The UK and Afghanistan Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.Afghanistan is “trapped by its geography”.1 A poor, landlocked country in a region of strategic importance, its challenges are long-standing.

2.Hussain Haqqani, Director for South and Central Asia, Hudson Institute, said Afghanistan had been created “as a buffer state”2 and “the countries between which it was created as a buffer have plans for it that do not match the aspirations of its peoples”.3 Lord Sedwill KCMG FRGS, former Cabinet Secretary and former National Security Adviser, said it had been “a theatre in which regional rivalries have played out” and “neighbours have meddled”.4 Its neighbours saw Afghanistan “through the prism of geopolitical state interest” and were driven by their “national insecurities”.5

3.Box 1 sets out a timeline of Afghanistan’s political history since 1979.

Box 1: Afghanistan timeline

1979: The Soviet Union took over effective control of Afghanistan following the overthrow and death of President Amin.6

1988–89: The Soviet Union withdrew troops.

1992: The Soviet-backed regime of Dr Mohammad Najibullah was overthrown by the mujahideen (decentralised guerrilla groups taking inspiration from Islam).7 Civil war broke out.

1996: The Taliban (an ultraconservative and principally Pashtun-ethnic political and religious faction that emerged in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, led by a former mujahideen fighter, Mullah Mohammad Omar)8 seized control of Kabul.

Around 1996: Al-Qaeda, a militant Islamist organisation founded by Osama bin Laden and Arab fighters who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, re-established its headquarters in Afghanistan.9

1997: The Taliban was recognised as ruling Afghanistan by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It controlled about two-thirds of country.

October 2001: US-led bombing of Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks. Anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces entered Kabul shortly afterwards.

December 2001: Afghan groups agreed a deal at a conference in Bonn, Germany.10

2004: The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was ratified.11 The first presidential elections were held.

2005: Parliamentary elections were held.

Source: BBC News, ‘Afghanistan profile—timeline’ (9 September 2019): [accessed 5 January 2021]

4.Kate Clark, Co-Director, Afghanistan Analysts Network, said “war and peace” were “the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan”. The war was “40 years old”; it had “started with a communist coup and a Soviet invasion and has carried on in various guises ever since”.12 International terrorist networks including al-Qaeda and ISIS remain active in Afghanistan.13Box 1 sets out a timeline of Afghanistan’s political history since 1979.

5.The war was now “Afghans killing Afghans, but with foreign support”.14 From January to September 2020, 2,117 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,822 wounded in fighting.15 In 2019, for the sixth year in a row the number of civilian casualties (those killed and injured) exceeded 10,000; the number of civilian casualties over the preceding decade exceeded 100,000.16 Dr Terence McSweeney, Solent University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, said “hundreds of thousands” of Afghans had been “injured and displaced by the conflict which has now lasted for a generation”.17 Figure 1 shows a map of violence by province.

Figure 1: Map of violence by province

Map of Afganistan by province

Source: European Asylum Support Office, ‘Country Guidance: Afghanistan’ (June 2020): [accessed 5 January 2021]

6.The population of Afghanistan is approximately 38 million.18 Two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25,19 and the median age of Afghan citizens is 18 years old.20 It remains one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. Mr Haqqani described it as “a … country with fewer resources than are necessary to run a functioning government”.21 The Afghan state is highly dependent on foreign funding, both official development assistance (ODA) and the spending of foreign armies.22

7.Afghanistan’s lack of access to the sea makes it particularly dependent on its neighbours for trade. Their political and security concerns, including tense relations with other states, often undermine the needs of Afghanistan. Limited control of territory by the Afghan government and the precarious security situation impede the development of infrastructure including roads, pipelines and railways.23

8.According to Hameed Hakimi, Research Associate, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House, Afghans face “multiple and intersecting deprivations in health, education, living standards, employment and security.”24 The World Food Programme said:

“A child born in Afghanistan will stand a 50% chance of starting life below the poverty line, but a 90% chance of being born into a family whose income cannot meet their basic needs. That child will stand a 40% chance of being physically and mentally stunted by malnutrition.”25

9.The COVID-19 pandemic had “exacerbated” this “already fragile situation”. Ill-equipped health facilities have been overwhelmed, and the “already desperate” socio-economic conditions have worsened, with serious negative effects on trade, jobs and livelihoods.26

10.In addition to the security and economic situation, the Afghan state faces serious problems including “poor governance”, the “lack of a political settlement”27 and “endemic corruption”.28

2020 and a possible future settlement with the Taliban

11.2020 saw the opening of an opportunity for negotiating a political settlement. This is significant for Afghanistan and for countries such as the UK which have been heavily involved diplomatically, economically, and militarily since 2001.

12.There have been two main developments:

13.Considerable uncertainty remains over the implementation of the US–Taliban deal and whether the peace talks will progress. Following the election of Joe Biden as the next US president, there is uncertainty over US policy on Afghanistan and the extent to which he will implement the US–Taliban deal agreed by President Trump.

14.Nonetheless, and while Afghanistan faces multiple challenges, Mr Hakimi said it was “a historic moment”.31 Having the Afghan government and the Taliban “sitting in the same room and talking, with the Taliban trying to be civil” was “an achievement”.32

Background on the UK and Afghanistan

15.From its participation in the 2001 US-led invasion onwards, the UK has considered Afghanistan a key foreign and security priority.

16.In 2001, then Prime Minister Tony Blair said the UK’s three objectives were “to pursue those responsible for the [9/11] attacks, to eradicate Bin Laden’s network of terrorism, and to take action against the Taliban regime that is sponsoring him”.33 The UK took a leading role in NATO combat operations until 2014. At its peak, the UK force level included 9,500 personnel.34 Box 2 provides a timeline of UK military engagement in Afghanistan since 2001.

Box 2: Timeline of UK military engagement in Afghanistan since 2001

2001–02: The UK responded to the 9/11 attacks by action with the US to remove al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and hunt Osama bin Laden. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established, based on UN Security Council Resolution 1386 (2001).35

2003: NATO took the lead of ISAF.36

2003–06: ISAF expanded across Afghanistan.37

2006–09: Ground military operations in Helmand province.38

2011–14: Handover of security from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).39

2014: The ISAF mission was completed.40 The UK withdrew combat troops.41

2015: NATO’s Resolute Support Mission was established to provide training, advice and assistance to the Afghan security forces and institutions. The UK is a contributor.42

The total audited cost of UK operations in Afghanistan from 2001–02 to 2013–14 was £21.3 billion.43

Up to 10,000 UK troops have contributed to NATO missions in Afghanistan to date.44 There were 456 British troops killed during the campaign (2001–14) and over 600 personnel sustained life-changing injuries.45

17.At the start of military operations in 2001, Tony Blair said the UK was “taking action” on “three fronts—military, diplomatic, humanitarian”.46 During the period of combat operations, the UK’s engagement was “not simply … a ‘war in Afghanistan’”: it sought to “address the country’s poverty, insecurity, poor infrastructure, weak governance and fragile economy”, and participated in “a wide range of projects to improve education, healthcare and governance”.47

18.Afghanistan became the fifth-largest recipient of UK bilateral ODA in 2002,48 and remained in the top six from 2003 until 2005, rising to third in 2008 and second in 2010.49 Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), said the UK had provided “over £3 billion in development assistance” to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban administration in 2001.50

19.In the period since 2015, Afghanistan has generated less attention in the UK, as other national security priorities have come to the fore.51 However, the UK remains a significant contributor. There are 850 UK troops currently deployed to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission,52 and the UK has “one of the largest and most active diplomatic efforts”.53 The UK provides £70 million in funding for the Afghan National Security Forces each year54 and is the third largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan, providing £167 million in official development assistance (ODA) in 2020–21.55

20.No select committee of either House has published a report on the UK’s engagement in Afghanistan since 2014.56

This report

21.In Chapter 2 we consider the UK’s role in and policy towards Afghanistan. In Chapter 3 we consider the Afghan state and governance. In Chapter 4 we consider the Afghan economy, including aid dependency and the illicit drugs trade. In Chapter 5 we consider the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including the links between them. In Chapter 6 we consider external actors and their objectives in Afghanistan. In Chapter 7 we consider the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and NATO training. Finally, in Chapter 8 we consider the peace talks in Doha, and possible future international and UK support for Afghanistan.

22.We thank our Specialist Adviser, Dr Weeda Mehran, Department of Politics, University of Exeter, and all our witnesses.

1 Q 100 (Dr Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh)

2 Afghanistan’s borders were finalised in the 1890s to reflect the concerns of the British Empire and Russia. Whitney Azoy, Middle East Institute, ‘Post-Buffer Afghanistan: A Nation-State Here to Stay?’ (17 April 2012): [accessed 5 January 2021]

3 Q 51. The state has multiple ethnic groups within its borders, and its border with Pakistan cuts through ethnic Pashtun communities.

4 Q 85

5 Q 100 (Dr Avinash Paliwal)

6 Office of the historian—US Department of State, ‘The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the US Response, 1978–1980’: [accessed 5 January 2021]

7 Britannica, ‘Mujahideen’: [accessed 5 January 2021]

8 Britannica, ‘Taliban’: [accessed 5 January 2021], Britannica, ‘Civil war, mujahideen-Taliban phase (1992–2001)’:–2001#ref727635 [accessed 5 January 2021] and Q 87 (Lord Sedwill)

9 Britannica, ‘Al-Qaeda’: [accessed 5 January 2021]

10 The Bonn Agreement established an Interim Authority for Afghanistan, the legal framework until the adoption of a new constitution, and the integration of all armed groups into the new Afghan armed forces under the authority of the Interim Authority. UN Peacemaker, ‘Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions (Bonn Agreement)’: [accessed 5 January 2021]

11 Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, The Constitution of Afghanistan: [accessed 5 January 2021]

12 1. It is estimated that 500,000 Afghan civilians were killed between 1979 and 1988. Accurate data for the period 1989–2001 is not available; it is estimated that at least 9,800 civilians died between April 1992 and March 1995 although the true death toll is likely to have been significantly higher. World Peace Foundation, ‘Afghanistan: Soviet invasion and civil war’ (7 August 2015): [accessed 5 January 2021]. About 157,000 people were killed in Afghanistan from 2001–2020, of which more than 43,000 were civilians. Watson Institute, Brown University, ‘Costs of War’:,those%20killed%20have%20been%20civilians [accessed 5 January 2021]

13 Q 55 (Erica Gaston) and Q 58 (Dr Antonio De Lauri)

14 Q 1 (Kate Clark)

15 UNAMA, ‘Afghanistan peace talks fail to slow civilian casualty toll’ (27 October 2020): [accessed 5 January 2021]

16 UN OHCHR, ‘Afghanistan: 10,000 civilian casualties for sixth straight year’ (22 February 2020): [accessed 5 January 2021]

17 Written evidence from Dr Terence McSweeney (AFG0002)

18 World Bank, ‘Population, total—Afghanistan’: [accessed 5 January 2021]

19 Written evidence from the World Food Programme (AFG0010)

20 Jacob Ausubel, ‘Populations skew older in some of the countries hit hard by COVID-19’, Pew Research Centre (22 April 2020): [accessed 5 January 2021]

21 Q 51

22 Q 1 (Kate Clark)

23 Written evidence from the Drugs & (dis)order Research Project, through the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (AFG0013)

24 Q 1

25 Written evidence from the World Food Programme (AFG0010)

26 Ibid.

27 Q 86 (Lord Sedwill)

28 Written evidence from Dr Saeed Parto (AFG0026)

29 Q 2 (Kate Clark)

30 BBC News, ‘US troops in Afghanistan: Allies and Republicans alarmed at withdrawal plan’ (18 November 2020): [accessed 5 January 2021]. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 was passed by the US Congress with bipartisan support in January 2021, overriding a Presidential veto. This introduced additional reporting requirements for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, including an assessment of the impact on the US counterterrorism mission and the role of US allies, including NATO. Detailed reports should be submitted by the Department of Defence, in consultation with the Department of State and the Director of National Security, to relevant congressional committees, or no additional expenses for the withdrawal will be permitted. It is unlikely that these can be completed in time for a withdrawal of 2,500 troops on 15 January. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, section 1215 [accessed 5 January 2021]

31 Q 2

32 Ibid.

33 ‘Text: Tony Blair’s statement’ The Guardian (7 October 2001): [accessed 5 January 2021]

34 Cabinet Office, ‘Policy paper: The UK’s work in Afghanistan’ (14 January 2014): [accessed 5 January 2021]

35 United Nations Security Council, ‘Resolution 1386 (2001). Adopted by the Security Council at its 4443rd meeting, on 20 December 2001’: [accessed 5 January 2021]

36 NATO, ‘ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan (2001–2014) (Archived)’ (1 September 2015): [accessed 5 January 2021]

37 Cabinet Office, ‘Policy paper: The UK’s work in Afghanistan’ (14 January 2014): [accessed 5 January 2021]

38 Ibid.

39 NATO, ‘ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan (2001–2014) (Archived)’ (1 September 2015): [accessed 5 January 2021]

40 Ibid.

41 Cabinet Office, ‘Policy paper: The UK’s work in Afghanistan’ (14 January 2014): [accessed 5 January 2021]

42 NATO, ‘ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan (2001–2014) (Archived)’ (1 September 2015): [accessed 5 January 2021]

43 This figure includes non-recoverable VAT at current prices (2015). Letter from the Ministry of Defence (13 January 2015):–08279-Cost_of_the_wars_in_Iraq_and_Afghanistan.pdf [accessed 5 January 2021]

44 Q 115 (Lord Ahmad)

45 Theo Farrell, Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001–2014, 1st edition (London: Vintage, 2017), p 1

46 ‘Text: Tony Blair’s statement’, The Guardian (7 October 2001): [accessed 5 January 2021]

47 Cabinet Office, ‘Policy paper: The UK’s work in Afghanistan’ (14 January 2014): [accessed 5 January 2021]

48 ODI, The UK’s approach to linking development and security: assessing policy and practice (May 2012), p 3: [accessed 5 January 2021]. A figure is not provided.

49 DfID, Statistics on International Development 2002/03-2006/07 (October 2007), pp 27 and 29 [accessed 5 January 2021]; DfID, Statistics on International Development 2004/05-2008/09, p 26 (October 2009): [accessed 5 January 2021]; DfID, Statistics on International Development 2014 (October 2014), p 29: [accessed 5 January 2021]; ODI, The UK’s approach to linking development and security: assessing policy and practice, p 3 [accessed 5 January 2021]

50 Q 115

51 Q 86 (Lord Houghton)

52 Q 115 (Lord Ahmad)

53 Q 116 (Lord Ahmad)

54 Written evidence from the FCDO (AFG0011)

55 FCDO, ‘Development Tracker Afghanistan’, [accessed 5 January 2021]

56 House of Commons Defence Committee, Afghanistan (Fifteenth Report, Session 2013–14, HC Paper 994)

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