Securing the Future of Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

4  Withdrawal of ISAF combat troops

Plans for the withdrawal of combat troops

121. Under current plans, all ISAF forces in combat roles will have been withdrawn by the end of 2014 with responsibility for security having transferred to the ANSF. On 19 December 2012, the Government announced that UK force levels would be reduced to approximately 5,200 by the end of 2013. The Secretary of State for Defence told the House of Commons that "We will keep this number in review as the ISAF plan firms up and other allies make draw-down decisions in the new year".[126]

122. As part of his State of the Union 2013 address, President Obama announced that, having already reduced its troop level by 33,000, the USA would further reduce its forces in 2013:

    This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.[127]

123. General Barrons defined a successful withdrawal as:

    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.[128]

124. We asked the Secretary of State if the announced reduction in the number of UK troops would be phased. He replied that the plan had to be flexible enough to respond to what other ISAF nations, in particular the USA, decided.[129] He further said:

    [...] We will not be deploying 9,000 troops in the RIP [relief in place - deployment] in April, so there will be a step down in April. There is a clear expectation that there will be a further step down in September/October. What I cannot tell you is whether those two steps will take us down to 5,200, or whether it will be a question of bringing some people out of theatre. I suspect that once we embark on this process, if things go smoothly, the curve will look broadly smooth, so that there will be a combination of a reduction at each RIP but the withdrawal of some elements from theatre during the course of each six-month deployment.[130]

When asked if he had a strategic reserve in the event of withdrawal plans going awry, he said:

    You will be aware that we hold a theatre reserve battalion in Cyprus, and we will continue to hold that theatre reserve battalion in Cyprus if short-notice reinforcement is required at any point.[131]

125. General Barrons assured us that UK troops would be able to protect themselves until the day they left:

    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.[132]

We pressed General Barrons on the possibility of having to withdraw in contact with the insurgency. He said:

    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, [...] 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.[133]

126. We asked if there was a possibility that UK Forces could leave earlier and prevent further deaths of Armed Forces personnel. General Barrons replied:

    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 [...] 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.[134]

127. We agree with the Government's decision that the UK needs to see through the process of transition to the end of 2014. It is essential that UK Armed Forces are able to protect themselves until they leave Afghanistan. We are convinced that the withdrawal of troops will not be as straightforward or risk-free as the MoD tells us. The MoD should share with the Committee its detailed withdrawal plans. The plan should encompass the following:

  An orderly handover of responsibility for security to the ANSF;

  An orderly withdrawal of men with appropriate levels of protection;

  An orderly withdrawal of equipment or its safe disposal;

  Collaboration and consistency with NATO, other allies and Afghanistan;

  An associated strategic contingency plan to cater for an unexpected breakdown in security within Afghanistan and armed resistance to the UK's withdrawal including a significant reserve force to secure a timely and effective recovery of personnel and key materiel; and

  A list of reference points by which the MoD will assess the timeliness and success of the withdrawal.

Withdrawal of equipment

Preparation and planning

128. General Capewell described the preparation and planning for withdrawal:

    I should start by describing the MoD approach to this redeployment challenge. Of course it is not just about what is delivered in theatre, in terms of redeployment, it is how it is managed once it gets back to the UK base, so there is a whole MoD approach to this. A number of governing apparatuses manage and oversee this but, in so far as my contribution to redeployment is concerned, calibrating how much equipment—how much matériel—we need to extract from theatre over the next two years or so is clear to me. [...] I also know how I am going to get it back in terms of permutations of routes, whether through Pakistan or the northern Stans. I also know what that matériel looks like in terms of its movement, whether by road or air. The co-ordination of this is through my headquarters in the PGHQ, forwarding to the Joint Forces Support Headquarters, which is the headquarters that sits in Bastion.

    What is going on at the moment? there is quite a lot of aggressive battlefield clearance, of equipments and matériel that we do not need. That is being properly moved back. Of course, the NAO has an interest in this, through proof of good order and in making sure that we do this properly in terms of biometric checks, to get this equipment back. The whole apparatus of this is well understood in UK terms, but of and in itself it is not just about the UK deployment because, if you envisage the theatre requirement, NATO also has a role to play in co-ordinating and synchronising the route access—how we get this out, the air space management required to get this out, the border control management needed—so this is not simply me having a good plan, it is me having a good plan that can nest inside a broader NATO plan. In that plan, it must also connect through the coupling bridge which is one of the routes that we use by air or sea back to the UK base to deliver a considerable amount of equipment necessary for future regeneration and contingency back in the UK base.[135]

129. General Capewell said that matériel and equipment not required in Afghanistan was already being moved out.[136] During our visit to Afghanistan, General Carter told us that there would be a period of austerity at the end of the UK deployment when much of the supporting equipment would have been sent home.

130. The MoD provided us with considerable detail on its current plans for withdrawal. We then probed the current thinking on the approach to the withdrawal of equipment. The results of our investigations into the policy; the quantity to be returned; gifting to the ANSF; disposal; routes; costs; timetable; security; and co-ordination with NATO are summarised in an annex to this Report.


131. Francis Tusa, defence analyst, examined the publicly available material on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. His view was that the MoD did not appreciate the size of the task involved nor the practical problems associated with the withdrawal of large volumes of equipment and that consequently, it had underestimated the costs of the withdrawal. Compared with the withdrawal from Iraq, there is considerably more equipment in Afghanistan; 4,000 containers in Iraq compared with 12,000 in Afghanistan. Securing routes out of Afghanistan is more difficult, and relationships with Afghan neighbours are less stable than was the case in Iraq. He estimated that some 85 per cent of equipment had been flown in to Afghanistan which would be a very expensive way of returning equipment to the UK.[137]

132. Francis Tusa estimated that the MoD may need a "logistics surge of up to 1,000 people to clear up the stuff, unless we just want to abandon £6 billion of stock". We asked General Capewell how many extra people he would need to deal with the logistics:

    [...] we have got permission to surge up to 500 people into theatre to allow this to take place. I will give you a little bit more detail on that. It will not necessarily be 500 people; it could be as low as 20 people. It depends what the specific requirement is. For instance, if you have a certain fleet of vehicles that need preparing for redeployment, that requires a certain set of specialists. So this is bespokely designed, it is focused on the immediate problem and it is episodic, in the sense that we surge people in and out to deal with these technical challenges as they come along.[138]

133. Much of the equipment used in Afghanistan has been purchased as urgent operational requirements (UORs). These requirements were not part of the MoD's core equipment programme and were paid for from the Treasury's Reserve. If such equipment is returned to the UK and becomes part of the Armed Forces' equipment, the MoD is responsible for the cost of regenerating it. The Secretary of State explained:

    We will only bring back equipment that we need as part of our equipment plan. Equipment that is in Afghanistan as an urgent operational requirement is not assumed to form part of the future equipment plan. If it is to be brought back into the equipment plan, it will have to have a budget line exactly like any other equipment. In this case, there will not be a capital cost of procurement, but there will be a cost of any adaptation or refurbishment that is required for use in core, and of course for the ongoing sustainment of that equipment. There will be a value for money case on each individual line of equipment; for example, within the defence equipment plan, we have already taken the decision to reduce the allocation that was originally planned for new armoured fighting vehicles. Significant numbers of UORs have been acquired for Afghanistan in particular—350-odd brand new Foxhound vehicles. Some have just been delivered, and many more will be delivered over the next two years. They will be brought back into core, and they will form the backbone of the Army's light armoured vehicle fleet for the future.

    In many cases, recuperating UORs, refurbishing them and sustaining them in core will be the best value for money option for delivering equipment to UK armed forces. Where equipment does not represent value for money, after taking into account the cost of getting it back from theatre and then refurbishing it into core, it will not be brought back; it will either be sold, gifted or destroyed, as appropriate.[139]

134. Francis Tusa said that the equipment in Afghanistan had been used extensively and much of it was not in a good state. He estimated that the cost of regenerating 75 per cent of the UK vehicles in Afghanistan could be between £1.5 billion and £2 billion. He did not think that the costs of the regeneration of equipment could be found within the current £8 billion headroom in the equipment programme.[140]

135. We agree that decisions as to what equipment to bring back to the UK must be based on what the Armed Forces need and must represent good value for money. Regenerating equipment returned from Afghanistan will be expensive and we believe that the MoD is being unduly optimistic about these costs. Both equipment purchased as Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) and equipment purchased normally have been used extensively. The MoD should not make hurried and flawed decisions on what equipment to return from Afghanistan because of pressures of short-term affordability. The Treasury should pay for the regeneration of core equipment under the normal convention that additional costs of operations are funded from the General Reserve.

136. The MoD should only give equipment to the ANSF that it can use and maintain. We note plans to co-ordinate with NATO on gifting equipment to the ANSF. In response to this Report, the MoD should provide detailed criteria for determining what should be gifted to the Afghan forces and update us on the progress made by NATO in co-ordinating the gifting of equipment to the ANSF.

137. Planning for the withdrawal of equipment is underway but many key decisions have yet to be made. As the UK will be withdrawing its equipment at the same time as other allies, the MoD should ensure that it secures the necessary transport in a timely fashion and should provide us with metrics that we can assess.

138. We note that the MoD has already started to withdraw some equipment and matériel it no longer needs in Afghanistan. The MoD should not withdraw equipment early that would put the lives of UK Armed Forces at risk or that would leave them living in very uncomfortable circumstances.

139. As it is less than two years away from the end of 2014, at which time all combat troops should have been withdrawn, we would expect plans for withdrawal to be firmed up soon. In response to our Report, the MoD should provide us with its detailed plans as they mature, including the quantities, routes including possible pinch points to progress, security and co-ordination with NATO. The MoD should also provide us with estimates of the likely range of costs of the withdrawal of equipment. We were glad to hear that there will be continuity of responsibility for the withdrawal in that General Capewell will be staying in post throughout.

The protection of UK personnel

140. Keeping UK Armed Forces and civilian personnel safe is of paramount importance. We asked what the MoD was doing to keep personnel secure. Mark Sedwill described the approach with regard to the Provincial Reconstruction Team:

    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.[141]

Vincent Devine added:

    [...] As he [General Capewell] plans this complex transition, force protection will be a priority both for UK forces and personnel working alongside us. [...] Ministers have been absolutely clear in the direction they have given. [...][142]

General Barrons added:

    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.[143]

141. We have been concerned about the insider attacks on UK Forces by members of the ANSF and we wanted to know how the Armed Forces were going to reduce the risks to UK personnel. General Barrons said that 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 in many settings:

    [...] 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.

    [...] 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.[144]

We were given more detailed information about the measures being adopted to protect UK Armed Forces in classified briefings by the MoD in London and Afghanistan.

142. We asked the Secretary of State how those trainers and troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014 would be protected. He replied:

    First of all, the ability to protect whatever force we have on the ground will be absolutely paramount; we will not leave forces behind if we cannot adequately protect them. At the present time, the arrangements around the ANAOA [Officer Academy] and the protection arrangements are not entirely resolved, because it is not yet clear the extent to which we will be working within an American compound, how much protection the Americans will provide, how much life support the Americans will provide, and what the Afghans will provide. We have a range of estimates for our total force number associated with the ANAOA, at the lowest end being the basic numbers required to provide the training and basic UK aspects of life support, but assuming that the majority of the force protection is provided by others; and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a number based on an assumption that we have to provide our own force protection to the ANAOA. Outside the ANAOA, if we decide to do anything else anywhere in Afghanistan, we will either include UK forces for force protection purposes, or it will be on the basis that we are working within an ISAF construct, where force protection will be provided by ISAF allies—I should say NATO allies, post-2014.[145]

143. When we asked the Secretary of State about the provision of medical care to those remaining after 2014, he said

    As with force protection, we will only put people into a situation if we are confident that we are able to provide appropriate medical support to them, because as you say, even if they won't be in a combat role, there will be risk in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. But it is likely that that in-theatre medical support will be provided—I could say by allies, but let's not beat about the bush: it would almost certainly be provided by the United States, under an agreement, as it is highly unlikely that we would have enough people in theatre post-2014 to make the provision of dedicated UK medical facilities practical, I would think.[146]

144. Any loss of life is to be deeply regretted but it is particularly poignant when the death is caused by one of the people that UK Armed Forces are mentoring and supporting. In addition to the Armed Forces, there are many UK civilian personnel and contractors working in Afghanistan. The protection and medical care of Armed Forces and civilian personnel will continue to be a challenge up to and beyond the withdrawal of combat troops. In response to this Report, the MoD should tell us of the arrangements it has made with the US and the Afghan Forces on force protection and the provision of medical care, and associated aeromed evacuation.

Rest and recuperation

145. It was represented to us that we should consider changing the system for rest and recuperation for soldiers on operations. No other country flies its personnel home during tours and such visits can be disruptive rather than conducive to family life; the MoD takes a great deal of trouble over decompression at the end of a tour, part of whose aim is to ensure transit back into normal life. Yet there can be no time for such decompression before a short visit. We received testimony that this also puts extra strain in another way as it means two partings in each tour. Furthermore the long transit times put a stress on the air bridge - and soak up manpower waiting to go home and return. The best solution may well be a more traditional approach of arranging local leave at the nearest safe and pleasant location available.

Strategic communications

146. The view that the public takes, in both Afghanistan and in Britain about the role and outcomes of the ISAF mission and UK participation in it, is a critical element in its ultimate success or failure. If the outcome of any counter-insurgency operation rests in the "hearts and minds" of those concerned, then the strategic communication about its mission, its activities and its impact are as important as the combat it undertakes.

147. In its Report on Operations in Afghanistan in July 2007, the previous Defence Committee expressed concern on the need for effective strategic communications in Afghanistan and with the UK:

    The Government is not communicating key messages to the British or Afghan public about the purpose of its operations in Afghanistan effectively enough.[147]

Our last Report on Operations in Afghanistan in July 2011 also stressed the importance of the communication of the nature of the mission in Afghanistan to the local population and to that of the UK. We, therefore, wished to understand the Government's current approach.[148] The MoD told us that the cross-Government communications strategy had the following objectives:

      To increase UK public confidence in HMG's strategy in Afghanistan to build a secure, stable and viable Afghan state to protect our national security and reassure them that the mission is worthwhile.

      To build understanding and support amongst Afghans for the international mission, and increase the confidence of the Afghan people in Afghan-led security, governance and development.

      To ensure the support of international allies, including Pakistan, to achieve shared policy objectives and make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan.[149]

148. General Sherin Shah said that getting the media message right was sometimes more important than military operations. Helmand was a remote area and the Afghan media were new to it: nonetheless Afghan national television could and did report developments. It was particularly important that central government, with the assistance of scholars, should counter the misleading material put out by some clerics. There was still a lack of communications professionalism in central government. 

149. We asked if more could be done to explain to the British and Afghan people about the nature of the mission in Afghanistan and the transition to the ANSF. On the message to the UK population, the Secretary of State said:

    Our strategic message will be that we went into Afghanistan for a purpose, that the mission has evolved in function, going through the phases [...]—the defeat of al-Qaeda, pushback of the insurgency, creation of credible civil government, and then growing the ANSF to the capability that it will have when we leave at the end of 2014—and that the job that we set out to do has been done. We have delivered those four phases of the intervention and we have left an Afghanistan with an ANSF that has demonstrated itself to be capable of holding the ground that ISAF has held over the past few years.[150]

On communication with the Afghan people, he said:

    The broad thrust of it will be, "We, the foreigners, have carried out this four-stage process. We cannot build the future of your country; we can build the conditions that give you a reasonable, sporting chance of doing it for yourselves, but the future lies with you, in political compromise and agreement, in allowing the institutions of civil government to flourish, and in tackling the corruption that is still a major problem at every level of Afghan society. We have given you an Afghan security force that is credible to hold the ring. You now have to do your bit in delivering the type of society that you want to live in in the future."[151]

    As Afghanistan changes—and it has changed dramatically over the last decade—many Afghans will want to seize that opportunity now and they will not be attracted to the prospect of going backwards into the dark ages that the extreme end of the Taliban offers as an alternative future for that society.

150. Strategic communications are important in ensuring the support of both the UK and Afghan populations for what the UK is doing and has done and will be doing in Afghanistan. It is vital that the process is seen as transition and not as a 'withdrawal through fatigue'. We have seen little evidence that the Government's communications strategy is fulfilling its objectives. We recommend that the MoD and the FCO reinvigorate their communications strategy for the populations in the UK and Afghanistan and provide us with the detail on how the strategy will be enacted. The strategy should contain as a bare minimum the following:

  what we set out to do;

  what we achieved;

  what remains to be done including managing the continuing risk, albeit reduced, of UK casualties ; and

  the manner of the leaving of UK Armed Forces.

It is essential that the MoD should publish a report setting out what it has learnt from being in Afghanistan.

126   Statement by the Secretary of State for Defence HC Deb, 19 December 2012, cols 853-856  Back

127   President Obama - State of the Union address February 2013 / Back

128   Q 289 Back

129   Q 369 Back

130   Q 368 Back

131   Q 370 Back

132   Q 282 Back

133   Q 290 Back

134   Q292 Back

135   Q 212 Back

136   Q 212 Back

137   Q 25 Back

138   Q 220 Back

139   Q 387 Back

140   Q 25 Back

141   Q 260 Back

142   Q 261 Back

143   Q 261 Back

144   Q 266 Back

145   Q 267 Back

146   Q 380 Back

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

148   Defence Committee, Operations in Afghanistan , Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 554 Back

149   Ev 111 Back

150   Q 381 Back

151   Q 382 Back

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Prepared 10 April 2013