Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to introduce this very important report, which concerns lessons that have been learnt and lessons that need to be learnt by civil missions of the European Union, including EUPOL in Afghanistan. It is an appropriate day for us to discuss the report, given today’s announcement by the United States of significant withdrawals of its troops from Afghanistan. That marks the start of the winding down of the involvement of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, which no doubt will continue for many years. In fact EUPOL was set up only in 2007, some six years after the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, NATO and the allies at that time following the Twin Towers incident in 2001, the American involvement in the chasing of al-Qaeda and the consequent defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. So the mission was indeed very late in trying to set up its task and put a civil infrastructure into that country.
Throughout our deliberations we understood how difficult conditions were on the ground in Afghanistan. Setting up a civilian police force in that part of the world is not the same as doing it somewhere even like the western Balkans, let alone a European member state. The conditions are utterly different; at the time we still had extreme violence there, the writ of government did not extend across the whole of Afghanistan and there were many other issues that noble Lords will be well aware of. EUPOL’s mission was quite simple in concept, although maybe complicated in delivery; it was to try to produce what we would understand as a civilian police force in Afghanistan, one to which Afghan citizens could report crimes that would then be investigated and prosecuted—something that we in Europe would expect and find quite normal. Indeed, there was such a tradition back in Afghan history in the 20th century, but not since the number of wars that have afflicted that country.
That is a difficult task, but it is only one of a number of objectives of the Afghan national police force itself. It is perhaps important to recognise that the vast majority of the ANP deals primarily with security. Many of the 96,000 members of the ANP are involved in simple guarding as part of the security structure—they are more like a gendarmerie or a paramilitary than what we would understand as civilian police—and there is a local auxiliary element that we felt was probably strongly influenced by local barons and strongmen rather than by the rule of law. There is a whole mix within what we are trying to achieve.
The fundamental fact was that to produce a social infrastructure that would work and create stability for Afghanistan into the longer-term future, a civilian policing force that had the confidence of the citizens of Afghanistan and eventually had a writ across the whole country would be essential for stability in that nation and for Afghanistan to be a successful state in the future.
The issues and challenges that we came across generally for the Afghan national police force were quite astounding, and the barriers and difficulties were very great. There is the fundamental matter of literacy. There were short training programmes—I will come on to these later—that did not address literacy particularly effectively. We had figures quoted to us of something like 70 per cent of recruits to the ANP being unable to read or write. That might be quite sufficient for guarding; it might even be sufficient, though less likely so, for a number of paramilitary activities. However, collecting evidence, talking to victims of crime and taking an evidence-based system through to prosecution are clearly impossible if those officers are unable to read and write.
One of the other problem areas is the attrition of the ANP. We are assured that this has improved, but we were told with great authority that at one point the fallout rate of recruits was some 70 per cent. This level of wasted investment has a number of effects. It shows that morale is low and it means that you never reach the target that you need to in order for the police force to be effective to the degree that it is meant to be. Indeed, the police force stood at 96,000 when we did this report; it was expected to be somewhere around 110,000, but was unable to meet that.
The other, even more serious area is that of mortality, which is, sadly, one of the reasons for that attrition rate. It is probably not realised that the levels of mortality in the national police force are significantly higher than in the Afghan armed forces. Understandably, that acts as another reason why Afghan citizens are not necessarily keen to join the ANP or remain within it. We also found that because pay was distributed down a supply chain to those ANP officers who were out in the provinces, with 10 per cent or whatever being taken at various levels, staff themselves were often not paid.
An area that was also of great concern was that of numbers. I will come back to the question of numbers in specific issues around the EUPOL mission. On the requirement by NATO and Europe to reach sufficient numbers for the police force, though, we felt strongly that there was too much of a production-line numbers-driven objective that meant that the quality was not high enough. Although the numbers were there, that meant that the quality of their work was not high and that the police force could not fulfil the functions that it was meant to.
Not surprisingly, the other area was corruption. While corruption eats at all societies, it is particularly corrosive when it comes to police forces and becomes impossible when it comes to the EUPOL mission that is attempting to join up policing with successful trials and convictions through the prosecution service. Even if you manage to bring a proper case through the police system, it is of no use whatever if the prosecuting authorities are subject to corruption that results in the case never reaching court—or, if it reaches court after all, you cannot be sure that the judgment will be made in line with justice or law as citizens understand that.
If that were not enough, we came across specific issues about EUPOL itself. The first was one that we had some disagreement with the Government about— the liaison between EUPOL, the European Union and NATO. NATO was clearly the major force within Afghanistan. Even in the area of police and armed forces training, in fact, it had some 5,000 people in comparison with EUPOL’s 300. It was not that we found little co-operation between NATO and the EU but, because this is not a Berlin Plus operation, co-operation was not formal and did not always work the way it should. There were instances where that was prejudicial to the safety of EUPOL staff and officers. We heard that from Brussels, we felt that it was true and there was strong evidence behind it. We still feel that that needs to be pursued, not just in Afghanistan but in other operations as well. We know all the reasons why that is difficult because of the Turkey/Cyprus situation but, when we have people on the front line, it is of the greatest importance that we make that work.
We have dedicated staff in Brussels as much as in Afghanistan, but the mission itself was slow to get going because it went through a hugely bureaucratic procurement process for equipment. I think members of the committee all imagined what would have happened if during the Falklands crisis in 1982 we had put out for competitive tender operations with potential European purchasing rules and the threat of judicial review. Perhaps only now would we be sending our task force—I do not know. There was a similar situation there, which was partly resolved by the United States stepping in and providing this force with equipment so that it could start on time.
We also felt that EUPOL staff and decision-makers in Afghanistan were not given sufficient delegated authority for the very quick-changing circumstances on the ground; everything had to be referred back to Brussels. Political decisions had to be made at that level, a procedure that we understand for major decisions, but tactically that situation tied the hands of commanders on the ground and locally. Again, we understand that this has improved, but it should not happen again.
Although the EUPOL mission itself originally grew out of a German mission and was therefore meant to be a combined European force, we found to our amazement that other European bilateral and multilateral forces were still operating in police training in Afghanistan. We felt strongly that if Europe was to maintain its reputation for effectiveness on these missions, it should concentrate its work on one area—in this case, in EUPOL itself—and make that successful, rather than having a wide range of unsuccessful missions.
A major issue for EUPOL itself is that, although its intended number of 400 staff in Afghanistan was already minute for the size of the problem, it has never even managed to meet that number. The number out there on the whole has been around the 200s and more recently has moved towards 300. That means that for a major initiative and a civilian mission, the European Union has not even been able to deliver the resources that it said it would, despite the mission’s small size in comparison with NATO efforts. We believe that that severely damages the reputation of the EU and its mission.
Timescale is the other area of concern. We have a major challenge. The current mandate goes to 2013 but there is no chance that the mission will have fulfilled its objectives by that time, yet NATO will start to withdraw its military resources significantly in 2014-15. There is a major mismatch there, making it hard to take decisions.
I conclude this introduction to the debate by saying that we felt that there was a major reputational risk to the European Union through its failure to deliver this project, with all its difficulties, sufficiently on the ground and to meet its promises. There are some successes. The city policing initiative was successful, and there is a European initiative for a women’s police training centre in Bamyan that we believe is necessary and will be successful. We welcome the fact that non-EU states—New Zealand, Canada and Norway—have contributed to EUPOL. We were slightly concerned that the United Kingdom had offered only 14 staff when we looked at this, although we recognise that in the military area in Afghanistan the UK has more than played its role in comparison with other European countries in that area.
There are dedicated people in Afghanistan as part of the EUPOL operation. They literally put their lives on the line and work in a very difficult position. We feel that this mission was important because civil policing is the glue and the infrastructure for a successful Afghan state for the future. We are very disappointed in the way in which this operation has been delivered, and we feel that there is a great risk that it will not meet its objectives by 2013 and may be classed as a failure. We sincerely hope that this is not the case. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has said, and a great deal of evidence was presented to us to support his conclusions. The EU’s Afghan police mission report highlights a number of pressing problems which I hope Ministers and their European allies are now urgently addressing. Otherwise, as has been said and the report makes clear, the mission runs a real risk of failure. Everyone knows that military withdrawals can lead to heavy casualties being inflicted. We are in the business of effecting an orderly transition, but it is quite clear from the extensive evidence given to the committee that the job of training the Afghan police will stretch well beyond the deadline set for our troops to leave the country in 2014-15. If we want our troops to leave with a job really well done, we have to have a clear appreciation of the transitional arrangements required. I need hardly remind the Grand Committee that, when the British withdrew from India at the time of independence, more than 1 million casualties as individuals tried to move from one country to another.
Obviously we want to make certain that we ensure a successful handover. We therefore need to have a very clear appreciation of the challenges confronting the EUPOL mission which the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has so ably presented. The first of these is that members of the Afghan police are a top target for the Taliban. In answer to my question in committee, chief superintendent Nigel Thomas, former interim head of the EU’s Afghan police mission, referred to casualties. He said that there might, in extreme cases, be 15 a day. He asserted that seven a day might be killed and numerous police personnel injured to quite a significant extent—and, importantly, at a much higher rate than the Afghan army casualty rate.
The second challenge is that at the same time as being very much in the front line the situation is exacerbated by a lack of close co-operation between the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. We heard from Fatima Ayub of the Open Society Foundation that the rationale behind building up the police was not to improve the rule of law but was—
“as the US forces put it, about putting boots on the ground, such that you have someone in the line of fire against the insurgents”.
Chief Superintendent Thomas stated bluntly:
“The ANA need to take on a more proactive role and relieve the ANP from some of the more militaristic duties that they are performing”.
At the same time there is a need for much more emphasis to be put on the quality of training, and the mere six weeks given at present is insufficient for a police service that ultimately should have a civilian role. I note that last month NATO agreed to extend the length of its training course by two extra weeks, and perhaps when he replies the Minister can tell us whether EUPOL is doing the same.
The third challenge which the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has touched upon is the fact that so many police are illiterate. At least half are, according to Fatima Ayub, and our sub-committee concluded that there was currently no coherent strategy for dealing with this problem. She said in response to a question from me:
“You can train policemen in Afghanistan … but the question is whether you are first going to invest time in teaching them to read and then actually to do the work of policing rather than acting as cannon fodder for the insurgency”.
Fourthly, there is, as has been mentioned, the widespread issue of corruption, bribery and drug dealing within police ranks. Chief Superintendent Thomas gave me examples, which I could cite, of police chiefs who have links to local criminality because that is the way they are able to keep the peace in that particular location. That will undoubtedly have to change over time, but for the communities there that sort of relationship works for them and the police chief would not intervene against certain individuals because they know what the consequences are going to be. Those things will simply have to change, he stressed—and undoubtedly they will—but, again, it is going to be a slow and in certain cases painful process.
All this has a knock-on effect on the Afghan judicial system, and the corruption within it must be attacked. If this is not done, Chief Superintendent Thomas said, EUPOL cannot effectively train Afghan police officers to carry out relevant and important investigations that will lead to successful prosecution, as they could be blocked as the result of corrupt practices.
There are other challenges, including infiltration and desertion, but I will restrict myself to mentioning only one more: whether there have been cases involving the use of torture. Chief Superintendent Thomas was clear in his response. There are pockets of things that happen around the country, and interrogation techniques are used that would be abhorrent anywhere else. These sorts of things are part of the ongoing cultural and organisational change that is required, but it takes time.
Despite the challenges facing the EUPOL training mission, which are formidable to the Afghan police, they are not insurmountable. In his evidence, the Chief Superintendent told my noble friend Lord Jopling that it was not mission impossible. In his view, what was required was a defined role for the military and the police, with an understanding of those timescales and agreement at the top strategic level. He believed that the people on the ground had a real desire to deliver and, given support, they would do so.
Anyone who has read the history of Afghanistan knows that the British have not always found campaigns there to be straightforward. Rudyard Kipling wrote in Barrack-Room Ballads, published in 1892, in the last verse of his poem entitled “The Young British Soldier”, these words:
“When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier”.
I am glad to say that we have come a very long way since then, and at least we have the presence of mind to know when a great deal more has to be done. The EUPOL mission is currently extended to May 2013, but the evidence submitted to us indicates that, to achieve the required success, the task will take at least five or 10 years longer. The mission, with an allocation of only 400 staff, is clearly too small for such a formidable task, and the fact that it has never come close to the numbers specified for it has weakened its stature. This issue now needs to be addressed with urgency and given a much higher priority by Governments of the European Union, including our own.
There have been mass jail breakouts on many occasions. In 2003, in southern Afghanistan, 45 Taliban escaped from a tunnel. In 2008, suicide bombers attacked the prison gates in Kandahar and 900 prisoners escaped. On 23 April this year, 541 prisoners escaped down an ingenious tunnel. With such a resourceful enemy, it is essential that the police are given the best training possible.
Having been to Helmand province in Afghanistan, with among others the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, I believe we have a strong obligation to support our service men and women to the hilt and to see this matter through to a successful conclusion. Our report is frank, direct and relevant, and I hope and believe that the British and European Union Governments will give it the support that it so justly deserves. Most importantly of all, I trust that the Minister will be able to reassure us today that the British and EU Governments are already acting swiftly on its conclusions.
I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Selkirk of Douglas and Lord Teverson, on their very able speeches. We are debating a good, although by any standards extremely depressing, report. It is probably one of the most depressing reports with which I have been associated in a long career as a Select Committee member in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. That is a tribute to the chairman, and it is a tribute to the staff for their back-up. It is a tribute to my colleagues for their extremely sharp questioning and the fact that they have always been well briefed, and it is a tribute to the people who gave evidence before us. I particularly remember Chief Superintendent Nigel Thomas, who was the former interim head of the EU’s Afghan police mission.
I do not want to go into the detail of the report. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has given us a very good summary of it. However, we are really talking about a mission that was,
“too late, too slow to get off the ground once the decision was made, and too small to achieve its aim; or perhaps, worst, too small to receive respect from other actors”.
Therefore, it had a very bad start and those involved are having to work under very difficult conditions.
The conflicting timescales clearly make the background almost impossible. By any standards, it is going to take at least five to 10 years to create a decent police force; yet, as we know and as has been confirmed today, the deadlines for military withdrawal are growing ever closer. Therefore, those two things are in direct conflict. You have only to look at the map at the back of our report to see the weakness of the police force. In large parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan the police force has no presence at all. Even in the areas where there is a relatively strong police effort, we hear that there are considerable problems with security issues and so on. The fact is that the impact of the insurgency and the civil war between the north and south in Afghanistan is making the job extremely difficult.
We completed our report in February and I think that it is legitimate to add to it. Last night, I read the book written by Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former ambassador and special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He recently retired and produced the most devastating account of the background effort. It is not that he did not support the mission strongly or that he does not pay tremendous tribute to all those who have taken part—particularly our Armed Forces—but there is one question and it underlines our report: how long will any policing effort last once western forces have left, and what will happen in the many areas where there is no western presence at all and will not be one? He quotes, rather devastatingly, David Miliband, one of whose visits to Afghanistan occurred in 2009. He reports two Afghan Ministers coming to the residence for dinner:
“David Miliband asked our guests, innocently enough, how long they expected the Afghan central government authorities, civilian and military, to stay on in Lashkar Gah”—
which of course is in Helmand—“after Western forces left”. Cowper-Coles continues:
“I don’t know precisely what response David was expecting, but I imagine it was somewhere between decades and infinity. So the answer we did get, delivered with an insouciant grin, was all the more shocking. ‘Twenty-four hours’, came the reply. In three words, the whole object and purpose of our presence in Helmand were being called into question”.
We can say that about our whole effort in Afghanistan. It was a devastating book.
In a review of the book in last Sunday’s Observer, William Dalrymple points out that,
“the Taliban controls more than 75% of the country and Karzai’s government holds just 29 out of 121 key strategic districts”.
That is a fairly depressing background against which the effort to set up an effective police force has to operate.
If there is a withdrawal, what is likely to happen? I have given the Committee the quote from Cowper-Coles’s book. Dalrymple says that it is,
“anyone’s guess. Karzai could hold on after western withdrawal, like Najibullah after the Russian retreat. The Taliban could roll over the country as the Vietcong did in Vietnam. There may be a return to the civil war that destroyed Afghanistan prior to the rise of the Taliban”.
The only chance of creating an effective police force is some kind of political settlement, but how does one get that if one is at the same time withdrawing one’s forces? That is a question for Britain and, particularly, the United States, which is running the operation.
I asked Nigel Thomas:
“Is it possible to carry out significant improvements in building up the police force without some kind of peace settlement in Afghanistan?”.
“Of course, the overriding security situation is going to be instrumental in whether a civilian policing system could operate out there. If everything fell apart in terms of the security, then you are not going to be able to have that traditional police force, so the development of a civilian policing structure out there is absolutely reliant on a certain level of permissiveness to operate within the country”.
That is absolutely basic.
If there was a negotiated settlement, there might be a chance of creating an effective police force on the lines of the EU’s Afghan mission. However, we need to realise that we would have to go on paying for it pretty well ad infinitum. Afghanistan has basically been a kept state for nearly 100 years. Money has come in from Britain, Russia and the United States, but we need to realise that we would have to go on doing it.
My own conclusion is that the prospects for the EU’s Afghan police mission, and indeed for our whole effort in Afghanistan, at the moment look extremely problematic.
My Lords, I am afraid that there will inevitably be a certain amount of repetition in this debate, which demonstrates how ably the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has chaired our committee. I, too, extend my thanks to the staff.
A few years ago, I went on a trip to Afghanistan—not with any member of the Committee here—and was generally impressed by what our Army was attempting to do. It was at the time of that incredible, hugely successful derring-do involving the transport of the second turbine to the Kajaki dam in Helmand through Taliban controlled-country.
What was less impressive was our introduction to a ragtag group of very sad-looking men who were the local Afghan police force. Three years later, taking evidence for this report, their sorry state has kept flashing in front of me, and nothing that I have heard has made me feel that they would be looking any the less sorry.
Afghanistan, as we know, is a conservative country and a complex one. Despite being the centre of an imperialist tussle during the 19th century between Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain, famously called the Great Game, Afghanistan and its people beat them both at that game. As someone else mentioned earlier on, the Soviet Union had another try between 1979 and 1989, propping up a puppet Government with the help of an estimated 100,000 troops, and now we are back there, discovering yet again how difficult it is to control, to help and to help govern.
The country is hugely lacking in infrastructure. It is unused to centralised government. These difficulties are compounded by the topography of the country, with corruption, illiteracy and drug abuse, the tradition of tribal hostilities and self-governance and, of course, the Taliban. All these problems have had a direct impact on successfully achieving a civilian police force, which did not exist when the West invaded the country in 2001—indeed, it is one of the reasons for the rise in popularity of the Taliban and for its ascendancy after the departure of the Soviets. While the Taliban’s form of justice is harsh, it did not involve bribery and corruption. My noble friend Lord Lamont had a conversation only recently with an Afghan taxi driver who was saying the same thing about today.
As we say in our report, it is not the fault of the EU that its police training mission was so late in being set up, but it seems from the evidence we have taken that the mission itself has not been well planned or thought through. The things that have struck me during this inquiry are the ignoring of the blindingly obvious—the size of the EU mission for one, as noble Lords have mentioned. Why, when it was meant to consist of 400 people, has this target never been met? It was an unambitious level of staffing in the first place. Not to have achieved it has had a negative effect on the mission itself—meaning among other things that it has had to reduce its presence from 17 to 13 locations—and on the perception of the mission as a whole. In particular, it appears to have harmed the relationship between EUPOL and the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, only adding to the problems caused by the lack of formal agreement between NATO and the EU, as mentioned earlier by my noble friend Lord Teverson. Indeed, the head of the EU civil missions, Mr Klompenhouwer, told us that the lack of a security agreement with NATO creates some risks for the people on the ground, yet the work being undertaken by these people on the ground for EUPOL is so important for the future of a viable Afghanistan.
Then there is the length of the police training course, which was, in the words of Chief Superintendent Nigel Thomas,
“shrunk from eight weeks to six weeks, and basically the eight weeks was deemed to be too long because it was taking too long to get people out on the ground. There is this big drive to get numbers and feet out on the ground”.
In other words, it was quantity over quality.
I am normally a glass-half-full person, but the chances of a functioning Afghan police force surviving a departure of troops in 2014-15 seem to be as likely as rats dancing on the moon. As the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, has already mentioned, some recent stories include 450 prisoners tunnelling out of the main jail in Kandahar city on 24 April, in something reminiscent of the Great Escape. On 12 May, the New York Times reported that Taliban commander turned police officer, Ghulam Hazrat, was raising funds by imposing an Islamic tax on the people in his district, typically demanding around 10 per cent of their income. On 20 May, inquests into the killing of five British soldiers by a rogue Afghan police officer showed that the officer had been a habitual drug user. Although drug users are not allowed to join the police, random drug tests have shown that around 10 per cent of Afghan police officers use cannabis or opium. On 13 June, the NATO International Security Assistance Force reported that not a single police unit is able to maintain order without the assistance of coalition forces. Moreover, there is a shortfall of around 740 police trainers, posing a significant barrier to growth of the police force. Only last week, a new police training centre in Wardak was mortared during its opening ceremony. The new police training centre has the capacity to train 3,000 new recruits at a time, but currently it has only 720 recruits.
Against this, our most recent briefing, a week ago, was full of optimism about how various fundamental problems like attrition rates, training, forms of payment, the recruitment process and so on had seen,
“a rate of change that is phenomenal”,
in the past six months. However, when I suggested that this was perhaps a bit late in the day, the response was yes, of course it was. So I ask the Minister: why, when the mission is so important both to Afghanistan and, I suggest, to the standing and the reputation of the EU, was best practice not introduced at the beginning rather than bringing it in at the tail-end?
My Lords, I start by expressing my regrets at the tragic loss of more British soldiers last week. It will soon be a decade since 9/11, a reminder that no one expected our commitment to Afghanistan to last this long, let alone to cause so many casualties among the Marines as well as the Army. I would also like to mention, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has on this occasion, the much higher number of fatalities among the Afghan police—up to seven a day, as we have heard, including those in Kabul during the past week. It is rare that the sacrifice of Afghans themselves is recognised outside that country. We all look forward to a time when the fighting will end, but even if it ends for NATO in three years or so it will continue for much longer for men and women in uniform in Afghanistan.
I sincerely congratulate Sub-Committee C on its report. It is exactly the kind of subject that that committee should tackle—a specific and topical aspect of foreign affairs that might otherwise be ignored by Parliament. The Sudan report, published today, is another good and timely example that I hope we will be debating soon because of South Sudan’s independence in two and a half weeks. That is another country divided in two. This does not detract from my view that we should one day have a committee in this House with a much wider remit on foreign affairs, a view shared by many colleagues but not by the Liaison Committee, which still believes that we would be poaching on another place. Nevertheless, I notice that another place has decided to investigate piracy off Somalia, so soon after Sub-Committee C had done its own excellent report. If that is not poaching or duplicating, it seems at the very least to be a waste of resources.
The report, among other things, demonstrates failure by the EU, including this country and other members of ISAF, to bring western standards of policing into a country with its own traditions and methods of security. We should not be surprised that “policing” in Afghanistan means something quite different from policing here at home, yet we expect someone of the calibre of Chief Superintendent Nigel Thomas to make a lasting impact on the operations of the police in Kabul and many other places, and to do so at the double before we leave the country altogether at the end of three years.
Noble Lords can see that I am sceptical, perhaps too sceptical, of the value of what amounts to imposing our own standards on another country and culture. I recognise that there are universal rights and values and I supported our early intervention in Afghanistan, but implementing those rights across the board in central Asia is much more than a challenge, as the euphemism goes—it is an impossibility unless the mission is very narrowly defined. I am certain from what he said in evidence that the chief super and his colleagues personally did a lot of good and certainly had some influence on planning and behaviour. Some valuable training, even in only a six-week crash course, may have rubbed off on the Afghan police. However, when you know the scale of the problem, the poverty and illiteracy in the country, the relatively small numbers of European police officers involved and the degree of insecurity, you soon realise that we are not going to make a lot of difference. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, rightly referred to the loss of quality, which can be even more important. Surprisingly, the Government respond in a similar vein. They state:
“The Government recognises that, whilst EUPOL has had some successes, it is not yet delivering to its full potential. Its capabilities have been stretched by the challenges of operating in such a complex conflict environment. … The reality is that many parts of Afghanistan are not yet ready for civilian policing, so EUPOL’s ability to demonstrate impact is limited”.
In that case, why are we doing it, especially when NATO is already carrying out the lead training role for both the army and the police? Does the Minister agree that one explanation for this is that, not for the first time, there is a muddle between NATO and the EU about their respective roles?
In line with the devastating written evidence from Dr Ronja Kempin in appendix 3, the committee concludes that the lack of a formal agreement between the EU and NATO is quite “unacceptable” and, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has said, puts British lives among others in danger. Her Majesty’s Government in their response go so far as to deny this and mention hospital access via ISAF, but I am unconvinced by that.
There are numerous incidents of the less trained elements of the Afghan police doing or being forced to do the work of soldiers in less secure areas and either getting shot or shooting at the wrong side, or turning out to be Taliban in disguise. The noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, referred to this very convincingly. Civilian police training is not going to improve that situation, but NATO training of police alongside soldiers will, because during conflict it is sometimes impossible to distinguish between the two. The issue of attrition is related to this because any police, especially local police, required to leave their home area are bound to have their first loyalty to that area, from what has become a purely defence point of view, and they see training as being directly related to conflict.
Having said all that, I acknowledge what Karen Pierce, our special representative, said in her evidence in question 106 on page 29—that EUPOL has an enabling and not an executive role. It could hardly have anything else. It may well be true that it has had some success in Kabul using the “ring of steel” technique borrowed from the Met but it is also true, as I know from several recent visitors to Kabul, that the city is a much less safe place than it was when I was last there only three or four years ago. Because of the unique character of Kabul and the substantial foreign presence there, other centres are unlikely to respond to the same concentration of external training and influence, yet for the same reason Kabul may attract more suicide attacks on the police, as occurred only last week.
Karen Pierce also mentioned the much bigger issue that Afghanistan,
“does not have very effective rule of law institutions”.
I remember that in Mazar-i-Sharif on my last visit a young boy ran under our 4x4 and bounced off on the pavement, stunned but unharmed. About 50 people gathered quickly and surrounded us. There was no sign of the police or indeed any question of justice. If we had not gone with the family to the hospital and given them money, our driver would certainly have gone to prison for quite a time. Bribery is too grand a word for what in a developing country is simply payment and is often the only way to escape punishment or pass through a road block. It is petty corruption, not a culture which will be cured in a few years by the expertise of foreign police.
Of course, there are many activities which over time will help to change the culture of bribery and corruption, and whatever the outcome of this war I hope that, one way or another, we will continue to encourage good governance and the rule of law. Making people more aware of their rights is also a necessary task, already carried out in south Asia and all over the world by our own DfID and many non-governmental organisations.
Finally, what is the United Kingdom doing now to encourage neighbouring countries to take over this work in the future? The noble Lord, Lord Radice, has helpfully quoted the new book by Sherard Cowper-Coles, and I notice that India has just announced another half a billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan. Surely that country, with all its resources and experience, is the natural partner through which EUPOL, or perhaps another institution, can further this work in the years to come. This report, apart from highlighting that valuable work, also makes us more aware of our own limitations in the West.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for his contribution, not only in terms of the content but for the fact that he acquits us of the charge of incest by his very presence, otherwise it would have been a matter of the committee talking to itself.
It is refreshing to agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, has said, because I have spent the past two days sitting in the Chamber disagreeing with everything that his Front Bench has said on House of Lords reform. There is also the fact that we have reached the stage in the debate when everything that I had wanted to say has been said and I should therefore sit down. However, that is not in the tradition of our great House, so I shall continue.
The task of the EU Afghan police training mission is, I believe, absolutely vital for the future of Afghanistan. The existence of a fully trained and effective civilian police force, capable of enjoying the confidence of the Afghan people, is a fundamental requirement in underpinning the rule of law and stabilising Afghan society. We should recognise that. We should explain that that is why the mission is there and why it is a high priority. In terms of the type of society that Afghanistan is likely to become, the work of the EU police training mission is absolutely fundamental and of the highest priority.
On the other hand, the challenges that the mission faces are formidable. As other members of the committee have mentioned, we were told that up to 70 per cent of the recruits to the Afghan police force were illiterate. An inability to read and write at a very basic level severely limits the operational effectiveness of the police force. Reports cannot be written; number plates cannot be read. That is almost the level of the operation.
In addition, we were told that at times there is an attrition rate of up to 75 per cent, which means having to run desperately fast to keep still. With an attrition rate at that level, progress will inevitably be very slow. Let us have a look at that attrition rate. It is undoubtedly accounted for to some extent by the enormous pressure that recruits are suffering from members of the insurgency.
There are also things that are within the control of either the Afghan Government or the EU. One is the lack of welfare support to those recruits, and the policy of sometimes moving recruits to serve in distant areas, outwith their home environment. I do not think that we understand the importance of that factor, because Afghanistan is an enormously localised country and society. Perhaps most important is the fact that money allocated for police pay has a habit of getting “lost” on its way from disbursement to supposedly arriving into the pockets and wallets of the police. The build-up of those various pressures must undermine the commitments of police recruits to the task that they are asked to perform.
Good policing is a vital part of the rule of law but little can be achieved if corruption exists in the judiciary, and I am afraid that there is significant evidence of that. The reform of the two—the Afghan police force and the Afghan judiciary—must go hand in hand, because otherwise there will ultimately be failure.
As has been mentioned, an underlying challenge to the success of the mission is the apparent mismatch between the length of time that it is anticipated will be needed to complete the mission and the timetable for military withdrawal. Our witnesses told us that the task would not be completed until somewhere between 2018 and 2023, yet the deadline for military withdrawal is 2015. That raises a problem. Of course, policy falls back on the hope—it must be only a hope—that by then the Afghan army will be capable of providing a stable security environment in which the training mission can continue to operate. Quite honestly, that must be something of a tall order.
A further challenge lies in the continuing lack of a proper relationship between NATO and the EU; that has already been mentioned. We were told that the lack of a formal agreement between NATO and the EU was putting lives at risk. It is totally unacceptable that a European political dispute has such potentially dangerous implications for those serving on the front line. That needs to be sorted out, and quickly.
How can we judge the EU’s response? Frankly, all the evidence that we received pointed to the conclusion that the planned size of the mission, at 400 people, was always inadequate to the task. Worse, although signing up to 400, member states have failed to deliver, with actual numbers tending to run in the high 200s. How can you really expect to train the civilian police force of an entire country on the basis of 200 or so trainers? We had a sad and worrying example of the EU signing up for an objective and the member states failing to deliver the necessary resource. That is the underlying cause for concern of the whole mission. If you are sitting in Brussels, it is relatively easy to say, “Oh yes, this is a good thing. Let’s get on with it”, and sign up for it but, at the end of the day, all member states have some reason or excuse why they cannot provide the specific numbers required. That is a total failure of planning and approach. In itself, it runs the risk of calling into question the effectiveness of the mission and its ultimate success. It undermines confidence, which is a great mistake.
I go back to the specifics of the evidence to deal with the relationship between Brussels and the people who are doing the job on the ground. I asked Chief Superintendent Nigel Thomas—he was, quite honestly, an outstanding witness, and I think that other people have borne testimony to that today—if he had the opportunity to make three recommendations to the EU to improve the effectiveness of EUPOL, what they would be. He said: allow the head of mission the freedom and the autonomy to deliver on the ground. It is vital that the head of mission is not stifled by the bureaucracy of the system. That has been problematic and I believe that it still is. Those of us who know anything about the way that Brussels operates know that that has the ring of authenticity. It is barely tolerable in the normal decision-making and management responsibilities that the EU gets involved in; it is totally unacceptable when that sort of bureaucracy and reluctance to trust the people on the ground exposes our people to greater unnecessary risk.
The EU mission is not alone; there are a number of bilateral European missions in Afghanistan. It would be better to have a single, integrated, well resourced and managed mission rather than the lack of co-ordination and coherence that you get with a range of bilateral and multilateral missions.
Let us face it, the view of the report and the contributions has been more than somewhat critical of the mission. However, I am sure that all members of the committee would want to say that that does not reflect at all upon the commitment, skills and courage of those who are doing the work on the ground. Indeed, what shone through in the evidence that we took was the highest level of commitment of those involved in doing the job itself. Lurking in the back of my mind, though, although I try to suppress it, is a question: are we kidding ourselves?
It really is. As the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, said, the report is frank, direct and relevant. It has real punch. My only regret is that it was published on 16 February and we are debating it on 22 June. If we want the hard work of the staff of our Select Committee and of its Members who have contributed to this discussion to be effective, somehow or other the usual channels in this House have to find a way of bringing these committee reports to debate in a more timely way.
Since the members of the committee drafted this report, there have been fundamental changes in the situation in Afghanistan and we have to look forward. I would like to address this question of the future and the future lessons as a whole from this Afghanistan experience.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, spoke extraordinarily well about the background to this mission and all the problems that it had encountered. My noble friend Lord Sewel talked again about the structural problems of corruption and lack of literacy and all those difficulties that lie in its way. My noble friend Lord Radice talked about the incompatibility between what is inevitably a long-term objective for this mission and others’ political timetables, which are often determined by electoral politics in the United States.
It is a very difficult situation and, since the committee published its report, we now know that the timetable for troop withdrawals has been firmed up. We also know that informal talks have started with elements of the Taliban and we have had that extraordinarily frank memoir from Sherard Cowper-Coles, a former ambassador, which I am looking forward to reading on my holidays.
That is a very high recommendation and I will follow it. What will be the role of this mission in this new situation? Has this been considered by the Government and by the European Union? Is it envisaged that the mission might play some role in trying to integrate those elements of the Taliban that want to come into a relationship with the Kabul regime? Is it envisaged that this police mission could play a role there? What is being done about the fact that we have not achieved the 400 target on numbers? Are we still trying to achieve it or are we accepting that this mission will not achieve its original goals? What do we think its function is in the changed situation and how are we going to ensure the safety of our people, to the extent that we can ensure the safety of our people in what is going to be an increasingly fragile situation? For instance, one could well envisage in the years ahead a split among the insurgents; between those who want to do a deal and those who are rejectionists. This has happened in similar situations before.
It will be interesting to hear from the Government what kind of deliberations are now taking place, taking into account the lessons of this wonderful report and how these are being put in the context of the new situation facing us in Afghanistan. Whatever the outcome of this particular mission, there are general policy lessons for us in this and for the European Union.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, spoke about problems in the way that the mission had originally been set up. Page 31 of the report refers to problems of bureaucracy and procurement. This is a really sorry tale of high EU aspirations not being met in a timely and satisfactory manner.
I agree totally with my noble friend Lord Sewel that it is quite intolerable that bureaucratic disputes between NATO and the EU should put people on the ground at risk in a very difficult situation such as we have in Afghanistan. This fundamental point has to be resolved; Afghanistan, I am sure, is not the only failing state in which we will have to try to build up institutions in the coming years. I am a strong believer in the role of the EU in peacekeeping and peace enforcement in the Petersberg tasks. Those tasks are challenging, but just because we are western—perhaps I am distorting what the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, thinks—it does not mean that we cannot succeed in these environments. We will face similar problems in many other parts of the world and we must become more effective at tasks where a mix of civilian and military capabilities is needed. That is the basis of the little experience of these matters that I had when I was an adviser in No. 10 Downing Street. The Chiefs of Staff always used to say that the big problem in the places with which we were then dealing, such as Bosnia, was not the effectiveness of the military but the fact that we had not been able to marshal the necessary civilian resources in a timely way, because one could not expect troops to do these things on their own.
That means that we as a country have to look at how we better organise joint civilian and military capabilities and whether we support the idea—as I do—of a joint command centre for them. It is clear from the evidence of this report that there is great deficiency in the planning of these types of operations and their command and control arrangements. These need to be sorted.
I would be interested to know what view the Government take of these issues. I thought that they were rather muted on the big, long-term conclusions in their response to Recommendation 12 of the report. There was talk of working to progress relations between the EU and NATO at operational level, encouraging further information-sharing and increasing co-ordination on the ground. Of course, we want all those things, and anyone with any sense would, but are there wider, bigger lessons that the Government will draw from this excellent case study in the problems of civilian and military co-operation? Will the Government use this excellent report to formulate a new and bolder policy? We have here an excellent opportunity for British leadership in the European Union and NATO in future.
I thank all those who have contributed to this valuable debate. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, for his very constructive speech.
I welcome this valuable and critical report. We all recognise that it contains a number of lessons to be taken on board by the British Government and all those other Governments within the European Union. As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has rightly said, the report raises questions in case after case with which we will have to grapple in the coming years. After all, this is one of several civilian missions taking place under CSDP. It is the second largest after Kosovo but there are a number of other missions dealing with conflict prevention, state reconstruction and the promotion of law and order—and there will be more. There will have to be bilateral and multinational efforts for the foreseeable future. Her Majesty’s Government are working on a new building security overseas strategy that will expand the conflict pool funds, and will do their best to provide the resources and experience to be able to play a wider role in this effort of rebuilding good governance and the rule of law in weak and failed states. We all understand that that will constitute a lot of what British, European and other foreign policies are going to have to be about.
One of my colleagues said to me yesterday that the one thing he did not accept in Robert Gates’s speech criticising the Europeans in NATO was its assumption that in future what we need most of all is greater military capacity. Actually what we need, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, remarked, is an increased mixture of civilian and military capacities. Moving from the military to the civilian, which is what we are trying to do in Afghanistan, is part of how one begins to rebuild state capacity and, even more importantly, civilian confidence in state capacity and in the fairness and equity of the state. However, a number of contributors to this debate have recognised that this is a very long-term process and that timescales of state building and building the whole concept of civilian police—that took a long time to develop in this country—do not fit very easily with timescales of military withdrawal after an intervention. We hope that we have done enough to build the basic framework for a civilian police force and to establish links with a half-decent judicial system—that also takes a great deal of time to build—as the military withdrawal takes place. We will be able to provide continuing support for those institutions over the coming years. I am very grateful for the critical comment. I accept that the report points to a number of things that are wrong in the way in which Europeans have reacted to this set of enormous problems. However, lessons have been learnt and there are more lessons to learn.
One of the things that are not indicated in the report, which I should at least admit since I cover the Home Office as well as the Foreign Office, is that Britain has particular difficulties in seconding people to foreign countries on this sort of service because we do not have our own gendarmerie. We have a local structure of police and police expect to serve in Britain within their county, region or community. They do not move very much. Looking at the figures, the French, for example—
Indeed. I should remark, incidentally, that when we first engaged in this provision in the western Balkans, a very high proportion of the UK police who were seconded were from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was a different sort of force used to serving in a slightly different capacity. Certainly it is a question that we have to continue to work with, but again I remark that it would be easier for the French or Italians to second larger numbers of personnel to the NATO police training mission, which is much more concerned with training a gendarmerie, so to speak, than it has been for all of us to find local civilian police, who come from a different culture and background. The emphasis has been much more difficult—that of building the concept of a local and civilian police force.
A number of criticisms have been made of the enterprise so far, and I shall try to answer a few of them. As the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, and others have pointed out, we know that we have real problems in striking a balance between quantity and quality. The aim is to build an Afghan national police force of 130,000. We are not there yet, and the question of how much time you spend on training and how much on providing basic literacy skills is very much part of the trade-off. As noble Lords will know from the report, the NATO mission has done much more for basic literacy and training of that sort, while EUPOL has become much more specialised in providing leadership training for senior police officers and the intermediate ranks. Part of the improving informal relationship between NATO operations in Afghanistan and EUPOL has been a recognition that there are useful differences between the functions of each mission.
That also answers some of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked about whether the police are actually playing a paramilitary role. The answer unavoidably has to be that to some extent the gendarmerie forces are playing such a role, but EUPOL is trying to provide the local police who will work with the local judiciary, as we also helped to develop that. That will provide the community policing which it has taken us a long time to develop in this country and which, I remember from the many stories that my father told me, was not entirely free of local corruption and patronage even 50 years ago. It will of course take a long time to build up to what we here regard as modern standards, and it will take a great deal of time to build a literate police force. As I read the report, I wondered how high a proportion of the Pakistani police force was literate. There are some severe problems that are not just especial to Afghanistan.
On the question of attrition, noble Lords know that matters have improved a great deal. They were appalling but they are now better. I note this honest comment in the government response to the committee:
“The reality is that many parts of Afghanistan are not yet ready for civilian policing”.
We have to do our best to help to make it ready for civilian policing, but there is always this problem.
It is partly saying that these areas are still extremely insecure and are so much in the hands of what one has to call tribal or clan societies that patronage systems get in the way of what we regard as modern policing. There are parts of southern Italy where this is also not entirely absent, as the noble Lord, Lord Radice, will know.
Like me, the noble Lord goes on holiday there. My wife and I spent a week in the heel of southern Italy some time ago, and it was quite interesting to read about some of the local ways in which policing is provided and order is maintained. We all understand that there is a continuum between our idea of perfect civilian policing and perfect law and order, which we have not quite achieved in this country but have gone a long way towards. The Afghan situation is starting very much at the other end; indeed, noble Lords remarked that the situation there has gone backwards over the past 30 or 40 years. With our different contributions—our bilateral mission in Helmand and our contribution to EUPOL—we are helping to rebuild the beginnings of a civilian police and judicial structure, recognising that what we are putting in is only beginning to build and cannot reach what we would regard as modern standards in a short period.
Is the Minister aware that NATO has lengthened its training period for the police from six weeks to eight? Will that happen with EUPOL, has it happened or is it currently under consideration? It would be a great help if he could give some indication.
I do not have the information on that; I will write to the noble Lord.
I turn to the problem of decisions in Brussels. The report was rightly critical of the Brussels bureaucracy. I happen to have former students working in this area in what was the Council Secretariat and is now becoming the EU External Action Service, and I am struck by how much they have all had to learn in creating a new structure and in developing this new concept of civilian operations jointly. I think we all recognise that doing anything like this in the context of an international organisation is not entirely easy; the levels of trust are not too high so the levels of accountability, as with the initial problems over procurement, are low. I have the impression—this is certainly what I have been briefed—that lessons have been learnt, and questions of how future and continuing missions and relations between the Brussels institutions and mission leaders in the field will be managed in future are now improving.
I do not have the figures to show where secondees are coming from, how easily different groups work together or whether one should point a particular finger at some member states for not pulling their weight as much as others. That is an area that the committee or others might like to look at in future. I was impressed by the written memorandum from the researcher from Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik who is clearly doing some very valuable work on this. We all know that we have a great deal to learn, but we also know that the Americans are envious of the EU’s ability to apply this mix of civilian and military resources and feel that that is not something that the US is yet able to do—it tends to put the military first and not provide the full mix that we would like to have.
Many other points were raised in this debate, and I shall deal with one or two. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, remarked on regional co-operation. We all understand that we cannot resolve the problem of Afghanistan on its own. I remind him, though, that although India is very active there and in many ways is a natural partner, the reaction in Pakistan to India playing a larger and more visible role, particularly with Afghanistan’s security forces of all sorts, would be such as to make that an extremely delicate area. It is almost like saying, “We recognise that Iran has legitimate interests in Afghanistan”—which of course it does. These are very difficult areas. Pulling in Afghanistan’s neighbours to help them is not entirely easy, given the delicacy and difficulty of the region as a whole.
The EU mission is on an upswing at present. It has a first-class Finnish leader and it has more people on the ground than previously. The figure is not yet up to 400, but it is well into the 300s. The sense in Brussels and London is that the situation has improved and is continuing to improve. That is not to say that things are going very well. As those who have read Sherard Cowper-Coles’ book are extremely well aware, Afghanistan presents a very difficult situation. Giving ordinary people in the provinces outside Kabul confidence in the state and in its governance is extraordinarily difficult. EUPOL has therefore begun with city policing and is working in particular in Kabul and a number of other areas to try to build civilian city policing as a constructive way forward.
We recognise that what we are doing in training leaders of the police force is a long-term investment, but we hope that it is improving and providing the leadership for the much larger number of police recruits who are being trained through the NATO mission. We also feel that EU/NATO co-operation has improved and is continuing to improve on an informal basis without us stubbing our toes on the underlying problems of formal EU/NATO relations. However, that is something of which the Government are acutely aware.
To come back to where I started, it is an active concern of the British Government, as it was of our predecessors, to continue to improve our capabilities in this very large area, in which weak and failed states need to make the transition to stronger governance, a more effective rule of law and, as far as possible, the building of civil society and democratic institutions. That is what the conflict pool has been about. It is the area on which we continue to work, and it is something that the Government are talking about with civilian police providers and others, as well as with our partners in Brussels.
I thank the committee very much for this report. I look forward to continuing reports on this area, and I hope that other Governments, as well as many people in Brussels, have read it as well.
My Lords, I genuinely thank all those who have contributed today. The debate has been quite clear about the challenges and issues facing the mission and Afghanistan more broadly. I thank the Committee Members and also the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich.
I want to comment on one thing that the noble Earl mentioned which touched a nerve to a degree. I refer to how much we try to impose western standards or means of working on those on other continents with different cultural backgrounds, although there are certain universal values. I know that that is not exactly what the noble Earl said but I specifically asked one of our witnesses whether Afghanistan had a tradition of policing before the civil war and the Russian invasion, and the answer was as follows:
“Yes, there were what are effectively today being called the civil order police, in the tradition of a gendarme. There was a tradition of having that. Again, mostly that began in the mid-20th century. So there was not a historical tradition of policing, but certainly people understood police; what they did and what their purpose was”.
I know that this is not what the noble Earl is saying but we are also capable of thinking that traditional societies such as that in Afghanistan do not understand things such as policing. However, they understand law, justice and all those concepts just as we do and as we demand for our stable and fair society.
I thank the Minister for his responses. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that the report’s lesson for the future is that if missions are going to be put into the field under the European defence and security policy—whether those missions are military or civilian—the policy needs to deliver what it says it is going to deliver. If it does not, it will lose the respect of the international community, and those missions will inevitably put people’s lives on the line without being able to be effective in what they are trying to do.
That leads on to the bigger question about Afghanistan. If the outstanding improvements are not made and this mission is not made to be effective, the committee would, I think, question strongly our right to put on the line the security of European citizens who are committed and volunteer for something that we are saying cannot necessarily succeed.
I thank very much the committee’s staff, Kathryn Colvin, Oliver Fox and Bina Sudra, for their work in delivering this report. I commend the report to the Committee.
Committee adjourned at 6.26 pm.