The UK's national security machinery Contents

4The NSC and Afghanistan

144.Providing oral evidence in June, Lt Gen McMaster told us that

One of the ways to measure success is the degree to which the Government are reacting to events, or have strategic frameworks in place that allow the Government to try to bend events toward well-defined goals and objectives.229

145.Although the fall of Kabul came after we finished taking evidence for our inquiry, we felt it important to consider recent events in light of their implications for the functioning of the NSC, which existed for eleven of the twenty years that the UK had a major presence in Afghanistan. It is precisely the type of complex, cross-government policy area that the NSC and its supporting structures (including more recently an NSIG) were established to manage—involving the orchestration of many departments and agencies to deliver the Government’s strategy, and coordination with multiple allies and partners. Indeed, we understand that Afghanistan was a relatively frequent agenda item for the NSC over the past decade, including in the past year.

146.Nevertheless, as with covid-19—the case study from our last inquiry on biosecurity—events in Afghanistan raise serious questions about the role of the NSC, its strategy-making ability, the effectiveness with which it directs cross-government operational activity and planning, and the delivery of the Integrated Review. As Lord Darroch, former NSA and Ambassador to the US, has observed, it appears that the UK has “rather passively acquiesced in the foreign policy disaster”, from which it will take “quite a long time” to recover.230

147.Among the most important concerns raised by the trajectory of events in Afghanistan about the functioning of the NSC are:

148.Professor Clarke described the situation as a “sobering story for the UK as it embarks on its ‘Global Britain’ future in the 2020s”, with Afghanistan now in a “strategically worse” position than before the 9/11 attacks.239 Noting the lack of “command and control” for cross-departmental planning, former CDS Lord (David) Richards of Herstmonceux concluded that

[the NSC] mechanism is completely broken. It needs a major overhaul to turn it from a nineteenth century talking shop into a dynamic twenty first century cross-government coordination and communications centre […].240

149.The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is devastating on both a human and strategic level. Given both the timing of this crisis—which came after we had finished taking evidence for our inquiry—and the secrecy of NSC discussions, we are left with a number of outstanding questions about the Government’s handling of Afghanistan and the role of the NSC in key processes. We will call the National Security Adviser to provide oral evidence and a private briefing at the earliest opportunity after the conference recess.

150.By 18 October, the NSA should write to us to answer the following questions:

a)At what point did the Government give its consent to the February 2020 Doha Agreement negotiated by the United States and the Taliban? If it did not agree with this decision, why did it endorse the agreement at the UN Security Council meeting on 10 March 2020?

b)Why did (some parts of) the UK Government only begin planning for the withdrawal of NATO troops and its potential consequences, including the increased likelihood of the Taliban coming to power, in April 2021?

c)What was the role of the NSC and the Afghanistan NSIG in overseeing planning for the implementation of the Doha Agreement? On which dates did the NSC meet to discuss Afghanistan since April 2021?

d)What action did the Government take to anticipate and prepare for the second- and third-order effects of the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan?

e)On which date did the NSC—or another ministerial committee—last revisit the Government’s plans for an urgent evacuation of Kabul, including the processing of asylum seekers (if, indeed, such a plan was in place)?

f)Has the NSC met to discuss the strategic implications of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban? If not, when will it do so?

g)Why is there so little reference to Afghanistan in the Integrated Review? At what point will this be revisited by the NSC, and will the Government be drawing up a new strategy on Afghanistan?

h)What are the implications of the United States’ approach to Afghanistan in the past two years for the future of NATO, and for the viability of the Integrated Review, which is based on assumptions of a globally engaged US?

i)Do events in Afghanistan suggest a US withdrawal from intervention elsewhere (for example in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sinai and Mali); and what are the implications for the UK’s ability to pursue its own objectives in relation to counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and conflict resolution?

j)What are the implications of the Taliban victory for the UK’s relationship with Pakistan, including the terrorist risk emanating from that country, and the attendant risks of terror attacks in the UK?

The Government should use an annex to the NSA’s letter to provide information that cannot be put into the public domain.

Understanding Afghanistan and planning for the withdrawal of NATO troops

151.In written evidence, KCL’s Dr Lentzos and Professor Goodman said:

Surprised organisations and decision-makers are more likely to miss opportunities for preventing or pre-empting attacks and other threats, tend to be less well prepared for managing the unavoidable crises, and more likely to look ill-informed and out-of-control in the eyes of citizens, taxpayers and voters. They are also less likely to see opportunities to advance peace, security and prosperity.241

152.The Government was clearly surprised by the trajectory of events in Afghanistan since July. On 8 July, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that “there is no military path to victory for the Taliban”.242 At that time, the Taliban controlled 90 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, according to BBC analysis. By 16 August, the Taliban controlled all but seven districts and the Government of Afghanistan had collapsed.243 When the Prime Minister addressed MPs on 18 August, he said:

I think it would be fair to say that the events in Afghanistan have unfolded faster, and the collapse has been faster, than I think even the Taliban themselves predicted. What is not true is to say that the UK Government were unprepared or did not foresee this, because it was certainly part of our planning.244

153.Appearing before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 1 September, the then Foreign Secretary said that:

154.There are hard questions for the Government to answer about what appears to be either a failure to understand fundamental elements of the situation in Afghanistan—specifically, the strategy and strength of the Taliban and, as importantly, the fragility of the Afghan Government and its security forces without NATO support—or a failure to respond effectively to the information available, or possibly both.

155.It is impossible for us to draw conclusions from the fragmentary reporting and speculation currently available in the public domain. Nevertheless, the Government must establish where the root of the problem lay, assessing whether it was one or a combination of:

The NSA should outline his initial assessment of these matters in the confidential annex of his letter to us.

156.The key to preparing for an uncertain future is to plan in detail for multiple possible scenarios. While no plan survives contact with reality, it is the act of rigorous planning that enables the Government to adapt and respond in a more coordinated way as events unfold.

157.We urge the Government to revisit how it plans for major domestic and international crises, including the possibility of simultaneous crises—as has happened with covid-19 and Afghanistan. As events in Afghanistan have shown, it is essential that the Government has up-to-date and detailed procedural plans for a range of potential scenarios, which both assign tasks and responsibilities across departments, and inform exercises involving Ministers and officials. These plans should cover a range of highly serious, anticipatable contingencies—such as the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones and fragile countries, the emergence of a new infectious disease, a prolonged, wide-area electricity outage, a major global financial crisis and the withdrawal of NATO security guarantees by key Allies. The Government should update us in confidence on its progress against this recommendation in six months’ time, and then on an annual basis.

231 Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 1 September 2021, HC (2021–22) 685, Qq23, 116; Michael Clarke, “Afghanistan and the UK’s Illusion of Strategy”, RUSI, 16 August 2021

232 Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 1 September 2021, HC (2021–22) 685, Q13; The Andrew Marr Show, BBC, 5 September 2021

233 “I don’t believe Taliban pledge on women’s rights, Priti Patel says”, BBC News, 18 August 2021; Eleni Courea and Larisa Brown, “Ex-forces chiefs condemn failure to protect Afghan interpreters”, The Times, 28 July 2021; oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 1 September 2021, HC (2021–22) 685; HC Deb, 18 August 2021, col 1253ff; HC Deb, 6 September 2021, col 21ff

236 State Department, “Agreement for bringing peace to Afghanistan [Doha Agreement]”, 29 February 2021; oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 1 September 2021, HC (2021–22) 685, Q13

237 Lord Ricketts, “The Afghanistan crisis has exposed Global Britain’s delusions of grandeur”, New Statesman, 25 August 2021; Suzanne Raine, “What should we do when terrorists go quiet?”, Engelsberg Ideas, 20 May 2021

238 Lord Ricketts, “The Afghanistan crisis has exposed Global Britain’s delusions of grandeur”, New Statesman, 25 August 2021; “Nato allies urge rethink on alliance after Biden’s ‘unilateral’ Afghanistan exit”, Financial Times, 17 August 2021; Elisabeth Braw, “Europe Runs Risk of Becoming a Global Strategic Victim”, Foreign Policy, 23 August 2021; Tim Shipman and Josh Glancy, “The £2 trillion Afghani-shambles”, Sunday Times, 22 August 2021; Malcolm Chalmers, “The Next Act in the Afghan Tragedy”, RUSI, 17 August 2021

239 Michael Clarke, “Afghanistan and the UK’s Illusion of Strategy”, RUSI, 16 August 2021

241 Dr Filippa Lentzos (Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London) and Professor Michael Goodman (Professor of Intelligence and International Affairs at King’s College London) (NSM0009)

242 HC Deb, 8 July 2021, col 1107

244 HC Deb, 18 August 2021, col 1254

245 Oliver Wright, “Boris Johnson insists the risk of rapid Afghanistan collapse was clear”, The Times, 3 September 2021

246 Kate Clark, a journalist located in Afghanistan since 2001, argues that despite the continuation of peace talks in Doha in 2020 and 2021, the Taliban’s intent to take control of Afghanistan was clear—not least through the systemic removal of potential opposition from civic society. Kate Clark, “The Taleban’s rise to power: As the US prepared for peace, the Taleban prepared for war”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 21 August 2021

247 Mike Martin, An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978–2012 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); George Vlachonikolis, “An incompetent war: Britain in Helmand”, War on the Rocks, 22 May 2014

248 Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 1 September 2021, HC (2021–22) 685, Q23; Victor Mallet, “Why France was more clear-eyed about Afghanistan than the US”, Financial Times, 31 August 2021

Published: 19 September 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement