With the Taliban now firmly in control of most of Afghanistan, British government figures have been wrestling with what that means for everything from counter-terrorism to the drugs trade and aid.
How soon should Britain’s battlefield foes be recognised as the de facto rulers of Afghanistan? What attitude should the UK take to the burgeoning resistance coalescing around former Afghan government figures as the threat of renewed civil war looms?
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence select committee, warns that any move by the UK government or military to deal directly with the Taliban and legitimise their role would be “deeply premature”.
“It saddens me to say but it also reflects a failure to grasp what’s been happening in Afghanistan, which has led to the dire consequences of us timidly following America’s departure,” said the MP.
Although the British army is now in direct contact with the Taliban at the gates of Kabul airport while an evacuation is under way, Ellwood is sceptical of the prospects for “conditional recognition” of the movement as Afghanistan’s new government. This would be in return for commitments such as not allowing the country to once again become a base for the export of terrorism.
“The Taliban was and still is a number of militias under one banner that had a single objective, and that’s to change to remove foreigners and to change the societal culture of Afghanistan, harnessing a more ruthless interpretation of sharia law. But beyond that, each of the subgroups have very different objectives,” he said.
By contrast, Gen Sir Nick Carter, the head of the British armed forces, on Wednesday described the Taliban as “country boys” who wanted an “inclusive Afghanistan”. Such comments, suggests Ellwood, were driven more by Carter’s immediate need to pull off a successful evacuation with the militants at the gates of the airport.
Nevertheless, Carter’s stated position also reflects conversations he’s had with figures such as former Afghan president Hamad Karzai, who was pictured this week sitting down with the Taliban in Kabul, and the close engagement which the general has had with other Afghan leaders.
Has the Taliban really changed since it was toppled in the 2001 US-led invasion? Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) thinktank, says the answer to that is likely to soon become apparent on a range of issues.
“The first thing we are going to find out rather quickly is whether they will form an inclusive government, both in Kabul and the provinces,” he said.
“These may turn out to be straws in the wind, tactical feints rather than a real desire to share power. But they might be prepared to accept some form of power sharing, honouring the multiple local deals that allowed them to win without fighting in man places.”
Chalmers suggests two guidelines for UK recognition of a Taliban-led government. One is that it should be in coordination with allies. Secondly, it should be condition-based. Governments like the UK are not without leverage, he adds, referencing the Afghan government’s financial reserves, most of which are held in the United States or other western countries.
He added: “In the next weeks, we should be focusing on saying to the Taliban that it’s in their interest to have a broad-based government which refuses any sanctuary to foreign terrorists. If they’re prepared to go down that route and show the evidence that they have done so, then I don’t think that any policy which, for example, facilitates the resurgence of civil war would be the right route.”
The risk of a renewed civil war stems from the Taliban’s confrontation with forces mustering in the Panjshir valley.
How the UK government would view support from communities in Britain for such an anti-Taliban resistance is just one of the complex questions that will have to be answered.
Others revolve around fears that the west would pay lip service to or simply forget the rights of women and minorities in return for Taliban pledges. The example of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, say some, bodes ill.