Tobias Ellwood, the head of the Defense Select Committee of the British Parliament and a senior member of the Conservative Party, recently authored an article in the British Newspaper Telegraph. In it, he called for Western countries, particularly Britain, to engage with the Taliban. Ellwood reportedly traveled to Afghanistan and based on his experiences, shared his views on the country’s situation under Taliban rule. Given the Conservative Party’s current governance, his statements carry significant weight and may reflect the British government’s stance. Before delving into the main discussion, here are excerpts from his statement:
- The West’s apathy towards the Taliban could lead to China becoming the dominant force in shaping Afghanistan’s future.
- Afghanistan has made significant strides since the Taliban rule, and the country’s citizens appear content with the current state of affairs.
- A delay by the West could result in Afghanistan plunging into a financial abyss, leading to an escalation of terrorism and a surge in mass migration.
- As a first step, Britain should consider reopening its embassy in Kabul, followed by a pragmatic approach towards the situation.
Readers may question why Britain, as a leading example of democracy, seeks to legitimize the Taliban, an enemy of democratic values. To answer this query, we must examine history. A review of Britain’s presence in Iran from 1907 to 1953 may illuminate the essence of Tobias Ellwood’s remarks.
Following the conclusion of World War I, two Middle Eastern nations were pursuing democracy: Turkey and Iran. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led Turkey, while Reza Khan led Iran. Turkey succeeded in establishing democracy by severing ties with its past, while Iran failed to do so. Instead, internal conflicts led to the emergence of a military regime that does not align with Western values: the Islamic Republic. If Iran had managed to foster democracy similar to Turkey, the Middle East would likely look quite different today. To comprehend why Ataturk succeeded and Reza Khan failed, it is necessary to explore the issue of British intervention in Iran.
In 1907, Britain established a military presence in southern Iran under an agreement with Russia, while the Qajar dynasty governed Iran. On February 22, 1921, with the help of British representative Edmund Ironside, Reza Khan led a successful coup against the Qajar dynasty. Reza Khan admired Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and initially implemented significant reforms and granted greater freedoms to Iranians. However, his relationship with Britain deteriorated when he did not comply with their wishes to the same extent as the previous Qajar kings had, ultimately leading to his downfall.
In 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran, citing Reza Khan’s alleged sympathies towards “Nazism” as their justification. As a result, the individual who had been installed on the throne through a coup, similar to the one that occurred on September 16, 1941, was forced to abdicate.
Subsequently, Britain succeeded in influencing the selection of a successor. Interestingly, the British authorities once again turned to the Qajar dynasty and nominated one of its princes for the position, despite previously supporting the coup that overthrew the Qajar dynasty. However, the selected prince was deemed unfit due to his inability to speak Persian. Consequently, they placed Mohammad Reza, the 22-year-old son of Reza Khan, in power. During his reign, the oil nationalization movement emerged, led by then-prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was dissatisfied with the Pahlavi style of leadership and the demands of the clergy.
Mohammad Mosaddegh aimed to establish democracy, remove British influence from Iran, and nationalize the country’s oil industry, leading to Britain’s displeasure. Britain resorted to staging a coup against Mosaddegh, with the support of the king, as Mosaddegh favored symbolizing the role of the monarch. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill repeatedly urged former U.S. President Harry Truman to cooperate with the coup in Iran, but Truman refused. When former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office, the United States rejected Britain’s request. Despite Mosaddegh becoming prime minister on April 28, 1951, with the support of 79 parliamentarians, he was overthrown on August 19, 1953, after 27 months in power, in a coup supported by Britain and the United States.
The reason why Turkey succeeded in its path towards democratization, but Iran did not, can now be comprehended. Iran faced three significant obstacles that Turkey did not encounter: foreign interference, the inheritance of power, and the suppression of democracy. After the Treaty of Sevres was abolished, Ataturk created an environment conducive to promoting democracy in Turkey without the fear of foreign interference, eventually achieving success. However, power in Turkey was not inherited as it was in Iran. The British ousted the first Pahlavi and installed the second Pahlavi, who not only deviated from the path of democratization but also suppressed democratic forces led by Mosaddegh. Some theorists believe that if British intervention had not occurred, Iran could have become the most democratic country in the Middle East. However, the nascent seedling of democracy in Iran was uprooted by British intervention before it could take root and thrive.
Considering this background, it is not surprising that Ellwood has a keen interest in the Taliban. If the interests of Britain necessitate it, the values of liberal democracy may be disregarded. If Chinese, Russian, or Iranian officials made similar statements, it would not be surprising as they do not advocate for democracy. However, when the world’s leading democracy advocates for cordial relations with the Taliban, it is undoubtedly surprising for everyone.
He regards China’s growing influence in Afghanistan as a concern. The question that arises is what led to China’s involvement in Afghanistan. The answer is evident: the catastrophic withdrawal of NATO, led by the United States, from Afghanistan. This move abandoned the Afghan republic and favored the Taliban. Therefore, it can be said that self-inflicted wounds neither cause pain nor have a cure. If the containment of China is a priority for the West, it should not come at the expense of imposing the Taliban on the people of Afghanistan. The best approach would be to establish an inclusive political structure based on democratic principles that puts an end to the two-year dark period.
He expressed his belief that the West’s reluctance to engage with the Taliban is detrimental, as it may lead Afghanistan into a cycle of terrorism and mass migration. However, it is unclear how warming up to or legitimizing the Taliban’s current form and nature will guarantee that Afghanistan will be spared from the scourge of terrorism and mass migration. The solution to halt mass migration and eliminate the threat of terrorism is to alter the Taliban’s nature, not to legitimize their conduct.
It is worth noting that his remarks were printed in a newspaper that had recently released a report lauding the Taliban for successfully eliminating poppy cultivation.