Defence Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 413

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Defence Committee

on Tuesday 20 November 2012

Members present:

Mr James Arbuthnot (Chair)

Mr Julian Brazier

Thomas Docherty

Mr Dai Havard

Mrs Madeleine Moon

Penny Mordaunt

Sandra Osborne

Sir Bob Russell

Ms Gisela Stuart

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Lieutenant General Richard Barrons, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations), Vincent Devine, Director Operational Policy, Ministry of Defence, and Mark Sedwill, Political Director and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gave evidence.

Chair: Gentlemen, welcome. I think this is the fourth evidence session of our inquiry into Afghanistan, which is a longer inquiry than we normally do, but this is a matter of huge importance to the country, and I think to the world. We have lots of questions to ask you. Some we will have to ask in writing because of the sheer number of things we want to get to the bottom of. You are most welcome, and I wonder if you would like to begin by introducing yourselves.

Lt-Gen Barrons: I am Lieutenant-General Richard Barrons. I am the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff for Military Strategy and Operations, and therefore the Director of Operations for the Ministry of Defence.

Vincent Devine: I am Vincent Devine, Director of Operational Policy at the Ministry of Defence.

Mark Sedwill: Mark Sedwill, Political Director at the Foreign Office, also the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, former Ambassador, and formerly the NATO representative there.

Q230 Chair: Okay, thank you. Mr Sedwill, we last saw you some time ago in Afghanistan. I wonder if you could explain how the political situation has developed since then, and how you would describe it now, particularly in relation to national governance and how it is doing.

Mark Sedwill: I think there has been significant progress. Of course, there have been setbacks as well. I left Afghanistan in the spring of 2011, and I think the Committee visited a few months before I left. Essentially, we have seen since then significant progress in the Government’s financial capacity, so they have improved their customs collection, their revenue collection and their tax collection, which has gone up quite significantly. They have started to tackle some of the abuses, such as Kabul Bank, and prosecutions have just begun this week. They have started to put in place the pillars for the next presidential election in 2014. The date has been announced, and laws are going through the Afghan Parliament for the Independent Electoral Commission and to manage the elections.

Of course, very significant challenges remain, largely related to the security situation. Corruption is still, and will be for some time, a major challenge. There are significant issues with the nexus of drugs and criminal patronage, and networks in governance as a whole are still weak; in some areas, it is of course contested, particularly in the south and the east, and in others it is still weak. But provincial governance as a whole has improved, and we are seeing in the progress of the transition plan, which is the piece of work that I focused on in my last few months, a real sign that the Afghans are beginning to fill the gap that is being opened up for them as we gradually draw down and leave.

Q231 Chair: You mentioned the presidential elections. I do not expect you to tell us who is likely to take over from President Karzai, but could you give us the general characteristics of the person who might take over from him? What would you expect?

Mark Sedwill: In the 2009 election, both leading candidates ran on balanced tickets. The president and two vice-presidential candidates will stand. In President Karzai you had a Pashtun from the south, and then in the two vice-presidents a Tajik and a Hazara. I would expect to see the principal tickets being of that same kind of ethnic balance. Others may run, but I would expect that to be the case. I think most Afghans would expect still to see a Pashtun as President. About 40% of the population are Pashtun, and clearly that is the area that is contested by the Taliban. It is very important, therefore, that the Pashtun community in Afghanistan feels a connection to the President, but it will be a balanced ticket. The exact nature of the individual is very difficult to tell. There are a number of names out there, but no one is yet emerging as the strongest or the natural candidate. I suppose that, 18 months out, one would not expect that yet.

Q232 Chair: As we draw down, and as 2014 comes ever closer, is it possible to say now whether Afghanistan will have a fully functioning Government after 2014-the sort of Government that would have an inherent stability built into it?

Mark Sedwill: I think the answer is probably yes, but of course there are very significant challenges, particularly in the south and east of the country. In Kabul, in the north and the west, there is already a functioning Government and it is led by Afghans. Even in Helmand, as you know, our PRT has worked hard behind and in support of the Governor, rather than seeking to crowd out Afghan governance. That, to be honest, has been the pattern in one or two other parts of the country. I think there is a good prospect of Afghan governance that essentially is country-wide, but of course it depends particularly on the political situation and whether there has been some kind of political accommodation-some kind of reconciliation with the Taliban-that enables Afghan governance to function effectively throughout the whole country, particularly the south and east.

I would expect it would be effective by the standards of a country at Afghanistan’s stage of development. Let’s remember this is one of the poorest countries in the world and will be for some time to come. We would expect it to be effective in the main urban centres, the main population centres, even in those contested areas. But clearly rural areas, if the Taliban are still strong in those areas, it would inevitably remain much weaker.

Q233 Chair: Lord Ashdown says we should leave now. What do you say to that?

Mark Sedwill: There is a great deal in what Lord Ashdown has said, not only in his recent articles but over many years, that I would agree with, but I do not think that is right. I think if we raced for the exit, then all of the fears that we have about Afghanistan’s future would become that much likelier. It is not in their interests, or indeed in our national security interest, for us to race for the exit.

If you just look-I know it does not seem long-at the period over the next two years and what we might be able to achieve, and should be able to achieve if we are resolute about it-perhaps I can just use the example of the last 18 months, which General Barrons will know a little more about. When I left Afghanistan in May 2011, less than 20% of operations were led by the Afghan national security forces. It is now over 80% and of the remaining 20%, half are co-led by them. That is a dramatic change in 18 months and demonstrates that the transition process-when we say it is making progress, that is real.

Violence in the three areas that transition has already been taken through in covers about 75% of the population. Violence in those areas is down 15%. The security, of course, as we all know, is absolutely critical to creating the space for decent governance, enabling the population to hold the Government to account. If that continues and if we remain resolute over the next two years and see the project through to the end of the combat mission in 2014-and then, of course, there will be a continuing commitment thereafter-then I think we can achieve our core goals, which are to ensure that Afghanistan is no longer a source of threat to the region or to the wider international community, including the terrorist threat to the UK.

Chair: Thank you.

Q234 Mr Brazier: Mr Sedwill, what needs to happen to the economy to promote a successful Afghanistan post-2014? I will give General Barrons advance notice that I am then going to ask him what we are doing about defending those key objectives.

Mark Sedwill: The key thing with the economy is essentially to keep it on track. It is going to remain aid-dependent to some degree for probably the next decade, maybe through till the mid 2020s. The World Bank’s estimate is that there is a fiscal gap of around 40% now and up until about 2014, and that will be 20% by the end of the decade and by the mid-2020s should close, if Afghanistan remains on its current track. Growth per year has been about 9% per year, which you would expect from a very low base, as we have seen in Afghanistan. Their own revenue collection has grown quite significantly. In about 2005, it was 3% of GDP. It is now 11%. Clearly, that needs to continue, which is one reason we focus so heavily on customs collection, and so on.

The main staple for the economy is still agriculture. In the previous eras, they exported high-quality soft fruits into the Indian market. Therefore the AfPak-India trade agreements-the AfPak transit trade agreement-is important to the agricultural sector for Afghanistan. Pomegranates and other exports of this kind. Towards the end of the decade we hope that mineral resources will come on-stream. You have probably seen the reports of the vast mineral resources Afghanistan has. Properly managed, they have a genuinely prosperous future, not just a future above subsistence level.

I would expect to see that economic progress continue, but gradually, of course, they need to wean themselves off being an aid-dependent-and essentially a security dependent-economy. That is what DFID and other major donors are working with them on.

Q235 Mr Brazier: Correct me if I am wrong: the main mineral resources are not actually in Helmand, are they? I do not think any of the major finds are. Is that right or not?

Mark Sedwill: I cannot remember the exact distribution; essentially they are country wide. There are different resources country wide: precious gems, some hydrocarbons, rare earths, lithium and so on. I cannot remember exactly the mineral resources in Helmand, although there are significant ones, certainly, in Kandahar, just next door.

Q236 Mr Brazier: General Barrons, what are we doing to protect the economic fabric? We have discussed in many of these sessions particular protection and particular steps that we are taking on the rule of law and the fabric of government, but without livelihood one clearly cannot have order. What are we doing to protect and enhance the economy?

Lt-Gen Barrons: I will confine myself to the military contribution to this piece. Our significant achievement is, with the ANSF, to push the fighting away from the centres of population and the main routes. By doing that, you create a space in which governance and development and prosperity can flourish without the dead hand of the insurgency interfering. In Helmand, as we talked about before, that is pretty much what we are accomplishing.

I think there are a couple of other minor contributions that we might make. The first is in Kabul, by contributing to the institutional development of the Ministries of Defence and of Interior and the NDS. We are helping to promote institutions that can protect the Afghan state more generally, and that is work that will take some time to complete. We need to be sensitive to the economic effect of the draw-down and departure of ISAF. We are in the order of-we have an expert here-15% of the economy, so as we remove our investment, as it were, in the Afghan economy, we need to ensure that there is a soft landing.

The final thing, which is just coming over the radar from my perspective, is that there must be a discussion about the return of the airports at Kabul and Kandahar and Jalalabad to the Afghan civil economy, so that they can take advantage of them and reduce and remove eventually the military pressure on those runways.

Q237 Mr Brazier: Thank you. To pick up on that final point, are we looking quite closely at the economic, as well as the military, impact of the removal of ISAF?

Mark Sedwill: Indeed, the World Bank has looked at this, as has the IMF, and DFID provided some support to that. They expect to see a decline in growth, which is inevitable because of the sheer scale, as General Barrons has pointed out, of the security presence, but not, at this stage, for it to flip into recession. They think growth will come down from the 7% to 9%-9% average over the last decade-to low single figures before starting to pick up again.

Quite a lot will depend on how we, essentially, repatriate some of the people whom we have employed. We employ a vast number of interpreters and highly skilled people within the ISAF mission. As we have seen elsewhere, if given lump sums and the right kind of training, they can come out and start setting up businesses of their own. The World Bank has taken that into account, and that is a big part of the underlying work on the transition.

Q238 Ms Stuart: All that economic growth and increased security will not add up to anything if we do not deal with corruption at all levels. The last time we saw you, the Kabul Bank was just coming ahead, and we then thought it would be sorted. In your introductory remarks, I think you said that prosecutions are just starting to happen. Can you give us a general idea of what you think is happening to deal with corruption? Can you illustrate that with what has happened to the Kabul Bank? Should we have acted earlier? Do you think the judicial system is up to prosecuting? If anybody gets sentenced to anything, do we have prisons where people can be contained?

Mark Sedwill: The answer to all of those questions is essentially "partially", and let me develop that a bit. Kabul Bank, as I think I said in an interview on the day that I left Afghanistan, was the worst moment of my time there, because it was the moment at which I just felt that the whole campaign was at a tipping point had it not been tackled. To be candid, it took about a year after the Kabul Bank incident itself for the Afghan Government to grip it. There were some very powerful political interests involved and, as we all know, that was very challenging for President Karzai and his Ministers to work through. They faced losing some of the support of the principal power brokers within Afghanistan, so he had to manage that very carefully and it took longer than we had expected or wanted for them really to take a grip on it and start to recover some of the funds and, indeed, follow up with criminal prosecutions and sort out the bank.

After a year, the right measures were in place, and it was really as a result of that that commitments were possible at the Bonn conference, and, indeed, international commitments from the IMF essentially recertified that aid programmes that had been suspended could restart. So the experts essentially concluded that the Kabul Bank was on track, but it remains the most visible sign of the underlying corruption problem.

Corruption is going to take a generation to resolve in Afghanistan. It is absolutely woven into the nature of a conflict society, just as the narcotics trade is, which will also take a generation. There is a very difficult nexus here between the perception that people have and what they suffer in corruption and the abuse of power. So, in Helmand for example, corruption was really a symptom of the abuse of power, led by certain tribal groups to the detriment of other tribal groups, until we were able to start to get a grip on it, and some of those features will continue.

Essentially, there are two things that I would say that we have done in the last year to tackle this: one by us, one by the Afghans themselves. At the Tokyo conference, we agreed with them a very challenging mutual accountability framework, which requires them to take corruption seriously and to get a grip on it throughout the system-not just high-profile cases, but throughout the system. The aid that we have committed over the period after 2014 is dependent upon them honouring those commitments.

Just a few days later-I think it was 26 July-President Karzai issued a decree with 164 time-bound measures on corruption, and some of those are starting to take effect. Of course, declaratory policy is all very well, but it does mean that we have some specific commitments against which we can hold them to account.

However, you are absolutely right to focus on the judiciary, the prison system and the rule of law generally. As you know, again I have spoken quite often about this in the past. I think this remains one of the most significant risks to Afghanistan’s own stability-the connection of their people to their own Government and system, but of course our own attitude to the resilience of the state. It is going to be a long process and it remains one of the most significant risks.

Q239 Ms Stuart: Would you say that there are any prisons now that could actually hold someone convicted as a result of the prosecutions in the Kabul Bank, and who may well be a member of the Karzai family? Do you think there would be a prison where you could safely keep someone?

Mark Sedwill: There are some, but it is far from country wide, and one of the problems with the prisons is that people are, of course, able to bribe their way out-not in a high-profile case, because it’s self-evident if it happens there, but at lower levels it is possible for people to do so and the prison system remains a significant gap. So, I think there are prisons that meet that test, but it’s far from all of the prisons, let alone all of the detention facilities that exist in Afghanistan so far.

Q240 Ms Stuart: Just pursuing the Kabul Bank issue again, one of the reasons why it was so significant is that, first, we were so late coming into it; secondly, the people implicated were very close to the President; and, thirdly, which is much more important to our inquiry, as I understand it the cash terminals of the Kabul Bank were part of the ways that we thought we could deal with corruption in the Afghan National Police, because there wouldn’t be an intermediary who would be handing out the cash who then disappeared, because they were getting it out of the cash machines. Can they do that now? Has that been dealt with, so that the people on the ground actually now get paid directly rather than through third parties?

Mark Sedwill: They do very largely, I think. I can’t remember the exact numbers; maybe one of my colleagues knows. But most Afghan policemen and soldiers are paid essentially electronically.

Q241 Chair: By electronic phone?

Mark Sedwill: By mobile phone, and so on.

What happened with the Kabul Bank was the actual operations of the bank weren’t affected by the major corruption scandal; it was really on the balance sheet of the bank. The bank’s transactional operations were maintained, essentially through the whole period, so although the balance sheet was frozen, in effect, and there was, in effect, a money laundering scheme being run through the balance sheet of the Kabul Bank, the actual operations on the ground weren’t as badly affected as we feared they might be.

Q242 Ms Stuart: Very finally, a quick question-with hindsight, could we have acted earlier on this?

Mark Sedwill: I think we acted as quickly as we could. The Kabul Bank came out of, in essence, almost a clear blue sky. We didn’t know that that scandal was going to hit, and when it did hit the international community responded quickly. I think the Afghans took longer, and they took longer partly because it wasn’t just members close to the President’s family, but actually the most significant shareholders were among other very senior power-brokers in Afghanistan, and he had to manage that. I think that took longer than we expected and there were very some difficult exchanges, including exchanges in the Afghan National Security Council, which I and others had with him and his Ministers over exactly that, where we had to confront them with the prospects for international support for Afghanistan were they not to take the right action. It was a very, very difficult period.

Q243 Mr Havard: Can I ask you about reconciliation and reintegration? Where to start with this? There seem to be several processes involved here, as you know, and it’s interesting that you have some responsibilities in relation to Pakistan as well. I presume you worked with Marc Grossman-is he still doing that for the USA?

Mark Sedwill: Yes.

Q244 Mr Havard: But you have a process brokered through Qatar. You have the Stanekzai process-is that right?

Mark Sedwill: Stanekzai, yes.

Q245 Mr Havard: But then you have the President who, whenever he fancies it, steps outside all these things, sets up a Loya Jirga and does a deal with the tribes or whatever. There is a variable set of processes involved. Can you tell us something about how you feel that is happening, if at all?

Mark Sedwill: You’re absolutely right to point to the complexity of it, but the complexity reflects, essentially, the fragmentation of the political situation in Afghanistan, both sitting in legitimate politics-very fractionalised, no organised parties, with most affiliations being ethnic or relating to the mujaheddin period-and, essentially, the same on the Taliban side, so it is not as binary as the labels we use suggest, as you have pointed to. It is complex.

To simplify it, I would say that there are really three Afghan constituencies. There are Government, Opposition and insurgency, and all three need relationships with one another. The Doha office, which is where, essentially, the Taliban political commission have located themselves, seems to be an authoritative voice for the Quetta Shura and the Taliban leadership. It does seem that that has the authority of the leadership, and indeed of Mullah Omar himself, to connect with the outside world. There have been some connections, not only by international figures, including Marc Grossman, but by, for example, members of the Afghan Government.

There is also the internal process-the reintegration programme-which General Barrons was one of the architects of, when he was there in charge of the force reintegration cell, in his most recent deployment. It has now reintegrated around 5,000 fighters, so that is an internal component of this. There are other internal components, such as outreach to the tribes, as you rightly point out, which can be done through either national or local Jirga mechanisms, so they are looking at the support base of the Taliban. The one you did not refer to, except in your initial remarks-but I think it is as important as the others-is the AfPak relationship, because that state-to-state relationship, as you hinted, sets the context for everything else.

We have to work all of those tracks, in effect. It is not yet at the stage where we can say there is a single, load-bearing channel that we could expect to conduct a formal negotiation. It has not reached that point yet, but there are genuine channels of communication open and we are seeing from the Taliban-including from the Taliban leadership, including in some of their public statements-a genuine interest in engaging in a political process. They recognise that they are not going to win their objectives on the battlefield. They need to engage in a political process, at least after we have left, and they can set conditions for that now. The prospects for some kind of political accommodation are positive, but it is at an early stage, and it will be very complex and difficult to follow for most of the next few years.

Q246 Mr Havard: There are different Talibans and nothing in Afghanistan is binary. Before you start, that is where I am-right?

Mark Sedwill: Agreed.

Q247 Mr Havard: Absolutely. There are different groups of people, so what are the incentives to do this? One of the questions about corruption is that, through the military process, we have a process of containment of bandits and what have you, so that various accommodations can be made that are corrupt, frankly, in the process that people come back into. So are sons of warlords going to come back and occupy positions within the military? Are people going to come back in and take positions in these wonderful new ministerial structures? What are the incentives, and where is the UK? What is the UK’s contribution to that discussion?

Mark Sedwill: Sorry, to the reconciliation, or-

Q248 Mr Havard: To ensure the standards that you are talking about, because the declaratory remarks of ISAF and all the rest have been "Brilliant, lovely, best of luck-not going to happen as described." So what is going to happen and where is the UK in ensuring this?

Mark Sedwill: On corruption, one of the important points of context is the stage of development that Afghanistan is at. Corruption is a problem right the way across south Asia-a huge problem in Pakistan and in India-and just as in Afghanistan, where of course it is very visible to us because it is our money and our people at risk largely, it is associated with the underlying political and power structures, many of them almost semi-feudal. You are right to point to that, and that will be a feature of Afghanistan for many years to come. It is going to take a long time to wipe that out gradually. There are Ministries that have done an effective job. We referred earlier to the mineral resources. The Ministry of Mines, for example, has a good Minister, Wahidullah Shahrani, who again comes from a long respectable political family. He really cracked down on corruption within that Ministry. He is trying to sign up to the extractor industries’ transparency index and make sure that Afghanistan’s minerals are properly exploited, not primarily because of corruption in a way, although he cares about that, but because, unless that is done properly, the corruption relating to exploiting mineral resources could be the trigger for the next round of conflict. Just as we have seen with conflict diamonds in Africa, all of those risks exist.

As for the other part of your question about the complexity of the Taliban, all of the Taliban groups including some of those like the Haqqanis, who are semi-autonomous, recognise the overall authority of the Quetta Shura and the overall authority of Mullah Omar so, if he is interested and they are interested in a genuine political settlement, there is the prospect of at least most of the movement being brought back into the legitimate political system. If not, it is more likely that it will fragment. But, if we are to bring this to a durable settlement of the kind that is in Afghanistan’s and, indeed, Pakistan’s interest, we have to continue to reach for a comprehensive settlement if we can.

Q249 Mr Havard: But we are saying that we are going to have Sandhurst in the sand. We are going to help to train the officer corps. Is the ANSF-the army bit anyway-going to be taken out of competition with its corruption, so we will not see sons of warlords come back and all of sudden rock up as lieutenant-colonels, brigadiers or whatever. What are we doing about this reconciliation and reintegration process-the reintegration bit? What are you reintegrating into? Is it what we declare it will be? What will we be prepared to put into that, and when are we going to be prepared to stop if it is wrong in terms of controls?

Mark Sedwill: Again, General Barrons may want to add something. In terms of the capacity of the army, the army is probably the most respected and, in some ways, the best-developed institution in Afghanistan. It has very high degrees of Afghan public confidence. It has also managed largely to avoid being split along ethnic lines. If you talk to a young Afghan soldier and ask, "Are you a Tajik or a Pashtun?", he will tend to say, "I am an Afghan". They are combined units. It is probably the most successful institution so far in Afghanistan.

The officer training academy and similar work to develop NCOs, for example, is so important because we are building leadership capacity. As those of you who have worked in the military or focus on this know, leadership capacity is absolutely critical. The officer training academy is an important contribution to the sustainability of a decent professional army in Afghanistan in the future.

The police were more challenging. Up until 2009, the police were recruited, deployed and then trained. It was only with the formation of the NATO training mission that that was turned around, so they were recruited, trained and deployed. If you recruit untrained policemen, do not pay them properly, put them out in small units in villages-

Q250 Mr Havard: Guess what?

Mark Sedwill: Exactly. If you ask the Afghan public, it was really the police, in particular, at that time that they would see as their main interface with the Government. It was corrupt behaviour by the police at the very local level that most people suffered from.

Q251 Mr Havard: We will come back and ask you some more questions about that particular area. Mr Devine, do you want to say anything about all of this?

Vincent Devine: I was going to make exactly the same point that Mark made about increasing public confidence in the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. I thought that the figures that came out of the Asia Foundation survey, which is a pretty widely respected document, were really rather encouraging in this area.

More than four out of five respondents agreed that the ANP is honest and fair with the Afghan people: The figure was around 85%. 81% believed that the ANP helped improve security; 75% said that the ANP is efficient in arresting those who have committed crimes and bringing them to justice; 93% agree that the ANA-the national army-is honest and fair with the Afghan people and 87% think that the ANA is helping to improve security. So working on the principle that nobody is better placed to judge progress in Afghanistan than the Afghan people themselves, which is a lesson that we have learnt over recent years, these really are quite encouraging.

Q252 Mr Havard: But this is before the people have reconciled. As General Barrons was saying, presumably some of the people at that level-the local boys and girls-have already reintegrated. Is that correct?

Lt-Gen Barrons: If we work on the assumption that 80% of the insurgency operate within 30 miles of their homes, there is an element of this insurgency that is clearly local. As part of a rapprochement, we will need the sons and daughters. Again, based on the Asia Foundation survey, about 30% of the population of Afghanistan has some favourable inclination towards insurgency. We need their children to commit to this new Afghan offer and to join the police and the army at the bottom. Provided that they commit to the same standards as everybody else and meet the standards of the training and therefore commission or qualify as necessary, that is a really healthy thing. It can be seen in many other campaigns where, as part of bringing a community together, they all have to bind into their army and their police. There will be some generosity of spirit required to do that, but the thing that does not work is someone coming back from the insurgency having spent some time abroad and announcing that they now want to be in charge of a security institution. They will have to earn that and it will take a little bit of time.

Q253 Mrs Moon: Mr Sedwill and Mr Devine, what do you think the prospects are for any sort of peace settlement in Afghanistan?

Vincent Devine: That is absolutely one for Mark.

Mark Sedwill: I do not have a crystal ball, but I think we are beginning to set the right conditions for it. What is absolutely crucial is that we do not allow history to repeat itself. If you talk to them, most Afghans are really fearful that the experience of the early 1990s will be repeated. That is why, in the first half of this year, we put so much effort into securing the commitments from the international community-we got $4 billion over several years from the national security forces at Chicago and from the economic and development side at Tokyo-partly for the practical effect, which is very important, but partly for the political effect in order to convince the Afghans and their neighbours that we were not about to make the same mistake and abandon them, and that they should therefore no longer make decisions based on their fears. That sounds slightly conceptual, but it is really important as a signal into Afghanistan that we are going to commit to the long term and that they can start making decisions on that basis. It is important to register that point.

Second-if I work in from the outside-is the Afghan-Pakistani bilateral relationship. While there is distrust in that relationship, while there are frictions along the border and while they essentially fear each other’s motives, it is inevitable that insecurity will continue along the border. It is very difficult in those circumstances to get Pakistan and the Pakistani security apparatus to commit to an Afghan political settlement and use their influence to try to push or encourage the Afghan Taliban, many of whom are operating from their territory-although, in many cases, ungoverned parts of Pakistan’s territory-to commit to a political settlement. It is really important that we stabilise that relationship. As you will be aware, that is something that the UK has been directly involved in seeking to facilitate, including when the Prime Minister met the two Presidents in New York in September, where they committed to a bilateral strategic partnership agreement to be negotiated within a year. We continue to work very hard on helping them with that.

In terms of the Afghan reconciliation itself, we are all very clear that it must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. We are starting to see the channels of communication opened between the Government and the insurgency and between some of the legitimate opposition-the northerners and others-and the insurgency. It is very exploratory and it is really early days, but the Afghans have done this before. If you look at the Afghan Government and at when they have their version of the state opening of Parliament, they have, as they refer to them, all of the jihadi leaders sitting on the front row. Those are people who fought each other to a standstill during the civil war and are actually responsible for killing more of each other’s supporters than have been lost since. Yet they found a way of accommodating themselves to each other, because they recognise the penalties of not doing so.

To go back to Mr Havard’s point about not seeing this as binary, it is easy for us to think in those terms, but if you think as the Taliban as just another Afghan faction with a particular label and a particular connection to al-Qaeda and others, it is possible to see how they could accommodate themselves to each other. It will be done in a very Afghan way-we probably will not be in the room, or in the tent, when much of it is decided. We can encourage it from outside, and those channels of communication are open. As 2014 comes into view, we will probably see the pace and energy that both sides give to it increase. It is very early days, and I would not want to put a figure on the prospect for success, but I think we are starting to see a completely different situation politically to how it was when I was there: we are starting to see the pieces begin to move into place.

Vincent Devine: Can I stress one thing, from our perspective? The underlying point to Mark’s is that this is not a big bang. We are talking about a process. We are not transitioning the force in expectation of a political settlement. We are transitioning in parallel with a political process, as Mark described. It is not the big bang moment that we are waiting for in 2013 or 2014. This is a process which is already very much under way, and the transition of military forces will be running in parallel with that.

Q254 Mrs Moon: How durable do you think it can be?

Mark Sedwill: It depends on how many people are involved, and on the terms. We have all made clear what we believe the terms should be: there needs to be a renunciation of violence and association with terrorist groups, and there needs to be respect for the Afghan constitution, including, of course, the human rights provisions- inevitably, many of us have focused on women’s rights, but also children’s rights and the rights of other disadvantaged groups. That is not just right, it is actually necessary, if it is to be durable, because there is a constituency in Afghanistan who have really benefited from the last 10 years. Of course the implementation of what we would regard as acceptable standards of human rights, including women’s rights, throughout the country is still very uneven. It is particularly uneven in rural areas in terms of levels of education and so on, and social exclusion is still high, but you would expect that in a country at Afghanistan’s stage of development. But there is a constituency that will not give those things up without a fight.

As we have seen through the Arab Spring, it would be impossible to impose a durable settlement that did not accommodate the very strong desires of the people to be included in it and for their Government to be inclusive. Again, we are simply sowing the seeds of the next round. Most encouragingly, the Afghans themselves see it in those terms.

Although I would not like to put too much emphasis on this, we are, interestingly, starting to see some recognition-I would not put it any higher than that-in some of the Taliban statements, including statements around Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, that they need to move on that issue and accommodate the positions that the rest of Afghanistan hold and the commitment that the rest of Afghanistan has to girls’ education, to women’s rights and to the other advances of the last 10 years.

Q255 Mrs Moon: If we accept that the Taliban isn’t an single entity-there are as many Talibans, almost, as Afghanis-how consistent a message are you hearing across Taliban groups and across those who would, in the past, have totally opposed any sort of centralised state within Afghanistan?

Mark Sedwill: It is a very important question, and our understanding is limited, to be honest. We have some insight into internal debate within the Taliban and where different groups and leaders positions themselves, but that insight, inevitably, is far from complete. I think the leadership of the Taliban is beginning to accommodate itself to the need for a political settlement, but their objectives are still not the same as ours: they don’t want the Afghanistan that we would see as acceptable and most of the Afghan population would see as acceptable. Again, you would expect that at this stage. There are many people within the Taliban who are essentially fighting to protect their local interests. As General Barrons pointed out, most of the Taliban, and most of the insurgency as a whole, essentially fight in their own areas. Therefore, quite a lot of this is driven by local tribal frictions, access to resources and so on. Quite a lot of the fight is for that reason. That is not really about policy or ideology.

It is a complex picture, but I don’t see, myself, that the ideological motive is going to be the primary motive after western troops have withdrawn. As Vincent Devine pointed out, this will be a process that will go through 2014. It took us a decade in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday agreement; it will be the same order of magnitude in Afghanistan, I would expect, before we can say that we can be confident that a durable and inclusive political settlement has been reached.

Q256 Mrs Moon: What areas are our greatest risks in terms of instability and insecurity remaining? How, for example, is Helmand shaping up? Is that going to be a particular problem? Are the provinces along the border with Pakistan a particular issue? The north seems to have been settled for some time. Are we getting a mixed picture in different areas of Afghanistan, and are we making a major mistake in trying to think of the country as a whole, rather than picking off where the risks are?

Mark Sedwill: I think you are absolutely right to point to that. Essentially, the short answer to your question is yes. Almost half the enemy-initiated violence in Afghanistan is in 10 of the 364 districts in Afghanistan. Less than 1% is in Kabul, where 15% of the population live. Over half, I believe, is in RC South and RC Southwest, which includes Helmand and Kandahar and the immediate provinces, where about 11% of the population live. It is a very uneven picture.

There are pockets of violence in the north, but those are containable, and a lot of that, although it may carry the flag of the town, is actually criminal or tribal violence. One of the issues for us is that it is the area where we have been in probably the toughest fight in Afghanistan over the last decade, and that area will remain one of the most difficult and challenging after we have handed over responsibility to the Afghans.

There are one or two provinces in the east-Khost, for example. Physically, if you look at the geography, that faces into Pakistan. There is Nuristan on the border. There has been some infiltration back into there. It is exactly as you point out. Some of the provinces along the Pakistan border, particularly the core of the south, will remain the most challenging.

Q257 Mrs Moon: I would cite the ISAF partnership, but where are the critical players in ensuring a lasting peace settlement? Is it Russia? Is it Pakistan? Is it China?

Mark Sedwill: All the region has a role to play. It is important that Afghanistan is embedded economically, and, in terms of security, in the region as a whole. There are various processes to encourage that. The Turks have been leading one called the Heart of Asia process, but there are others as well. The key external player-other than ourselves, of course-is Pakistan. It is where the insurgency is based. The border between the two countries bifurcates the Pashtun belt. There are 18 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and about 30 million in Pakistan.

In Pakistan they face a severe problem with their own Taliban, the TTP. Of course, that is why they point out that they cannot afford instability in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, because it will spill back into Pakistan and make their own problems even worse. That is why we are hoping that Pakistan will take more effective action to promote a political settlement. Of all the external players, I think Pakistan is the most crucial.

Q258 Mrs Moon: If I could bring in General Barrons. There is always the possibility that we do not get a settlement and that the instability remains as we move towards 2014, and indeed into 2014.

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes.

Q259 Mrs Moon: So what happens if there is no peace settlement? Do we have a plan B? Do we have a contingency plan as to what we will do if the instability rises as we decrease our presence and our troops across ISAF?

Lt-Gen Barrons: In fact, our assumption is that the insurgency will not have been brought to a close by December 2014, but the point is that the insurgency will have been reduced and the ANSF capability will have been increased to the point where the ANSF overface the residual insurgency. I don’t think many of us expect full political accommodation in 2014 or even 2015. The Afghans and their neighbours will take some time to reach it.

The issue for me as a military man is whether, by the end of our combat role at the end of December 2014, the ANSF will be good enough to take on the residual insurgency. On the point you made a moment or two ago, not all of the country is equal. There are large tracts of mountains and desert that are sparsely populated, where, frankly, if they swing to a residual insurgency, it does not matter a whole lot. Our focus and that of our Afghan partners must be on the key centres of population and the routes that connect them. That is what we are doing now, and we are confident about that outcome.

Q260 Mrs Moon: For the British public, the focus is going to be on Helmand and on the security of our military personnel, but also on our civilian contractors there as we reduce our presence. How secure can people feel? Military personnel will remain as we draw down, and civilian contractors, who are going to be critical to keeping it going, will remain. How secure can they feel that they will be safe and that their protection will be at the forefront?

Lt-Gen Barrons: For our part, in our three districts in Helmand, we will manage the transition to an ANSF lead and the draw-down of our own force, so that there is no question of our civilian counterparts being left, as it were, high and dry. The way the military step down through 2013-14 will be paralleled by the way our civilian counterparts and the PRT adjust their profile. One issue to be addressed is how much the UN chooses to take over some of our role in Helmand as we step down and depart. That is for others to decide.

The key plank for us is that, as we remove the UK civilian footprint-those people who are helping the delivery of justice, governance and development right now-they are replaced by competent Afghan counterparts connected to Ministries in Kabul that deliver guidance, policy and resources. For me, in this period of the next two years, just as important as the way we transition the lead for security is the way the space that we enable is filled with a good offer from the Kabul-based Government. I don’t know if Mark has anything to add.

Mark Sedwill: Just one point of detail. We have, as the General said, a parallel plan to transition the PRT. In effect, most of the work of the PRT has already been transitioned. It has been for several years, and has been in support of the provincial Government, designed to enable their capacity and help them build a provincial education capability, health capability, district governance and so on. Some of that could involve just building a district centre or giving the district governor a motorbike to be able to get around his area-really simple things of that kind.

We currently have five district stabilisation teams. Over the next year we will draw back to three hubs-north, central and southern-and then we will essentially have a reserve or support base in Camp Bastion. So we are gradually, in parallel, drawing the civilian effort back from being in the field on the ground to enabling the provincial Afghan Government, and then gradually stepping back so that the transition is to them, rather than to the UN or anyone else.

Q261 Mrs Moon: You failed to mention the contractors in the servicing and maintenance roles. They will need to remain there for some considerable time to ensure that equipment is still operating, and no doubt to train Afghans in whatever we leave behind. You did not mention them.

Lt-Gen Barrons: Well, I will ask Vincent maybe to add something. The contractors come in a number of guises. Those contractors that are from the west fulfil a number of roles, but they will tend to be either behind the wire in places such as Camp Bastion or absolutely integral to our own movement. There are third-party contractors who are much more comfortable operating in a very light way among the local population. Provided they remain funded and are happy to work alongside the ANSF, that is a more than reasonable proposition. Then, of course, there are those people the Afghans in future choose to hire. That will be for them to arrange.

Vincent Devine: You did cover some of this in detail with David Capewell. As he plans this complex transition, force protection will be a priority both for UK forces and personnel working alongside us. David has been absolutely clear on that and Ministers have been absolutely clear in the direction they have given. That is one of the complexities of the process.

Mark Sedwill: It is worth just mentioning the Afghan public protection force.

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes. You will know that over time, there has been an assertion by the Afghan Government of its sovereign control over the use of private military security companies. Increasingly, what we have now is an Afghan Government-provided force. They are happy with how it is constituted, how it is resourced and how it works and works with the police. Increasingly, as they take over the protection of Afghan Government work, that will be on terms with which they are fully happy. I should also mention that right now we use a lot of contractors-for example, trucking companies-that take our stuff to and from Camp Bastion. They operate entirely under their own auspices and they may or not may work with the APPF help. There is an awful lot of activity that will go on regardless of the ISAF international presence.

Q262 Sandra Osborne: You’re sounding cautiously optimistic about the political process, as has every ambassador who has given evidence to the Committee. When they leave the FCO they say something almost completely different and sound very pessimistic about the whole thing. Can you talk about the role of the FCO post-2014? You have talked about progress in governance, but that is not much use without a political settlement. What is the role of the FCO going to be post-2014?

Mark Sedwill: As we have said, the political accommodation, the political process, will almost certainly continue beyond 2014, not least because if you think back to an earlier question, the new president and the new Government will have to be part of that, not just the outgoing Administration of President Karzai. He is partly setting the conditions for that. After 2014, I expect us still to have a very big embassy in Kabul, and that will still contain around a dozen Government Departments-the Foreign Office, DFID and all the others. There will still probably be people there from SOCA or the National Crime Agency, as it will become, working on counter-narcotics. There will still be military people there and so on. But as in other places, our role will become increasingly one of diplomatic influence on a political process, which will be an Afghan political process, rather than direct intervention.

That, of course, is the right way to go. We don’t expect to have a mission on the ground in Helmand after 2014. The PRT, as they will throughout the country, will close and we will maintain our legacy programmes in Helmand, essentially working through our teams and from Kabul and one or two regional centres. We will continue to work, as we do in other countries, on the political process but it will look, as it did in Iraq and as it has elsewhere, much more like a normal embassy in a country like Afghanistan than it does at the moment. [Interruption.] I may not have quite understood your question.

Q263 Sandra Osborne: Yes, but what if the whole thing unravels and it is the big mess that we are reading about in books?

Mark Sedwill: People who write books are looking for a headline because that is what sells books. It is tempting in those circumstances always to point to the negatives, risks, gaps, challenges, failures-the mistakes that we have made. I cannot give you a guarantee about the outcome in Afghanistan, but I can tell you that the decisions lie in our hands and the hands of the Afghans and their neighbours. If we make the right decisions, there is a good prospect that Afghanistan will continue to achieve the campaign objectives and Afghanistan will be, not peaceful in the sense we understand it, but peaceful in the sense that it will no longer be a threat to the region. Afghan Government writ will run throughout its territory and they will be able to contain what criminal violence and what other political violence remains.

Q264 Ms Stuart: I was very struck the first time I went to Kabul by a small plaque which said, "This was opened by the Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office". Then you went into another room and there was a much larger plaque which said, "This was opened by the Secretary of State for the Department for International Development". Then there were MOD people crawling all over the place. If we were to go in five years’ time, which Departments would have the biggest plaque and which would be in charge?

Mark Sedwill: I think the Prime Minister would remind us who is in charge, as would any Prime Minister. As ambassador, you work for the Government. When I was there as ambassador I was very clear that I did not actually work for the FCO-that was my managerial chain-but I worked for the Government and in many ways directly to Downing street and the Cabinet Office. In a place like Afghanistan that is quite natural. Inevitably the mission will change. We have or have had 10,000 British troops on the ground. That number is coming down. Inevitably the military component of the mission has been the dominant component as we have been managing the conflict.

Actually, I think for the UK we have managed that relationship and, frankly, that balance between the civilian and the military much better than some of our counterparts have. We have had very good relationships between successive ambassadors and the deputy commander of ISAF, who is the senior British officer in theatre. There have been very good relationships between the heads of PRTs and the military commanders on the ground in Helmand. In 2015, 2016, my guess is that there will be a significant Foreign Office presence, but not dozens and dozens of people. Probably DFID will be the biggest single operator in Afghanistan for the British Government after 2015, I would expect.

Mr Havard: You aren’t going to tell us who the Prime Minister is going to be. I thought we might have a punt.

Mark Sedwill: I’m not predicting Afghan or British politics.

Q265 Mr Havard: Not even the president of Afghanistan.

Let me ask you a serious set of questions about what is now euphemistically known as green on blue, and the situation for our troops currently and how they will be protected and will protect themselves through the period up to and beyond 2014, but certainly up to 2014. At the moment, there are ANSF-apparently; certainly people wearing uniforms, or mock uniforms, and some who are absolutely members of it-engaged in the attacks that are all over the press. The ANSF is a rather broad category and there is variability between army and police, so can you please tell us what is happening in terms of protecting all our personnel, who are engaged with all those differently badged groups?

Mark Sedwill: Perhaps I should allow General Barrons to take the lead on that. I can fill in some of the political context if it is helpful.

Lt-Gen Barrons: You are absolutely right. Right now there are a very large number of ISAF soldiers of all nations working shoulder to shoulder with their Afghan-

Q266 Mr Havard: Before you go too far, I know we are going to have a discussion with you later, but what you can say publicly will be helpful. Sorry to everybody watching-if anybody is.

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes. I will confine myself to some general remarks and we can do the detail privately later.

Mr Havard: Thank you.

Lt-Gen Barrons: A very large number of ISAF soldiers of all nations are working shoulder to shoulder with their Afghan army, police and Afghan local police colleagues. They are doing this in a number of settings, which range from institutions in Kabul right through to very small patrol bases in the more difficult parts of places like Helmand. We are engaged in a process of transition. As you well know, there was a time when basically we did the fighting, but now we have grown Afghan national security forces to begin to take our place. We are partnering with them and as they get better, we step back and provide mentoring and some enablement. Eventually, we will have each other in eyesight, but they will effectively be as independent as possible.

Whilst we have been going through that process, it is a fact that there have been a number of occasions when members of those institutions have turned their weapons on members of ISAF. This is an extremely significant and very unfortunate turn of events. The thing we need to be clear about first of all is why it is occurring. The fact is that roughly half the perpetrators of those attacks either do not survive the experience or, in a few cases, escape, so we cannot ask them. Of the balance, there are very clear indications that a relatively modest proportion are directly connected to the insurgency, and rather more have turned their weapons on us as a result of some grievance or slight, or the co-option of their family or some other response to a very localised event. But the outcome is the same: in some cases, our soldiers have been killed and in other cases, wounded. It is completely clearly understood by the leadership of the ANSF and their political masters that this is a highly unfortunate turn of events, and our Afghan counterparts are as keen as we are to do everything we can to contain it. We are going to talk later about some of the measures-which I wouldn’t be willing to put in the public domain.

As a rule of thumb statistic, the incidence is that for about every 10,000 members of the Afghan national army, one of them is engaging in an act of that nature and the other, roughly, 9,999 are getting on with the job alongside us. We have to bear in mind that we are all-ourselves and the Afghans-committed to a plan that is a work in progress, and which is in very large measure heading in the right direction. What we have to do is contain the risk of insider threat, which will diminish as we step back over time and thin our forces down. It is bounded by time and the nature of the task, but it cannot be eliminated entirely.

Q267 Mr Havard: Okay. We will ask you some questions later.

One thing that has happened is that ISAF have been looking at revising the vetting process and so on; it is a problem across the whole of Afghanistan, not just where British troops are. Are the proportions you talked about-one in 10,000, or whatever it is-variable across the piece? Is Helmand a significant difference in terms of the numbers per capita? Is there a different look, as it were, because the Brits have a particular view of what they are doing in the area they have control of, in terms of that vetting process? Can you give us any confidence that the British have a significant input into the area we are dealing with, albeit there is an ISAF process operating at the centre?

Lt-Gen Barrons: I will show you a picture later, but these attacks occur when most of the fighting is under way, so more in the south and east than in the north. We have looked very carefully at whether this is particularly targeted at the Brits in our three districts in central Helmand, and the answer to that is no, but we do operate in some of the more difficult parts of the country. These attacks have been targeted against a whole range of ISAF nations, and, of course, against the Afghan national security forces themselves, so they are not specifically focused on us. The question that has also been asked is whether there are things we are doing that are different from other nations that expose us to greater risk. The answer to that, to the best knowledge of the commanders on the site, is no.

Q268 Mr Havard: Can I ask you the question that people ask me? Why are we still patrolling then? What is the answer to the man on the Merthyr omnibus, who says to me, "What’s happening? Why are my boys walking about there?"?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes, I think it is a good question for him to ask, but the answer is that we are patrolling a whole lot less, because as we hand over the leadership to the Afghan national security forces, they are taking the fight on themselves. As a rule of thumb, over the last 12 weeks, the number of attacks against the Afghan national security forces across Afghanistan has risen north of 150%. That reflects the fact that they are very firmly in the front as we begin to step back. There are some areas-the more difficult areas-where we will continue to take the lead for a little while yet, and there are other areas where, for our own force protection, we will always wish to have our hand on the ground. The area around Camp Bastion is an example of where, for our own reasons, we will need to be outside the wire.

Q269 Mr Havard: If there is still the overriding condition that withdrawal, change and particularly transition are to be conditions-based, which maybe achieves a particular level for a period of time but then falls back and needs remedial action and so on, where does the conditions-based analysis then sit, in terms of the process of withdrawal? Is that why patrolling is continuing?

Lt-Gen Barrons: There are three parts to the conditions-based thing that I would highlight. First, the capability of the ANSF: in the early days, we are going to start by being alongside them at company level. As they improve, you will step up to battalion, to brigade, and eventually to corps. Now, how fast you do that should be based on how well they perform, and that is welcome progress. Secondly, we would need to decide how long we needed to maintain a footprint in various parts of our area. For example, how long should we remain in the district centres during the course of ’13 and ’14? Thirdly, there are other bits of the ANSF-for example, their aviators, medics, communicators and logisticians-where they are behind in the development process, so they will need more help for longer, but much of that help is not in the eye of the fight, as it were.

Chair: I would like to bring in Sir Bob Russell.

Q270 Sir Bob Russell: General, following on, are the attacks by the ANSF personnel premeditated, organised or spontaneous? Or are they a mixture of all three?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Again, later I am going to give you a couple of examples to illustrate the problem, but the fact is that some of them have had a degree of premeditation, and some of them appear simply to be a spur of the moment reaction. The motivation behind that is very hard to gauge, particularly for the more than half that are not speaking any longer, but it seems that only a very modest percentage are the result of some heavily constructed plan.

The thought that is often presented is: how many are the result of the insurgency planting people in the Afghan national security forces? The answer to that is that we think it is a tiny number. However, we would condition that by saying that if you are a member of the insurgency and you went to all the trouble of putting people in the Afghan national security forces, you would have choices about whether you kept them for intelligence, to steal equipment, or to inflict an attack, which is clearly a one-off event. We need to distinguish very carefully between what the insurgency is bound to say, which is that these attacks are a tactic that they will adopt, and the truth of the matter, which is that only a very small number are indisputably linked to the insurgency-many others occur for a wider ranger of reasons.

Q271 Sir Bob Russell: Thank you for that. If I can just move on to Afghan attacks on Afghans, which I do not think the British media pick up on, how serious is that? Clearly, it must be damaging to the morale of the Afghan national forces if their own kith and kin are killing them.

Lt-Gen Barrons: It is a serious issue. I will not, if I may say so, give figures now, but I will be able to do so later. Yes, of course, it matters to them as much as it matters to us.

Q272 Chair: On the general point, though, do you think that we are dragging our feet slightly about handing over responsibility to the Afghan forces to do patrolling? Could we be a bit quicker and trust them a bit more to do patrolling and to take on the security responsibilities that, at the moment, some British troops are doing?

Lt-Gen Barrons: I think the first part of my answer would be that we need to approach this from an alliance perspective. It would be unhelpful in principle if the UK decided to move at a different speed from the rest of the alliance. It would be equally unhelpful, in my view, if the UK was somehow dragging its feet behind the rest of the alliance. There is a debate that will occur among capitals in January or February next year about the trajectory of force departures through 2013-14. Part of that debate will be to judge-it will be a political judgment-whether this must go slower or faster. An element of it is conditions-based, as we have talked about, and an element of it will be a political judgment about, "Well, this is roughly where we would like to be by the end of 2013, to be set up for the end of combat at the end of 2014."

Vincent Devine: It is also worth stressing that decisions on transition are taken in partnership with the Afghans, who take their own view on progress on conditions-on both the development of the ANSF and improvements in security on the ground. It is a decision taken across the alliance and with our Afghan partners. It is on schedule. There may be scope to accelerate it, but that is a matter for discussion with the Afghans.

Lt-Gen Barrons: The vital point here is the confidence of the ANSF in the field. If we pull our help away before they are confident, even if we assert that they are quite capable, they have to be sufficiently confident to stay with the fight and be resilient. There is a difficult risk judgment to be taken.

Q273 Mr Havard: Finally on this, I know that in discussion about lay-down and so on, it was argued, thankfully, that that should be after the presidential elections in America, and that will now come in February, or March or whatever, next year. I understand that. However, what you are saying to me is that with regard to local policing initiatives, confidence building and capacity building-not for front-end attacks by ANSF forces but for logistics, supply and all those other ancillary tasks-it is necessary to have patrolling with those things to build those up between now and February. Am I understanding that correctly?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes. I would say that there is not a single commander at any level in Helmand, up to the Chief of Joint Operations, who would want to maintain patrolling activity as some sort of diversion for troops that are away-

Q274 Mr Havard: But there is value in the process.

Lt-Gen Barrons: There is absolutely value in the process. How could we look our own people in the eye if we were putting them in harm’s way unnecessarily? That is not what we do.

Mr Havard: That is what I am asking.

Q275 Ms Gisela Stuart: General Barrons, you said it is absolutely essential that the Afghans have confidence, and that there will be a political process in January on withdrawal. That race to the exit door across capitals within ISAF is getting faster and faster. What is plan B, if the exit, as we are planning it, is not working? What is your contingency planning?

Lt-Gen Barrons: We could produce any number of plans to regulate the trajectory of our departure from Afghanistan. It needs to be selected by the Alliance in conjunction with the Afghans, so that there is a benchmark performance. Some things will regulate the speed at which we depart, and one of the key things is how long it actually takes to move our stuff safely, securely and in good order out of Afghanistan. That is a two-year project. As a rule of thumb, our US colleagues need to move a 20-foot container out of Afghanistan every seven and a half minutes between now and 2015 in order to get their things out. That is a measure of the logistic challenge. We could, of course, simply cease work and fall back on our camps and remove ourselves as quickly as possible.

Q276 Ms Stuart: One of my colleagues will pursue that exit. At this stage, I am much more worried about what would happen if all your assumptions about how you are going to get out do not come about. You say that you can have any number of plans, but do you have just one plan that says, "My confidence was not warranted. Things are actually much worse, and it ain’t working"?

Lt-Gen Barrons: You would expect me, as a military man, to be absolutely assured of my own force protection in Afghanistan, so there is nothing that is going to happen in Afghanistan that will overface our ability to protect ourselves.

Q277 Ms Stuart: So you have got a reserve, or a contingency?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Oh yes. For the Chief of the Defence Staff, it is an article of faith, of which I am reminded regularly, that we will always be able to look after ourselves if the situation deteriorates.

Q278 Ms Stuart: You know that Reagan said "trust, but verify". Could you tell us a bit more about what that utter faith is based on?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes. The first point is that, right now, we have a centre at Camp Bastion and we have a distribution of forces around the central districts of Helmand. We would always be able to make sure that those people in the outposts are folks that we can go and help, much as we can go and help the ANSF if necessary. So we will not, in any way, remove our military ability to secure our destiny and move ourselves back into Bastion and, if necessary, out of theatre.

Mr Havard: Can I be clear on this very thing-

Q279 Ms Stuart: May I just finish that train of thought? You are confident. The ANSF will not have helicopters, and they will not have our health care-they will not have all those kinds of bits. How are you going to bridge that gap?

Lt-Gen Barrons: In terms of the enablers for the ANSF, they will have some of those things. They already have some helicopters-Mi-17s-which they are flying. During the course of 2013-14, they will begin to get more fixed-wing aircraft. There is a considerable amount more in the US-funded effort to improve their logistics communications and medical capacity, but of course it will not reflect the quality or the quantity of the enabling capability that we enjoy. There is an issue here, in that if you arrive at the end of 2014 and the ANSF is not generally self-standing in every regard, what is it that the international community, in the shape of ISAF, is still prepared to do to enable the ANSF? That is not a debate that people are willing to have yet, but everyone acknowledges that there is an issue there.

The other key thing is that the Afghans will never operate as a mirror image of us. They function differently on the ground; they are much less reliant on technology; they are much more human intelligence-focused; and the standards that they require in terms of equipment and method of operating are slightly different. They will produce local solutions in the way that they operate that require less enablement than the ones that we have enjoyed as a foreign army.

Q280 Ms Stuart: So let us assume that, given their work on the ground and that they work differently, you are confident that they will be able to deal with insurgents in terms of logistics, helicopters and health care.

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes.

Q281 Ms Stuart: I still wonder-even if you do not want to tell us this in open session-what your fallback position is, your plan B. What is developing over the next 12 months that will allow our guys to withdraw, so that there are fewer and fewer of them there, and they are safe and secure? Other than faith, which is nice, but-

Lt-Gen Barrons: The key thing for me is our confidence in the developing capability of the Afghan national security forces.

Q282 Ms Stuart: That is not quite enough. You must have a bit more than just your confidence in what they are going to do. I would not go into a general election just with confidence in what everyone else is doing-I would have something in my back pocket that I could do when they are not delivering.

Sir Bob Russell: Do you?

Ms Stuart: Yes.

Lt-Gen Barrons: But as we reduce our capability over that same time, we will never be at a position where we are so exposed that we cannot look after ourselves up to the day we go. Eventually, we will fall back on Camp Bastion, which has a perimeter the size of Reading and an enormous American population. This is not like a fighting withdrawal through the jungles of the second world war. It is completely different.

Q283 Ms Stuart: So Camp Bastion is your other strategic reserve, and if things get so tough, we just go within the perimeters of Reading?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes.

Q284 Ms Stuart: Are you serious?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes. There is nothing that the insurgency is capable of doing that would put our basic force protection at risk somewhere like Camp Bastion.

Q285 Ms Stuart: Just to be absolutely clear, our fallback position in this strategy-what we do when things do not work-is bury ourselves in Camp Bastion.

Lt-Gen Barrons: Unless you were interested in committing to another surge and going back in again, but I sense that-

Vincent Devine: Can I just come back and challenge one assumption? It is an absolutely critical point. You said that the race to the door is getting faster and faster. But I do not think that that is true, and it is not fair to our allies and partners in NATO. Our allies and partners committed to a strategy and to time lines, I think in Lisbon, and overwhelmingly they have stayed on that strategy and on those time line., So I do not think it is fair to say that the race to the door is getting faster and faster. We are implementing a process of transition as set out some years ago.

Q286 Ms Stuart: In that case, we are clearly reading different foreign press cuttings on what goes on in the other capitals of Europe and how quickly they want to get out.

Mark Sedwill: I think that there is the same political urge to withdraw as fast as possible, but if you look at the nature of the alliance since 2010, the number of countries committed to Afghanistan has gone up: it was 42 when I first got to Afghanistan, and it is over 50 now in ISAF. There have been some high-profile withdrawals: in 2009-10, the Canadians and Dutch withdrew. One of the things we achieved at Lisbon, by setting out the 2014 plan and the transition to it, was to stem that, because there was a risk at that time that others would go in a disorganised way. Now there is a plan and the vast majority of the alliance, as Vincent says, is committed to that plan and to withdrawing forces along that plan. ISAF has actually increased as a coalition.

Q287 Ms Stuart: The French are withdrawing earlier, and the Germans want to get out quickly.

Vincent Devine: I did say "overwhelmingly".

Q288 Ms Stuart: If it is the Americans, the French, the Germans and us, who is left in any significant numbers?

Mark Sedwill: On the French, there was a campaign promise by President Hollande. It was possible-this was on al-Jazeera, I think, today-for them to end their combat mission in Kapisa, in line with the ISAF transition plan, in RC East. It was challenging, but it was a campaign commitment by a democratically elected Government. That is one of the things we just have to respect in an alliance. In the same way, other countries will come in. They will come in for a range of different motives, of course-this is not just about Afghanistan.

I have been very struck by just how committed the Germans have been and how, for the first time in their whole post-war history, they have been prepared to put troops, special forces and others into genuine combat roles in the northern area. They are talking about retaining a presence in that region beyond 2014 to help mentor at the core level.

Chair: That is very valuable, thank you.

Q289 Sandra Osborne: Lieutenant-General Barrons, how would you define a successful withdrawal of UK combat troops?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Militarily, the first priority is an Afghan national security force organisation, military and police, that is sufficiently capable, confident and large to take on the residual insurgency-in other words, to have completed transition to them to the point where they can take this fight on without our direct help. Secondly, that we have recovered our men and matériel successfully from Afghanistan and taken them back to the UK in good order. Thirdly, that we have come to some sort of accommodation or agreement about what we will continue to do in a very small way with the Afghan national security forces after the end of ISAF.

Q290 Sandra Osborne: Gisela has touched on this, but do you believe that you have a robust plan that is sufficient to enable you to cope if you are forced to withdraw in contact?

Lt-Gen Barrons: I am afraid that this question keeps coming up-the idea that we are somehow going to be forced to withdraw in contact. We just do not see the capacity in the insurgency to force that. There was a time, between 2006 and 2008, when the insurgency was tempted to take us on in a more orthodox confrontation, so you would have groups of up to 50, or sometimes 100, insurgents who decided to take us on in a very conventional way. Every time that occurred they took a lot of casualties and were defeated, because they are simply incapable of replicating the combat power that we can focus on those sorts of encounters. The next instalment of this campaign has been falling back on IEDs and very small-scale small arms encounters. That is the limit of their capability.

Since then, not only has their capability reduced a little, but Afghan national security forces have got better, so not only do we have robust capability, but we have Afghan colleagues who can match us. At no point in this business of getting out of Afghanistan are we going to allow ourselves to be in the position where these tiny packets of insurgents and their little bits of asymmetric capability would overface us. That is not going to happen.

Q291 Sandra Osborne: In relation to withdrawal, is there any possibility of UK troops being withdrawn earlier than 2014?

Lt-Gen Barrons: It is not a decision for me, because this is a matter for Governments. We will continue to write a military plan and prosecute a military operation that delivers policy objectives set by Government. That must be mindful of the fact that we are operating as part of an alliance, but if Governments were to come to the conclusion that they wanted to leave sooner, we would leave sooner. I could write a plan that goes with this either way. Right now, we have a plan that sees us completing the process of transition, coming out of combat at the end of ’14, and then completing the process of removing our stuff. From a military perspective, I could do it either way, but I think that question had better be directed at the Government.

Q292 Sandra Osborne: You could do it either way, and therefore some of the deaths that we hear about every week at Prime Minister’s questions could be avoided if we withdrew earlier.

Lt-Gen Barrons: I would not subscribe to that, provided you are committed to the current plan. There is a price to be paid for seeing through the process of ANSF development and the process of transition. For as long as you choose-it is not a military decision, ultimately-to continue to see that plan through, there will be a price to be paid, but it is declining over time, and, as I said earlier, there is no sense of military adventurism about this. We are not trying to hang on to operations for longer because we think it is a good idea. That is not what we are about. Provided you agree to stick to the current plan, there will be a price to be paid. If you were to decide that the most important thing is the force protection of our people, then, like any operation, tell us to come home, but that would be at the price of the operation that we are currently embarked on not succeeding.

Q293 Sandra Osborne: What about the US and NATO? Is there any likelihood of a substantial withdrawal on their part before 2014?

Mark Sedwill: Exactly the same process is being worked through in every NATO capital, and, of course, at NATO itself. The Americans, now that the Obama Administration are back, will be going through precisely this debate themselves. As the Defence Secretary said to you, we expect there to be a significant draw-down in 2013 and 2014 to get to the enduring presence, but there have been no decisions that we are aware of yet in Washington or elsewhere about the exact trajectory. They are still working on that and are still committed to doing it in a way that enables us to see the campaign plan through. As General Barrons said, in the end it is a political decision. Are we committed to the pillars of the campaign, a viable state, resilient Afghan national security forces and an inclusive political process that we believe will deliver our core objective, which is the national security of the UK? If we are, we will be, broadly speaking, on the trajectory that has already been set.

Q294 Mr Havard: Can I press you a little more on how this withdrawal is going to happen? You are creating a situation where there is security in the form of containment, so that the Afghans can get on with their lives, trade can happen, and all of that. We are on this glide path set out by Chicago and all these conferences somewhere else about how we are going to do all this and exit. That is why we ask you questions about strategic reserve. What happens if that glide path is disturbed? What happens if, for example, you cannot do the deal with Pakistan and get all this stuff out by sea? What happens if you have to go north? What happens if you have to go to the Kazakhs? What happens if you have to go through Russia? And then where is the contingency reserve to fight your way out, effectively-not necessarily in a classic sense, but in the sense of withdrawing in a rather more difficult way than is predicted? What is happening in terms of that debate?

Lt-Gen Barrons: If I start with the more basic question about alternative routes, we have in the order of 10,000 20-foot containers-worth of equipment that we need to get out. There are a number of ways of getting it out. By road, you could go south through Pakistan. As you know, those routes have been closed for a while, but we are quite close to resetting that agreement and we are reasonably confident-although this is not quite yet in the bag-that by December, maybe January, we will have reverse flow through Pakistan to Karachi. That is the cheapest, most efficient and most attractive way of moving our stuff out. As you know, it is moved not by us, but by civilian contractors. But we need alternatives.

The next alternative is to have a number of routes that would go from the north of Afghanistan through the "stans" and through Russia. We can construct agreements to do that bilaterally, but it is better that we do it on a NATO basis. Those agreements are in place, or are coming into place. They are generally more expensive, they take a bit longer to get our stuff home and they need to be accompanied by similar arrangements over the air lines of communication. Right now, we can fly matériel from the south, and at the minute we can bring matériel in, but not exit it, through the north, so that is a next step in the agreements that we will work through.

There is a third route that will allow us to fly things from Bastion to somewhere in the Middle East, where we can then try to ship it. The final way, which is a little bit more expensive, but only a little bit, is flying your matériel from Bastion directly back to the UK in a mixture of Air Force and commercial transport. Quite soon, we will be moving in the order of 1,000 metric tonnes a month by air. The things that really matter to us, not least the key vehicles that the Army needs for its future equipment programme, will come back to us by air, pretty much.

Q295 Mr Havard: They went in by air. You take my point, however. What if you are harassed in the process, to the border and beyond the border? What is the position for those who have to do the work and get the stuff out? Where is their protection? Where is their reserve to ensure that that does not go wrong?

Lt-Gen Barrons: For us, this is only about Camp Bastion, because the materiel that leaves Bastion by road is on a contractor’s truck, accompanied by the security that the contractor provides. There is no risk to UK personnel on the movement of stuff that we send by road. If you only send by road the stuff that you care less about and it does not make it, it will be expensive and the National Audit Office will be cross and you will be cross, but it is not the end of the world. The stuff that matters, not least all our warm bodies, we will fly out. That is it. There is not much peril attached with the extraction of stuff. The greatest peril is the sheer volume of ISAF materiel, of the order of 100,000 20-foot container equivalents, which needs to get down the same routes in much the same time frame. That is where NATO will have to exercise some regulation.

Q296 Mr Havard: Financial peril, not peril to individuals.

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes, exactly.

Q297 Penny Mordaunt: You have spoken a bit about the nitty-gritty post-2014, but what do you think the NATO mission should be?

Lt-Gen Barrons: We have an initial implementing directive agreed by the Council. Do you want to describe that, Mark? The Council has described in very basic terms the sort of mission that it wants to see at the end of ISAF. The first point is that ISAF finishes and a new NATO mission will replace it. It will be called an international training, advice and assist mission, or ITAM. It will be limited, as Ambassador Leslie described to you, to training, advising and assisting. It is a non-combat mission.

The question is what that will actually involve, and there is a debate yet to be had about what functions need to be met and where they need to be done. There will be an opinion that, to start with, this new mission will need to have a presence in many parts of Afghanistan, much scaled down from ISAF and not conducting combat missions, but roughly aligned with the ANSF core headquarters. There will be another school of thought that says that if that is not absolutely necessary, this ITAM mission could be focused on a more institutional level in Kabul. The only things that I am sure about are that we are committed to being the leading light of the Afghan national army officer academy, which will start to train Afghan student officers next year and will deliver, when it is at full strength, about 1,300 male cadets and about 150 female cadets a year; we will provide very modest mentoring in Kabul. Anything more than that will be subject to a debate in NATO, not yet had, on what we as an alliance think we should do, and to a national debate about our appetite, and that political debate will occur over the next three or four months.

Q298 Penny Mordaunt: The academy is a clear example and a clear objective with the volume of people that you have going through it. For NATO, are there similar objectives that have been spelled out?

Vincent Devine: As I said, we are really at a very early stage of planning in NATO. The military authorities have been asked to bring forward a concept of operations, which we expect to see later this year, but probably will not discuss with Ministers until somewhere towards the middle of next year. So it is at a very early stage of planning. NATO is committed to staying on post-2014; it will be a training, advisory and assistance role. But beyond that, the scale, the lay-down and precise tasks is still to be determined by Ministers. Again, I would stress that the Afghans will have a strong voice in that discussion. Whatever we decide to do post-2014, we as an alliance will decide it in partnership with the Afghans. However, it is simply too early to talk in any detail about what kind of mission we will have post-2014.

Q299 Penny Mordaunt: Given the timetable you have just outlined, does that give you any cause for concern that, by the time people might have decided what that mission is for NATO, people will have had enough time to plan?

Vincent Devine: No. The advice from the military is that that kind of time scale will give us sufficient time to plan to deploy in 2015 and, importantly, to manage that transition from ISAF to whatever follow-on presence we have. It is important that NATO made the statement in the middle of this year that we as an alliance were planning a follow-on mission, to demonstrate our commitment to Afghanistan and to the Afghan national security forces and to increase the confidence of those forces. That is why we want to bring our thinking forward in the first half of next year, in order to demonstrate again our long-term commitment. However, we could probably complete the precise details towards the end of next year and the military could still deliver.

Q300 Penny Mordaunt: Presumably the specific capabilities that you would need to retain there would be contingent on that entirely?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes they would, absolutely. So if you take the officer academy as an example, we will have people who are there to help the Afghans instruct: there will be mentors. They will need life support. When the students go on to the ranges or out for exercises, we will have to provide enough force protection and enablement, and support for that. But it is very modest stuff. If the Government elected to do more for the ANSF after that, the bill would go up a bit.

Q301 Sir Bob Russell: General, so there is no misunderstanding-although British troops will be in a non-combat role, they will have all the weapons they require for defensive purposes. So they will be fully armed?

Lt-Gen Barrons: Yes.

Q302 Sir Bob Russell: I know that that was an obvious question, but we need to have that on the record. Can you tell me what will be the size of the British armed forces deployment?

Lt-Gen Barrons: We don’t know the answer to that question, because we need an Alliance debate to talk about the general concept of operations first. Then, we need our Government to decide what they want to contribute. So I know what the threshold is-and indeed, that may be the total bill-but I could not say about anything else.

Q303 Sir Bob Russell: What do you anticipate would be the deployment period for each time a British soldier, airman or sailor was deployed to Afghanistan?

Lt-Gen Barrons: I don’t see our current yardstick changing significantly, so for those people who are in very Afghan-facing roles, particularly the more senior ones, the benchmark would be a year, so that you can establish a relationship. You are doing a job-you are not lying in a ditch with grass in your helmet every day. It is a Kabul-based environment. For those people in more energetic roles, perhaps very dull things like force protection, maybe six months would be sufficient.

Q304 Sir Bob Russell: The next question is not a pedantic one. Would those deployed be entitled to a campaign medal?

Lt-Gen Barrons: That’s a very tricky question. That would depend on how the Alliance viewed it, and on the degree of risk and rigour. I am delighted to say that that is not my side of the helm.

Q305 Chair: A final couple of questions before we go on to the final briefing. Presumably there must be a risk that after 2014, Afghanistan will fall into civil war. Would you accept that there is a risk of that?

Mark Sedwill: Yes: of course there is a risk of that.

Q306 Chair: What do you think that we as a nation-or possibly that we as an Alliance-can do further than we are already doing to minimise that possibility?

Mark Sedwill: Maintain both the practical but, more importantly, the political commitment that we make. So loose talk about rushing for the exit, and so on, in newspaper articles and books actually has a political effect, because it undermines Afghan, Pakistani and regional confidence in our determination to see it through, and if they act on their fears then the worse scenarios that you set up become that much more likely. So this has to be about transition and commitment, not withdrawal and exit. We have to be clear that 2014 is the moment at which we complete our combat mission and that our commitment to Afghanistan continues. That way we give the Afghans the best prospect of securing and governing their own country to their own standards and recognising all the challenges that will remain, but doing so in a way that essentially protects the reason we are there in the first place, which is to protect our national security and to prevent another threat emerging which directly threatens our national security.

Q307 Chair: So, maintain our nerve is essentially it.

Let us suppose that we do, and that we find that we have, in Afghanistan, national security forces and a new post-Karzai Government. To whom will those national security forces be loyal?

Mark Sedwill: To that Government, I think.

Q308 Chair: Last time I asked that question, the answer was "To that Government, I hope". You said, "To that Government, I think". You are more optimistic.

Mark Sedwill: "Hope isn’t a plan", as we used to say when I was there. I genuinely think that that is the case. It is quite striking how the army is the most important part of this because it is the national force. Although designated as national, the police is much more-as it is in any country-local. The army is a national force, and it has been very careful to ensure that units are of mixed ethnicities and that there is a balance.

In the officer corps of the army, that balance is not yet quite what we would like to see in, for example, bringing Pashtun young officers through. There is a genuine commitment in the Afghan national security forces to the nation. I have been struck by Afghanistan-if you think of other countries under this kind of pressure, with ethnic divisions and all the other sectarian divides, they have fallen apart. We worry about that happening in Syria. We worried about it happening in Iraq. Indeed, we saw it happen there. But largely since the civil war, Afghanistan has held together. That is because they have been through it before. They know what happens to their country if they allow themselves to go that way. There is a genuine commitment to Afghanistan in the army. I take you back to the example that I used earlier: you talk to a young Afghan soldier and ask him whether he is a Tajik, a Pashtun or a Hazara, and he will probably tell you, "I am an Afghan".

Chair: That is a most encouraging reply.

Q309 Mr Havard: The Afghans expect the international community to continue to give financial support in substantial numbers up until 2023, by which time they may have built an economy where they might be able to afford to have a civil war. Is that essentially where we are-that we would not necessarily expect this to collapse until such time as that? The national army will hold the ring because it is the one nationalised institution, until such time as they are ready to have that discussion-albeit kinetic or otherwise-among themselves. That is one view.

Mark Sedwill: It is not the one I share, and I would not characterise it that way. Afghanistan will need development support for many years to come. It will still be a developing country in 2023, 2024 and 2025, and I expect that we and others will still be providing it with development aid. But by then, our aim is for it to be a normal developing country rather than a special case.

The pressures on Afghanistan will be in a period before that. They will by then, we hope, have brought their mineral resources on stream and their economy will be viable in its own terms. But, of course, as I said at the beginning, I do not have a crystal ball. This is not just down to us. Our crucial part is commitment as we go beyond 2014, but the Afghans themselves have to manage their political transition. The Afghans themselves have to hold together under the pressures they will face. The Afghans themselves have to reach a political accommodation with the Taliban and bring them in, and they have to remain committed to a society that holds together. We can talk about it; we can influence it; we can provide the resources that underpin it; but in the end, the Afghans themselves will determine the outcome for their own country.

Lt-Gen Barrons: May I add one point on the security of the Afghan national army and their performance after 2014? I absolutely subscribe to the view that they see themselves as a national instrument and they really believe in that, and they see themselves as Afghans; but the supporting key factor is that the pay, careers, appointments and promotions come from Kabul. So, provided the ANSF remains funded from Kabul-loyalty being a bought commodity in many parts of the world-you can be significantly reassured that it will do what it is required to do for the central Government.

Chair: Thank you very much; that is indeed reassuring. Gentlemen, we will now go into a private briefing, which is not part of the evidence session. We are most grateful to you for this evidence session; it has been very interesting and rather encouraging. Mr Sedwill, you are welcome to stay if you would like. It is entirely a matter for you, but everybody else, please leave.

Mark Sedwill: Mr Chairman, if you will excuse me, I have to go to a diplomatic meeting.

Prepared 8th April 2013