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Military Deployments (Afghanistan)

11 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am most grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and to the Minister for coming to listen to it. I thank him for the time that he gave to me recently, and I have no doubt that his reply to everything that my colleagues and I say will be similarly measured.

It is St. Valentine's day and we should spare a thought for the wives, families and girlfriends of the marines of 42 Commando Royal Marines who left for Afghanistan today. I have no doubt that, as their commanding officer said, they are focused and full of energy, drive and aggression, but the girls they leave behind will not be. The next few months will be extremely difficult, dangerous and worrying for them, and we should bear them in mind.

I have made a couple of trips to Afghanistan. The first was immediately after the cessation of violence when I was in the hands of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment and felt extremely secure. The second was about 18 months later—a little over a year ago—when conditions were considerably worse. I took the opportunity to visit the graves of the 2nd Nottinghamshire Regiment, the old 59th Regiment of Foot, at the British memorial in Kabul. I will not talk about Britain's time in Afghanistan because I am sure that my former tutor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), will do that much better than I can. However, it was interesting that on the wall was a memorial to Private Kitulagoda of the Royal Rifle Volunteers. He was a Territorial Army soldier who was killed about two years ago by a suicide bomber who was allegedly born in Britain. That is a chilling reminder of how conditions can deteriorate in Afghanistan.

As we stand on the verge of deploying extra military forces to Afghanistan, it is worth bearing in mind exactly what they will face when they get there. Over the past 10 days, 89 people have been killed in Afghanistan compared with 54 in Iraq. We have seen the first outbreaks of Sunni and Shi'a violence in Afghanistan. During the Shi'a festival of Ashura in Heart, five people were killed and 51 were injured, and a Sunni cleric was dragged from his house and abducted, apparently by supporters of the Shi'a cleric Abdul Aziz Hakim. The governor of Herat tellingly said:

Similarly, 13 civilians were killed last week in Kandahar by a suicide bomb. That was the 14th bomb in Afghanistan during the past few months. The Taliban commander, Mullah Dadullah, said:

If that is not chilling enough, last week eight Afghan soldiers were killed in action in Kunar province by an infrared detonated device, which is very similar, if not identical, to those devices that recently killed British soldiers in the southern part of Iraq. There is little doubt that the technology in Iraq has come from Iran. I can only speculate on how the technology is transferred
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from Iran to Iraq to Afghanistan, but it is interesting to note that in Nimruz province recently one Iraqi, one Iranian and two Kashmiris were arrested on the border. I probably do not need to remind anyone about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's statements from Iraq that Afghanistan will become the second front in the war against the coalition.

It is into that maelstrom that we are about to plunge more British soldiers. Afghanistan is no stranger to the British Army and the British Army is no stranger to Afghanistan. We had three semi-successful expeditions there in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, and when operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, I thought that we would be able to bring it back to the condition that it reached during the 1960s when there was a democratic Government, when there were elected representatives, when there was peace throughout the country—if peace can ever be created in Afghanistan—and when the country was on its way to a new form of prosperity that it had not seen for many years. The British military intervention—the allied intervention—after 11 September 2001 was correct and I salute those soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part in that expedition. I would not hesitate to support a similar expedition again if the circumstances pertained.

However, things have changed big style, as the Americans would say. Let us not forget that we have had an operation in Afghanistan with a series of province reconstruction teams under the command of the international security assistance force in the north. However, little known and little remembered is the fact that in the south, under American operational command, a squadron of GR7 Harriers is operating under the rules of engagement in Operation Enduring Freedom.

It is clear that our operations against terrorists or insurgents in the south, and our operations to reconstruct the country and in support of the Afghan Government, will develop. What will be our precise role in the south? I understand what a province reconstruction team is and that it can operate perfectly adequately, as it has done with great success in the north, but I wonder how successful that policy will be in a much less benign area in the south.

We are told that one key task of the new deployment in the south is counter-narcotics. In December 2005, the operational plan for south Afghanistan was endorsed by NATO. Key military tasks were detailed, as were key support tasks. The key support task relating to counter-narcotics of the allied troops in the south is:

that is good military language—

What exactly will our role be against the production of narcotics and how will a balance will be struck between the warlords and the Taliban? Until now, the warlords have been against the Taliban—I am being simplistic—but much of their income derives from the poppy crop. With the destruction or interdiction of the poppy crop, how will we balance warlords against Taliban? Do we not stand in danger of allying the two against us? If we give incentives for poppies to be
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destroyed or their production curtailed, is it not likely that farmers will grow more poppies to get more money or more incentives in return?

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a cogent case. There is another factor about the deployment which is, I think, unique. The Secretary of State has made it clear that there will be a deployment only if there is an alternative livelihoods programme, supported by the Department for International Development. I know of no precedent in recent times when DFID was involved in a similar ongoing conflict, trying to maintain an alternative livelihoods programme. When the period of conflict ended in places like Sierra Leone, there was post-conflict reconstruction involving DFID and the development agencies, but I know of no examples of DFID and non-governmental organisations being caught up in the complex situation that he outlined. It has not happened in the other PRTs in Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Patrick Mercer : I am grateful to my hon. Friend who, as usual, makes a better case than I can and, indeed, anticipates me. He makes the interesting point about what sustainable alternatives will be prepared to help farmers out of the narcotics trap. How can NGOs hope to operate in Helmand, which is far from benign? That is one of the problems that the Americans have had. NGOs have not been physically capable or strong enough to be on the ground, or properly prepared or protected to be so. I would be grateful if the Minister answered that, and I should like him to bear it in mind that the campaign planning for Iraq was lamentable once the fighting had finished. We are in danger of falling into the same trap with this deployment if we do not have a sustainable plan.

Currently, 35 nations are involved in Afghanistan, and each has a different rule of engagement. Challenging changes will need to be made to the rules of engagement for deployments in the south, where there are running fire-fights, as compared with the relatively benign areas of the north. A similar point applies to the command status. Why are we prepared to deploy aircraft to Operation Enduring Freedom, to operate to all intents and purposes under American operational direction—to pursue terrorists, and to kill, or attempt to kill, the Taliban and other insurgents—yet when our troops deploy to that area they are not allowed, or empowered, to take part in similar operations? Also, why are we withdrawing the Royal Air Force from that particular task? Does it not strike the Minister as odd that our allies have been taking on the burden of fighting terrorists, and that now, when we have eventually got around to providing more troops to support them, they do so with their hands tied behind their backs? In September 2005 in The New York Times, Mr. Rumsfeld emphasised

The article continued:

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Can the Minister explain why we have this apparent contradiction? Why do the command and control arrangements beggar belief?

It has also been said that under these arrangements, a deputy commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps is expected to be responsible for counter-terrorism operations and will be double-hatted, answering to both the ARRC commander and US central command. They will also have responsibility for co-ordination and de-confliction between the international security assistance force and Operation Enduring Freedom.

That is a recipe for complete and total disaster. How can troops operating on the borders of Operation Enduring Freedom have one set of rules that govern them in one area, and yet they are not allowed to move across the border into an area of American jurisdiction? That is a command arrangement from hell, and I would be most grateful if the Minister tried to explain how we have got into that situation and how it is likely to evolve.

I want to ask my favourite question, which I fear I have asked the Minister before: what exactly is the mission? What is the mission statement? Are these people going there as a provincial reconstruction team or as a quick reaction force? Are they likely to be used in support of the Americans? Are the Americans likely to be used in support of our troops when they come under fire?

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Many of us have concerns about precisely that point. No sooner had British troops been deployed to north-west Afghanistan than they were asked to go and help the Norwegian force in the north of the province. The Minister needs to make clear what their objectives are. Are we there to help security in the south, or are we now there—because of mission creep—as a rapid reaction force for the whole of Afghanistan?

Patrick Mercer : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend; he makes the point extremely well. I ask the Minister to expand on that. I think that he said from a sedentary position that we are winning.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram) : No. It is about winning.

Patrick Mercer : I could not agree more. If the mission statement contains the phrase "to win", I am right behind this. Let us destroy terrorists, and let us rebuild that country—but for heaven's sake let us make sure that our troops are properly empowered so to do.

That brings me to the topic of combat power.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am unsure whether the Minister is aware of a written parliamentary answer that I received from the Minister for the Middle East on 9 February 2006, in which he quoted President Karzai as saying at the London Conference:

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Will my hon. Friend press the Minister on what the objectives are in this troop deployment and on whether, if the situation gets worse or if we do not achieve the aims, he is prepared to commit further troops to achieve that?

Patrick Mercer : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for broaching the very points I was about to come on to. On combat power, have we got enough troops to do the task, and if we get into difficulties—this is the point that he articulated very clearly—are we prepared to send more troops? If we are prepared to do so, where will they come from?

We hear that there is a frisson within the Ministry of Defence, with very senior officers discussing whether enough combat power is being deployed to Iraq. Precisely the same kind of discussions took place on whether we were sending enough troops to Iraq during the second invasion. An extra armoured brigade was asked for and not delivered. Can the Minister be clear that we will not make the same mistakes and go into Afghanistan with too few troops? We have one battalion and one battery of light guns; they are not AS90 or self-propelled Howitzers, but the sort of guns that our grandfathers would have recognised—105 mm guns, not much better than the 81 mm mortar of 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. There are also eight Apaches, which are unproven aircraft. [Interruption.] All eight will never take to the air; there is no doubt about that. The Minister knows that with a following wind—if he will forgive the pun—we will have a maximum of six of those aircraft in the air at any one time, and for a limited flying time. There are also six Chinook aircraft, which I am deeply worried about in terms of clearing our casualties from scenes of action. There can be nothing more demoralising to a soldier than knowing that he places his life on the line but there are not sufficient aircraft to get him clear and into a hospital if he is injured.

The Secretary of State for Defence made it clear in a statement that we had received a number of promises from our allies—that we would receive combat air support, and fast air and other combat service support elements, from our allied nations. Promises are great, but they do not answer the radio when there is trouble.

On overstretch, 3 Para is woefully undermanned and it has been woefully over-employed. Again, 3 Para is leading the deployment, and yet it is backed up by troops from 1 Royal Irish and the Gurkhas, other lads freshly out of the depot, and Territorial soldiers from the Royal Rifle Volunteers. Can the Minister assure me that 3 Para will get a rest at the end of the deployment, and, more to the point, that those soldiers from other battalions will not be immediately flicked back into other operational deployments with their own cap badges? Can he also assure me that in this relatively large deployment, which is incredibly light on combat power, we will have more fighting soldiers—not signallers, staff officers or batmen, but bayonets that are ready to go to help out 3 Para when the troops get into the sort of trouble that we know they can get into? Will he also assure me that their families are being properly looked after back in Colchester?
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I have one last tiny point. Will the Minister explain why 3 Para's acclimatisation exercise takes the troops abroad and then returns them to the United Kingdom, so that their acclimatisation deteriorates before they deploy?

I think I have said enough. The prospect is exciting. I genuinely and fervently believe that we must take the war to the terrorists, and I fervently believe that we must support Afghanistan. I wish to see a proper democracy arising in Afghanistan, with, if necessary, allied troops covering 100 per cent. of the terrain until such time as we have delivered safety, cohesion and proper democracy back to the Afghan people.

Mr. Ellwood : It is worth pointing out that we are sending 5,000-odd troops to an area twice the size of Wales. Although I want a successful transition to a peaceful Afghanistan—we all do—that will simply not be possible if we do not have the right manpower on the ground.

Patrick Mercer : My hon. Friend speaks with experience. Like me, he has seen maps covered with large arrows that look fantastic, but he also knows that those arrows represent a pin-prick on the ground.

We are talking about difficult terrain. The Minister has been there and he knows it better than I do. My old regiment has just come back from a challenging tour in Afghanistan in a relatively benign climate. It was the first time that they had been back since 1898, but there are still a lot of residual memories of what can go wrong on Afghan's plain when our enemies out there put their minds to it.

The shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), came up with this extremely sensible epigram:

We will not give the Government a blank cheque for the operation. The Government have our support, of course, but we must be sure that we get the operation right. If a student had prepared such a plan when I was teaching at the staff college, with such a mission statement and task organisation of forces, and with such rules of engagement, I would have failed them comprehensively.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. Several hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I appeal for brevity.

11.21 am

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Congratulations to the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on raising the subject. I join in his congratulations to our soldiers in Afghanistan on their courage and professionalism, but I cannot share any of his optimism. I feel a sense of hopelessness about the whole operation. We all pray that it will be a success, but there is very little to suggest that it can be.
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The likely outcome is the "Colombianisation" of the whole of central Asia, and the possibility that we are entering into our own British Vietnam. Look at the experience of the Russians: they went into Afghanistan with great hope and confidence, but they were there for 10 years and lost 15,000 soldiers. When they left, there was an army of mujaheddin of 30,000 surrounding Kabul because the occupation antagonised Afghanistan's population. We know that the answer to terrorism is not to go in with guns blazing, but to win the hearts and minds of the people. By going into Helmand province we are losing the hearts and minds of the people. The province has been relatively peaceful, but it has one economy: growing poppies. The rest of the economy was destroyed, partly by the Soviet invasion. We are about to go in and eradicate the region's only means of support and the only way for its people to escape the dirt poverty of their existence.

There is an alternative, which is to respond to another crisis in the world. If someone in a developing country is dying of AIDS or other diseases, there is only a 6 per cent. chance that they will get relief from their agony by using diamorphine. There is a world shortage of the drug. Some 70 per cent. of the world's supply of morphine is used in 7 per cent. of developed countries, so there is little chance of it being available for someone in a developing country. In Afghanistan, we are destroying the raw material for making morphine, as it is also the raw material for making heroin. The alternative is to license some of the poppy growers in the Helmand province, to win them over to our side, and to solve the problem of the world shortage of morphine. That is a simple solution. It is not guaranteed success and there are difficulties involved, but it offers at least some hope. The alternative is one of hopelessness.

Let us look at the experience elsewhere in the world where something similar has been tried, and let me explain why we use the word "Colombianisation". The problem of Colombia was considered very simple as far as the United States and world opinion was concerned: they would go in and destroy the coca crops, which have been grown in south America for a thousand years as an appetite suppressant and for use against altitude sickness. However, it was ingested in such a way that there was not the high that we in the west get when we use it in the form of cocaine. After nearly two decades of suppression of the coca crop, the result is no improvement. The amount of coca on the world market is exactly the same because of the squeezed balloon principle: if we reduce crop production in Colombia—it has been reduced—it expands elsewhere, for example in Peru and Bolivia. The amount on the streets in the United States is the same as it was.

Going into Afghanistan was justified on the grounds of attacking the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but it was also justified on the basis that the country produced 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain. What is the situation now? It is exactly the same. Have we reduced the crop? Not at all. In fact, the heroin on our streets is now cheaper than ever because there is a greater supply than ever. We have achieved nothing in the years there. Our mission—the British soldiers' mission—is to eradicate the crops. There has been a reduction of 20 per cent. in the area cultivated, but a reduction of only 2 per
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cent. in the amount of heroin produced, because of increased production. If the mission were successful and we destroyed the entire crop of Afghanistan poppies, all that would happen would be increased planting in Myanmar, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and north Pakistan. But that eradication will not happen; the squeezed balloon principle will operate. So we are on a mission impossible as far as the eradication of poppies is concerned.

Far more dangerous is what we will do with the population of Helmand province. If we are successful and reduce the poppy crops, we will affect farmers there, who want to make a living. That is their primary motivation. Four of them were here last week, talking about their position. They would love to go into the legal production of opium for morphine. They want a peaceful future, but we are repeating exactly the folly of the Russians, who created the mujaheddin and incited them, and who were driving the Helmand farmers into the arms of the Taliban.

I do not wish to add to the fears of the families who today saw off their loved ones, but I believe that we are sending our troops into the gravest danger. You asked for brevity, Mr. Weir. I should have liked to go on at some length, but I shall make my points briefly. I am more concerned about this military expedition than any other that we have ever taken. We are putting our brave soldiers at the gravest possible risk by sending them to Helmand province. There is no precedent of success in such circumstances. Operation Enduring Freedom has become "operation enduring stupidity".

The idea that we can eliminate a drug at the supply stage has been proved to be false. In a report published by the Government's strategy unit, Lord Birt—who no longer works there—emphasises again and again that we cannot eliminate drug use from the supply side because of the enormous demand and the sums of money to be made. We must solve the drugs problem on the streets of Chicago, Cardiff and London; otherwise, the enormous demand there will suck in the drugs. The trade is lubricated by the huge amounts of money made at every stage, from the poppy field to the street corners. The answer is not to try to destroy the supplies. That has been a total failure. We spent much money and achieved no reduction.

One of our newspapers had a headline on the subject yesterday and was mocked for its pains by a Minister at the Foreign Office, who mentioned the muesli-eating and The Independent-reading people who attend the first nights of Harold Pinter plays. That is a despicable attitude to something so serious. It is not a subject fit for humour. What The Independent wrote had an air of prophesy about it. Its front-page headline was "Into the Valley of Death". Someone looking back on this folly in 10 years' time—a latter-day Tennyson—might well amend the words of Tennyson's poem about ministerial and officer folly to talk about the tragedy that is about to unfold. Tennyson started off by saying:

or into the mouth of Helmand—drove the 5,000.
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11.29 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate my former student, my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), on securing the debate.

Although I do not necessarily agree with everything that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, I should say that of all the operations in which British armed forces have been involved during the past decade, this deployment to Afghanistan fills me with a degree of trepidation. All operations, of course, are likely to do so. Before meeting his end in Canada, General James Wolfe said:

and defence policy is certainly that as well.

In his statement of 31 January, the Secretary of State for Defence made it clear that the proposed UK military deployment to Afghanistan was substantial. As the Minister is likely to remind us, and as is right, Conservative Members have supported that deployment, which is under UN auspices and NATO command. However, that does not stop us pressing the Minister on issues for which he is responsible.

Although we recognise that the commitment is very dangerous, there could be ways to alleviate that danger. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there was an element of mixed mission about the deployment. The problem is that politicians and academics often get worked up over mission statements, endgame and that kind of thing. I have talked over many years to military commanders, including those now responsible for operations, and they tend—certainly the British ones—to have a rightly respected "can do" mentality. Whatever wiring diagrams are constructed, either by the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office, at the end of the day, in the words of General Sir Rupert Smith, it all comes down to personalities making it happen and work.

Nevertheless, we can ease the lot of the armed forces. My hon. Friend put his finger on something that is as much to do with coalitions as anything else. Coalitions are truly awful things in which to work, although today we have no alternative. In many respects, it is much easier to be on one's own. As George VI wrote in his diary following the disaster of 1914, there were no allies to have to mess around with. I suspect that that has been the American attitude until recently.

We have to work within coalitions, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, there is a grave danger that the different missions of the coalition forces in Afghanistan are likely to make things more difficult for them. The Americans have a mission of counter-terrorism, while our mission is one of counter-insurgency.

I am so old that I can remember teaching at Sandhurst in the 1970s. Counter-insurgency then was not passive; indeed, counter-insurgency operations in Malaya, Kenya and elsewhere were aggressive. Counter-terrorism was much more narrow and oriented towards urban terrorism. The fact is that if an Afghan in any part of Afghanistan is faced with coalition forces, whether active or passive, he is not likely to say, "Ah, these guys are okay, they are on counter-insurgency operations and not likely to be aggressive towards me." He will not think like that at all and we must think all the time about what the other side intends to do and reflect that.
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My fear is that unless we are very careful indeed, people in Afghanistan, whatever the wiring diagrams or mission statements, will see coalition forces not just as supporting their Government, but possibly as the enemy as well. Indeed, the Taliban and al-Qaeda will knowingly go out of their way to provoke the coalition forces into aggression.

Tony Baldry : In Malaya and Kenya, we did not try to run alternative livelihoods programmes at the same time as running counter-insurgency programmes.

Mr. Simpson : I disagree with my hon. Friend on that, and may come back to the subject if time permits. I am conscious that other Members want to speak. I am not going to go into the whole muddle of trying to seek out the Taliban and al-Qaeda and deal with the counter-narcotics programme.

In passing, I should say that I watched the new Secretary of State for Defence, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary—I refer, of course, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the alternative Prime Minister—on Sky television, and had a wonderful feeling of crockery being broken at the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State for Defence probably smashed the television when he listened to the Chancellor's words.

The Chancellor reminded me of a cadet I once taught at Sandhurst—a very bright boy. He eventually had a nervous breakdown and entered the Church of England. In his presentations, he was like a jackdaw: he used to borrow things from everybody else and put far too much in. I remember a wonderful Irish Guards colonel turning to me after listening to one of those presentations and saying, "You know, Keith, that boy puts far too many words into his sentences." I think the Chancellor suffers from that. On a serious point, however, he was making one big, supposedly all-encompassing speech about fighting terrorism, yet in my mind he did not seem to connect on these major troop deployments to Afghanistan.

What has come out of the debate is that the big commitment is also likely to be very long. That is my foreboding. The United States has finally recognised that in the heading of its quadrennial defence review of 2006, which is "The Long War". It recognises what we are into.

There are major questions about the time line. If British troops are to deal with the poppy crop, they have probably been deployed too late, although I do not think that the fault of the Ministry of Defence or the British Government. The troops should probably have been deployed six months ago, but because of the nature of getting other coalition forces there, they have probably arrived too late. The extent of the commitment is enormous, and the province is now violent. For example, on 3 February a newspaper reported that some 300 Taliban insurgents had ambushed an Afghan police convoy. A major fire fight developed that would have overrun the Afghan police had an American aircraft not come to their rescue, firing for effect.

On the size and balance of the UK troop commitment, in the Secretary of State's original statement to the House he said that we would be surprised by the size of the commitment. My personal view is that it is large enough to provoke the Afghan
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insurgency, but not powerful enough to deter it. I do not say that lightly; getting that balance right is very difficult.

There is the consideration, which I shall not overemphasise, that we are now committed to a two-front operation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hope must be that the situation in Iraq will eventually consolidate and that we can slowly withdraw troops to deal with the major commitment in Afghanistan. If we do not, we will have severe problems of overstretch.

I am interested to know about the role of the provisional reconstruction teams, touched on by my hon. Friends. Those are not new; there were civil contingency forces in Malaya when the Chinese communist terrorists were being dealt with, although that threat was much smaller, and the French faced major problems in Algeria.

I know that we are not an occupying force and that we are working in co-operation with an Afghan Government. However, I want to know far more about the British international development officials and non-governmental organisations out there and how we will protect them. I agree with the hon. Member for Newport, West: only when we can hand over more and more to the Afghan authorities and get stability are we likely to meet our objectives.

I end by saying that in a strange way there is an objective lesson from history; as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said, that is my background. The Minister will be only too aware that in the latter half of the 19th century, the British Army faced a period of what could be called operational failures—in three years, we faced three testing operational failures. Unfortunately, nearly 1,000 men got massacred by the Zulus at Isandlwana. We then faced operational failure in Afghanistan and nearly faced it in Egypt. Those were different opponents in a different time context.

At the battle of Maiwand, a British-Indian force of 2,500 men underestimated its enemy, was ambushed and suffered 50 per cent. casualties in 48 hours. It would probably have been totally destroyed if the Afghans had not been distracted by looting the baggage train and if a relief force had not arrived in the nick of time. This is not a walk down memory lane. Poor intelligence about the enemy, the flexible loyalty of the local Afghans—6,000 decided to switch sides a few hours before the battle—and an underestimation of the enemy were what came out of Maiwand. That brings us full circle. What is the intelligence estimate of the threat that we face in Helmand province? Have we got the capability to upgrade it week by week?

11.41 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to take part, albeit briefly, in the debate. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and I had the chance to go to Afghanistan as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I intend to be brief because I am sure that he will want to say a few words. He may either criticise my comments or add to them in more detail.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, I also had the opportunity to visit the 16 Air Assault Brigade the day before the announcement, the details of which
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were all but known, but such things must be done formally. As part of the visit, we went to Mazar-e-Sharif where we met members of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire regiment, who do sterling work there. We also went to Kabul. Everywhere we went we met people who were acting in the most professional way possible, which makes us proud to be British. The problem is that we are so good at doing the peacekeeping role that we take it as our responsibility.

Let us consider why we are where we are on this issue. I approach it from the perspective that the decision of the Americans to draw down on troops clearly relates to the pressures that they are under in Iraq and to a simple logistical requirement: so many of their people in Afghanistan are reservists who do their year and then they are off. That causes enormous pressures on allies, because somebody has to fill the gap. In a sense, my concern is that the British, working with their allies, are not masters of their own destiny. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and shall say a few things about the narcotics problem.

From the outset, we have the problem that the time scale is not of our making. I sympathise with the view that we could have gone in earlier and that that might have been beneficial; we could have had more of a transition to what is now taking place in the south. Throughout the visit we talked to representatives of the British Army. Their biggest concerns were the caveats, the rules of engagement and, in particular, a question that has now been resolved: would the Dutch go to Uruzgan or would they find a way of not doing so? That would have meant that the whole mission was in jeopardy.

The problem is that we are in Afghanistan under international colours, because of the view that the Taliban had to be removed. I am unsure how long we can sustain the position. If we do not sustain it, Karzai's rule, at best, will be over Kabul and the north. There is no possibility of the Afghan Government having any purchase unless they have international protection in the south. That is a real dilemma. How long will the situation last? Who will take the action?

There is a view that the situation is containable, because our worthy people will go in for so long, but it would be nice if my right hon. Friend the Minister would tell us about the time scale and the exit strategy. Somebody must go in as we come out, in the same way as the Americans are going out. I know that they will defend what they are doing by saying that they are going into even tougher terrain to chase Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the east. However, the numbers and the roles are slightly different.

I want to concentrate on three issues deriving from my reflections on the visit. Constraining terrorism and peacekeeping are not obverse but interconnected. Unless I have completely misunderstood things, the problem of how we work in Afghanistan is that the Taliban, the warlords and others are somewhat interchangeable. Reference has been made to that. The idea that we can attack one element and feel secure that the others will leave us alone is, at best, a bit naive.

There was antagonism towards the cartoons in the north. It was interesting that the biggest demonstrations were held there. I see that as nothing other than some people manipulating the position. Although the country
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is a difficult one to get about, the Afghans seem able to manage it easily. They are able to move people around to situations. In the same way as the drugs can be grown elsewhere, people can be moved around. That makes the situation quite difficult. Even though, on paper, the north appears to be an easier place in which to soldier, I have never believed that necessarily to be the case. If we put pressure in the south to try to restrain the terrorists and their allies, there are dangers that others will be pulled into things.

The second issue that I want to discuss is the provincial reconstruction teams, which were very impressive, judging by what the hon. Member for Banbury and I saw—he will speak for himself on that. There is an issue about how long the Army can do those sorts of things. Although we did not spend long there, we saw what was effectively a pow-wow with some of the junior warlords in the north. It was interesting because the body language of those present said everything. They looked as though they did not want to be there, but they knew that if they were not there it meant that they were not important enough to be invited. That is why they were present. We are talking about people who are not trustworthy. The interesting question is how long that level of engagement can be sustained; it took a lot of effort to get those people to sit round the table.

We also visited a school in Kabul, which was a moving experience because we saw numerous students, particularly the girls, coming back into education.

Let us not misunderstand the point: Afghanistan was taken back to the stone age by the Taliban. We are not talking about going back to the 1960s and rebuilding. Aspects of life in Afghanistan were taken back to the dark ages. We were driven past the Olympic stadium—it is wonderfully named—to see where people were slaughtered daily. We all saw images of that. It was a ritual way of allowing the Taliban to enforce their power. The experience was terribly moving and deeply concerning, given the level of depravity that any regime can manage.

My third and final point is about supporting democratic government. In simple terms, one of the ways in which we are doing that is by training the army and the police. We had the opportunity to see the army being retrained, which, in its own way involves a problem. We saw the non-commissioned officers being trained by the British to a very high standard. However, the process is not long enough and there is a problem with retention. The number of people who clearly did not return after their period away for the weekend is a concern. The French were training the officers and I think that the Germans were training the ordinary troops. There was a degree of variance—I put it no more strongly than that—in training methods. The fact is that the officers got no more time than the men, which must lead to problems on the ground.

The training needs to be properly prioritised and the resources put in, and we need to see how it will be continued. We cannot keep retraining people; there must be some understanding that those troops are operating successfully. Again, however, there are issues to do with how different rules of engagement operate when the British Army works alongside the Afghan national army. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that, because it is a concern that was relayed to us.
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My final point—I make no apology for finishing on this—links directly with what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West said and is about narcotics and relocation. I have asked this question a number of times, because part of the strategy was to work with the Pakistani authorities, but I ask it again: what is the relationship between what we are asked to do in the south of Afghanistan and the Pakistani authorities' original pledge to move northwards? Since then there has been the earthquake, which has caused terrible devastation and destabilised the Musharraf regime, but we still need to know what is happening.

11.51 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing this important debate. We will all listen attentively to what the Minister has to say to the key questions that have been put.

I, too, had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan in November last year. I went of my own accord and my first impressions were of the huge, barren and hostile land that we flew over. It is dominated by the Hindu Kush in the centre, which divides the countries up into regions, and when I landed and learned about the various ethnic groups that we have heard about I discovered that the region certainly is divided. Hon. Members will be aware of the area's strategic location on the crossroads of central Asia and the many years of trade.

It was interesting that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said that we must understand the causes of where we are today. Afghanistan today is a very diverse country—indeed, even to call it a country would be questionable. What exactly is the definition of a country? Afghanistan is like a number of different countries that have little engagement with each other, with the Tajiks in the north-east, the Uzbeks in the north, the Hazaras in the central area, and the mujaheddin and the Pashtuns in the south. All of them work independently and only ever unite when an outside force comes in and puts pressure on the entire area. Many countries, including Britain, have tried to unite Afghanistan but failed. So, if I may pose the big question: why on earth are we trying to create an Afghanistan and keep it united in the first place?

If that question has been answered satisfactorily, I am happy to accept that the country should be united. However, we have seen examples—Iraq is the best one—of countries where civil war is likely because there is so much disunity between the ethnic groups and so little cohesion. Therefore, why not accept that there are different groups, with different objectives?

Today's focus is on our military commitment to the area. We are moving into Helmand, the largest of the provinces, which is an area measuring 370 miles by 125 miles. As I mentioned earlier, that is twice the size of Wales, but with a population of about 500,000. We have 5,000-odd soldiers going to the region, which is nowhere near enough to make an impact on such an area, which in the normal season will be 90 per cent. covered with poppies. Helmand is rife with the Taliban and al-Qaeda networks, and has a very porous border with Pakistan, across which dealers from Iran, Pakistan and Turkey come and pay handsomely to the local warlords for protection, which raises money that goes towards terrorism.
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The consequence of that is that Helmand is an extremely dangerous area. Government offices are regularly attacked and schools are set on fire. Indeed, the latest reports are that 165 schools—about half the schools in the province—are now shut because of the dangers. The local police force for the entire area, which is twice the size of Wales, is about 500. The police have about 30 trained people dealing with narcotics, not one of whom operates on the border. The situation is very dangerous indeed. There were 20 attacks last month and suicide bombers regularly cross the border from an al-Qaeda training camp about 20 miles south.

The impact of the poppies and the opium trade is phenomenal. We cannot separate the two. Some 60 per cent. of the GDP of Afghanistan comes from the poppy trade. There are lots of glass buildings in Kabul, which look very pretty, but about half of them were built with money gained through the poppy trade. As we have heard, 95 per cent. of the heroin in the United Kingdom comes from Afghanistan, and I agree with the comments on the solution. If we deal with the poppy problem, we will deal with much of the threat in Afghanistan.

The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board allows 16 countries to grow large quantities of opium under licence, including Canada, France, Austria, Turkey and India. I encourage the Minister to have words with his counterparts in those countries and ask why they cannot relinquish their licences, give up the trade and allow Afghanistan to produce and sell opium legally for medicinal purposes.

Paul Flynn : I am interested by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that countries should give up their licences. There is a huge shortfall of diamorphine in the world, so what we need is additional production, not for anyone to end production.

Mr. Ellwood : If that is the case, I stand corrected, but I pose the question to Minister: why have we not gone down that road and legalised what is required in Afghanistan? I understand that there is an annual requirement of about 10,000 tonnes of opium for medicinal purposes, and in Afghanistan about 4,100 tonnes are illegally produced. The maths is simple and there is a straightforward solution to Afghanistan's biggest problem.

The Bonn agreement has done much to move the country forward, but as I said, I am deeply concerned that Britain is becoming involved in an area that is far too large for the commitment that we are making. We require either more forces or a review of the objectives that we are trying to achieve.

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): I remind hon. Members that we are close to the time when the wind-ups are due to start.

11.58 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Pope. I understand the rules—I have been here for a long time.

I want to ask the Minister a few questions. All such debates are understandably MOD-focused, but please could we have a statement from a Minister from the
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Department for International Development some time? What is the DFID budget for the operation? How many DFID officials will go to Helmand and how will they operate? Will they operate through local NGOs or UN agencies? Will DFID officials work with the armed forces and if so, how will that be done? How will we ensure that DFID and aid and development workers are not seen as part of the counter-insurgency operation?

It is clear that if DFID had been left to its own devices, it would not have gone to Helmand province. In fact, DFID has to date rightly focused on Kabul and building the capacity of the Afghanistan Government. Indeed, President Karzai has been concerned that the international community seems to be schizophrenic about whether it wants itself or the Afghan Government to deliver. At some stage, therefore, please could we have a statement by the Secretary of State for International Development about which alternative livelihoods will be delivered in Helmand province and exactly how they will be delivered? That is a critical part of the situation, but we have received far too little information about it to date.

11.59 am

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing the debate. As many questions have been posed, I shall keep my comments relatively brief to allow the Minister time to respond.

The Liberal Democrats support the Government and the international consensus on what is proposed for Afghanistan. I put on record my appreciation for members of Her Majesty's armed forces who are going to Afghanistan, particularly those from my constituency in 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. The people of my constituency will support our troops 100 per cent. I assure the loved ones back home that the military family support network is impressive and extensive.

Questions have been asked about the blurring of the mission and what the role entails. Hon. Members asked where the boundaries are and where there will be flexibility, and have asked for assurances that as circumstances unfold the Government and the Ministry of Defence will respond quickly and effectively. Will the Minister assure us that additional troops will be deployed to southern Afghanistan if necessary? If so, will they be British troops or from other nations?

We are very much in the world of overstretch. We have a large contingent of British troops in Iraq, including another battalion from the Colchester garrison, and troops in Afghanistan. In the past year, the insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan killed more than 1,000 people, including 99 US soldiers, and there are fears of renewed attacks in 2006, so the situation is worrying.

As far as opium production is concerned, the evidence in parliamentary answers indicates that it increased after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. We have heard that 95 per cent. of the heroin that enters the UK originates from Afghanistan, which produces something like 90 per cent. of the world's heroin. There have been some interesting contributions about how some of that poppy cultivation could be used for medicinal purposes. This is not meant as a flippant comment: perhaps deployed
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alongside our troops there should be a detachment from the National Farmers Union, or at least some people who can give guidance on alternative cultivation as well as the poppy cultivation to which the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) referred.

Paul Flynn : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Bob Russell : No, because we do not have time.

The alternative livelihoods programmes are all very well, but it is the delivery on the ground that will be important.

Will the Minister give an assurance that British troops will engage with local communities and civilians and seek to gain their trust, co-operation and support? I ask that because of the view that has been expressed that British troops—indeed, troops in general that have been deployed to southern Afghanistan—might be kept in barracks and that there will not be enough peaceful engagement with local communities. What are the Minister's thoughts on that?

I conclude with my earlier point. What happens if the troops deployed are insufficient? Will urgent action be taken to address that?

12.4 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The debate has been outstanding. There has not been a single bad speech. Indeed, on the contrary, every contribution has added something, but the palm must go to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) who not only secured the debate, but outlined the case in a comprehensive and singularly authoritative way. In seeking to sum up in the short time available, I shall try to predicate my remarks on the different contributions, but set them around four concepts: strategy, security, narcotics, and the size and structure of the force that we propose to send.

I start with strategy. On the surface, it seems fairly straightforward. We should have two strategic aims in Afghanistan: the defeat of terrorism, which took us there in the first place, and the building up of a society so that terrorism cannot return. I slightly take issue with the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), although I agree with him on other things, on the comparison that he made with the Soviet invasion. The invasion by the allied forces after the 2001 atrocities in America was very different to the Soviet invasion because it was not about outside society seeking to overturn the indigenous rule of the local people; it was about outside society seeking to protect itself from the unmistakeable aggression that originated from that territory as a result of the way in which the regime there, which had hijacked control of that society, had opened up that territory for terrorist training.

Paul Flynn : The hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about such things, but is he aware that the Soviets saw the invasion of Afghanistan as being almost wholly benign? They saw their mission there as rescuing the Afghan population from the middle ages and were astonished by what happened. They certainly created the mujaheddin in such numbers.

Dr. Lewis : I am not aware of that; indeed, I think it absolute balderdash. We do not want to spend our
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limited time refighting the cold war, but the Soviet invasion was an act of the utmost brutality and oppression, and was responsible for many of the problems that we are fighting today. It was one more terrible legacy of the 1917 revolution, which led to many of the evils that have since visited the international community.

On strategy, we want to take out the terrorist training bases and build up the society. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark talked about the danger of having a war on two fronts; I suggest that we are in danger of fighting a war on three fronts, the first two being Iraq and Afghanistan and the third being a narco-war. I do not accept—here I agree with the hon. Member for Newport, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), among others—that it is one and the same thing to eradicate the poppy trade using military means and to achieve our strategic objectives of securing Afghanistan both against terrorism and for democracy.

This matter came up in Foreign Affairs questions, in which the Minister for the Middle East said that there is a risk of the Taliban joining forces with warlords. He said:

That is precisely the mindset that the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), has said all along that we must avoid. It is true that no action is not an option, but that does not mean that we must take inadequate or counterproductive action. Our actions must be efficacious.

In answer to questions from the shadow defence team, the Minister for the Middle East admitted that, historically, the overwhelming majority of the warlords were opposed to the Taliban. He also admitted that he was not sure to what extent warlords and those involved in the drugs trade are also involved in the Government of Afghanistan, who are trying to function.

Other people have been more outspoken. The Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics, Habibullah Qaderi, stated that he does not deny the fact that corruption is linked to the drugs trade, going right up to the level of the Cabinet. He said:

It is clear that our enemies are seeking to form an alliance with the indigenous poppy growing population and they will succeed if we use military force for the third war—the eradication of the poppy trade by military physical means—rather than for the second war, which is the eradication of the enemy  that is fighting to overthrow the delicate democratic structures that are being erected in Afghanistan. We have to ask ourselves who that enemy is, because it is insufficiently clear. Is the enemy the al-Qaeda internationally inspired Islamist terrorist movement, or is it the internal Taliban movement, which gave that international movement succour? There have been a number of statements to suggest that the enemy is primarily coming in the form of insurgents who are being trained in neighbouring Pakistan.
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It is a matter of considerable concern—we have advanced this theme time and again in such debates—that not enough is being done to win the information and propaganda war in all these conflicts. It is a matter of the greatest significance, when suicide bombings occur in Afghanistan, to know the origins of the suicide bombers and whether they are indigenous Afghanis, external people from the Islamofascist international terrorist movement, or people specifically being trained and coming into the area from neighbouring Pakistan. It may well be that people close to the conflict have good ideas about this and think that the rest of the world fully understands it. However, the reality is that far too little effort is being made to get the information into the public domain. Without understanding the enemies we face, we cannot expect public support for the battles that we have to fight.

We are told that the British remit in this operation is to protect the reconstruction teams that are building roads, schools and clinics, improve security and assist the Government's drug eradication efforts without becoming involved in destroying poppy fields. We are told time and again about the distinction to be made between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for pointing out the absurdity of playing with such definitions.

I am concerned that if we are taking over an area where the Americans were previously involved in what is now called counter-terrorism and sending a signal to our opponents that we will be involved in something that is only called counter-insurgency, we will send a message to those who would attack our forces, saying, "There used to be a strategy in southern Afghanistan  that basically told people, 'Keep well clear of our forces because we are coming out to get you.' However, you don't have to worry about that any more, because the strategy that is now being put in place in south Afghanistan means that we will build up society and have troops to protect the rebuilding process who will largely fire back only when you choose to attack them."

Saying that is, perhaps, to repeat the parallel with Vietnam. Hon. Members shuddered a little when the hon. Member for Newport, West brought that up, but I do not share his counsel of despair. There is no reason why this campaign should fail. There is, however, a parallel with Vietnam because when insurgencies were taking place there, the campaign was fought in such a way that restrictive rules did not enable the counter-insurgency techniques that had been pursued successfully in other campaigns—such as the Malayan campaign—to be applied sensibly.

Is the Minister satisfied that the force that is being sent out—of which only a small proportion are combat troops—will be able to be active, instead of being passive and waiting to be shot at? Is it true that the designated commander of that force has asked for many more troops than he has been allocated? Do the Government have flexible arrangements in mind to ensure that when that force runs into difficulties—when it is engaged in combat—and it needs reinforcement, those reinforcements will be immediately forthcoming? Can the Minister be sure that by making a spurious
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distinction between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, the signals that he sends out to those who wish to wage a campaign of terrorism against everything that we stand for and hope to build in Afghanistan are not counter-productive?

12.16 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram) : I shall do my best to cover all the issues in the short time that is available.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing the debate. I share his sentiments on the roles of the families of those who are deployed; we value them just as much as our troops. We share that view. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made a similar point. I thank hon. Members for their contributions, although I take issue with much of what was said. Whether I can deal with all the points remains to be seen.

I was a bit perplexed by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). I understand that he said that we should continue with, or seek to establish, a fractured Afghanistan and stop making it a single united country. If that is his view, I say that the days of Empire are gone and the concept of divide and rule in the British interest is a thing of the past.

Mr. Ellwood : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram : No, I really do not have a lot of time. The hon. Gentleman may want to raise the matter with me at some other point.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) asked about the role of the Department for International Development. I cannot command a Secretary of State for another Department to answer. I do not accept the criticism that the Government have not been clear. If the hon. Gentleman had followed what happened at the international conference, he would have seen that the UK Government have committed in the region of £500 million over the next three years. I understand that £330 million will be DFID-led. Significantly, £20 million will be dedicated to Helmand, and it is a matter for the Department how it distributes the allocation. I do not accept the criticism that we have not been describing what we propose to do.

The subject is important. Our task in Afghanistan is fundamental to NATO's mission, under a United Nations mandate, to establish a secure, stable, democratic and free country. We have made it clear from the outset—the language has not changed—that this will not be an easy task; it will certainly not be risk free. Even when we are undertaking a peacekeeping mission, that type of phraseology can and does apply.

I want to deal with some of the logic advanced by the hon. Member for Newark and others who say that they support this mission and the concept, but question whether we have sufficient resources, in depth and over time, to achieve the objectives that we share. I genuinely like the hon. Gentleman, but, not to put too fine a point on it, I believe that he is guilty of opportunism, and I honestly and genuinely think that he is adopting a politically dishonest posture.

I accept completely the right of Opposition parties and, indeed, Members of my party, to question, criticise, probe and seek clarity about all that we are doing, but I
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differ with the hon. Member for Newark, who says that he agrees with the concept, but that we should not do something unless it is done his way. He believes that our armed forces are overstretched, that there is insufficient strength on the ground, thereby putting our people at greater risk, and that our air support is too light and unsustainable. He also questions NATO's overall commitment and command and control arrangements.

If all those criticisms were well founded—I do not accept that they are—they would not be fixable within the current time frame or over the medium or longer term. If they stacked up, the hon. Gentleman and his party should be saying that we should not commit ourselves to the mission. I regret that there is a difference between us on that. It is not appropriate for him to say that he supports the concept but that if someone had produced this strategic plan—I shall come to some of the detail about what we are seeking to deliver—when he was instructing, he would have failed them. In effect, he is saying that all our senior military planners and chiefs of staff and all the NATO planners got it wrong. That is a significant condemnation, but it does not stack up, and I shall set out the reasons.

It is important to explain why we are in Afghanistan in the first place, what we seek to do, and what we, as part of NATO, will contribute to achieving the essential objectives. We all know why we are in Afghanistan: the terrible events of 11 September 2001 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania led to a greater knowledge and understanding of what was happening in that troubled country. That backdrop of profound evil is why we are playing a major role in Afghanistan and why the international effort is so deep, determined and committed.

It is right and proper that we show the people of Afghanistan that we support them. We need to show them that when people stand up for democracy and reject terrorism, as they are, we will give them our help. By helping them bolster stability, we counter extremism in this country and so help ourselves. By assisting the Afghans to rebuild their society and legitimate economy, we help end the flow of opium that floods our streets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said that alternative uses can be made of the opium poppy. That is unquestionably the case, but time and again he has asked the question and been given an answer, which he may not wish to accept. The suggestion has been analysed, as it could well have been a way forward—and it may be part of the answer at some time further down the line—but it is wrong to think that there is a simple solution to the problem. Our assessment is that Afghanistan can try to create a legal trade based on poppies, but it could easily be diverted to illegality. It is very well saying that that would not happen, but, if it does, we would be adding to the manifest problem on the street.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Paul Flynn rose—

Mr. Ingram : No, I shall not give way. The question should be raised elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West has had an answer—I have just given it to him again.
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As I said, I do not underestimate the scale of the task. I do not claim that our deployment will solve all of Afghanistan's problems, nor do I pretend for a moment that there is a military solution to the narcotics industry. There is not—that is simply the wrong approach to adopt. However, there is a fundamental reason why a military presence is needed on the ground. We can help to secure stable conditions in which the social, economic and institutional reforms on which Afghanistan's future depends can be made in safety.

I have likened what we are doing to Fermat's last theorem. On the face of it, the equation appears to be simple, but it is unquestionably complex. Over time and with a great deal of effort, it can be solved. However, as with the simple equation, new technology is needed to achieve that.

That is where NATO comes in, as the body responsible for leading the international security assistance force. ISAF has already successfully established itself in the north and west of Afghanistan. The next logical step is to move from the north and the west into the south and then progressively, as things develop, towards the east. That is the concept with which we are working. Is it wrong? If it has succeeded in the north, we have to take on the next big challenge. We and NATO know that it will be a demanding task, but we and NATO are determined to bring about change.

On 26 January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence set out the details of our commitment to the NATO mission. We are taking a lead role in ISAF through the deployment of the headquarters Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which will be more than 1,000 strong. Overall, we are initially committing 5,700 personnel, with a longer term commitment in Helmand of 3,300. That force package will allow us to deliver one of the key mechanisms for the long-term renewal of Afghanistan: the establishment of a new provincial reconstruction team.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram : No, I must make progress. I have much more to say. As ever, there is a wide territory to cover and many specifics to deal with, and I will not get there in time if I give way.

The structure of the PRT will be the same as the structure we and other nations developed for the north and the west. The PRT will involve personnel from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and other agencies and non-governmental organisations, and it will have a single, coherent mission.

Questions have been asked about the PRT: how many people will it have, what will it do, how will it deliver on the ground? It cannot be defined at present, as it must have the capacity to deal with the reality at the time. To be too prescriptive from the outset could lead to mission failure. We must identify the problem—that has been one of the key issues—but the solution will not be military only. All the other agencies will be needed on the ground to deliver it.

We have spent months examining, planning and reviewing best intelligence—as hon. Members are aware, there is no such thing as perfect intelligence. Much effort has gone into trying to define the threat that
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we face, but it could well change over time. It may become less or greater, and we need the flexibility to deal with it.

Meanwhile, we seek to do what we did in Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere. We want to deliver engagement with civil society, or normal society, and be imaginative about alternative livelihoods. As I understand it—I have not been in Helmand, but I have been in Kandahar—extensive infrastructure is already in place. The Americans put in much of it in the 1950s and 1960s, and it could be the core of the solution. The area once was the bread-basket of Afghanistan. Can we get that back? We must because it will be the source of an economic future, not just for that part of Afghanistan but for the whole country.

On the comprehensive manner in which we went about the analysis, we spent a great deal of time dealing with senior military planners. The plan did not simply come out of the head of a senior politician who said, "Let us now do this." The objectives are clear for not just the UK Government but for NATO and, I believe, the international community. There seems to be an assumption that this country will provide all the people on the ground. It will not. Eight nations will be in the south. There will be extensive force packages from the Americans, the Dutch and the Canadians, and they will have considerable air support. The Harriers, which were mentioned, were in action yesterday to good effect.

Whatever threat manifests itself will be dealt with, and there is no contradiction between the missions in the east and the rest. If that were the case, it would have been the case all along, but we have not failed. We have achieved measures of success in the north and the west. We now face a bigger challenge. That is why we need—

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order.

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