Pressure has been piling on the government in Kabul over the summer to get to grips with a Taliban insurgency that is spiralling out of control. Despite a wave of hope that rippled across the country following several recent ceasefire agreements, the conflict rages on.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have borne the brunt of this resurgence and high attrition rates have been crippling. The New York Times reported only last week that the ANSF have been losing roughly 57 soldiers per day – an increase on the average of 22 in 2016.

The British response has been to increase the number of British troops deployed to the country. In July 2018, it was announced that the UK would be deploying an additional 440 troops to upscale the current “non-combat” mission the UK is conducting in Kabul. This will see the total number of British forces in Afghanistan rising to around 1,100 by February 2019. 

But how the UK hopes this “mini-surge” will contribute to the shifting strategic picture on the ground is unclear. Evidence suggests that the size of the international mission is not the root of the problem. Instead, the lack of a comprehensive strategy to counter instability in the country is being exacerbated by low-risk appetite policies, restricting the ability of troops to operate effectively in the country. 

Despite escalating tensions, the defence secretary was keen to reinforce the point that British operations would remain on a “non-combat” basis. This affects the permissions that troops have, making it more difficult for them to move in what remains a highly contested environment. It also restricts the ability of parliament to scrutinise the plans to make sure that they have strong strategic foundations. Mechanisms like the War Powers Convention that brings British military action to a vote in Parliament are only triggered for combat operations.

This makes the issue of definitions a very important one. However, in response to a recent parliamentary question I tabled, it was revealed that there is no formal definition or criteria for making this decision. Instead, missions are defined on a case-by-case basis:

“There is no official definition of combat and non-combat operations or a set list of criteria. Each operation is considered in the round to determine its nature.”

But, in the case of Afghanistan, surely we owe it to the members of our armed forces – who after a 17 year-long campaign continue to be called upon to serve in Afghanistan on our behalf – to have an exhaustive and honest understanding of the situation on the ground, so that they can best fulfil our mission. 

The current lack of clarity, however, over the designation of military operations increases the risk that politicians will declare a mission to be “non-combat” simply to avoid debate, rather than because that is the most suitable designation in the context of an assessment of what is and is not working. Without proper scrutiny, the gaps between ambition and action that are damaging progress in Afghanistan are more likely to persist.

However, the need for greater clarity around the designation of combat and non-combat operations is not a problem limited to British military operations in Afghanistan.

In 2016, I raised concerns that a government proposal to deploy a “non-combat operation” in Libya would put troops at considerable risk. The plan at the time was to have two-thirds of the mission dedicated to protecting forces – effectively meaning that the bulk of troops would be there to defend a small core of trainers. These ratios suggest that the government was alive to the risks that the troops were facing, which should perhaps have raised a question over whether describing it as “non-combat” and restricting the rules of engagement would have been appropriate.

In today’s wars, distinguishing between combat and non-combat situations is far from obvious, which makes the decision all the more vulnerable to political pressure. This is in part due to government efforts to navigate through a political environment where there is significant aversion to risk and committing British troops to frontline fighting. In response, the government has sought to maintain its international reach by transferring the burden of risk onto local forces where UK personnel perform a supporting function. 

In response to the changing character of war, I want to encourage the government to set out clearer guidelines around designating military deployments as either “combat” or “non-combat”. This would ensure the purpose behind decisions around the deployment of troops is clearer, and that British military capabilities we choose to deploy are more effectively tied to our policy objectives.

Written by Crispin Blunt

Crispin Blunt is a Conservative MP. He has served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Youth Justice and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.