|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 18th January 2011|
Operations in Afghanistan
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
OPERATIONS IN AFGHANISTAN
WEDNESDAY 15 DECEMBER 2010
DR LIAM FOX MP, SIR STUART PEACH and PETER WATKINS
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
1. This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
2. The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Defence Committee
on Wednesday 15 December 2010
Mr James Arbuthnot (Chair)
Mr Julian Brazier
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson
Mr Mike Hancock
Mr Dai Havard
Mrs Madeleine Moon
Ms Gisela Stuart
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP, Secretary of State for Defence, Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach KCB CBE, Chief of Joint Operations PJHQ (UK), and Peter Watkins, Director, Operational Policy, Ministry of Defence, gave evidence.
Q309 Chair: Secretary of State, welcome to this evidence session on Afghanistan. At some stage, but not today, we will have questions to ask you on the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Today’s session, as you know, is devoted to Afghanistan. Sir Stuart and Mr Watkins, welcome back to this inquiry.
As you have all appeared before us in recent weeks, there is no need for me to ask you to introduce yourselves. Secretary of State, could you begin by telling us what you think the key challenges are at the moment in Afghanistan?
Dr Fox: I would rate them as three. The first is security, and I ask the Committee to remember that we are facing a persistent and ruthless enemy that has shown the capacity both to regenerate and to adapt. That is why it’s so important to break the link between the insurgency and the population from which it recruits. An Afghan face is vital for security operations-vital for building support. With our Afghan partners we’re putting the insurgency under enormous pressure at the tactical level, but the levels of violence show that we still have a long way to go.
The second challenge is Afghan capacity. Successful training of the Afghan National Army has led to Afghan soldiers playing an increasing role in the planning and conduct of operations, and a renewed commitment from the Afghan Government on the training of the Afghan National Police is a cause for optimism. Developing committed, competent and capable Afghan Forces is essential for long-term security and stability.
The third of the challenges is governance. One of our biggest challenges is a shortage of educated, capable Afghans willing to take on a role within the Afghan Government. Progress in building up Afghan governance at both the national and sub-national levels is much slower than that of building up the Security Forces. That is unsurprising. The Afghans have an unequalled tradition of fighting spirit, as Britain has discovered during its long historical engagement there, but a very limited history of competent and honest government. That is where we continue to place a great deal of effort, and it is an area in which we will have to continue putting a lot of effort for some time.
Q310 Chair: Do you think governance has improved, or has it always been at what we would regard as a relatively low level?
Dr Fox: I would say that governance has improved at the local level. In Helmand, for example, we have seen quite a lot of progress. The number of district governors has risen from only five in 2008 to 12 today. We are also aware of that improvement because, as a specific target, the insurgents have continued trying to attack and undermine that governance, although it is fair to say that disruption of the shadow governors-the Taliban shadow governors-has been a priority for us. I think it is important that we point out to the public our success in disrupting that, otherwise we have a scorecard with only the away team showing on the scoreboard.
Q311 Mrs Moon: Could you clarify where you see governance as being? With a score of one meaning total anarchy and a score of 10 meaning that governance is clearly in position with the establishment of central control, regional control and local control, where would you put it on that scale between one and 10? Where are we today?
Dr Fox: It depends on a number of things. First, it depends on whether we are purely looking at Helmand, where we have our main effort, or at Afghanistan as a whole.
Q312 Mrs Moon: Could we do both?
Dr Fox: It is useful to remember that Helmand is only 3.5% of the population of Afghanistan, and those living in areas under the control of UK Armed Forces make up only 1% of the population. We have a tendency to see Afghanistan through the prism of that 1% which can be quite distorting. That is probably the most difficult part of the country, and I would rate that on the lower part of the scale. I won’t arbitrarily pick a number. In other parts of the country, it is possibly in the middle of the scale. In Kabul, it is probably just above the middle of the scale, but still with a long way to go.
Q313 Mrs Moon: So five or six in Kabul and elsewhere, and two or three-
Dr Fox: I think, Chairman, that is what they call leading the witness.
Q314 Mrs Moon: No, it’s called trying to get an answer.
Dr Fox: It is very difficult to put an absolute number on it. I would by instinct want to put it on the lower part to give it room for improvement rather than be over-optimistic. I also think we have tended to be over-optimistic and have over-assessed, for the best of motives, how we see things. We need to stand back and have a look at this whole question of governance. The way I would put it is like this: if you’re trying to construct some kind of democratic model from scratch-and we in this country, and in the west in general, would do well to stand back and take a look at our own history. There was 150 years between Adam Smith and universal suffrage in the United Kingdom. We abolished slavery 100 years before we gave women the vote. Maybe now and again taking a deep breath and looking at our own history might be instructive.
There are probably three things that you have to have to provide the supportive pillars for a democratic model. One is a working judiciary and a concept of the law that applies equally to the governing and the governed. I might ask Peter to say a word about how the judiciary is doing. Secondly, you need to have the concept of the ability to exercise your economic liberty inside a free market, which, if you go to the bazaars of Nad-e-Ali you will see quite clearly alive and well. Thirdly, you need a concept of rights. The whole concept of rights is one that is difficult to develop in some places. I intend to pay a visit to Afghanistan in the relatively near future with the Attorney- General to have a look at some of these concepts and see how we think they are working on the ground. In terms of that judicial element, which is key in my view to governance and the development of a stable state, I might ask Peter to say a quick work about what is happening more generally on judicial development and Stuart to say a word about what is happening in terms of the judiciary in Helmand. That might give the Committee a flavour of that element.
Peter Watkins: It might be helpful if I cover both. In looking at the national level, the development of the judiciary and the rule of law is an increasing focus of ISAF. There are two aspects to this. One is building up the formal sector, judges, prosecutors and so on. There were 1,500 judges a couple of years ago. That number has increased, although I don’t have the precise figure for 2010. The second is building up the informal sector. If you look at surveys, such as the recent Asia Foundation survey, the majority of Afghans-40%-when they have a dispute or whatever, take it to a local shura; they don’t take it through the formal process. So we are trying to strengthen both of them. To give an example of how we are doing that locally, in Helmand on the formal side we’ve now got eight judges in Lashkar Gah and about 20 prosecutors. Outside Lashkar Gah, over the last eight months alone we’ve gone from having just two justice officials to 16, but at the same time we are not just relying on the formal sector. The informal sector is very important as well and arguably more important and so the Provincial Reconstruction Team is helping to develop community councils and four community councils have now been set up.
Q315 Chair: How much is a judge paid in Afghanistan?
Peter Watkins: I’m afraid I don’t know that.
Q316 Chair: Am I right in thinking that it is, or at least was a year ago, half the amount that is paid to a private soldier?
Peter Watkins: The Committee has asked this before and we have been trying to find out the answer. There does not seem to be an available figure. It seems to vary considerably, depending on the rank of the judge, obviously, and the location.
Q317 Mr Hancock: Has the increase in the number of law officials available led to an increase in the number of citizens who would use that method rather than going through the traditional method, or have the figures roughly stayed the same? I ask that, because you can have people in the right place, but the convincing needs to be done with the people on the ground, so that they want to take their disputes to law officials.
Peter Watkins: We don’t have scientific figures, because we have only started to track this relatively recently, but we know that there were some areas in Helmand that had no formal judicial figures at all just a couple of years ago. So, almost by definition, people are beginning to take disputes through the official process, because they now have the ability to do so.
Dr Fox: The importance of that process lies in denying the social space, if we might call it that, to the Taliban, because many people, especially in the south, were turning to the Taliban for simple dispute resolution and it was that role that was giving legitimacy to the Taliban. The 2010 Asia Foundation survey showed that 42% of people were now turning to the shura for resolution and 31% were taking disputes to local government institutions, such as the district authorities, which was certainly a change, because we know that those institutions were not there before. We were still seeing some 27% of people going to senior tribal figures. So there is definitely a shift going on.
However, I think that the important point is that there are alternatives to dispute resolution through the Taliban. That is the key and I am not sure that it really matters which of these methods has a relative position in the league, if you like. However, the fact is that we are squeezing the Taliban out and denying them the legitimacy and the space in which to operate.
Chair: There is an interesting passage in The Kite Runner about Afghans not believing in the rule of law but instead believing in the rule of tradition.
Q318 Ms Stuart: Moving on from dispute resolution to the application of criminal law, can you update me on how many prison places we have in the areas that are actually safe to hold convicted prisoners?
Chair: If you would like to write to us with the answers to some of these questions, I think that that would be helpful.
Q319 Mrs Moon: Quickly, in relation to the legal system I noticed that the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, in its recent report, as well as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan say in relation to violence against women that there is a need for education and training, not only of the judges and the shuras but of mullahs, in relation to the law, violence against women and Sharia, which is also opposed to violence against women. However, even in traditional law, there is a lack of understanding of the law that they need to practise.
Dr Fox: I think that’s true. There is also quite a difference in how the law is perceived by women. For example, in Kabul, that perception is likely to be different from the perception in the rural areas in outlying Helmand, because there is a different tradition and different experience. I think that it is also about willingness to access law, as well as the provision of the law itself, because even if the provision is there, if there is not the cultural willingness to take it up, that leaves women at a disadvantage. That is something that we need to look at that through our development programmes.
Q320 Chair: We will return to that issue shortly, I think. I want to ask you one final question about the BBC/ABC/ARD poll. Last year, the poll showed a remarkable increase in the number of people thinking that Afghanistan is going in the right direction. This year, the poll showed that that figure had dropped again. Why do you think that is and is it a picture that you recognise?
Dr Fox: I share the scepticism of probably many in your Committee, Chairman, about polling, even when it is conducted within the conditions set out in the UK. I am not sure what the methodology is for polling in parts of rural Afghanistan. Admittedly, I am falling into my own trap of looking at things through the prism of Helmand, which I pointed out in the beginning. However, having spent time in different parts of Helmand in recent months, I notice quite a difference in both security and attitude from previous visits, particularly in Lashkar Gah and surrounding districts. As I think I might have indicated when I last spoke to the Committee, if we mentioned Afghanistan then, the fact that in Lashkar Gah the civilian airport is open and there are three business flights a day to Kabul; the fact that the ice factory is open and delivering ice to the bazaars, enabling people to go about normal economic activity; and the fact that that economic activity has increased is testament in themselves to improving stability. The fact that a number of the elements on the poll itself were very optimistic gives us grounds overall for cautious optimism, but we would be fooling ourselves if we believed that we had entirely won the battle for hearts and minds. I think that is a long time into the future.
Chair: We will come on to that shortly. Jeffrey Donaldson.
Q321 Mr Donaldson: We have been provided with a list of achievements in Helmand province, and many of them are commendable. How would you describe the situation there at the moment, and how quickly do you think things are improving? Is it moving at a fast enough pace?
Dr Fox: It remains the most difficult part of the country. It’s worth pointing out that just over 50% of all the violence in Afghanistan is in just nine of the country’s 401 districts, four of which are in Helmand and four of which are in Kandahar. That gives us an idea of the dynamic within which we are operating. Security remains a major challenge, and the tempo of operations is significantly higher in Helmand than in other parts of the country. I believe, however, that our presence there is creating the space for progress in other areas, such as in development and governance and in the local economy, as I have just mentioned. It’s very important for us to recognise that once an area has been cleared of insurgents, it’s vital that sufficient forces-both Afghan and international-and sufficient resources are placed on the ground to hold. That has been one of the great lessons in recent years, and we recognise that importance.
We keep the precise tasks of our forces under review; from time to time it might be necessary to be involved outside our own immediately described area, but that will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. I intend to inform the House about such a task by way of a written ministerial statement tomorrow. I hope that the Committee will understand that that should probably done to the whole House, rather than done in advance to the Committee today, much as I would like to inform the Committee of its contents.
Q322 Mr Donaldson: One of the factors in the ceasefire in Northern Ireland was war weariness, if I may use the term "war" loosely, on the part of those involved on the terrorist side. Is there evidence among the Taliban of that kind of weariness? Are we finding that at leadership level people are drifting away, or are they remaining intact?
Dr Fox: It’s only realistic to say that the Taliban have shown themselves to be very resilient and adaptable. Against that, there has been substantial disruption in terms of the command structure of the Taliban, and that has obviously produced a degradation in some of their capabilities. Ultimately, to go back to the example in Northern Ireland, the economic development and improvement in Northern Ireland made people more aware of the fact that they were stakeholders in the broader security picture. That is where the whole concept of development is important. People who have nothing to lose, if you like, are likely to gamble with it, whereas people who have something to lose are likely to be more circumspect. As we move into greater security and greater development, where people will feel that they have more of a stake in their wellbeing, that is how we deny some of the space for the Taliban to operate where hitherto they were more free politically, socially and militarily to do so.
Q323 Mr Donaldson: In denying that space, are you finding that the people of Helmand are trusting the coalition forces more? Is there an improvement at that level?
Dr Fox: If, for example, you look-and Stuart might want to talk about this-at information that we get on the placement of IEDs, the population seem more willing, when they feel secure, to provide us with that information. That is potentially the beginning of a virtuous circle, where greater stability provides us with greater intelligence, which in turn provides us with greater security, stability and intelligence, and so it goes. It is about getting to that point of confidence, where the public believe we are genuinely committed and that we are going to be there and see it through-I go back to the concept of not just clearing, but holding territory and providing security-and that is absolutely essential.
Air Marshal Peach: The key change is that the Afghan Security Forces are conducting a lot of the hold operations. They, with us increasingly in the background, are taking that sort of level of trust up another level, with the army playing a traditional army role, and the Afghan police increasingly being those trusted people. Exactly as the Secretary of State says, there are these green shoots-and not just green shoots-in several of the key districts, where both the UK Forces and US Forces are in Helmand. There is now this tendency of the people that, once that economic development has taken hold-in the bazaar, typically-they will then push out the Taliban and/or tell the Afghan Security Forces where the Taliban may be going. There is that sense of things linking together. As the Secretary of State made clear earlier, if you can then link that, as phenomena which we’ve enabled, to developing governance and developing local conditions for governance through meetings and so on, you actually get quite a rapid change. Many of the visitors to Afghanistan have noticed that rapid change over months.
Dr Fox: If I may add to that, this whole concept of securing and holding has been helped by the fact that the Afghan Forces themselves have been able to do very much more. 215 Corps in Helmand, for example, has conducted a series of independent brigade level operations, some with only very limited mentoring support from UK Forces. That improvement in capability is also something that is adding a positive element to the mix.
Q324 Mrs Moon: We are talking about trust, Secretary of State. Do the people of Afghanistan trust that we are going to stay for the long haul, or do they fear that, in fact, we will cut and run in 2015, no matter what the circumstances are?
Dr Fox: It is more accurate to say that they will be wondering whether the message that the Taliban gives is correct; namely, that the US and its allies will be leaving in the summer of 2011. It is, therefore, of huge importance that we take advantage of the period immediately after the summer next year to make it very clear that we are not going home and that the Taliban were not telling the truth. I think that they will find it very difficult to continue that line of propaganda when people see that the Coalition Forces are still going to be there, particularly in the areas where the insurgency is strong. I think that when we get to that point-next summer is a very crucial point in that regard-a number of things will coincide. We will have had the Afghan elections-not great, but not too bad. We will have had an increased concept of sovereignty, and the willingness to exercise that sovereignty from the Government at the centre, and there will be a continued presence of the international coalition in the country in very large numbers after the summer of 2011. It seems to me that that will be a time when we would want to be pushing our psychological advantage and be pushing concepts of reconciliation, in that period. We need to be aware, I think, of when we potentially have the upper hand in this conflict psychologically, and then be willing to move into the political space that is offered.
Q325 Mrs Moon: In relation to 2015, we have talked about our troops coming out by then. Are we considering that, in terms of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, our involvement will be ongoing from 2015? Is that something that the people of Afghanistan recognise, or do they want to see all foreigners out after 2015?
Dr Fox: The Government of Afghanistan have made this very clear. Time after time, President Karzai has said that they want to take on security themselves and take responsibility for it from the end of 2014. I met President Karzai during the NATO summit and the impression I have from him and from any meetings I have had in Afghanistan is that people understand that the numbers of the Afghan Forces are up and that the capabilities are improving, but it is very likely that there will be a continued need for assistance when we have finished our combat role. That was certainly reflected at the NATO summit. Other countries recognise that getting the capabilities of the Afghan Forces up has to become a top priority for us now. I think there is awareness in Afghanistan that they will require that help.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing that they should want to take more control for themselves earlier on. We shouldn’t see that as a negative element in the process, but as something that we would want to encourage. It may well be that the ambitions of the Afghan Government are moving faster than their capabilities, but it is up to us and the international community to ensure that those capabilities are improving more quickly.
Q326 Mrs Moon: May I take you back to your areas of challenge? Never mind the National Security Force competence-you talked about governance. How much is the perceived corruption of the Afghan Government-we are working alongside them-an impediment to trust in the ISAF Forces?
Dr Fox: In the meeting with President Karzai at NATO to which I referred, he raised the issue of how much corruption was and was seen to be a problem. The fact that the Afghan Government recognise that it is a problem is good, because it means that we might get action on it. I think we have to be quite careful about what we are talking about when we talk about corruption. The traditions in some parts of the world are not the same as those we would accept in a modern, progressive, liberal democracy. Having said that, we have a duty to deal with it not only for the people of Afghanistan, but because the people of our own country who pay the taxes that pay for our involvement in Afghanistan would expect that we can move as close as possible, given the cultural circumstances, to the sort of ethos of government in our own country. It is reasonable that we should continue to do that and press the Afghan Government at all times. One of the key elements is that we get to the position that we discussed a little while ago in which the rule of law applies equally to the governing and the governed and a growingly independent judiciary is willing to tackle corruption at whatever level it happens.
Q327 Mrs Moon: If it starts at the top, how much is President Karzai an impediment to that peace, and how much is he seen as part of the problem in terms of corruption? Are we pressing President Karzai and his Government far enough to tackle corruption?
Dr Fox: I will ask Peter and Stuart to say something about this, but I think that we are pressing President Karzai very hard. I have never been at a meeting with the President in which the subject has not been raised by us and pressed very strongly. I have been at meetings in which the Prime Minister has pressed it very strongly indeed with the President. Some positive steps are being taken by the Government, but I think it will be an ongoing problem. The idea that we are going to find a silver bullet to deal with this in the short term is massively over-optimistic, but that doesn’t mean that we should diminish the effort in any way.
Peter Watkins: In addition to raising the issue of corruption per se, it is also important that we create the basis for a system that doesn’t rely on it. One aspect of that is building up the judiciary, which we have mentioned, and the other is building up the institutions, particularly a civil service as we would understand it. Again, that is an area in which we have been making considerable investment recently.
Just to give you an example, we have helped the Afghans set up a Civil Service Institute that is now running programmes to train civil servants in resource management, accounting and all those things at 29 provincial centres across Afghanistan. In the past year, more than 11,000 civil servants have completed that training. The idea is to build up a cadre of people who can run the institutions and therefore embed, over time, the sorts of processes and practices that we would like to see.
Q328 Chair: Sir Stuart, would you like to add anything?
Air Marshal Peach: Of course, the Afghan police have come a long way too. It is important to recognise that under the leadership of General Bismillah Khan, the Minister of the Interior, there have been a number of cases recently where he has intervened, almost right down to district level, to make sure that examples of corruption that were brought to his attention were dealt with and-which I think is the important point-were seen to be dealt with. I am not suggesting that the police have turned overnight into paragons of virtue across the whole country, but-going back to the earlier discussion-generating that trust between the people and the police is a vital element of establishing not just the rule of law, but the wider sense of governance. So the fact that the police are cracking down on corrupt individuals is very important. The fact that it is happening all over Afghanistan, and that we are seeing that in our three key districts, is also testament to that change and that dynamic which is definitely at play.
Finally, we are of course assisting the Afghans, as Peter suggests, with taskforces and other support that we can offer, with information and help to develop practices for the future.
Chair: We will come back to the issue of police shortly.
Dr Fox: Could I just add to that? I think there are two general areas and two specific areas where we are assisting on anti-corruption, the specific being support for the Major Crimes Task Force and the support for the Supreme Court to establish an anti-corruption tribunal. But on the more general, the UK is working to strengthen Afghanistan’s public financial management, in partnership with the World Bank and the IMF, to reduce the opportunities for corruption. Of course, building up civil society that will hold the Government to account is also a powerful anti-corruption tool. So we have the specific tools that we can use, but we also have the political development, which in itself will on the one hand diminish the opportunities for corruption and on the other hold those who might be involved in corrupt activity to account.
Q329 Mrs Moon: The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan says, "Harmful traditional practices that violate the human rights of women and girls are pervasive in Afghanistan, occurring in varying degrees in all communities throughout the country". When I met with the Minister for Women for Afghanistan, she was concerned that only 16% of people at the High Peace Council were women. Are we doing enough to promote the needs of women and children in Afghanistan? Has their position changed at all? Now, I appreciate there is a wealth of difference in relation to the north and the south. Perhaps you could comment on both.
Dr Fox: Yes, indeed. I had anticipated that Mrs Moon might ask this question. I discussed it with my colleagues at DFID this morning. We are working closely with the Afghan Government to ensure that gender equality is integrated into policies for the long term, in sustainable improvements. We provided an adviser to the Afghan Government to ensure the Afghan National Development Strategy to integrate cross-cutting issues, such as gender equality, into sector plans. We are, of course, working through the NGOs to ensure that we can put a lot more money and effort into some of the programmes that are actually very women-specific. DFID is also providing support to WOMANKIND, which is providing £237,000 across Afghanistan and several other countries, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, War Child and a number of programmes to try to ensure that, on a whole range of issues that will affect women, we are giving greater importance to that in our general approach.
Q330 Mr Hancock: I’m interested in this concept of how you get the wider population to understand that there are now laws in place, which ought to safeguard them from corruption, when, from what you read, the majority of the Afghan population believe that corruption is still there at the very top. I am interested to know how you are going to persuade the overwhelming majority of Afghans that corruption is being tackled, and that part of the condition for us being there is that it is being dealt with, when there are still widespread allegations against people who are very close to the President and people in senior positions within the country.
Dr Fox: First, we would encourage the Government, at all times, to investigate that, however senior anybody may be. That is a constant message. As I have mentioned, we have our support for the Supreme Court and our support for the Taskforce. Ultimately, for people on the ground, they will believe that corruption is being tackled when they see it for themselves, when we are achieving an improved level of governance, when they see that the law applies at all levels of the country, when they believe that they have access to law and when they believe that there is impartiality of the judicial system. All those things are necessary.
Some of that will come about as we, over time, improve the educational status of people, as they understand how the country is being run and how it’s meant to be run, and as we improve the ability of ordinary people to hold the Government, at all levels, to account. It’s going to be a slow process, and I don’t think that we, in any way, can believe that it is going to be rapid.
Q331 Mr Hancock: I understand that it’s going to be a slow process, but in many countries in former Eastern Europe, for example, the perception is that if you’re in trouble, you can buy your way out of it at whatever level. I am interested to get a view of how you believe that the average Afghan will not believe that there is no way that they can buy themselves out of a problem, and that they will have to go through the normal processes. There is corruption right at the top and right down at the lowest level. There is always a price that you can pay to avoid the repercussions of your actions. When there is no excuse for that is what makes the fabric of a society, isn’t it?
Dr Fox: Mr Hancock’s question began with "in Eastern Europe, people believe that you can do that", which shows that corruption is not exactly limited to what is happening in Afghanistan.
Mr Hancock: Absolutely. I agree entirely.
Dr Fox: I think it emphasises that there is quite a cultural gap to fill. As I said, I think that if we are able to make the right steps at the top, which we are, with the Task Force, with the Supreme Court and with our constant pressure on politicians at the top to regard the issue as important, which they now do seem to recognise, if we are able to minimise the chances of corruption taking place and if we are maximising the chances of holding people to account, all those steps will gradually, I think, have an effect on the problem and thereby, because seeing is better than hearing about it, the public will ultimately come to realise that the problem is being tackled.
Chair: Moving on now to operational issues, Julian Brazier.
Q332 Mr Brazier: I shall ask two questions together, because they are effectively similar questions.
How has the situation changed in Afghanistan following the adoption of the McChrystal counter-insurgency strategy? In particular, has the policy of courageous restraint made a difference in securing the consent of the local population?
Dr Fox: I will answer that in general, and then I’ll ask the CJO to comment.
I think that General McChrystal was successful in changing the way that we thought about what we were doing in Afghanistan, so that the emphasis moved from killing terrorists to protecting the population. As I said in an earlier answer, the real value of protecting the population comes in the virtuous circle of security and intelligence that we can get from that.
What was successful? There was the doctrine itself, counter-insurgency, the fact that the surge came and brought greater numbers in terms of manpower and equipment and brought a thickening across the country, and, again as I said in an earlier answer, the concept of "clear and hold," which means not only clearing territory of insurgents, but holding it to protect the population. That was key.
Courageous restraint perhaps over-corrected for a time, in that extra risks were being taken. Perhaps in the way that it was being interpreted, right down to the lowest level, it was putting our forces at greater risk in order to give even greater protection to the public. Perhaps under General Petraeus the pendulum swung back a little bit towards the middle, or perhaps that is just experience. I think it has been important, however, and it has been important in giving confidence to the public that they could give us information, and that they could help us improve their security and our security, without the Taliban coming back at night and paying them a visit. That holding element and that element of protecting the public have been absolutely key. Certainly, I have visited a number of places myself where that has been quite evident on the ground-not everywhere, and there still remain far too many hotspots and areas of violence, but where it has been put successfully into place General McChrystal’s strategy has certainly been vindicated.
Air Marshal Peach: Of course General Petraeus, as the Secretary of State indicated, has developed that and has tuned the strategy to suit the emerging situation as our own operations and those of the Afghan Forces have changed the situation. As indicated, the pendulum has now gone back and General Petraeus has issued a number of directives to the NATO Forces to make it clear that we continue the strategy, which is starting to reverse the momentum and starting to work.
The other key change that General McChrystal introduced, which has now taken hold across Afghanistan-it looks different across Afghanistan for all sorts of reasons-is the concept of partnering, where the ISAF Security Forces partner with the Afghan Security Forces. That looks different for all sorts of reasons, as much to do with the geography and the layout and whether it’s urban or rural, as to do with particular styles of European armies in the way they do this. None the less, the concept of partnering becoming part of the strategy, as that strategy has moved forward, under now very firm leadership from General Petraeus, is definitely achieving the effects set out by General McChrystal. We remain very positive about that outcome.
We also remain very positive, if we turn back to the Afghan Security Forces, that we are now seeing what I would describe as a shift in the Afghan Security Forces from us all focusing on inputs-recruiting, training and deploying-to outputs. We are now talking about, as the Secretary of State indicated, brigade level operations with us training, assisting, mentoring, supporting and enabling-all those words. Increasingly, the Afghan Security Force is taking the lead within the concept of the McChrystal, now Petraeus, strategy.
Q333 Mr Brazier: Thank you. Could I drill down a little on that? Moving from the overall picture specifically to focusing on the British element of it, the picture very often painted of the Brits by off-the-record American service personnel, and often reflected in their media, is characterised by our forces being unwilling to fire because of their, as they see it, extremely-
Chair: We are coming on to that later on, I think. I would rather leave that until later on.
Dr Fox: There was one other element that General McChrystal was able to bring, which was greater clarity to command and control. Unlike his predecessors, he was able to tell people what to do and where they were to do it, whereas his predecessors before then had only been able to co-ordinate and ask. That improvement, which I know that both sides of the House of Commons for a very long time were complaining about, was the clarity of command and control. General McChrystal definitely brought an improvement to that.
Chair: If when we come to it, Julian, we find that your point has not been covered, can you come in after Penny Mordaunt please? John Glen.
Q334 John Glen: I would like now to turn the Secretary of State to the issue of compensation for civilian casualties caused by UK Armed Forces. It would be helpful if you could set out what the UK policy is. Secondly, there has been some concern about the differences between the UK and the US policies, perhaps with regard to the level but also the speed with which that compensation has been paid. If you could address that, I’d be grateful.
Dr Fox: First, on the latter point, I’m not aware of difficulties caused by any difference in approach by the UK and the US. I have heard that mentioned in public, and if any member of the Committee has any evidence on that, we’re very keen to hear about it. If there are examples of where difficulties may have been caused, that is something we would like to look at as a matter of policy. As of the moment, however, although the question has been raised in the past, we are unable to find areas where it has made a practical difference.
When we’re made aware of an alleged incident that may have been caused by UK Forces, the UK follows the ISAF process to investigate. A system is in place for handling claims for compensation brought against the Ministry of Defence by Afghan civilians. We have an area claims officer located in Lashkar Gah, and claims officers travel throughout Helmand, and make visits even further afield, to ensure that all claims receive attention and so that people feel that they are able to bring claims forward.
Air Marshal Peach: There is that sense of local feel. This is very detailed work and it would almost be different within a village, depending on the circumstances and whether the particular farmer has a particular need and so on. That’s why we have the local area claims officer.
Q335 John Glen: What about the difference between the US and the UK? Your assessment is that there is no significant difference in the speed with which they operate.
Air Marshal Peach: Absolutely, because we both follow the ISAF procedure, and increasingly over time, and certainly now, such things are held and dealt with at the local level. That might mean that, across Afghanistan, stories appear different, because they’re applying a local context, which is very different depending on the nature of the economic activity.
Q336 Chair: Is this is an issue that arises out of claims having to be made, as opposed to ISAF Forces making an offer if they know that civilians have been killed? The latter doesn’t happen; it happens instead by way of claims made. Is that right?
Air Marshal Peach: Yes, but that is an interactive process. It would be right to say that the Afghans understand this and are quite agile at understanding the local circumstances.
Peter Watkins: Perhaps I can add to that. We have a process by which, in the interests of speed, we can make ex gratia payments quickly, before the claim has actually been proved, as it were. I think the Americans have a similar approach.
Q337 Chair: Is that often used?
Peter Watkins: It is often used, yes.
Air Marshal Peach: It’s highly effective.
Q338 Mrs Moon: To clarify, if there is an incident somewhere and as part of that incident there is damage-to a building, perhaps, when a vehicle reverses and knocks down a wall, or a cow is knocked over, or whatever-does there have to be a claim; or is there the potential to make an immediate payment there and then, on the spot, before moving on, so that you don’t end up with a build-up of resentment?
Dr Fox: That is exactly what the ex gratia payments are for. They are used and range from $100 upwards. They are to do exactly that-to make sure there is swift reimbursement for any damage or loss accrued. We also make sure that the Afghan locals know that the claim scheme is available by announcements on the radio and leaflets distributed by the military stabilisation support teams. They collate details of claims for those who can’t reach the claims officer. We go out of our way to offer swift possibilities for people to be reimbursed for loss and to ensure that people are aware of the scheme more widely than just the big population centres.
Q339 Sandra Osborne: You referred to the support in Helmand province by DFID. We have quite a long list of support that has been given, including information about improvements in the health service and education. Do you think that enough resources are being put into the civilian side of the stabilisation operation to sustain it following 2015 when the troops come out?
Dr Fox: Certainly we in the UK are the second largest contributor to the multi-donor Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. Since 2005, we have channelled £200 million through this to help, for example, to support the salaries of civil servants. That now includes 168,000 teachers, 29% of whom are women. So we are doing a great deal.
There are two things that I will say. First, we need to recognise that there is a limit as to how much can be absorbed in terms of the pace at which development can take place. In addition, we should also be a bit more vocal, perhaps, about the extent to which we have already made quite big improvements. In 2002, 9% of the population of Afghanistan were covered by basic health care; at the end of last year, that had risen to 85%, which is an astonishing improvement in the world’s second poorest country. Also, 5.3 million children are now in school, compared with 1 million in 2001-and, of course, in 2001, very few were female. That has dramatically increased.
Q340 Chair: Last year, wasn’t it 6 million?
Dr Fox: The estimates were between 5.3 million and 6 million, and we’re heading towards 8 million by the end of next year, we hope.
Q341 Chair: But, we don’t know what the population is, do we?
Dr Fox: It’s an estimated figure, Chairman.
Peter Watkins: It is true that there hasn’t been a census for many years, so all of these figures are estimates and they are compiled on different bases, which is why you sometimes get these differences between figures.
Q342 Sandra Osborne: Do you think we’re getting good value for money from the development aid being spent in Afghanistan?
Dr Fox: It depends, of course, on how you measure value for money, but I am sure that the Afghans who are getting their children immunised and getting them to school and who are seeing the improvements in health care would think that they are getting value for our money. I doubt if there has ever been an aid programme that couldn’t be more efficient, but I defer to my DFID colleagues in terms of how they are able to measure those elements. They do not fall within my expertise, although either of my colleagues are very welcome to add something if they wish.
Q343 Chair: You look keen to do that, Mr Watkins.
Peter Watkins: As you know, we also have a Conflict Pool, where money is administered on behalf of all three Departments for various forms of assistance in Afghanistan. So we do, as MoD officials, have an opportunity to see how the money is spent, and my sense is that we do get value for money.
Q344 Sandra Osborne: So there’s not going to be any big major withdrawal of aid to Afghanistan after the troops come home-that stabilisation effort is going to continue?
Dr Fox: I think the international community fully understands that if your measurement of value for money is greater stability and therefore security in the region, which is our primary purpose there, that has to continue for some time. This is a very poor country and often I think that people here don’t necessarily understand what we’re talking about. Eritrea is wealthier than Afghanistan. This is a country with a life expectancy of 43 or 44, where over 60% live in rural areas, and where the literacy rate is probably 20% or so. This is a very poor country, and some of the developments that have happened in recent years have been quite spectacular.
Q345 Sandra Osborne: You mentioned the support that goes to women. What proportion of that goes through NGOs and what proportion through the Afghan Government? Are you secure in your own mind that that money is being spent well by the Afghan Government?
Dr Fox: I couldn’t give a specific answer-I’m not sure if Peter can do that in terms of the absolute proportions-but the majority of DFID’s money goes through the Afghan Government, on the basis that we want people to see that their Government can deliver the services and to be able to have faith in their central Government for the very reasons that we mentioned of concepts of governance and confidence in governance. However, we also have a large number of NGOs that the British public will be contributing to, which will carry on their own work, especially in specific areas.
Peter Watkins: I would have to check the statistics, but I think about 75% to 80% of DFID’s money goes through the Afghan Government.
Q346 Mr Hancock: On that point about the aid, if it goes centrally, how do we monitor the way it is then filtered down locally? It is one thing to say that we give the money centrally, but we really need to know for sure that the aid and the money are going in the predicted direction. What are the checks and balances that you see on the ground?
Peter Watkins: My DFID colleagues could give you more detail, but my understanding is that they have a system agreed with the Afghan Government under which the money is accounted for and the purposes on which that money should be spent are indicated to them. It is not just given to the Afghan Government as a block and then forgotten about.
Dr Fox: The money largely goes through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which is specifically there to provide certain things in terms of services and livelihood. That can be identified and is, I understand, closely monitored by DFID.
Air Marshal Peach: Some of the money is spent in the Afghan Government sense, at district level though things such as the PRT in Helmand and elsewhere, where it is monitored very closely. The projects themselves are very local, but of course, as the Secretary of State has indicated they go a long way in such a poor country.
Q347 Chair: Those are generic answers, rather than answers on the issue of aid for women, are they not?
Dr Fox: They are generic.
Q348 Mrs Moon: I want to pick up on how much is actually going through. Could you write to us on how much is going through the Ministry of Women’s Affairs?
Chair: I think it would be useful to have an account. Although I have been impressed by the depth of the detail that you have given us, could you answer that question in writing?
Dr Fox: That is a question on which I imagine DFID would be able to give us better figures, and we will certainly ask them.
Q349 Ms Stuart: Before I move on to the Afghan national security forces, I want to quickly follow up something Peter Watkins said. He mentioned the Conflict Pool. Does DFID contribute money to that conflict Pool?
Peter Watkins: It’s slightly more complicated than that. It is a pool of money that is held centrally but is administered by a board upon which sit DFID, the MoD and the Foreign Office. Between the three Departments it is, if you like, a manifestation of the comprehensive approach. We work out the priorities and spend the money accordingly.
Q350 Ms Stuart: I am asking because DFID is bound by a statutory definition of what it can spend its money on. I am trying to establish whether that statutory definition causes you any difficulties in pooling money.
Peter Watkins: I think you mean the so-called ODA eligibility. No it doesn’t, but it does mean that we have to be able to identify which money is ODA-compliant and which isn’t.
Q351 Ms Stuart: I want to move on to the Afghan National Security Forces. A US report in June 2010 stated that 23% of Afghan soldiers and 12% of the police can work unsupervised, which are very small numbers. Some 12% of the army and 17% of the police were absent without leave. That is combined with the continuing lack of recruitment of Pashtun soldiers. Could the Secretary of State answer two questions? First, could we have a brief update on the progress of the Afghan National Security Forces? Secondly, what progress has been made to ensure that by 2015 those forces could secure the safety of our soldiers who are there not in a combat capacity, but in a training capacity?
Dr Fox: There has been a big improvement in total numbers recruited and operating. The problems that Stuart mentioned are correct. Obviously there are going to be problems with those who are absent without leave and those who require supervision, but the fact that a quarter of the army can operate unsupervised is probably not a bad figure. The fact that they are able to carry out brigade-level activity with minimal mentoring is a substantial improvement from where we were before.
I think there is a change in how the international community views the ANSF, in that all our measurements until now were about inputs, such as the numbers we were getting in, and now, subtly perhaps, it is beginning to move to outputs. What are the capabilities? What proportion can operate unsupervised? How much further training do they require? What are they capable of doing on their own? There has been substantial progress. Numerically, they are several months ahead of the targets that were set for them. In terms of capability, that is where we need to be focusing. At the bilateral meetings we attended at the Lisbon summit, a lot of the focus on Afghanistan was on the training mission. Who was to contribute to the training mission and how was it to be sustained? What would happen after 2015? It seems that almost imperceptibly the argument has moved from, "Do we have the numbers?" to "Do we have the quality and the capabilities?" That is a very good place for the argument to be.
I am encouraged that countries such as Canada have decided to make a major contribution to the training mission as it moves out of a combat role. I hope that is something that other countries will follow, because that is essential to the long-term maintenance and coherence of the alliance in Afghanistan. As General Petraeus and others say, "In together, out together." We will need to focus on the capabilities of the Forces now. There would be no point leaving behind a numerically large force, if it didn’t have the ability to carry through the security tasks that we are currently undertaking but gradually transferring on to them.
Q352 Ms Stuart: What about Pashtun recruitment?
Air Marshal Peach: Pashtun recruitment is still an issue, but not a dominant one. We’ll have to get back to you on the latest figures, but the sense is that more Pashtuns are being recruited. There is also a sense that the army is a trusted institution across Afghanistan. So, even if the local mix of the army units is not Pashtun, we get no sense that that makes them any less trusted. We are encouraged by what NTM-A-the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan-is telling us. As the Secretary of State indicates, this is an army that is changing its whole ethos, from building itself up through numbers into basic light-scale, light-equipped units. Now we are at that point of transitioning to brigade-level operations and so on, there is a definite focus on administration. That is most welcome because that is exactly, Ms Stuart, what will switch those absentee rates, sort out the pay, sort out the leave plot-it is all important administrative detail that will help reduce absentee rates. The next switch we are likely to see and we are working together with them on, is a move towards logistic support, developing Afghan specialist capabilities-signals, police and so on. We are at that important moment when we are shifting gear from light-scale equipped forces that have been trained quite quickly, to developing that training-and-assist function to do more specialist tasks around the country.
Q353 Ms Stuart: Does the same apply to the police? Is there the same kind of progress, or is it just the army?
Dr Fox: If I can add on the army before I answer that question, of the 140 ANA kandaks since May 2010-
Q354 Chair: And an ANA kandak is what exactly?
Air Marshal Peach: A battalion.
Dr Fox: I am sorry, Chairman, that is twice I have fallen foul. There is probably some donation to charity I have to make.
Q355 Chair: Twice in six months is not too bad.
Dr Fox: If I told you about the number of offences inside the main building.
Since May, of 140 battalion levels, those judged by ISAF to be broadly effective or better, has increased from 51 to 74. That is quite a big increase in that time. Talking to commanders on the ground, many have been surprised at how quickly the Afghan National Army has been able to improve and take on responsibilities for itself. I imagine some did not believe it could do that in the time scale.
In terms of the police, the police have always lagged behind the army. That is something we have discussed in the House of Commons on a number of occasions. When shadow Defence Secretary, I was particularly critical-some of us do remember a time before Government.
Ms Stuart: I didn’t want to mention it.
Dr Fox: That criticism was fair. There have been two major changes that have put the police training on to a different path. The first was to give equivalence in pay with the ANA; the second was compulsory literacy training. In a country with very low literacy levels and very low income levels, suddenly being able to get a better income and suddenly being able to be taught to read and write would improve the social standing of anyone. That is why I think there has been such a big increase in the number of people coming forward for police training.
Anecdotally-I accept that that is never a good basis for anything-when we were last in Lashkar Gah, I was told that locals had been complaining that police had been brought from another part of the country to carry out policing in their district, until it was pointed to them that they actually were locally trained. They had problems believing that this quality of police training could come from their own area. It was a very nice bit of local colour, and it indicated first, that the training was occurring and secondly, that people were recognising the improvements. Training of the army alone will not be sufficient; we must have police training at several levels. The different types of police training also bear scrutiny, and the UK contribution in Helmand has been quite remarkable. I visited the training centre that we run there and I was very impressed, not least by the English skills that the students were exhibiting after a relatively short time.
Q356 Mrs Moon: Can I ask you about the training of the police force in connection with the aspects of Afghan law that relate to violence against women? The UN report says that Afghan law enforcement authorities are unaware of the violence against women laws, many authorities are unwilling and unable to apply the law, and police often fail to enforce the law. It also says that, in fact, a large number of women detained in Afghanistan are detained for moral crimes, and the police will arrest, jail and prosecute girls who are running away from violence; the charge is usually the intention to commit zina, which is sexual intercourse outside marriage. In the training that we provide, are we including experience and understanding of Afghan law that actually protects women?
Peter Watkins: Yes. The training that we provide includes training in the principles of the rule of law, principles of human rights, including women’s rights, and all those things. That is part of our training. As the Secretary of State has said, we started from a lower base with the police, so it’s taking time for this to, if you like, suffuse through.
Q357 Mr Hancock: It is not very often that senior military commanders disagree with each other when they are both still in the service-if Britain is anything to go by, they normally wait until they retire to criticise each other. However, we now have the situation where, in answer to Gisela’s question about the quality of the service, General Caldwell has said one thing only to be contradicted by General Rodriguez. Who, in your opinion, is right? Rodriguez said that the reports about the lack of substance to the Afghan Forces were correct and Caldwell, who was responsible for training them, denied it. So, one of them has to be wrong.
Chair: These are US generals.
Mr Hancock: Yes, I might add that.
Air Marshal Peach: I know both generals.
I do not know the specifics, but I think that we are painting deliberately an improving picture. General Caldwell has the detailed knowledge of the output of both the army training and the police training, and General Rodriguez, of course, will be observing more from a visits perspective. Rather than comment on individual reports, I don’t think that that sounds like a tremendous dispute in the sense of progress this year-
Q358 Mr Hancock: They are diametrically opposing each other. One was saying that 17% of the police were absent and only 12% can work unsupervised, and so on. The same statistics that Gisela mentioned were coming out and General Rodriguez made it quite clear that he supported that view and said that the report is correct. He is the one who has to use these soldiers in conjunction with his own, whereas Caldwell is only responsible for training them.
Chair: I think we are going to have to call the Americans up.
Q359 Mr Hancock: Okay, but I just wondered from our perspective whether we agreed with Rodriguez or Caldwell.
Dr Fox: Well, I think we should look at the evidence about the capability of the Afghan National Army, and what they are actually able to do. They have already opened branch schools in intelligence, engineering, legal, military police, logistics, religious and cultural affairs, and finance, in order to develop those capabilities. So, whether you want to take an optimistic or a pessimistic view of exactly where they are at any one time, on top of the figures that I gave earlier that 74 out of 140 were regarded by ISAF as being particularly effective, and when you take on top of that these branch schools that are opening to give particularly improved capabilities in specific areas or understanding specific areas, you see an improved picture. Certainly if you compare what we are looking at the end of 2010 with what we would have been looking at the beginning of 2006, there is huge gulf between the two.
Q360 Mr Hancock: How confident are you now that the aspirations of the Prime Minister and others that the coalition can leave at the end of 2014 can be achieved?
Dr Fox: That’s the military coalition?
Mr Hancock: Yes.
Dr Fox: We think that this mission is doable and the improvements that we have made are sustainable. I believe that the capability of both the Afghan National Army and, to a lesser but improving degree, the police, will enable the Afghan Government to achieve their own goal of being a sovereign Government, looking after their own internal and external security by the end of 2014. So we are confident.
Q361 Mr Hancock: What do you consider are the dangers of announcing the intention to withdraw by 2015? What happens if Helmand in particular, and possibly Kandahar, is not ready for the transition?
Dr Fox: I don’t do the "what ifs" on that because I think it is very important that we give a very strong signal of confidence. It is very important for the Afghans themselves to believe that it is going to happen. It encourages them to move forward positively. To say that we don’t think that we ourselves will necessarily complete what we want does nothing for the morale of our own forces but does a great deal to improve the morale of the Taliban. So I think we move forward with the belief that we can achieve it. There is always an upside and a downside to this, if we are being very frank. The upside to setting a time scale is that we deal with the issue that the Taliban never have to deal with, which is that we require consent and support in democratic societies for what we are asking our armed forces to do.
An entirely open-ended commitment, especially at times of high casualty rates, is very likely to undermine our ability to have the sort of resolve that we need to see the mission through. There is always the possibility of sending signals that we are not there "for the long term", but as I have made repeatedly clear today, we intend to be there in sufficient numbers and in a sufficient force to ensure that the quality and capabilities of the Afghan National Forces will themselves be able to take on that security role by the end of 2014. To start to talk about plan B or "what ifs" runs a great risk of making us look as though we do not have the resolve required to be successful in the objectives we have set ourselves.
Q362 Mr Hancock: By 2015 it will have been 13 years and by any shadow of the imagination that is a very long haul, during which time an awful lot of lives have been transformed one way or another and, tragically, many have been lost. NATO has stated that it will not go into a transition unless its Afghan partners are ready and want that to happen. We’ve made it quite clear that it is our intention not to be there except in a training role. Does that put us in difficulty with our NATO partners?
Dr Fox: No, we have made it very clear on transition that the criteria for geographical transitioning will be agreed by the Afghan Government and NATO, so we will set them between us. There was a great deal of discussion about this at Lisbon, as one might expect. There has to be a balance struck. Above all else any transitioning needs to be regarded as irreversible. The worst thing that could happen would be to transition any areas, only to see it roll backwards. We need to think about the number of areas that we will transition and this is something where work is being done. Were we to transition only a very small number of the very safest areas, it would provide a very key target for the Taliban. So we will need to think about exactly how many areas are transitioned and in what time scale. I know that there is a lot of military thinking going on about that at the moment. CJO might want to comment specifically on that.
Q363 Mr Hancock: The last time you were at the Committee you talked about the issue of sub-provincial transition, but there were some difficulties. Have the issues relating to that now been resolved?
Dr Fox: Yes, I remember saying that I was very concerned that we would stick to the provincial level only, and that that would provide us with a number of difficulties in choosing which provinces and in potentially not being able to show momentum in how quickly progress was being made. That has been resolved, and we will now do it at a sub-provincial level. That has been a major step forward.
Q364 Mr Hancock: Can I ask a question about UK troops after the withdrawal, and the ones that will be there for training purposes and so on? It might be difficult to answer this question now, but has any thought been given to the numbers that you would expect to be fulfilling that role and for what period of time?
Dr Fox: Obviously, that will be dependent on the conditions in 2015. It will also be dependent on the size of the NATO mission and the contributions from the rest of our NATO allies. It is very key, not only from the perspective of UK domestic opinion but from an alliance and NATO cohesion perspective, to ensure that that mission is spread as widely among the coalition members as possible. Very clearly, as a matter of arithmetic, the more our allies are contributing to training, the less we are likely to have to do given any particular size of the mission.
Q365 Mr Hancock: My final question really relates to resilience of the Afghan Forces post-2015. When we first went there, the Taliban didn’t effectively have an army of the size that the Afghan Forces will have post-2015 when they could have as many as 200,000 fully trained soldiers, as our colonel said earlier, twice the size of the UK Forces. Are we sure that a re-emergence of the Taliban wouldn’t effectively give them the whip hand so that they would not only have control of the country, but the resilience of the army would simply collapse and they would become the fighting force of the Taliban?
Dr Fox: Well, of course the primary aim is not to allow the re-emergence of the Taliban, by denying them both the military space and the political space in which to operate. That is dependent on the things we’ve already discussed: the quality of governance and the level to which the Afghan Government and its constitution is accepted by the population, and the ability of the Afghan Security Forces themselves to secure the space. The political space is secured by governance and the military space is secured by the ANSF. These are the key discussions for us in the years ahead.
Q366 Chair: Presumably, after 2015 there will be a need for a helicopter force in Afghanistan, and possibly even a fixed-wing force. Would we take part in that?
Dr Fox: In terms of support I think we would be unlikely to see fixed wing, but no decisions have been taken. Those will be looked at over the years ahead in terms of the conditions on the ground.
Q367 Chair: That includes the helicopter force?
Dr Fox: We may again want to give support in terms of what we have in the helicopter force. It would be difficult to envisage the Afghans being able to do everything for themselves, but of course the United States has a substantial presence. The balance between the allies in terms of the support we gave to the Afghans would be dependent on what they needed and what we had available at the time.
Q368 Chair: Combat helicopters?
Dr Fox: That is a level of detail that we haven’t yet considered, but it is something that we will have to look at.
Chair: It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?
Dr Fox: That’s why you asked it, Chairman.
Q369 Penny Mordaunt: Former commanders, including General Messenger, have said that we didn’t have enough UK Forces personnel to carry out the tasks asked of them in Helmand in 2006, and independent commentators have agreed with that view. In your opinion, what was the impact of the failure to deploy sufficient troops, and do you think that now the armed forces have the correct force density level?
Dr Fox: Yes, I do believe we have the correct force density levels. I was very concerned for a long time that the ratio of our force strength to the size of the population we were looking after was incorrect. I think that has been remedied. I think that was helped by the movement of British forces in Afghanistan into the area that they are now responsible for, as well as simultaneously seeing the American surge, which improved not only the level of troops available, but also the amount of equipment, frankly, that was available.
In terms of the 2,000, I am not yet aware whether the Committee has had the classified memorandum giving details on decisions made in 2006.
Q370 Chair: No, we haven’t yet had that. We have had a letter from the Ministry of Defence apologising for not having had that yet. We would quite like it.
Dr Fox: I’ve seen it today, in fact. I think it goes into quite a lot of operational detail that the Committee would find very interesting in terms of what happened in 2006-09, but I am not sure that I would be entirely comfortable sharing some of that detail publicly.
Chair: Are you done on this point?
Penny Mordaunt: Yes.
Chair: That leaves Julian Brazier’s question from earlier, and then I want to come on to Bob Stewart.
Q371 Mr Brazier: The frequent criticism from Americans prior to the McChrystal strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan-and I have heard it by word of mouth; it is not just WikiLeaks stuff-is that they feel their British counterparts are so hampered by the rules of engagement they operate under and the wider legal framework that they are unwilling to open fire. To expand on that point a little, we also have the sort of-for want of a better word-coroner’s environment every time we lose one of our own soldiers. As Richard Holmes points out, it is unlikely we would have won either of the World Wars if we’d had the coroners checking on every casualty. Do you actually think that the legal framework, both in terms of the risk to civilian casualties under the rules of engagement and the duty of care for the individual soldiers, is fair on young commanders? Very often, the safest thing for everybody is for them to make a decision quickly.
Dr Fox: I think the rules of engagement, and related subjects, are for CJO.
Air Marshal Peach: We have robust rules of engagement. I have not picked up, in almost two years as Chief of Joint Operations, precisely that sort of concern that the rules of engagement are insufficient to allow the freedom of action to open fire when the circumstances permit. So I think that our rules of engagement are robust. The process is flexible in that commanders on the ground are allowed to request changes to the rules of engagement, and in appropriate circumstances that is done very urgently. I would apply that statement to aeroplanes and helicopters where appropriate. Whether that looks back, returning to the previous discussion, I don’t know, but I do not think that applies now to our rules of engagement. They, of course, are consistent with the overall framework inside the NATO strategy, which goes back to the Chairman’s questions on courageous restraint.
In terms of the overall framework, that is more of a policy question. Of course, there will be individual cases that we are not here to consider. But again, we are alive to changes in policy and, where appropriate, the operational chain of command will ask the Ministry of Defence for clarification on any legal issues or any rulings. We will always try and interpret those to ensure our operational freedom of action.
Peter Watkins: I was just going to add to that. We obviously do try to ensure that our soldiers operate within a clear policy and legal framework. For example, that is why the Government decided to appeal against the ruling in the Smith case last year in order to precisely get a clear ruling from the Supreme Court on what the duties of officers were to their soldiers.
Q372 Mr Brazier: But clearly you can’t predict the outcome of that particular case. It is one of a number of cases that have left commanders, one hears anecdotally, increasingly concerned about that particular area. It has led to an ever-increasing training chain of people going off to Afghanistan. One really has to ask oneself whether, in the long run, it will save lives to have an ever-increasing feeling that there could be something like a corporate manslaughter charge out there. At a presentation I attended in the past fortnight, there was a strong hint that even that was lurking in the background. Is it really fair to have British troops on operations under this kind of threat, when the Americans and Canadians-who both have a very similar legal structure-are not under this threat, despite the fact that America is statistically the most litigious country in the world?
Dr Fox: One of the key ways in which you might judge that is to actually ask our commanders whether they feel that there is an appropriate balance and whether the rules of engagement are set in a way that makes it easy for them to operate. When I became Secretary of State, one of the things that I did was to ask whether there were elements there that needed to be redressed. There was the specific example, which we mentioned, of courageous restraint. I met some young soldiers who told me that the rules were being applied too tightly. In fact, the rules themselves weren’t wrong, but the interpretation as it came down the chain was, in effect, making them feel that they had to err too much on one side. Mr Brazier mentions that what we did in that case was simply to give clarification to them.
Q373 Chair: You have, in the past, raised the issue of lawfare, as opposed to warfare. I do not know whether it is right to announce it now, but it is likely that we may well do some inquiry in the next year into the concerns that Julian Brazier is raising. It strikes us that they are very important.
Dr Fox: That would be as interesting for us as it would be for you, because it is a very important and contentious political area, where there are no clear party political lines. It would be useful for us to consider.
Chair: That is true of most of these defence issues.
Q374 Bob Stewart: WikiLeaks has exposed some criticism of our operations, specifically from the Afghanistan Government and even the United States. Are they being unfair? Are these criticisms wrong?
Dr Fox: I have studiously avoided questions on WikiLeaks disclosures. First, they are fragments and incompletely disclosed. They are designed to damage the United States in the eyes of the outside world, and drive a wedge between the United States and its allies. We should have no part in playing the WikiLeaks game. It is trying to set a particular agenda and put particular ideas into the public mind and the wider public discourse. I think that it is extremely regrettable that some organs of the British media have played along with it. I find the whole concept of WikiLeaks and its activities completely loathsome.
Q375 Bob Stewart: I accept that totally. That’s good. Going back to 2006, Secretary of State, what do you think is the key lesson that we learned from what happened in Helmand?
Dr Fox: The key lesson is that if you are going to undertake any military activity, you should have a clear plan and it should be properly resourced.
Q376 Bob Stewart: What about our deployment? Maybe we shouldn’t touch on it.
Dr Fox: Well, as I say, a lot of operational information is being made available to the Committee. I could only give a necessarily partial opinion on that, in that I regularly said in those years that I believed that our mission was being under-resourced.
Q377 Bob Stewart: Since the surge in 2008, what have we done differently? What have we done operationally that is different from what we did before the surge, apart from the fact that we have more troops around?
Dr Fox: First, the whole counter-insurgency approach, as we discussed earlier, changed how we saw the conflict. Secondly, we were able to adapt our force densities, and, in Helmand, if you look at the population density map rather than the geographical map, you will see that we now are roughly a third, a third, a third between the Americans north and south of us and our forces in the middle. Previously, we were hugely stretched in terms of the proportion of the population we were being asked to cover with a much smaller total force in Helmand. That has been the biggest change. Not only did the Americans bring numbers in terms of manpower, but they brought large amounts of equipment. That is one of the basic rules of warfare-a sufficient size of force is required for the job in hand. I don’t know whether-
Bob Stewart: Get there firstest with the mostest.
Air Marshal Peach: Understand what the key terrain is, which as you understand very well, is dependent on being there to understand it. Once we’d got to that point, we were able to focus on that key terrain, as the Secretary of State said. The second area is to understand that having an integrated approach is essential, not simply nice-to-have. In other words, when you have cleared the village where the Taliban may have been present, the stabilisation effort has to be very close behind the troops to set the right conditions for the whole.
Q378 Bob Stewart: And stay there.
Air Marshal Peach: And stay there, and deliver that which is sufficient locally to give the people confidence that you will stay there and follow up. Those would be our key lessons, and, of course, that masks quite a lot of integrated planning action between the Task Force and the PRT, which General Petraeus has often remarked is a model. All of that flows up the echelons. The final point I offer is the understand function, which is an amalgam of being there to understand the tribal dynamics and developing intelligence structures and fusion, so we can understand the context of where we are.
Q379 Bob Stewart: So going back to the Secretary of State’s key lesson, the key is that we have to have enough to do it.
Dr Fox: And also to understand the importance of clear and hold. I think that has been one of the key things that we have learnt-clearing territory is not enough; you have to hold it, or a counter-insurgency strategy certainly becomes nigh on impossible.
Bob Stewart: I think Caesar understood that too. When he visited us in 55BC, he realised he didn’t have enough and got out.
Q380 Penny Mordaunt: Just a couple additional questions on the theme of lessons learnt. Are there things that our troops were doing well, and the Americans have taken over and maybe have not learned from our good practice? To give an example: our understanding is that our troops had developed a model of working that created a number of small bases and zones, which enabled them to patrol and to reduce the risk to themselves and the risk of casualties. The Americans are now covering that area, and they have reverted to the too large base strategy and, as a consequence, casualty rates have increased.
Dr Fox: This relates to Sangin.
Air Marshal Peach: I don’t wish, Mr Chairman, to go into comparing and contrasting the US and UK ways in war. Those differences, as reported, are largely media reports. In fact, as I think I made clear last time, when we handed over in Sangin, there was a relief in place between the Royal Marine Commandos-it happened to be them-and the US Marine Corps, and there were reconnaissance visits by the Americans to the British Forces. It was a very harmonious process. In fact, many of the Royal Marine Commandos-40 Commando, to be precise-stayed on for a few weeks as the Americans arrived. Of course, certain forces have a different way of developing their tactics, but it is true that Sangin was a difficult place for us and it remains a difficult place for the United States. That is the truth of it, and how they apply their tactics actually on the ground is very similar to the way that we did.
Q381 Chair: I want to pick up on one remark there. Those reports are largely media reports-pretty well informed media reports, aren’t they? The media are there to report things and they are facilitated by us and the American Forces, and they do a valuable job in Afghanistan.
Air Marshal Peach: I hope I didn’t imply that they were not doing a valuable job, but they will not have had the insights that the tactical commanders have generated over many weeks or, in some cases, months of understanding the local terrain. This is what we did, this is what worked, and this is how we may choose to do it, and so on. So it’s a very tactical activity that can be observed from different perspectives.
Dr Fox: It is also fair to say that Sangin presented particular difficulties, not only because there was a very high level of insurgent activity, but because of its centrality to the drug problem in Afghanistan. So it did, it does, and it probably will present one of the biggest challenges that we face anywhere in Afghanistan. I would like to put on record how well British Forces did and the progress that they achieved. It was very hard won and the sacrifices were very high, but they transformed the district’s centre. One example of that being the more than 850 shops trading in Sangin’s bazaar, which is more than twice as many as this time last year.
Chair: I want to pick up speed dramatically, because I understand that there might be a vote at about 12 minutes past 4. I think that we might be able to get through the rest of our questions if everybody is tight and fast.
Dr Fox: Are you looking at me, Chairman?
Chair: I am looking at us all, including myself.
Q382 Penny Mordaunt: Just one final question on the withdrawal from Sangin. What was the withdrawal’s impact on the morale of our troops?
Dr Fox: Our casualty rate clearly fell as a consequence of that, but to say that that necessarily meant an improvement in morale would be misleading, because it might imply that morale was low in our forces in Sangin. In fact, they understood that they had a difficult task to do and were applying themselves with huge professionalism. When I previously visited Sangin I didn’t detect a low morale.
Q383 Ms Stuart: If I put the four components of my questions together and you answer all four, rather than forgetting about the one you may not like, it may help us get through in the time that the Chairman wishes.
One is on the shortcomings of equipment, which we all know about, and the current financial constraints. I would like to know precisely whether the current Treasury opposition will affect UORs and, in particular, affect the introduction of new technologies. The second question is: could you tell us a little more about the new funding stream known as Urgent Defence Requirement? The third element again goes back to the Treasury’s asking the MoD to pay back the cost of UORs for Afghanistan. Is that going to happen for this year and in the future? Finally, what impact do you think the withdrawal of UOR funding will have on the efforts in Afghanistan overall?
Dr Fox: The future UORs are not affected by the current settlement, because the MoD and Treasury reached an agreement that whatever was required for Afghanistan in terms of UORs would be met from the Treasury reserve, notwithstanding the financial difficulties inherited by the Government.
Q384 Ms Stuart: So there is no payback?
Dr Fox: There is no payback, because the MoD has not exceeded the expected level for UOR spending that was previously arranged with the Treasury. In terms of the other financial flow-
Q385 Ms Stuart: Before we move on to that, how will it affect new technologies that might have been covered by UORs?
Dr Fox: We have an agreement that we will still be able to procure what we require in terms of new technologies, if they are required for the conflict in Afghanistan.
Peter Watkins: On your question about Urgent Defence Requirements, basically £150 million has been allocated to that. That sum will be paid back into the reserve from the defence budget in 2012-13. The point to note about UDRs is that they are not the same as UORs. These are projects for which we believe we have a continuing requirement, beyond the current operations. In effect, therefore, the Treasury is advancing the resource to us so that we may procure them in a timely way so that they can be available for Afghanistan, but then continue in use thereafter.
Q386 Ms Stuart: Is there a limit on that stream?
Peter Watkins: £150 million.
Dr Fox: These are things that would have to have been bought anyway, but are of more use to us if we bring them forward. So it is effectively, if the Treasury would forgive me for saying it, a kind of interest-free loan from the Treasury for the sort of thing that doesn’t happen very often.
Q387 Mr Havard: I was just wondering whether you’re, therefore, re-badging UORs as UDRs. That’s not what you’re saying, but, presumably, some will be, because some of the new armoured vehicles will be exactly what you described, won’t they? But you applied for them with UORs.
Dr Fox: It is a developing debate, because, as we move closer to a point at which we will no longer have combat forces there, it becomes harder to justify in terms of pure UORs. Clearly we are going to transition into different funding mechanisms as we go through that. Where we specifically require something for the conflict in Afghanistan that we would not otherwise have, that falls under the UORs. That system continues, because that is something that the Treasury and the MoD had a very clear agreement about.
Q388 Mr Havard: Is that the Snatch replacement?
Peter Watkins: That is a UOR, rather than a UDR.
Q389 Chair: I was almost tempted to fall into the trap of disobeying my own injunction about not getting into the SDSR. That is an issue to which we will return in our next inquiry, which will be on the SDSR. From what you have said, it sounds as if planning round 12 will be even more ghastly than planning round 11.
Dr Fox: If such a thing is conceivable.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed. That was profoundly informative. We got through a lot of material, and you gave us a lot of detail. We are most grateful.
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 18th January 2011|