UK Politics

Afghanistan peace deal with Taliban needed, say MPs

20-tonne armoured Warthog trucks in Afghanistan, taken 25/02/2013
Image caption The number of UK troops in Afghanistan will be reduced from 9,000 to 5,200 by the end of 2013

An Afghan-led peace deal with the Taliban is needed to stop Afghanistan sliding into civil war after British troops leave, a group of MPs has said.

The defence select committee said the UK had a responsibility to "make Afghanistan work" after 2014.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC nobody could say "with certainty what the future for Afghanistan" would be.

While it was not perfect, "significant progress" had been made, he added.

The MPs' report focused on the planned withdrawal of UK combat troops at the end of 2014 and the transfer of responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

The committee said it wanted to see:

  • Open and free elections
  • An appropriately trained and equipped ANSF with continuing financial support
  • A strong judicial system that protects human rights
  • Continued development aid
  • Effective measures to tackle corruption and the drug trade

'50-50 chance'

The committee highlighted significant gaps in the capabilities of the ANSF in areas such as helicopters and close air support and medical care.

Committee chairman James Arbuthnot said some of the witnesses who gave evidence "thought there was a 50-50 chance of Afghanistan descending into civil war".

"It's only partly in the hands of the international community to stave that off. It's largely within the hands of the Afghan people themselves," he told the BBC.

Media captionFormer marine Gareth Davies: "We don't want to lose any more lives in Afghanistan, however they achieve that"

He said the UK and its international partners must show the Afghan people that they will abide by their obligations to continue to support them in their efforts.

At the end of any conflict, a degree of reconciliation is needed, he said, and it was necessary to bring in the Taliban and all sections of society, such as women and tribal groupings.

Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, said there was little alternative but to talk to the Taliban.

"One has to face the very awkward fact that they are going to have some some sort of role in the governance of the country, and if that can be negotiated, then at least Afghanistan has a chance of a viable peace," he said.

Prof Michael Clarke, from the Royal United Services Institute, who gave evidence to the committee, said either the Afghan army would be big and well-trained enough to give a truly independent Afghanistan a chance, or it would not, and the country could descend into civil war.

"The problem is whether the whole operation is judged a success or failure is now effectively out of our hands," he said. "All the military can usefully achieve, they have now achieved."

The international community still had scope to help the Afghan army and in external politics in the region, he added.

The MPs said they had received "very little" information about the involvement of the Ministry of Defence and the UK Foreign Office in Afghanistan beyond 2014. They called on the government to provide detailed plans and costs for withdrawal to ensure the protection of military personnel.

There are currently 9,000 British service personnel in Afghanistan, reducing to 5,200 by the end of 2013.

In Helmand - where British troops have been based since 2006 - a ceremony has been held to mark the end of the latest tour of Afghanistan.

Brig Rupert Jones, of 1 Mechanized Brigade, who will take command for the next six months, said: "The Afghans are now ready to lead operations this summer when traditionally the insurgency tends to be stronger."

'Huge corruption'

Mr Hammond told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the committee had heard a range of views about the outcome in Afghanistan, some optimistic, some not.

"I completely accept nobody can say with certainty what the future for Afghanistan will be, but what I can say is that the future of Afghanistan will have to be determined by the Afghan people," Mr Hammond said.

"What we have done is give them that opportunity."

Media captionHammond: 'Significant progress' in Afghanistan

While admitting there was a "huge amount of corruption" in the Afghan government and "huge problems" in the country, he said it was important to focus on the achievements made by Nato forces.

"We have created a 350,000-strong Afghan national security forces from scratch. Are they perfect? No, they are not. Are they increasingly capable and increasingly confident? Yes, they are," he said.

"Eighty per cent of operations are now led by the Afghans, planned by the Afghans and executed by the Afghans. Increasingly the ISAF forces are in the barracks as a back-up reserve, with the Afghans actually doing the fighting on the ground. This is very significant progress."

The UK intervened in Afghanistan primarily to "address the terrorists who were using the chaos in Afghanistan as a base to attack Western interests", he said.

"It was always clear this could not be an open-ended intervention. We had to create the conditions where we would eventually be able to withdraw and allow the Afghans to maintain their own security so our security was protected.

"While the situation is not perfect we have come a long way to being able to deliver that objective."

In a statement, the defence secretary said: "We will continue to support governance and development in Afghanistan through the next decade, with £178m per year of development aid agreed until 2017, to ensure that the progress made will not be lost."