Operations in Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

1  Introduction

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.

Our inquiry

2. The Defence Committee announced an inquiry into Operations in Afghanistan on 28 July 2010. We decided that the inquiry would have an operational focus and would examine progress in Afghanistan within the strategic framework of Afghanistan and Pakistan[1]. We wished to examine the success of military operations in providing security to local nationals; the stabilisation and reconstruction work of the Provincial Reconstruction Team; and the training of the Afghan National Security Forces. We also decided to consider the provision of support to the UK Armed Forces including equipment and logistics.

3. As this Report focuses on the work of UK military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan, it naturally concentrates on their work in Helmand. We recognise that Helmand is not necessarily representative of the rest of Afghanistan, parts of which are stable. We also recognise that a long term solution to the situation in Afghanistan requires a political solution which must involve the whole region including Pakistan. During this inquiry, we have also been mindful of the recent report on the UK's foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Foreign Affairs Committee.[2]

4. During our inquiry, we decided to extend our investigation into looking in some detail at the deployment of UK Forces to Helmand in 2006. We did so because, in our first evidence session on 26 October 2010, we asked General Messenger about his experience commanding forces in Helmand and he revealed that the deployment in Helmand had been short of troops until the surge in 2010:

    I came back in April '09, so we're about 18 months since then. At the time, insufficient resources were being allocated to the challenge in Southern Afghanistan. I commanded a brigade, alongside an Afghan brigade commander, that was stretched and not able to go to certain key areas where we knew we would ultimately have to go to secure the population. What has happened since has been an enormous inflow, principally American but also from other NATO nations, and a huge upsurge in the number of Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police who are in the line providing that security.[3]

5. We subsequently asked other Ministry of Defence (MoD) witnesses on 10 November 2010 about the deployment to Helmand in 2006 including the size of the deployment and the intelligence on which it was based. The answers we received were far from satisfactory: we were left with the impression that the MoD intended to minimise what we were told about how decisions were made to deploy to Helmand in 2006 and then to expand the deployment. As a result we decided to take evidence from those responsible at the time and had four further hearings —which, unusually, we held in private—from former Secretaries of State and retired senior military personnel. These evidence sessions were extremely informative. The redacted transcripts of these hearings are attached to this Report and are published on our website. We then had a further hearing in public with serving senior personnel— the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS) and the Chief of the General Staff (CGS)—where the witnesses were open and provided much better evidence than some of the earlier witnesses.

6. We have taken oral and written evidence from a wide range of witnesses and have had several informal briefings by the MoD and others about Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The MoD provided a Memorandum to the Committee at the start of the inquiry and further information in response to our detailed questions which arose in the course of the inquiry. These two sets of information are published with this Report. We took oral evidence from the following groups of witnesses:

  • 26 October 2010 Major General Gordon Messenger, Strategic Communication Officer for the Armed Forces and formerly the Brigadier commanding UK Forces in Helmand; Commander Stephen Tatham, former director of advanced communication research at the Defence Academy; Nick Gurr, Director of Media and Communications in the MoD; Matt Tee, Permanent Secretary for Government Communications in the Cabinet Office; and Colonel (retired) Christopher Langton, conflict research analyst and formerly of the British Army.
  • 3 November 2010 Professor Theo Farrell, Professor of War in the Modern World, King's College London; Colonel (retired) Richard Kemp, formerly of the British Army; and Professor Anthony King, Professor of Sociology, Exeter University researching military transformation, working with the Armed Forces in Afghanistan.
  • 10 November 2010 Lindy Cameron, former Head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand and NATO Senior Civilian for Regional Command South-West; Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chief of Joint Operations; Major General David Capewell, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff for Operations; Peter Watkins, Director of Operational Policy, MoD; and Karen Pierce, Policy Director for South Asia and Afghanistan, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
  • 17 November 2010 General Sir Nick Parker, Commander-in-Chief, Land Forces and formerly Deputy Commander of ISAF and the UK National Contingent Commander; and Brigadier Simon Levey, Director of the Royal Armoured Corps and formerly Combined Training Advisory Group Commander dealing with Army training in Afghanistan.
  • 17 November 2010 General (retired) Sir Graeme Lamb.
  • 15 December 2010 Dr Liam Fox Secretary of State for Defence; Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chief of Joint Operations; and Peter Watkins, Director of Operational Policy, MoD.
  • 8 February 2011 Lord Reid, former Secretary of State for Defence; and General (retired) Sir Robert Fry, former Deputy CDS (Commitments).
  • 15 March 2011 Brigadier (retired) Ed Butler, Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the first brigade to deploy into Helmand; and General (retired) Sir Mike Jackson, former Chief of the General Staff.
  • 29 March 2011 Lord Browne, former Secretary of State for Defence.
  • 4 May 2011 Air Chief Marshal (retired) Lord Stirrup, former Chief of Defence Staff.
  • 11 May 2011 General Sir David Richards, CDS (in 2006 he commanded the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) in Afghanistan); General Sir Nicholas Houghton VCDS (in 2006 he was Chief of Operations); and General Sir Peter Wall, CGS—head of the Army (in 2006 he was deputy Chief of Operations).

7. Additionally, prior to the start of this inquiry, we questioned the Rt Hon Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Defence, on operations in Afghanistan at his first appearance before the Committee in July 2010. We visited Afghanistan in January 2011. We also discussed operations in Afghanistan with US military commanders at CENTCOM, USA and with senior politicians and officials in Washington on a Committee visit to the United States of America in April 2011.


8. The previous Defence Committee last reported on operations in Afghanistan in July 2007: UK operations in Afghanistan.[4] Many of the issues raised in the Report remain of concern today. One of the Committee's primary concerns was that the international community should focus on establishing security:

    Afghanistan has experienced thirty years of conflict. ISAF and the international community must focus on establishing security and denying the Taliban and al- Qaeda the environment in which to operate.[5]

Another concern was the need for effective strategic communications in Afghanistan and within the UK:

    The Government is not communicating key messages to the British or Afghan public about the purpose of its operations in Afghanistan effectively enough.[6]

9. The previous Committee considered operations in Afghanistan as part of its inquiry on the Comprehensive Approach in 2009-10. In particular, the Committee recognised the importance of having a clear strategic intent for missions with sound planning underpinned by an understanding of the context and nature of the challenge faced and the desired end state. To achieve any measure of success, the strategy should be owned by all relevant Government Departments and the Armed Forces. The Committee also recommended that training and education on the culture, history and politics of the area be given to both civilian and military staff working there.[7]

Armed Forces casualties in Afghanistan

10. The worst aspect of operations has been the loss of lives and the number of people receiving very severe injuries. From the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 to 15 June 2012, 371 British military personnel were killed with a further 586 very seriously or seriously wounded. Over 5,000 troops were admitted to the field hospital of whom 1,712 were wounded in action and the remainder had a non battle injury or disease. Some 4,700 personnel were evacuated back to the UK by air.[8] We wish to pay tribute to the dedication of the Armed Forces and the sacrifices they and their families have made.

Priorities for operations in Afghanistan

11. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, New York, on 11 September 2001, Afghanistan became the centre of world attention. The USA concluded (and the UK agreed) that Afghanistan was harbouring al-Qaeda terrorists, including its leader Osama Bin Laden. In alliance with the Afghan Northern Alliance, the USA, supported by the UK, launched a military campaign to drive out the ruling Taliban regime from power. The Taliban were defeated through a combination of US air power and ground operations by the Northern Alliance.[9]

12. The Taliban regime fell in late 2001. Since then, the international community, through organisations such as the United Nations, the G8, the World Bank, NATO and the EU, has sought to stabilise and reconstruct Afghanistan. It was the then Government's view that the UK had a strategic interest in bringing security and stability to Afghanistan, and it is in pursuit of this strategic interest that UK Forces operate in Afghanistan.[10]

13. The MoD told us that the ISAF Mission is:

    ISAF, in support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and acting under UN Security Council Resolution 1890, conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency; support growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan national Security Forces (ANSF); and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable by the population.[11]

Other commentators told us that NATO was buying time to allow the Afghan economy to grow[12] and to support the development of a coherent non-corrupt political regime and a reduction in criminal networks to an acceptable level.[13] There are major obstacles to progress in all of the above areas.

Communication of the Mission in the UK

14. Communications with the UK population are crucial, not only to secure their consent to operations in Afghanistan but also to avoid radicalising young people. Professor King suggested that the argument should be that we are on a stabilisation mission with regional political importance rather than one of counter terrorism.[14] Polling commissioned by the MoD in 2010 and earlier showed increased support by the UK public for operations in Afghanistan—from 43 per cent in September 2006 to 52 per cent in March 2010 albeit with an increase in those opposed to operations from 37 per cent to 41 per cent in the same timeframe. The number of people who felt they knew why the Armed Forces were in Afghanistan went from 29 per cent in September 2006 to 50 per cent in March 2010.[15] Support for the Armed Forces is, however, greater than that for operations in Afghanistan.[16] 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.

Defence Committee scrutiny of the MoD

15. We asked the MoD to give us sight of the Chiefs of Staff Committee minutes in order to understand the decisions taken about operations in Helmand in 2006. The Secretary of State refused this request. Some MoD witnesses referred to these minutes in their testimony. The minutes clearly would have helped us to understand the situation in Afghanistan in 2006 and the military perspective on events and to clarify the timing of deployments and the move to the north of Helmand. 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.

16. As discussed in paragraph 5 above, we were not satisfied with the quality of the evidence given by some MoD witnesses, in particular, on the deployment to Helmand in 2006. To understand the decision-making processes and the background to the deployment in 2006, we had to take evidence from former Secretaries of State and retired senior military personnel. 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.

1   HM Government, UK policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan: the way forward, April 2009 Back

2   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2010-11, The UK's foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan , HC 514 Back

3   Q 6 Back

4   Defence Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2006-07, UK Operations in Afghanistan , HC 408 Back

5   HC (2006-07) 408 Back

6   Ibid. Back

7   Defence Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2009-10, The Comprehensive Approach: the point of war is not just to win but to make a better peace, HC 224 Back

8 8   www.mod.uk Back

9   HC (2006-07) 408 Back

10   HC (2006-07) 408 and HC Deb, 26 January 2006, col 1529 Back

11   Ev 155 Back

12   Q 2 Back

13   Q 67  Back

14   Q 87 Back

15   Qq 18-19 Back

16   Q 30 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 17 July 2011