Operations in Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 669-705)

  Q669 Chair: Gentlemen, good morning. Thank you very much indeed for coming to give evidence in this session on Afghanistan. There are two purposes to this evidence session: first, to look at what happened in 2006, at the way in which and structure with which we went into Helmand, and at what happened subsequently; and, secondly, to look at the current situation in Afghanistan. I should like to get on to the current situation in Afghanistan at 11.20 am in order to finish the sitting by noon, if that is acceptable to the Committee and our witnesses. That will explain why I might try to rush things through, in a sense, to get to those timings.

  CDS, would you be kind enough to introduce your team? At some stage, we will also need you all to go through the positions you occupied in 2006?

  General Sir David Richards: Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be here doing our constitutional duty. We are grateful for the Committee's work on behalf of defence generally, so it is genuinely good to be here. We have agreed that all we are going to do today is to make sure that we tell you the truth so that you can do your work properly. For the record, my team is General Sir Nick Houghton, who is Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, and General Sir Peter Wall, who is the Chief of the General Staff. Would it help if we said now what we did in 2006?

  Chair: I think it would.

  General Sir David Richards: I was a NATO officer in that period. Just to remind you, I was commander of the ARRC. In November 2004, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that HQ ARRC would take responsibility for exercising command and control over NATO's agreed expansion into the South and East. I went to COMARRC in January 2005, and I was in that capacity throughout the 2006-07 period that you are looking at.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: At the beginning of 2006, I was in Iraq as the Senior British Military Representative. I did that job from early October 2005 to late March 2006. It is probably pertinent that prior to that I was the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations) in the Ministry of Defence. I was, therefore, the two-star deputy of General Sir Rob Fry, who has given evidence to the Committee. I was therefore aware of some of the material related to the genesis of the commitment in 2006, but for the last three months of 2005 and the first three months of 2006, I was in Iraq. I came back from that in mid-March 2006, spun round, and by the end of March—literally the last couple of days—I assumed the appointment of Chief of Joint Operations at Northwood. I was Chief of Joint Operations for the subsequent three years—from 2006 to 2009—prior to taking on my current appointment. At that time, therefore, I was very closely involved with the early days of the deployment in Helmand.

  General Sir Peter Wall: In February 2005, when I had the rank of Major-General, I assumed the job in the Permanent Joint Headquarters of Deputy Chief of Joint Operations. I was responsible for the day-to-day running of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else we had to go. I did that job for almost exactly two years, until February 2007. In the context of the questions I think you are going to ask us today, that means that I was directly involved in all the planning for the deployment to Afghanistan after the key strategic decisions has been taken. I was also responsible for the oversight from the Northwood end of operations in Helmand through 2006.

  Q670 Chair: Thank you. I think you may all have had an opportunity to see on the Committee's website the evidence given by previous witnesses, including Lord Reid and General Fry. If, from your perspective, there is anything in that evidence that you wish to correct, please take the opportunity this morning to do so.

  The first question is this: do you think it was wise to push for the deployment to Helmand in 2006? What was your own role in that deployment and the decision to go into Helmand?

  General Sir David Richards: Remembering that by then I was in my NATO role—General Houghton and General Wall probably have more explicit knowledge of what happened in this country—the decision to go into Helmand was on the back of a much bigger and more important decision for NATO to go into the South and East. Britain had been absolutely supportive of that decision in principle, which, for what it's worth, I thought at the time was right, because the campaign needed gingering up.

  Someone had to decide which province would be taken by each of the four lead nations in the decision to go into the South—the Canadians, the British, the Dutch and, to a degree, the Romanians, with American support. That process led to the UK going into Helmand. Someone had to do Helmand, and we were the most capable of the four nations. I personally thought that there was a stronger case for going into Kandahar, but we ended up in Helmand for reasons that I suspect Nick and Peter know more about than I do.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: In a certain respect, the question has three parts: was it right to go; was it right to go to Helmand; and was it right to go then?

  On the question of whether it was right to go to Southern Afghanistan at all, that was, in many respects, a strategic and political level decision, the genesis of which was within the UNSCR and a discussion at the political level in NATO to galvanise the nature of both the international community and NATO, on the international community's behalf, to bring about strategic change within Afghanistan—in terms of it being an unsafe place that was host to international terrorism and for which the delivery of good government and governance was essential. In terms of going, the genesis of that, from an international political level, was right.

  On Helmand—Peter will have some views about this as well—it was inevitable that the United Kingdom, as a leading player within NATO, had to play a leading part in what was assessed to be, as it were, the most challenging part of the country. Therefore, it needed to be somewhere in the South. Within the context of the various decision making during 2005, it was quite clear that the Canadians were very keen to take on Kandahar. Helmand was the next most appropriate place to go. Helmand, by dint of the political deal that attended who did what in the South, as it were, was the right place.

  Was it the right time? That is the only thing over which I might hesitate because, in terms of strategic decision making relating to committing at that time, some of it—certainly from my knowledge in 2005—was based on a realistic but subsequently optimistic view of what our level of commitment in Iraq would be by then. In actual fact, the level of reduction in commitment to Iraq that had been forecast and hoped for in 2005 had not actually materialised in early 2006, but I sense that there was an irreversibility, given the political and international level of the decision, and it was at no detriment to the selection of the most robust force package.

  General Sir Peter Wall: Going to the business of "was it right", I am not sure that we are best placed to judge here. Certainly from where I sat, what I detected from February 2005—at which point the UK presence in Afghanistan was in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, pretty benign environments—was a very strong sense of a burgeoning prospect of insecurity in the South that needed to be nipped in the bud. All I detected in PJHQ was very strong momentum coming out of London for us to get engaged in this in a very constructive way. There was no sense of any tentative commitment here. After all, the ARRC headquarters under David had been identified as the sort of level of commitment that was going to be needed to galvanise a result within the tolerances of the Americans, who were going to cede their Operation Enduring Freedom presence in the South and the East to NATO command. That level of competence was in demand, which of course implied a national commitment. Down at the regional level, where there was a pretty light presence prior to our planning for this, the onus was put on us to try to work with the other nations that were going to be part of this quadrilateral combo down south to start putting together the concept of operations, and a lot of that was done in PJHQ.

  As for why Helmand, the Canadians were very clear that their ambition was to play a dominant role in this, and it would not be putting words in their mouth to say that they pitched their ambition to be a key player in Kandahar, because of its locus vis-à-vis Kabul, and because of its importance in the region. Helmand was the next place that you looked at in this mosaic, and it was of course consistent with the fact that the UK, through the Foreign Office at the time, had the G8 lead for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, and Helmand was a significant element of that issue. A number of factors led to Helmand being the place where we ended up planning on going.

  Q671 Mr Hancock: When these decisions were being made about going into Helmand, what was the perception of what you expected to find when you got there, and who was giving you that view?

  General Sir Peter Wall: We put in an awful lot of effort through the middle of 2005 to try to understand what was going on there in light of the existing Operation Enduring Freedom presence. In the case of Helmand, that was a Provincial Reconstruction Team with a small protection force that was very much involved in dispensing reasonably large sums of money to a relatively quiescent population. It came on the back of the previous US AID and American enthusiasm that had led to the development of Helmand in the 1950s as an agricultural area with the Kajaki dam, the Helmand river valley and so on—it was all a sort of extrapolation of that. As well as that, they had done some military operations. They had a couple of battle groups in the South, a couple of Task Forces and quite a lot of helicopters that used to make occasional forays into parts of Helmand and Kandahar. We spent a lot of our time trying to anticipate what sort of force we would need to propagate governance from the centre of Helmand and the most populated areas, eventually with a view to delivering wider security. That was the key question in our minds through 2005.

  Q672 Mr Havard: I wanted to ask about the whole business of intelligence. In large parts—in the Helmand part of the south—the Americans had about 100 people wandering around that huge geographical area. As you say, the assessment seemed to be that it was a fairly benign area. I remember visiting 16 Air Assault Brigade before it deployed, and discussing with those people what they thought they were about to encounter. A couple of weeks later I discussed with them in theatre what they had actually experienced, and quite clearly, their intelligence had exponentially increased because they had come up against tribes and so on. We did not seem to have any graded intelligence of any quality about what that brigade was about to encounter. Was there a failure in terms of the intelligence?

  General Sir Peter Wall: I absolutely accept that what we found when we had forces on the ground was starkly different from what we had anticipated and hoped for. To be fair, we had discussed with Ed Butler, who was initially going to mount his force out of Kandahar, that there might be situations in which the troops would have to fight their way, certainly down Highway 1 to Lashkar Gah. The idea that they would saunter into Lashkar Gah, set up camp and get on with good deeds was not what we anticipated. We were ready for an adverse reaction, but to be fair we did not expect it to be as vehement as it turned out to be.

   We did a number of things over the preceding six months to try and anticipate the intelligence situation. We set up a preliminary operations team under the then Colonel Messenger, which was a cross-governmental team to make a plan called the Helmand Road Map—we did not at the time plan to build many roads, but we're getting on with that now. It was euphemistically a plan to meld the security operation with all the development activity, building on the experiences of the cross-Government effort in Iraq which—it is no secret—was not that finely tuned. It was an opportunity to take the lessons of Iraq and get things right in cross-governmental terms.

  One of the other things that had not gone terribly well in Iraq if we are honest, was our understanding of the situation and our ability to garner the fullest intelligence picture down to tribal level. That was absolutely on the tip of our tongues throughout the whole period. We were not about to emulate the inadequacies of our Iraq efforts, and as far as we were concerned we were stretching every sinew to get the picture as clear as possible. We were understudying our US predecessors, and UK intelligence agencies were actively engaged, including with their American counterparts. There was wide consultation with academics. We even had an ex-mujaheddin guy on our staff in PJHQ; he had fought there in his university gap years. We had a red team in our intelligence cell, under Brigadier Newton—now General Newton—who has a bit of history of shedding light on what might happen in these situations. I cannot complain about the quality of people that we had working for us at PJHQ. We were working really hard, with 16th Brigade and everybody else, to try to get the best assessment of what might meet us when we hit the ground.

  General Sir David Richards: If I may just add, I was doing parallel work in the ARRC, and I remember a number of meetings with Lord Reid. It is not my job to defend politicians and their statements, but because we were not certain—and there was, in some respects, a failure of intelligence, despite the efforts to get it right—he gave the taskforce Apache helicopters, artillery, and all of that sort of thing, because we had to be prepared for the unexpected. I think that the nub of the problem is that we could not know enough about the northern parts of Helmand until we got there. There was just no way one could do it because it was basically enemy territory. It was only in the Lashkar Gah area that there was a good picture building up, which was pretty positive and benign. The crux of the problem was when we went into the North and arguably turned up a hornets' nest, but no one could know that until they did it. Although there will always be lapses in intelligence—it's a nirvana to think that you're going to know everything that you would wish to know about your enemy—the processes were in place to deliver the best we could.

  As is historically the case, it is not until you get on the ground and start braving out, and really get to know what is what, that your intelligence picture will start to develop much more rapidly. That is historically the case in every conflict, and I have to say that, despite all of our high-techery, it will continue to be so.

  General Sir Peter Wall: If I might add, in my list of things that we did I was not, in any way, trying to pretend that this wasn't a failure of intelligence. It clearly was. Reinforcing CDS's point, we had always anticipated Taliban potential intent; what we probably underestimated was their capacity.

  Q673 Mr Havard: I would like to hear what General Houghton has to say. You occupied a particular position at this time, and perhaps you could address the question of whether or not there was the possibility of delay as a consequence of knowledge?

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: I wouldn't have said it was delay because of knowledge. My point on that was whether or not, if you'd been able to wind back the strategic clock on decision making, there would have been an ability to de-conflict more the resource demands of two separate operations.

  Q674 Mr Havard: I'm sorry; de-conflict two different operations?

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: Our commitment to Iraq stayed at a higher level for longer than was anticipated in the original genesis of the planning.

  Chair: We will come on to that later.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: I wanted to add a couple of things to the business of whether this was a failure of intelligence. To an extent, as Peter and CDS say, it is. Intelligence is not a perfect science. Some people think that if you apply your intelligence to the intelligence then the future can be defined with certainty; that is not at all the case. Reflecting on it, however, I think that there were a number of incipient factors that emerged in those early months that better explain why the hornets' nest was as it was.

  The first, I would say, is the attendant factor of poppy eradication at the time of deployment. There was, therefore, in the minds of some local Helmandis and within the narrative of the Taliban, the idea that these arriving forces are coming here to eradicate their poppy and take their living away. That worked against us, in terms of strategic narrative. It was agonised over the summer, and in subsequent poppy eradication campaigns. Linked to that, as we've found in retrospect, is that this is the natural start of the fighting season, if a fight is to be had. Something like 200,000 casual labourers migrate north from Pakistan to conduct the poppy harvest in Helmand alone. They are very happy to stay on as guns for hire if there is a local tribal fight in which they can earn some money. We only need 2% or 3% to stay on and we have 4,000 fighters fighting a cause. In many ways, the poppy eradication gave them a cause.

  The third thing is that as part of the preparation for our arrival, the Americans in CJTF 76 were conducting a series of kinetic operations that culminated in Operation Mountain Thrust, which in many ways was part of their desire to create an easy entry for us. Because it was a particularly kinetic operation and there was much to-ing and fro-ing about the degree to which we could moderate this on a nation-to-nation basis, it is possible that it also acted to whip up the environment.

  The fourth and last point is that—for reasons not to do with the Ministry of Defence; I think it was FCO-led or whatever—decisions were made about what the nature of the governance and in particular the governor in Helmand should be. A character that will be known to many of you—SMA or Sher Mohammed Akhundzada—was removed as Governor and a new Governor called Daoud was put in. The net effect of this—I think it was not thought through, but I am not an expert on this—was completely to destabilise the tribal balance and the balance of power within Northern Helmand.

  I am just making the point that, yes, lots of the rigorous intelligence that Peter describes was carried out. That led to a fairly robust force package that was able to deal with the hostile environment. If you put together the narcotics, the Taliban narrative, the fighting season, the American kinetic operations that were a prelude and accompaniment to our deployment and then this upsetting of the tribal balance, you have a more comprehensive explanation of why the situation on the ground was not that which intelligence had forecast.

  Chair: That was a fascinating answer: although long, it was not one that I have heard before. I am grateful to you for that. We have to move on quite rapidly.

  Q675 Ms Stuart: Did the appointment of Hugh Powell at that time into Helmand affect things as well?

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: No, Hugh wasn't there at that time. Hugh was part of a change in C2 12 months later.

  Q676 Mrs Moon: I'd like to talk about mission change. You have seen the evidence that we received from Brigadier Butler, in which he says that he didn't take the decision alone. Will you explain how the decision was made, who was involved and why the decision was made then? Why at that point?

  General Sir David Richards: I can start. I was not responsible at the time for the South; I took over on 31 July, but I was monitoring what was happening, and discussed it with General Eikenberry, who in theory had responsibility for what was happening at that time within Helmand, Kandahar and the rest of the South. I took over from him at the end of July.

  I don't think it is fair to describe it as a change of mission. It was a change of tactics. Although I know it is on public record in a number of books on the subject, I personally was opposed to what became known as the platoon house concept. I was very forgiving of Brigadier Butler's need to respond to some very strong political pressure, largely from Governor Daoud. However, it was to a degree instigated—this is all quite natural, by the way—by President Karzai, who felt that at the very moment that NATO was on the brink of taking over responsibility that things were beginning to slip away from him on the back of a resurgent Taliban in a number of places that included Northern Helmand.

  The British—who, from my perspective, were just another nation that had responsibility or were going to have responsibility—came under a lot of pressure to respond to the essentially political requirement of President Karzai's to be seen to be doing more about what was happening north of Helmand. However, it absolutely ties in with General Houghton's point that, on the back of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada's replacement by Daoud, there were a lot of internal political pressures in Kabul, stirred up to a degree by SMA, who was saying, "I was running a very good show." Daoud, his replacement—by the way, to a degree that was a British-inspired move, as Nick said—had to show progress. So Brigadier Butler was put in a very difficult position. It was not the tactical plan that we had agreed, but it was the eventual aim. They had to bring it forward. As you all know, the troop ratios to implement that were not in place and it became a pretty fraught year.

  General Sir Peter Wall: Perhaps I will pick up the story. This was not a decision that was made by Brigadier Butler—the tactical commander—alone. He did it in consultation with PJHQ, anticipating that this would be the case. We had articulated, as I think Lord Reid has said to you, that this would be tactically undesirable, but it was the sort of thing for which political pressure was starting to build. It was something that those on the UK side in other Departments who had worked very hard to put in Daoud in place of Akhundzada had equities in.

  It so happened that I was on a programmed visit to Lashkar Gah at the point when this crisis started to unfold. The timing of it was driven because the Taliban had the district centres in Northern Helmand under pressure. On Governor Daoud's perception, particularly bearing in mind his lack of tribal influence, for the reasons that Nick has talked about, he was not able to pull this off with behind-the-scenes politicking. There was, undoubtedly, pressure coming from the Akhundzada axis. If the Government flag had fallen in any of these district centres and the Taliban flag had replaced it—it was totemic stuff like that; it was the battle of the flagpoles in some ways—the UK effort, in terms of its recognition of Afghan political motivation from the district level through the provincial level and all the way up to the national level, as David has suggested, would have been in political jeopardy. Its credibility would have been in question at the time when a UK-led headquarters was starting to take ownership of the operation in the round.

  Any suggestion that this was a whim by Brigadier Butler on the day is a falsehood. Everybody else, as far as I know, was aware of this—they were closely involved. The military tactical risks were considered. It was accepted that this could be done at measured risk for a limited time frame, and that we would start to have real logistic stresses if it then got extended beyond a short-term period to shore up the security of these district centres, essentially to keep Governor Daoud in power.

  There is a wider question that we ought to throw into the mix. Most of the questioning that I have had on this—the BBC is making a documentary about it at the moment, and there are various books on it—does not come at it from the position of what would have happened had we just stuck to plan A and taken no account of a changing situation, which is not normally a recognised military approach. I believe that we would have had a political failure. We would have had a significant credibility problem in terms of the UK initiative in the South and in the wider integration of the two missions. And we would still have had a hell of a fight with the Taliban; it's just that it probably would have happened much closer to Gereshk and Lashkar Gah—in the centres of population rather in the more remote districts. So it would actually have had a much bigger resonance had we not done this, even though the outcome was very unattractive.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: I agree with all that has gone before. This was not a change of mission, but it was a change of tactical lay-down to deliver on that mission. Peter has talked about the non-discretionary nature in support of that mission of having to support the local government and governance of Afghanistan, particularly Governor Daoud. You cannot prove a negative, but I also take Peter's view that to have done otherwise could have undermined the operation from the outset.

  The bit where I can perhaps add more value is the business regarding the degree of visibility of all this and the decision making back in town. As Chief of Joint Operations, with the team, one of my fundamental responsibilities was to give the best possible understanding to decision makers back in London of what was happening in theatre so that we did not go on some strategic divergence without the political authority to do that.

  I won't bore you endlessly, but I dug out the best record of all this, which is probably the Chiefs of Staff minutes of May and early June. I think it is clear from Brigadier Ed Butler's record of the Chiefs of Staff, and borne out by the minutes of 24 May, that Ed Butler briefed the Chiefs about the proposed platoon house concept. The actual investments were 26th and 27th to Sangin, and 28th to Musa Qala and Now Zad, even though there had been presences there in the build-up period. In the battle procedure—if I can call it that—of the Ministry of Defence, a chiefs of staff committee meeting is immediately followed by a ministerial briefing. Ed Butler stayed on for that ministerial briefing and briefed on the proposed concept. I won't be exhaustive, but over the next two meetings—

  Q677 Chair: What date was that?

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: It was 24 May.

  At the following meeting, on 31 May, I was able to report that the platoon house concept was bedding down well. There had been a good local reaction to it. I think at that time I raised the first concern. The Chiefs had previously persuaded themselves that this would probably be resource-neutral. I said, "No, if this is to be sustained over time, it will put additional pressure on our logistics and sustainability in manpower terms." That was reinforced a week later—on 7 June—when I said, "Yes, and there's a helicopter dimension to this." At that stage, it was proposed to do it for only one month, due to the initial political concern that Engineer Daoud's governorship would be undermined in what Peter graphically referred to as the battle of the flagpoles. The black flag of Mullah Omar flying over a number of district centres would probably have been end of mission for Daoud, as it were. As the minutes record, there was a sensible conversation that the nature of the platoon house concept would be resource-intensive. To the tactical commander and to me—and I think to David, with whom we were having conversations off—the bigger concern was that it would come to a situation where too great a percentage of the force was fixed in place, rather than being able to manoeuvre. The narrative and dialogue of whether we were over-fixed and needed to manoeuvre more played out during the summer and informed various troop uplifts. To go back even earlier, on 3 May, the Chiefs of Staff committee noted the fact that there would be a requirement for an earlier and more significant deployment to the north of Helmand to support the governance of Daoud.

  I say all this to dismiss any idea that this was happening in a black box of military decision making that was not completely open to both the Chiefs of Staff and Ministers at the time. It is quite right that Lord Reid had no part of it; he had gone by then. I haven't seen his transcript, but my memories of Lord Browne are that he was understanding and wholly supportive about the judgments of the tactical commander on the ground, and who could see through the optics of political necessity the need to do this. The realities of the resource intensity quickly became known as May turned into June, in a context of everybody understanding what was going on. It was not some compartmentalised military adventurism.

  Q678 Chair: I have not quite understood what transferred this from being a one-month process to something more.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: At the outset, it was said, "Just for one month," to see whether this new disposition would work. It was almost a trial from which we could draw back if necessary. There was a running dialogue as to whether staying in NawZad made sense. You need to have been in the guts of the thing at the time. Tactically, it was precarious; strategically, it was not vital. Musa Qala was different. You will remember that as the year went on, it was decided, at the time that 16 Brigade were leaving and 3 Commando Brigade arrived, that it was important to create the circumstances under which we could get out of Musa Qala. It was too dangerous to hold and it was not of strategic benefit to us. A deal was arranged, politically led by Engineer Daoud. From memory, it was a 14-point plan for the raising of local police, under which ISAF came out. There were local police there and ANP there, and a deal was done on governance.

  After that initial month, there was a constant discussion about where we should come out of and where did we need to stay. It was determined there was a need to stay in Sangin for the longer period; Now Zad not so; and to come out of Musa Qala. There was probably never a specific date when the overall decision to adopt a lay-down was made, but you incrementally moved to a lay-down that better balanced available resources, static security and the ability to manoeuvre. If I am honest—Peter might have his own view on this—we collectively breathed a sigh of PJHQ relief when 3 Commando Brigade were in and settled. They brought additional equipment and additional manoeuvre capability, and it was a far more balanced lay-down, but we had successfully got through that initial deployment without it undermining the local governorship of Afghanistan.

  General Sir Peter Wall: I absolutely support everything that Nick has said. The simple answer was that the problem for Daoud did not go away. He had not managed in the time that was bought in the early weeks to secure his political influence over the governance of those districts. Others were actively orchestrating against him. That was why it carried on.

  Chair: We have got to move on if we are going to get on to the current operations.

  Q679 Mrs Moon: Can I clarify whether the ministerial briefing was of Lord Browne? Which Ministers were present? Lord Browne in his presentation to us said that it was briefed to him, but retrospectively.

  Chair: Is that right?

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: To be honest, there are no minutes or record that I can interrogate to try to assemble the detail of this—or that I have had time to. Ed Butler briefed on 24 May. Lord Browne was at the ministerial briefing that followed. At that time, there had already been some investment—that's a military phrase—of military presence in many of those, but it might have been only temporary for a particular operation and then come out again. The formal adoption of the platoon house concept was consequent on that briefing. That was not a decision brief, per se, but 26th and 27th formally invested into Sangin, and I am pretty certain that Musa Qala and NawZad was the 28th. But that is not to say that there had not been running battles with people going in and coming out prior to that time. Therefore the emergence of the idea of the platoon house concept, and some people in these places, pre-dated that briefing.

    General Sir Peter Wall: I think I would add that those briefings were not the only ways in which we conveyed information to Ministers. If the Secretary of State had not been around, the next senior Minister would have been.

  Chair: Thank you, CGS.

  Q680 John Glen: May I turn to the assessment of troop levels around this time: what assessment was made by the MoD of troop levels and whether there was sufficient investment of new resources as required in May, June, July? We have had evidence before that there are significant strains leading up to this point anyway about the sufficiency of resources to deal with the tasks in Helmand. Perhaps you could clarify what changed at this point and whether it was sufficient to deal with what was required.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: When Lord Stirrup became CDS, he was clear that if there is a requirement for the theatre and the commanders can refine it and justify it, he will do his best to deliver on it. One of the early ones was a requirement for more helicopter lift. That was translated not into more helicopters out there, but into an uplift in the ration of helicopter hours. That was by flying them harder, sending out more spares and all that. That was relatively early on, by the end of June.

  There are three other big things that I recall. Many of them may surprise you. One is that the most important resource concern at the time, having re-read the minutes, was the force protection of Kandahar air field and the concern over the loss of a strategic AT aircraft. That led to the deployment of a force protection squadron of the Royal Air Force that summer. There was this thought that it could strategically unhinge this campaign, if one of the strategic AT was shot down. The second is the realisation that the R and R plot meant that 15% of the force came out six weeks in. There was the backfilling of the R and R plot, primarily by the Royal Irish, and then there was an engineer surge to increase the pace of the build of Bastion. It was not a matter of needing 10 more for the platoon; they were higher level concerns about what resource was needed. Throughout the last five years, there has been a constant debate, which matches the dynamics of the theatre and the demands of the resources. Those were the early ones as I recall.

  Q681 Mr Havard: But the shape of the deployment at that time, to take General David's point, was about manoeuvre capability and support. The initial optimistic assessment by John Reid, when the whole thing was meant to go about, was that the US would come in with all sorts of helicopter support and there were all sorts of promises of additional resources from elsewhere to carry out the deployment. Its shape changes and the needs change dramatically. Where was the ability to meet those needs to give you that supply and manoeuvre capability?

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: You are quite right. We went in with certain bridging agreements with the Americans for the supply of certain things, to get us established. One thing you have to remember is that the full operating capability of the deploying taskforce was not due until 1 July.

  Q682 Mr Havard: But the enemy had made that different.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: There was still only a pace at which you can get out. There is a thing called the DOAS, which is the desired order of arrival—Tim will know the acronym. We changed it around, to get more bayonets out there more quickly, because we were employing as we were deploying the force. The idea was that those bridging things from the Americans would run out at the point of full operational capability, when all our helicopters and people had deployed. That was the end of the bridging aspect. We did incremental uplifts, such as helicopter hours, force protection and all those sorts of things. The next major change was the change out of 16 Brigade and 3 Brigade. They came with a larger force, with a greater amount of protected mobile equipment, primarily their Viking vehicle.

  Q683 Chair: CGS, is there anything you want to add to what the VCDS has said?

  General Sir Peter Wall: No, Chair. I will just endorse that it was not easy for us to find a net theatre-ready uplift instantaneously. I cannot remember the airlift situation, but it probably would not have been easy to get it there either, in an acclimatised and suitably trained way. Therefore, we were able to put people on the ground. On enablers, however, which were the critical drivers here—as Ed Butler has told you—this was going to be incremental. Not quite a game of inches, but incremental. It was not about more airframes; it was about more hours. It was about more spares, more fluid ammunition supply, and logistics and that sort of stuff.

  Q684 John Glen: What do you think the implications were of that constraint? Last week, Lord Stirrup told us that the Apache force was still forming when it was deployed. What is your assessment of the implications of these very restricted means at a time of increased need? We take the general point about there being infinite demands from the theatre and limited means, but we are trying to get to an assessment. At that point in time, what impact did the constraint have on the theatre?

  General Sir Peter Wall: We need to go back to the constraint we were put under in terms of the original force size. It was only ever going to be what we call a small-scale deployment with a theatre platform, bearing in mind that it was a new venue, if you like. We tailored a force within a level of 3,150. You have heard about the costing regime and all of that sort of stuff, which was for the first three years. For our part we were planning for longer than that, but that was the endorsed assurance. So we did not have more stuff standing by, whether it was enabling activity or combat units. The psyche was very much to live within that volume.

  Your wider point is pertinent to the discussion we might have this afternoon. We are tending to design our aspirations for the future in fairly tight, minimalist bundles that don't lend themselves to being resilient against changing events and situations that in some cases are unavoidable.

  General Sir David Richards: Looking at it from a distance, as I did in Kabul, it was very clear that the British were going to get into, and were getting into, a difficult situation. Having been involved at the time with both Nick and Peter in trying to generate a good plan, it is that very understanding that led to the original very cautious plan, which was that we go into Lashkar Gah and consolidate there and only cautiously over time start to push out.

  War, and you all understand this, is a bummer. Politics and the enemy have a vote. I am afraid that we, the military, had to respond to the reality of the developing situation on the ground. I was slightly critical at the time, as everyone knows, but I was full of admiration, as a NATO commander, for both our political masters, who, as Nick said, were very supportive. Des Browne could not have been more supportive, and he knew the problems. The military, particularly 3 Para, had one battle group effective. That is all that 16 Brigade really consisted of. They behaved magnificently to respond to changing tactical and political situations. We were inevitably going to take time to recover. If you look at it over not six months, but two years or five years, things are much better. But that is the way that wars tend to develop. We were no better than our predecessors.

  General Sir Peter Wall: In preparing for this, I read the article by Anthony King that has been referred to in previous evidence. I think some of his analysis is quite compelling. His concentration versus dispersion thing is probably oversimplified, because it is about tactics, rather than politics. We could be having an even more difficult conversation about this had our soldiers not stepped up to the plate and delivered in a situation that turned out to be very different from the one that was anticipated.

  Q685 Chair: You have made a very valuable point. We have not yet analysed what would have happened if we had acted differently.

  General Sir Peter Wall: Brigadier Butler, with our complete support, adapted his tactical plan, but the soldiery stepped up to the plate and delivered against it in some very tough circumstances, which we need to record.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: Within the strategic priorities of both the theatre and the nation, as I have explained, Helmand was coping quite well. We tend to focus on it being a drama and that it was all about to fall, but the report of July said that nothing that is happening on a military basis is at all a strategic threat to the mission. David can speak at length about that. His concern, as came out the time, was more about what was going on in Kandahar and in the Canadian area. That could have strategically unhinged the whole campaign.

  Going back to the minutes, which I have fallen in love with over the past 48 hours, it is amazing to recognise how much Afghanistan was the second fiddle to what was going on in Iraq. In Iraq there had been a year of the Samarra mosque—the golden mosque—bombing. A Government hadn't been seated. Where a civil war might go was on everybody's lips. There was the preparedness for an operation called Salamanca, and then Sinbad. That is what drips from the minutes of the time, not actually a deployment that was coping and getting through. That is without suddenly departing off to Lebanon; I had forgotten the fact that in the middle of all this for a month in summer we conducted an evacuation operation in Lebanon. The idea that there was this intensity of concern—it probably did not feel like that in the context of the time.

  Q686 Mr Hancock: I only wish we had had the same opportunity as you, General, of seeing the minutes that you refer to, which you have become so affectionately attached to. We have been denied that opportunity, and it would have been nice for us to have had the same thing. I also think it is strange that in searching for his evidence, Des Browne could find little or no record of many of the things that were referred to in conversations of which there appear to be no minutes.

  May I ask you about the situation? You realised very quickly that things needed to be changed: within a matter of days, in fact, if you look at that time frame.

  General Sir Peter Wall: Yes.

  Q687 Mr Hancock: Then you have the increased deployment in July. Was it enough, General? You were there; you were knowledgeable about the deterioration in the situation, and the realisation that it was far worse and it was going to be a long job rather than a short job. Was that deployment in 2006 enough, and did it happen quickly enough? Could you have got troops there sooner?

  General Sir Peter Wall: To be honest, I can't recall how we were thinking about this at the time. I suspect there were practical limits to the rate at which we could build up the force. The fact that we carried on building it over the winter and in the following year, and because of this business of being fixed in set locations we contributed from the UK an air assault air mobile reserve battle group for the wider RC South use, suggests to me that we probably were not bold enough from the get-go. I cannot remember the precise details.

  Q688 Mr Hancock: What part did you three have in setting the numbers that were going to be deployed in July?

  General Sir Peter Wall: We would have put forward propositions that the folks in the Ministry of Defence at the time would have taken a view on.

  Q689 Mr Hancock: Did you ask for more than was delivered?

  General Sir Peter Wall: I don't recall.

  Q690 Mr Hancock: You don't recall?

  General Sir David Richards: I was the NATO commander, and I can tell you that I was asking every nation for more, well before 31 July. I remember having very constructive conversations particularly with General Houghton and with Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, in which it was very patiently explained to me that because of the demands of Iraq it was not possible, but they were all on the job. I could not have had a more receptive audience and as soon as the British could get more, in the shape of 3 Commando Brigade, we got them in.

  I would have thought that every nation had been caught by surprise by the developing events of 2006. I have often pondered whether those people who took the decision to deploy NATO into the South and East in late 2004 would have done so if they knew what they were confronting in 2006. I cannot tell you the answer, and I suspect that they would have had to, but nevertheless everyone was suffering in the same way. This takes time to generate. The legal and media scrutiny—as you know very well—and, rightly, your scrutiny to make sure that we put troops properly prepared, trained and equipped into theatre today means that it is just impossible to chuck troops in a hurry at a problem, because we have a duty of great care to them to make sure it is done as well as it possibly can be. I hope this has placed it in context; it wasn't for want of pestering people.

  Q691 Chair: I am afraid that we have already way overrun on the 2006 aspect of what happened. I am grateful to all three of you for this, and indeed to everybody who has taken part in this inquiry into the 2006 aspect, because we are not trying to say, "It was your fault," or, "It was your fault." What we are trying to do is to work out how we as a nation can try to improve on the way we do things. Is there anything on the 2006 aspect of moving into Helmand and moving into the platoon houses that any of you feels—I think this is particularly addressed to you, CGS—there is a key point you would like to add, which we have not yet covered? Or should we move on to current operations?

  General Sir Peter Wall: No, I think I am content that everything that is important has been exposed both today and in the evidence that I have kept track of from previous witnesses.

  Q692 Chair: CDS?

  General Sir David Richards: No, I am happy, Chair. Thank you.

  Q693 Chair: VCDS?

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: Happy.

  Chair: Moving on to current operations in Afghanistan, Julian Brazier.

  Q694 Mr Brazier: CDS, I am going to give you three questions on current operations together, because as the Chair mentioned we are running out of time. In general terms, what is your feel about them? More specifically, can you also say something about the relationship between UK and US forces, and specifically about progress in training the Afghan army and police force? Perhaps they are easier to deal with as a body, rather than individually.

  General Sir David Richards: Thank you. First of all, just to remind you, a new strategy was agreed at Lisbon in November, and that is what we are now getting on and implementing. It was on the back of the US surge, to which we contributed a little bit, a year earlier. That strategy is to intensify military pressure through the surge on the Taliban; to aggressively grow the Afghan National Security Forces, including the new Afghan local police; to develop local as well as central Government capacity, with a real focus on local governance; and concurrently to work what are known as reconciliation and reintegration strands of operation—reconciliation is the higher-level stuff, and reintegration is more local—with the aim of bringing people who are tired of the fighting or disillusioned back into the fold.

  Specifically on your three questions, the military is setting the conditions for success in some of those other areas—i.e. military and tactical operations. We are ensuring that the ANSF grows in the very aggressive time frame that an outstanding American General, Bill Caldwell, is leading on. To give you a feel for it, because I was very usefully tipped off that you would ask this question, Bill has told me that the 31 March target for the ANA was a total of 155,000. On 31 March, the total was standing at 159,000, so it is ahead of its numbers—I will return to quality in a moment. The police target was 122,000, and the total stood at 125,000 at the end of March. The targets for 31 October are 171,600 and 134,000 respectively, and when I spoke to him two days ago in preparation for this session, he told me that they are ahead of them.

  If the core of our strategy is transition in all its aspects from, in our case in particular, NATO-ISAF operations to ANSF-run operations, that seems to be on track. I would not say that it is without drama and pitfalls ahead. You can grow numbers, but can you institutionalise the necessary qualities to sustain it beyond 2014? The jury is out on that. It will be a difficult thing to be certain of until about the end of next year, but—my goodness me—General Caldwell, and a lot of British officers by the way, could not be more aggressively pursuing that necessary requirement, as well as pure numbers.

  US relations are excellent. You have three officers here among many in the British Armed Forces who have been engaged in sustained military operations for 10 years. I know Dave Petraeus, Bill Caldwell and Jim Mattis. They are all friends of ours, so, at the very highest level, relations could not be closer. I and CGS had General Mattis in our offices yesterday, and General Rodriguez, who is the IJC Commander, is a very good friend of ours, too.

  At the lower, tactical level, the US Marines have been outstanding in the way that they, first of all, went into Helmand alongside us, and now are running that regional command. The relationship between our forces and theirs, which we were a bit worried about at one stage, because we were not certain about it, is also outstanding, so I have absolutely no worries about our relationship. Indeed, it is very important to us to preserve that relationship as a strategic requirement, because its strength is central to our ongoing success. On ANSF I think I've answered.

  Have we learned the lessons of 2006? Force ratios? We had 3,000-odd in 2006, today it is just under 11,000, as the Secretary of State for Defence recently said in Parliament. Britain has the best force ratios in Afghanistan at the moment—indeed, we are the envy of the Americans, which is worth reminding ourselves of as they increasingly have a very difficult challenge in the east of the country. I have no complaints about helicopters at the moment. We cannot get a complaint out of our soldiers about kit. When I see what they have, I am almost embarrassed that they have too much good kit.

  Non-military activity? At the time we were at first perhaps overly critical of our non-military counterparts, saying that things did not start quickly enough in Helmand. I have to say that today, it is excellent. DFID is doing an outstanding job. The FCO—I was attending a conference yesterday, and we are very close. The SIS and the GCHQ could not be closer. I think we are learning the lessons, and we now have three or four years to deliver.

  Finally, command and control was weak in 2006; I have been very critical of it. Today, we have a national contingent commander who is charged with making sure that this "six month-itis", that you have rightly picked up on, is no longer possible. We are much more fully integrated into the NATO operation, which is run, as we all know, by the outstanding military commander of our age, David Petraeus. I do not want to paint too rosy a picture—there will be lots of challenges in the next three years—but we have learned our lessons, and we are determined to succeed.

  Q695 Mr Brazier: One quick supplementary on that, if I may. I was impressed with both of the units doing police mentoring that I visited over there, in Helmand the Argylls from my own constituency, and in Kabul the National Guard cavalry unit. The question that has to be put, however, is: how are we doing on recruiting Southern Pashtuns, who are just over half the population? There seems to be quite a serious issue there for both the army and the police.

  General Sir David Richards: It is a problem, and I cannot disguise it from you. All that I can tell you is that the proportions are rising. This is absolutely part of the wider strategy. They will not join—this is common sense, I suppose—until they have a sense that we are going to succeed and the Taliban are not going to go back into their village in 2014-15. I wouldn't, you wouldn't. The fact that it is now standing at about 5-8%—it changes, but is on an upward path—is a good sign in itself.

  When I was there not long before you—and we went into this in some detail—I was taken into the ANP training area that the Argylls were leading on. I was introduced to a number of Southern Pashtuns, who I do not think were stooges. They emphasised that their sense was that more and more were going to join. We are on the case and we know the importance of it. I think that, like a lot of other things to do with our strategy in Afghanistan, it is just too early to tell how successful we are going to be. I think if you were to invite us back in the autumn, that would be a very good time to review it, and we could tell you whether or not this year, first real year in which the surge and all of this extra effort starts to pay off, is indeed doing so.

  Q696 Mr Hancock: May I ask whether those are the figures for people who have gone through a training programme, or people who have gone through a training programme and actually been retained? What is the current strength of fully trained soldiers, as opposed to those who might have been trained but have then been disaffected in some way?

  General Sir David Richards: The current paper strength is what I have told you: 159,000 on 31 March, 125,000 ANP. On any given day, it will be less than that, but it is on an upward trajectory, as I emphasised. I remember, when I was COMISAF, that there were times we could not believe that such stupidities would happen—they were not being paid properly, and when they were paid they were paid in cash and robbed on the way home. These are very basic things, but vital to the maintenance of morale. All of those things have been sorted out: they are paid through banks, believe it or not, and have all sorts of things that you might not associate with Afghanistan. They are properly fed and housed, and their medical treatment is much better. The levels of absence and desertion, which were standing at about 20% at one stage, are now much lower.

  Q697 Mr Hancock: What would you estimate that is now? What is the attrition factor now?

  General Sir David Richards: I would have to come back to you with the accurate figure, but the sort of figure that I associate with it in my mind is around 5%. In terms of combat capability—those who are available to fight on any given day—the figures stack up well against our own Armed Forces, for example.

  Q698 Ms Stuart: Of course they are paid through Kabul banks. Let us hope that that does not go wrong. I want to talk to you about what was not a break-out but a break-in to the prison in Lashkar Gah—

  Chair: Kandahar.

  Ms Stuart: Kandahar, sorry—and the fact that we now have 450-odd people out there who, at one stage, we would rather have had inside some confined place. What does it tell us about the Afghan Government's ability to have secure prison places and the implications of that? When the Foreign Secretary gave a statement in the House of Commons on that, I asked him for a current assessment of how many secure places there are. The written answer that I got back was an estimate of some 10,000 prison places. Although there may be many places, what is your assessment of the Afghan Government's ability to detain people?

  General Sir David Richards: It is a very interesting question. We have gone into it in some detail, obviously, because it is a natural concern for us if all our hard work ends up in a lot of people whom we would like to stay locked up escaping.

  A few things. First of all, when the great escape took place in Germany in the second world war, did that mean that we all thought the German Armed Forces were completely incompetent? No, it did not. What I am really trying to say in a coded way is: should we extrapolate from a hugely audacious break-in and break-out that the whole Afghan Government is useless and incapable? They have never had such a thing happen before. I would like to think, from the reassurance that we have had, that they are content they have learned the lessons and they will never let it happen again, but we have got to remember that the enemy is thinking and has a vote in these things. It was a very audacious and, on the day, a very successful break-out.

  I do not think that we should think that every prisoner is about to escape from the number of secure locations in Afghanistan. As I said, it has not happened before. I am clear that a lot of soul-searching went on and lots of people were sacked. If you go to Pul-e-Charkhi, as I have done on two occasions, the way they run their prison is a bit different from the way we run ours—it is a bit more chummy—but no one has ever broken out of Pul-e-Charkhi before on that sort of scale. But people do break out of our prisons occasionally—very rarely, though.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: HMP Maze.

  General Sir David Richards: When that happened in Northern Ireland, did you all write off the British Armed Forces and the then Northern Ireland police? [Interruption.] I am sure you didn't. Did you?

  I am just saying that I do not think that we want to view it as a disaster. Actually, they have already taken back quite a lot. That is the context in which I would set it. It was definitely a setback and it should not have happened, but as in all things, I ask: have they learned their lessons and could it happen again? I think it unlikely.

  Q699 Mrs Moon: You made an analogy with the great escape. I would say that there was not, a short while after the great escape, a major assault and a number of deaths in Berlin, for example, but that has happened in Kandahar. Do you feel that the recent violent and very successful attack on Kandahar would have taken place if this break-in/break-out had not happened?

  General Sir David Richards: Again, that is a very good question. I think it would have done. Our intelligence suggests there was planning for such. You know that on 1 May, the great Taliban spring offensive was supposed to have happened, and that was part of it. I think there is no doubt that some of those escapees who were capable fighters joined in that attack, and probably made it more difficult for us and the ANSF to respond, but I do not think the escape actually led to it. I do not know whether you read the spring directive—it was on the internet. It was part of a number of things to persuade the international community and ISAF that they were on the front foot. All that we know, from our own examination and reports from the American commanders on the ground, was that the response to that was remarkably good and has given people confidence that the ANSF is growing in capability in the way that we need to ensure that we transition by the end of 2014.

  The enemy—the Taliban—will continue to attack. The question is how we respond to it and increasingly can the ANSF shoulder the burden? So far, things are looking good, although I am sure there will be setbacks during the year.

  General Sir Nicholas Houghton: Within the dynamics of the campaign over time, quite often the tactics of your enemy are indicative of their relative strengths. From an early period in 2006-07, when the Taliban were effectively taking us on in conventional war, that migrated to the tactics of the IED. It could be this year—I do not want to pre-guess it—but if now the tactics transform to selective and high-profile hits against political targets, it is indicative that in the dynamics of the enemy, their force ratio and what they are capable of doing, that could be interpreted as a reduction in their overall capability, because they are having to resort to specific, targeted attacks against political figures. There is more interest, but it is too early to judge.

  General Sir David Richards: I know we are often charged with being overoptimistic. What we have always said is that if you resource the operation properly, then you have a chance of succeeding. We can only set the conditions for other actors, but particularly in the political sphere, and I personally have been banging on about the need for strong political engagement for years—we have all known this. But it will not be until September, October, November, after this full year of the surge on the back of a pretty active winter campaign, that we will really be able to see whether it is beginning to come good. All the indicators as we sit here seem to be positive , but we are the first to be cautious and not to want to fall in the trap of over-optimism.

  Q700 Bob Stewart: CDS, you have already kind of answered my question, so I will be very quick. I assume from what you have said already that you see us as being on course to bring out our regular combat forces by the end of 2014. Do you have any further comment on that?

  General Sir David Richards: I think we are on course, but we will continue to need to veer and haul as, undoubtedly, we are challenged. Our biggest problem, or rather NATO's biggest problem—it is much bigger than us; we are playing a part in it—as we transition, is to put sufficient extra capacity into the training of the ANSF, particularly the institutional training. I think you will all be aware—we took it as a great tick in a box for Britain—that President Karzai has specifically asked, for example, that we develop for them a Sandhurst. We would love to do that for all sorts of good, enduring, pol-mil reasons, because that means that their future military, and inevitably other leaders, will be trained in the British tradition. We need to find the wherewithal to do that properly in the time frame we are talking about. So that is our biggest concern at the moment; it is not really the tactical conduct of operations—

  Q701 Bob Stewart: So is it all about training?

  General Sir David Richards: It is the institutionalisation of the army. As you know very well, you can have any number of foot soldiers. An army that is worth its name has its logistics right, its administration right, its long-term training right and its ethos right. Those are the things that we now increasingly must concentrate on. We need to make sure that as we transition out of the combat role, a percentage is put in the first instance in the training role. That is absolutely Government policy, and we now have to make sure that we can deliver on that policy in our developing strategy.

  Q702 Mr Havard: Obviously the death of Osama bin Laden has raised a series of questions, particularly about US strategy in relation to Afghanistan. The question is whether they would now look for a more rapid withdrawal as a consequence with their attention turned elsewhere. I am not asking you to gaze into a crystal ball, but we have the presidential elections, potentially, in Afghanistan in 2014—the time we have discussed in terms of our potential withdrawal—and then there is the sustainability of the Afghan state so that it becomes self-reliant. Currently the projections are that it could be 2023 or 2025 before they are able to have the money to sustain the structures that we have helped them build. What is your assessment? Have you got any plans? What is the effect of all the potential speeding up of the process of American withdrawal? What are your plans in relation to that?

  General Sir David Richards: It is a hypothesis. I have also picked up on the speculation about it. The Secretary of State for Defence and I were in Washington 10 days ago, and it was clear that no decision has yet been made. There is a lot of speculation. At my level, we are clear that the strategy is sound, and we must give it proper opportunity to come to fruition—hence my emphasis that no one can really draw proper deductions until probably the early autumn of this year, by when we will have seen it all coming through the system for well over a year.

  Secretary Gates said the other day that it is too early to tell the effect of OBL's death. He talked about around six months—that is our consensus. There are indications that he did have a psychological effect on some of them, and that they are a bit worried. Their ability to raise money may be affected; that is hugely important to them. It is a net positive, as I said recently in an interview, but we don't yet know how it will come through. Again, the autumn might be a good time to come back and tell you how it is going.

  On the draw-down, both NATO and the US have an enduring partnership, or intend to have one, with Afghanistan. We in Britain who are fully committed in this war must always remember that the Americans have committed huge amounts of treasure and blood to it. They have committed to making sure that this strategy—which, from the end of 2014, will progressively become based, in our case, on training—will be funded. I think it is a huge commitment on their part. We are hugely grateful that they have made this commitment. That is the plan on which we are currently taking forward our own plans. It will be affordable because the Americans will generously continue to sustain their effort.

  Q703 Mr Havard: While you see, as I do, that the death of Osama bin Laden perhaps prompts a reassessment—political and otherwise in the US and elsewhere—military and strategically to Afghanistan, is the al-Qaeda organisation of military significance, or is this about transferring activity from Afghanistan to Pakistan?

  General Sir David Richards: In the case of the military significance of al-Qaeda, your view and understanding, to be frank, is probably as good as mine. It is an idea that has clearly travelled well beyond Osama bin Laden and where we now know he was in Pakistan. Yemen, Somalia and other places in the Middle East are today more important in a counter-terror context than what was going on—which appears to be a bit more than we might have thought—in Osama's compound. Where will it lead in terms of focus on Pakistan, as opposed to Afghanistan? All those things are going through the mill at the moment. We are all clear that Pakistan is a vital ally in the "war on terror"—I do not necessarily share that term, as you don't, but it is a catch-all. We must remain close to Pakistan while ensuring that it learns whatever lessons it undoubtedly will.

  Chair: There are two final questions.

  Q704 Mrs Moon: I wonder about the manner and the place of bin Laden's death, and its impact in the Pashtun heartlands where our troops are based. Are you seeing any impact, either due to the manner of death, or the fact that he was killed in Pakistan? Is that impacting on the ground as to how our mission is seen and how a potential outcome would be seen?

  General Sir David Richards: The picture continues to be built up, but there is no evidence today. Don't forget that the Pashtun do not want the Taliban back. It is sometimes seen as a Pashtun freedom fight, but the latest polling continues to suggest that the vast majority of Pashtuns do not want to be ruled by the Taliban. With AQ, we do not want to think that Osama in particular was some popular, mythical figure among the vast majority of Pashtuns.

  Whether it had an effect on the Taliban is a different issue. As I said a minute ago, we do not really know. It would appear that most Pashtuns in the South are rather pleased, because they do not want the Taliban back. If it breaks the linkages between AQ and the Taliban—we know now, interestingly, that they were greater than we thought—that will be a net positive. We have not seen evidence to support that concern, although we are monitoring it, because obviously it is a possibility.

  Q705 Thomas Docherty: Going back to the much earlier point about propaganda and 2006, we have also heard some evidence about the battle for hearts and minds, and the battle for communicating our mission. Are you confident that you now have sufficient resources to communicate the purpose and the tactics to the local populations?

  General Sir David Richards: I would say one of the many lessons that we haven't yet fully incorporated in our psyche, training and resourcing is what we might call information operations. I think it is now much, much better. I remember as COMISAF railing against our inability to turn something that should have been a great propaganda coup, and particularly the way in which 90% of the casualties inflicted by the Taliban—it is still the case, although it is a lower percentage now—were innocent civilians. Could we get that into the psyche of the people we were trying to protect? Not very readily.

  I think we are much better, but I have the particular aim in my time as CDS of developing our ability to conduct perfectly legitimate information and influence operations much more efficiently. I would say—Nick is very much involved in this with me—that we have not yet organised to deliver it. It is not understood to be a vital part of warfare—as it always was, but it is much more complex now in this media-heavy era—as much as fighting in a kinetic sense. We have some way to go, but keep pressing us on it, because your interest in it is a big help to me to resource it properly.

  Chair: We certainly shall, and that will form a fairly large part of our report eventually.

  General Sir Peter Wall: I absolutely endorse the macro point about strategic communications and information operations. We are finding it quite difficult to forge a definitive improvement on that. We need to recognise that in a democracy it is quite difficult to balance what we can say and what we have to say.

  On the specific Helmand situation, I am always struck when I go there by how much time Governor Mangal spends watching the telly. A lot of it is local telly with him on it. We really need to get their view of this, but of course the messaging on security in Helmand and its relation to governance—I pick Helmand because that is our experience, but I am sure it goes wider across the South and beyond—is an Afghan lead now, which is commensurate with their lead on governance and all the things we have been trying to instigate. Their military and police are very often at the forefront of that, because quite a lot of the operations that are going on today are Afghan-planned and Afghan-led, notwithstanding they are in a context that we are enabling.

  The ability for our soldiers to engage with Afghans has increased exponentially as we have acquired the initiative, which is born as much as anything else of having the right force ratios by dint of the very significant American reinforcement by the US Marines into the same area that we are in. That is a positive trend, and if you were to go and ask people down on the street in Helmand, and to look at the Helmandi media—which is quite sophisticated, actually—I think it would be quite reassuring.

  General Sir David Richards: My excellent MA has just handed me the statistics on ANA attrition, Mr Hancock. In March it was 2% and in April it was 1.85%, and the target is 1.4%. The figures for those two months are pretty good, actually. They are much better, as you know from your interest in the subject.

  Chair: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed. I have been studying these things for a number of years now, yet I learned a great deal during the course of this morning. We are all grateful to you for an excellent evidence session. I am sorry it had to be so rushed, but that is the way of life.

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Prepared 17 July 2011