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3. Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [36096]

7. Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Afghanistan. [36101]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): The security situation in Afghanistan is broadly stable, but some areas are less settled than others. Our armed forces
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are playing a pivotal role in security assistance, helping the Government of Afghanistan to create a prosperous, democratic and secure country, and denying terrorists a base from which to prepare attacks.

Mr. Vaizey: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. May I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), and extend the heartiest good wishes of the House to our troops—our serving men and women—who are deployed in Afghanistan?

Can the Secretary of State give the House an update on the security incidents that have occurred in Afghanistan? I only ask because one of my constituents contacted me—he has a son serving in Afghanistan—to say that at the end of November two Swedish soldiers were killed and that in October a RAF Tornado had been destroyed and another one badly damaged. I had not heard those reports before and I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can give us an update on incidents against our troops and our said forces in Afghanistan.

John Reid: Tragically, it is true that not only ourselves but I believe the Portuguese and the Germans have lost personnel in Afghanistan. At this stage, however, we do not believe that that represents a step change in the violence that is occurring there, but several incidents in Kabul should have served to remove anyone's complacency. We—when I say "we", I mean NATO—are in the north and the west of Afghanistan. I have already said that we will deploy the headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to Kabul in the middle of next year, around May. In principle, I am prepared to see a significant contribution from British troops to the south of Afghanistan as NATO expands from the north, the west and to the south. I also said that that last decision, in principle, had to be subject to the correct military configuration from the British point of view, the correct multinational dimension and configuration within NATO and the correct complementary assistance in aid and development resources in terms of our counter-narcotics strategy to offer alternative livelihoods. All of those issues stand and no final decision has been made on the second point regarding British troops.

Mr. Graham Stuart : Is not the lesson of past insurgencies that only proactive patrolling and control of territory offers long-term security? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that all NATO contingencies have taken this lesson to heart?

John Reid: On the first point, yes; on the second, not entirely. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is a source of concern that the proliferation of caveats issued by the various multinational forces may impede effective operation and co-operation in the multinational force. We continue to discuss these matters at every redeployment and at every phase, as we will in phase 3, if we go into the south. Significant contributions to the effort in Afghanistan have come from nations not only inside NATO but outside, with help from colleagues such as the Australians.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): First, may I associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State and of others about
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the bravery of our armed forces wherever they serve throughout the world? We have particular thoughts for them at this time of year.

Following the NATO ministerial meeting last week, the Secretary-General stressed that the organisation could not work in a void and that other international actors should stay equally committed. Within NATO, can the right hon. Gentleman set out how the United States will contribute to the proposed new ISAF—international security assistance force—plans? Can he confirm that the United States will maintain its current overall level of military commitment to Afghanistan? Given the proposed area in which UK armed forces will operate, is there any intention that British military personnel should become a significant part of the counter-terrorism efforts of Operation Enduring Freedom.

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman asked a host of questions, but I shall try to tackle a couple of the biggest ones. The number of US forces fluctuate, as is the case for any other nation, but there is no reason to believe that they should not continue to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan in future. I do not think, however, that there will be a huge difference from the number of forces deployed there today. Our contribution to the ISAF operation will essentially be the reconstruction remit, which is the responsibility of NATO, rather than counter-terrorism, which is the purpose of the American mission—Operation Enduring Freedom. However, I stress that wherever NATO troops are in Afghanistan they may be liable to attacks from insurgents. If they are attacked by insurgents and terrorists, of course we will defend ourselves—that is the nature of the rules of engagement and of our remit. There is not a complete distinction between counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics. During counter-narcotics operations, for example, insurgents or terrorists, some of whom gain income from narcotics, may be provoked to attack those who are attempting to stop the trade. The distinction is therefore not a neat one, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, overall, the US troops, who have taken significant risks and shown great courage in the face of danger, will remain there for a considerable time.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Can the Secretary of State tell the House about his discussions with our NATO allies about the rules of engagement? When does he expect to make an announcement about a further deployment of UK forces, and does he agree that it would be absolute folly for different NATO troops to operate in Afghanistan under different rules of engagement?

John Reid: I think it is inconvenient, but it is not necessarily an utter folly to have different rules of engagement in different areas, as different forces are undertaking different tasks. Some may be training the Afghan army, some may be assisting the resurrection of the judicial system, and some may be training police. However, I fully accept that the nearer one comes to a combat situation, the better it is to have rules of engagement that allow maximum flexibility when engaging with the enemy, which is why we have continual discussions on these matters with our
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colleagues. As for the south, I can confirm that we continue to hold discussions with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and with NATO. I have spoken to Bill Graham, Robert Hill and Henk Kamp, my opposite numbers in Canada, Australia and the Netherlands about the possibility of going into the south and the configuration that we will use. However, as I have said, we have not achieved a final configuration that satisfies me that the configuration that Britain is prepared to provide is suitably encompassed within a NATO configuration. When we reach that stage I will, of course, make an announcement on deployment to the House. I would merely say that the delay in that final decision has not caused any risk of lack of preparation or training for our troops, because my right hon. Friend the armed forces Minister announced some weeks ago that training and preparations would go ahead on a contingency basis.

Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill

4. Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the possible effects of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill on Army efficiency and morale. [36097]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not had any discussions with the Prime Minister on the possible effects of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill on Army efficiency and morale.

Adam Afriyie : It seems to me that common agreement has developed over hundreds of years in our nation that time does not diminish the severity of a crime, especially murder and terrorism. On the one hand, the Government appear to seek to lock up unconvicted terrorists in Britain, so can the right hon. Gentleman explain in clear terms why, on the other, they seek to release convicted terrorists in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ingram: We have to look at the situation in the round and over the piece. Preceding Governments at all times tried to find a way through the very difficult situation that we faced in Northern Ireland. I spent four years as the Minister responsible for security there. I reflect on every piece of legislation that I had to put through—the decommissioning legislation, the early release of prisoners legislation, the policing reform legislation and the public procession legislation. Each time, we were told that that would be the end of civilisation as we knew it, that it was an outrage and that it was totally wrong. Where are we now? We have a peaceful environment in Northern Ireland, which could not have been envisaged four or five years ago. There are still issues that must be addressed and big matters to attend to. There is no question but that the Bill is painful and difficult, and visits itself most dramatically on the victims of terrorism. They are the community that must be considered in this process, but if we want a peaceful future, we must take such painful decisions and the associated risks.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): My right hon.   Friend has had a great deal of experience and    distinguished service as a Minister in the
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Northern Ireland Office. Does he agree that the peace process has required compromise by all parties, and that the benefits that it has brought, principally to the people of Northern Ireland but also to our armed forces—the peace dividend—is valuable, and that if one fails to take difficult decisions, the process may backslide? The Government must take difficult decisions in order to secure the gains that have been made so far.

Mr. Ingram: I agree entirely. That is what I was trying to get across in my earlier answer. I reflect that every time we come up against those difficult decisions, and remembering the various constituencies out there, if we did not make those changes, we would still be in the troubled period of past decades. Previous Administrations, not just the present one, understood that. They understood that there had to be such a process and that, by definition, it would come up against very difficult decisions. I have expressed my view on the extent of those difficulties and where they visit themselves most dramatically. I also reflect on our armed forces and the security forces overall—the many hundreds of them who have lost their lives in the struggle. I pay tribute to them. We would not be in our current position had it not been for their determination, fortitude, skill and, in the case of too many of them, their ultimate sacrifice. The process is difficult and we will continue to do what is right for the people of Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Minister is clearly not comfortable with the Bill, which is probably the most unpopular brought before the House in living memory. Does he accept that it will hold up the restoration of devolution, rather than accelerate it?

Mr. Ingram: I do not think that that is necessarily a matter for me—that is what Northern Ireland Ministers are for—but I have pointed out that at each step, each time we come up against difficult legislation, we have to reflect, consider and decide what is best. The Bill is undoubtedly a difficult piece of legislation. I do not demur from that point of view at all. The question is whether it is necessary and whether it will move the process forward. Some will say no, some will say yes, and only time will tell whether we got it right.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Is the Minister aware that the morale of the Home Service Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment is low because of the pernicious provisions contained in the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, but that it is also low because of the outstanding issue regarding the future of that battalion and its members' financial package, which must recognise the courage and commitment of those soldiers in the front line for so long?

Mr. Ingram: Yes, I do. Only a few weeks ago I met many of those who serve in the Home Service and I took them through some of the reasoning for what we are currently engaged in. I think they knew, as we all know, that ultimately, if we get peace, such a standing force will no longer be required. We have to manage our way through the process. I pay tribute to all that they have
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done over the past 37 years, and to the civil servants who have worked in the Ministry of Defence alongside the Home Service Battalion and the many tens of thousands of regular soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland. They made a major contribution to bringing stability and peace to Northern Ireland, and we have to find the best solution to manage the conclusion to that step in the process when they are disbanded or, in the case of the MOD civil servants, their tasks are no longer required.

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