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On Afghanistan: What Next for the UK?

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On 28 April 2023, the British Government responded to the House of Commons Defence Committee, Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report. A slim eight-page document (in comparison to the 30-page Defence Committee report) provided a response to several recommendations, including a call for an ‘open, honest and detailed review of the UK’s involvement in the country between September 11th 2001 to the evacuation of Kabul in August 2021’. The response was as predicted with the prospects of a public inquiry looking all but non-existent and the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) assessing that a further review into the conflict would not justify the outcome. What’s next for the UK?

What the response says and, more importantly, what it does not

The response fell short of rejecting the recommendation for a public inquiry. Instead, it focused on the MOD’s assessment that a holistic review spanning twenty years would have limited value.

There were three main reasons1 for this:

  1. Lessons had already been learnt via numerous studies,
  2. It would absorb resources, and
  3. It ‘does not coincide with the now-published Integrated Review Refresh’.

Worthy of note is that the British Government’s response was based on the MOD’s assessment. No doubt the MOD has formed this view through their own lens and perspective but the original recommendation from the Defence Committee requested a review into not just military operations, but political decisions throughout the twenty years.2 The MOD would not be able to comment on political decisions, which suggests that the British Government’s response did not fully address the original recommendation, but does that matter? This author’s opinion is no. It appears that there is a lack of political appetite for a public inquiry, for reasons stretching from strategic failures of the conflict to the lessons learnt from the Iraq War public inquiry, the Chilcot Report.

The ‘So What’

Following the release of the fifth report in February 2023, various newspapers reported on the Defence Committee’s call for a public inquiry.3 Headlines such as ‘a dark chapter for the UK’ which must be investigated through a public inquiry were touted. The British Government’s response in April 23 seems to have generated less emotive headlines but still attracted the Chair of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood, to comment that the frustrating refusal would prevent the country from learning lessons, especially in light of the Sudan evacuation.4 What is next for Afghanistan and the UK?

Afghanistan and the UK: A service person with a .50 calibre gun whilst on patrol around Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan
A service person on patrol around Kandahar Airfield. Credit: MOD

We cannot forget about the conflict, nor consign Afghanistan to the history books just because of a lack of public inquiry. Reminders of the UK’s involvement within the country cannot be easily forgotten. Remember that 457 service personnel lost their lives in an operation costing over £27 billion between 2001 and 2021.5 Furthermore, there is a continuing, more focused independent inquiry into alleged unlawful activity in Afghanistan between 2010-2013.6 Seeking all members (serving or retired) of all UK military organisations to get in touch with the inquiry, the subsequent recommendations are likely at best to generate discourse or, at worst, determine that there is credible information that unlawful killings took place. Starting in December 2022, the Inquiry will at least provide an interim report within 12 – 18 months.7

The conflict and its mostly pejorative associated consequences will continue to evoke a range of emotions, depending on one’s perspectives, for years to come. For service personnel wounded, and families devastated by lost ones, Afghanistan will remain a traumatic reminder of the nature of conflict. Furthermore, the emotional burden of viewing the chaotic scenes during the evacuation of Kabul in 2021 will likely trigger many questions about how a twenty-year conflict could end in such a way. Between 2 – 4 July a hard-hitting three-part documentary on Channel 48 detailing the personal aspects of the evacuation aired on TV which brought the conflict back to the forefront of minds especially for those who served on the ground. In short, the conflict will not disappear from our collective societal memory.

A full circle

What started as the overthrowing of the Taliban, for harbouring Al Qaeda, ended with the Taliban back in control. We appear to have come full circle and instability in the region remains. The Taliban and their conflict with arch-enemies Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP or ISIS-K) in Afghanistan will likely impact the geopolitical environment, creating instability across the region and threats internationally. In February 2023, the United States’ Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that “ISIS-Khorasan almost certainly retains the intent to conduct operations in the West and will continue efforts to attack outside Afghanistan.”9 The twenty-year war did not see any attacks launched at the UK from Afghanistan, suggesting the counter-terrorism operation was successful in part; however, the future remains unpredictable.

On a slightly more positive note is the British Government’s obligation to support the people of Afghanistan via schemes such as the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). The ARAP is designed to relocate those who worked for the British Government to the UK, with the ACRS welcoming up to 20,000 people in need.10 During the evacuation, the British Government suspended all operations in its Embassy in Kabul and it is hoped that, in time, diplomatic relations will be restored within the country.

Afghanistan and the UK: British forces at Kabul Airport continuing evacuate Afghans
UK Armed Forces personnel at Kabul Airport. Credit: MOD

Afghanistan also remains a worthwhile case study across all military operational domains. In 2023, the Royal Air Force released its Operational Narrative 2009-2014 regarding Force Protection at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. This document details events that occurred over 10 years ago and was designed to record the experiences of Air Force Protection operations to help guide future commanders. Designed to draw out enduring themes, this document is one such example where the conflict continues to improve Defence’s understanding and education today.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding the lack of a holistic public inquiry into the twenty-year conflict, the war in Afghanistan and its associated ramifications will continue to feature within the British psyche and memory. Whether that is regular reminders of the chaotic evacuation of Kabul in 2021 within mainstream media, the presence of Afghans in our communities, or enduring lessons identified, the conflict will be hard to forget and nor should it be. Triggering the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s first Article 5 of collective defence following the 9/11 attacks, the conflict in Afghanistan was a necessary intervention but one in which the consequences will be paid for by the UK and the West for the foreseeable future.

 

Cover photo credit: MOD

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, Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report, Fifth Special Report of Session 2022-23, pg. 8. 28 Apr 23. Available at https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/39338/documents/193139/default/
  2. ibid
  3. 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 and Evening Standard, ‘Open and honest’ review of UK Afghanistan involvement required, say MPs, 10 Feb 23, https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/afghanistan-tobias-ellwood-mps-government-taliban-b1059302.html
  4. Forces Net, MOD rejects MPs’ demand for inquiry into Afghanistan campaign, 28 Apr 23, https://www.forces.net/operations/afghanistan/mod-rejects-mps-demand-inquiry-afghanistan-campaign
  5. House of Commons Defence Committee, Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report, Fifth Special Report of Session 2022-23, 28 Apr 23.
  6. Independent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan – https://www.iia.independent-inquiry.uk/
  7. ibid
  8. Channel 4, Evacuation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4nRv43Vqaw
  9. Office of the Director of National intelligence, Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, 6 Feb 23, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ATA-2023-Unclassified-Report.pdf
  10. British Government, One year on: government’s continuing commitment to Afghanistan, 25 Aug 22, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/one-year-on-governments-continuing-commitment-to-afghanistan

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