The United Kingdom has been expecting a Pakistani visitor since early July. Even though the programme is not finalised yet, both London and Rawalpindi are eager to sit and talk about the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and more. Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is planning an official-cum-personal visit to London, is quite a favourite in town. He has got more ears willing to listen to him and believe in his intent and capability to turn things around than in Washington. And in the final days of American withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a lot to be discussed.
Sources in London were of the view that Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff General Nicholas Carter’s frequent visits to Islamabad notwithstanding, there are several issues General Bajwa wants to discuss and many more people he would like to meet. In Afghanistan’s context, the UK assumes an important role with the Joe Biden administration not opening its doors wide enough for both General Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan. The UK, which was a significant player in shaping Pakistan’s foreign policy in earlier years but was overtaken by Washington, especially after the 1980s, is again the much sought after player in Islamabad.
One is reminded of a conversation from 1954 when prominent Punjab politician Malik Khizar Hayat Tiwana tried to explain to then-British High Commissioner Gerald Laithwaite the relative rise in American influence compared to the British: “the Americans are now inheriting the goodwill that belongs to Britain….The countrymen would prefer to see the British but say ‘if I cannot have the brother and he can no longer help me, I may as well have the cousin’.” It seems that in more than six decades, the ‘cousin’ became the real deal and the brother is now needed to have a conversation with the brother, hence the US replacing the UK in terms of significance.
Pakistan’s misplaced belief
The informal dialogue with the UK is necessary for a number of reasons, foremost being Pakistan’s need for money, even if it is from the International Monetary Fund for which better relations with Washington are required. But more importantly, Pakistan’s strategic thinkers believe they could help slow down the speed of the US-China race for regional influence in South Asia. After all, Islamabad’s ‘lesson’ from the first Cold War is that it could maintain relations with both Beijing and Washington. As historian Ian Talbot indicated in his book The History of British Diplomacy in Pakistan, American diplomats were worried about who Pakistan would align with. For instance, in 1963, then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs William Averell Harriman quipped about Pakistan acting like Portugal in blackmailing Washington, threatening to join the Chinese/Communist camp if the US didn’t give it weapons or reduce support to India. Looks like Islamabad is still invested in the older strategy, intent on convincing the US to continue feeding Pakistan — its biggest sign of a working relationship — and allowing it the opportunity to have relations with both powers.
There are two flaws in this idea. First, unlike during the Soviet-American Cold War, where a rapprochement between Beijing and Washington was possible, the current US-China competition has little room for the kind of manoeuvring Pakistan is hoping for. Second, Washington has limited appetite now to listen to Pakistan’s story. The Covid-19 pandemic has further reduced its willingness to invest in Pakistan. Washington would still engage with it, but not as a strategic partner. The US may not be too keen on Pakistan’s new roadmap of becoming a geo-economic hub either, considering the latter’s limited capacity and numerous decision-making issues to tidy up structural and infrastructural drawbacks at home.
In Pakistan’s mind, maintaining influence over the politics of Afghanistan by encouraging a friendly regime in Kabul is part of its strategic vision of managing both American and Chinese interests in the northern tip of South Asia. Taliban would hamper the current Afghan leadership, and perhaps also strategically control Beijing’s influence. Pakistan may have claimed it favours Afghanistan’s integration into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but it’s mainly focused on increasing its own negotiating power.
In the past decade, Islamabad has struggled to convince both Moscow and Beijing about the Taliban turning a new leaf, which is what it wants the West to believe as well despite limited evidence. From Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, all are marketing the Taliban to get the group wider acceptance while it increases its territorial control through war-fighting. Such marketing will not even work with China, which is highly incensed by the recent attack in Gilgit-Baltistan that killed nine of its citizens and has probably summoned Qureshi and Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (DG-ISI) Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed to Beijing.
Gen Bajwa’s mission impossible
General Bajwa’s team is unable to read the signals from Washington. The plan to stitch a peace deal with the Taliban was based on the premise that the militants will be included in Afghanistan’s governance structure, without allowing them to completely take over. Despite its claims that it is not interested in Taliban takeover, Pakistan prefers the Afghan militants instead of the Ashraf Ghani government. From NSA Yusuf to ambassador Asad Majeed Khan, all sound like Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as the US’ Special Representative for Afghanistan: putting pressure only on Kabul and expecting it to accommodate the Taliban. In many ways, Pakistan is doing more of what the US did.
Author and Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani thinks that supporting the Taliban is a flawed strategy, that the success of Taliban will become an uncontrollable problem for Pakistan. But the generals won’t learn the lesson. Contrary to Haqqani’s argument, General Bajwa is equally culpable in wanting the West to believe that this is a new set of Taliban with whom business can be done.
Now, General Bajwa is keenly engaged with the UK to market himself as someone who can turn things around, including handling the Taliban. Since the July 2007 attack in London, British intelligence has worked very closely with Pakistan’s. They have better communication than what the ISI has with the US. Recently, Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace indicated his willingness to work with the Taliban if they come into power. This is nothing more than to keep Rawalpindi engaged in a conversation and make them use their influence with the Taliban. The US may ask UK to play a role in post-peace deal Afghanistan, but the fact is that London has serious limitations and will exit Afghanistan like other European states. Even Turkey, which has deployed some forces, is there to perform limited functions.
Britain’s internal security concern makes it want to engage with multiple actors to ensure some stability in the Af-Pak region. Contributing to peace in the region could also sustain the UK’s geo-strategic clout, especially after Brexit. Though seemingly singing a different tune than Washington, London, as historian Talbot suggests in his book, may actually be singing “from the same hymn sheet” as the US in dealing with Pakistan. London wants to listen to Pakistan also because it is conscious of the fact that Kabul has its own problems like poor governance and corruption that add to sustaining the Taliban.
As Dan Jarvis of the Royal United Services Institute points out, one of the critical points of the British plan is to ensure that the US-Taliban peace deal continues to operate and all stakeholders work together, even if in an imperfect form. If the Taliban are going to be a part of the Afghan power structure, why not engage with them, especially by using Pakistan’s long-time leverage.
Britain will have an important communication role to play with the Taliban via Pakistan if the government gets changed in Kabul. Sadly, it’s only Pakistan which will have to suffer consequences of limited or extended Taliban influence next door. Hope Islamabad doesn’t close its eyes to this.
Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited Prashant Dixit)