The UK and Afghanistan Contents

Chapter 2: The UK and Afghanistan from 2014

Changes to the UK approach from 2014

23.The UK’s policy and strategy towards Afghanistan shifted from the middle of the last decade. Lord Houghton of Richmond GCB CBE DL, former Chief of the Defence Staff, said the most significant factors that influenced this change had been “more to do with things external to Afghanistan than inside it”.57 Afghanistan had “became a lesser security priority”; “other things—Russian malevolence, the growth of ISIS and all that—were taking far more attention”.58

24.Lord Sedwill said “the stamina … of the Western alliance” on Afghanistan had “started to erode”. There had been a “political recognition” in 2014 of “the domestic unpopularity and practical unsustainability … of an enduring combat mission”, and the “highly intrusive presence” of foreign troops had become “part of the problem”.59

25.At the same time, there had been a “need to justify the … endeavour”. First there was “almost a moral imperative” to defend “the engagement and the sacrifice”. Second, there had been a need to “play, and to be seen to play, a leadership role … particularly within NATO”. Third, there had been “a strong need to sustain a narrative … of progress and success”.60

26.The UK had made “a significant policy change” to “support for, not ownership of, Afghans’ future”.61 The UK’s military approach had become “an economy-of-force operation”.62 Sir Richard Stagg, former British Ambassador to Afghanistan, said the UK’s provision of limited military help to the Afghan government was “a sensible goal”.63 This approach came “at far less cost and UK national risk”, though “with a lot less certainty and control of the outcomes”.64

27.Lord Houghton said much of the “emphasis” had shifted to humanitarian and development assistance, institutional capacity building and political reconciliation. This aimed to establish “a more advanced country in humanitarian terms, a far more [self-] reliant country in security terms and … a slightly more united country in political terms”.65

28.In 2001, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, master-minded by al-Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan and enjoyed the protection of the Taliban administration, the country became a top UK foreign, defence and development policy priority. From 2010 its relative prioritisation as a national security issue slipped, partly in response to external factors, such as the increasingly disruptive international role played by Russia (including its activity in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine from 2014) and the rise of ISIS. The protracted and intractable nature of the Afghan conflict and a lack of public support for an ongoing combat mission were also factors.

UK objectives and interests from 2015

29.Lord Sedwill said that “the reason we went into Afghanistan in the first place is the reason we remain engaged: the national security threats that spill out of failed or even fragile states affect us at home and affect our allies”.66

30.Witnesses identified threats and interests. First, Baroness Goldie, Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, identified “homeland security and counter-terrorism” as the UK’s “primary interest”.67 There was a “continuing fear that an ungoverned and unsecured country could … become a safe haven for international terrorism”.68 In 2014–15, there was concern that ISIS or its affiliate Islamic State Khorasan Province (see Chapter 5) might “undermine the original and enduring purpose of the whole enterprise”.69

31.A second threat was “serious and organised crime”,70 including countering the trade in narcotics, which Baroness Goldie said was “a key threat to our national security interests”.71 Ninety-five percent of the heroin on UK streets is from Afghanistan.72 There are 261,000 heroin users in England,73 and in 2019 there were 1,329 deaths related to heroin or opium poisoning across the UK.74

32.The FCDO defined these first two threats as “foremost” among the UK’s “crucial security and foreign policy interests in Afghanistan”.75

33.A third issue was the impact of instability in Afghanistan on a “volatile”76 and “strategic”77 region. Lord Sedwill said Pakistan’s border regions were “Talibanised, and if the Pakistani Taliban have safe havens in Afghanistan, that poses significant security problems”.78

34.Fourth, the UK had an interest in “defending the political legacy of the West’s intervention since 2001”.79 The UK’s “long term objectives” were “to support Afghan-led efforts towards a sustainable political settlement, while building a viable Afghan state and sustainable, capable Afghan forces”.80 Lord Sedwill said that “a big part of the UK’s national security interest was “enabling the Afghans to stabilise Afghanistan for themselves”. This required “underwriting by external financial, military and developmental support”.81 The UK should also “not neglect, let alone lose” humanitarian and development progress.82

35.Lord Ahmad said “a significant part” of the UK’s legacy would be enabling Afghan girls “to realise their full potential through education”.83 Baroness Goldie said the UK’s legacy would be helping the Afghan government “to start determining its own affairs in terms of democracy, elections and government”.84

36.While the priority afforded by the UK to Afghanistan has fallen since 2014, the scale of the challenges facing the country, and their potential impact on UK interests, have not diminished significantly. Terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province operate in Afghanistan. The country is the source of 95% of the heroin in the UK. The Afghan state remains very fragile, with limited control of territory, and the Taliban’s insurgency continues.

37.The Government wishes to safeguard what it describes as the UK’s legacy in Afghanistan since 2001. It wishes to strengthen the gains made in this period, and defines its legacy in terms of improvements in human rights, particularly of women and girls, and the strengthening of the Afghan state since the fall of the Taliban administration.

38.There is a real risk that the principal national security challenges still posed by Afghanistan, namely terrorism, narcotics and regional instability, could worsen, and the gains made since 2001 could be lost.

Government co-ordination

39.The FCDO said the Government had “an integrated approach” to Afghanistan. The National Security Strategy Implementation Group for South Asia “regularly brings together aid, defence and diplomacy officials at Director-General level”, with input on counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, serious crime, migration and security. The National Security Council Officials group “held substantive discussions regarding future Afghanistan policy three times in the last twelve months”, and “discussed significant developments in the peace process and security situation at various points in the year”.85

40.The Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy86 was “an opportunity to extend and develop the already close co-ordination across HMG work in Afghanistan”. It would “define HMG’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy”.87 Baroness Goldie said Afghanistan was “at the heart of that”.88

41.We regret the further delay to the Integrated Review, and the Government’s decision to announce commitments on defence spending and official development assistance in advance of the publication of the review. It is essential that the final document demonstrates how Afghanistan fits into the UK’s long-term strategic aims for national security and foreign policy.

42.We ask the Government to provide us with a detailed breakdown of how its new commitments on defence spending will be allocated.

The UK as an actor in Afghanistan

43.Witnesses discussed the UK’s influence in Afghanistan since 2001. Ms Clark said the UK had “followed the US lead on Afghan policy, as everyone else has done”. There had been “moments when Britain could have, or perhaps should have, taken an independent line, and did not”.89 For example, the UK had sought to negotiate with the Taliban in the early 2000s, but this had been “blocked by Washington”. Had the UK approach prevailed, “the Taliban would certainly be a different organisation and we probably would not have had this war”.90

44.Mr Nicholas Williams, Senior Associate Fellow, European Leadership Network, said that the UK’s influence was “at best tactical, never strategic or decisive”. NATO operations in Afghanistan had been driven by the US and “the UK could ‘nudge but not budge’ major decisions”.91

45.Lord Sedwill said the UK had been “operating as part of an alliance and wider coalition in Afghanistan”. This meant that the UK’s “independent track record of successes and otherwise” was “entirely bound up with the American position and that of our allies and partners”.92

46.The UK’s interests in Afghanistan are not unique and distinct: they are bound up with those of its allies, led by the US. The UK has had limited opportunities, and has shown little inclination, to exert an independent voice and, along with other NATO Allies, has followed the US’s lead. This is regrettable, not least in view of the UK’s very substantial commitment to Afghanistan, both financially and militarily. The Government should seek to reinforce the need for a multinational approach, and be precise about its aims, including regional stability, counter-terrorism and countering narcotics production and trafficking.

Afghan interpreters

47.Given the legacy of combat operations, Lord Stirrup, former Chief of Defence Staff, and former member of the Locally Employed Civilians Assurance Committee, Baroness Coussins, Independent Consultant, and former member of the Locally Employed Civilians Assurance Committee, and Sir Richard Stagg said the Government had a moral obligation to protect civilian employees such as interpreters from dangers resulting from supporting UK military operations abroad.93

48.The Afghanistan Locally Employed Staff Ex-Gratia Scheme for Afghans who had worked for the UK was established in 2013 and extended in 2020.94 Lord Stirrup and Baroness Coussins said the Government should contact all Afghan interpreters now resident in third countries who might wish to apply for relocation and guarantee the entitlement of their children to accompany them, and said the UK remained responsible for interpreters employed via a civilian contractor.95

49.The UK Government should ensure that all Afghan interpreters who worked for the UK military, including those now resident in third countries, are aware of, and able to access the provisions of, the ex-gratia scheme.

57 Q 85

58 Q 86 (Lord Houghton)

59 Q 85 (Lord Sedwill)

60 Q 85 (Lord Houghton)

61 Q 86 (Lord Houghton)

62 Ibid.

63 Q 24

64 86 (Lord Houghton)

65 Q 86

66 Q 85

67 Q 116

68 Q 85 (Lord Houghton). The Taliban’s insurgency has continued in spite of its agreement with the US. The BBC described the group as being “at their greatest strength since 2001 … advancing and attacking in districts across Afghanistan”. BBC News, ‘Taliban conflict: Afghan fears rise as US ends its longest war’ (20 October 2020): [accessed 5 January 2021]

69 Q 85 (Lord Houghton)

70 Q 85 (Lord Sedwill)

71 Q 118

72 Letter from Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon to Baroness Anelay of St Johns (10 November 2020):

73 Dame Carol Black, Review of Drugs - evidence relating to drug use, supply and effects, including current trends and future risks (February 2020) p 3: [accessed 5 January 2021]

74 ONS, ‘Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2019 registrations’ (14 October 2020): [accessed 5 January 2021]

75 Written evidence from the FCDO (AFG0011)

76 Q 85 (Lord Sedwill)

77 Written evidence from the Human Security Centre (AFG0019)

78 Q 85

79 Written evidence from the Human Security Centre (AFG0019)

80 Written evidence from the FCDO (AFG0011)

81 Q 85 (Lord Sedwill)

82 Ibid.

83 Q 135

84 Ibid.

85 Written evidence from the FCDO (AFG0011)

86 In February 2020 the Prime Minister announced a government-wide ‘Integrated Review’ of foreign policy, defence, security and international development. The publication of the review has been postponed until 2021.

87 Written evidence from the FCDO (AFG0011)

88 Q 115

89 Q 8

90 Ibid.

91 Written evidence from Nicholas Williams (AFG0021)

92 Q 86

93 Q 28 and written evidence from Lord Stirrup and Baroness Coussins (AFG0020)

94 Interpreters who had worked for the UK in Afghanistan could choose to relocate to the UK, receive five years of training and a monthly stipend or receive the equivalent of 18 months’ salary. In October 2020 the Government announced that the existing scheme would be broadened under new legislation, allowing those who resigned after serving a minimum of 12 months to apply. Over 100 former translators are expected to be eligible to come to the UK under these changes. Ministry of Defence, ‘Press release: More Afghan interpreters to move to the UK as scheme extends’, (22 October 2020):,equivalent%20of%2018%20months’%20salary [accessed 5 January 2021]

95 Written evidence from Lord Stirrup and Baroness Coussins (AFG0020). The Government sub-contracted the employment of local interpreters to a private company called ‘thebigword’.

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