x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Afghanistan never seems to get a seat at the discussion table

Analysis The meeting of the leaders of Pakistan and Great Britain are bound to appear to many Afghans as another instance of foreigners moulding their future.

KABUL // When the leaders of Pakistan and Great Britain meet in the UK today, the fate of a third country that has long been a victim of their nations' geopolitical ambitions will be high on the agenda. The scheduled talks between the prime minister David Cameron and the president Asif Ali Zardari will bring together the heads of Afghanistan's two major historical enemies. Both have waged war here directly and indirectly throughout the years, leaving a legacy of suspicion and resentment that dates back long before the current conflict.

Although issues including the Taliban, al Qa'eda and regional peace efforts will be up for discussion, many people in Kabul will be sceptical of what is said by both men. Instead they will look on as their destiny is again being shaped by powers outside of their control. The stated reasons for intervention in Afghanistan may be different now - fighting extremism and terrorism, rather than gaining territory and political control - but history cannot be forgotten. The UK's long involvement in a land known as "the Graveyard of Empires" is lost on no one here. It is taught in schools and even carved in stone at a cemetery in the capital, where the names of British soldiers killed more than a century ago rest alongside others who died in recent months.

The first Anglo-Afghan war occurred between 1839 and 1842. After installing a puppet ruler, UK forces eventually fled for their lives. Only a handful of the 16,000-odd troops and camp followers who began the retreat survived it and the main foreign diplomatic section of Kabul still carries the name of the man who led the uprising, Wazir Akbar Khan. Two more wars followed as Britain's colonial rivalry with Russia, the so-called Great Game, was played out in Afghanistan. The second of those conflicts included another pivotal moment in this country's history of resisting invaders. At the battle of Maiwand on July 27 1880, British soldiers were slaughtered when a local woman, Malalai, used her veil to usher tribesmen into battle against them, ensuring she would be forever remembered as a national hero.

Even when it was not fighting here, Britain was shaping the region's future and laying some of the groundwork for the bloodshed we see now. In 1893 it drew the boundary between Afghanistan and what was India, splitting ethnic Pashtuns and ultimately creating a frontier in Pakistan that has become a base for the Taliban and al Qa'eda and a permanent headache for much of the world. Islamabad's influence over its neighbour is more recent, but no less important. Thanks to the help of London and Washington, during the 1980s it armed, trained and sheltered Islamic insurgents who fought the Soviet occupation.

Arab militants, whose ranks included Osama bin Laden and his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, were encouraged. Afghan mujahideen factions also received substantial support, with the greatest backing given to the most hardline among them: Hizb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He went on to play a key role in the civil war that devastated Kabul in the early and mid-1990s before the Taliban emerged as Pakistan's new favoured clients, under the rule of Mr Zardari's late wife who was then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Both groups are now fighting US and Nato forces.

None of this is likely to be mentioned at today's summit, but it all remains deeply relevant to the ongoing conflict, which has killed about 330 British troops and spilt into Pakistan, where thousands of civilians and soldiers have died. Since becoming the UK prime minister in the spring, Mr Cameron and members of his cabinet have spoken about Afghanistan a number of times, sending out the same mixed signals as his predecessors and suggesting an ignorance of past events.

He has said British troops may start to withdraw next year. However, they continue to be deployed in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces, in large part because the military has admitted it does not want to lose face by handing over its role in Helmand to US forces. Rather, they remain stationed in an area where stories about old British atrocities have long been shared from generation to generation.

Recent comments by the UK defence secretary, Liam Fox, which described Afghanistan as "a broken 13th-century country" also caused anger here and indicated that London is unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge that it is heavily implicated in slowing this nation's development via a history of war and political meddling. Pakistan has been just as silent about its guilt - denying claims by Mr Cameron that it promotes "the export of terror", even when all the evidence suggests it is still supporting militant groups, most notably the Taliban.

Islamabad clearly wants to have a say in Afghanistan's destiny and is readying itself for a role in any political deal that is struck between Kabul and the insurgency. The international community, including Britain, have also grown increasingly aware of Pakistan's importance if the Taliban are to eventually be brought to the negotiating table. That the two traditional enemies should again be moulding this country's future is a source of undoubted concern for ordinary Afghans who have learned to distrust them.

Britain's historical and cultural links with Pakistan mean the actions of both are often regarded as one and the same, despite their occasional diplomatic rows. From the north of Afghanistan where anti-Taliban sentiment is strong, to the south where support for the rebels is widespread, there is suspicion of their motives. Mr Cameron and Mr Zardari have a long way to go if they are to calm these anxieties. Today's meeting is unlikely to change that. If anything it may simply add to the sense among Afghans that they are, once again, just pawns in a modern version of the Great Game.

csands@thenational.ae