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

Conclusions and recommendations


The surge and civilian safety: losing hearts and minds?

1.  We conclude that it is a matter of considerable concern that civilian casualties in Afghanistan have risen so sharply since the start of the military surge. While much of this can be attributed to insurgents as opposed to Coalition Forces, the overall effect of more troops on the ground, at least in the short term, has been one of heightened instability and suspicion of ISAF forces. We welcome recent attempts to modify rules of engagement to try to ensure both troop and civilian safety, but we are concerned that in terms of Afghan perceptions this may amount to too little, too late. We are also concerned that some recent reports suggest that operations are becoming more, not less aggressive. (Paragraph 28)

2.  We conclude that while large numbers of Coalition Forces may be able to clear areas of insurgents, and hold the territory gained, we are more sceptical about the efficacy of the 'build' phase of operations in which aid is distributed with a view to 'winning hearts and minds'. (Paragraph 29)

Tactical rather than strategic success?

3.  We conclude that although UK forces, alongside their Afghan and ISAF partners, may have achieved a series of tactical successes, the security situation in Afghanistan as a whole remains precarious. We have gained the impression that the focus on tactical military gains in specific provinces is in danger of obscuring the very real security and other strategic challenges which exist beyond the immediate military campaign elsewhere in Afghanistan and in other aspects of the economy, politics and the state. (Paragraph 35)

Helping or hindering the push towards political reconciliation?

4.  The military surge remains at the heart of US policy in Afghanistan and it is one that has been strongly supported by the British Government. However, it is clear that the surge and military pressure alone are not enough to bring security and stability to Afghanistan. We are concerned that attempts to create the conditions for security transfer to Afghan forces have resulted in an escalation of the counter-insurgency campaign which has had a negative effect on Afghan civilians and prospects for political reconciliation. (Paragraph 38)


5.  We conclude that it was inappropriate and unhelpful for the Prime Minister to have made negative remarks about Pakistan's record on counter-terrorism in India. Nonetheless, we further conclude that the substance of his concerns remain pertinent. (Paragraph 54)

The West's lack of political leverage

6.  We conclude that the continuing existence of Pakistani safe havens for Afghan insurgents makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for ISAF's counter-insurgency campaign to succeed. It is of considerable concern that the UK is in a situation where, along with its key ally the US, it is reliant upon, but appears to have little influence over, Pakistan, considering the capacity of that country substantially to affect the longer-term prospects for peace in Afghanistan. (Paragraph 61)

Direct US action in Pakistan

7.  The ability of insurgents in Pakistan to carry out attacks against Western interests is a major concern. We conclude that drone attacks are already a high risk strategy and we further conclude that the use of ground attacks, without the express consent of the Pakistani government could significantly undermine the Pakistani government's authority, provide militants with an excuse for targeting Western interests, and have the unintended consequence of significantly escalating tensions between Pakistan and the West. We strongly urge the Government to do all that it can to ensure that future US policy on Pakistan does not further undermine the stability of the Pakistani state. (Paragraph 64)


Progress on security transition

8.  We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government explains what planning is currently being undertaken across different Departments on scenarios for UK engagement in Afghanistan after 2015. (Paragraph 70)

9.  We conclude that in spite of substantial amounts of money being made available to train and develop the Afghan National Security Forces, and the obvious commitment and effort of UK and other personnel engaged in training and security transition, serious questions remain as to the quality of the force that will eventually emerge. It is regrettable that the issue of quality was not dealt with at an earlier stage in the international community's intervention and that it still appears to be playing second fiddle to force generation. Given that, despite considerable efforts, there can be no guarantee that the Afghan National Security Forces will necessarily be able to cope after ISAF withdraws, we further conclude that it is even more vitally important to pursue, swiftly, a process of political reconciliation. (Paragraph 77)

10.  We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government sets out what steps it is taking to ensure that the withdrawal of NATO allies from Afghanistan in the coming months and years, and after withdrawal in 2014, does not result in unacceptable and additional military and financial burdens falling upon the UK. (Paragraph 79)

Civilian transition: bolstering the Afghan state?

11.  We conclude that despite 10 years of international assistance designed to bolster the Afghan state, the international community has not succeeded in materially extending the reach and influence of the central Afghan government or in improving governance more generally. We further conclude that the current international approach has yet to fully reflect Afghanistan's history, regional differences and realities on the ground, and is in danger of failing despite the vast sums of money expended. We believe that it is only right and proper that responsibility for Afghan affairs rests primarily with the Afghans themselves, and this should and will eventually reflect the complex and diverse nature of Afghan society. (Paragraph 97)


12.  We conclude that the predominance of the belief that negotiations cannot commence until the insurgency has been defeated militarily is a matter for considerable concern, particularly given that the prerequisites for such a defeat do not appear currently to exist. (Paragraph 116)

What role for the UK?

13.  We conclude that the US is facing a rapidly closing window of opportunity to push ahead with political reconciliation through which it can help to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan and the wider region and, in the process, ensure that the sacrifices made by allies and Afghans alike are not in vain. We further conclude that the UK Government is to be commended for its support of political reconciliation, but recommend that it re-double its diplomatic efforts to bring whatever influence it can to bear on the US to highlight the need for US leadership on the issue of reconciliation. (Paragraph 123)

14.  We conclude that the UK's influence and role in respect of Pakistan is probably limited when it comes to reconciliation in Afghanistan. However, it is in the UK's national interests, far more so than in those of the US, to see a strong and democratic Pakistan emerge. For this reason, it is imperative that the UK encourages the US to adopt a policy in relation to Pakistan which takes account of Pakistan's security concerns and which therefore may help to induce Pakistan's constructive role in reconciliation in Afghanistan. We are under no illusion about the difficulties involved in this, not least because the UK can only exercise limited influence over the US and because both the UK and US policies in the past have not resulted in significant shifts in Pakistan's position on the Afghan Taliban. (Paragraph 131)

15.  We conclude that the UK Government is to be commended for its advocacy of a regional approach to political reconciliation, and we recommend that the FCO continues to make the case to its allies for their wholehearted support in this respect. (Paragraph 136)

Prospects for success

16.  We conclude that at present the conditions for a political settlement do not exist, not least because the international community's approach is incoherent, Afghan leadership is not sufficient, the US approach is overly focused on re-integration at the expense of reconciliation and, in the resulting political vacuum, regional powers and Pakistan in particular, are forging ahead with their own agendas on reconciliation, not necessarily in the interests of Afghanistan or the wider region. (Paragraph 142)


Who made the decision on the 2015 deadline?

17.  We recommend that in its response to this Report the Government explains why the decision to announce a deadline for British combat withdrawal in 2015 was not taken within the National Security Council. (Paragraph 156)

18.  We conclude that the Government's policy statements on the withdrawal of combat forces are inconsistent and we invite it to explain why there was such a sudden and dramatic shift in policy in favour of an arbitrary deadline. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government explains what political and international factors prompted the Prime Minister to decide upon 2015 as a deadline, what the security rationale is, what advice he received from the military in advance of this decision, and what consultations the UK had with the US on this specific issue. (Paragraph 157)

The possible consequences of announcing deadlines

19.  We are concerned that Pakistan may feel that its security interests in connection with Afghanistan are not being adequately addressed by the West, partly as a result of the US announcement that their troops will begin to draw down in July 2011. We therefore call on the FCO to work with its counterparts in the US State Department with a view to better understanding how to reassure Pakistan that the West takes seriously Pakistan's genuine concerns about the future stability of Afghanistan and the impact of what it perceives to be a precipitate withdrawal of Western military forces. (Paragraph 166)

The debate over deadlines: assessment

20.  We conclude that the security rationale behind the Government's decision to announce the 2015 deadline for the unconditional withdrawal of UK armed forces from combat operations in Afghanistan remains unclear and that there are a number of potential risks inherent in such an approach. We further conclude that as the decision has now been taken and could not be reversed without causing irreparable damage to the UK's standing at home and abroad, the task must be to ensure that the 2015 deadline has the effect of focusing both Afghan and international minds on the core tasks at hand. It is crucial, in this respect, that if the risks of using deadlines are to be minimised, there must be a concerted UK and US push forward on a genuine process of political reconciliation and a more effective and co-ordinated campaign designed to reassure Afghans that the focus of international engagement in Afghanistan may change in 2015, but Afghanistan will not simply be abandoned. It should remain a place in which the international community has obligations and interests. (Paragraph 176)


Protecting UK national security: the core mission in Afghanistan?

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

Are the UK's goals appropriate and achievable?

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

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

24.  Given the significant governance and security challenges which exist, and the limited timeframe in which the UK is seeking to achieve the key goal of political reconciliation in conjunction with its Afghan and international partners, we recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government explains the basis upon which a political settlement can be reached which supports human rights and the rule of law, within the framework of the existing Afghanistan constitution. (Paragraph 198)

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

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


Communicating the campaign in Afghanistan

27.  The importance of clearly communicating to Afghans why the international community remains in Afghanistan and what its role will be over the longer term is crucial, particularly given the announcement of deadlines for combat withdrawal by a range of ISAF countries. We are particularly concerned, therefore, that international efforts in this regard appear to be failing. We recommend that the Government stress to ISAF partners the importance of addressing this as a matter of urgency and of ensuring that the presence of international forces in Afghanistan is recognised as an important part of the problem. (Paragraph 205)

28.  We recommend that in its reply to this Report, the Government reports on what progress has been made in improving its strategic communications in Afghanistan. (Paragraph 208)

Communicating the campaign to British audiences

29.  We recognise the difficulties involved in trying to develop a narrative on intervention in Afghanistan that satisfies different audiences, both domestic and international. However, the Government's current national security narrative is out of step with the current situation and, in light of the announcement of 2015 as a date for combat withdrawal, now out of line with the general thrust of UK policy. The 2015 date jars with the Government's national security justification which signals something very different; namely that the UK must do whatever is necessary to secure the safety of British interests. The two positions are not compatible and send mixed messages to the public. We recommend that the Government review its strategic communications strategy as a matter of urgency to ensure that public messages provide certainty about future plans, but also highlight that the ultimate UK goal is a political settlement in the pursuit of peace. (Paragraph 212)

Parliamentary engagement on current and future plans

30.  We welcome the Government's attempt to engage more pro-actively with parliamentarians on Afghanistan. We therefore regret that the Prime Minister used media interviews to reveal the 2015 withdrawal date and to raise the possibility that British combat troops could begin to be withdrawn as early as 2011, rather than announcing this significant development in Government policy in the first instance to Parliament. We recommend that in future all such significant announcements should be made to Parliament first. (Paragraph 214)


Who's driving British policy on Afghanistan?

31.  We conclude that there are grounds for concern over the relationship between the military and politicians. We further conclude that this relationship has, over a number of years, gone awry and needs to be re-calibrated. Military advice is of course, vital, but it must be appropriately balanced against a full spectrum of advice from other relevant sources. In this respect, we welcome the creation of the National Security Council as an institutional mechanism through which the FCO has a greater opportunity to influence the strategic direction of the UK's Afghan policy, to work with other relevant Whitehall Departments, and more generally to ensure that there is genuine unity of effort within the Government's approach. However, we believe that problems in Afghanistan highlight the need for a corresponding cultural shift within Whitehall to ensure that those charged with taking foreign policy decisions and providing vitally important political leadership are able to question and appraise military advice with appropriate vigour. (Paragraph 224)

The need for realistic goals and honest assessments of progress

32.  We accept the understandable desire to recognise progress in Afghanistan, but we conclude that some of the language used by the military, in particular, risks raising expectations beyond a level that can be sustained over the longer term. It is useful to remember that Helmand accounts for 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. Therefore, while successes in Helmand should be recognised, the overwhelming focus on this province in official British assessments inevitably obscures the challenges which exist elsewhere in Afghanistan, and in which the UK, as a coalition partner, has a considerable stake. (Paragraph 227)

Practical constraints on UK action

33.  We are concerned about evidence that suggests that the impact that FCO staff are having in Afghanistan is severely constrained by a relative lack of language training and skills, short tour lengths, and the limited access that many staff have to ordinary Afghans. We are also concerned about the recent lack of direct country experience among FCO staff in London who are involved in directing and implementing policy on Afghanistan. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government sets out what it is doing to address these shortcomings. (Paragraph 234)


34.  We recommend that in its response to this Report, the FCO sets out what specific lessons it has learnt thus far from its engagement in Afghanistan. (Paragraph 240)

35.  We conclude that there are numerous lessons that must be learned from the intervention in Afghanistan which are beyond the immediate scope of this Report. We recommend that, at an appropriate point in the future, when British combat operations have ceased, a full and comprehensive public inquiry into the Government's policy towards Afghanistan be conducted. It should include, but not be limited to, the decision to deploy to Afghanistan in 2001, and Helmand in 2006, civil-military relations both in Whitehall and on the ground, the efficacy of the comprehensive approach, the appropriateness of the counter-insurgency doctrines deployed, the adequacy of resources provided, the decision to set a timetable for withdrawal, and what conditions should apply in the future before the UK enters into a multinational military effort. (Paragraph 241)

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