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


2  Progress after the military 'surge'

Background and context

20. One of the UK's main goals is to ensure Afghanistan is safer and more secure by contributing to the international effort to roll back the insurgency, thereby facilitating the extension of the Afghan government's area of control throughout the country. From a British perspective, it is hoped that this in turn will help to create the conditions for a political settlement and, ultimately, facilitate the withdrawal of UK combat troops by 2015.

21. The UK's military goals are being pursued in conjunction with NATO's ISAF which, under General David Petraeus's command, has been bolstered by a military surge involving the deployment of an additional 30,000 US troops and some 9,000 troops from other ISAF contributing countries. This has taken the total number of ISAF troops in Afghanistan to just under 118,000 (with a further 26,000 US troops in Afghanistan as part of United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A)). The following chart shows the troop contribution levels of different ISAF nations.[23]

22. The increasing number of US forces in particular has also led to a significant change in British operations, with US forces taking responsibility for areas where the UK previously took the lead military role. The British Government has been a strong supporter of the surge and the 'population-centric' strategy initiated by the former Commander of ISAF (COMISAF), General Stanley McChrystal, and endorsed by his successor, General David Petraeus. In accordance with this approach, ISAF troops have been instructed to "secure, serve and live among the population, build relationships, confront impunity, help build accountable governance, hold what is secured and conduct themselves with discipline", all whilst pursuing "the enemy relentlessly".[24] In NATO's view, this so-called 'comprehensive approach' to counter-insurgency will help to establish a "sovereign, independent, democratic, secure and stable Afghanistan that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists and terrorism".[25]

23. As part of an international coalition, the UK does not have, nor is it in a position to have, a wholly distinct foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Therefore it is impossible to measure UK success or otherwise in isolation. In addition, the sheer scale of the US effort in Afghanistan since the surge and the transfer of a number of areas from UK to US control has further shifted the balance of power and influence in favour of the US. As James Fergusson stated, "to judge the effectiveness of UK foreign policy in the region is to judge the effectiveness of US policy."[26] As the surge remains at the heart of US policy, we consider below the impact it has had, in a variety of areas. We return to consider the overall value of this approach vis-a-vis the UK's core goal of preventing the return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, in Chapter 7.

The surge and civilian safety: losing hearts and minds?

24. It is widely argued that the most important aspect of a counter-insurgency campaign is the security of the population. As former COMISAF, General Stanley McChrystal, stated in 2009, the "measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed; it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence".[27] The prospects, in this respect, are not encouraging according to a number of sources which suggest that rather than improving security conditions for Afghans, the surge has created more insecurity and led to more civilian casualties.[28] In November 2010, The Washington Post reported that the US's operations in the latter part of 2010 were "more intense and had a harder edge" than at any time since 2001, despite the overall counter-insurgency campaign.[29] In December 2010, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated that security in Afghanistan was worse than at any point in the past thirty years. The ICRC stated that violence had spread, civilian casualties had increased, access to medical care had deteriorated and an increasing number of people were being forced out of their homes because of more intense fighting than at any point since 2001.[30] Richard Haas of the US think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, stated that "while the situation on the ground in Afghanistan should improve in areas where US military forces are operating in strength, the gains are likely to fade in the wake of their departure".[31]

25. In evidence to us, Matt Waldman quotes findings from the International Council on Security and Development which state that 68% of respondents said NATO was failing to protect the local population, while 70% said military operations in their area were bad for the Afghan people, a figure which rose to 99% in Marjah.[32] During the period January to June 2010, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported a 31% increase in the number of civilians who were killed or injured in fighting in Afghanistan compared to the same period in 2009. In the South, during the same period there was a 136% increase in civilian deaths.[33] UNAMA's most recent report from December 2010 states that "civilians continued to bear the brunt of intensified armed conflict as civilian casualties, including deaths and injuries, increased by 20% in the first 10 months of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009".[34]

26. In a bid to undermine the surge, insurgents have stepped up their campaign of assassinations of Afghan civilians and government officials, creating further instability in the process. Although insurgents and anti-government forces are responsible for most civilian casualties, research conducted by the Open Society Foundation in 2010 showed that many Afghans believe that international forces have directly stoked the conflict. Respondents were also said to be suspicious of the international community's motives because of the Coalition's perceived (and actual) support for militias and warlords in some areas.[35] As Michael Semple told us:

    The civilian casualty rate, apart from being bad in itself, makes things all the more difficult in the political process and certainly the Taliban capitalise on it. It also reduces the moral authority of both ISAF and the Kabul government. [...]Overall, the reporting of civilian casualties has a tendency to make people think "a plague on all their houses".[36]

27. Concerns were also raised about the vastly increased use of night raids by special forces as the "primary kill /capture mechanism" since the surge started.[37] The US military states that raids of this sort are one of its most potent tactics for weakening the Taliban, by depriving the movement of seasoned commanders, draining its morale and forcing fighters to remain constantly on the move for fear of capture.[38] However, critics say that the opposition caused by the raids is undercutting the West's broader goal of winning the hearts and minds of the population. When we met President Hamid Karzai, he expressed concern about the negative effect that some military tactics were having on the Afghan people, and the extent to which they were adding to the anger and alienation of Afghans and decreasing the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The Open Society Foundation's report states that "each incident of abuse, whether caused by international forces or insurgents, reinforces these negative perceptions and further undermines any remaining Afghan trust".[39] Similar points were made in written submissions to our inquiry, with one stating that "civilian casualties […] have fostered negative attitudes towards the UK, often deemed guilty by association if not by direct involvement".[40] In the light of concerns of this nature, General Petraeus has reportedly revised a directive on night raids to ensure that communities affected are given more information about why operations are taking place.[41]

28. 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.

29. 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'.

Tactical rather than strategic success?

30. ISAF's main effort in the south, Operation Moshtarak, began in November 2009 and aimed to improve freedom of movement along the main transport routes around Kandahar city. In February 2010, the focus of operations switched to central Helmand where a second phase of Operation Moshtarak aimed to clear the insurgency out of Nad Ali district, including the Taliban-controlled area of Marjah, and establish Afghan local governance and socio-economic development. In September, Coalition Forces began a combat phase of anti-Taliban operations in Kandahar's Arghandab, Zhari, and Panjwai districts, involving some 8,000 US and Afghan troops. Simultaneously, special forces are reported to be engaged in a programme of targeted assassinations of key Taliban figures, including night raids, on an "industrial scale".[42] James Fergusson stated that at the heart of the surge is the goal of dominating the city and environs of Kandahar—the spiritual capital of the Pashtuns and the birthplace of the Taliban—and in so doing, "to place the US and her Coalition allies in a position of strength from which to negotiate with the insurgency".[43]

31. Both the US and British military have been keen to show that the surge is delivering positive results and, in President Obama's words, is "break[ing] the Taliban's momentum".[44] Speaking in December 2010, General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, said that progress in the preceding three months had been "quite astronomical",[45] while the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that "there is no denying that the security climate is improving".[46] The Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox, meanwhile told the Defence Committee in December that the Taliban's command structure has been substantially disrupted.[47] Finally, the US's December 2010 strategy review of Afghanistan stated that "considerable gains" are being made towards military objectives,[48] an assessment which the British Government stated was consistent with its own view of the conflict.[49]

32. These assessments chime with the optimistic progress appraisals we heard from some military and official sources during our visit and recent comments made by the Prime Minister.[50] The impression we gained from these interlocutors was that they believed that since the surge and the arrival of additional resources, the security situation had improved. The metrics of success most mentioned were those of the number of insurgents captured or killed and the seizure of territory. We heard far less about the security of Afghans. On this basis, we took away a sense that although the situation remained precarious in the most heavily militarised areas of the south and east of the country, tactical gains were being made in Helmand and the longer-term prognosis for the counter-insurgency campaign as a whole was promising.

33. However, according to a number of non-military sources, while some tactical gains may be taking place in the South (although the Kandahar campaign is widely reported to be behind schedule), the security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is deteriorating. Some interlocutors, as well as those who gave evidence, attributed this in part to the decision to focus military counter-insurgency activity on the south and east which has allowed the Taliban to expand its presence and control in other previously relatively stable areas in Afghanistan.[51] Gilles Dorronsoro told us that it is "clear that the Taliban have the momentum—especially in the east and north. In the last year, the last six months, they have made a lot of progress. So, altogether the surge is not working the way that it was meant to. There is no change in the overall balance of power and the Taliban are still making problems".[52] Overall, in light of the concerns outlined above, most witnesses were sceptical about whether the surge would bring strategic success and longer-term safety and security to Afghans. Dr Sajjan Gohel stated that "the Taliban believe that they are in the ascendancy. They feel they have the strategic advantage, durability and resources to outlast the West in Afghanistan".[53] He added that, "success in defeating them militarily anytime soon appears remote".[54] Likewise, Matt Waldman stated, "NATO is not winning, or even beginning to win in Afghanistan".[55] He observed that the insurgents are "fatigued, and have been weakened by special forces' operations, but they remain confident, and have no shortage of manpower or resources".[56] Gerard Russell stated:

    One of the things that concerns me [...] is whether we were right to think that it was ever going to work to put foreign troops into Afghan population centres—towns and villages—and keep them secure. It often seems to have been the stimulus for confrontation rather than the resolution of it, and for me that points to a much greater potential than existed for foreign forces in Afghanistan to have been all along in a position where they acted as a weapon of last resort, rather than being the front line of engagement with the Taliban.[57]

34. Finally, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British Ambassador in Kabul, who was also Special Representative on Afghanistan to the Foreign Secretary, stated:

    We mustn't forget that according to the strategy that we have signed up to, we are supposed to have stabilised 40 districts in southern and eastern Afghanistan by the end of next month [December 2010]. We are nowhere near achieving that—that performance measure has been forgotten. Forty districts next year and forty the year after is an almost impossible target, and it certainly won't be done by garrisoning these areas and putting men in forts. For the Pashtuns, seeing a man in a fort is a provocation not a pacification.[58]

35. 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.

Helping or hindering the push towards political reconciliation?

36. Giving oral evidence to us, the Foreign Secretary explained that it was the FCO's view that "military success and intensified military pressure are important components of bringing about a settlement, and the Taliban should expect intensified military pressure in the coming months in the absence of a political settlement".[59] However, some interlocutors and witnesses warned that the intensity of the military surge and some of the tactics being deployed, risked undermining the prospects for a political solution to the conflict by compounding enmity and mistrust between the warring parties.[60] Specific concerns centred upon the fact that some of the insurgent commanders who might otherwise have been persuaded to enter into reconciliation have been targeted for assassination under the counter-insurgency strategy, leaving new militants in their place who may be more radical and less willing to negotiate.[61] Michael Semple stated that the surge had convinced the Taliban that the West had "obviously decided to fight this one through rather than settle it". He explained that "what they are saying is, 'As you escalate and generate both civilian and military casualties, you undermine your claim to be interested ultimately in a settlement'".[62] He added that in these circumstances, "we are not giving the process a chance".[63] Others stated that US public statements supporting the reconciliation process are often undermined, in the Taliban's view, by action on the ground, including targeted assassinations. James Fergusson stated that, "Quetta has not unnaturally concluded from all this that the US is not serious about wanting to negotiate".[64]

37. Gerard Russell, like others who submitted evidence,[65] argued that the large-scale presence of troops, particularly in the south, is one of the main causes of the conflict and that it specifically impedes Afghan peacemaking efforts, in four ways:

    [F]irst, because it reduces pressure on the Afghan political elite to achieve peace; second, because the Afghan government cannot deliver on any peace deal for as long as security strategy is in the hands of the US government; third, because the Taliban are less likely to make peace with a government that they denounce as being under foreign domination; and fourth, because the Taliban believe that the current balance of power is a temporary one and that when US forces leave, they will be able to get a better deal.[66]

Finally, when we met President Hamid Karzai, he also told us of the longer term benefits to stability that he believed would derive from a lighter military footprint.

38. 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.

23   ISAF "Placemat" (Contributing nations and troop numbers), as at 14 December 2010 Back

24   COMISAF Counter-insurgency (COIN) Guidance, August 2010 Back

25   Declaration by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on an Enduring Partnership, 20 November 2010 Back

26   Ev 49 Back

27   Washington Post, 3 June 2009 Back

28   Oral Evidence taken before the Liaison Committee on Thursday 18 November 2010, HC (2010-11), 608-i, Q 117. Back

29   IbidBack

30   The Times, 17 December 2010 Back

31   "Let's un-surge in Afghanistan", The Wall Street Journal Online, 20 December 2010  Back

32   Ev 49 Back

33   Ev 21 Back

34   "The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security", Report of the UN Secretary General, A/65/612-S/2010/630, 10 December 2010 Back

35   "The Trust Deficit: The Impact of Local Perceptions on Policy in Afghanistan", Open Society Foundation, 7 October 2010 Back

36   Q 19 Back

37   "The Trust Deficit: The Impact of Local Perceptions on Policy in Afghanistan", Open Society Foundation, 7 October 2010, p 4 Back

38   Financial Times, 17 December 2010 Back

39   "The Trust Deficit: The Impact of Local Perceptions on Policy in Afghanistan", Open Society Foundation, 7 October 2010 Back

40   Ev w12 Back

41   Financial Times, 17 December 2010 Back

42   The Guardian, 8 November 2010, see also Stephen Gray, Operation Snakebite, (Viking, 2009). Back

43   Ev 49 Back

44   "President Obama's remarks on the strategy in Afghanistan", New York Times, 17 December 2010 Back

45   Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2010 Back

46   The Times, 10 December 2010, p 43 Back

47   Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 15 December 2010, HC 554-v, Q 322. Back

48   "President Obama's remarks on the strategy in Afghanistan", New York Times, 17 December 2010 Back

49   "UK welcomes US review of Afghanistan", 17 December 2010, Back

50   Ibid.  Back

51   "Don't change course now", The Times, 10 December 2010, p 43, Ev w8, w20 Back

52   Q 117 Back

53   Ev 80 Back

54   Ev 81 Back

55   Ev 51 Back

56   Ev 52 Back

57   Q 119 Back

58   Q 109 Back

59   Q 133 Back

60   Ev 54 Back

61   Qq 61 [Matt Waldman], 118 [Gilles Dorronsoro] Back

62   Q 20  Back

63   Q 34 Back

64   Ev 49 Back

65   Ev w8  Back

66   Ev 57 Back

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