Martin Parsons is currently director of faculty of Britain’s newest sixth form college in Lowestoft, Suffolk. He has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and has written a major academic book on this subject. He is currently writing a further book on Conservativism and Christianity and is a member of the parliamentary candidates list.
In part 1 we examined the likely outcomes for Afghanistan in the lead up to and immediately following the withdrawal of the main western combat forces in 2014, including the likely loss of control by the Kabul government of outlying rural areas, particularly in the predominantly Pushtun south and east. We now examine the implications for British foreign policy.
The international terrorist threat
At this point it is helpful to remind ourselves of why the west intervened in Afghanistan in the first place. Leaving aside what later became a confused set of multiple war aims, the primary reason for western military intervention was that a radical Islamist regime, ie the Taliban which has seized power, had invited an international terrorist organisation, ie al Qaeda, to set up a base there from whence to plan terrorist attacks on the west as part of global jihad to impose Islamic government and sharia on the entire world.
There was a secondary aim of western intervention – namely, that there was a risk of the Taliban obtaining nuclear and other material enabling them to make a crude radioactive "dirty bomb" as nuclear and other materials from the former Soviet Union were being smuggled through Afghanistan. To an extent, these aims have been achieved – al Qaeda has been denied an effective base in Afghanistan to which it had moved after being evicted from Sudan. Al Qaeda’s Afghan base had allowed it to plan and train for large scale terrorist attacks such as 9/11 that took years of planning and preparation.
However, al Qaeda now appears to have spread and spawned offspring in a number of other locations including Yemen, the Horn of Africa, North Africa and northern Nigeria. There is the potential for any of these areas to become a terrorist planning and training base for attacks on the west. There is also the potential, if the Taliban were able to seize control of Kabul again, for Afghanistan to revert to being such a terrorist host country. That would necessitate western military intervention again, if we are not to face a significantly increased number of major terrorist attacks planned against the west. There must however be a very real question as to whether western governments would have the political willpower, courage and foresight to see the implications of not undertaking another military intervention. So the question we must ask is…
Will a radical Islamist group control Afghanistan again?
Whilst most western attention has been focused on the Taliban – with talk even of negotiating with the Taliban to bring them into a future government, the biggest threat that has largely been ignored is, I would suggest, from a lesser known group – the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, who I would argue is more brutal and ruthless than the Taliban, has been quietly biding his time, letting the Taliban take on coalition forces. However, he harbours one massive overriding ambition, which is to rule Afghanistan, and history has shown that he is prepared literally to destroy anything and everything that gets in his way to achieve this.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing of bin Laden, I wrote an article for ConservativeHome posing the question: "Post bin Laden – Which way will Pakistan slide in the fight against Islamist terrorism?" The assassination on Pakistani soil by American troops without the Pakistani government’s prior knowledge or agreement sent shock waves through a country where the maintenance of personal honour (izzat) is a matter of daily importance. Before 9/11, the Pakistani military was covertly helping various radical Islamist groups including the Taliban, as they saw them as strategic allies in the Kashmir dispute and in countering the wider perceived threat from India. After 9/11, this policy changed in relation to the Taliban, though links do not appear to have been cut with other Islamist groups in the same way. The impact of bin Laden’s assassination on Pakistani soil appears to be sending it in the opposite direction, away from the west.
One should not underestimate how difficult it is for any Islamic country to be seen to be siding with a non-Muslim country against a fellow Muslim country. Public opinion plays a crucial, though not necessarily determining, role in this. As in many Muslim majority countries, the number of radical Muslims may not be many more than 15%, but many more of the other 85% or so of traditionalist Muslims can be swayed either towards radicalism or towards the west, by what they see the west doing in the Islamic world. To this extent – in the medium term the end of overt western military action in Afghanistan may provide some breathing space for the Pakistani government. However, the spawning of a Pakistani Taliban, which has now become a potent political force in Pakistan itself, means that any gains made by the Taliban there, particularly in the border areas of the largely lawless tribal zone and nearby North West Frontier Province, will make it easier for the Taliban to gain power again in Afghanistan. British foreign policy must therefore focus as much on Pakistan as it does on Afghanistan.
British foreign policy
So what should British foreign policy be as the move up to and beyond the projected end of western combat operations in 2014? In the light of what has been outlined above, and in part 1 of this article, I offer ten suggestions for British foreign policy towards Afghanistan: