continue to work closely with the US in pressuring Pakistan to keep the Taliban at the intra-Afghan talks.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab recently voiced support for the intra-Afghan peace talks, which began on 12 September in Doha, Qatar. He advocated for all parties to strive for an “inclusive and sustainable peace”. This is no easy task, as 20 years of similar talks, beginning after the Taliban regime was toppled by US-led coalition forces in 2001, have shown.
In his speech, Raab reiterated the UK’s extensive military and diplomatic role in Afghanistan since 2001. The UK became the second largest contributor of troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), deploying approximately 140,000 British troops to Afghanistan between 2001-14 under Operation Herrick. UK involvement in Afghanistan accelerated in 2006 with the construction of Camp Bastion, which alone would house 30,000 troops.
As the war became increasingly unpopular among the alliance, NATO members agreed on an exit strategy to withdraw foreign troops from Afghanistan and to assist in the transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces. In 2014, Cameron withdrew most UK troops from Operation Herrick, leaving behind an estimated 1000 soldiers in the country to mentor and assist local forces under Operation Toral. The Ministry of Defence predicts that the costs of UK involvement in Afghanistan may exceed £40bn. The UK has lost 456 soldiers, with more than 2000 wounded.
Despite a declining military presence in Afghanistan, the UK continues to push for peace and stability. Over the last three years, the UK has delivered £750m to Afghanistan in development and humanitarian aid. Recently, the Government announced a package to help combat the threat of COVID-19 and famine to “protect the poorest”. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has said the UK’s motivation for a stable Afghanistan is “to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a place from which al-Qaeda and other extremists can attack the UK and our interests”.
More broadly, international concerns for the future of Afghanistan are driven by various interests. Firstly, stability creates economic opportunities for regional actors. China’s main motivation in the Doha talks are the vast resources in Central Asia, to which Afghanistan can provide better access. Secondly, the proximity of NATO forces to Russia’s sphere of influence increases tensions and means the future of the country is a high priority for both. Thirdly, combatting the spread of terrorism is high on the agenda for many, particularly given that multiple terrorist cells are emerging across India and Central Asia. With this in mind, fruitful negotiations seem, now more than ever, of highest priority and relevance for all parties involved.
Negotiating a stable Afghanistan requires the British government to cooperate closely with Pakistan. In a post-9/11 context, the UK’s diplomatic mission in Pakistan has evolved to become one of the largest in the world to reflect Pakistan’s critical role in the global war on terror. But British interests in Pakistan, which previously acted as a safe haven for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, go beyond threats to national security. Post-Brexit, the UK is incentivised to pursue as many allies as possible beyond Europe and the Anglosphere. Promoting strong relations with Commonwealth states, such as Pakistan and India, paves the way for a stronger UK presence in South Asia, whilst granting the nation access to a broader scope of trading partners.
British High Commissioner to Pakistan, Christian Turner, recently described Pakistan as ‘key in […] Intra-Afghan Negotiations’, however Pakistan’s intentions at the talks are unclear. Whilst officials emphasise Pakistan’s role only as a facilitator in the process, some experts suggest that Islamabad’s attempts to push the Taliban to the table are a move to reduce India’s influence in Afghanistan and the wider region. Protesters have demanded that the British government increase efforts to pressure Pakistan to halt its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, but the UK is less convinced that they can have a direct influence on Pakistan.
Only diplomatic pressure can keep the Taliban at the table. This begins with eliminating the Taliban’s spoiling strategies which continue to disrupt the peace talks. Whilst the UK may have limited influence on Pakistan’s role, if the UK is to reduce the risks emanating from an unstable Afghanistan and protect regional interests, then the British government must work closer with the US to reassure Pakistan. Cooperation is required between all actors at the table in order to reach an agreement that will satisfy the interests of all parties and most importantly, secure the peace and stability of Afghanistan and its citizens.
Eleanor Wong is studying for a Masters in Peace Research and International Relations at the University of Tübingen.