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

8  Communicating the case effectively?

Communicating the campaign in Afghanistan


202. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the international justification for Western intervention in Afghanistan was clear: it was in the interests of international security to remove the Taliban regime because of the sanctuary it provided to al-Qaeda. However, as the Government acknowledges, in the interim period, "unity of message has been more difficult. ISAF nations have had differing experiences [and] confusion grew about whether the international community's efforts were aimed at tackling international terrorism, countering insurgency, humanitarian relief or promoting democracy".[333] Over the same period, the Taliban has shown itself to be adept at using a full range of media successfully to tap into strains of Afghan nationalism and has cleverly exploited policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. The result is weakening Afghan public support for the international effort, even though few actively support the Taliban.[334]

203. The Government argues that coherence of communications improved in mid-2009 when ISAF nations publicly endorsed the new population-centric counter-insurgency strategy drawn up by the then Commander of ISAF, General Stanley McChrystal. His replacement, General David Petraeus, has publicly asserted his commitment to the counter-insurgency strategy albeit with some tactical adjustments, which we discussed above in paragraph 27. The Government adds that international community messages are now broadly consistent, focusing on the importance of building the Afghan National Security Forces, combating corruption and improving governance in Afghanistan to enable the Afghan government to take the lead on security throughout the country and so that ISAF combat troops can begin to drawdown towards 2015.[335]

204. However, witnesses were not convinced that ISAF's message is resonating with ordinary Afghans. Michael Semple stated that "we have a fundamental problem in the narrative of what all these countries are doing in Afghanistan".[336] Matt Waldman stated that "we have to accept that international forces inside Afghanistan are part of the problem. There is no doubt that their presence is energising the insurgency".[337] He added that there had been a "colossal failure by the international coalition to empathise with ordinary Afghans and act accordingly".[338] According to a report by the Open Society Foundation, it is only recently that Western policymakers have begun to accept that civilian casualties, detention operations, and other activities that harm Afghan communities have engendered distrust and anger, undermining overall success in Afghanistan. Worryingly, the report states that policies to reduce civilian casualties, improve detention conditions and increase strategic communications in an attempt to win Afghan 'hearts and minds' amount to "too little, too late". It also states that by dismissing Afghan views of the international community as pro-Taliban propaganda, policymakers "have often failed to understand how much these negative perceptions may be distorting their policies and efforts." It concludes:

    The international community needs the trust and co-operation of Afghan communities for many of its crucial policies to succeed, including counterinsurgency initiatives, strengthening governance and rule of law, and reconciliation and reintegration. Past civilian casualties, night raids, and detention operations have not only deeply angered Afghans; they have negatively shaped the way Afghans view foreigners, and have the potential to stymie the success of both short and long term policy initiatives on Afghanistan.[339]

205. 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.


206. The UK has also been criticised for its approach to communications with Afghans. In its written evidence, the Henry Jackson Society states that the UK must "greatly improve the quality and coherence of its public messaging efforts" and concluded that it "is one of the most serious failures of Afghanistan that in many respects the United Kingdom and its allies are losing the war of information with the Taliban". It continued:

    In spite of the fact that the Taliban are responsible for more than three-quarters of civilian casualties; in spite of the fact that their interpretation of Sharia law allows for the stoning of women, the murder of homosexuals and the slicing off of limbs for even the most minor offence; and in spite of the fact that genuine improvements in security and development are taking place across central Helmand, nonetheless the UK and its allies are too easily painted as the aggressors and the culprits, who are failing to bring anything positive to Afghanistan.[340]

Dr Gohel also expressed his concern that the Taliban have propagated a "well-rehearsed narrative on the notion that the British army is in Afghanistan to seek revenge for 19th century defeats". He stated that "there is no effective counter-narrative to dispel the myths and half-truths aimed at undermining the British presence. If there is no policy for a strategic communication approach then Afghans will only be hearing one perspective and that is from the Taliban".[341]

207. Giving evidence to us, the Foreign Secretary conceded that strategic communications has been "a weak area" and that the UK "ought to be able to do better over the coming months and years in the strategic communication of what our objectives are, how we are achieving them and how the nations of ISAF—and indeed the Afghan government—are working together".[342] The Foreign Secretary told us that it was being addressed in the National Security Council and that he had recently raised it with the NATO Secretary-General as something that requires better international co-ordination.[343]

208. 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.

Communicating the campaign to British audiences


209. Within the UK, the Government's primary communications objective is to improve public understanding of, and support for, the campaign in Afghanistan.[344] As noted above, between 2002 and 2008 the Government provided a series of reasons for the UK's presence in Afghanistan. In 2009, partly in a bid to stem dwindling public support for the war effort, and also to ensure consistency with the US's approach, the previous Government opted to return to a single "narrative". Official statements focused heavily on the link between a "crucible of terrorism" in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area and terrorist threats and attacks on British soil. The Government's argument was that al-Qaeda would return to Afghanistan if international forces were not present or if the Afghan state was weak.

210. As we discussed above in Chapter 7, the current Government's strategy is similarly based on the view that a British presence is necessary to ensure British national security by ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for terrorists who attack the UK. It may be more accurate to say that if Western forces left prematurely the immediate threat would be one of civil war. As we also noted above at paragraph 181, the threat, in the form of al-Qaeda and international terrorism, can be said more properly to emanate from Pakistan. In reality, there is a strong argument to be made that Afghanistan, and the Taliban insurgency, does not currently, in itself represent an immediate security threat to the UK. This would suggest that in public messaging terms, there has been an inappropriate conflation of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Matt Cavanagh states: "The decision to sharpen the message by shifting the emphasis from nation-building to preventing the return of al-Qaeda [raised] as many questions as it answered". He asks, "Couldn't we achieve that in a different way with fewer troops and casualties, and less money? Indeed, if it's all about al-Qaeda, why are we in Afghanistan at all, rather than Pakistan, or even Somalia and Yemen?"[345]

211. Michael Semple told us: "I had naively thought early on that we were supposed to be about promoting peace in Afghanistan after an excessively long war. Even after listening to all the attempts to sum up national security interest in terms of the hunt for al-Qaeda, I think that the pursuit of peace in Afghanistan best sums up the common interest between countries such as the UK, the US, Afghanistan and even Pakistan". He added, "The issues of taking care of the terrorist threat can be nicely parked inside the overall agenda of peace. When you say that your primary business is promoting peace—with a robust element to it as well—you do not have to be frightened of showing weakness by being prepared to come to accommodation, because accommodation is fundamental to the pursuit of peace".[346]

212. 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.

Parliamentary engagement on current and future plans

213. As part of its strategy to keep the public informed, the Government has made particular efforts to engage with Parliament by providing quarterly oral reports and monthly updates to the two Houses which it hoped would provide an opportunity for parliamentarians to "help assess progress in Afghanistan, providing a regular and transparent method of judging the success of UK policy".[347] However, one significant development in Government policy, the possibility that British combat troops could begin to be withdrawn as early as 2011, was announced by the Prime Minister in media interviews rather than in Parliament. As we discussed previously, there is, as yet, apparently little clarity on what roles UK forces will play in the post-2015 period and what shape British engagement will take. Giving evidence to the Defence Select Committee, the Secretary of State for Defence said that it was not possible to decide upon this at the moment as it would depend upon the situation and conditions at the time. We note that the Prime Minister referred in media interviews last year to the possibility that troops could start to be drawn down as early as this year. Such decisions have the potential to have a marked impact on British troops, the UK effort more generally, ISAF's campaign and the UK's relations with key allies including the US. Along with planning for the post-2015 period, we consider this to be a crucial issue and conclude that it is vital that Parliament is kept fully informed of any developments relating to the drawdown or re-shaping of the UK effort in Afghanistan in a timely manner.

214. 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.

333   Ev 22 Back

334   "Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?", Crisis Group, Asia Report No158, 24 July 2008; See also "Why the Taliban Is Winning the Propaganda War", Time, 3 May 2009; "U.S. struggles to counter Taliban propaganda", Washington Post, 1 October 2010. Back

335   Ev 23 Back

336   Q 20 Back

337   Q 41 Back

338   Ev 52 Back

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

340   Ev w7 Back

341   Ev 59 Back

342   Q 163 Back

343   IbidBack

344   Ev 23 Back

345   Matt Cavanagh, "Inside the Anglo-Saxon War Machine", Prospect, December 2010 Back

346   Q 20 Back

347   Ev 3 Back

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