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The United Kingdom’s colonial preconceptions have resulted in mistakes in its position in Afghanistan.

It has failed to contribute to Afghanistan’s peace and security despite enormous financial, military, and political resources.

A diplomatic exchange between the UK Secretary of Defence and the Taliban spokesperson has garnered little notice amid the current developments in Afghanistan. Ben Wallace said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that if the Taliban take power in Afghanistan, Britain will cooperate with them. The news was greeted with enthusiasm by the Taliban’s spokesperson, who hailed it as “good.”

The discussion exemplifies a lesser-known element of the UK’s Afghanistan engagement since 2001: To what extent does Britain’s colonial heritage influence its role in Afghanistan? The United Kingdom was a minor player in the US-led Afghan operation, which is on the verge of collapse. Relations between the United Kingdom and Afghanistan, on the other hand, date back over two centuries. Unlike popular interest in and coverage of the British Raj or German-British ties, Afghanistan remains a niche topic in the United Kingdom. However, the UK has had a greater effect on Afghanistan than any other country, including establishing its physical borders, political culture, and identity from the mid-nineteenth century, according to many Afghans.

On the surface, the Afghan conflict was cast as a part of the global war on terror, with a strong undercurrent of “liberal intervention.” Many in London, on the other hand, couldn’t resist the urge to observe Afghanistan through the eyes of their forefathers in the early twentieth century. The multitude of British military and civilian employees heading to Afghanistan were required to read Rudyard Kipling’s Great Game and see Carry On Up the Khyber.

The UK’s choices of location, programmes, and regulations in the nation also reflect the country’s colonial heritage. Helmand, a province rich in memories of the Anglo-Afghan wars, was chosen as the UK’s area of responsibility. The United Kingdom took the lead in combating Afghanistan’s thriving illicit drug industry, which was centred in the southern regions, which were previously British India’s border. More crucially, the UK was the first government to see the futility of a military solution and urge for a diplomatic resolution as early as 2008. Another of the UK’s goals was to mediate between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The United Kingdom’s attempts and “achievement” in “tribal balance” are less well-known. The United Kingdom backed Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun from the Ghiljai tribe, which is said to be home to the majority of Taliban members. A Ghiljai president, they reasoned, might persuade the Taliban to enter the democratic process.

A number of remarks made by prominent UK officials show the UK’s ingrained colonial beliefs and the resulting hubris, ignorance, and folly. John Reid, the UK Secretary of Defence at the time, had the arrogance to declare before sending his country’s soldiers to Helmand, “We would be quite delighted to depart in three years time without firing a single shot.” In actuality, Helmand became the site of “the bloodiest British-led warfare since the Korean War.” Former UK Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox argued for a negotiated solution, revealing that the UK’s major reason for remaining in Afghanistan was not “for the sake of the education policy in a shattered country.”

The Afghan government made history in 2007 when it expelled two senior UN and EU diplomats holding Irish/British passports. The officials were dismissed for cultivating unofficial relations with the Taliban, notably through the transfer of cash. The officials were accused by the Afghan administration of being British spies. Michael Sample, one of the two deported men who married the daughter of a top Pakistani army general, was able to return to Pakistan and continue his decades-long relationship with the Taliban.

While a focus on the impact of colonial assumptions and attitude may lead to an excessively deterministic assessment of the UK’s two-decade engagement in Afghanistan, it deserves to be acknowledged and examined. Despite sacrificing over 450 personnel and investing enormous financial and political resources in the nation, the UK has failed to achieve any of its declared goals. A UK free of its colonial responsibilities would have been better able to contribute to Afghanistan’s peace and security.

 

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