Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fourth Report

8  Afghanistan


362. Previous Reports in this inquiry have described events in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA and the fall of the Taliban in November 2001. In June 2002, our predecessor Committee noted the importance of stabilising Afghanistan as well as the great challenges ahead.[470] Four and a half years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has completed the institution-creating process outlined in the 2001 Bonn agreement, the post-Taliban plan for the country's political transition: Afghanistan now has an elected National Assembly and President. However, the extent of government authority remains limited, there are concerns over the lack of progress tackling the country's powerful military commanders, opium poppy cultivation remains endemic and the level of violence is increasing. Highlighting these concerns, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan in February 2006 warned that the country risks "sliding back into chaos if western countries do not step up efforts to bolster government control outside the capital."[471]

363. In January 2006, while making a statement about the deployment of British forces to Afghanistan, the then Secretary of State for Defence Dr John Reid, explained why Afghanistan is so important to the United Kingdom and the international community:

    Just over four years ago, on 11 September 2001, we were given a brutal lesson in the consequences of leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban and the terrorists. Since then, we in this country have been at the forefront of the international effort, under the auspices of the United Nations, to defeat international terrorism, to free Afghanistan from the ruthless grip of the Taliban and to rid the country of the menace of the terrorists and the greed of the drug traffickers…

    We cannot risk Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists. We have seen where that leads, be it in New York or in London. We cannot ignore the opportunity to bring security to a fragile but vital part of the world, and we cannot go on accepting Afghan opium being the source of 90 per cent. of the heroin that is applied to the veins of the young people of this country. For all those reasons, it is in our interests, as the United Kingdom and as a responsible member of the international community, to act.[472]

364. On 31 January-1 February 2006, the United Kingdom co-chaired the London Conference on Afghanistan. Foreign Office Minister Dr Kim Howells told the House that the Conference aimed:

    To launch the Afghanistan Compact, the successor to the Bonn Agreement. The Compact provides the framework for international community engagement in Afghanistan for the next five years.

    To provide an opportunity for the Government of Afghanistan to present its Interim National Development Strategy to the international community. The strategy sets out the Government's priorities for accelerating development, increasing security, tackling the drugs trade, and strengthening governance.

    To ensure that the Government of Afghanistan has adequate resources to meet its domestic ambitions and international commitments.[473]

The Conference resulted in pledges of over US$10.5 billion over the next five years; the United Kingdom pledged £500 million over the next three years.

365. Speaking at the opening of the Conference, the Prime Minister committed the United Kingdom to the task of stabilising Afghanistan:

    This is a struggle that of course primarily concerns the Afghan people, but it is also a struggle that concerns all of us, and it is why we are here today and it is why we are determined to see this through. It is why, whatever your challenges, we will be there with you, at your side, helping you. It is in your interest to do so, it is in our interest to do so, it is in the interest of the whole of the international community. This is a struggle for freedom, and for moderation, and for democracy and we are with you in it.[474]

366. We conclude that bringing stability to Afghanistan remains a key British interest. We commend the Government for its role in hosting and co-chairing the London Conference and welcome the Prime Minister's comments that the United Kingdom will remain by the side of the Afghan people in their struggle for freedom, moderation and democracy.

The Security Situation

367. In its last Report in this inquiry, our predecessor Committee described the military operations in Afghanistan. The Report noted that overall the security situation had improved, but that there remained a continuing threat to foreign nationals in the country.[475] Since that Report there have been worrying signs of a deterioration in the security environment.

368. More than 1,600 people were killed in 2005, and the violence is on the rise. In May, Afghanistan saw some of the fiercest fighting since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.[476] Moreover, similarities between the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq have prompted concern that the Taliban is learning from the insurgency in Iraq. There has been an increase in the number of kidnappings and roadside and suicide attacks.[477] There have already been more suicide attacks in 2006 than in the whole of 2005 (17) and 2004 (five).[478] There are also fears that the violence is spreading to previously safe provinces.

369. A field report by the Senlis Council, a drug policy advisory body, on the situation in the three southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar reveals a worrying picture. The report notes that the Afghan government has never established full control over the three provinces, but even its limited control is "rapidly diminishing, with political volatility now reaching urban areas."[479] There are reports that insurgent groups are operating more freely in the area and there has been an increase in the number of kidnappings and suicide attacks. Some of these strategies "point to an 'Iraqisation' of the Afghan insurgency tactics."[480] Taliban groups are using political violence and illegal economic activities to strengthen their powerbase.

370. We asked the former Foreign Secretary about this. In October 2005, Mr Straw told us: "I do not have the precise figures about Taliban activity. It is certainly the case that they are not completely defeated, and there remains quite a serious challenge."[481] In March 2006, he painted a bleaker picture; asked about the Taliban resurgence, he told us:

    The Taliban threat is certainly at least as severe as at any stage since the original removal of the Taliban four years ago. I cannot say exactly whether it is worse than at any other period… Let me say that it is serious and that is understood, and it is serious down in the Helmand province. It is one of the reasons we are going down there, because if we want to try and establish the writ of the elected government and deal with the drugs problem, we have to deal with the Taliban.[482]

371. We conclude that there has been a worrying deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, and that there are signs that the tactics that have brought such devastation to Iraq are being replicated in Afghanistan. We recommend that in its response to this Report the Government indicate what steps it is taking to prevent further deterioration.

Counter-Narcotics Strategy

372. Previous reports in this inquiry have outlined the problem of opium poppy cultivation and drug trafficking. Our predecessor Committee noted that this is not only a problem for Afghanistan, but also for the United Kingdom and Europe; 95% of heroin in the United Kingdom originates from Afghanistan.[483] The United Kingdom is in the lead on an ambitious programme to reduce opium poppy cultivation. The last Report in this inquiry concluded: "the United Kingdom's lead role in co-ordinating the UN's counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan is one of the Government's most important responsibilities overseas."[484]

373. On 14 February 2006, Foreign Office Minister Dr Kim Howells set out to Parliament Afghanistan's revised National Drug Control Strategy. The Strategy has four main priorities:

  • disrupting the drugs trade by targeting traffickers and their backers;
  • strengthening and diversifying legal rural livelihoods;
  • reducing the demand for illicit drugs and treatment of problem drug users; and
  • developing state institutions at the central and provincial level. [485]

Previous Reports in this inquiry have noted the importance of using mosques to spread the anti-drugs message and the need to divert the entrepreneurial energies of profiteering warlord commanders into less harmful activities. The last Report in this inquiry noted that both of these approaches must be "essential parts of a successful strategy."[486]

374. The United Kingdom has helped set up Afghan counter-narcotics institutions and provided mentoring and training as well as equipment. On 14 February 2006, Dr Howells told Parliament about this:

    [T]he UK has helped to establish and provide training for the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan—the lead drug law enforcement agency, headquartered in Kabul, with 7 provincial offices. The UK is also providing training for the Afghan Special Narcotics Force, an elite and highly trained force equipped to tackle high value targets across the country. We are also working with the international community to recruit and train a counter narcotics Criminal Justice Task Force of Afghan investigators, prosecutors and judges to work with the Counter Narcotics Police, to be able to push through successful drugs investigations and prosecutions.

    The UK has funded the development of five drug treatment centres and is working with the Ministry of Counter Narcotics to determine how best to support activity in this area following the completion of UNODC's survey on drug use within Afghanistan late last year. We are also supporting the US led Poppy Elimination Programme (PEP) by funding the salaries of Afghan staff charged with raising awareness of the illegality of the opium industry and monitoring Governor-led eradication in priority poppy growing provinces.[487]

375. When our predecessor Committee visited Afghanistan in 2004, it heard that the absence of secure prisons hindered the development of the criminal justice system. In April 2006, the former Foreign Secretary wrote to us about this issue. The United Kingdom is a major donor to a UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) project to build a secure prison facility just outside Kabul. This facility will be used to house those convicted of serious drug trafficking offences and will be in operation from the beginning of August. Her Majesty's Prison Service has been advising the UNODC during the design of the facility and a team of UK prison officers has been involved in training Afghan prison officers in high security prison techniques. In addition, the USA is planning to build a secure detention facility near Kabul airport as part of a Counter-Narcotics Justice Centre. "These two facilities will enable the Afghan authorities to hold the most dangerous drug offenders. The Afghan authorities are also currently considering their infrastructure and training needs for the remainder of their prison estate and we will consider what further assistance we can provide to them, particularly in respect of increasing their capacity to house drug offenders at provincial level."[488]

376. Overall spending by the United Kingdom on counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan increased from £1.6 million in 2002-03 to around £20 million in 2004-05. In June 2005 that figure was more than doubled to around £50 million for 2005-06, which included £30 million for the development of alternative livelihoods for farmers and rural labourers.[489] A further increase was announced in September 2005, with a revised budget for 2005-06 of £50 million for alternative livelihoods and £6 million for eradication activity. Over the following three years, the United Kingdom plans to spend more than £270 million; £130 million will be provided by the Department for International Development, with the remainder coming from the FCO, the Ministry of Defence and other departments.[490]

377. We commend the Government's work assisting the Afghan authorities to establish secure prison facilities and in providing training in prison techniques. We recommend that the Government set out in its response to this Report what further assistance it could give in this area, particularly in respect of increasing the Afghan capacity to house drug offenders at the provincial level.

378. Cultivation of opium poppy increased dramatically following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. However, there are signs that counter-narcotics strategies may be beginning to have an impact. According to the UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey 2005, opium cultivation decreased by 21% year on year from a record high of 131,000 hectares in 2004 to 104,000 hectares.[491] The report attributes this decline to several factors: the farmers' choice to refrain from poppy cultivation, the government's eradication programme, the ban on opium, and law enforcement activities. Nevertheless, Afghanistan remains the world's largest supplier of opium (87%). Moreover, production in 2005 was just 2.4% lower than in 2004; favourable weather conditions resulted in a 22% higher yield. Cultivation also increased in some provinces. Explaining this trend, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa has said that opium is the only commercially viable crop in many parts of Afghanistan: "Assistance to farmers is needed until the legal economy takes over as the mainstay of growth in Afghanistan."[492]

379. The UNODC released its Opium Rapid Assessment Survey in February 2006. This survey provides an assessment of the situation at the middle of the cultivation cycle and collates information on the geographical distribution and dynamics of opium poppy cultivation and anticipated harvest times. The survey found that there was "an increasing trend in opium poppy cultivation in 13 provinces, a decreasing trend in three provinces and no change in 16 provinces as compared to the results of the Annual Opium Poppy Survey 2005."[493]

380. There are reports that friction has emerged between the USA on the one hand and the British and Afghan governments on the other over the pace and extent of eradication.[494] The United Kingdom approach has been to pursue eradication only where there is access to alternative livelihoods. We asked Jack Straw about this, and whether British forces would be involved in eradication in Helmand, which is one the main opium-producing provinces. He told us:

    We have been careful on the issue of forced eradication. We have certainly opposed aerial eradication because of its indiscriminate nature and the fact that it can eradicate other crops as well. I think it will be for the commanders on the ground, in consultation with the local authorities, to make judgments about any particular case if they come across a field full of poppies, what efforts are made to deal with that immediate problem.[495]

David Richmond, Director-General, Defence and Intelligence at the FCO, added:

    [T]here is a distinction to be made between eradication and interdiction. There is some eradication going on at this very moment in the Helmand province, but it is being carried out by the Afghan authorities themselves and I think the judgment is that eradication is best done by the Afghans, and that is indeed what is happening at the moment, but the interdiction of the actual trade in narcotics production of the opium, and so on, that is an area where I think British forces could play a role.[496]

This point was reiterated in a letter to us from the former Foreign Secretary in April 2006. This said: "ISAF forces will not take part in the eradication of opium poppy or in pre-planned and direct military action against the drugs trade. As President Karzai has pointed out, this is a job for the Government of Afghanistan."[497]

381. Another problem is the limited range of alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers. We asked Jack Straw about this. He told us:

    A great deal of thought and money is going into the creation of alternative livelihoods in Afghanistan and it is something which we are leading on for the UK, an awful lot of work and money, and there is no doubt that the long-term solution to drugs is the general raising of living standards and the creation of alternative livelihoods, as well as creating a secure environment.[498]

Nevertheless, there remain few options that offer anything close to the income derived from opium poppy. This fact lies behind a controversial proposal by the Senlis Council. The Senlis Council is critical of what it describes as "aggressive strategies", including eradication, which it says "primarily affect the most vulnerable actors of the opium economy—the farmers—destroying their livelihoods."[499] The Council argues that counter narcotics efforts have "proven largely ineffective in addressing this all-encompassing crisis—the illegal opium trade remains an impediment to sustainable development."[500] The Council's proposal is that in the context of the global shortage of opium-based medicines, Afghanistan could license opium production:

    [B]y re-directing the opium poppy into the formal rural economy through the implementation of a strictly controlled opium licensing system, opium could become a major driver for a sustainable and diversified Afghan rural economy. In view of the world shortage of essential medicines, the development of an Afghan brand of morphine and codeine could also be endorsed.[501]

382. The Government has expressed doubts about such an approach. On 2 March 2006, Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn told the House:

    The Afghan Government has expressed its opposition to licit cultivation of opium. The Afghan Minister for Counter Narcotics, Habibullah Qaderi has said recently: "The poor security situation in the country means there can simply be no guarantee that opium will not be smuggled out of the country for the illicit narcotics trade abroad. Without an effective control mechanism, a lot of opium will still be refined into heroin for illicit markets in the west and elsewhere. We could not accept this." The UK agrees that licensing opium cultivation in Afghanistan for medical use is not a realistic solution to its drug problem, not least because it risks a high level of diversion of licit opium into illegal channels. The production of opium is also contrary to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.[502]

383. We reiterate our predecessor's Committee's conclusion that "the United Kingdom's lead role in co-ordinating the UN's counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan is one of the Government's most important responsibilities overseas". We conclude that negligible progress has been made reducing opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. We recommend that the Government set out in its response to this Report how it intends to make better progress in tackling this problem. We further recommend that the Government clarify its position towards eradication and that it set out what progress has been made on developing alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers.

Role of the United Kingdom

384. In May 2006, the United Kingdom deployed the Headquarters Group of NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (HQ ARRC Group) to Kabul to command the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for nine months. This period coincides with the expansion of the ISAF mission to Afghanistan's Western and Southern provinces (ISAF stage 3). As part of this expansion, the United Kingdom will deploy personnel to Helmand Province in the south of the country.[503] The deployment will set up a new British-led PRT at Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand Province.

385. The former Foreign Secretary wrote to us about the role of British troops in Afghanistan:

    They will work to counter insurgency and help the appropriate authorities build security and government institutions to continue the progress of recent years. Above all, their presence will help the Afghans create the environment in which economic development and institutional reform—both essential to the elimination of the opium industry—can take place. ISAF will be able to help with the provision of training to Afghan counter-narcotics forces and will, within means and capabilities, provide support to their operations. They will also help the Afghan Government explain their policies to the Afghan people. ISAF forces will not take part in the eradication of opium poppy or in pre-planned and direct military action against the drugs trade. As President Karzai has pointed out, this is a job for the Government of Afghanistan.[504]

386. Nevertheless, there is concern over both the dangers that British personnel will face and the possible blurring of their role. The former Defence Secretary admitted the size of the challenge to the House: "Southern Afghanistan is undeniably a more demanding area in which to operate than either the north or the west. The Taliban remains active. The authority of the Afghan Government—and the reach of their security forces—is still weak. The influence of the drugs traffickers, by contrast, is strong."[505] The Senlis Council has also outlined a number of concerns:

    British forces in southern Afghanistan are faced with the twin mission of counter insurgency and support to counter narcotics. However, in a region where opium cultivation is deeply entrenched, the war against opium could make the war against insurgency a much more difficult, probably impossible, task. It is important that the fundamental stabilisation mission of British troops is not compromised by the war against opium… The mission of the British forces in southern Afghanistan with regards to opium should be clearly defined in order to avoid any clash with the primary mission of counter insurgency. The terms "support" to eradication activities can take many shapes on the ground and should therefore be defined in more specific detail beforehand. In a province which is increasingly falling into the grip of Taliban and other insurgent groups, it is vital British forces win the trust of local communities by avoiding to undermine their livelihoods.[506]

387. In March 2006, the Defence Committee published a report on the United Kingdom's deployment to Afghanistan. This report flagged up a number of concerns. Principal among these was the role of the deployment to Helmand: "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."[507] Reflecting the difficult security environment in which British forces are operating, a British soldier was killed and two wounded in action against suspected Taliban forces in mid-June.[508]

388. The Defence Committee's report also highlighted the relationship between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom. The Stage 3 expansion of ISAF takes it to areas that are the responsibility of the OEF counter-terrorism mission (ISAF's role is explicitly aimed at stabilisation and not counter-terrorism). "It is possible that after stage 3 is completed, ISAF and OEF Forces will, on occasion, operate in the same geographical areas. Certain assets—notably air support—are shared. Effective coordination is therefore essential."[509]

389. The last Report in this inquiry described plans to "increase synergy and better integrate the two operations".[510] Our predecessor Committee concluded that: "the proposal for increased synergy between and better integration of NATO's operations in Afghanistan and those of the US-led coalition is a potentially positive move, which if correctly implemented should enhance the effectiveness of security, reconstruction and counter-terrorist activities alike. However, we would not support such a process being used as cover for a significant withdrawal of US forces from the country or for a material reduction in the US commitment, unless there was a corresponding threat reduction."[511]

390. In its response to this Report the Government agreed that "It will be important that achieving single mission status leads to no reduction in capability to undertake the tasks currently performed by OEF." [512] The response also welcomed the conclusion at the February 2005 meeting of NATO Defence Ministers that NATO military authorities should produce a "detailed plan, with timelines, to implement greater synergy between the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and US/coalition-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)." [513] The Government also told us that the plan would be circulated to NATO allies and discussed prior to and at the NATO Defence Ministers meeting in June 2005.

391. We conclude that there is potential for a blurring of the United Kingdom's counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics objectives in Afghanistan. We recommend that the Government clarify the role of British personnel, including with regard to the policy of eradication and support to eradication activities. We further conclude that the expansion of ISAF's area of operation requires careful consideration of how best to coordinate with the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. We reiterate our predecessor Committee's conclusion that "increased synergy between and better integration of NATO's operations in Afghanistan and those of the US-led coalition is a potentially positive move, which if correctly implemented should enhance the effectiveness of security, reconstruction and counter-terrorist activities alike". We recommend that the Government update us in its response to this Report on NATO planning to achieve this greater synergy.

470   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2001-02, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism, HC 384, paras 101-117 Back

471   "US envoy warns on efforts to build Afghanistan", Financial Times, 3 February 2006 Back

472   HC Deb, 26 January 2006, col 1529 Back

473   HC Deb, 17 January 2006, cols 27-28WS Back

474   Remarks by the Prime Minister, opening of the London Conference on Afghanistan, 31 January 2006, available at: Back

475   HC (2004-05) 36-I, para 338 Back

476   "Scores killed in Afghan violence", BBC News Online, 18 May 2006, Back

477   "Taliban Shift Tactics in Afghanistan", Terrorism Focus, The Jamestown Foundation, 18 April 2006, volume III, issue 15 Back

478   "Scores killed in Afghan violence", BBC News Online, 18 May 2006,; and "Remember Afghanistan? Insurgents bring suicide terror to country", The Independent, 17 January 2006 Back

479   "Field Notes: Afghanistan Insurgency Assessment, The Signs of an Escalating Crisis", The Senlis Council, 7 April 2006 Back

480   Ibid Back

481   Q 114 [Mr Straw] Back

482   Q 222 [Mr Straw] Back

483   HC (2004-05) 36-I, paras 332-337 Back

484   HC (2004-05) 36-I, para 337 Back

485   HC Deb, 14 February 2006, cols 82-85WS Back

486   HC (2004-05) 36-I, para 336 Back

487   HC Deb, 14 February 2006, cols 82-85WS Back

488   Ev 69 Back

489   HC Deb, 15 June 2005, cols 467-8W Back

490   HC Deb 24 October 2005, col 73W; and FCO press release, 5 September 2005, available at: Back

491   "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2005", UNODC, November 2005 Back

492   ibid Back

493   "Afghanistan Opium Rapid Assessment Survey", UNODC, February 2006, available at: Back

494   "US memo faults Afghan leader on heroin fight", The New York Times, 22 May 2005 Back

495   Q 253 [Mr Straw] Back

496   Q 253 [Mr Richmond] Back

497   Ev 69 Back

498   Q 251 [Mr Straw] Back

499   Defence Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2004-05, The UK deployment to Afghanistan, HC 558, Ev 53. Back

500   Ibid, Ev 54. Back

501   Ibid Back

502   HC Deb 2 March 2006, cols 874-5W Back

503 Back

504   Ev 69 Back

505   HC Deb, 26 Jan 2006, cols 1530 Back

506   Defence Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2004-05, The UK deployment to Afghanistan, HC 558, Ev 53 Back

507   Ibid, para 90 Back

508   "UK soldier dies in Taleban clash", BBC Online, 12 June 2006, Back

509   Defence Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2004-05, The UK deployment to Afghanistan, HC 558, para 35 Back

510   HC (2004-05) 36-I, para 345 Back

511   Ibid, para 346 Back

512   Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Sixth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Session 2004-05; Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism; Response of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Cm 6590, June 2005 Back

513   Ibid Back

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