Select Committee on Defence Fifth Report

3 The UK deployment to Helmand


43. Helmand Province, situated in the South of Afghanistan, is a province where security is described by MoD as "less benign" than in the North.[39] UK Forces can expect to face very different conditions than they did in their Northern base at Mazar-e-Sharif. Helmand is a powerbase for supporters of the deposed Taliban regime and contains areas of significant poppy cultivation on which a long and established supply chain of farmers, traders and traffickers depend to make their living.


44. We pressed MoD to clarify what our troops were being asked to achieve and the conditions they could expect to face once there. Martin Howard told us that the purpose of the UK deployment to Helmand Province was to:

help build Afghan security institutions and also to assist the Afghan authorities in counter-insurgency and other stability-related activities. In the same way that that is the mission of NATO, that would be our mission within that.[40]

45. The UK is the G8 lead nation with responsibility for assisting the Government of Afghanistan in pursuing a counter-narcotics policy. MoD told us that it had chosen to deploy to Helmand Province specifically because it was an area containing continuing threats to stability from the narcotics trade, the Taliban and other illegally armed groups.[41] MoD plans, over the "medium term", to build the capacity of the Afghan National Army and Police with a view to transferring responsibility to them for countering these security threats.[42]

46. The objectives of the UK Government in Helmand are threefold:

  • Enhancing stability and security through the deployment of the 16 Air Assault Brigade;
  • Long term reconstruction through the Provincial Reconstruction Team based at Lashkar Gar; and
  • Containment of the opium trade by working with and developing the capability of the Afghan National Army.[43]

47. We support the objectives of the UK deployment to Helmand. UK Forces working with the Government of Afghanistan in building the capability of Afghan security institutions can bring greater security to the people of Helmand and help create the conditions for political and economic development. To achieve greater security and stability, the deployment will have to overcome significant vested interests. These threats are significant and the success of the UK deployment is by no means certain.

Building security and stability

48. At the outset of our inquiry, MoD described the security situation in the Southern provinces, including Helmand, as "less stable" than in the North, but said that there were no security challenges which posed a strategic threat to Afghanistan.[44] In early 2006, South Afghanistan experienced a series of incidents which seemed to bring this judgment into question. In February 2006, the deputy Governor of Helmand was involved in an incident when a convoy he was travelling in with Afghan National Army soldiers was overwhelmed by 200 armed Taliban. The Governor was only rescued by the intervention of Coalition troops.[45] There was an attack on US Forces in Nangahar province resulting in the deaths of four US soldiers. In March 2006, two Canadian soldiers were killed in Kandahar province by a roadside explosion and one Canadian officer was left critically ill after suffering a machete attack.[46] These incidents followed the death of a Canadian diplomat following a suicide bomb in December 2005.[47] In March 2006, there were press reports that the Taliban in Helmand had been setting schools on fire and seeking to intimidate teachers into not teaching children.[48]

49. At our second evidence session in March 2006, we suggested to the Minister that the security situation was noticeably less positive than it had been previously. The Minister replied "you are right in saying when we looked at this initially that there was a different climate than that which exists now".[49] But he maintained that "the threat level on the ground can be over-stated".[50] Asked who was responsible for the violence, the Minister described a situation where allegiances were fluid according to "who is paying them".[51]

50. MoD later described the capabilities of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Southern Afghanistan as "limited" and stated that, "the actual numbers of Taliban in Southern Afghanistan fluctuates, but could amount to over a thousand. Al-Qaeda's presence in the area is small".[52]

51. While we note the Minister's assurances that there are no security threats which pose a strategic threat to Afghanistan, recent events suggest that the security situation in Helmand is becoming increasingly fragile.

52. We note MoD's estimate that the Taliban in Helmand might number "over a thousand" and that allegiances were determined by "who is paying them". It is imperative that UK Forces work quickly and closely with Afghan security forces to develop a reliable intelligence picture of threats in Helmand.

53. MoD told us that it plans to build the capacity of Afghan security forces through operational mentoring.[53] On 1 February 2006, during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the Afghanistan Defence Minister, General Ibrahim Wardak announced plans for a UK-led Officer Training School in Kabul. This school would be based on the Royal Military School, Sandhurst.[54] General Wardak also announced that the Afghan National Army had reached a complement of 34,000 trained personnel against a target of 70,000 by the end of 2010.

54. We note the role that the UK contribution to the Afghan National Army Training Team, based in Kabul, has played in training non-commissioned officers. This has provided valuable experience for UK personnel in operating with Afghan Forces. It is reported that MoD plans to embed trainers in the Afghan National Army brigade deployed to Helmand province.[55] It is essential that the legal status of embedded trainers is made clear and that all operational practices with regard to prisoners, and the rules of engagement under which the trainers will operate, are properly clarified before they are deployed. We intend to monitor these arrangements closely.

55. Building security will take time, and is dependent on developing the capability of Afghan Forces. We welcome MoD's plans to work closely with Afghans to develop the capability of the Afghan National Army. A well-trained army is key to bringing long-term stability to Helmand.


56. On 26 January 2006, after many weeks of media speculation, the Secretary of State announced the composition of the UK deployment to Helmand province as part of the ISAF stage 3 expansion.[56] The main elements of the announcement were:

  • In February 2006, a deployment of Royal Engineers and a company from 42 Commando Royal Marines would deploy to Helmand to build the encampment, known as Camp Bastion, for the main deployment;
  • The Taskforce HQ and the PRT "heart" would be based at Lashkar Gar. A small company would be based at Gereshk;
  • From July 2006, a 3,300-strong British force would deploy to Helmand under a new Multinational Brigade (South), initially under Canadian, then British command. The force would comprise elements of the 16 Air Assault Brigade and an infantry battle group, based initially around the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment;
  • The force would include eight Apache attack helicopters (deployed on operations for the first time), four Lynx and six Chinook helicopters; and
  • The UK commitment to Helmand would be for three years and would cost around £1billion over a five year period.


57. The size, rugged terrain and lack of passable roads in Helmand mean that air lift will be vital to move troops between locations quickly, and to resupply, reinforce and sometimes evacuate them. The deployment of air assets will continue to be coordinated from the allied air component operation centre in Qatar (see paragraph 37).

58. The airlift package in support of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, as announced by the Secretary of State on 26 January, will consist of four Lynx and six Chinook helicopters.[57] Air Marshal Torpy told us that the package would be supplemented by 20 US helicopters and "some" Dutch helicopters.[58]

59. Given the importance to the Helmand mission of airlift capability, we note with concern the small number of UK helicopters dedicated to the deployment. We welcome the commitment made by the US and Dutch air forces to supplement the UK airlift. We remain deeply concerned about the ability of the UK's ten dedicated helicopters to perform the extensive range of roles that will be asked of them, particularly given the demanding environment in which they will operate and the likely attrition rates that will result.

60. Close air support provided by both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft has been an integral feature of counter-insurgency and force protection operations in Afghanistan since 2001. The importance of mobile air assets was demonstrated in February 2006, when the Quick Reaction Force was dispatched in support of Norwegian ISAF troops who had come under violent attack in Maymaneh. We were told during our visit to HQ ARRC that in Afghanistan and Iraq, tasking Harrier GR7s to fly low over hostile crowds had proved effective in dispersing them without needing to fire weapons. Air support is also vital in gathering intelligence about where enemy forces are concentrated.

61. Air Marshal Torpy told us that the UK close air support package, comprising eight Apache attack helicopters and the six Harrier GR7 aircraft based at Kandahar, would be supplemented by six Dutch F16s and that the:

US have a number of A10s and out of theatre there is a range of US resources which they have committed to Afghanistan as well in terms of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance aircraft, air to air refuelling aircraft and strategic aircraft such as B52s which can carry out a precision attack. Overall, there is a robust air package.[59]

62. We note MoD's assurance that the total close air support package is robust and that the US commitment of close air support will remain following the withdrawal of US Forces from the Southern provinces. We will continue to monitor closely whether experience bears out MoD's confidence about the continued availability of air assets to the UK deployment.

63. The Secretary of State told the House of Commons on 26 January 2006 that the Harrier GR7 squadron based at Kandahar, tasked with providing close air support to both the ISAF and OEF missions, will be withdrawn from theatre from June 2006.[60] During our visit to HQ ARRC, it was suggested that Dutch F16 aircraft might be used to replace the Harrier GR7 squadron if the runway was repaired in time. Air Marshal Torpy told us later that the runway at Kandahar was being repaired and that NATO was currently reviewing which air support assets should be based there.[61]During our visit to Strike Command in March 2006, we were told that the review was on-going.

64. The availability of close air support providing sufficient mobility and fire power will be absolutely essential to the success of the Helmand deployment. We recommend, if no equivalent force can be provided by the NATO force generation process, that the Harrier GR7 squadron based at Kandahar should remain beyond June 2006 and for as long as necessary.


65. On 30 January 2005, a C130K Hercules was shot down in Iraq.[62] Inevitably discussion arose about the extent and effectiveness of the Defensive Aid Suite (DAS) fitted to aircraft deployed to Afghanistan. One former C130 Hercules pilot wrote to us expressing his concerns suggesting, amongst other things, that resources had been a constraint on decisions taken about the fitting of the DAS.

66. Air Marshal Torpy told the Committee that "All our aircraft will have an appropriate suite of those capabilities to match the threat that our intelligence indicates is going to be faced in Afghanistan".[63] Following the evidence session, we asked MoD to respond to the concerns that had been put to us in more detail. We had not received a substantive responsive from MoD by the end of the inquiry.

67. We note that concerns have been raised about the appropriateness of the defensive aid suite fitted to C130 Hercules used in Afghanistan. We also note MoD's assurances that the Hercules DAS is appropriate to conditions in Afghanistan.

68. We accept that the scope for investment in equipment is infinite, but the suggestion that aircraft are not being properly protected for resource reasons is a serious one and we call on MoD to provide evidence to demonstrate that this is not the case.


69. A recent feature of insurgent activity in Afghanistan has been an increase in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against armoured vehicles. Of recent particular concern was the IED used against a US armoured "humvee" in the Southern province of Uruzgan as it was previously thought that this vehicle type could withstand attack from IEDs.[64] We sought assurances from MoD that a sufficient quantity of armoured vehicles would be available in Helmand and that they would be sufficiently armoured to withstand the threat from IEDs.

70. The Minister told us:

what commanders seek they will be given…. What we have got to seek to do is identify the threat levels, hear what the commanders are saying through the Chain of Command and then, if remedies can be found, put those remedies in place…. If there is need for additional equipment or new protective measures then they [will be] brought forward if it can be proven that they will prove to be effective.[65]

Air Marshal Torpy added that the IED threat was "under continuous review".[66]

71. We note MoD's assurances that the force package to Helmand is fit for purpose. The threat from improvised explosive devices will need to be kept under constant review.

72. We note the Minister's commitment that commanders in theatre will be listened to and given what they need to ensure the protection of troops. We shall monitor this closely.


73. The treatment of detainees in Iraq has been a matter of regular public concern. During our inquiry we questioned MoD about the handling of detainees in Afghanistan. We were surprised to learn that UK Forces in Afghanistan had detained individuals "on very few occasions", nor "have they passed them on to US Forces".[67] This may be because UK Forces had been based in the relatively stable North of Afghanistan and that, when the occasion to detain people had arisen, it was Afghan Forces who detained them. As UK Forces deploy to the Southern provinces, they may be more likely to encounter individuals they need to detain.

74. We asked MoD under what legal authority troops deployed under ISAF could arrest and detain individuals. MoD told us that legal authority was provided by:

a series of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, most recently UNSCR 1623 (2005), and by agreement with the Government of Afghanistan. ISAF policy, agreed by NATO, is that individuals should be transferred to the Afghan authorities at the first opportunity and within 96 hours, or released.[68]

75. MoD told us that it was still finalising the processes that will govern the handing over of detainees to the Afghan authorities.[69] It is also negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Afghanistan that will set out UK expectations of the conditions in which individuals will be held and the legal process by which they will be prosecuted.[70] MoD describes Afghanistan's judicial system, which is being reformed under the G8 leadership of Italy, as rudimentary.[71]

76. MoD told us that, before soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan, they underwent "extensive training prior to deployment, designed to acclimatise them to the conditions and to hone their skills with procedures and equipment".[72] There has been no indication that this pre-deployment package, which includes cultural awareness and basic language skills presentations, includes any training regarding the responsibilities of UK troops to detainees.

77. We call on MoD to provide greater clarity about the UK Forces' responsibilities to detainees in the period before they are handed over to Afghan security forces. It is unsatisfactory that these matters are not yet concluded.

78. We recommend that pre-deployment training should emphasise the responsibilities of UK soldiers to detainees under their care before they hand over responsibility to the Afghan authorities.

79. The MoD Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Afghanistan must establish clearly the rights of detainees so that they are treated justly and fairly. We urge MoD to recognise that, whilst its legal responsibilities may have been discharged, its duty of care to detainees does not end once they have been handed over to the Afghan authorities, and we look to see this fully reflected in the Memorandum of Understanding.


80. The reported overstretch of elements of our Armed Forces is a cause of continuing concern for this Committee and was covered in some detail in our Report on MoD's Annual Report and Accounts 2004-05.[73] We have been eager to ensure that the deployment to Afghanistan, combined with the continuing operations in Iraq, did not increase overstretch to an unacceptable level.

81. MoD told us that:

In 2006, as we increase our scale of effort in Afghanistan, tour intervals are likely to breach harmony levels in some areas such as medical, intelligence, helicopter crews, logistic, provost and engineers. We continue to encourage appropriate contributions from our NATO Allies in Afghanistan in order to take some of the pressure off these areas. Overall, we judge that the impact on our planned deployment to Afghanistan and on readiness for future operations is manageable.[74]

82. The Secretary of State for Defence announced on 13 March 2006 that forces committed to Operation Telic in Iraq would be reduced to around 8,000 personnel following the next roulement due in May 2006.[75] The gradual drawdown of forces in Iraq should help balance the deployment of UK Forces to Afghanistan, but there will nonetheless be a peak in the Afghanistan deployment in 2006 which will increase pressures on manning.

83. We are particularly concerned about the pressure on certain trades and on individuals. For example, MoD has highlighted the existing pressure on army medics, intelligence operatives, helicopter crews, and linguists.[76] We also have concerns about the adequacy of MoD's management information systems which allow it monitor the pressure on its Service personnel.[77]

84. The UK deployment to Afghanistan is likely to result in a breach of harmony guidelines in some key areas in the short term. MoD has plans to address these potential breaches by encouraging contributions from NATO partners in those trades under most pressure. Overall, we accept MoD's assurance that the impact of the Afghanistan mission on our Armed Forces is manageable. We will continue to monitor the situation.

Counter-narcotics mission


85. The opium trade affects most areas of Afghanistan but particularly the Southern provinces. Afghanistan produces 87 per cent of the world's heroin supply and the estimated $2.7 billion annual income from opium exports accounts for nearly 70 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[78]

86. The UK is the lead G8 country on counter-narcotics with responsibility for assisting the Government of Afghanistan in implementing its 2006 National Drugs Control Strategy. The four key priorities of this strategy are:

  • Targeting the trafficker and the trade;
  • strengthening and diversifying legal rural livelihoods;
  • developing effective counter-narcotics institutions; and
  • reducing demand.[79]

87. Responsibility within the UK Government for delivering this strategy falls to the Afghan Inter-Departmental Drugs Unit (ADIDU), a cross-departmental body which comprises staff drawn from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for International Development, Home Office and HM Revenue and Customs.[80] MoD told us that in Helmand the focus of ADIDU activity will be on supporting Afghan institutions such as the Afghan National Army, Police and judicial system in disrupting the supply and prosecuting the traffickers of narcotics.[81]

88. Peter Holland, Head of ADIDU, told us that, alongside ADIDU, the Department for International Development spends £130m per annum on promoting alternative livelihoods to opium farmers. The scale of the task involved with promoting alternative livelihoods was illustrated when ADIDU told us that opium farmers in Helmand can potentially generate $100 per kilogramme of opium produced.[82]At our informal seminar we heard that the income obtained from poppy production could be about ten times that obtainable from any other crop.


89. Helmand is Afghanistan's largest opium-producing province. In 2005, 26,500 hectares of land were used for poppy growing accounting for 25 per cent of Afghanistan's total production.[83]Association with the narcotics trade affects all levels of society.[84] Press reports have suggested that the Taliban were becoming involved with the narcotics trade.[85] This was supported by Peter Holland who told us "there are some indications, particularly in the South, that the Taliban have been encouraging farmers to grow poppy this year and offering them protection against law enforcement forces".[86] There is a danger that UK Forces will become the subject of attack by groups, including the Taliban, seeking to protect their interests.

90. There is a fundamental tension between the UK's objective of promoting stability and security and its aim of implementing an effective counter-narcotics strategy. It is likely the more successful the deployment is at impeding the drugs trade, the more it will come under attack from those involved in it. In the short term at least, the security situation is likely to deteriorate.

91. We were concerned to hear that the Taliban is becoming more involved with the narcotics trade in Helmand. This development is likely to increase the exposure of UK Forces to attack as it seeks to limit the opium trade in Helmand.

92. We asked MoD whether UK Forces would be proactively seeking out drug traffickers. Mr Howard told us that the military contribution to counter-narcotics might be quite small, and he emphasised that "it will be in support of the Afghan authorities rather than the British carrying out a counter-narcotics mission on its own account".[87] We remain uncertain of the exact role which UK Forces will be asked to play in support of the counter-narcotics strategy and call on MoD to provide clarification.

93. An alternative approach to controlling the narcotics trade in Helmand has been proposed by the Senlis Council, an organisation which describes itself as "an international think tank established by The Network of European Foundations"[88] The Senlis Council maintains that the UK's current policy is unrealistic and will alienate farmers and those reliant on the opium trade with the danger that they will form alliances with the Taliban or other illegally armed groups. Instead, Senlis proposes licensed opium production whereby farmers would be guaranteed an income to produce opiates which could be produced licitly to make-up a shortfall in morphine and codeine supplies in the Central Asia region.

94. ADIDU described the Senlis Council's proposals as inappropriate "at this time" because there was an absence of the necessary control mechanisms to prevent opium entering the illicit market. ADIDU also noted that farmers would be likely to receive more income per kilogramme of opium produced in the illicit market compared to a regulated licit system. ADIDU told us that:

The nearest comparable country that currently has a licit system is India. For them the greatest price that farmers receive is about $35 a kilo. In Afghanistan it is $100 per kilo.[89]

95. We note the proposals of the Senlis Council for the licensing of opium production but we accept, in the absence of a well developed legal and security system, ADIDU's conclusion that the Senlis Council's proposals would be inappropriate at this time.

96. We support ADIDU's focus on developing Afghan security institutions capable of targeting drug growers and traffickers, and on encouraging farmers to pursue alternative livelihoods. However, we believe the task of controlling and reducing the amount of opium produced in Helmand, requires a long-term strategy lasting well after a secure environment has been established.


97. Reconstruction in Afghanistan is the responsibility of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) described by MoD as "joint civil-military teams deployed to extend the influence of the Government of Afghanistan beyond Kabul, facilitating the development of security sector reform and the reconstruction effort".[90]

98. There is no fixed template for PRTs in Afghanistan and they have tended to evolve organically in response to local conditions.[91] The UK PRT in Helmand will take over from a US-run PRT and will be based at Lashkar Gar. Like the UK's PRT based, until March 2006, in the Northern town of Mazar-e-Shariff, the Helmand PRT will concentrate on stabilisation activities in order to enable a more permissive environment for development work to take place.[92]

99. The contrasting approach to stabilisation taken by US PRTs became apparent during the course of our inquiry. During our informal seminar we were told that US PRTS had substantial funds and impressed the local population through "Quick Impact Projects".[93] We were also told that the UK PRT would have less resources at its disposal which would be concentrated on longer-term sustainable development projects. We were concerned that the disparity between the funds available to UK and US PRTs would hinder the UK's attempt to make an immediate and positive impact on the local population. In response to our concerns, MoD told us that the US has spent nearly $100 million in Helmand province and the UK planned expenditure of £38 million in the first year of deployment.[94]

100. The UK PRT, unlike the US model, intends to direct funds through the central Afghanistan Government and provincial Government. MoD regards this policy as contributing to the extension of the reach of the Afghan Government. There will be funds available for UK Commanders for small-scale local projects but these will be allocated in consultation with representatives of DFID and the FCO.[95]

101. We note the UK's commitment of £38 million for sustainable development in the Helmand PRT's first year. We welcome the intention to commit resources through the Government of Afghanistan and provincial bodies, but call on the UK Government to put in place safeguards to ensure that those resources fully reach their intended recipients. We argue that only by involving Afghans in key decisions will reconstruction work prove to be sustainable.

A long term commitment?

102. The Secretary of State described the UK force deployment as "formidable", but so too are the challenges it will face.[96] It is essential that the deployment should include the personnel, assets and protection it requires to fulfil its demanding objectives. It is also essential that the UK sees through the commitment it has made to Afghanistan and to its NATO allies.

103. On 26 January 2006, the Secretary of State told the House of Commons that the UK commitment to Helmand was for three years. At our evidence session of 7 March 2006, the Minister was reluctant to specify an exit strategy but he told us that an exit from Helmand would be possible only after Afghan security institutions had been established and proven to be effective.[97] The Minister also said that it was in the UK's "enlightened self-interest" that the conditions that applied in Afghanistan leading up to 9 September 2001 were not allowed to return.[98]

104. We do not believe it will prove possible to complete the reform of the security and justice institutions in Helmand within the three-year commitment so far made.

105. The Minister's reluctance to discuss an exit strategy from Helmand is understandable but we believe that MoD should be more forthcoming about how it will measure the success of the deployment. We recommend that MoD make public the targets by which they intend to measure the success of the Helmand deployment.

106. This Committee intends to visit Afghanistan in the summer of 2006. We will produce a second-stage report, examining the lessons to be learnt from the deployment, in due course.

39   Ev 46, para 10 Back

40   Q 84 Back

41   Ev 46, para 12 Back

42   Ibid Back

43   Ev 44, para 3 Back

44   Ev 44, para 3 Back

45   "Fears for British troops as Taliban launch new attack". The Independent, 4 February 2006 Back

46 Back

47   Ibid Back

48   "Fears of a lost generation of Afghan pupils as Taliban targets schools". The Guardian, 16 March Back

49   Q 129 Back

50   Ibid Back

51   Q 130 Back

52   HC Deb, 15 March 2006, col 2291W Back

53   Ev 47, para 14 Back

54 Back

55   Q 71 Back

56   HC Deb, 26 January 2006, col 1531


57   HC Deb, 26 July 2006, col 1531 Back

58   Q 178 Back

59   Q 178 Back

60   HC Deb, 26 January 2006, col 1532 Back

61   Q 182 Back

62 Back

63   Q 198 Back

64 Back

65   Q 169 Back

66   Q 172 Back

67   Ev 48, para 7 Back

68   Ev 48, para 74 Back

69   Ev 48, para 8 Back

70   Ev 51, para 5 Back

71   Q 87 Back

72   Ev 51, para 6 Back

73   Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2005-06, MoD Annual Report & Accounts 2004-05, HC 822, paras 10-19  Back

74   Ev 49, para 12 Back

75   HC Deb, 13 March 2006, col 1151 Back

76   Ev 49, para 12 Back

77   See also Sixth Report, HC (2005-06) 822, para 12 Back

78   Drugs and Crime, Opium Survey, United Nations Office, November 2005 Back

79   Ev 55, para 2 Back

80   Ev 55, para 8 Back

81   Ibid Back

82   Q 190 Back

83   Drugs and Crime, Opium Survey, United Nations Office, November 2005 Back

84   Q 85 Back

85   The Observer, 26 Febrauary 2006 Back

86   Q 194 Back

87   Q 84 Back

88   Ev 52, para 1 Back

89   Q 195 Back

90   Ev 45, para 6 Back

91   Ibid Back

92   Ev 50, para 20 Back

93   Ev 50, para 21 Back

94   Ev 50, para 21 and Ev 52, para 9 Back

95   Ev 52, para 11 Back

96   HC Deb, 26 July 2006, col 1532 Back

97   Q 136 Back

98   Ibid Back

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