The UK's foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

7  Assessing the suitability of the UK's mission and goals

Protecting UK national security: the core mission in Afghanistan?

177. When UK forces entered Afghanistan in October 2001, they did so in support of the United States, and in direct response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In a statement to the House on 4 October 2001, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined the UK's objectives, placing them firmly in the context of a limited counter-terrorism operation:

    We must bring Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to justice and eliminate the terrorist threat they pose. And we must ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism. If the Taliban regime will not comply with that objective, we must bring about change in that regime to ensure that Afghanistan's links to international terrorism are broken.

    I believe the humanitarian coalition to help the people of Afghanistan to be as vital as any military action itself. […] The international community has already pledged sufficient funds to meet the most immediate needs. […] We will give Mr Brahimi [Lakhdar Brahimi, former United Nations representative for Afghanistan and Iraq] all the support we can, to help ensure that the UN and the whole of the international community comes together to meet the humanitarian challenge. […][308]

178. Yet, as our predecessor Committee concluded in August 2009, in the period between 2001 and 2009, the UK's mission took on a significantly different, and considerably expanded character, moving from its initial goal of supporting the US in countering international terrorism, far into the realms of counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics, protection of human rights, and state-building.[309] The previous Foreign Affairs Committee stated that it was "struck by the sheer magnitude of the task confronting the UK" and concluded that there had been significant mission creep in the British deployment, resulting in the British Government being "committed to a wide range of objectives." The Committee recommended that the Government set out, in unambiguous terms, its first and most important priority in Afghanistan.[310]

179. For the previous and current Government, that stated priority remains British national security. As we noted above, the current Government's key objective in Afghanistan, like that of its predecessor is that Afghanistan should not again become a place from which al-Qaeda and other extremists can attack the UK and British interests. Giving evidence to the Liaison Committee in November 2010, the Prime Minister was asked whether 10 years after the initial intervention, the Government was still receiving advice that al-Qaeda will return to Afghanistan if troops were withdrawn. In response, he said:

    That is the advice, yes [...] Is it the case that if we literally left now, and Afghanistan was left as a basket-case country with the Taliban controlling part of it, with all the bad people we know are in the tribal areas of Pakistan, al-Qaeda could return to Afghanistan and re-establish a base there? Yes, I think that is the case. [...] If you pull back on either side, either in Pakistan or in Afghanistan, you create a larger amount of space for al-Qaeda to exist in. Part of that could be in Afghanistan if we weren't there.[311]

180. In a similar vein, General Petraeus, in an interview with The Times, stated that "there have been and are attempts by some [...] groups, including al-Qaeda, to seek sanctuary in Afghanistan. We see it in north eastern Afghanistan, particularly in Kunar province and Nuristan, because of the pressure that the Pakistan military and other campaigns have put on al-Qaeda in the FATA".[312]

181. This argument is not without its critics. Some argue that the al-Qaeda threat emanates from Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Indeed, while it is difficult to assess the true scale of al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan from open-source material, it may be noted that in a speech delivered in September 2010, the Director of the Security Services made references to the al-Qaeda threat from Pakistan's tribal areas, but made no mention of Afghanistan.[313] In October 2009, US National Security Adviser James Jones was reported as saying that the "maximum estimate" of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan itself was less than 100 and there were no al-Qaeda bases there."[314]

182. Other reports, including one published in September 2010 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), as well as some written evidence received, claimed that defeat of the Taliban has become virtually synonymous with the defeat of al-Qaeda and questioned the view that al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan if foreign forces withdrew. We heard similar views from senior Afghans during our visit. James Fergusson told us that there is "absolutely no evidence that al-Qaeda even want to come back or that the Taliban would have them back if they did. I've had this conversation so many times in Afghanistan and I have not come across one Afghan who gets this justification for our presence there at all. They do not believe it".[315] Jolyon Leslie stated that there is an "an element of scaremongering in the thought that if we take our finger out of the dyke, it's all going to come down and get us. That is unhelpful, because that is not what many Afghans are thinking".[316] He added, "we should also bear in mind that there is a real ambivalence among Afghans about Arabs in their midst, because of the mujaheddin history. Most ordinary Afghans, who are not even necessarily educated, don't want them there any more than we do."[317]

183. Certainly, there are elements of the insurgency that are known to be closely connected to al-Qaeda, particularly some parts of the Haqqani network, but as Matt Waldman told us, "If you talk to the Taliban there is no love lost between them and al-Qaeda. They know that ultimately al-Qaeda was responsible for their downfall. Indeed, Mullah Omar in his last public statement [...] said, 'We want to conduct our foreign policy on the basis that we will not harm foreign countries if they do not harm us.' There is not a strong alliance between the Talibs and al-Qaeda. Could you get solid guarantees that they would not work together in the future? Probably not, but this time they will know what the consequences would be were they to support and to harbour extremists of that kind".[318]

184. We conclude that there is evidence to suggest that the core foreign policy justification for the UK's continued presence in Afghanistan, namely that it is necessary in the interests of UK national security, may have been achieved some time ago, given the apparently limited strength of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Although the Government disputes this, we are seriously concerned that this fundamentally important assessment appears to be based on intelligence that has not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

Are the UK's goals appropriate and achievable?

185. The Government states that it has four main 'goals' in Afghanistan and that achieving these are necessary if the Government is to achieve its core objective, as discussed above, of preventing the return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan. We return to assess this statement below at paragraph 201, following a discussion of the four 'goals', which are as follows:

i.  a more stable and secure Afghanistan;

ii.  the conditions for withdrawal of UK combat troops by 2015, including capable Afghan National Security Forces;

iii.  an Afghan-led political settlement that represents all Afghan people; and

iv.  regional political and security co-operation that supports a stable Afghanistan.[319]

In preceding chapters we have discussed the progress that has been made towards the achievement of these goals. In this section, we consider their overall appropriateness in light of the evidence we have received.


186. The British Government's desire to create a more stable and safer Afghanistan is supposed to be achieved by the implementation of a full-scale counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy based on the doctrine of 'clear, hold and build'. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon explains the rationale behind counter-insurgency campaigns in the following terms: "in counter-insurgency operations, the job of the soldier is not to chase the enemy, but to help win the support of the population. Their principal task is not to seek out and kill, but to take ground so that the reconstructors can move in and establish the rule of law, effective governance,[...], a basis for economic livelihoods and the framework of a peaceful life, supported by the local population. The short-hand term for this strategy is 'clear, hold and build', with the soldiers clearing and holding, while the re-building takes place in the secure space they have created".[320] Although top military commanders have always been at pains to say that the Iraq 'surge' solution does not apply in Afghanistan, in reality, thinking on the 'Iraq surge success', has indeed had a significant impact on thinking throughout the chain of command in both the US and UK military. Although the COIN strategy is being implemented through the multinational ISAF, it was the UK that was instrumental in advocating this approach and ensuring that it was adopted by its ISAF partners.

187. Looking at the situation as a whole, and according to the evidence we received, success appears to be eluding ISAF and by implication, the UK: insecurity and civilian casualties are reported to be higher than ever before and the insurgency is gaining momentum in areas previously considered to be stable. Meanwhile, rural areas in Afghanistan remain far more alien, isolated, conservative and resistant to change than is often publicly acknowledged. We also heard that the focus on population, which is so central to the counter-insurgency campaign, may actually be making the situation worse. Gilles Dorronsoro stated, "advocates of a continued push will argue that only now are the resources in place for the counter-insurgency strategy to be effectively carried out and more time is needed to assess results. But this line of reasoning ignores reality that the strategy has already failed on the ground and there is no evidence that the situation can be reversed in strategically decisive ways".[321]

188. When it comes to economic development and the aim of winning hearts and minds, our witnesses were equally sceptical that the strategy being deployed is, or ever will be, successful. Jolyon Leslie, who has more than twenty years experience of international development in Afghanistan, perhaps best summed up the views of other witnesses on this strategy when he said, "I often feel very disappointed that we are still peddling this mythology to some extent about the fact that we can go in and hold, clear and build an area. It is so patently clear at the village level [...] that outsiders cannot do that. Even if you can clear, you are unlikely to hold, and you certainly cannot build".[322] Meanwhile, Matt Waldman stated:

    Consider that many Afghans, especially in southern Afghanistan, are profoundly Islamic, conservative, and have an understandable mistrust of foreign forces. In their perception western forces, garrisoned in fortified compounds, launch attacks which kill, injure or antagonise Afghan civilians (often without proper, visible accountability or redress); collude in the empowerment and enrichment of abusive strongmen and a corrupt regime; maladminister assistance funds; and herald the commencement of their departure. Most Afghans live in difficult conditions and will accept what support they can get, but in light of the above considerations, and in the face of systematic Taliban intimidation, it is increasingly unrealistic to expect western soldiers to win Afghan hearts and minds.[323]

189. The idea, also central to the current counter-insurgency campaign, that "money is ammunition"[324] was also criticised by a number of those who submitted evidence. We saw for ourselves in Herat the extent to which ISAF funds, controlled by the Italian-led PRT, and supplemented significantly by the US through its Commander's Emergency Response Fund (CERF), were used to fund projects in a bid to 'buy' support. In areas like Herat, where the situation is more stable, there may arguably be some merit in this approach. However, in areas where the surge has resulted in widespread destruction and instability, witnesses found it difficult to imagine that success could be 'bought' by aid delivered in conjunction with military effort. Mr Leslie, for instance, said he was worried that "one of the central planks of winning hearts and minds is delivering aid". He added:

    We have obviously failed at that, because we have not won hearts and minds through culverts, irrigation channels, shuras, [or] training programmes [...]. It is just not going to work like that. In the middle of Marjah, where most of the population has been forced out, areas have been laid waste, vineyards have been laid waste and houses have been blown up, how can we dare to talk about development? It is a scorched earth policy, a lot of it.[325]

Gerard Russell made a similar point when he relayed comments made by an elder in Khost Province. The elder said: "You can give us all the aid you want to build the schools, as many as you wish, and we welcome that, but if somebody comes and puts a knife to my throat in the night, what am I supposed to do?".[326] As Gerard Russell stated, "That isn't actually something that a military operation can easily address".[327] Jolyon Leslie concluded:

    We need to be honest that we cannot do development in full-body armour. [...] The Afghans are beginning to move on from being sceptical to actually being angry about some of these issues, because they are having to swallow some of these resentments. It's making them very cynical about everything that we do as a result. That is a sadness, because the will is there and the intention is good, but we need to be more brutally honest about what we cannot do.[328]

190. In the area of governance, the British Government has initiated a series of programmes which in many instances are regarded internationally as models of good practice. However, in spite of these good intentions, overall progress has been slow in some cases and completely lacking in others. The fact that 40 districts in the South were supposed to have been stabilised and transferred to Afghan government control during 2010 (but have not been), that there continues to be full Afghan authority in only a minority of districts, and that warlords continue to hold sway in many northern areas, highlight both the intractable nature of the problem in Afghanistan and the inappropriateness of the international solutions being implemented as part of the ISAF counter-insurgency strategy. As Matt Waldman told us, "we need to reframe our objectives, minimising the harm that we cause. It would be a legitimate objective, while at the same time making greater efforts to listen to Afghans, to appreciate their interests and their aspirations for the future, and to try to adapt our policy and international policy accordingly".[329]

191. Simultaneously, the international approach is being undermined by parallel decentralising structures created by individual states and a continuing lack of co-ordination and wasteful use of resources. Even if it were possible to overcome these issues, the fact remains that the Afghan government is not able to provide the leadership necessary to tackle corruption or to address the lack of legitimacy which flawed elections and widespread official corruption have engendered. We also note a report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies which stated that the counter-insurgency tactics being used are "too ambitious, too removed from the core security goals that need to be met, and too sapping of diplomatic and military energies needed both in the region and elsewhere".[330]

192. As President Obama has stated, the US's goal is:

    not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country. And it's not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.[331]

We are concerned, however, that this vision of a limited and focused counter-terrorist campaign is at odds with the full-spectrum counter-insurgency campaign which is unfolding today in Afghanistan.

193. We conclude that the evidence presented to us suggests that the current full-scale and highly intensive ISAF counter-insurgency campaign is not succeeding. We question the fundamental assumption underpinning this approach, namely the idea that success in Afghanistan can be 'bought' through a strategy of 'clear, hold and build'. The distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which is so often overlooked or confused in current debates, is crucial to generating appropriate policy responses in Afghanistan. We question the Government's logic that a full-scale counter-insurgency campaign aimed at the Taliban is necessary to prevent al-Qaeda returning or that it could ever succeed.


194. In the past year in particular there have been tremendous efforts expended trying to improve the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. Yet, while headline goals for the size of the ANSF look likely to be met, overall there are real concerns as to whether capabilities can be sufficiently improved in the time available, particularly given that the starting baseline for quality is so low. The issue is not one of funding; in spite of the US spending $2 billion a month on training the Afghan National Security Force (a sum which exceeds the entire annual income of the Afghan state), the evidence we garnered suggests that the quality of training remains low, ethnic imbalance remains a considerable problem and corruption in the police is a major hindrance to its effectiveness and credibility. In light of these concerns, we are concerned as to whether Afghan forces, which are capable of taking lead responsibility from ISAF by 2014, can be created.


195. Regrettably, we have seen little sign of progress on the Government's third goal. Although many hopes are rightly being pinned on the prospect of a political settlement, as yet the parameters and conditions for starting substantive negotiations do not appear to exist. Creating these conditions is a major challenge. NATO's policy on political reconciliation needs to be more coherent and a way of inducing the positive buy-in of a wide range of regional players has yet to be found. Nor is it clear how Pakistan will approach a political settlement given its enduring preoccupation with the perceived threat from India, or how Afghans will receive Pakistan's involvement given the animosity many of them feel towards Pakistan. It is of great concern, too, that neither the UK nor even the US have been able to persuade Pakistan to move to a position which more closely reflects Western interests. We also heard evidence that the surge, rather than improving the situation, is actually making such a settlement less likely and is counter-productive because it reduces pressure on the Afghan elite to negotiate and creates a situation that the Taliban thinks it can outlast.

196. We were told repeatedly that direct US involvement in talks is crucial if negotiations are to have a chance of success. However, we were also told that supportive voices in the US administration are in danger of being drowned out by a powerful chorus of military and domestic opposition to political reconciliation, arising in some instances from a mistaken conflation of the threat posed to Western interests by the Taliban as opposed to al-Qaeda.

197. We cannot overestimate the importance of direct US support for, and leadership of, a process of political reconciliation in Afghanistan. If the US wishes to disengage its forces from Afghanistan, it must first engage more fully, and swiftly, with the process of political reconciliation. Given that the pre-requisites for a successful military campaign are currently lacking, we conclude that the US should not delay its significant involvement in talks. Without the US's support for talks with the Taliban leadership, there can be no longer-term peace in Afghanistan.

198. While there is common ground between the Afghan government and the West as to the desirability of foreign troops leaving Afghanistan, the gulf of difference over many other issues, not least the protection of human rights, is treacherously wide. Many organisations, both international and Afghan, as well as the US Administration have expressed concern about the negative impact that a return of the Taliban to government could have on human rights and in particular women's rights. As we have stated elsewhere in this Report, the Government is committed to a political settlement which "is representative; gives no one group disproportionate influence; upholds human rights and the rule of law and is in accordance with Afghanistan's Constitutional framework".[332] Given the significant governance and security challenges which exist, and the limited timeframe in which the UK is seeking to achieve the key goal of political reconciliation in conjunction with its Afghan and international partners, we recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government explains the basis upon which a political settlement can be reached which supports human rights and the rule of law, within the framework of the existing Afghanistan constitution.

199. We conclude that of all the UK Government's stated goals, the pursuit of a political settlement is arguably the most relevant and most appropriately framed. Regrettably, we see few signs that progress is being made on this front but we continue to be of the view that an Afghan-led, but US driven, process of political reconciliation is the best remaining hope that the UK and others have of achieving an honourable exit from Afghanistan, of achieving an outcome that serves as a tribute to the sacrifice of British and other troops, and that helps to justify the billions of pounds and dollars that have been spent in and on Afghanistan.


200. Although we understand the Government's desire to see a regional political and security operation that supports a stable Afghanistan, we have seen little evidence of progress on this, the fourth and final UK goal. Our witnesses insisted that there is no evidence that Pakistan has now been brought into a stable and constructive relationship with Afghanistan. Equally, Pakistan's failure to tackle the Afghan insurgency from within its own borders is of significant concern, as is the evidence which suggests that this attitude is unlikely to change. While the UK, for historical and other reasons, may be in some respects in a better position than the US to encourage Pakistan to adopt a more constructive role, in reality, Pakistan's counter-leverage is arguably far stronger.


201. We conclude that the evidence presented to us suggests that despite the significant resources that have been invested in Afghanistan, and the enduring, wholehearted and admirable commitment and sacrifices of British personnel, the UK has not yet achieved its stated goals. This is in no way a criticism of British personnel who are risking their lives on a daily basis in Afghanistan, and whose efforts are rightly described in so many instances as heroic. Nor does it mean that nothing has been achieved in the 10 years since the US-led intervention. There have, for instance, been significant improvements in education, especially for girls, and in the fields of health, telecommunications, human rights, and media freedom. However, at a strategic level, we seriously question whether the efforts expended towards these ends have a direct connection to the UK's core objective, namely the national security of the UK and its allies and we also question whether the ambitious aims of the Government and the international community more widely are achievable.

308   HC Deb, 4 Oct 2001, col 675 Back

309   Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan, para 225 Back

310   IbidBack

311   Q 117 Back

312   The Times, 23 September 2010  Back

313   Speech delivered by Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, to the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals, 16 September 2010 Back

314   "State of the Union" programme, CNN, 4 October 2009 Back

315   Q 35 Back

316   Q 38 Back

317   Q 38 Back

318   Q 36 Back

319   Ev 1 Back

320   The Independent, 22 July 2009 Back

321   "Worsening Outlook in Afghanistan",, 9 September 2010 Back

322   Q 30 Back

323   Ev 52-53 Back

324   COMISAF Counter-insurgency (COIN) Guidance, August 2010 Back

325   Q 56  Back

326   Q 117 Back

327   Q 117 Back

328   Q 30 Back

329   Q 57 Back

330   "Strategic Survey", International Institute of Strategic Studies, September 2010 Back

331   Statement by President Obama on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, 16 December 2010 Back

332   "Quarterly report on progress in Afghanistan", Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 27 October 2010 Back

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