9 Overarching issues of concern|
Who's driving British policy
215. According to the "comprehensive approach"
adopted by Britain in Afghanistan, military and civilian agencies
are supposed to work closely together in pursuit of the same strategic
goal. This approach is also meant to ensure that all the relevant
parties address security, stabilisation, governance and development
James Fergusson told us that "the effectiveness of the FCO
on the ground in Afghanistan has been much debated, particularly
within the Army" and that civilian-military co-operation
in Helmand, particularly, has often been fraught. He added:
Since 2006, Britain's engagement in Afghanistan
has been dominated by military rather than civilian thinking.
This is the opposite of what happened in Malaya, Britain's last
successful foreign [counter-insurgency] missionthe lessons
of which the UK seems to have forgotten.
216. In Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles's view, the war
in Afghanistan gave the British Army a raison d'être
it has lacked for many years, new resources on an unprecedented
scale and a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the US following
criticisms about the army's performance in Basra, Iraq. Sir Sherard
recounted an incident in the summer of 2007 when the then Chief
of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, said that if battlegroups
being withdrawn from Iraq were not used in Afghanistan, they would
be lost in a future defence review. He quoted Sir Richard as stating,
"It's use them, or lose them".
Sir Richard disputes this version of events.
217. In Sir Sherard's opinion, "the army's 'strategy'
in Helmand was driven at least as much by the level of resources
available to the British Army as by an objective assessment of
the needs of a proper counter-insurgency campaign in the province".
Matt Cavanagh, a Special Adviser to Gordon Brown when he was Prime
Minister, states that by the summer of 2009, although some senior
military figures had realised that things were not going to plan,
their reaction was to press for greater resources and urgency.
Defeat was said to be unthinkable, "even if the more thoughtful
and intellectually honest of them weren't sure if victory was
Sir Sherard argued that this "supply-side policy" had
a knock on effect on the campaign in Helmand with new Brigades
"re-inventing the wheel" every six months. He added,
"each brigadier would say that he understood the "comprehensive
approach", and planned to work with DFID and the FCO, as
well as with the Afghan authorities. But each brigadier would
launch one kinetic operation, before returning with his brigade
to Britain after the best six months of his professional life.
And then the whole cycle would start again."
218. Sir Sherard told us that in his experience Ministers
and officials often did not have the confidence or knowledge to
question some of the very optimistic advice they were receiving
from the military
and also because they were fearful of leaks to the press suggesting
that they were not sufficiently supportive of troops. He added
that officials and Ministers who questioned them "were accused
of being defeatist or disloyal in some way".
Sir Sherard recounted one specific incident in which a Minister
felt unable to question a military decision because of a lack
of technical knowledge.
219. On 21 January 2011, Rear Admiral Chris Parry,
former Director-General, Development, Concepts and Doctrine, at
the Ministry of Defence, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:
"I think the army a few years ago saw that the future would
be slewed in their favour as a result of the experience in Iraq
and Afghanistan." He went on:
I think politicians trusted their military experts.
What you have to ask yourself, I think, is the motives behind
certain military officers giving that advice. [...] It's the size
and shape of the armed forces, their recruiting rate, their equipment
and their conditions of service which matter, and we have to remember
that some of the people giving advice to politicians have other
agendas and other pressures on them that don't always lead to
a complete, shall we say, strategic assessment. [...] I think
there was a general feeling and a mood in the Ministry of Defence
that the Army's moment had come and that the future should be
cast in their image.
220. Sir Sherard also said:
We have got, on both sides of the Atlantic, extremely
capable and enthusiastic, unquenchably optimistic and fiercely
loyalto their institutions and countriesmilitary
machines, which have naturally adopted a can-do attitude and driven
forward. This has distorted the understanding of the problem,
because the real problem is much deeper.
221. Following the General Election in May 2010,
the institutional arrangements within Whitehall for dealing with
Afghanistan changed with the creation of the National Security
Council (NSC). Under the new NSC structures, Afghanistan is discussed
every fortnight and Pakistan frequently.
The Government states that the NSC provides an effective mechanism
to bring together strategic decisions about foreign affairs, security,
defence and development and to align national objectives in these
areas. It also states that it does not replace decision-making
in departments but ensures that these decisions are aligned where
appropriate and that they support clear national objectives. The
secretariat which supports the NSC and co-ordinates its work is
based in the Cabinet Office. The Government departments with key
security-related functions are all represented on the NSC. Member
departments include: FCO, Treasury, Home Office, MOD, Department
of Energy and Climate Change, DFID, and the Cabinet Office.
222. We asked the Foreign Secretary whether he agreed
that the military had previously driven the strategy in Afghanistan,
rather than Ministers. He told us:
You may need to direct that to members of the
previous Government [...] rather than the current Government.
It is very important on an issue such as this that military and
political leaders work well together and that political decisions
are well informed by military assessments, otherwise, of course,
politicians may make rash decisions without sufficient military
awareness. I certainly think that the way we now conduct our National
Security Council in the UKwith the Chief of the Defence
Staff, senior Ministers and the heads of the intelligence agencies
sitting together on this and other subjects on a very regular
basisprovides the correct balance in making decisions.
223. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles told us that because
the problem in Afghanistan is fundamentally a political and regional
one, it is vital that politicians take charge of the project,
"as I believe the new coalition Government is doing".
224. 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
The need for realistic goals
and honest assessments of progress
225. One overarching theme that has emerged in the
course of our inquiry is the extent to which the international
community and to an extent, the British Government, continue to
paint an optimistic picture of progress in Afghanistan when so
many other non-official assessments from a variety of authoritative
sources see the situation quite differently. Witnesses too, pointed
to an apparent disconnect between official assessments of progress
and the situation on the ground. As Matt Waldman stated, there
needs to be more honesty about "the fact that we are not
winning, and that events are not going in our favour. I've been
going to ISAF for four years, and every year I have heard the
same refrain, which is that we are degrading the enemy, they are
really feeling the heat, and we are turning the corner. However,
if you look at the facts on the ground, and if you talk to ordinary
Afghans, you get a very different picture."
Mr Leslie suggested it was important to "cut to the chase
and be honest about what we have achieved, even if it is very
partial. To some extent, we should fall on our collective mandates,
pens or whatever and be honest that progress is very limited,
and have a no-nonsense approach as to how to get out of it".
Giving evidence to the Defence Committee, the Secretary of State
for Defence acknowledged that "we have tended to be over-optimistic
and have over-assessed, for the best motives, how we see things".
226. We discussed the issue of optimistic assessments
of progress, particularly from military sources, with Sir Sherard
Cowper-Coles who was of the view that "almost by definition,
good soldiers are irrepressibly enthusiastic", and "unquenchably
He added, "I'm not in any way blaming the militaryyou
couldn't have a serious military unless they were incurably optimisticbut
I saw in my three and a half years papers that went to Ministers
that were misleadingly optimistic".
The Foreign Secretary concurred when he told us that "over-optimistic
assessments have sometimes been made, and the current Government
are trying to avoid that."
He added, "We will not encourage false optimism, but we will
not be blind to good news, either. There are often more successes
to talk about than feature daily in our media. Being realistic
in our assessments is important, and hopefully we are getting
227. In spite of these assurances, both the tone
and substance of the Government's written evidence was criticised
by several witnesses. For instance, Jolyon Leslie declared that
he was "dismayed" at the Government's "mixture
of triumphalism and delusion".
He stated: "[T]he whole Helmand issue is a case in point,
in the sense that we have presented a very difficult campaign
in rather triumphalist terms, consistently for months if not for
years. When the going gets tough, we are not honest enough about
whom to blame it on [...]".
In this context, we were particularly struck by the comment from
the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards in
December last year when he described the progress being made as
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
Practical constraints on UK action
228. Some of the written evidence we received contested
that problems with the British effort in Afghanistan may be partly
due to the fact that British non-military personnel, including
diplomats and officials, do not have sufficient access to the
wider Afghan community to counter the Taliban's highly effective
In his written evidence, Matt Waldman stated that it is difficult
for diplomats to build trust with, and influence, key partners
under current conditions when "most live in heavily fortified
compounds with little access to the field, and have minimal contact
with Afghans". He noted that, "given these constraints,
civilian achievements are impressive" but argues that "a
highly challenging counter-insurgency campaign, which by definition
requires non-military efforts which match those on the battlefield,
will not be won by fluctuating personnel who are detached from
the population and excessively shielded from risk".
229. Gerard Russell stated that because the UK cannot
rely on national structures to deliver development or political
goals, knowledge of the language, history, politics and culture
of a country are essential. In the case of Afghanistan, this "makes
Dari and Pashto language skills, and the ability to move around
the country, particularly important".
230. Our predecessor Committee concluded in its report
of August 2009 that the "ability to engage with Afghans in
key local languages is crucial to the UK's effort in Afghanistan".
It raised concerns that nearly eight years after intervening in
Afghanistan, the FCO had no Pashto speakers.
In its response to the Report, the previous Government stated
that language training requirements were kept under review and
that for many jobs which required little or no contact with external
Afghan stakeholders, no language skills are necessary. It added
that it employed locally-recruited Afghan staff in many positions
that require local language skills and that where the FCO needed
to engage in Helmand Province at high levels, it uses one of its
10 qualified Pashto interpreters to ensure that both sides understood
the issues being discussed.
Giving oral evidence to us, the Foreign Secretary said, "In
an ideal world everybody would be able to speak the local language.
That would have required being able to prepare hundreds of diplomats
long in advance for this."
231. In mid-July 2010, one report suggested that
just six UK diplomats have been trained in Pashto, and of the
roughly 160 diplomats at the Embassy, only three speak Pashto
or Dari fluently.
We asked the FCO to clarify the position and were told that there
are "two Dari speaker slots filled in Kabul. There is
another officer based in Southern Afghanistan who speaks both
Dari and Pashto. Six members of FCO staff have completed language
training in the last five years, of which three completed language
training to extensive or operational level. 23 staff who have
completed language training in Dari or Farsi have been posted
to Afghanistan (19 Dari students and 4 Farsi students). Dari and
Farsi are two forms of the Persian language and officers conversant
in one form of Persian can easily adapt to the other". The
FCO added, "As the Foreign Secretary made clear during the
recent evidence session, improving language skills is a high priority
for the FCO. The Afghan languages are among the key languages
that we will [be] investing in further over the forthcoming CSR
period to increase our capacity from the current base".
232. The other issue of concern that was raised with
us was the relatively short length of postings and the difficulty
in attracting more experienced staff to postings in Afghanistan.
We also note with concern that in 2010, no member of staff in
the UK Foreign Office Afghan team in London, directing Afghan
policy had actually served in a posting in Afghanistan. Tours
are generally for one year, rarely more than two, with rest breaks
taking place for two weeks in every eight, not including holidays.
Commanders of British Forces in Helmand province have rotated
every six months, and civilian staff at the PRT likewise can move
on after six months.
Gerard Russell argued that "because consistent strategy and
building relationships of trust is so important, personnel should
be encouraged to stay involved with Afghanistan for as long as
233. Concerns about the length of posting were also
raised by our predecessor Committee in their Report into Afghanistan
and Pakistan, published in August 2009.
The Government's response to that Report stated that the length
of postings is influenced by specific security threats, the limitations
and stress of working and living on a compound, and the restrictions
of travelling out of the compound and in-country. It added that
extensions beyond 24 months are rare because of health reasons
and are only granted if there are compelling operational reasons.
The FCO did not believe it would be right to move away from the
current volunteer-only deployments with a limit on the time spent
in country and regular decompression breaks. It added that it
would review these arrangements when there are significant and
lasting changes to the security situation. Giving oral evidence
to us during this inquiry, the Foreign Secretary stated, "Of
course, these are difficult postings, where people usually serve
for a year in Kabul with the option of another year, or six months,
in Lashkar Gah, with the option of another six months. They are
difficult, hardship postings, so it is necessary to turn over
the personnel pretty regularly. Does that have the disadvantage
that new people have to learn local culture and get to know the
locals leaders well? It does, but I think that you can see that
that is the only practical way in which we can do this."
234. 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.
348 Ev 15 Back
Ev 50 Back
Ev 85 Back
"Today Programme", BBC Radio 4, 20 January 2011 Back
Matt Cavanagh, "Inside the Anglo-Saxon War machine",
Prospect, December 2010 Back
Ev 85 Back
Q 99 Back
Ev 85-86 Back
Q 91 Back
Ev 4 Back
Q 132 Back
Q 89 Back
Q 31; Ev 51 Back
Ev 16 Back
Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 15 December
2010, HC 554-v, Q 314. Back
Ev 85 Back
Q 99 Back
Q 132 Back
Q 54 Back
Q 30 Back
Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2010 Back
"Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?", Crisis
Group, Asia Report No158, 24 July 2008 Back
Ev 53 Back
Ev 58 Back
Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: Afghanistan and
Pakistan, para 250 Back
Cm 7702, October 2009 Back
Q 167 Back
Ray Furlong, "Knowledge of Afghanistan 'astonishingly thin'",
BBC Radio 4, Broadcasting House Programme, 31 July 2010 Back
Ev 87 Back
Ev 53 Back
Ev 58 Back
Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: Afghanistan and
Pakistan, paras 251-252 Back
Q 167 Back