Written evidence submitted by the FCDO (AFG0012)
FAC INQUIRY: UK POLICY TOWARDS AFGHANISTAN
The UK has enduring interests in Afghanistan, which have been reviewed and reaffirmed by the National Security Council in the light of the Taliban military takeover. They include: minimising the extent to which it is a source of security threats to the UK, in the form of terrorism, illegal migration or narcotics; addressing the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable; minimising the export of instability to the region; and protecting human rights and the gains of the last two decades. We also want to ensure safe passage for British nationals and Afghans we are helping to relocate.
These interests are inter-related. Protecting our security by addressing terrorism and other threats is a high priority. But it cannot be achieved without also protecting the most vulnerable and preventing economic and regional instability.
In pursuing these interests, we remain committed to the values that shaped our involvement in Afghanistan after 2001. We will continue to press the Taliban to pursue inclusive politics. Only the Afghan people have a right to determine who should govern them.
Our approach will be shaped not by the Taliban’s public statements, but by how they operate in practice. This is likely to become clear only over time. On basic questions – for example, their approach to the Constitution or Parliament – they have said very little so far. Their approach to terrorism, including Al Qa’eda and Islamic State, remains unclear.
In the first few weeks of Taliban control, they have taken a number of concerning steps on governance and human rights issues. Their ‘caretaker’ Ministerial appointments include no women, and few non-Pashtuns or those not part of the Taliban. They appear to be allowing the education of girls at primary school and female university students, but girls’ secondary schools have not reopened. Some women report exclusion from employment. They have also said they will apply their interpretation of Shari’a law, which may include capital and corporal punishments for adultery and theft.
The Taliban have announced an amnesty for those who worked with the previous government, and provided reassurances to the UN and others on humanitarian access. They are also allowing some British nationals and documented Afghans to leave. That said, there are reports of some attacks against staff of the former government, with few signs of the Taliban acting against the perpetrators. We are still testing how far Taliban officials are respecting their public commitments in practice.
Engaging the Taliban
We continue to maintain practical channels of communication to the Taliban. We are using these to set out our position and expectations, and listen to theirs. In public and private, we have been clear that we are ready in principle to provide support to Afghanistan, in particular to meet humanitarian needs, but our ability to help will depend on Taliban actions, and how far they adhere to basic norms. For many years, senior figures in the movement have said they recognise they can only achieve their goals, such as international acceptance, economic assistance and sanctions lift, through a constructive dialogue with foreign powers.
To facilitate these exchanges, the Prime Minister has appointed Sir Simon Gass to be his ‘Special Representative for the Afghan Transition’. We have set up a temporary UK Mission to Afghanistan in Doha.
We have played a pro-active role in seeking to build a shared new international approach since the Taliban takeover. The Prime Minister hosted a virtual meeting of G7 Leaders on 24 August. The previous Foreign Secretary convened G7 Foreign Ministers on 19 August and attended two subsequent meetings of Foreign Ministers hosted by the US. The current Foreign Secretary convened a meeting of P5 Foreign Ministers on 22 September. She, Lord Ahmad and other FCDO Ministers as well as the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Home Secretary and others have also held many meetings with their international counterparts.
The UK, with the US and France, led work on Security Council Resolution 2593, adopted on 30 August. The Resolution said that Afghan territory must not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorism, called on the Taliban to ensure safe passage for those who wished to leave and for unimpeded humanitarian access, and reaffirmed the importance of upholding human rights.
We have always argued that violence is not the answer to Afghanistan’s problems. What Afghanistan needs are inclusive politics and the formation of a representative government that works for all its people.
NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers met on 14 April and decided that all NATO forces should withdraw from Afghanistan, in keeping with the principle of ‘In Together, Out Together’ that has guided the Alliance’s commitment to Afghanistan over the last 20 years. From that point, the NATO Commander on the ground in Kabul, General Scott Miller, led a carefully co-ordinated operation to withdraw the forces.
In parallel, Allies worked together at pace, to put in place the essential elements of a new ‘Diplomatic Assurance Platform’, to ensure our collective ability to safely maintain Embassies in Kabul after the withdrawal of NATO forces. This was co-ordinated between capitals, in the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, and through Embassies and NATO HQ in Kabul. The plans were predicated on the Afghan National Defence Force and Police continuing to act as lead providers of security in Kabul.
In April, we updated FCDO Travel Advice for British Nationals to urge all remaining British nationals to consider leaving Afghanistan. Within the FCDO, a Transition Task Force was set up under Sir Laurie Bristow (before he became our Ambassador in Kabul), to lead our part in this work, including working closely with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) on Operation CATALLO: minimising the non-essential elements of the military and diplomatic platform and equipment.
Throughout this period, there was daily co-operation between FCDO, MOD, and other Departments, with regular cross-Whitehall co-ordination meetings chaired by the Deputy National Security Adviser. The FCDO worked closely with the MOD to revise the standing plans (‘Operation PITTING’) to evacuate the British Embassy and any remaining eligible persons, to reflect the new security environment after the end of the NATO presence. In Kabul, the British Embassy regularly co-ordinated with the US and other Allied missions to ensure that our contingency planning for any evacuation was proceeding in parallel.
The subsequent military-led evacuation of most Embassy staff, foreign nationals, and eligible Afghan civilians, was a multinational operation, with the US and UK playing leading roles. Thanks to prior contingency planning, the US and UK militaries were able to insert forces quickly to secure Kabul airport, to enable an evacuation to take place despite the fall of the rest of the city to the Taliban.
Over the rest of August, both the UK and US evacuated substantial numbers of nationals from third countries, in addition to Afghans and British nationals, with the UK evacuating around 15,000 people between 15 and 29 August. These included many contractors who had provided guarding and other essential life support services to Embassies and the NATO mission, diplomats from other countries, and other civilians working for international organisations.
Thanks to the detailed planning work that went into Operation PITTING, the UK, uniquely, was able to open rapidly an Evacuation Handling Centre at the Baron Hotel, outside the Kabul airport perimeter. This became the focal point for processing, in volume and at pace, those potentially eligible to come to the UK. We were also able to open, thanks to an agreement we had negotiated in advance with the Emirati Government, a Temporary Safe Location at Dubai airport, to act as the reception and transit point for onward flights to the UK for those we had evacuated from Kabul. This meant that those we evacuated were able to complete any necessary biometric or other security checks in Dubai and then promptly fly on to the UK, rather than facing long delays before completing their journeys.
From 13 August, Ministers met regularly to review the progress of Operation PITTING, chaired by the Prime Minister. Senior officials from around Whitehall, senior military officers, including the overall Commander of Operation PITTING, and the British Ambassador in Kabul, Sir Laurie Bristow, or his Deputy Ambassador, Alex Pinfield, also met daily under the chairmanship of the National Security Adviser to ensure that critical information was brought together in one place and operational decisions could be made in real time. The FCDO Crisis Centre operated 24/7 throughout this period, and had staff embedded from PJHQ, MOD and Border Force, to ensure continuous joined-up operational engagement at all times during Operation PITTING.
As always after major crises, the FCDO is conducting an internal review to establish any lessons we can learn and which can inform future contingency planning.
The UK Armed Forces, intelligence services, diplomatic and development staff and others who served in or worked on Afghanistan over the last 20 years have played a vital role in reducing the terrorist threat to the UK. There has not been a successful international terrorist attack in the West mounted from Afghanistan since 9/11.
At the same time, the attacks mounted by Islamic State Khorasan Province in Kabul on 26 August underline the ongoing threat. Al Qa’eda is less active in Afghanistan than before 2001, but continues to exist and remains a threat to Afghanistan and the international community.
The Government’s objective remains to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a place where terrorism flourishes, and from which terrorist groups are able to threaten the West and our interests. We have refreshed our counter-terrorism strategy to reflect these new circumstances.
We will seek to hold the Taliban to their commitment in the US-Taliban Agreement not to allow Afghan territory to be used to threaten or attack foreign countries. We will also seek to disrupt terrorists’ access to resources and to prevent and deter foreign terrorist fighters from travelling to Afghanistan. We are bringing together the full range of existing tools, including counter-terrorist financing measures, and are reviewing terrorism related sanctions. We are co-ordinating closely with international partners, in bilateral and multilateral formats, including the Global Coalition against Da’esh, and will work with regional states to help prevent the spread of instability and extremist narratives.
The impact of recent events for the narcotics threat is unclear. 95% of heroin sold in the UK derives from Afghanistan. While the Taliban were initially opposed to poppy cultivation, they have latterly had ties to the drugs industry. We intend to deepen our co-operation with partners to understand and respond to changing patterns of smuggling, as well as working closely with countries on transit routes, both to reduce the impact of drugs in the region and interdict them before they reach the UK.
Even before recent events, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was among the worst in the world, exacerbated by drought, conflict and COVID. Since the start of 2021, at least 634,000 people have been displaced inside the country.
In the coming months, we expect the economy to contract sharply. Under the previous government, Afghanistan was one of the world’s most aid-dependent countries. Donors funded three-quarters of public services and half of overall government finance. This funding is now paused. Without mitigating action, the World Bank estimates that the economy could shrink 30%. In addition, the Afghani is depreciating and local banks are suffering from a lack of cash, particularly foreign currency.
Future needs will depend on a range of factors, such as the strength of the harvest, the severity of the winter, whether the intensity of conflict now reduces, and future donor support for humanitarian response and basic services. But we expect overall needs to grow with many development programmes, including education and agriculture development, paused. There is a risk of further internal displacement and increased refugee flows out of Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister has announced that the UK will increase its funding for Afghanistan to £286m this financial year. The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General launched the UN’s Flash Appeal on 13 September; donors made over $1bn of new pledges. We have urged the Taliban to create a safe, permissive environment so humanitarian partners can deliver this assistance effectively. We welcome assurances that the Taliban gave to the UN’s Emergency Relief Co-ordinator on 10 September. It will be vital that these are fully implemented, that humanitarian organisations are able to employ female staff and deliver services to women, girls and minority communities, and that there is no interference in their activities.
We are working with the UN and other humanitarian partners to ensure they can scale up to meet immediate needs. We are also exploring with donors the scope to establish new mechanisms for delivering basic services through non-state channels. And we are considering how to protect the liquidity of the financial system, to enable Afghans to access their money and ensure humanitarian partners have safe, legal channels to make payments.
Afghan women and girls have long faced violence and discrimination and had less access than men and boys to health services, education and jobs. Journalists, media workers, human rights defenders, government employees and members of minority communities have also long been the victim of attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups. The UN reported 5,183 civilian casualties (1,659 killed; 3,524 injured) in the first half of 2021, a 47% increase on the same period in 2020.
The Taliban are currently not allowing girls to return to secondary school, only allowing boys. Furthermore, early public statements from the Taliban have suggested that women may only work for Afghan Ministries in roles that a man cannot fill, and judges will apply ‘hudud’ punishments, including possible amputations for theft. Greater restrictions on mobility for women and girls may constrain their ability to earn an income, access health or family planning, and receive an education. The UN predict a rise in protection concerns for women, girls and members of marginalised groups, such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBT+ people. We are concerned for members of religious and ethnic minorities. On 10 September, the UK, joined a multi-country statement with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to reaffirm our concern for Shi’a Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and all religious minorities in Afghanistan and called for adherence to human rights obligations.
We are tracking the human rights situation and working with the international community to secure human rights monitoring in Afghanistan. We are in active negotiations in the UN Human Rights Council to push for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation as it develops in Afghanistan. We will continue to press the Taliban to honour Afghanistan’s international commitments and for women’s voices to be heard in decisions that affect their lives, including in politics. We will support the right of all girls to education; work to protect women and girls from violence including sexual and gender-based violence; and seek to maintain access to life saving services particularly for vulnerable groups including people with disabilities and other members of at risk groups.
The full implications of events in Afghanistan for UK foreign policy will take time to emerge. Much will depend on Afghanistan’s own trajectory. We are cautious about drawing conclusions at this early stage.
Events in Afghanistan do not alter the need for the UK and our Allies to respond to challenges emerging from a more competitive and multipolar world, including in priority regions for UK prosperity and security, as set out in the Integrated Review.
We reject the claims of certain states that events in Afghanistan are evidence of Western retrenchment. The reality is that the UK and its partners have never been more active around the world.
Our close partnership with the US is also not in doubt. Together, the UK and US are already leading members of NATO – the world’s most important defence alliance. In addition, the recent AUKUS announcement will support our shared goals in new regions, promoting stability and protecting our people against new and emerging threats.
We continue to learn lessons for our interventions in other conflict and fragile affected states. We also remain vigilant for the possibility that any increased terrorism, or other threats emanating from Afghanistan, could have global consequence.
Most regional countries, like the UK, are focusing on the possible impact on terrorism, illegal migration and narcotics threats, and on regional stability, including as the result of any economic contraction. We are also exploring ways to work with them on improving resilience. The previous Foreign Secretary announced on 3 September that the UK would allocate up to £30m to support Afghan refugees in the region.
When Foreign Ministers from Afghanistan’s neighbours met on 8 September, their joint statement noted the importance of: inclusive politics; development and humanitarian assistance; human rights; sustained engagement; and the problems of terrorism and narcotics. Countries in the wider region share similar concerns. Russia and China are, if anything, more exposed to terrorism and instability than NATO Allies.
We are engaging regional partners to encourage a broad consensus on how to approach a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Any effective approach needs to bring together both regional states and donors. The former Foreign Secretary visited Qatar and Pakistan on 2-3 September; Lord Ahmad has travelled to Tajikistan, Qatar and the UAE. In addition, the Foreign Secretary and her predecessor have discussed Afghanistan with counterparts from Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the UAE. Ministers have also met regional leaders in a variety of multilateral formats, such as the P5, G20, two Foreign Ministers events hosted by the US, and the launch of the UN’s Flash Appeal. We plan to intensify these contacts in the months ahead.