The UK and Afghanistan Contents


Afghanistan’s relative prioritisation as a UK national security issue has slipped since 2010, but the scale of the challenges facing the country, and their potential impact on UK interests, have not diminished. Our report and its conclusions and recommendations come at a critical time in Afghanistan’s history. The Afghan state remains very fragile, with limited control of territory. The Taliban’s insurgency continues, and terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province, operate in the country. Afghanistan is the source of 95% of the heroin on UK streets.

Afghanistan has endured more than 40 years of conflict, instability and external interference since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and suffered extraordinarily high levels of civilian casualties. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked 170 out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded its problems: more than a third of Afghans are in acute humanitarian need, and the poverty rate is expected to increase to 72% of the population. In 2019 there were more than five million Afghan asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons.

In conducting our inquiry, we focussed principally on the current situation in Afghanistan and the country’s future prospects, rather than on past events. We were struck by the fact that, despite the scale of the UK’s involvement, both military and economic, over recent years, there were few traces of a coherent overall policy approach.

The Afghan state is highly aid-dependent, and there are few prospects for domestic revenues to increase. We conclude that reducing official development assistance (ODA) to Afghanistan would disrupt the provision of basic services, and have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. The UK is a major donor to Afghanistan, and we welcome the Government’s decision to maintain the level of aid to Afghanistan in the 2020–21 financial year. Ongoing international funding is likewise essential for the viability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and we welcome the UK’s pledge of £70 million for 2021, in addition to its support and training to the ANSF through NATO’s Resolute Support Mission.

The Afghan government’s accountability to its citizens is limited by its reliance on international military spending and aid. Government appointments are regarded as a source of spoils, and warlords and militia leaders retain roles inside the state. As a major donor of on-budget support, (provided directly to the government), we call on the UK, with its international partners, to call out the corrupt practices of individuals within the Afghan government, and shift away from on-budget support to other ways of delivering aid if these levels of corruption continue.

We heard that the expectations of Afghan citizens about human rights and participation in governance have changed for the better since 2001, making any future attempt to roll back these freedoms more difficult. There has been a considerable improvement in the participation of women, particularly in urban areas, and in freedom of speech, association and access to information. This progress has, however, been impeded by challenging issues including the security situation, the limited reach of the Afghan government into rural areas, a lack of political will, and a culture of impunity. We call on the Government to speak out on human rights abuses, including those perpetrated by officials, the Afghan security forces and militias.

Afghanistan is the largest source of heroin in the world. The drug economy is a crucial part of domestic power dynamics, while many rural jobs and livelihoods depend on poppy cultivation. We conclude that the UK’s presence in, and funding for, Afghanistan appears to contribute little to countering the narcotics trade. Effective action will only be possible once a greater degree of security is achieved, and the UK should work with any future Afghan government on this agenda. There are many ways to work with the Afghan government on this, including supporting economic development.

In September 2020, talks began in Doha between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This followed an agreement between the US and the Taliban, which committed to the withdrawal of all foreign troops by May 2021. We regret that this agreement was not conditional on the outcome of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban: this has undermined the Afghan government’s leverage. We also regret President Trump’s plans to withdraw 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by 15 January, which has the potential to further destabilise the security situation. We appreciate that the situation is now uncertain, as a result of the passage by Congress of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 which constrains the Trump Administration’s ability to withdraw troops. We urge the UK to emphasise to the US and to NATO Allies the importance of their ongoing presence in Afghanistan until a peace deal is reached. The Government must engage with the incoming Biden Administration on Afghanistan as a matter of urgency.

The support of the US and Afghanistan’s neighbours will be critical to the success of talks in Doha, and the implementation of any agreement. We consider that it should be a priority objective of the Government’s policy to secure a binding international commitment by all of Afghanistan’s neighbours to non-intervention and to economic co-operation.

A successful outcome to the Afghan peace talks must include a ceasefire, the reconciliation and reintegration of armed groups, respect for the rights of all Afghan citizens and a commitment not to provide support for terrorist groups. However, while the Taliban has shown willingness to engage in the talks, its commitment to a negotiated settlement and to power-sharing is unclear. It remains closely associated with al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, and its undertaking on terrorism in the February 2020 US-Taliban deal was imprecise. Any settlement agreed at the Doha talks must firm up that commitment. We are concerned that the Taliban remains ideologically opposed to the progress made on human rights since 2001. Progress on these rights, particularly of women and minorities, are in danger of being reversed.

We conclude that the Government should be giving careful consideration to how, in the event of the Doha talks resulting in an agreement, it will handle its future relationship with the Taliban, which will necessarily be part of any power-sharing arrangement. The future of international security assistance to Afghanistan is unclear: a government with Taliban representation might not accept such assistance, and the UK and NATO Allies would need to consider what kind of assistance to provide to such a regime. The provision of ODA would pose difficult questions for the UK about conditionality on the grounds of human rights and terrorism, and the extent to which it could enforce its terms. We request that the Government shares its thinking on these issues with Parliament.

Finally, we conclude that it is essential for the long-awaited Integrated Review to demonstrate how Afghanistan fits into UK’s long-term strategic aims for national security and foreign policy. The UK has had limited opportunities, and shown little inclination, to exert an independent voice on policy on Afghanistan. Instead, the UK has followed the lead of the US, and has been too reticent in raising its distinctive voice. It should now call for a multinational approach to Afghanistan within NATO, and be precise about its aims, including regional stability, counter-terrorism and countering narcotics production and trafficking.

© Parliamentary copyright 2018