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Concepts and DoctrineOpinionShort Read

Forgetting Afghanistan? An Enquiry into an Inquiry

A report published by the House of Commons Defence Committee in February 2023 titled, ‘Withdrawal from Afghanistan’ reminds us of the significant, costly, and lengthy British intervention within the country.1  150,000 British military personnel served in Afghanistan, with 457 losing their lives.  Operations cost over £27 billion between 2001 and 2021.2  The report highlights that there must be an ‘open, honest and detailed review of the UK’s involvement in the country’ with a response from the British Government expected in April 2023.3  To date, no holistic British inquiry which encompasses military and political decisions from 11 September 2001 to the evacuation in August 2021 has happened.

The context 

The UK contributed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) led International Security Assistance Force between 2003-2014 when combat operations ceased.  Until 2021, NATO focused on its Resolute Support Mission, designed to train and advise the Afghan Security Forces.4  In February 2020, following an agreement to end the conflict between the United States and the Taliban, known as the Doha Agreement, operations and troop numbers decreased, allowing the Taliban to take control of the country.  It was barely six months between the arguably disastrous Kabul evacuation in August 2021 and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.  Academic analyses of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan were barely complete before the UK and the international community focused on another conflict.

Why an Inquiry?

For the most part, Afghanistan was a counter-insurgency operation in a location that has been traditionally difficult to operate, as the British in the 1800s and the Soviets in the 1980s can testify.  Nonetheless, in Kilcullen and Mills’ book, The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan, the authors argue that nothing was inevitable with Afghanistan, suggesting that opportunities were missed throughout.  It would be hard to forget the past twenty years, especially with the amount of pejorative discourse surrounding the campaign. 

A public inquiry is inquisitorial and serves public concern by addressing what happened, why, and what can be done to prevent mistakes in the future.  If setting a precedent for 21st-century military interventions was a strong argument for and possibly against a public inquiry, the British intervention in the Iraq War 2003-2011 is a notable example.  In 2009, Gordon Brown, the then British Prime Minister, commissioned a public inquiry into the Iraq War and in 2016 the Chilcot Report was published.  The report was highly critical of the British Government.  The Report highlighted key strategic lessons related to ‘those elements of the UK’s engagement in Iraq which might be replicated in future operations.’5  The Report acknowledged the specific context of the Iraq War but understood that generic lessons, such as the decision to go to war before all peaceful options had been explored, how to equip and prepare the Armed Forces, and how to design a post-conflict Iraq could be applied to future interventions. 

A 2 YORKS Foxhound, providing over watch security for the Afghan National Army Officer Academy Credit: MOD.

It has been seven years since the publication and there is no doubt that significant debate has focused on whether lessons highlighted in the Chilcot Report have truly been learnt. Recent commentary on the Report has reduced, albeit there was a slight surge of discourse during the recent twenty-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on 20 March. With a return of the Taliban to power and reports of Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists again,6 does this mean an inquiry should take place regarding the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan? 

What can we learn from Afghanistan?

If an Afghanistan Inquiry was to take place, it might ask the following strategic questions: 

  1. What were the reasons for intervening, did those reasons change and, if so, how over twenty years? 
  2. Did the UK have a long-term political strategy?
  3. What were the reasons for intervening in Helmand Province?
  4. Did the UK design an effective end state or exit plan?
  5. How effectively were the above questions communicated to the general public?
  6. What has been achieved?

It is highly likely that there will also be tactical and operational level questions with lessons identified, which will no doubt add value to future counter-insurgency operations.  The UK’s Ministry of Defence is a learning organisation and has an effective Defence Organisation Learning Strategy,7 but it is at the strategic political level where common lessons could be translated to a multitude of different UK interventions. 

A member of 216 Signals Squadron operates a radio at the British base in Lashkar Gar. Credit: MOD.

Lessons already identified by NATO may also be useful for the UK and any future Afghanistan inquiry.  There is a tendency that lessons are negative in nature, but NATO’s assessment of its engagement in Afghanistan shows there are positive lessons learnt in terms of the strength of allies working for a common goal and the shared political integration and military interoperability.8  Additional NATO lessons identify the dangers of mission expansion, setting unrealistic goals, and understanding the political and cultural norms of host nations.9  These can be used in conjunction with any UK inquiry. 

What’s the issue?

Public inquiries into UK military interventions are nothing new but can be contentious. Especially if there is an expensive public dissection of political and military decisions, which is emotionally draining for families of fallen Service personnel and protracted.  This was certainly the case for the Chilcot Report where delays in publishing the report undermined public confidence in the report itself.10  Nonetheless, it is part of a process to answer key questions, learn from past mistakes, and hold individuals accountable for their actions.  

There has been reluctance to hold a holistic inquiry for several years.  Debates from over a decade ago show mixed opinions, even back in 2013, with some stating that there was no, ‘outrageous breach of process’ nor ‘issues of deep legality’.11  Discourse over whether the intervention was successfully will surely also impact whether an inquiry is held.  When discussing Operation PITTING and the evacuation of individuals from Kabul in August 2021, Boris Johnston, the British Prime Minister stated, no terrorist attack against this country or any of our Western allies has been launched from Afghanistan for twenty years’.12  This line proposes that the Afghanistan intervention was in part successful, which could further reduce the likelihood of an inquiry. 

An RAF Puma HC2 from during Operation TORAL. Credit: MOD.

Further hints that the door for a public inquiry may have already closed appear in the newly published ‘Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a More Contested and Volatile World’.  To produce the Integrated Review Refresh Paper, the British Government states that they had drawn on, ‘lessons from policy and strategy over two decades of UK engagement in Afghanistan’.13  Although no additional details are made about Afghanistan nor specific references to the policy and strategy lessons are highlighted. 

One must highlight that a smaller and focused inquiry into events in Afghanistan is already currently in progress.  On 15 December 2022, it was announced that an independent statutory inquiry would take place regarding alleged unlawful activity by British Armed Forces between 2010-2013.14  This public inquiry is specific, time bound, and focused on one aspect of alleged criminal activity.  This is very different from a holistic British inquiry that encompasses all military and political decisions over a twenty-year period suggesting once again that a full inquiry is looking increasingly unlikely. 

Conclusion

Whilst political appetite and future threats constantly change, we cannot afford to forget about Afghanistan.  With thousands of veterans, the British Government’s initiative on Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, and the rise of the Taliban, it will be difficult to completely forget about the country, although all too easy in practice.  This is a dangerous decade for the UK and coupled with military efficiencies, we can ill afford to simply relegate Afghanistan to the history books once again.  Holistic military and political lessons from the twenty-year intervention must be examined and more importantly applied to future British interventions.  Lessons should cover specifics but also be relevant enough to be applied across the strategic political spectrum.  Strategic commonalities must translate across all forms of current future British interventions for lessons to be truly learnt. 

The British Government has until 10 April 2023 to respond to the House of Commons Defence Committee paper calling for a review.  The chances of a public inquiry look slim, especially for one that looks at the whole of the twenty-year period.  It was no small effort to sustain the war in Afghanistan for the past twenty years, if only enough effort was now being applied to learning lessons for future interventions.

Chloe

Chloe has been in the Royal Air Force for nearly 15 years with operational experience in Afghanistan, West Africa, and the Middle East. All opinions are her own and she does not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.

Footnotes

  1. House of Commons Defence Committee, Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Fifth Report of Session 2022–23, 10 Feb 23.
  2. Ibid p.3.
  3. Ibid p.20.
  4. NATO, Afghanistan Lessons Learned Process, Factsheet, Nov 2021. 2112-factsheet-afgh-lessons-en.pdf (nato.int)
  5. House of Commons, The Report of the Iraq Inquiry Executive Summary, p.129. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/535407/The_Report_of_the_Iraq_Inquiry_-_Executive_Summary.pdf
  6. BBC News, Afghan withdrawal a dark chapter for UK, says Defence Committee chair, 10 Feb 23, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-64591600
  7. Ministry of Defence, Safety Leadership Guide, How listening and learning are our best defence. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1078512/Leadership_Guide_-_How_listening_and_learning_are_our_best_defence_-_May_2022.pdf. P 3.
  8. NATO, Afghanistan Lessons Learned Process, Factsheet, Nov 2021. 2112-factsheet-afgh-lessons-en.pdf (nato.int)
  9. Ibid.
  10. House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lessons still to be learned from the Chilcot Inquiry, Tenth Report of Session 2016–17, 16 Mar 16. P.31. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmpubadm/656/656.pdf
  11. Prospect Magazine, The case for an Afghanistan inquiry, Sep 2013, https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/transcript-the-case-for-an-inquiry-into-afghanistan.
  12. Independent, Boris Johnson tell troops: ‘We’ll be forever grateful you kept UK safe from Afghan terror for two decades’, 29 Aug 21.
  13. HM Government, Integrated Review Refresh 2023 Responding to a more contested and volatile world, p. 11.
  14. HM Government, Terms of Reference, 23 March 2023. Terms of reference – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

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