In January 2021, the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee published a report entitled ‘The UK and Afghanistan’. The House of Lords is due to debate the report on 24 January 2022.

Both the committee’s report and the Government’s response were published before the withdrawal of US, UK and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, which was completed in July 2021. Following the departure of NATO troops, the Taliban surprised many observers with the speed in which they seized control of the country.

In its overarching findings, the committee concluded that “despite the scale of the UK’s involvement [in Afghanistan], both military and economic, over recent years, there were few traces of a coherent overall policy approach”. Further, it argued that Afghanistan had become a lower foreign affairs priority since 2010.

The Government’s response to the committee’s report, published on 12 March 2021, stated that Afghanistan remained a priority for UK foreign policy. It said the country had one of the UK’s largest overseas military deployments, one of the UK’s “largest and most active” diplomatic presences and was one of the main recipients of UK official development assistance (ODA). The Government stated that its approach placed a particular emphasis on combatting terrorism.

Withdrawal of Western forces

The committee’s report argued that US and NATO troops should remain in Afghanistan until a negotiated peace settlement between the then-Afghan Government and the Taliban was reached. Therefore, it criticised the US Government’s agreement with the Taliban, signed in February 2020, which contained a unilateral commitment to withdraw US troops from the country.

The committee commended peace talks between the then-Afghan Government and the Taliban that were taking place at the time in Doha, stating that “a negotiated settlement is the only long-term solution to the conflict in Afghanistan”. Further, the committee argued that the US-Taliban agreement risked “critically undermining” the Afghan Government in the Doha talks given that US troop withdrawal was not dependent on a successful outcome to the talks. It envisaged that, without such an agreement, withdrawing troops had “the potential to destabilise the security situation”. The committee recommended that the Government engage with the incoming Biden administration in the US on this issue “as a matter of urgency”. The committee was also “disappointed” by the lack of analysis of the implications of the planned US withdrawal provided by ministers in their evidence.

The Government’s response supported the US-Taliban agreement, saying that it “paved the way” for the Doha peace talks. The Government added that decisions on the NATO presence in Afghanistan “will be made collectively by NATO allies”.

In July and August 2021, NATO and the UK withdrew their remaining troops. Following this, the Taliban rapidly took control of the country. The previous Afghan Prime Minister, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country on 15 August 2021. On 18 August 2021, Boris Johnson made a statement describing the resulting situation in Afghanistan as “bleak”. He set out the priorities for UK policy on Afghanistan. These included:

  • working with international partners to provide humanitarian support;
  • evacuating UK nationals and Afghans who have worked for the UK; and
  • again in conjunction with the international community, establishing a plan for dealing with the new regime in the country.

Humanitarian situation

The committee said that Afghanistan was “very fragile” even at the time of the report. It argued this was a result of more than 40 years of conflict, instability and external interference since the Soviet invasion of 1979. The committee described a number of serious challenges facing the country, including:

  • It was one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked 170 out of 189 on the United Nation’s (UN) human development index (HDI) and with an expected poverty rate of 72%.
  • More than a third of the population was in “acute humanitarian need”, a situation accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • In 2019, there were more than five million Afghan asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons.
  • It was the largest source of heroin in the world, and the source of 95% of heroin in the UK. Opium is the main source of income for the Taliban.
  • It was the most aid-dependent economy in the world. Foreign aid accounted for 60% of government income, with “few prospects for domestic revenues to increase”.
  • The Afghan Government was “mired in corruption”.
  • Despite some improvements in human rights, for example in freedom of speech and in the participation of women and minorities in society, abuses remained. The influence of the Taliban meant even these advances were “in danger of being reversed”.

The committee was concerned that UK aid to Afghanistan could fall as a result of the reduction in ODA from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI). It said this could disrupt the provision of basic services, and would have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable. The committee also noted that aid donors, including the UK, would face “extraordinarily complex and sensitive problems” if the Taliban became the Afghan Government, or even part of it. For example, continuing to provide aid would support basic services to the population. However, it could also undermine the UK’s commitment not to fund a regime which undermines human rights and potentially supports proscribed terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda.

In the Government’s response, it said that the move to 0.5% of GNI was “temporary”, and that it remained “firmly committed to helping the world’s poorest people, including in Afghanistan”. The Government agreed that there would be challenges with providing future ODA to Afghanistan, “including if the Taliban has a role in government”. It said that it was “difficult to speculate on future scenarios”, but that the UK’s approach built in “as much flexibility as possible”.

In the aftermath of the subsequent Taliban takeover, the UN stated that the country faces a humanitarian and economic crisis. In September 2021, it said as many as 97% of the Afghan population could be below the poverty line by 2022. In December 2021, it estimated that the Afghan economy will contract by 20%, and possibly as much as 30%. The UN said this was a result of the fall of the government, followed by international sanctions and the collapse of the country’s financial system, as well as the pandemic. The UN suggested this would push 8.7 million people in the country to “the brink of famine”.

On 19 August 2021, immediately following the Taliban takeover, the UK Government announced that it would double its ODA spend on Afghanistan in 2021, to £286 million. The Government most recently summarised its response in a written statement on 15 December 2021. It said the UK was at the “forefront” of efforts to address the humanitarian crisis, including through international organisations such as the G7, G20, the UN and the World Bank

On 22 December 2021, the UN granted an exemption from sanctions for humanitarian aid. It said this would enable aid to reach those in “desperate need”, while preventing funds from falling into the hands of the Taliban.

Resettlement schemes

In its report, the committee noted the ex gratia scheme, established in 2013, to relocate Afghans who had worked for the UK, including interpreters. It said the Government should ensure all interpreters, including those now resident in third countries, were aware of the scheme.

The Government’s response also highlighted a second scheme, the Afghanistan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which launched in April 2021. ARAP offers relocation or other assistance to Afghan civilians, and their family members, previously employed by the British Government.

Following the Taliban takeover, the Government introduced the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) to run alongside the existing schemes. The ACRS is designed to assist those who helped UK efforts in Afghanistan, and also those who may be vulnerable, for example because they belong to a minority ethnic, religious or LGBT+ group. The scheme formally opened on 6 January 2022. The Government said it would resettle more than 5,000 people in the first year and up to 20,000 people over the coming years. The Government also clarified that this number would be in addition to those resettled under ARAP.

On 14 December 2021, the Government announced changes to the ARAP policy that it said made the criteria for eligibility for resettlement “narrower” than previously. The Government argued this would provide greater clarity about the criteria for ARAP and how they were being applied across departments. However, the change has been criticised for running counter to earlier promises made by the UK Government and for having retrospective effect.

Since its report, the committee has also expressed, via an exchange of letters with the Foreign Secretary, particular concern about the safety of Afghan journalists and about the safety of Afghan women judges.

A Lords Library briefing of 26 November 2021 provided more detail on the UK approach to both humanitarian aid and resettlement schemes for Afghan civilians.

Should the UK recognise and engage with the Taliban Government?

There has been debate about whether other countries should formally recognise the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. Academics Federica Paddeu and Niko Pavlopoulos stated that this could impact, for example, the Taliban’s access to state assets held abroad and the status of Taliban envoys. In August 2021, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that the international community “should work towards common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding, together, whether to recognise it and on what terms”.

Writing for the Brookings Institution, authors including Rory Stewart, former Secretary of State for International Development, argued that the west should continue to engage with the Taliban. The writers said that without such connections, the regime would have less motivation to restrict terrorist activity. The authors also contended that the west should provide humanitarian aid and basic economic support without conditions. However, they proposed that further levels of support, including diplomatic recognition, more generous assistance and access to overseas bank accounts, should be dependent on the Taliban meeting standards on human rights and fair governance.

In its 15 December 2021 statement, the Government reported direct engagement with the Taliban on issues such as aid delivery, terrorism and human rights. However, the Government said that all its aid spending would go to “UN agencies or trusted and experienced international NGOs and not to the Taliban”.

Other issues

The committee’s other comments and recommendations on UK policy towards Afghanistan included:

  • The UK and international partners had “ultimately failed” to counter the narcotics trade. Addressing the drug economy should be a priority aim.
  • UK and international partners should do more to counter corruption. This could include moving from supporting the government’s budget to other ways of delivering aid, such as providing it directly to non-governmental organisations.
  • It should be a UK priority to secure a binding international commitment by all of Afghanistan’s neighbours to non-intervention and to economic cooperation.
  • The UK has been too ready to follow the lead of the US and too reticent raise its own “distinctive voice” on policy towards Afghanistan.

The Government’s response disagreed that counter-narcotics efforts had failed, but recognised the “many challenges which continue to inhibit all such efforts”. On corruption and the way that aid is delivered, the Government said that the UK had “sought to include the use of varying delivery modalities”.

Concerning the international community, the Government said that it “actively encourages cooperation and dialogue between Afghanistan and its neighbours” and also supported UN efforts to improve regional cooperation. On the UK’s relationship with NATO on Afghanistan, the Government said that NATO member countries’ interests are “shared and mutually dependent”, and that “the UK plays a leading role in a number of areas of the multinational approach”. These included assurance of security for government and overseas officials in Kabul.

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Cover image by Andre Klimke on Unsplash.