A printed photograph of a US army soldier in a chair among the trailer trucks, and electronics which sold for the price of iron at a bazar outside airfield in the Bagram district north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 19, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Haroon Sabawoon

This article is the first in a two-part series titled “Afghan nationalism faces existential challenge.”

The troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has made a flying start. So far there have been no hiccups. One significant landmark has been the vacation of the big American base at Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. 

There is some poignancy here. A recent dispatch by The Washington Post reported: “The battle against the Taliban has seesawed for months on the outskirts of Kandahar city. The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar holds strategic and symbolic value.

Its province was once home to the busiest NATO base in the country, shares a long, porous border with Pakistan and was where the Taliban movement first formally mobilized.”

The fact that in a matter of some three weeks alone since the troop pullout began formally on May 1, 20% of the withdrawal process has been successfully completed. It is a matter of satisfaction for the Pentagon and US President Joe Biden’s administration as well as the United States’ allies in Europe.  

It emerges that the latent fear in Washington and Brussels that the Taliban might taunt, harass and humiliate the retreating Western forces (which include NATO troops as well) is steadily receding.

Consequently, there is a growing measure of confidence about what the future portends, which is reflected in NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement last week about an open-ended presence of the alliance in Afghanistan beyond September, even if in a modified role. 

French President Emmanuel Macron and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, left, after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 21, 2021. Photo: AFP / Martin Bureau

Notably, Stoltenberg was speaking during a meeting in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron. Germany is already on board as regards a continued NATO presence in Afghanistan. 

Evidently, Pakistan is compelling the Taliban to “cooperate” with the United States’ and NATO’s revised troop-withdrawal schedule, notwithstanding the threatening complaints voiced by the Taliban from time to time as regards the Biden administration’s retraction from the core commitment given under the Doha pact to complete troop withdrawal by May 1. 

Put differently, Pakistan has risen to the Western expectations as regards a safe and orderly drawdown (unlike in Vietnam). This raises in turn new possibilities.

Just as Americans have a saying that there’s nothing like a free lunch in a transactional relationship, it is legitimate for the Pakistani side also to explore the quid pro quo by the Biden administration. In fact, the US-Pakistan relationship has historically become a chronicle of “free lunches” with conditions attached. 

Inevitably, dialectics came into being over time between the two inseparable partners indulging in “free lunches” and “quid pro quos” and sustaining and mutually reinforcing each other. All evidence points toward that familiar pattern returning in the problematic US-Pakistan relationship.

This will cause some worry in both Kabul and New Delhi – and, perhaps, in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran as well. Thus the repeated visits by British top brass to Rawalpindi in recent months must be highlighted here.

To borrow the infinitely sad words expressed by the late Princess Diana in her interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation about “three people in a relationship,” there has always been a hovering British presence in the US-Pakistan relationship – which is on call, but keeping the head just below the parapet, while all are dressed up raring to go at short notice. 

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, is a key player. Photo: AFP

In particular, when it comes to the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, the vexing issues were historically bequeathed to the region by Lord Curzon. Therefore, as the search for an Afghan settlement intensifies, Britain’s role becomes important. 

Unsurprisingly, at the controversial meeting in Kabul on May 10 between Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, also present was Britain’s chief of defense staff General Nicholas Patrick Carter. (Carter and Bajwa also met separately.)

Quite obviously, London had been working hard to set up the Ghani-Bajwa encounter in Kabul for some two months since the consultations in early March that General Carter had in the Pakistani General Headquarters in Rawalpindi with the chief of army staff.

Carter is well regarded in Kabul and makes a perfect mediator. Ghani later warmly referred to the general’s presence at his May 10 meeting with Bajwa at the presidential palace: “General Carter is a mutual friend. We’ve known each other for over 10 years, since he commanded the ISAF forces in Kandahar. He’s a wonderful man. It sometimes takes special people in history to come together in a crisis.” 

Indeed, the indications are that Britain is quietly working behind the scenes to bring about an understanding over the disputed Durand Line (which Kabul doesn’t recognize), which is, of course, a British legacy and remains intractable in the absence of a new security arrangement.

The Kabul elite have generally viewed Carter’s efforts in a positive spirit, given the realization that the Durand Line question is of fundamental importance and will continue to cast shadows on Afghan-Pakistani relations unless some mutually acceptable arrangement can be worked out alongside any Afghan peace agreement. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Photo: AFP / Press Office of President of Afghanistan

Ideally, Pakistan would like to host a meeting between Ghani and Taliban chief Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada in the near term as a confidence-building measure.

Conceivably, Kabul is veering around to the view that an understanding over the Durand Line question would be the price to pay for Pakistan’s good-neighborly behavior and scrupulous non-interference in Afghan affairs, especially its projection of power across the Khyber, henceforth.

But then, this is a chicken-and-egg situation and that is why the old colonial power’s mediatory role can be useful to instill mutual confidence.      

Indeed, Britain would also like to take a “hands-on” role in all this. There is every indication that Britain will work shoulder to shoulder with the US in any future special forces operations in Afghanistan in the period ahead beyond September 11 when the Western troop withdrawal will be notionally over and behind us. 

It is useful to factor in that post-Brexit Global Britain aspires to be an active participant in the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China’s rise. In anticipation of the shape of things to come, in a major reorganization in March as part of a larger strategic shift amid great-power competition, emphasizing special-operations units, British special-operations forces will henceforth see changes modeled on their US counterparts. 

The 70-page British Ministry of Defense document titled “Defence in a Competitive Age,” presented before the House of Commons in March, views China and Russia as Britain’s most important threats, and although the British military will downsize, it expects to be more competitive against Moscow and Beijing.

The British special-operations or special-operations-capable units can be divided into two tiers – the first tier comprising the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) and Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), which focus on counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, intelligence gathering and direct action, while the second tier includes the Royal Marines Commandos, Parachute Regiment and the 18 Signals Regiment.

A Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing provides air transportation and support to all of the above units. 

All these come under the Strategic Command that supervises joint and national mission formations and overseas operations. Interestingly, only two weeks after General Carter’s visit to Rawalpindi in early March to meet General Bajwa, the latter had another visitor from Britain – General Sir Patrick Nicholas Yardley Monrad Sanders, commander of UK Strategic Command. 

United Kingdom’s Special Forces conduct a joint naval exercise in Doha, Qatar with Qatari counterparts on February 28, 2018. Photo: AFP via Defence Ministry of Qatar / Handout / Anadolu Agency

The Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations readout said: “During the meeting [on March 25], matters of professional and mutual interest and regional security issues were discussed. The visiting top UK military commander acknowledged and appreciated [the] Pakistan Army’s sincere efforts in the fight against terrorism and efforts for bringing peace and stability in the region, especially the Afghan peace process.” 

Without doubt, these visits by the two topmost generals of the British armed forces in such quick succession to Rawalpindi – the chief of defense staff and the commander of the Strategic Command – were in the context of planning the future security operations in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal of troops.

The Pentagon is well aware that the British are pioneers in special operations – be it in Afghanistan or in its neighboring regions. 

Now, all this probably accounts for the intense curiosity about some secret joint activity being undertaken by the US and Pakistani military in the region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan – precisely, from Shelozan to Tari Mangal and Jazo Maidan areas – to construct military bases on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. 

This is the first article of a two-part series produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.