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In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States led a coalition of the willing into Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations (Operation Enduring Freedom). British forces were part of that initial military action, considered self-defence under the UN Charter (Operation Veritas).

In December 2001, the UN authorised the deployment of a 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to deploy to the region in, and immediately around, Kabul, to provide security and to assist in the reconstruction of the country. Counter terrorism operations under Operation Enduring Freedom also continued but as a distinct US operation in parallel.  The British deployment to Afghanistan became part of that UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (Operation Fingal/Herrick).2F2

In August 2003 NATO assumed command of ISAF. Over the next decade, and bolstered by a renewed and expanded UN mandate, ISAF operations expanded into the whole country and evolved from security and stabilisation, into combat and counterinsurgency operations, and then to the transition of security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). 

The expansion of ISAF operations saw the UK assume responsibility for operations in southern Afghanistan in May 2006 and a significant increase in the number of British forces deployed in the country. By October 2006 there were approximately 5,845 British personnel in Afghanistan, with 4,500 of those troops deployed as part of the Helmand Task Force in the south. Further deployments were subsequently announced and over the course of 2007 British force levels reached 7,700 personnel.5F5FT

At its height the British contribution to ISAF peaked at 9,500 personnel in 2011/12, making the UK the second largest contributor to ISAF, after the United States.

In 2011 ISAF began a three-year period of transition that would see primary security responsibility across the country transferred to the ANSF.

In 2012 the UK began a process of gradual drawdown of personnel from Afghanistan and in October 2014 the UK’s combat mission formally ended. ISAF formally withdrew from the country in December 2014.

On 1 January 2015, the ANSF assumed security responsibility for Afghanistan and NATO transitioned to a new, non-combat, mission: Resolute Support. The core mission of Resolute Support has been to support the ANSF. Approximately 1,100 British personnel were deployed in Afghanistan purely as part of that non-combat training mission (Operation Toral).

In April 2021, and in line with the US and wider NATO decision to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, confirmed British troops would also withdraw. Coalition forces were withdrawn by 31 August 2021.

Over the last 20 years, 150,610 British service personnel have served in Afghanistan.8F8F9FOver 600 personnel have suffered life changing injuries, and 457 personnel have been killed.

Calls for an inquiry

Over the last few months there have been renewed calls for an independent inquiry to consider the UK’s military role in Afghanistan and lessons learned.

The Government has so far rejected a “Chilcot-style public inquiry”, suggesting that an internal review into Operation Herrick in 2014 had already outlined lessons learned, and that the benefits of an inquiry would not outweigh the costs of conducting it. In July 2021 the Prime Minister suggested that the Defence Committee conduct their own parliamentary inquiry. Previous committees have conducted similar “lessons learned” inquiries in the past.

At the beginning of September 2021 the Defence Committee opened an inquiry specifically into the conduct of the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. The Foreign Affairs Committee has also launched an inquiry into the future of UK policy towards Afghanistan.

Calls have also recently been made for a Joint Committee to be established to consider Government policy on Afghanistan between the signing of the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban in February 2020 and the conclusion of UK operations in August 2021.

To date, Norway is the only coalition country to have concluded an independent inquiry into its role in Afghanistan.

Further reading

A reading list providing links to Parliamentary and other material on the conflict in Afghanistan since 9/11 is available online: The conflict in Afghanistan: A reading list, Commons Library Briefing Paper, 2 November 2021.

A briefing paper examining non-statutory inquiries, including: non statutory ad hoc inquiries, committees of Privy Counsellors and Royal Commissions is also available. This paper considers several high profile inquiries, including both the Butler and Chilcot inquiries on the Iraq war: Public Inquiries: non-statutory commissions of inquiry, Commons Library Briefing Paper, 1 July 2016.

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