Doç. Dr.  Dilek Yiğit Doç. Dr. Dilek Yiğit


16 October 2018

The ISAF mission, which was deployed in Afghanistan for the establishment and maintenance of security and was commanded by NATO from 2003 onwards, ended in 2014 when the responsibility for security was transferred to Afghan forces. There is a widespread view that the ISAF mission ended before the Afghan security forces had reached adequate capacity and that it was a misguided decision. However, the end of the ISAF mission did not mean the end of foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. On the contrary, with the end of the ISAF mission, another force known as the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) was deployed.

The RSM acts in a non-combat capacity and provides training, support and back-up for Afghan defence and security forces. The RSM should be seen as an extension of ISAF. ISAF’s mission was essentially combat-centric. With the process of transferring responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the Afghan government, the ISAF mission had shifted from being combat-centric to non-combat. Therefore, the RSM is a force that has picked up and continues the non-combat mission of ISAF. As of July 2018, the RSM consisted of more than 16,000 personnel from 39 countries. The distribution of personnel numbers by country varies greatly. According to April 2018 data announced by NATO, most RSM personnel were from the USA, which has 9,000 troops in the mission, followed by Germany with 1,300. Meanwhile, Luxembourg has one, Iceland two and Estonia five troops in the RSM. It is clear that the contribution of just a few troops by countries such as Luxembourg and Iceland is meant to be symbolic. Meanwhile the fact that more than half of the personnel of RSM is American is a clear indication of the great significance the USA attaches to the mission. According to NATO data from April 2018, the United Kingdom had 500 troops in the RSM. While this number is incomparably low compared to the deployment of the USA, the UK government has announced in July 2018 that it would deploy 440 extra troops in Afghanistan and that it intends to increase the number of British troops in Afghanistan to 1,100 by early 2019. Increasing the number of British troops in Afghanistan to 1,000 would make the UK the third largest contributor to the RSM after the USA and Germany. The statement by the UK Ministry of Defence that it was committed to the RSM and that the contribution was being constantly reviewed indicates a possibility that the number of British troops in Afghanistan may rise further in coming years. This possibility is further strengthened by the link established by Minister of Defence Williamson between safety on Britain’s streets and security in Afghanistan.

What lies behind the UK government’s decision to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan?

The first reason is the international consensus among contributor countries to the RSM for continuing the mission. At the NATO summit held on July 8th-9th 2016, member heads of state and government had decided on extending the RSM to beyond 2016. The completion date of the RSM has not yet been set. At the Meeting of NATO Defence Ministers held on November 9th 2017, it was decided to increase troop numbers from then 13,000 to 16,000.

Secondly, security conditions in Afghanistan are worsening. The Taleban controls half of the country, while ISIS is settling there. Loss of life has increased along with a rise in attacks. According to the 2017 figures of the United Nations, that year 3,438 people were killed in attacks, while 7,015 were wounded. Two thirds of the deaths and injuries are attributed to attacks by the Taleban, ISIS and other forces opposed to the government. However, the UN also draws attention to deaths and injuries caused by the Afghan security forces and international military forces. The frightening figures are, according to United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan Tadamichi Yamamoto, inadequate for explaining the suffering, especially of women and children, in Afghanistan. While the numbers announced for 2017 are bad enough, data for January-June 2018 indicate that circumstances are getting worse. Over this six-month period, there were 1,692 deaths and 3,430 injuries. As numerical data clearly show, security conditions in Afghanistan are worsening. This is not just due to the rise in the number of attacks and acts of violence, but also to the continued incapability and inadequacy of Afghan security forces for establishing security, despite international support. Popular trust in the government is in decline in Afghanistan. Under the circumstances, it is a natural conclusion to increase the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan in order to provide support to national units to increase the latter’s capabilities and capacity. In deciding to increase the number of its troops deployed in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom has shown that it is ready to do its share to establish security in Afghanistan.

A third reason is Trump’s pressure on European allies in NATO. London’s decision to increase military presence in Afghanistan has been interpreted as an outcome of the pressure exerted by Trump. It will be remembered that during his election campaign, Trump had argued for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan and after being elected president he had decided to increase American troop deployment, citing a power vacuum that would be filled up by terrorists in the event of US withdrawal. Having decided to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan, Trump asked US allies to follow suit and to increase their troop number s in Afghanistan. With its recent decision, the United Kingdom has responded to Trump’s request and signalled to other allies that Trump’s demand is reasonable and they should go along with it.

The United Kingdom increasing its deployment in Afghanistan cannot be explained with a single reason alone. The reasons given above for the UK’s decision are not independent of one another, but are intertwined.

This article was published in the Diplomatic Observer September Issue