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

1  Introduction

The inquiry

1. On taking office in May 2010, the Coalition Government placed Afghanistan and Pakistan at the top of its list of foreign policy priorities. As a Committee, we resolved to do likewise, and immediately after the Committee's membership was elected in July 2010 we launched an inquiry into the Government's policy in this vitally important area. We have taken both written and oral evidence from a wide range of individuals, experts, analysts, officials and Ministers. We heard oral testimony from the following:

  • 13 October 2010: Michael Semple, Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University, James Fergusson, author and journalist; Jolyon Leslie, independent Afghan analyst; Matt Waldman, independent Afghan analyst.
  • 20 October 2010: Dr Sajjan Gohel, International Security Director, Asia-Pacific Foundation; Dr Farzana Shaikh, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme, Chatham House; Sir Hilary Synnott, Consulting Senior Fellow for South Asia and the Gulf, International Institute of Strategic Studies.
  • 9 November 2010: Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British Ambassador to Kabul and former Special Representative on Afghanistan to the Foreign Secretary; Gilles Dorronsoro, Visiting Scholar, Asia Program, Carnegie Foundation; Gerard Russell, Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University.
  • 15 November 2010: Rt Hon William Hague MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and Karen Pierce, Director South Asia and Afghanistan, FCO, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

2. We also travelled to the region in late October 2010, visiting Islamabad, Kabul, Herat and Helmand to enable us to gain additional insights into the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report that follows is the product of these investigations.

3. We made a conscious decision to avoid replicating the work of our predecessor Committee which published a major report on the same subject in August 2009.[1] This Report does not set out to assess the totality of UK and international efforts in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. In parallel to our inquiry, other Parliamentary Committees have been scrutinising various aspects of Government policy in Afghanistan.[2] Where it was relevant we have drawn on testimony from these Committees' inquiries and we await their ultimate conclusions with interest. Although references to previous policies and practices are inevitable, our inquiry is deliberately not retrospective in nature and instead focuses on a series of foreign policy issues that we believe are of current parliamentary and public concern and which fall to us given our remit to scrutinise the policies of the FCO. With this in mind, we have sought throughout the Report to consider how appropriate and effective the UK's current foreign policy approach is towards both Afghanistan and Pakistan, how that should be measured, whether the FCO has made an effective contribution to the overall Government effort, and finally whether there are any broader lessons that could be learned for the UK's future foreign policy approach to insecure states.

4. We would like to place on record our thanks to all those who have contributed to this inquiry and helped to inform it by offering their views either orally or in writing, at Westminster and during our visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We also wish to thank the FCO and Ministry of Defence (MOD) staff for their assistance in connection with our visit. A full list of witnesses can be found at the end of this Report, along with a list of the key interlocutors whom we met during our visit.

5. Finally, we would like to pay tribute to all the British personnel, both military and civilian, who are serving in Afghanistan but in particular to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and the many more who have sustained life-changing injuries as a result of the conflict there.

Recent developments

6. A series of international and domestic events have shaped the policy debate since our predecessor Committee last reported on Afghanistan in August 2009. In that month, Hamid Karzai was re-elected as President of Afghanistan, amid considerable controversy. While the international community had hoped the election would be a showcase for progress in Afghanistan, the reality proved wholly different, with widespread fraud, contested results, ballot-rigging and high-level corruption. Just over a year later, in September 2010, elections for Afghanistan's parliament, which had been delayed from May because of security concerns, proved equally problematic, with large numbers of candidates disqualified as a result of serious and endemic voting irregularities. Corruption remains widespread,[3] the security situation is precarious in many provinces, disaffection with the government is high and Kabul's control over the rest of the country is limited at best. Afghans in many areas still only have limited access to the most basic of government services, despite the longstanding promises of the international community to bring peace, stability and development to the country, and the vast sums of money which have been expended to that end. In many areas where progress has been made, for example in health and education, there is a risk that gains will be reversed because of the deteriorating security situation and the rapid expansion of the Taliban's network of shadow government structures.[4]

7. In January 2010, shortly after President Obama announced the United States' updated 'AfPak' policy, and as the US-led military action continued to intensify, Heads of State and Government with an interest in Afghanistan met in London, ostensibly to agree on a political strategy that would complement the surge and bring more unity to what up until then had often been a disjointed and uncoordinated international effort. With hindsight, behind the rhetoric of a sustained commitment to Afghanistan, there was little doubt that the gathering marked the first formal stage towards an international 'exit strategy' for Afghanistan, particularly given falling public support for the intervention, the decision of some ISAF countries to withdraw from Afghanistan[5] and President Obama's statement that the prospect of assigning security responsibility to Afghan forces would enable the US "to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."[6] As a result of the London Conference, political reconciliation was supposed to rise up the agenda and the Afghan government and the international community agreed to achieve specific objectives on security, governance, and economic development within agreed timeframes.[7] Discussions subsequently continued in July in Kabul, where representatives of governments assessed what progress had been made since January and agreed on more commitments for the coming months under the Afghan-led Kabul Process, which aims to accelerate Afghanistan's ability to govern itself, to reduce dependence on the international community, and to enhance Afghanistan's security forces. Key to this was a commitment by NATO and international partners to support President Karzai's ambition that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) should take responsibility for security in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.[8]

8. From a British perspective, although the Government changed following the May 2010 General Election, much of its approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan did not. As with the previous Government, the new Coalition Government's support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan continued to shape British policy. There were some key changes, not least the use of the new National Security Council to co-ordinate Whitehall's Afghan war effort and, crucially, the decision publicly to set 2015 as a deadline for withdrawing British combat troops. Nonetheless, the Government's key objective in Afghanistan mirrors that of its predecessor, namely that Afghanistan should not again become a place from which al-Qaeda and other extremists can attack the UK and British interests. According to the Government's written evidence, achieving this objective, is said to depend on the achievement of four main goals:

i.  a more stable and secure Afghanistan;

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

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

iv.  regional political and security co-operation that supports a stable Afghanistan.[9]

In subsequent chapters in Part 1 of this Report , we look at the progress made towards each of these 'goals' before turning in Part 2 (specifically Chapter 7), to discuss concerns about their underlying validity. In particular, we assess evidence which questions whether the four goals outlined above, which reach far beyond the stated mission objective of defeating al-Qaeda, actually support that objective and whether the core mission itself is appropriate given the current level of threat from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

9. We are mindful that some of the conclusions in this Report, because they are critical of Government policy may, by implication, be interpreted as a criticism of the men and women who are applying it in the face of extremely hazardous, hostile and difficult conditions. We wish to place on record that nothing could be further from the truth. They have our full support in tackling the challenges before them. It is our hope that this Report will be received in the constructively critical manner in which it is intended, and regarded as a contribution to the wider debate which is taking place on how to improve a situation to which there are no easy solutions.

UK engagement in Afghanistan


10. The scale of the UK's civilian commitment is considerable. In the financial year 2010-11, the UK's total civilian programme expenditure related to Afghanistan is expected to be in excess of £220 million. This is made up of Department for International Development (DFID), MOD and FCO funds with contributions from the jointly managed Conflict Pool.[10] But civilian spending is dwarfed by the cost of the military campaign. The latest outturn figure shows that £3.8 billion was spent on operations in Afghanistan in 2009-10. The current forecast for 2010-11 is for £4.5 billion,[11] although some studies suggest that when the cost of supporting injured war veterans is taken into account, the figure could be significantly higher.[12] The Government states that since the General Election, additional funding has been made available for a campaign to counter improvised explosive devices (£67 million), as well as £189 million for a range of protection equipment, including surveillance, communications and logistics resources.[13] DFID states it has also increased UK aid to Afghanistan by 40% to £700 million, and has pledged to intensify and reinvigorate its civilian effort focusing on: stabilising insecure areas; stimulating the economy; and improving the effectiveness of the Afghan government.[14]


11. UK civilian representation in Afghanistan is based in the British Embassy in Kabul (around 300 staff) and in the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah (24 FCO positions plus 30 staffed by the Stabilisation Unit of which FCO, MOD and DFID are joint parent departments). FCO staff in Afghanistan (both UK based and locally engaged) work alongside UK civil servants from a range of government departments, and contracted specialists working as governance, rule of law, justice, counter-narcotics, infrastructure and economics advisers. In military terms, the UK's contribution is exceeded only by the US in terms of troop numbers. Currently some 9,500 British personnel are part of ISAF on an enduring basis, the majority (approximately 80%) of whom are based in Helmand and located alongside the Helmand PRT. The UK also has 1,300 troops located at Kandahar Air Field and 500 in Kabul.

UK support for Pakistan

12. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is about three-and-a-half times the size of the UK and is the world's sixth most populous country.[15] It shares borders with four countries: India to the east, China to the north east, Iran to the south west and Afghanistan along the western and northern boundaries (the mountainous border is known as the Durand Line and is not formally recognised by Afghanistan). It is considered by both the British Government and the US administration to be crucial to success in Afghanistan.

13. The UK's connection to Pakistan is both deep and long-standing and there are a multiplicity of British connections to Pakistan by virtue of both history and family ties. In 1947, on independence from Britain, the subcontinent was split into two successor states: the Dominion of India and that of Pakistan, both with the UK Monarch as Head of State and represented in each by a Governor General. East and West Pakistan was created from the frontier areas of British India. Subsequently, Pakistan became independent in 1947 as did India in 1950. Nowadays, the UK is home to more than 900,000 UK citizens of Pakistani origin with close and continuing family connections to Pakistan. There is also, in the view of one witness, "a skilful and far-reaching Pakistani lobby", many of whom are wealthy and some of whom constitute an important—perhaps even decisive—political constituency in some marginals".[16]

14. The UK is the second largest bilateral overseas investor in Pakistan and the fourth largest trading partner (over £1 billion of bilateral trade annually).[17] The UK currently contributes £665 million over four years (2009-10 to 2013-14) in development assistance, and further amounts in support of counter-terrorism, conflict prevention and defence assistance. Total assistance spending to Pakistan for the financial year 2009-10 was £158.8 million.[18] The British High Commission has just under 500 staff in Islamabad and 85 in Karachi. This also includes representatives from DFID, MOD and other Whitehall departments.

15. Following its return to democratic rule in 2008, Pakistan remains a democracy in transition. As recent events have shown, the civilian government faces significant challenges in dealing with political, social and economic instability as well as a rising extremist Islamist terrorist threat. As the popular response to Pakistan's devastating floods during 2010 showed, the military remains both popular with ordinary Pakistanis and institutionally powerful; it recently saw a significant uplift to its funding in the current Budget agreed by the government. We discuss the military and its current role in more detail below in Chapter 3.

16. Since 2001, the British Government's security strategy towards Pakistan has in many respects followed the lead of the US. In Professor Shaun Gregory's view, the FCO has operated a "reasonably consistent Pakistan policy for decades [which] prefers minor and reversible adjustments of policy to more substantive, risky, and perhaps irrevocable changes".[19] In December 2004, the Government stated that the UK and Pakistan shared close strategic ties and that Pakistan was a key ally in the 'war against terror', a stance that the British Government continued to maintain publicly for the duration of the Musharraf era. In December 2006, the UK Government signed a long-term Development Partnership Agreement with the government of Pakistan. As a result, UK aid to Pakistan doubled, from £236 million for the period 2005-2008, up to £480 million for the period 2008-2011, making Pakistan one of the UK's largest aid recipients.[20]

17. Recent bilateral relations have been dominated by the issue of terrorism in Pakistan which the British Government states poses a substantial threat to UK national security, and to UK troops and objectives in Afghanistan. The most serious international terrorist threat to the UK continues to come from al-Qaeda core and associated militants, located in the border areas of Pakistan. Many of the groups which seek to harm Western interests also have links to terrorist groups which have targeted Pakistani interests with devastating effects. The FCO states that reducing the threat emanating from within Pakistan is a top foreign policy priority and that in its engagement with Pakistan it continues to urge Pakistan to dismantle all militant and terrorist groups operating on, and from, Pakistani soil, and highlights that it is committed to working with Pakistan to enhance its capacity to focus on and tackle these threats.[21]

18. The FCO states that because of the enduring nature of the UK's relationship with Pakistan, the UK has a particular role in supporting Pakistan's democratic future. To this end, the British Government states it is committed to "a long-term, productive partnership with Pakistan based on shared interests and mutual respect".[22] On 6 August 2010, the Government announced its commitment to an "enhanced UK-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue" which is intended to cover: people-to-people links and public diplomacy; business and trade; financial, macro-economic and political governance; service delivery; defence and security; and regional stability. As we note below in Chapter 3, Pakistan's foreign policy is heavily influenced by its relationship with India.

19. Our discussion of Pakistan in this Report is largely undertaken in the context of the UK's engagement in Afghanistan. However, we recognise the enduring importance of UK-Pakistan relations and, more generally, Pakistan's strategic importance in the region, and its significance as a nuclear-weapons state. It is our intention therefore, at an appropriate point in the future, to consider in more detail the strategic challenges which Pakistan faces in its own right as well as the UK's relationship with such a key partner.

1   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan, HC 302 Back

2   See for example, the Defence Committee's inquiries into "Operations in Afghanistan", and "Ensuring success in Afghanistan: The role of the UK Armed Forces" and the inquiry by the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee C - Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Policy into The EU's Afghan Police Mission, Afghanistan. Back

3   In Transparency International's 2010 Corruptions Perceptions Index, Afghanistan was ranked 176 out of 178 countries for corruption. Back

4   See below, at paragraph 83, for further discussion of this issue. Back

5   Decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan had already been taken by the Netherlands and Canada while discussions about possible withdrawal had also taken place in several other ISAF countries. See Chapter 6 for further discussion of this issue.  Back

6   Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, 1 December 2009. Back

7   Ev 3 Back

8   Ev 3. See also comments made by President Hamid Karzai, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Inaugural Speech, 19 November 2009. Back

9   Ev 1 Back

10   Ev 1 Back

11   Figures provide by the House of Commons Library.  Back

12   For discussion of this issue see Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (Norton, 2008). Back

13   "£189 million for new equipment in Afghanistan announced", Ministry of Defence, 7 July 2010. Back

14   Ev 2 Back

15   In 2010 Pakistan's population was estimated to be 184,404,791 million, behind Brazil and ahead of Russia (CIA World Factbook. Estimates as at July 2010). By 2050 it is expected to be close to 268 million. Back

16   Ev 84 [Professor Shaun Gregory]  Back

17   Ev 28 Back

18   Ev 1 Back

19   Ev 84 Back

20   HC Deb, 5 February 2009, col 1040 Back

21   Ev 31 Back

22   Ev 27 Back

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Prepared 2 March 2011