Operations in Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

6  Transition and withdrawal

158. The Lisbon Summit in November 2011 declared that the ISAF mission in Afghanistan was NATO's key priority. It confirmed that there would be a gradual process of transferring security responsibility for districts and provinces from ISAF Forces to those of the ANSF. This transition would begin in 2011 and would be conditions-based and that ISAF troops would remain in a supportive role in those areas where responsibility had been transferred. The transition to full responsibility for security across Afghanistan should be completed by the end of 2014.[174]

159. Following transition, the role of ISAF will then change to meet critical security, training and mentoring requirements. The international civilian effort including that of the PRTs will evolve and enable greater Afghan capacity and leadership.

160. President Karzai is adamant that the ANSF should assume security responsibility for Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He also expects that the responsibilities of the PRT will also be transferred to Afghan authorities by the end of 2014. On 22 March 2011, President Karzai announced that the seven districts and provinces which will begin the process of transition in July 2011. One of these seven is Lashkar Gah, Helmand.[175]

161. The UK Prime Minister has called for UK troops to be out of the combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He confirmed that this was a firm deadline after the Lisbon Summit. We feel that the following exchange between the Prime Minister and the Chair of the Defence Committee at the Liaison Committee sets out very clearly the Government's position on withdrawal from Afghanistan:

    Q126 Mr Arbuthnot: Prime Minister, can I come back to that plan B? Let's suppose that the targets that President Karzai has set himself and the targets that we all want to see achieved are not achieved. Do we nevertheless withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, come hell or high water?

      Mr Cameron: I am not contemplating us not having a successful strategy, but I will be as clear as I possibly can. I said very clearly that I did not want us to have combat troops or troops in large numbers in Afghanistan by 2015 for a very good reason, which is this. We have been in Afghanistan since 2001. We have been in Helmand since 2006. Britain, by 2015, will have played a huge role, made a massive contribution, made massive sacrifices for a better, safer and stronger Afghanistan, and I think the British public deserve to know that there is an end point to this—there is a point at which we won't be in a combat role or have large numbers of troops.

      That is why I set the deadline of 2015; and yes, it is a deadline. I think deadlines sometimes help to focus minds: help to focus the mind of the Afghan Government that we have to make progress, help to focus the mind of the military planners to know that this cannot go on forever. In my judgment, that's the right approach for the United Kingdom. We are five years away from that point. We have a huge amount of effort to give, and we will put our shoulders to the wheel. We are the second biggest troop contributor; we are making an extraordinary contribution to that country in all sorts of ways, including aid, as we've discussed. But I think the British public deserve to know that there is an end point to all this, it is 2015 and that's clear.

      Q127  Mr Arbuthnot: Why do you take this view in relation to Afghanistan when you didn't take it in relation to Iraq?

      Mr Cameron: I'm in the position now of taking responsibility for what we are doing in Afghanistan, and in the end you have to make a judgment, as Prime Minister, on what strategy you want to set and whether you want to set a time limit on it, and I've taken the decision that we should.

      They are different situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think I've given a pretty clear answer. We've already been in Helmand for four years. By the time we are not in a combat role and with much reduced troop levels, it will be more like nine years. That is a massive contribution to the security of that country, and I think we should use the fact that we have given so much, spent so much and lost so much life to encourage others in NATO and our trusted partners to make sure that, even if they can't be in a combat role, they are in that training mission, they are helping that country.

      Let me just make one more thing clear. Yes, of course we won't be in a combat role; we won't have anything like the troops that we have now. But should Britain go on having a relationship with Afghanistan where we're helping that country, helping train its military, helping support its Treasury, helping build its capacity? Yes. Because I think we learned the lesson in the past of walking away from Afghanistan. I'm not proposing that, but I think the British public deserve to know that our young men will not go on in the situation they are forever.

      Q128  Mr Arbuthnot: So you said what you said in Canada in order to reassure the British public. Was there some pressure coming upon you from the British public to make such a statement?

      Mr Cameron: No, it's not that— This is what I feel, having looked at the defence arguments and the foreign policy arguments and the national security arguments, and wanting to take the country through what is a difficult time—we have suffered some great losses in Afghanistan—and wanting to make sure that we can take the country in the most united way we can through this situation, for our own national good, of what we're doing in Afghanistan, and to take people with us. I think that is actually important.

      Q129  Mr Arbuthnot: You will see the twinfold risk that we might be encouraging the Taliban to think that they can just wait us out, and that we might therefore be encouraging the local residents of Afghanistan to support the Taliban rather than us. That's the first risk.

      Mr Cameron: Absolutely. Can I answer that?

      Chair: Let's take the two risks together.

      Q130  Mr Arbuthnot: The second risk is that we leave Afghanistan and leave the job of combat troops to our allies, which is not, surely, in the British tradition.

      Mr Cameron: Okay. Let me try to answer those as best I can. First, I think that setting a 2015 deadline rather takes the pressure off what I think other Governments have felt, which is, "I must insist on this many troops out by that month" or "that many troops out by that month." That is actually a more dangerous situation to get yourself into, because this transition we want to see has got to be in respect of conditions based on the ground, and we mustn't rush it; we've got to get it right. So I think it's better to set a later, firmer deadline than to try to set too many individual deadlines before.

      Mr Arbuthnot: I like the notion of "conditions based".

      Mr Cameron: This is five years we are talking, effectively—well, four years. But it's a long period of time.

      Secondly, on leaving Afghanistan, what I would say is this. We have over 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. We have been in the toughest part of the country for the longest period of time. When you look at the price we've paid and the casualties that we've taken, I think we can hold our heads up high in NATO and say that we have played a huge part in trying to get this country to a better place. I think other NATO members respect and understand that and I am extraordinarily proud of what our troops have done. It's been incredibly tough.

      What I have tried to do is first of all make sure that in the mission we are involved in, we have a proper spread of troops to deliver that mission. That is why I was absolutely clear we had to come out of Sangin. We were overstretched. As well as 10,000 UK troops, there were 20,000 US troops. I wanted to make sure we were covering an appropriate amount of ground so we could deliver the job and do it properly. We have served magnificently in Sangin. Incredibly brave people did extraordinary things in that town. I have been there and seen it for myself. But I think it was right to make the decision to say, "Let us focus on Central Helmand, where we have enough troops to do the job properly, to deliver the effect on the ground," and that is now happening. I am confident that was absolutely the right decision that I insisted was taken. That's the first point.

      The second point is, it will be a serious amount of time that we will have been there, and I think we can hold our heads up high and say we have played our role absolutely to the full and we can be proud right now of what we have done, irrespective of what we will continue to do over the next few years.

      Mr Arbuthnot: With that I agree.[176]

162. When asked about the risks of making an announcement of such a firm date for withdrawal, Peter Watkins told us:

    There are both benefits and risks in doing that. One of the benefits has been that it has been quite widely welcomed by the Afghans themselves. They want to take over the lead role for security in their own country and have reacted quite positively to the 2015 date. As I said, that is simply the year after the end of 2014, which is the date that they themselves were intimately involved in agreeing. [...]

    The risk is, of course, that that date might be misinterpreted by the Taliban and they might imagine that it means that the international community will leave, but of course that is not the case. As the Prime Minister, President Obama and the Secretary-General of NATO have said, we are not just going to leave. ISAF will retain—the countries of the Coalition will retain—Forces and other capabilities in Afghanistan to support the Afghans.[177]

163. Karen Pierce said:

    [...] It would be for Ministers, not for me, to answer what might happen in the event of a situation being X or Y in 2015. What I was trying to do [...] is simply say that it is conceivable that there is one scenario in which a part of Afghanistan still requires ISAF combat assistance, and that that assistance would be provided. It does not automatically mean it has to be provided by Britain, but this is really a question that Ministers could only properly consider at the point at which it was a live question. I don't want to give the impression that we would withdraw and leave our allies in the lurch. That's not what I'm trying to do.[178]

164. When asked if the transfer of responsibility for security to the Afghan Forces was possible by the end of 2014, General Parker told us that it was a reasonable order to give the military but that the situation is dynamic:

    I think that is an entirely reasonable order to give to the military. The resources and the plan are there. We will have to manage a whole series of risks, and we should be planning to do so, but we should stay on the balls of our feet to deal with the unexpected.[179]

    Because I feel that with the plan that McChrystal brought in, that catalyst for progress injected something into this campaign that is starting to develop momentum and cautious optimism. It is entirely reasonable for our political masters to turn round to the Coalition and say, "Do it by 2015." I think that time frame is entirely reasonable, even with those challenges that you talk about. I am talking about out-of-combat operations, because that is what I read in the instruction.[180]

165. We asked General Parker when will ISAF be able to withdraw, he told us:

    That I can't answer. I am saying as a military man that it is entirely reasonable to be told to plan to get out of combat operations by 2014 or 2015. That is an entirely reasonable ask, and if we cannot do so we should pull our finger out. The situation is very dynamic, however, and we need to stay prepared to react. We need to continue to plan for contingencies that are unforeseen now.[181]

He also told us that there was still a debate to be had about how much the UK would need to help to sustain the institutional capacity of the Armed Forces.[182]

166. In May 2011, the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal of 400 troops from Afghanistan by 2012.[183] There are currently some 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan. President Obama announced in June 2011 that 10,000 US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by the end of September 2012.[184] In response, the Prime Minister said that he welcomed the announcement to draw down the US troop surge from Afghanistan:

    The surge by the US and international partners, supported by an increase in the number of Afghan Army and Police, has reversed the momentum of the insurgency and created the right conditions for security responsibility to begin to transfer to the Afghans from July.

    We will keep UK force levels in Afghanistan under constant review. I have already said there will be no UK troops in combat roles in Afghanistan by 2015 and, where conditions on the ground allow, it is right to bring troops home sooner.[185]

167. We were told that PJHQ is working on the transition plan for UK Forces and we assume that the MoD will be working with the FCO, DFID and others to prepare a Government wide plan.[186] The Chief of Defence Staff has continued to say that any drawdown should be subject to conditions on the ground.

168. Professor Farrell told us that too steep a withdrawal would reduce confidence in Afghanistan.[187] It appears to us that the steepness of the withdrawal of combat troops will be more of a problem than the final date for the withdrawal. On 6 July 2011, the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal of 426 UK military personnel by February 2012 and a further 500 reducing the Force from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012.[188] In June 2011, the US President announced the withdrawal of 10,000 troops by the end of 2011 and a further 23,000 by the end of September 2012.[189] 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.

169. 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.   

170. 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.

171. 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.

172. 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.

173. 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.

174   NATO Lisbon Summit declaration 2010 Back

175   Afghanistan: The Timetable for Security Transition , SN/1A/5851, House of Commons Library, June 2011 Back

176   Oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee on 18 November 2010 , HC (2010-12) 608-i, Qq 126-130  Back

177   Q 215 Back

178   Q 223 Back

179   Q 272 Back

180   Q 273 Back

181   Q 274 Back

182   Q 273 Back

183   MoD press release 18 May 2011 Back

1 184  83 Statement by President Obama 23 June 2011, www.whitehouse.gov Back

185   MoD press release 23 June 2011 Back

186   Q 207 Back

187   Q 110 Back

188   HC Deb, 6 July 2011, cols 1511-1514 Back

189   Statement by President Obama 23 June 2011, www.whitehouse.gov Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 17 July 2011