Corruption in Kenya? Blame it on the British and the psychological damage of colonialism. The partition of Cyprus? Step forward the social engineers in London, who underestimated the depth of feeling in the Turkish minority when the British were finally forced out.
When it comes to the Middle East, one can really get exercised about “Perfidious Albion.” The British had their fingers in every territorial dispute: They created whole countries and, with the help of the French, imposed borders from Morocco to China.
Trouble with Iran? Even before the CIA started meddling there in 1953, it was Winston Churchill who, as First Sea Lord in 1913, decided the Royal Navy would move faster, cleaner and have greater range if it switched from coal to oil. So he partially nationalized the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the forerunner of BP, to exploit the newly discovered oil fields in Iran. Later, this led to a surge in Iranian nationalism and the CIA plot to restore the Shah.
On to Pakistan and the British legacy in the autonomous tribal lands, now home to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Put the British colonial administration of the 18th to 20th centuries in the dock. Yes, three centuries of British commission and omission.
The British interest in Afghanistan, which they failed to subdue in a series of wars, was largely as a buffer between British India and the growing territorial interests of the Russian Empire. It was here that The Great Game was played: the romanticized espionage that flourished in the region. The British divided the traditional Pashtun lands with the Durand Treaty of 1893, creating a northwestern border for British India, and later Pakistan. It amounted to a land grab. However, the British did recognize the separateness of the people in the Northwest Territories and left them to their tribal and religious ways.
With independence and the partition of India in 1947, the incoming Pakistani government had enough problems without encouraging ethnic strife between the largely Punjabi Pakistanis and their difficult Pashtun brothers in the territories. So the government in Islamabad continued the British policy of benign indifference to the Pashtuns, with whom they were more closely linked by religion than ethnicity or politics.
Yet, the border dispute smoldered and periodically erupted. Kabul and Islamabad do not agree, both blaming the border drawn by the British.
What neither the British nor the Pakistanis wanted was a strong movement for a Pashtun state that would carve out territory from Afghanistan, as well as the tribal territories in Pakistan. There was a failed attempt to bring this about in 1949. Segments of the Pakistani army and the intelligentsia have feared this ever since. They are haunted by another stateless people living on both sides of a border: the Kurds who straddle the border between Iraq, a largely British creation, and Turkey and Iraq and Iran.
The message is that simply being Muslim does not wipe out tribal and ethnic identity any more than borders drawn by others create a new identity. If it were so, Cyprus would not be divided; Yugoslavia would have held together, as would have Czechoslovakia; and Britain would not be considering the possibility of an independent Scotland–after 300 years of union.
The current hostilities in the Pakistani tribal areas, U.S. drone strikes on suspected Taliban strongholds and renewed determination from the Pakistani army to crush extremists in the region could renew a sense of nationhood among the Pashtuns, and a movement toward the creation of Pashtunistan across the British-drawn border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the long reaches of the night President Obama’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, may wish one of the following had happened in the days of the British Raj: 1. the British had stayed home; 2. the British had insisted the Pashtuns submit to central authority; 3. the British had created a new country, Pashtunistan; or 4. the British had never created that troublesome border.
One way or the other, he can blame the Brits.