Invisible costs add up over future UK operations in Afghanistan

Brighton, UK – 9 November 2012

By Inês Klinesmith

 

Costs of Afghan operations to Great Britain on the rise

 

While the British government encourages Europe to take a larger responsibility for maintaining security in the Middle East and North Africa, both the Ministry of Defence and outside experts admit that the price tag of British commitments in Afghanistan – where British obligations will end in 2014 – are steeper than predicted.

The coalition government has committed an annual contribution of GBP 70 million (USD 112 million) beginning in 2015 – after British combat forces have officially left the country – to help fund the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the UK MoD said in April. The most recent figures state the Afghan war has cost at least GBP 17 billion (USD 27 billion), according to records released by the House of Commons Library.

British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told a defence conference in London on 2 November that he expected Europe to shoulder more of the responsibility in other hot spots in the Middle East and North Africa, even if that meant “squeezing” capability out of Europe’s downsizing militaries.

Hammond’s comments have contrasted with the message delivered by the Prime Minister in Jordan this week that British assistance to Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime forces might come from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). UK aid to Syria has also increased to over GBP 50 million (USD 80 million).

MoD sources say only 75 percent of security will be provided by ANSF after 2014

Even as the prospect of further British commitments around the globe is growing, experts say current costs of maintaining security in Afghanistan remain unknown, but are likely to be underestimated.

RAND analyst Jason Campbell told DefenceReport that the fiscal burden of deploying personnel and equipment to Afghanistan since 2001 will only become apparent once “drawdown” is reached in 2014.

Such a long overseas military commitment affects not only the troops themselves but also the state and longevity of the equipment

Such a long overseas military commitment affects not only the troops themselves but also the state and longevity of the equipment that is being pushed much harder and longer – oftentimes in more demanding environments. Refitting this after the drawdown is complete will be very costly and may result in difficult choices being made under budgetary constraints,” Campbell said.

That cost will logically be compounded by continued deployment of UK troops to Afghanistan to maintain what the MoD refers to as an “advisor footprint.”

An MoD spokesman told DefenceReport that “we will retain sufficient force numbers to ensure that we can properly protect our advisor footprint after 2014, and that we continue to have sufficient access to enablers such as medical facilities and support helicopters.”

The MoD did not say how many service personnel it would deploy to Afghanistan after 2014.

Afghan security will not be self sufficient

The UK’s long-term partnership with Afghanistan was formally laid out in the FCO’s Enduring Strategic Partnership document, signed by Prime Minister Cameron and President Hamid Karzai in January. The FCO added in an October statement that “there will be no UK combat troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” though the MoD’s statements to DefenceReport raise the question of whether armed soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan after this date.

That post-2014 role has been described to DefenceReport as a “supporting” one, which will provide training to ensure the sustainability of the ANSF post-2014.

No other long-term residual presence of UK’s troops has been decided, but it is likely that armed troops – in many cases, the same troops that fought in combat in Afghanistan – will remain after the end of the security transition to finalise “logistics drawdown,” according to the MoD.

After the completion of the security transition in 2014, only 75 percent of Afghans will live under Afghan-led security

Statistics presented to DefenceReport by senior MoD spokesman Ben Wilkinson reveal that, after the completion of the security transition in 2014, only 75 percent of Afghans will live under Afghan-led security. This contradicts Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s statement in October that all security operations post-2014 were on track to be taken over completely by ANSF. “Our strategy is to do it in a gradual process, province by province, and our timeline is to complete that process by the end of 2014. And this goal, this strategy, this timeline, remain unchanged,” Rasmussen said.

Whether it be a “logistics drawdown” or an “advisor footprint,” it still remains unclear to this journalist what exact role British troops will have in a post-2014 Afghanistan where Nato says they are meant to have no security responsibilities.

During last summer’s visit to Afghanistan, Cameron stressed that terrorist threats to the UK had been vastly reduced by ISAF operations in Afghanistan. The threat, he said in July, “is now less than half” of what it had been six years ago – a potential motivation within Whitehall of seeing a prolonged British military involvement in Afghanistan beyond the agreed drawdown date.

As some ISAF member nations – particularly the US and UK – plan military involvement beyond the 2014 deadline, experts say their efforts to bolster security may actually produce the opposite effect. It is the issue of insider attacks – or green on blue incidents – that has created a Catch 22 for the UK whose government wishes to maintain a visible handle on security in Afghanistan.

ISAF’s analysis of this threat suggests that there is no single overriding factor which triggers them. But Secretary General Rasmussen has been vocal in linking insider attacks to a wider Taliban tactic of undermining trust and confidence between coalition forces and their Afghan partners.

Campbell says RAND believes the frequency of these attacks hinges on whether coalition forces will be vulnerable to them after 2014. While the attacks have often lacked precision, they have been seemingly well planned. Their unpredictable and virtually unpreventable nature have also proven them ultimately to be effective in creating negative media attention in the US and UK – the nationalities of many of the those killed already by such attacks. While tactically proficient, well-disciplined and combat effective, coalition forces have proven incapable of preventing such green on blue attacks. Continued presence of coalition troops after 2014, as RAND suggests, would likely attract more of the same.

As insider attacks have contributed to increased civil violence, further negotiation of the existing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the UK and Afghanistan could very well lead President Hamid Karzai to cut short any foreign military presence in Afghanistan altogether.

The predominant concern however, for the MoD and the current coalition, is to balance monetary costs of the Afghan war with future global commitments in which the government has expressed profound interest – including Syria.

The MoD has said the UK’s contribution of GBP 70 million, which forms part of the USD 4.1 billion (GBP 2.6 billion) fund to sustain the ANSF post-2014, will be kept under review.

 

Feature photo / “Karzai reviews the troops” – Wikipedia

Inset photo / “ANSF in Helmand” – Sergeant James Elmer


Inês is an investigative journalist specialising in military policy and international affairs. She is based in Bristol, UK.


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