A highly critical MPs’ report into Afghanistan has stated pulling British troops out of the country prematurely could “dangerously weaken” remaining forces.
The Commons Defence Committee document, entitled ‘Operations in Afghanistan’ claims the ISAF strategy could be undermined by the Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan to withdraw by the end of 2014.
There are also concerns about equipment and other support for the British forces, with the report stating it is “unacceptable that UK Forces were deployed in Helmand for three years from 2006 without the necessary personnel, equipment or intelligence to succeed in their mission.”
The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has conceded there is still much to do, but insists the 2014 withdrawal is still achievable.
Earlier this month, during a visit to Afghanistan, the Prime Minister announced the withdrawal of 500 troops, cutting total force numbers to 9,000 by September 2012, with a planned end to combat operations in the country by 2014.
Within the next few days, coalition troops are expected to begin the formal process of transfer of power to Afghan control.
However, the MPs’ report raises concerns about how ready the Afghan national army and police are to take over security and stresses the withdrawal of British troops must depend on the situation on the ground: “It is important that the government’s clear determination to withdraw combat forces should not undermine the military strategy by causing the Afghan population to fear that the international coalition might abandon them or by allowing the Taliban and others to think that all they have to do is bide their time until International Security Assistance Force withdraws.”
The MPs also state that it appeared “unlikely” commanders had sought authorisation from ministers for a tactical change which resulted in British forces “fighting for their lives”. The report says that this change should have had cabinet endorsement.
It states: “We are disturbed by the fact that the secretary of state was being told that commanders on the ground were content with the support they were being given in Helmand when clearly they were not. We regard it as unacceptable that hard pressed forces in such a difficult operation as Helmand should have been denied the necessary support to carry out the mission from the outset, and that this shortage had not been brought to the attention of ministers.”
In response to the report, Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox said: “I welcome the publication of this report to which the Ministry of Defence will respond in detail in the usual way.
“As military commanders have said previously, it is clear that mistakes were made in the lead-up to and during the initial deployment to Helmand in 2006. This was particularly true with regard to the troop numbers and equipment made available for the tasks expected of the UK forces deployed over that period.
“Since 2009 we have seen increases of force levels in Helmand from across the Alliance and through the growth of the Afghan forces that have halted the momentum of the insurgency.
“Isaf are ahead of our targets in further building and training the Afghan army and police who are growing in confidence and ability. Progress is such that in the coming days the process of transition for security will formally begin in Lashkar Gar, Helmand’s provincial capital.
“While there is much still to do, we are on track to achieve our target of ending UK combat operations in Afghanistan by 2015. We will not abandon Afghanistan and as the Prime Minister has made clear the UK will work to further develop the ability of Afghans to look after their own affairs by leading the Afghan National Army Officer Academy amongst other things.
“My highest priority is ensuring that our service personnel are given all the support and equipment they need to do the job asked of them. Helicopters are a shared resource across ISAF and there are sufficient in theatre. Since November 2006, the number of UK airframes available to commanders in Afghanistan has doubled with an increase in helicopter hours of around 140%.”
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