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

9  Overarching issues of concern

Who's driving British policy on Afghanistan?

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 together.[348] However, 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] mission—the lessons of which the UK seems to have forgotten.[349]

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in the summer of 2007 when the then Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, said that if battlegroups being withdrawn from Iraq were not used in Afghanistan, they would be lost in a future defence review.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".[350] Sir Richard disputes this version of events.[351]

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 achievable either".[352] 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."[353]

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[354] 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".[355] Sir Sherard recounted one specific incident in which a Minister felt unable to question a military decision because of a lack of technical knowledge.[356]

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 loyal—to their institutions and countries—military 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.[357]

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.[358] 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 UK—with 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 basis—provides the correct balance in making decisions.[359]

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".[360]

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 appropriate vigour.

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."[361] 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".[362] 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".[363]

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 optimistic".[364] He added, "I'm not in any way blaming the military—you couldn't have a serious military unless they were incurably optimistic—but I saw in my three and a half years papers that went to Ministers that were misleadingly optimistic".[365] 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."[366] 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 it right."[367]

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".[368] 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 [...]".[369] 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 "quite astronomical".[370] 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.

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 propaganda machine.[371] 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".[372]

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".[373]

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.[374] 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.[375] 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."[376]

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.[377] 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".[378]

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.[379] 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.[380] 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 possible".[381]

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.[382] 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."[383]

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

349   Ev 50 Back

350   Ev 85 Back

351   "Today Programme", BBC Radio 4, 20 January 2011 Back

352   Matt Cavanagh, "Inside the Anglo-Saxon War machine", Prospect, December 2010  Back

353   Ev 85 Back

354   Q 99 Back

355   Ibid.  Back

356   Ev 85-86 Back

357   Q 91 Back

358   Ev 4 Back

359   Q 132 Back

360   Q 89 Back

361   Q 31; Ev 51 Back

362   Ev 16  Back

363   Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 15 December 2010, HC 554-v, Q 314. Back

364   Ev 85 Back

365   Q 99 Back

366   Q 132 Back

367   IbidBack

368   Q 54 Back

369   Q 30 Back

370   Daily Telegraph, 7 December 2010 Back

371   "Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?", Crisis Group, Asia Report No158, 24 July 2008 Back

372   Ev 53 Back

373   Ev 58 Back

374   Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan, para 250 Back

375   Cm 7702, October 2009 Back

376   Q 167 Back

377   Ray Furlong, "Knowledge of Afghanistan 'astonishingly thin'", BBC Radio 4, Broadcasting House Programme, 31 July 2010 Back

378   Ev 87 Back

379   Ev 53 Back

380   Ev 58 Back

381   IbidBack

382   Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan, paras 251-252 Back

383   Q 167 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 2 March 2011