[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to see an interesting cross-section of colleagues present at what I hope will be a good debate about the lessons from the war in Afghanistan.
Over the past week I have had to put up with a number of colleagues rather facetiously asking, “Lessons from which Afghan war?”—with the assumption that my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) might come along and talk about the first Afghan war and his own personal experiences. However, there is a serious element to this, because of course we, the British, were directly involved, more or less on our own, in three wars in Afghanistan—the 1839-42 war, the 1878-81 war, and in 1919—and then as part of a wider coalition from 2003 to 2014. That is part of the background for the Afghan people and what they think about the British—even if that is thoughts in the most benign way.
The second point to make is that I do not have military experience. I was a soldier manqué and taught military history at Sandhurst and the Army staff college, as well as for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy—a few of my former students who slept through my lectures are sitting here in the Chamber. My point, however, is that we tend to forget—perhaps not colleagues in the Chamber now, but often journalists and many times the public—that if we decide to initiate military action, two things are consequences. First, no military plan normally conforms to immediate contact with the enemy, so it is usually incredibly difficult to see how military action will develop. Secondly, such action will inevitably result in casualties.
We know that, for example, in both Iraq and Afghanistan the British suffered heavy casualties—not as many as the Americans or, indeed, as the Iraqis and the Afghan people. For example, in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, we lost 179 people, with several hundred wounded. In Afghanistan, between 2003—or, if we count Helmand, 2006—to the end of last year, 453 were killed and about 2,000 wounded. Without degrading that loss, that is probably about two days’ casualties suffered by the British Commonwealth armies in the 1944 Normandy campaign. The difference, of course, is that in 1944 it was total war—a war for national existence—so the public, while not welcoming the casualties, were more than prepared to tolerate them. With Iraq and Afghanistan, however, a sizeable proportion of British public opinion never supported either intervention.
Why do I wish to debate the lessons from the war in Afghanistan? I think that to do so is crucial. In a debate we had the other week on the Chilcot inquiry, I said that we are in fact talking about a two-act play. Iraq is the first act and overlapping with it is Afghanistan. In many respects, Afghanistan is as important, if not more so. The Chilcot inquiry is looking into the reasons why we went to war in Iraq and the lessons to be learned. That inquiry will tell us certain things, but Afghanistan is a black hole into which, as far as I can see, the Ministry of Defence, other Departments and the Cabinet Office are not as yet prepared to look for strategic lessons that should be learned.
A vast amount of evidence, ironically, is in the public domain. We have the evidence of many witnesses at the Chilcot inquiry who touched on the war in Afghanistan—the military, the intelligence and the politicians overlap. We also have a whole series of memoirs of one kind or another. The great lacuna is of course the memoirs of politicians and Ministers. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, spent a considerable amount of time in his memoir on Iraq, but only about a dozen pages on Afghanistan. Perhaps for obvious reasons, we do not have any memoirs of former Foreign or Defence Ministers—perhaps constrained by the Chilcot inquiry—but we have the memoirs of the military, mainly the Army, ranking from non-commissioned officers, through middle-ranking officers to a whole series of senior officers and generals, some of which have said more about their personal ambitions and their desire to get retaliation in first, rather than giving us an overview and an insight into what went on.
I want not only to get down into the weeds, looking at the lessons from the war in Afghanistan, but to address some fundamental points that are crucial to understanding the war and to our foreign policy and security posture.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The good news is that I will not be present for all of it, because I have a union group to attend—which I am sure he would like to be at too. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of history and I am fascinated by his historical references, which are important, but does he not also think that there is another narrative: the stories of the ordinary people of Afghanistan who have been through the war, are still going through it and are still living in poverty? Sadly, tens of thousands of them are ending up as refugees well away from Afghanistan. Is that not a failure of the whole operation?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. That is the law of unintended consequences. I do not think that we, the Americans or our allies wanted things to turn out in that way in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but he is correct: that story is continuing and should concern all of us.
Were the policy and strategy outlined by the British Government at the time correct? Were they well thought through? Was the intervention considered calmly and rationally, taking into account the best advice of Whitehall, the Departments—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development —and the intelligence services?
I have enjoyed the first eight minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. A thesis gaining ground is that after the British Army’s failure in Basra, the top of the Ministry of Defence wanted to increase our involvement in Afghanistan in order to prevent greater cuts in the Army and to prove itself after not being as successful as it had wished in Basra. Does he agree with that thesis of a direct connection between Iraq and Afghanistan?
There is a direct connection, although I do not necessarily completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s logic. If he will bear with me, I shall come on to that.
The basis of British foreign and security policy is twofold: first, absolutely to hang on to and stand by the special relationship with the United States of America; and, secondly, to play a leading role in NATO. Those two elements merge in our participation in the operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to think seriously about the first, our special relationship with the United States of America. Crucial to it, and part of our mythology, is the way in which Winston Churchill persuaded the Americans to come into the war when we were on our knees. That, however, is of course a myth, because the United States of America eventually came into the war because Hitler declared war on it after the Japanese attack.
The special relationship, in many respects, has been more important to us than to the Americans, because of the decline of empire and because we want to participate with and influence a superpower with which we had much in common. However, by the time of our participation in Iraq in the 1990s, it seems to me that there was a serious problem with the ability of a British Prime Minister to influence the United States of America and make certain that Britain’s national interests were addressed.
At a military level, our problem is increasingly that we cannot will the military resources to the promissory notes we write to the Americans. Sustainability of political and military effort then becomes very crucial indeed, and we are found wanting—not because the military are incompetent or because the men and women in our armed forces are not courageous, but because we are punching above our weight. We need to look seriously at what we can and cannot do as a powerful regional power with global interests and commitments.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he not think that there is a case to be made for saying that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were in our national interest, in keeping our streets safe and maintaining our homeland security?
The problem with our participation in the Iraq campaign and our military commitment in Afghanistan, which then expanded, was that the policy aims changed, and widened out. There is an argument—I do not actually stand by it but there are many who believe it, including perhaps some hon. Members present—that, through our participation in Iraq and Afghanistan, we made our streets less secure. But that comes back to the issue that we and the Government should be considering: the lessons learned.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. My point in a way reinforces his key earlier message. Is not the key error that we made in Afghanistan that, on succeeding in our initial objective of ridding the country of al-Qaeda, we allowed the mission to morph into one of nation building—a mission that we have struggled to resource properly?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That was the problem.
The material in the public domain—official records and the memoirs of civil servants and senior military officers—shows that it is difficult to establish how, for example, our commitment to Helmand came about. Helmand province was irrelevant in terms of the overall security picture in Afghanistan, and we did not want to go there. The logic stated that we should go to Kandahar, but unfortunately the Canadians were already there.
Loose political-military thinking bedevilled our military mission, coupled with the fact that, as my hon. Friend rightly said, we then glued on to our original policy things such as poppy eradication. At the time, many experts said that all we would do with that was drive impoverished farmers into the hands of the Taliban—we now know that was the case. That was a problem not just for the British but for the United States of America and many of our partners as well.
Coming back to the business of willing the means, I should say that there is no doubt in my mind that a crucial element in all this was what was perceived by the Iraqi Government and the Americans as our failure in Basra. It appeared that we had abandoned Basra. I am simplifying—there was a big argument at the time made by successive military commanders on the ground—but there was a sense that we were unable to cope with the situation in southern Iraq. At the same time, there was the feeling—and I have heard contradictory views about this, which is why, in terms of lessons learned, it would be nice to hear the truth—that there were elements in the Ministry of Defence who wanted to get out of Iraq because it was costly and not going anywhere, we had achieved our original objective and it seemed that Afghanistan was going to be an easier policy to explain to the British public. I am open to persuasion on that.
The interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan were predicated on the idea that they were part of the war against terror, but, as I have said, the objectives kept changing. Many of us who participated in debates on the interventions at the time were horrified by the inability not just of the British and American Governments but of our allies to show any understanding of the history and culture of both those countries—and, indeed, previous military operations in them. There were many voices attempting to explain that the interventions would be more difficult than people thought. Naturally, given a mission, the military were prepared to get stuck in and to think about the consequences later.
There is a real need to look at the policy-making machinery of the Government in Whitehall. To use the words of Lord Reid when he was at the Home Office, I am beginning to wonder whether that machinery is partly dysfunctional when it comes to complex operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no lead Minister or Department for either Iraq or Afghanistan. Ultimately, decisions were made by the Prime Minister. There was no National Security Council then to at least try to co-ordinate policy. Individual Ministers attempted to take a lead, but I can remember going to briefings with officials in the Foreign Office, laid on in 2004 and 2005 by the Labour Government; after the second one, several of us said, “Perhaps it would be a good idea to have officials from the MOD and DFID along.” It took some time to get them to appear.
I accept that the National Security Council did not come into being until 2010, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, when I was a Minister, a cross-departmental body, including the MOD, DFID and other Departments, met about Afghanistan on a weekly basis at least.
I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought forward this debate and I am listening to him carefully. This is absolutely the sort of thing we should be doing much more frequently. In his research, did he find any evidence of serious conversations with those who know the history of the region even better than us—those who are there?
In my work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over recent years, I was struck by how much was known by those in the region, who gave warnings to us about what we might have done, and how little that knowledge seemed to have been fed into the processes. Is that something else that he thinks should be looked at further?
It is indeed. My right hon. Friend, who is very experienced, has touched on a problem that occurred not only with the Foreign Office but with DFID and the Ministry of Defence. Often in life, there is the feeling that once an overall decision has been made to do something, the phrase, “I hear what you say,” comes out, but people are not prepared to factor in what they have heard because it complicates the situation.
It also seems to me that, under successive Governments, we have stripped out large parts of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office to make savings, to make Government smaller, and the like, and have therefore got rid of a lot of the specialist expertise that was there 20 years ago but is not there now. We have probably reduced the knowledge base in the Foreign Office and we have reduced the size of the armed forces, so that now there is only a limited critical mass that can provide that kind of expertise, or—if we think of the armed forces, for example—sufficient people for the special forces, which are not recruited separately as some people think but are taken from the broad mass of our armed forces. It is increasingly difficult to provide expertise in languages and intelligence. In my opinion, the situation is worse now than it was 10 years ago.
We are all grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his expertise here. I am worried that the contraction in our armed forces and everything else he has talked about will diminish Britain’s influence in the world. Earlier, he made a point about the special relationship, which I think is critically important. Does he agree that there are concerns in America, which were expressed today by President Obama—it was in The Daily Telegraph, so it must be true—about the fact that Britain is considering further reducing our spending on defence, which will further diminish our ability to influence a turbulent world?
There is no doubt that the Americans have viewed with a degree of dismay what they see as the decline in the critical mass of our foreign policy and defence, because they value that. However, they have often been disappointed in our ability to deliver what we promise.
We suffer, and have suffered in the past, from what I call “Montgomery syndrome”—a snobbery, particularly among the armed forces, towards the Americans. Macmillan also had it; he said that we were like Greek slaves in the Roman empire. There has been a view that they were awful, rather vulgar people who did not know how to hold a knife and fork properly and did not have the kind of experience we had. Unfortunately, they had all the money and resources, but we would teach and train them. That view was particularly apparent before the operation in Basra in southern Iraq, when the Americans got the impression that we could teach them about counter-insurgency. They thought that our experience from Malaya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland meant that we knew how to do it. However, not only did we perhaps not know how to do it, but we did not have the resources either. We suffered and have suffered badly since then.
I will make only two or three more points because I am conscious of the time, and other colleagues want to speak. There is a serious issue about the Ministry of Defence’s ability to practise the kind of operations that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ministers frequently arrive with no experience of the military or the complex jungle of the Ministry of Defence. There has been a high turnover of Ministers under both Governments. There is tension among the Chief of the Defence Staff, the chiefs of staff and the senior civil servants. The Ministry of Defence, as my colleagues know, is both a Department and a command post, and the Permanent Joint Headquarters is out in the sticks. All the things we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan show that there was considerable tension among the forward combat commanders, PJHQ and the Ministry of Defence. Frequently, people did not know who was in charge, which was complicated by the fact that we were also a member of a NATO alliance.
It is often Buggins’s turn to take the post of Chief of the Defence Staff, but the gene pool—I mean this in the nicest possible sense—is getting smaller. One of the Army generals’ criticisms is that when the CDS was from the Air Force or the Navy, he had difficulty understanding the mainly land operations. There are serious questions to ask about that.
The Army is now on a learning curve. I have no doubt that the Minister will say that during these operations the Army learned many lessons from combat analysis. My problem is that, although the Army learned many lessons, the Minister, in an answer to a parliamentary question on 3 February, told the House that at the moment the Ministry of Defence has no plans to study the lessons of the war in Afghanistan. The Cabinet Office also has no plans to look overall at the lessons, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that the strategic defence and security review, which will be carried out in the autumn, needs only a light touch. I am just a humble Back Bencher, but I think he is wrong. I think the strategic defence and security review needs not a light touch but a fundamental reassessment based on all the things that I have set out.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. I was a Minister at the Ministry of Defence, and when I had some responsibility for the strategic defence and security review it was Treasury-driven. It had to be so, because of the catastrophic state of the public finances. Strategy took second place. Does my hon. Friend agree that there can now be no excuse—I am looking at the Minister when I say this—for not taking a proper, strategic look at our armed forces, particularly given the extraordinary events that have taken place since 2010?
None of us is naive enough not to think that the view of the Treasury is paramount, but there has to be a balance. It is not about Ministers versus the military. I would draw into the National Security Council not only the CDS but the chiefs of staff. I would put their fingers in the mangle, because we know that they leak like sieves.
The Times recently ran a front-page story about the fact that the Chief of the General Staff is thinking of cutting senior ranks by a third. It came as a surprise to Ministers, as they did not realise that that policy would be put into the public domain. I do not expect the Minister to comment or even raise an eyebrow about that. That story made no mention of the Navy or the Air Force. The military must be gripped on this, in the best possible sense.
Finally, we in Parliament need a greater say on this issue—and not only for our amour propre. If we are going to persuade the electorate, who do not rate spending on foreign policy and defence as one of their highest priorities, we have to show that we are investigating this issue and have good arguments about why it is necessary for us to continue our close special relationship with the United States of America and why we need to spend money on the armed forces. I hope the Minister will be able to address at least some of the points I have raised.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on his tour d’horizon. I am sure that, given his wealth of experience and knowledge, he could have used up the entire hour and a half with an analysis from which we would have derived nothing but benefit. As he has been generous enough not to do that, the rest of us can make brief contributions to the debate.
I would like to focus on four lessons from the campaign in Afghanistan. First, we failed to focus on the key objectives. Secondly, we overreacted against former campaigns. Thirdly, we failed to fight on the ground where we are stronger and our enemy is weaker. Fourthly—and, importantly, my hon. Friend concluded by drawing attention to this issue—we failed to maintain dedicated decision-making machinery for controlling and constructing campaigns of this sort. Let me deal briefly with each of those lessons in turn.
In my opinion, there were only two relevant strategic objectives in going into Afghanistan: first, to prevent it from again being used as a base, a training ground or a launch pad for further terrorist attacks against the west; and, secondly, to assist its neighbour, Pakistan, in preventing its nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or its imitators. We did not stick to those objectives, as my hon. Friend said and as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) emphasised in an intervention. We allowed the campaign to change into one that effectively committed us to transforming Afghan society and building up the Afghan nation on the lines of a modern democratic state.
Even if we had been able to succeed in carrying out that objective, what would we have done if al-Qaeda, having been driven from Afghanistan in the first few days or weeks—as it was—had then re-established itself in another state that was vulnerable to acting as its host and base for operations? Would we have invaded that country too and built it from the ground up, all over again, while our enemies, fleet of foot, went to one bolthole after another? We did not concentrate on the key objective, which was to deny Afghanistan to al-Qaeda as a future terrorist training ground and launch pad for its operations. As for the second objective—of being able to assist Pakistan, should the need ever arise, to protect its nuclear arsenal from falling into the wrong hands—that remains as far from being fulfilled today as it was at the outset of the campaign.
However, I do not go along with critics who say that taking a military campaign to Afghanistan was wrong in principle, even if it was badly handled in practice. What was the United States meant to do after an attack had been launched on its homeland, killing nearly 3,000 of its citizens, many of whom were Muslim American citizens? Was it simply supposed to sit back and take no action by way of punishment, retribution and, as an example for the future to other countries, a determined policy to make sure that no such attack could be repeated? Of course it could not be expected to operate in that way, and with our ally having been attacked, it was right and appropriate that we participated in the campaign in response to that attack. The mistake was trying to take over and micro-manage the whole country.
The second question—that of overreaction against former campaigns—leads us to the question of why the mistake of trying to micro-manage the whole country and rebuild it from the grass roots upwards was made. I am sure that it was in response to the way in which Afghanistan had been left entirely to its own devices after the Russians had withdrawn. It was felt, therefore, that by allowing ungoverned space to exist in that way, the opportunity had been created—as it had—for the pestilence of an organisation such as al-Qaeda to take root and flourish. The pendulum swung from leaving the country completely ungoverned to total management, reform and burden-carrying by the western countries for the whole nature of Afghan society. Then, when that did not work and when there was a change of Government in this country, we overreacted again, and the pendulum swung back from micro-management of the whole society to setting an arbitrary date for withdrawal, four years from the announcement in late 2010.
The third failure that I mentioned was the failure to fight according to our strengths. That is where the doctrine of war “down among the people” came in. We do not hear too many people talking about war down among the people these days, but at the time it was very much in vogue. It was a method of combating the enemies that we had mobilised against us in Afghanistan—quite apart from al-Qaeda, who had been expelled from the country—and it was a method by which we sought to fight them at ground level. The effect was that with every patrol that we sent out, we supplied the Taliban with targets to be shot at and blown up at will. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland set out in his survey of the scene, every casualty we incurred was an individual tragedy played out in the living rooms of the whole nation, even though, as he rightly said in relation to the sort of casualties taken in a war of survival such as the second world war, the casualties of a single day in that war were often greater than the casualties of the entire campaign in Afghanistan.
What method should we have adopted? The method that I have always recommended is one of strategic bases or garrisons and bridgehead areas. One does not have to swing from one extreme, of having no involvement in a country and allowing it to become ungoverned space, to the other extreme, of trying to govern the whole country, manage it at the most basic level and build the whole nation and carry the governance of that country on one’s shoulders. One can have regional centres of power from which one can exercise military power periodically and through methods that suit our purposes rather than our enemies’, yet without having to take on the burden of governance of the whole territory concerned, thus making ourselves an irritant and a target for the indigenous people.
That leads, fourthly, to the failure to maintain dedicated decision-making machinery. I was particularly struck by what my hon. Friend said about whether one particular Chief of the Defence Staff from one service could fully appreciate the strategic concerns that somebody from another service might better have grasped. That leads me back to another theme I have been trying to pursue in recent months: the mistake of allowing the chiefs of the armed forces, who used to be central to strategic planning, instead to become the managers of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force is likely to have further consequences of this sort. If one is going to get joint advice on military campaigns, the top representatives of each of the services should be involved in debating and agreeing the military advice that should be given to the political leaders.
I finish by saying that unless we get back to a situation in which there are solid, consistent and tri-service forums in which strategic plans can be properly evolved, politicians will tend to take campaigns in directions that sensible strategic thought would not have them go.
I shall give just two brief examples. First, there was the decision that we took to bomb Libya in 2011. That was a classic case of not having learned the lesson of sticking to the task that was originally set out, because we thought we were voting on having a no-fly zone imposed over Libya. If a no-fly zone had been imposed over Libya, the result would probably have been a stalemate, but the moment Parliament voted for a no-fly zone to be imposed, we got something very different: an all-out aerial offensive on behalf of one side in a civil war. The result was to replace yet another Arab dictator with another aggressive, potentially lethal Islamist state.
Secondly, in Syria in 2013, Parliament prevented something similar from happening. If the Government had had their way at that time, we would have done exactly the same thing in Syria as we did in Libya. Now people are coming to the view, albeit reluctantly, that Assad’s downfall would not necessarily have improved the situation. On the contrary, it would have given our deadly enemies, who have now morphed from al-Qaeda into ISIL, opportunities to take the offensive.
To conclude, there are lessons to be learned, and my hon. Friend has done us a great service by giving us the opportunity to outline a few. I join him in regretting the fact that no serious study is being made of the lessons to be learned. If Libya and Syria are anything to go by, some of the lessons we should have learned from Afghanistan have yet to be taken on board.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing the debate. I first came across him at Sandhurst, where he was chairing a debate entitled “This house would rather be dead than red.” It being the Army, I was instructed to propose the motion, regardless of my views at the time.
My hon. Friend spoke with his customary knowledge and intelligence about this difficult issue. He quoted the famous German field marshal, Moltke, who said that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and that was certainly the case in the United Kingdom’s foray into Helmand.
Afghanistan remains the monkey on the back of United Kingdom foreign policy. I recall the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), talking in 2006 about how difficult it would be to succeed in Afghanistan. He quoted historical precedents, and some Members of the House smiled and laughed at that, but my right hon. Friend was right. He was prescient about the morass of conflicting political agendas in that country; indeed, the Pashtun peoples alone comprise 60 major tribes.
Currently, there is an element of historical revisionism being played out between the political and military leaders at the time of the Helmand deployment, with each perhaps seeking to deflect criticism or to deny shortcomings. Some of this occasionally has the unattractive smell of those at the top drawing on circumstances in which commanders on the ground were found wanting, which is regrettable.
To truly understand the decisions that were made, and whether they were right or wrong, we need to take a more sensible approach. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who spoke so well, and I are on the Defence Committee, which is looking at decision making in defence matters. One of the key decisions we are looking at is the move into Helmand, and I hope the Minister will take our report very seriously, because I think it will inform future operations.
I do not want to stand here like some armchair general and second-guess decisions taken in the teeth of battle. There were difficult decisions to be taken at times, when local Afghan requirements were one thing, the requirements of the international security assistance force and the Afghan Government were another, and the demands of the United Kingdom Government and our constituents were in conflict with both. It is incredibly difficult to assess what happened and what was right or wrong.
However, the first fact of which there should be no doubt—I intend to deal in facts—is that our troops performed magnificently against, in the main, a determined and incorrigible enemy. Like many hon. Members, I have been moved to hear commanders describe with pride how young men and women have performed in the most difficult and testing circumstances. We are told daily in the media about the failings of the young—the PlayStation generation—but we have seen in recent wars how this generation is every bit as brave and resourceful as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were in a perhaps more heroic age.
One of the groups of men I have in mind is the platoon I once had the honour to command several decades ago—9 Platoon, C Company, in what is now 2 Rifles. In one day, the platoon lost four men, with several more wounded, including the platoon commander. His replacement was severely wounded on his journey to the patrol base to take command. The whole unit was held together by a remarkable man—Platoon Sergeant Moncho. He has since been awarded the conspicuous gallantry cross, and I can do no more than recite a line from his citation:
“His supreme courage in the face of the most testing of circumstances was exemplary and his personal actions steadied all those around him.”
With much of the public and media focus centred on the as yet to be published Chilcot report into Britain’s military endeavours in Iraq, understanding and learning the lessons of a conflict that lasted longer than the first and second world wars combined, and that was Britain’s fourth foray into Afghanistan, should by no means be neglected. It is clear that, between 2004 and 2006, policy makers in Whitehall significantly underestimated the threat posed by the Taliban and the conditions on the ground, which led to the roll-out of inadequate equipment in the early days.
That situation was compounded by huge gaps in our capacity to deliver nation building, and I entirely accept the concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) expressed about that. As a result of opaque directives, the term has now come to be used in a different sense—using an armed force to underpin an enduring transition to democracy, as opposed to making a deliberate effort to construct and install institutions, which was the accepted view before.
What is even more frustrating about this period is that the threats and risks posed in the intelligence picture were clear and present. However, they were misunderstood, ignored or clouded by differences of opinion or conflicting priorities. In 2005, the failure of senior military officials to react to the intelligence picture was exacerbated by the fact that our force was under-resourced and based on best-case and aspirational objectives.
Either the brutal facts were kept from political leaders, or politicians did not ask the right questions. Lord Reid has my respect for pausing the deployment in the early days, but many argue it should have been paused for longer. That was, of course, a double-edged sword, because it allowed the Taliban to organise more determined resistance.
The key point is about the mission. In the Falklands, the mission was simple: to retake the islands. In Afghanistan, one got a different priority depending on which Department, ally or actor in the conflict one spoke to. Put simply, how can one hope to achieve success when success and failure are undefined concepts? Was the mission to defeat the Taliban? Was it to implement an anti-narcotics strategy? Was it to pursue nation building? Was it to introduce education for women or one of the other laudable things that were mentioned in the House? Or was it all of them?
Setting numerous and competing missions, with sub-optimal command and control structures in the UK taskforce, ISAF and the London headquarters, nearly resulted in the campaign failing within the first six months. Those fundamental issues were addressed only following the implementation of a campaign that was redefined with achievable objectives and that saw a surge in Helmand, resulting in a tenfold increase in force levels by 2010. That was supported by structured command and control mechanisms.
Von Clausewitz said war is the continuation of politics by other means. That makes the cessation of war a resumption of politics by normal means. However, nothing is normal in Afghanistan. I supported the Prime Minister’s determination to end our combat role by 2014, for a variety of reasons I will not go into. However, although pulling out by a precisely flagged date may have been a triumph of logistics—I hope those involved in that remarkable piece of logistics are being rewarded—it is questionable whether Afghanistan is ready to survive and progress.
So what are the lessons? Some of the revisionism centres on perceived or actual failings in the chain of command, which meant that commanders on the ground took the wrong tactical decisions, but that is not, in the main, backed up by evidence. Judging by the evidence I have seen and that we in the Defence Committee have seen, the truth is that issues including insufficient resources, ill-thought-through time lines, mission deliverability and the move north were raised from as early as 2005. All politicians and senior military personnel who visited the Helmand taskforce in 2006 received the same briefing with regard to the situation and the huge challenges facing the mission at that time.
The war cannot be viewed in isolation, given the events that unfolded in Iraq, which proved a major distraction with respect to both resources and intellectual analysis—political and military. The hypothesis that the military could deliver its objectives of deploying two medium-sized commitments simultaneously was evidently incorrect.
So what is the main lesson from Afghanistan, besides the obvious one never to be tempted to go there a fifth time? By late 2005, those at the highest levels of government and the military should have asked the strategic question about what we wanted to achieve in Helmand province. They should have had the courage to pause the deployment in advance of the unstoppable momentum, to ensure sufficient resources and appropriate command-and-control structures and measures were in place to achieve deliverable successes. The simple implementation of common sense would have highlighted the fact that better governance, some development objectives and sustainable security were always highly unlikely to be achieved in southern Afghanistan, and that they were never going to be achieved within a set three-year time scale. We forget that that was the time scale.
I look with interest at developing thinking in our armed forces about a smarter, more subtle type of intervention. I think that that is what my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East was referring to in his excellent speech. I applaud the creation of the new 77 Brigade, which I have visited; it is in my constituency. Organisations of that kind will change the way we do warfare—in a way that might actually mean we do not do warfare, because we will achieve different results without using kinetic forces. That is an interesting new development.
I met a young Army officer at a Remembrance day parade. He had a chest full of medals. I said, “You have been busy,” and he replied, “Yes, I have done all of Blair’s wars.” Whether one may refer to them in that way or not, that is the lexicon in the armed forces today. Perhaps we have learned the lessons of “Blair’s wars” and perhaps we have not, but we know that in Afghanistan we undoubtedly paid a heavy price in both blood and treasure.
I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on obtaining the debate. It is a pleasure to follow his speech and the thoughtful contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I shall be tempted briefly along the road of contributing my view on why lessons need to be learned and what some of them may be. However, my central point is that the lessons to be learned from Afghanistan are not done justice by an hour and a half in Westminster Hall—or, frankly, by the combat analysis, if that is what has been undertaken, inside the Ministry of Defence on its own.
That combat analysis may be splendid for people serving in the armed forces—I do not know; I have not had access to it. It might even be able to contribute something towards telling the parents of Corporal James Hill why he was killed on the outskirts of Camp Bastion a couple of days after arriving in Afghanistan, and how the Taliban could get so close to what was supposed to be a safe area. I do not know. However, it will not tell Mr and Mrs Hill why their son was there in the first place. It will not look properly at the story of how we got into Afghanistan, taking in everything from the attack on the twin towers, which is probably the appropriate starting point, and examining the western response all the way through, including the mismanagement in 2001 and 2002 of our reaction to and relationship with Iran.
Iran initially was on our side in helping to take out the Taliban Government. How far should our objectives have gone at that point? In my view, our objective should simply have been to do our best to eliminate a Government who were responsible for harbouring our enemies. The lesson that should have been meted out to the people of Afghanistan was: “If you are going to support a Government who will harbour people who directly attack us, you cannot expect us to accept that Government continuing.” That is what happened in 2001 and 2002. It was highly effective and was achieved with assistance from previously hostile countries such as Iran, because our interests elided.
The opportunity to recast a wider relationship with Iran at that point was blown away in President Bush’s speech when it was described as part of the “axis of evil”. That destroyed the reformers’ position in the conversation that was happening inside the Iranian Government at the time. Such lessons should be part of any comprehensive examination of the subject.
We should take the trouble to understand why Iran behaves as it does. Why does it have the relationship it does with Hezbollah? What interests are served by its supporting what we have proscribed as a terrorist group in Lebanon? What is its relationship with the Assad regime, its neighbours in Afghanistan, and the rest? We must add to that the complexity of the whole existing Iranian political set-up. We ought not simply to deal with things in black and white. The world is all shades of grey, and all the actors playing into the drama that led into Afghanistan had their interests.
Our failure in all instances to turn the board around and understand the perspective of the other players in the drama led us into a series of decisions that were, overall, catastrophic for the British national interest, with 453 dead soldiers as a consequence and al-Qaeda replaced in Afghanistan by the forces of Islamic State. Those are beginning to emerge in Helmand, as parts of what was the Taliban appear to be changing sides and declaring allegiance to it. Goodness knows what that will mean for the future of Afghanistan.
From the decisions of 2001 through to those leading to the military campaign in Helmand, what was Dr Reid —now Lord Reid—doing as Defence Secretary, along with the Prime Minister, at the NATO summit in 2005? Who was trying to drive a new role for NATO—some new justification for NATO’s role? When the United Kingdom picked up responsibility for drugs policy in Afghanistan at the 2002 conference, that was the moment at which the west decided we were going to try to create Switzerland in the Hindu Kush, and the nations of the west took up differing responsibilities for helping Afghanistan in various ways. Why did people not properly understand what happened to poppy cultivation in Helmand between 2001 and 2004, which led to our feeling that there was a role for the United Kingdom there? Then, with all the tragic military mis-appreciation that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to, we went in with a wholly inadequate military force, with an objective that frankly could not in the end be achieved with 10 times as many troops.
There are so many issues to examine from the Afghan disaster that it can only be right, even though one trembles at the expense and time that it would take, to hold a proper inquiry. Its terms of reference should give it enough resources to do the job in reasonable order. It would cost a lot of money, but we owe it to 453 of our servicemen who did not return alive from Afghanistan, as well as all those who served there and were grievously injured in the process. Because of the fantastic medical contribution that was made there, there are many more such people than would have been associated with other conflicts.
Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that after the endless Chilcot inquiry, which has been delayed and delayed, and the Saville inquiry, which took 10 years to report on the events of a single afternoon, it is a matter of urgency that we look at an inquiry into the decision to go into Helmand, made in the hope that not a shot would be fired? That decision changed the situation from one in which just half a dozen of our soldiers died in combat to one in which 453 died. Should we not be urgently told the truth of what happened, so that we will be informed in respect of future decisions to go to war?
Frankly, I would support a very narrow inquiry into the Helmand decision, but that would not do justice to the entire sweep of events and exactly what happened. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, that is the key moment, but there is a strategic analysis that then has to join up with all the other elements of defence policy that have gone on.
We owe it to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have been sent into combat on our behalf, and to their families, to have a proper understanding of how we got into this and of the circumstances in which we are getting out, and properly to learn the lessons from what, frankly, has been an unqualified disaster for the United Kingdom.
I am very grateful to have been called, because for reasons that people know about—other demands in the House—I could not be here earlier. I am very grateful to have the chance to talk about this issue. I recall speaking in virtually every debate on it in the last few years. In one speech, I threw away all the rhetoric that I had intended to use and just read out the names of the soldiers who had died in Afghanistan. There is a splendid group active on this issue just a few miles from my constituency.
The last time I read out the names was the day when the 200th victim of the Afghan conflict was announced. He lived in Abergavenny. It is extraordinary that it is now forbidden, under the rules of the House, to read out the lists of the names of the fallen. The decision was taken at that time, but it is much more powerful to read out those names so that we, as Members of Parliament, can be confronted with the terrible reality of the deaths of these young, brave warriors that we have caused. We took the decisions that led to that, but we are frightened against doing what I have mentioned.
I was once expelled from the House for suggesting that politicians lied and soldiers died, but I do not think that any of the politicians, of all parties, who said to our young soldiers, “You are going to Afghanistan to ensure that there isn’t terrorism on the streets of Britain,” were so stupid as to believe that. There was no threat from the Taliban that they would commit terrorism on the streets of Britain. There might have been from al-Qaeda, but those two groups were conflated. The reason why the Taliban were killing our soldiers was that we were in their country and it was part of their religious duty to expel us from there, but none the less the lie was used by Ministers of all parties to send our troops to their deaths in an utterly futile war.
We must examine the issue. We must have a full inquiry into it as soon as possible, because we must inform ourselves about why we took that decision. I think it is to do with the hubris of Prime Ministers. Prime Ministers, of all parties, behave in a special way when the war drums start beating. They talk in a different way. They get the rhetoric of Churchill. They drag it out, because here they are, having their big moment in history. They are writing their page in history—it is usually, sadly, a bloody page. The situation is not to do with the ramshackle things that Prime Ministers do every day, the boring details of law-making. It is a chance for them to be there and to be recorded, and they behave in a different way. They are hardly entirely sane on these occasions.
I have seen four Prime Ministers behave in that way. They strut like Napoleon here. At least we have the good sense of 650 MPs, as we had on 29 August 2013, when the present Prime Minister was urging the House of Commons, urging the nation, to go into Syria to attack Assad, who is the deadly enemy of ISIL. Now, we are in the same country and attacking ISIL, which is the deadly enemy of Assad. Even today, we hear the conflicting views on the conflict there. Why on earth should we go into a conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’as that is ancient, deep, incomprehensible to us and nothing to do with us?
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point, about the 1,000-year conflict between those groups. He may remember that I was one of the 39 rebels whose votes were decisive in preventing the attack on Assad. However, could I ask him not to overstate the case, in this sense? Even he admitted that it would have been right to take military action to expel al-Qaeda. Surely the key point is how and why the campaign changed its nature after al-Qaeda was expelled.
Indeed. We have an honourable history in which we have intervened in various conflicts in the world on a humanitarian basis. We have done that in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo. It is something that we do very well. It is part of our history, and we are very good at it. We have all the skills and the bravery of our soldiers to do it. That is entirely honourable.
Where we have gone wrong is when we have gone into conflicts in which we have attempted to be masters of the universe. We are not. We are not a superstate—far from it—and we have not been for a long time. I believe that if we change our priorities and become an independent country, we have an independent foreign policy. We do not have that. Canada does. Holland does. Both those countries were involved in Afghanistan and they made honourable contributions above what could be expected of nations of their size, but they pulled out at an early stage when they saw the futility of the mission—that we could not succeed, we were not going to reduce the amount of heroin that was being grown there and we were not going to have an effect in terms of nation building.
It was mission impossible to move a nation from the 13th century to the 20th century, but we kept on because we have this link with the United States. I believe that if we are to have a defensible policy in the future on this area, where we have spent huge sums of money, we have to do it as an independent country and not be tied to the United States. I believe that we have not had that since the Vietnam war. Harold Wilson rightly said that we were not going to be involved in another mission impossible.
We must learn from this decision before we take any other decision. I believe that very strongly influencing the decision that we took on 29 August 2013 not to go to war, not to follow the Prime Minister into attacking Assad, was the fact that the House of Commons and the nation have lost faith in prime ministerial edicts that come out and say that we act as leaders of the universe, leaders of the world, setting world policies. We are not in that position.
We all pay tribute—tribute has been paid this afternoon —to the extraordinary bravery of our soldiers. How much we owe them! They are as professional and courageous as any of the soldiers in our proud military history, but I believe that we, as politicians, have let them down through our decisions on the Iraq war and the decision to go into Helmand.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on initiating the debate. I am sure that we could have listened to him speak for a lot longer on the subject. His knowledge of present conflicts and others is well known in the House.
It would be wrong not to start the debate by remembering those who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who have been wounded in the service of our country. I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence during the previous Labour Government, and I do not think that anyone takes decisions easily on the things that happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said that we should be reminded of the individuals who died. I say to him that if a duty Minister is rung late at night on a dark weekend to be informed that there have been nine casualties, it never leaves them. Irrespective of political party, no one can detach themselves from the individuals, the sacrifice that their families have made, or the circumstances in which they died.
The debate is about Afghanistan, but the hon. Member for Broadland drew out broader questions of strategy. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) talked about where we started with Afghanistan, and, of course, it leads back to the response to 9/11. I believe that it all started with the use of the terminology of a war on terror. I thought that that expression was wrong, and I never used it. It gave the impression that the only possible response was a military solution. We all know that the fight against terrorism involved not only the military, but law enforcement and politics, as has been made clear in several contributions today.
The initial invasion of Afghanistan was about dealing with the Taliban, who were the hosts for al-Qaeda. A lot of people forget the attempts that had previously been made by the Clinton Administration and the very early Bush Administration to get the Taliban to give up bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, but that did not happen. I think that there was confusion over policy. Members of special forces who went into Afghanistan in the early days have told me that their first remit was to expel the Taliban, and that there was no notion of nation building. I think that is where the confusion and mission creep came into being. From my dealings with the Bush Administration and senior figures, and as a member of the Defence Committee, prior to the invasion of Iraq the message was quite clear that they did not do nation building; they did war fighting. I do not think that they were committed from an early stage to nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has said that he met someone who called the recent wars “Blair’s wars”, and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has just described them as Prime Ministers’ wars. However, we must not forget that Parliament took the decision that we should be part of the invasion of Iraq, and there was cross-party support for our mission in Afghanistan. It would be wrong, therefore, to try to apportion blame to an individual or a political party. Should we have questioned some things more? Yes, on some occasions we should have done, and that goes back to the strategic points that the hon. Member for Broadland made. One question we have to ask is about the relationship between politics and the military. The notion of the public, and perhaps the media, is that politicians are bad and the military is good, but we all know that life is not as simplistic as that. That relationship is one of the serious issues that we need to address.
The hon. Member for Newbury mentioned Lord Reid. I have spoken to him on several occasions about the deployment to Helmand, and he was the one who held it up for quite a while. The enthusiasm for going to Helmand clearly came from parts of the military. There is a saying in the Army: “We will crack on.” The military must give clear advice to Ministers, and if things are not doable, Ministers should be told that they are not. In my experience of the military, however, that does not happen, and there is a notion that everything can be achieved.
The hon. Member for Broadland referred to military structures. I would like to reflect a little on that, and especially on the way in which the military operate within the MOD. The hon. Gentleman accepts that there is a difference between the military, the political and the civil service: I used to refer to it as a three-legged stool. The situation in the military is even more complex, because of inter-service rivalry, as I have seen. On one occasion, I attended a meeting of Ministers and chiefs, at which the senior naval officer and the head of the Army shouted and swore at each other across the table. The relationship is not always unanimous or harmonious. Senior military must be joined up and speak with one voice, and I think that they are getting better at that. The movement towards the joint command under this Government is a move in the right direction to try to achieve more joined-up thinking.
The concern is often expressed that the senior military were speaking with one voice, under pressure from the then Government. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify which senior military generals spoke against the previous Government’s policy and were promoted under that Government?
This is where the nonsense comes in—where the political line that was taken and the party politics of that line cause confusion. The problem we had was that there was disagreement between the service chiefs at the time on different strategies. If politicians ask the military whether it is possible to do something, there is an in-built response of “Yes, we can,” but I am saying that there has to be a grown-up relationship. When Ministers ask for advice, they must sometimes be told by the military, “No, that cannot be done.” [Interruption.] The hon. Gentlemanhas asked me to give an example. At the tail end of the last Government, certain senior generals acted completely outside their remit by being political, which was not a helpful stance and did not ensure that they were above the party political debate. That was unfortunate.
I return to Helmand and the deployment south, about which the hon. Member for Broadland raised an important issue. Corporate knowledge in an organisation is important, and, like the hon. Gentleman, I fear that we are losing a lot of that. In addition, in our approach to deployment we must not look solely at the military kinetic effects. We should consider, for example, employing anthropologists to inform the debate about what will happen when we deploy somewhere, to ensure that when people are deployed, they have the fullest possible knowledge about the situation.
I have to disagree with what the hon. Member for Reigate said about Iran. I accept his point about the Iranians being against the Taliban, although I think that that was mainly to do with the Taliban murdering Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. It was a maligned force in Basra and, in the latter days, in Herat in Afghanistan, where it was used in the proxy war against the United States and ourselves. Should we actually engage with them in negotiations? Yes, I think we could.
Finally, one major strategic failing in Afghanistan was the issue of Pakistan. All the emphasis was on rebuilding, and on occasion we treated Afghanistan in isolation, but the real problem was related to Pakistan. When the history books are written, they will say that the Musharraf Government, by speaking both ways, made our job much more difficult in Afghanistan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss what we all realise is a very important subject. He said that he wanted a good debate, and he has succeeded. By my count, 19 Members have been present for either all or part of this debate, including you, Mr Pritchard. That figure includes a number of members of the Defence Committee and, indeed, former Defence Ministers.
This debate takes place a short time after our combat mission in Afghanistan concluded. At the height of our involvement, the United Kingdom had the second largest fighting force in Afghanistan, and our troops undertook some of the heaviest fighting. At one time we had more than 9,000 troops and some 137 bases in Afghanistan, but the increasing capability of the Afghan security forces has enabled us to bring our combat troops home. Our troops left Camp Bastion, our final base in Helmand, on 27 October 2014, and on 24 November 2014 the final UK service personnel left Kandahar airfield, marking the UK’s departure from southern Afghanistan. Although our combat mission is over, we are continuing to help the Afghan people and have made an enduring commitment to Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend asks a good question. In simple terms, our normal, standard tour was six months with a two-week break in the middle; the Americans, for instance, tended to go for 12 months. There are advantages and disadvantages with both ways of doing it, and we continue to discuss that with the Americans. We will look at that in future to see whether there are lessons to be learned. They are two different ways of doing it, and they both have pluses and minuses.
We now have around 470 troops contributing to the NATO “train, advise and assist” resolute support mission, our element of which is called Op Toral. The UK is leading international support to the Afghan national army officer academy near Kabul to help to develop the next generation of Afghan military leaders. Just last week, the second graduation of Afghan cadets trained at the academy took place. The United Kingdom has also committed £70 million a year to help sustain Afghan security forces, as well as £178 million a year in development aid.
I have visited Afghanistan twice and have seen for myself the progress that has been made. We have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a safer future. As part of a coalition of 51 nations, the UK helped to build the Afghan security forces from scratch to an effective force of more than 330,000 personnel. The Afghan security forces now have lead responsibility for delivering security across the country, and they are performing well against a capable and determined enemy. Last year, despite prolonged fighting over the summer, the Taliban failed to take and hold any district centres. Country-wide, Afghan security forces successfully secured the presidential elections last year, with more than 7 million people voting.
The inauguration of President Ghani last September was an historic moment for Afghanistan. It was the first democratic transfer of power from one President to another in the country’s history. We welcome the formation of a Government of national unity, the recent appointment of a number of key Cabinet Ministers and, indeed, the approval of a budget for the country by the Afghan Parliament. In December 2014, the UK worked with the Afghan Government and international partners to deliver the co-hosted London conference on Afghanistan, during which President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah set out an ambitious reform programme that focused on addressing corruption and reconnecting Afghan citizens to their Government. President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah continue to have the UK’s full support in making those and other important reforms.
I will attempt to do that now. I will make a point about the number of children educated in schools and then I will come straight to my hon. Friend’s questions. In 2001, some 1 million children went to school in Afghanistan; now, more than 6 million children, including 2 million girls, are in school. Sixty per cent. of the population is within walking distance of a public health facility. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is at its highest ever level.
Several lessons have been learned. On the medical front, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said that our personnel had done a fantastic job. I did not agree with everything in his speech, but I agreed with that point. The contribution of the role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion was remarkable. It was the busiest military medical facility in Afghanistan, treating in excess of 7,000 UK casualties, with a survival rate of more than 95%, before its closure in September 2014. The hospital was world leading and pioneered new medical treatments and techniques that have led directly to improvements in NHS—
I was talking about the medical lessons that we have learned from Afghanistan, which flow back into our national health service. To drive my point home, a number of medical helicopters flying in Britain now carry plasma and blood, which is a lesson we learned directly from our experience in Afghanistan. We routinely sought to learn lessons from operational incidents and to adapt our equipment, tactics, training and procedures accordingly. That included, for instance, procuring new equipment quickly through the urgent operational requirement process to address emergent threats. We are considering how the lessons of the UOR process can inform our procurement of equipment more generally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned 77 Brigade, which will have the old Chindits badge, and we will consider how we can use capabilities within that brigade more effectively in future, again building on lessons that we have learned about the importance of influence operations in Afghanistan. I hope to be able to visit the brigade in his constituency when it is fully stood up.
The redeployment of equipment also presented a massive challenge in terms of both scale and complexity, which my hon. Friend also mentioned. Camp Bastion alone covered an area approximately the size of Reading, and much of the matériel returned from Afghanistan had to be redeployed via a 900 km-long land route. We brought back 3,600 vehicles and 4,700 20-foot ISO container-equivalents of matériel. That was a massive logistical achievement, and we have learned lessons from that, too.
The time I have does not fully allow me to pay tribute to the 453 personnel who died in the service of their country. We will never forget them. The Camp Bastion memorial wall will be established at the national memorial arboretum close to the armed forces memorial. The wall was carefully dismantled and flown back to the UK from Afghanistan, and it is currently being reconstructed so that the families of the soldiers named on it can visit to pay their respects. We hope that the completion of that memorial will be achieved by the summer of this year.
I have two minutes to conclude my speech. We should be proud of what we have achieved in Afghanistan. In 2001, the country was used as a launch pad by international terrorists. Since then, through our actions and the actions of the international coalition, the terror threat to the United Kingdom from the region has substantially reduced. Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists. We have helped to build effective Afghan national security forces capable of taking the fight to the enemy and of sustaining progress made in the removal of the terrorist threat. The Afghans are now securing their country’s future. They have defended their election and elected a Government of national unity.
Of course, we want to consider broader lessons that can be learned from the campaign, but our recent focus has been on a successful drawdown from the ISAF combat mission and the transition to the NATO resolute support mission. In making a decision on how to learn lessons, the Government want to think through how best to do it in a way that enables us to implement those lessons quickly and practically so that they have a real impact. Several members of the Defence Committee have been here today, and they are undertaking an inquiry into decision making in defence policy. The Secretary of State for Defence gave evidence to that inquiry earlier this month.
There will be challenges ahead for the Afghan people, and there are no guarantees of their future success, but as we continue to support the people of Afghanistan, we should be proud of what we have achieved and confident that we have given that country the best possible chance of a stable future. I believe it was worth while and that we were right to do it.