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We launched our inquiry last summer, conscious that the UK has expended significant defence, development and foreign policy resources in Afghanistan since 2001, but that there has been limited parliamentary scrutiny since the end of UK combat operations in 2014. The inquiry proved to be particularly timely. Peace talks were launched between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha in September, just as our evidence-taking began. Our inquiry has run concurrently with these negotiations, and this has added urgency to our examination of UK engagement in Afghanistan.
Throughout the inquiry, I was particularly struck by the courage and determination of Afghan citizens seeking to embed and protect human rights. This work is undertaken in a very challenging security environment, often at considerable risk to these individuals’ safety. We were fortunate to hear oral evidence – via Zoom – from a number of inspiring Afghan women, including Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Sima Samar, Special Envoy of the President of Afghanistan and State Minister for Human Rights and International Affairs of Afghanistan. The UK, and its international partners, must continue to support the many brave Afghans – including journalists, human rights defenders, and women and minority rights activists – working to protect these rights. This should include diplomatic pressure to push for a greater role for women in the peace talks, and to ensure that any negotiated settlement does not undermine the human rights of the Afghan people.
A Terrible Price
Afghanistan has endured more than 40 years of conflict, instability and external interference, and suffered extraordinarily high levels of casualties. 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. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, and the coronavirus pandemic has compounded its economic problems. There are five million Afghan asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons. We found that the Afghan state is highly aid-dependent, relying on international assistance for around 60% of its budget, and there are few prospects for domestic revenues to increase. Ongoing international funding is likewise essential for the viability of the Afghan National Security Forces, which the UK, NATO and allies have supported with training and mentoring via the Resolute Support Mission.
A Declining British Priority
Our report focuses on UK policy towards and engagement with Afghanistan. We conclude that the relative prioritisation of Afghanistan as a UK national security and foreign policy issue has slipped since 2010. This has been the result of the emergence of other security challenges, notably the threat posed by the Islamic State, and because of the (perhaps inevitable) onset of ‘conflict fatigue’ and diminishing public support for military operations from the start of the last decade.
However, the scale of the challenges facing Afghanistan, and their potential impact on UK interests, has not diminished. These include the fragility of the Afghan state, the ongoing Taliban insurgency – which has not abated in spite of the talks in Doha – the continued operation in the country of terrorist groups, including Al-Qa’ida and Islamic State Khorasan Province, and narcotics production and trafficking. Afghanistan is the source of 95% of the heroin on UK streets.
A negotiated settlement is the only long-term solution to the long-running conflict. We regret that the agreement between the US and the Taliban in February 2020 – which committed to the withdrawal of all foreign troops by May 2021 – was not conditional on the outcome of Afghan peace talks. We see this as having undermined the Afghan government's leverage at a critical juncture.
Continued International Engagement
In the report, we express concern at the potentially destabilising impact of President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by 15 January 2021, although the passing by the US Congress of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (over-ridinga presidential veto) constrains the administration’s ability to withdraw troops. In our view, the presence of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan will be necessary until a peace deal is reached, and we urge the government to make this clear to the US and NATO Allies. Early UK engagement on Afghanistan with the Biden administration will be essential.
We conclude that 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. It is likely to include some sort of power sharing with the Taliban. We highlight that the Taliban’s undertaking on terrorism in its February 2020 deal with the US was imprecise, and that it remains closely associated with Al-Qa’ida and the Haqqani network. Further serious concerns include uncertainty over the Taliban’s commitment to a negotiated settlement and power-sharing, and concerns about whether its views on human rights have changed since 2001.
Challenges for UK Government
We identify considerable challenges the UK government will have to wrestle with in the context of a potential deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and the withdrawal of foreign troops. The possibility of a power-sharing agreement including the Taliban in government raises particular issues for future UK security assistance and overseas development assistance (ODA). The UK is a major aid donor to Afghanistan. We identify difficult questions for the UK about aid conditionality on the grounds of human rights and terrorism, and the extent to which it could enforce its terms. In the report, we request that the UK government shares its thinking on future security cooperation and ODA provision with Parliament.
Our report concludes that the UK has both had limited opportunities, and shown little inclination, to exert an independent voice on policy on Afghanistan, instead following the lead of the US. We regret that the UK has been too reticent in raising its own, distinctive voice. We hope that the much-delayed Integrated Review will set out how Afghanistan fits into the UK’s long-term strategic aims for national security and foreign policy. We call on the government to press for a multinational approach to Afghanistan within NATO, and be precise about its aims, including regional stability, counterterrorism and countering narcotics production and trafficking.
The government has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to being a force for good in the world. I hope it will seize it.
Joyce Anelay, The Rt Hon Baroness Anelay, a former Foreign Office minister, is Chair of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee of the House of Lords.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.