Britain’s Neo-Imperial Dreams in Afghanistan

Dean Acheson, the distinguished American statesman, famously opined in a speech at West Point in 1962, "that Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role." Forty years later, in 2002, Tony Blair and fellow dreamers thought the tragedy of 9/11 provided them with the opportunity once again to play a determining role on the world stage. The notion that Britain was to America as Greece had been to Rome – implying that Britain was going to be the "brain" and America the "brawn" – became a fashionable topic of discourse in the British media.

No matter how deluded this may have been when viewed objectively, Blair and his acolytes clung to the idea. They hoped to use the Anglo-American "special relationship" as the vehicle for achieving Britain’s neo-imperial dreams.

However, the United States continued to view the relationship differently, and Blair’s efforts to shape American policy through close ties to Washington failed, as has now been revealed by numerous retired senior British officials.

Nevertheless, still hoping to gain a place at the top table of decision making, and thereby try and shape future events, Blair committed Britain’s forces to fight battles in two countries where Britain had a colonial past: Afghanistan and Iraq.

London thought that its colonial era experience in both countries would enable it to claim superior knowledge and expertise, thus giving British policy proposals inordinate weight, thereby influencing the political and economic shape of the post-conflict era in both countries to British advantage. However, this ambition has already been thwarted in Iraq and is at the point of being thwarted in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, with the formation of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), it soon became clear that the U.S.’s representative Paul Bremer was in charge at the CPA. Consequently Britain’s man, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, supposedly equal in status to Bremer, was withdrawn and was replaced by a low level diplomat as Britain’s token representative at the CPA. British pique at this reverse in fortunes took the shape of press leaks condemning the American handling of the military and political situation in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, Britain’s initial efforts to determine the course of Afghan events were more successful than in Iraq: ISAF, a British project which initially consisted of only British forces, was in charge of Kabul. The Northern Alliance, whose Tajik faction has close ties with London, formed the government. Hamid Karzai, the subservient nominal Pashtun, was ennobled and served as a sop to Pashtun demands for representation in any future Afghan government.

Whether or not British inspired, the proposal that the ISAF mission should be transformed into a NATO mission was of enormous benefit to Britain’s ultimate objective of "destroying" the Pashtun Taliban, because Britain was fully aware that it neither had the men nor material to achieve its objectives alone – NATO forces were meant to serve the same purpose now as Britain’s colonial native contingents had done in the past, and other countries were going to share the cost of avenging Britain’s past military defeats in Afghanistan – Brilliant!

As I have written in a previous article, nationalistic jingoism was at fever pitch prior to the deployment of British forces to the Pashtun dominated south of Afghanistan.

Then, the British dream encountered the Pashtun reality and became a nightmare.

There was plenty of recrimination: the British army blamed MI6 for misrepresenting the situation in the South. The RAF’s contribution to battles was severely criticized – British troops on the ground referred to it as "The Royal Air Farce." Tony Blair and his crew received well-deserved public criticism from officers in the field, some of whom resigned.

The British government naturally blamed fellow NATO allies for Britain’s reverses – Germany especially came in for particular opprobrium for restricting its forces to peacekeeping duties in the North.

Britain’s military failure in Helmand last year, and the public pronouncements of high-level American officials, that there was no military solution to the problems in Afghanistan, convinced London that British chicanery might succeed where British military forces had failed. So, MI6 operative Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was named HMG’s ambassador to Kabul, supported by a team of 250 of his fellow colleagues.

However, it would appear that Sir Sherard has not been able "to cut the mustard," and Britain is pushing hard for another MI6 officer to be named as Britain’s "Viceroy" in Kabul: Lord Paddy Ashdown, affectionately dubbed by the tabloids as "Paddy Pantsdown" because of his weakness for the charms of a female member of his staff.

Lord Ashdown, an Ulsterman, (Ulster being a Northern Ireland British province which has contributed more than its fair share to imposing harsh British colonial rule throughout the British Empire) was born in Delhi during the declining days of British rule in India – his father was a Captain in the Indian Army.

After finishing secondary school at aged 18, he joined the Royal Marines. During his time in the marines he learned Malay and Chinese, presumably to equip him for serving in British forces then engaged in counter-insurgency operations in British Malaya.

His subsequent career was ostensibly at the Foreign Office, but in fact he was an MI6 officer and served in Geneva under the cover of being the First Secretary at the U.K. Mission to the U.N.

So, clearly Paddy Ashdown has all the qualifications the British deem necessary to implementing Britain’s neo-imperial agendas in Afghanistan, and Britain’s return to playing the "Great Game" in Central Asia.

But whether the international community will accord him the extensive powers, akin to being named "Viceroy of Afghanistan," which Lord Ashdown is demanding as a precondition to accepting the job of "chief international coordinator," is both undesirable and unlikely – amalgamating the posts of Head of NATO, Head of U.N. and Head of EU missions in Afghanistan may be a hat trick which even the web-spinners in London may be unable to achieve.