Operations in Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

5  The impact on the civilian population

Civilian casualties

127. Air Marshal Peach and Karen Pierce both stressed how seriously the UK take any civilian casualties caused by the international coalition.[143] The number of civilian casualties caused by ISAF Forces has decreased by 30 per cent from 2009 to 2010. The number of civilian casualties linked to anti-government forces increased by 53 per cent from 2009 to 2010. Insurgents were responsible for some 76 per cent of all civilian casualties. Overall, the number of civilian casualties has increased overall by 31 per cent due to the actions of insurgents.[144]

128. General Messenger said that some of the reduction in civilian casualties caused by ISAF resulted from greater rigour when using air-delivered weapons, including greater scrutiny and oversight.[145] Lindy Cameron said that, in Helmand, Governor Mangal had very much welcomed General McChrystal's increased focus on preventing civilian casualties.[146]

129. For the civilian population, any increase in civilian casualties, even caused by insurgents, undermines the confidence of the local population in the Afghan Government and NATO as they feel security is poor and the ANSF and ISAF are failing them. Colonel Langton pointed out that Afghans regard all civilian casualties, even those caused by the Taliban, as a failure of the international coalition:

    General McChrystal's declared aim of protecting the population, which is what he said, was welcomed by everybody. As General Messenger said, he put in place some fairly stringent rules of engagement—cutting down on the air power being used and so on. The trouble is that, in Afghanistan, a casualty caused by somebody in a foreign uniform, which includes the Afghan National Army, is 10 times worse than a suicide bomber from the Taliban, who actually gets some credibility because he is a martyr. Also, the Taliban are very quick to apologise when they get it wrong. That was brought out in a web message at the time of one particular disaster—I think it was in Kunduz—when civilians were killed by the Taliban's own action. Basically, the message, as I understand it implied, "You can see that McChrystal's strategy is failing because he isn't protecting the population." The message wasn't so crude as to say, "We are still killing them," but you get my message. Civilian casualties resonate in a much deeper way in Afghanistan, perhaps, than in many other conflicts with which we may all be familiar.[147]

130. 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.

Strategic Communications

131. The UK Armed Forces have yet to incorporate fully strategic communications and "information and influence" operations into their campaigns, although they have recognised that communication with the local population is crucial. The Armed Forces' understanding of the Afghan people has improved but could still be better. The MoD provided us with some good examples of detailed analyses of elements of the Afghan population (commissioned by the USA) providing a rich contextual understanding of people in particular areas.[148] We were also impressed by examples of how, as when Brigadier Mackay commanded the UK Forces in Helmand, the Armed Forces could work more extensively with the Arab media. Commander Tatham told us:

    I think they [Taliban] had a very successful period between 2006 and 2008, when they were very proactive with the media. They had embeds from Muslim and Arab TV stations. They improved their web presence. There was a whole host of other measures that saw their message resonating more widely than it had before. However, looking back on that now, it was probably a bit of a blip. I don't think their message has much resonance in the international community at all. We're well aware of the inaccuracy and, to be honest, the downright lies that go into many of their press releases, certainly about Coalition casualties. But it's important to distinguish between those who support and those who sympathise, and there is undoubtedly sympathy, particularly in the Muslim world, for some of the aspirations of the Taliban, if not their methods. I think it's finely balanced. I think we are much more persuasive in our information campaign in the international community, but we have a cunning adversary who may yet bounce back.[149]

132. Commander Tatham told us that as yet the Armed Forces did not have a written doctrine for information and influence operations or the right training to support such operations although it was being looked at in the MoD.[150]

133. 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.

134. Anecdotal evidence and some polling data suggest that most Afghan people, in areas of high insecurity, want, as priorities, safety for themselves and their families and the ability to go about their normal lives. Over time, polling data has shown varying levels of confidence in security and the acceptance of international forces in Afghanistan with no consistent trends.[151] Witnesses reported that the Afghan people did not trust the international coalition and were worried that the international community might abandon them, leaving them at the mercy of the Taliban. General Messenger said that more than 70 per cent of the population in Helmand were in areas where there was an improving security situation.[152] 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.

135. In trying to work closely with the local population, it is important for military personnel to be able to communicate directly with people rather than through an interpreter. This places a great deal of importance on acquiring the right language skills quickly.[153] We recommend that the MoD put into place proper planning for language skills in theatre for future operations.

The work of the Provincial Reconstruction Team

Governance and justice

136. The Secretary of State said that improving governance was one of the three main challenges facing the coalition and the Government in Afghanistan. Governance was starting to improve at both the national and local levels. Part of the problem was a shortage of educated, capable Afghans.[154] In some ways the coalition contributed to this shortage by employing many of the competent Afghans and paying them higher wages. The Secretary of State said that the coalition needed to work with the Afghan Government to provide three supportive pillars:

  • a working judiciary and a concept of law which applies to the governing as well as the governed;
  • economic liberty within a free market;
  • a concept of rights.[155]

137. During our visit to Afghanistan, we were told that areas where civil justice had been weak or corrupt, the Afghan people turned to the Taliban to resolve disputes. The Secretary of State said that the rule of law was important as was getting the local population to use official sources for dispute resolution:

    The importance of that process lies in denying the social space, if we might call it that, to the Taliban, because many people, especially in the South, were turning to the Taliban for simple dispute resolution and it was that role that was giving legitimacy to the Taliban. The 2010 Asia Foundation survey showed that 42% of people were now turning to the shura for resolution and 31% were taking disputes to local government institutions, such as the district authorities, which was certainly a change, because we know that those institutions were not there before. We were still seeing some 27% of people going to senior tribal figures. So there is definitely a shift going on.

    However, I think that the important point is that there are alternatives to dispute resolution through the Taliban. That is the key and I am not sure that it really matters which of these methods has a relative position in the league, if you like. However, the fact is that we are squeezing the Taliban out and denying them the legitimacy and the space in which to operate.[156]

138. The MoD does not know how many Afghan people are now using the formal law sector rather than that of the Taliban because it had only recently started to track these sectors.[157] Peter Watkins told us it was also important to build up the informal sector as well:

    [...] If you look at surveys, such as the recent Asia Foundation survey, the majority of Afghans—40%—when they have a dispute or whatever, take it to a local shura; they don't take it through the formal process. So we are trying to strengthen both of them. [...] The informal sector is very important as well and arguably more important and so the Provincial Reconstruction Team is helping to develop community councils and four community councils have now been set up.[158]

139. We asked General Richards about what the mass break-out from Kandahar prison in May 2011 said about the ability of the ANSF to secure prisons. He told us that the audacious break-in and break-out did not mean that the Afghan Government was useless and incapable. He said the Afghan Government had reassured the UK that lessons had been learned and that it would not happen again.[159]

140. Lindy Cameron, the former head of the PRT, told us that both security and governance in Helmand had improved:

    [...] significantly improved for the better. When Governor Mangal arrived, there were district governors in six of the 14 districts of Helmand. There are now district governors in 12. There are four district community councils. If you look at Nad-e-Ali as a case study, participation in governance has gone up significantly. People now engage with the district community council and the district governor in a way that is a significant change even from when I arrived last July for my recce visit. I remember sitting in Nad-e-Ali for a security shura, listening to gunfire on the perimeter that was being held. I contrast that with walking into the district governor's office now, looking at the row of offices where there are staff from various Government Ministries in a way [...] the like of which it had not seen in any other district in Afghanistan, let alone in Helmand. I think we've really helped Governor Mangal achieve the kind of district government and district community councils that have shown a significant improvement in governance in the last couple of years.[160]

141. We were told in Afghanistan that it was important to assist the Afghan Government to develop a functioning non-corrupt democratic system adapted to local conditions. On elections, General Messenger told us that the Parliamentary elections had been better than the previous Presidential ones:

    [...] On the elections, there was a lot of negative reporting of the Presidential Elections last year, and we had the Parliamentary Elections most recently. Going back to your previous point, I am not saying that those were entirely without mishap and incident, but the elections and the process itself were planned and delivered by the Afghans. The security was planned and delivered by the Afghans, with the international community completely on the back seat ready to deploy should it be required, but it was not. Despite their best intentions, the Taliban were unable to influence the elections to any degree. [...] there were a greater number of incidents on the day of the elections, but they took place some distance away from the polling, and were unable to affect the conduct of the elections on the day. I am not saying that it was a perfectly delivered democratic event, but the view on the ground, of the Afghans, the international forces there and the independent international observers, was that there were positive things that came out of it and considerable grounds for optimism.[161]

142. Professor Farrell thought that corruption and criminal networks were still an important issue for ISAF:

    The second issue is corruption and criminal networks. This is now a major theme for ISAF under General Petraeus. Corruption has been referred to by the other speakers, both political corruption at the national, provincial and district levels, and economic corruption, which is endemic in that part of the world—Pakistan is full of it. There is an issue there about how much corruption we can accept and how much is normal for a functioning system, as opposed to how much is actually causing Afghanistan to grind to a halt economically and politically. Criminal networks will be the big theme for ISAF's new military plan. [...] The big focus going forward is on criminal networks and the challenges that that is going to present in protecting the population.[162]

143. Professor King said that any plans to tackle corruption had to be realistic and in line with the Afghan culture:

    I emphasise strongly that the regime we should realistically be looking at in Afghanistan is one that may not be particularly palatable to us in the West, namely, a patrimony, in which kin and tribal relations determine appointments and people use their offices of state as benefices. However, if the right people are appointed and take responsibility for their areas, there is nothing wrong with patrimonies. They can be stable. [...] We need to be very clear about what we mean by corruption and how that informs our planning and operations in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has always been a patrimonial society, and the patrimony that has been established there is substantially a response to our interventions and to the 30-year war. There is a level of activity within the nascent political regime that is emerging that is certainly corrupt by our standards, but it is seen as legitimate and proper by Afghans. There is another form of corruption that is certainly not seen as legitimate by local Afghans, [...]such as the political appropriation of certain kinds of offices and the appropriation of land. There are massive disputes and discontent about land ownership around Kandahar, where certain power brokers have just seized land by fiat.

    Of course, that leads to questions of economic corruption, and this is where we need to be extremely careful, namely in the area of narcotics. We immediately associate narcotics with corruption, and there is undoubtedly an association between the Taliban and the insurgency and the narcotics industry. It is part of the nexus of that insurgency. However, the figures that we were working on down in Regional Command South for this year show that about 80% of the GDP of the South is based on narcotics. It is not an illegal, corrupt form of economic activity, ultimately, at that level; it is just economic activity. The point is that corruption affects us as westerners very severely, and in some cases it distorts what we are trying to achieve there.[163]

144. Karen Pierce told us that warlords had held sway over many districts in Afghanistan for a long time and that it would take a long time for corruption to fall although some improvements were starting to be seen.[164]

145. In his statement in Kabul on 5 July 2011, the UK Prime Minister said:

    We're not here to create a perfect democracy, we're not here to create a perfect country, but we are doing great things here in Afghanistan in terms of their country, their schooling and everything else. We're really here to try to make sure that their country can look after its own security and keep terrorists and terrorist training camps out of this country.[165]

146. 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.


147. Lindy Cameron told us that the working relationship between the military and civilian personnel was working well:

    I have to say that it is extraordinary. I have never seen civilian-military co-operation work this well. I think that we've really got to a place where we've got the funding, staffing and the personal relationships right. I felt very supported by the whole range of Government Departments back here in Whitehall in my role inside the PRT, and equally by the military and civilians. We've evolved that relationship, so we have essentially gone from being a PRT that partners only a single British brigade to being a PRT that partners a divisional-level regional command led by General Mills. In a sense, the scale of the challenge has increased, but I think we've managed to maintain those excellent relationships. Fundamentally, if you look at how Operation Moshtarak played out, for example, I think that my military colleagues [...] felt that they were able to rely on a PRT that was able to both plan and deliver the civilian side of that operation very effectively.[166]

148. With the arrival of the US Marine Corps headquarters with its civilian side in 2010, it has been necessary to develop how civilians and the military work together. Lindy Cameron told us that it had been a challenge not being collocated with the military headquarters. She also told us that it had taken six months for them to arrive at a system that was operating well.[167] The civilian-military relationship is focused on supporting the Afghan Government.[168] 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.

149. Lindy Cameron said that the PRT had sufficient resources and capabilities. During Operation Moshtarak, it was supplied with extra resources on request. It also had access to international funds and the US provided significant Commander Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds and USAID money for work in Helmand.[169]

150. 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.

The role of women in Afghan society

151. We recognise that Afghanistan is a culturally conservative country and that Helmand is even more so. There have been some minor improvements in the role and status of women in some parts of Afghan society since the fall of the Taliban, due in part to the involvement and resources of the international community. Nevertheless, significant problems remain, particularly in the fields of health, education, employment, security and access to justice. 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.

152. We were told that, within Helmand, the role women play in Lashkar Gah is different from that in Musa Qala which is much more conservative and a rural district. Lindy Cameron told us that improvement in security was a key thing for women much like everyone. She also told us that there had been a significant improvement from Taliban times. She illustrated this with the example on a meeting for international women's day last year when 600 women gathered together in the provincial council building. She also told us that in terms of governance women were participating: two MPs, two provincial councillors; and five councillors on the community council in Gereshk.[170]

153. Karen Pierce, the UK Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told us that there was still a long way to go but that the women's voice was getting stronger. We were told that, at the May 2010 peace jirga, a high proportion of the provincial delegates were women. Initially there were tensions between the women and the mullahs which started to dissipate by the second day.[171]

154. The MoD wrote to us illustrating some of the ways in which life for women had changed in Afghanistan:

  • In 2010-11, 5.7 million children were attending school regularly of whom 2.1 million were girls. 46 per cent of girls of primary school age are enrolled in school but this is still far behind the average of 83 per cent for South Asia.
  • A quarter of the seats in the national assembly are held by women - 68 of 249 seats are reserved for women in the Lower House and 23 out of 103 in the Upper House and one women won an unreserved seat in the Lower House in 2010.
  • A quarter of births are supervised by skilled birth attendants, up from 13 per cent in 2005. There has been an increase in the availability of antenatal care but the maternal mortality rate at 1,400 per 100,000 live births in 2008 is the highest in the world.[172]

155. However, other reports suggest that the role of women is not being developed satisfactorily. We have heard of some worrying examples such the Afghan Government taking over the running of domestic violence shelters. 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.

156. In October 2010, the Government issued a revised national action plan for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 1325) covering the subject of Women Peace and Security. The Plan incorporates commitments to improve the implementation of UNSCR 1325 in three main areas of activity:

National action

  • Gender considerations will be incorporated into training on conflict in the FCO, DFID, the Stabilisation Unit and the MoD;
  • Programmes to address conflict will consider the needs of women and girls;
  • Gender considerations will be incorporated into core working practices on operations, for example, the deployment of female engagement officers in support of UK Forces, to improve military engagement with Afghan women;

On Afghanistan

  • Actions to support Afghan women's civil society organisations, the influence of Afghan women in public life and to enhance their protection through support to legal reforms and other programmes;

Multilateral action

  • To provide political support through the UN Security Council;
  • To provide political support for measures to incorporate UNSCR 1325 into the political and operational activities of the EU and NATO.

157. The MoD reports that, whilst Armed Forces personnel do not currently get training on UNSCR 1325, pre-deployment preparation does include training on the law of armed conflict which covers such aspects as the status of protected persons including women and children. The MoD is currently developing training in line with the commitments given in the national action plan on UNSCR 1352 described above.[173] 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.

143   Q 152 Back

144   UNAMA Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2010,unama.unmissions.org Back

145   Q 43 Back

146   Q 151 Back

147   Q 44 Back

148   Q 50 Back

149   Q 34 Back

150   Q 61 Back

151   BBC/ABC/ARD polling data June 2011, www.bbc.co.uk Back

152   Q 49 Back

153   Q 58 Back

154   Q 309 Back

155   Q 314 Back

156   Q 317 Back

157   Q 317 Back

158   Q 314 Back

159   Q 698 Back

160   Q 118 Back

161   Q 52 Back

162   Q 67 Back

163   Q 68 Back

164   Qq 141-142 Back

165   Prime Minister's statement on Afghanistan 5 July 2011, www.Number10.gov.uk Back

166   Q 122 Back

167   Q 132 Back

168   Q 129 Back

169   Qq 125-126 Back

170   Qq 119-121 Back

171   Q 148 Back

172   Ev 197 Back

173   UK Government National Action Plan on UNSCR 1325 Women, Peace and Security, http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=News&id=211370682 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 17 July 2011