Britain is a safe-haven for us for now,” said a former official in the government of Afghanistan, prior to the Taliban take-over. He and I sat in a café in Central London, spending hours talking about the tragic last stages of the US withdrawal. He spent several more quiet moments in despair. Britain has become one of the many global hotspots for former Afghan officials and their families who fled the country. They had no choice. After all, despite all the assurances provided by both the Taliban and western interlocutors, there is no vision or want for inclusivity within the new set-up in Afghanistan.
For many wealthier or better connected Afghans, London is home. The welfare State still exists in respectable measure. To be sure, ‘Global Britain’ – the oft-used establishment term post Brexit – is most vibrant on its streets. London continues to represent a mash-up of several chilling John le Carre novels. The main theme, for the moment, is Afghanistan. The protagonists include the up-and-coming resistance to the Taliban rule, spies wooing old elites, veterans and experts plotting post-Taliban leadership scenarios, and Whitehall attempting its own direct outreach with the Taliban.
Britain’s declared ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific…
On the other end of the ‘Global Britain’ spectrum, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration is in the midst of experimenting with one of the most ambitious foreign policy agenda’s in the nation’s recent history. Take the announcement on AUKUS, whereby – potentially in the next couple of years – British, American and Australian nuclear powered submarines will patrol the Indian Ocean. These “maritime democracies”, as they call themselves, will also focus on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.” In effect, if all goes according to plan, AUKUS will in time represent a new and protected marketplace for strategic technologies.
Such groupings substantiate, at least in part, Britain’s declared “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, clearly outlined in the Integrated Review. In August 2021, the United Kingdom became a “dialogue partner” of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The UK’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG) – led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth – has sailed into the Bay of Bengal. The CSG, which includes a Dutch frigate, conducted exercises with the Indian Navy in May 2021. Making sure to balance both security and diplomatic imperatives, the UK and India held their inaugural Maritime dialogue on 18 October.
The CSG’s foray into the Indian Ocean underlined, according to the First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin— who will assume charge as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at the end of November, the “deepening comprehensive strategic partnership” between the two “blue water, multi-carrier” navies. Alex Ellis, the British High Commissioner to India, underscored the importance of the CSG in the Indian Ocean. “The visit will boost the cooperation of our armed forces,” he stated, and “show the living bridge connecting our people.” Indeed, across Whitehall, “strategic” is the term unfailingly used when discussing India. That India is a top foreign policy priority for Global Britain is without doubt.
…but India opportunity yet to be realised
Down the line, the relationship looks less strategic. Everyday operational issues, from challenges at the counsellor level to export controls in the UK, and from stark differences on Afghanistan to the need to do more on sharing intelligence – an imbalance is palpable. Tactics rather than the strategic fortunes talked-up in the Integrated Review and in the ten year road-map or the 2030 vision agreed by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson, occupy a good dose of administrative energy. There is, clearly, a need to rebalance the scales. Strategic promise ought to vitalise the relationship. There is an urgent need to find what might be called a strategic glue that can, in turn, focus attention on a larger set of purposes.
This is not to say that both sides need to find their equivalent of the US-India nuclear agreement, which did much to strategically cement ties between the US and India. This is not possible. The governments on both sides are clearly committed to this relationship. What is needed is a strategic investment in a set of exchanges that can further support the road-map, the contours of which are clearly outlined. Mostly, such a dialogue will need to brainstorm a set of imperatives that can bind both countries at the strategic level.
For this to be effective, it will require industrialists, technologists, university heads, security chiefs, cultural tsars and government officials and leaders to construct a practical strategic arc to creatively substantiate the future of this relationship.
Further, there is an equally urgent need to initiate a discrete dialogue on the future of Afghanistan. There is a very strong view in India that the UK will essentially be swayed by Pakistani imperatives. General Nick Carter’s – the outgoing British CDS – now infamous interview, where he cautioned against using the term “enemy” when talking about the Taliban and advocated that the Taliban “want an Afghanistan that is inclusive for all” only reinforced Indian experts’ views. General Carter later made clear that “everybody got it wrong” on the Taliban – but it was too late. The deed was done. It armour-plated the view that Britain and the United States was sold a lemon by Taliban interlocutors in Doha.
For those in London, nothing could be further from the truth – experts suggest. “It’s absurd that we should be seen as supportive of Pakistan” is essentially the reaction of those left to contend with the well-set beliefs in New Delhi. There is a need for a more creative approach to better understand each other’s views, and share the kind of intelligence that one would between “comprehensive strategic” partners.
Today, Liz Truss – the new British Foreign Secretary – and General Carter visit India. There is a real opportunity to, first, seek-out ideas for a strategic glue that can more surely bind the “living bridge”. Second, this is a unique occasion to begin an honest and piercing discussion on Afghanistan.
In sum, there is an exciting universe between Britain and India that needs to be discovered and re-discovered by economic, technological, cultural, and political interlocutors in both countries. The CSG provides both the symbolism and the encouragement for this journey of the future, but it’s only another beginning.
The author is the director of Carnegie India. He tweets @Rudra_81. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)