Operations in Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  We wish to pay tribute to all the British personnel, both military and civilian, who are currently serving or have served in Afghanistan but, in particular, to those who lost their lives in Afghanistan, and the many more who have sustained life-changing injuries as a result of the conflict there. We also express our deep gratitude for the vital contribution made by the families of Armed Forces personnel. We are mindful that some of the conclusions in this Report, because they are critical of the actions of successive Governments and their senior military advisers, may be interpreted as a criticism of the men and women who have served in extremely hazardous, hostile and difficult conditions. We wish to place on record that no such criticism is made. The Armed Forces and civilian personnel in Afghanistan have our full support in tackling the challenges before them. (Paragraph 1)

2.  Communicating with the UK population about the purpose of any mission involving UK Armed Forces is crucial. We have found that the Government's descriptions of the nature of the mission and its importance to UK interests have varied throughout the campaign, lacking a consistent narrative. Whist MoD polling data has shown some limited improvement in the public's understanding of operations in Afghanistan, we have observed some confusion in the communications on Libya which reminded us forcefully of earlier stages in Afghanistan. (Paragraph 14)

3.  We disagree with the MoD decision not to give us sight of documents which are now over five years old. Refusal hinders our Parliamentary scrutiny of the MoD. (Paragraph 15)

4.  In future, we expect MoD to come to give evidence to the Committee briefed and prepared to be frank and open about matters where the provision of information would not put the Armed Forces at risk. (Paragraph 16)

Operations in Helmand in 2006

5.  Given the demanding nature of the situation in Iraq, we do not consider that the implications of the decision to move UK Armed Forces into the South of Afghanistan in early 2006 were fully thought through, in particular, the potential risk to UK Armed Forces personnel. We consider that this criticism applies equally to the international decision to deploy into the South, in that all decisions made at such a level inevitably involve tensions and delay, which contributed in this case to the difficulties subsequently encountered. (Paragraph 28)

6.  Notwithstanding our recognition of the limitations on intelligence in situations such as Helmand in 2006, we are concerned that the MoD did not anticipate that the presence of the Armed Forces in Helmand might stir up a hornets' nest especially as much of the intelligence was contradictory. We consider that if, because it was essential to support improved governance in Afghanistan, the deployment could not have been deferred or delayed until the end of the fighting season in 2006, senior military advisers should nonetheless have raised serious concerns about the unpredictable nature of the conflict on which they were embarking. This briefing should have drawn clear attention to the need for force levels to be sufficiently robust to cope with an unpredictable conflict. We believe that such concerns as were raised by the Armed Forces were inadequate at best, and that they were not raised, as they should have been, to the very highest levels of Government. (Paragraph 36)

7.  Whilst we recognise that senior military staff have a role in determining the level of resources needed on specific operations and that this might mean moderating the demands of commanders in the field, nonetheless, we are disturbed by the fact that the Secretary of State was being told that commanders on the ground were content with the support they were being given in Helmand when clearly they were not. We regard it as unacceptable that hard pressed Forces in such a difficult operation as Helmand should have been denied the necessary support to carry out the Mission from the outset, and that this shortage had not been brought to the attention of Ministers. (Paragraph 41)

8.  We consider it to be unlikely that this fundamental change to the operation was put to Ministers for a decision as to whether to proceed. We cannot be more certain on this because we have been denied sight of the relevant minutes (see paragraph 15). As the change put the lives of Armed Forces personnel at much greater risk, it should surely have gone to the Cabinet for endorsement. Subsequent to the decision, the new Secretary of State was told in retrospect but we do not believe that senior military advisers briefed their Ministers with sufficient force as to the strategic implications of the operational change which had already been made. The MoD should tell us how relevant lessons have been learnt. (Paragraph 55)

9.  The significant transfer of such senior key personnel, both political and military would increase risks in the administration of the Armed Forces at any time but, in 2006 at such a crucial stage in both the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it gave rise to unacceptable risks. We conclude that these risks were realised. We recommend that the Government should avoid moving so many senior military personnel at a time when Ministers are being moved as well. (Paragraph 56)

10.  What is particularly worrying is that the much increased requirement for additional resources and support, in particular for additional troops and helicopters, was not acted upon quickly enough. Whilst we accept that it is not possible to prepare and train soldiers quickly to reinforce those on the ground when circumstances change, we are, nonetheless, concerned that no strategic reserve had been trained and prepared in order to be readily available, particularly as this Mission had been planned for some considerable time. There should always be a contingency reserve available with the resources to support it. If it is used, immediate plans to restore it should be in place. (Paragraph 62)

11.  Armed Forces personnel achieved the best tactical outcomes possible in very difficult circumstances in no small measure due to the high quality and training of the troops themselves. But it must be acknowledged that the force levels deployed throughout 2006, 2007 and 2008 were never going to achieve what was being demanded of the Armed Forces by the UK, NATO and the Afghan Government. We view it as unacceptable that UK Forces were deployed in Helmand for three years, as a result of a failure of military and political co­ordination, without the necessary personnel and equipment to succeed in their Mission. (Paragraph 67)

Military operations since 2009

12.  We welcome the adoption of the counter-insurgency strategy by the coalition and recognise that, for UK Forces, it was a continuation of its previously adopted strategy although this had been badly under-resourced. It seems to us that the two crucial aspects of the revised strategy are the decision to put the security of the local population at its core and the acceptance of the need to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan Government and the ANSF. We also recognise that the McChrystal Strategy could not work without the accompanying surge in troop numbers. (Paragraph 71)

13.  We consider that it is vital that NATO, ISAF and UN Missions and the international alliance succeed with this latest strategy in both political and military terms. We note the progress already made and that training and support arrangements may have to continue for some time after the withdrawal of combat capability. [See Part 6 for further discussion on withdrawal and transition arrangements.] (Paragraph 78)

14.  We welcome the introduction of the role of the UK National Contingent Commander and the "two star" headquarters for Regional Command South. We also conclude that the command and control arrangements for operations in Afghanistan in 2006 were deficient. Following the review of the operational role of PJHQ, we require a clear description of the revised command and control arrangements for Afghanistan including the role of the PJHQ and its relationship with headquarters in theatre. We recognise the importance of having a readily available and capable "two star" headquarters for these types of deployments and are concerned about the reduction in the number of such headquarters following the SDSR. (Paragraph 88)

15.  We recommend that the MoD make greater efforts to reduce breaches of harmony guidelines for all personnel and take these breaches into account when deciding which trades and groups of Armed Forces personnel should be subject to redundancies. (Paragraph 90)

16.  The MoD does not record centrally how many Armed Forces personnel have been on multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and other operational theatres. Such information is vital to allow the Armed Forces to judge the load on individual personnel. We recommend that this information is collated and should be considered alongside breaches of harmony guidelines when judging the pressures on the Armed Forces, and on individuals when deciding on posting. (Paragraph 91)

17.  We look forward to seeing the results of the work being done to improve the effectiveness of the airbridge. In the meantime, we recommend that the MoD negotiate with allies to permit the use of their resources to plug any gaps in the airbridge. (Paragraph 93)

18.  We recognise the importance of close air support and the skill and bravery of those providing it. We would like confirmation from the MoD that the Armed Forces in Afghanistan now have access to sufficient and timely close air support. (Paragraph 95)

19.  We are conscious that our predecessor Committee was told in previous inquiries that UK Forces have enough helicopters only to discover subsequently that this was not true. We are not convinced that UK Forces yet have access to sufficient helicopter hours. We recommend that, in response to this Report, the MoD set out how the new helicopters delivered into theatre have impacted on the availability of helicopter hours, any outstanding delivery of helicopters and how much reliance and use we are making of helicopters from the USA and other countries. (Paragraph 97)

20.  We recognise that the Taliban continues to change its tactics and methods and that the extent of the use of IEDs has changed and developed since 2007. However, we believe that the MoD did not respond quickly enough to these challenges as they developed. We continue to be concerned about the time taken to get a suitably capable vehicle fleet into theatre. Protecting Armed Forces personnel is a critical duty of the MoD. We recommend, in its response to this Report, the MoD explains how current equipment levels are providing the Armed Forces with the necessary protected vehicles, body armour and counter-IED support. The MoD should prioritise the protection of personnel when considering the funding of such needs that emerge in the future. (Paragraph 102)

21.  We recognise that civilian contractors provide valuable support to the MoD. We require that the MoD should monitor and report on casualties of contractors working on behalf of the UK Government. (Paragraph 103)

22.  It seems to us that the convention under which all additional costs of operations should be met from the Treasury reserve has been breached with the introduction of the concept of 'urgent defence requirements' and the requirement to pay back expenditure on UORs over the estimate. We recommend that the classification of UDRs be dropped permanently and that the MoD be not required to pay back expenditure on equipment needed on operations. We would like confirmation that all additional costs for Afghanistan are being met and will continue to be met from the General Reserve. We seek a similar confirmation for the costs of the Libya operation. (Paragraph 105)

23.   Whilst we recognise that the MoD cannot calculate accurately the full cost of operations, we nevertheless ask the MoD to provide us with a broad estimate of the total costs of operations in Afghanistan. We also ask the NAO to do a study into the level of costs of Afghanistan. (Paragraph 108)

Training of the Afghan National Security Forces

24.  There have been significant improvements in the training of the ANA but there is much progress yet to be made before the ANA is ready to take over responsibility for security in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. We welcome General Richards' assurance that the aim of a sustainable ANA is being aggressively pursued but the MoD must maintain its focus on training the ANA, in qualitative as well as quantitative terms. (Paragraph 116)

25.  There is much progress yet to be made before the ANP is sufficiently reliable to take on its share of the responsibility for security by the end of 2014. The UK should continue to insist that the international coalition maintain the momentum on training the ANP and, in particular, on reducing the level of corruption in the ANP. (Paragraph 122)

26.  We recognise that much hard work has gone into the training and partnering with the ANSF, in particular, in enabling the physical and conceptual components of fighting power but we remain concerned that the training and development of what the British Army calls the moral component—leadership, discipline, culture, ethics and anti-corruption—is crucial to ensure the long term professional capability of the ANSF. (Paragraph 125)

27.  We are of the opinion that the ANSF will require significant support after the transition. We await with interest the assessment of the success of the transition of the first seven areas, in particular that of Lashkar Gah. (Paragraph 126)

The impact on the civilian population

28.  We welcome the reduction in the number of civilian casualties caused by ISAF and ANSF Forces despite the increase in operational tempo. We recommend that UK Forces maintain their focus on reducing civilian casualties whether these are caused by ISAF or ANSF Forces or by the insurgents. We require that the MoD should monitor, or encourage NATO to monitor, civilian casualties caused by insurgents as well as those caused by ISAF or ANSF Forces. (Paragraph 130)

29.  We recommend that the MoD ensure that information and influence operations are sufficiently resourced both in Afghanistan and in future operations. Influence operations in Afghanistan should make extensive use of the informative reports commissioned by the US Forces on the Afghan population in specific areas of the country. If no such reports are available for relevant areas, UK Armed Forces should commission reports independently. (Paragraph 133)

30.  Generally, polling data on the views of the Afghan people does not present a coherent picture over time although some indications are that the local population are seeing some improvement in security. (Paragraph 134)

31.  We recommend that the MoD put into place proper planning for language skills in theatre for future operations. (Paragraph 135)

32.  We accept that it would not be possible, even were it desirable, to turn Afghanistan into the type of modern democracy to be seen in Europe. It would be preferable —and more likely to be successful—to build on local traditional structures which are accepted by the people of Afghanistan. These structures are not for ISAF to determine. (Paragraph 146)

33.  We understand that the relationship between the UK PRT and the US Forces took some time to bed down and we commend all parties for making this work. (Paragraph 148)

34.  The UK-led Helmand PRT has been held up as a model of how a PRT can work. We commend the work of the PRT and the way in which civilian and military personnel have worked together. We also look to the MoD to continue to provide the appropriate resources and capabilities in support of the PRT and to prepare for a smooth transition in transferring PRT responsibilities to the Afghan authorities. (Paragraph 150)

35.  If Afghanistan is to become a stable and even partially functioning society, it is vital that women are involved in the process and feel they have a stake in it. If, as feared, women are largely excluded from peace negotiations, coupled with the re-engagement of the Taliban in government, then the progress made so far could easily unravel. UN Resolution 1325 requires that in all peace negotiations in regions affected by conflict, women's voices must be heard to ensure the long-term stability of any negotiated settlement. Afghanistan is no different. (Paragraph 151)

36.  We recognise that progress in the development of the role of women is important to the evolution of a democratic state in Afghanistan even if the form of democracy it takes is one more suited to Afghan traditions than to Western models. (Paragraph 155)

37.  We do not think that the MoD has taken the needs of women in Afghanistan as seriously as it should. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government provide a progress report on the number of female engagement officers currently in Afghanistan and on the development of relevant pre-deployment training on cultural awareness including the role of women. We recommend that the MoD takes a more comprehensive view of the issues relating to women when it develops its training. (Paragraph 157)

Transition and withdrawal

38.  We are concerned that, as any refocusing of US Forces is planned, any redeployments should be properly sequenced with UK planning for the withdrawal of UK Forces in the South of Afghanistan, and that UK Forces are not left exposed. (Paragraph 168)

39.  The Government's room for manoeuvre regarding the number of troops that could be withdrawn from Afghanistan as part of an immediate transition is necessarily limited. The withdrawal of a few hundred troops in support roles is feasible and would not significantly affect the combat capability of those remaining. A more significant drawdown, however, would have to involve a complete battle group. Weakening any battle group to withdraw numbers would be a dangerous move. A troop withdrawal that involved numbers in the low thousands, therefore, would depend on a geographical reorganisation of the battle groups and the withdrawal from combat duties of at least one of them.    (Paragraph 169)

40.  We believe that the NATO ISAF "conditions-based approach" to withdrawal is a suitable one. Withdrawal must have due regard to the circumstances at the time. There are still many challenges facing the ANSF and Afghan Government before proper transition can take place. (Paragraph 170)

41.  While we recognise that the Government believes that the UK public would like certainty as to when UK Forces will be out of danger, we also recognise that some level of uncertainty is inevitable. It is important that the Government's clear determination to withdraw combat forces should not undermine the military strategy by causing the Afghan population to fear that the international coalition might abandon them or by allowing the Taliban and others to think that all they have to do is bide their time until ISAF Forces withdraw. (Paragraph 171)

42.  We recognise that much progress has been made towards the development of governance arrangements but have yet to be convinced that the arrangements are sufficiently robust, transparent or accountable in terms of their capacity to take on the full range of responsibilities that will fall to them after 2014. Added to this is the uncertainty as to how these governance arrangements will develop following the end of the second constitutional term of President Karzai. It is essential that a comprehensive approach is taken to the transitional arrangements that will need to be put in place leading up to 2014 and beyond. UK Government Departments other than the MoD will also have a part to play in helping to build the capacity necessary to ensure that stability is maintained under Afghan control. We have seen some evidence of such a comprehensive approach but feel that more emphasis needs to be placed on capacity building within the political system if long-term success is to be achieved. (Paragraph 172)

43.  We expect the Government to set out in a timely fashion, the milestones it expects to reach and the progress it expects to make against them as 2014 approaches. We will continue to scrutinise closely developments in Afghanistan. (Paragraph 173)

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Prepared 17 July 2011