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Given that the need for the mission is clear and that a clear case for it can be made to the British people, having an honest and robust discussion now about the length of time that we are likely to be in Afghanistan, the difficulties in the mission and the risks that we face is the best way to ensure that, whatever troubles we have in the future, we retain robust public support.

Mr. Drew: Obviously, this is a NATO-led operation, but, as I said, the role of the UN is crucial. Clearly, the UN has various resolutions on Afghanistan and cannot wash its hands of this. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the only way to secure a force that might be able to continue after the NATO involvement is if the UN gets directly involved? What are his views on that?

Mr. Harper: I thank my neighbour for that intervention. My opinion of the efficacy of the UN is probably somewhat lower than his. He makes a sensible point about planning for involvement after the NATO involvement. The challenge has already been outlined by hon. Members talking about other national forces being deployed: the use of such forces is heavily restricted and subject to caveats.

The reality is that while this deployment remains of real danger to our troops, relatively few countries will be prepared to put their money where their mouth is. That probably means that the United States, the United Kingdom and perhaps one or two other countries will bear a significant burden simply because other countries are not prepared to deploy their troops in situations where they may come into harm’s way. That might not be a satisfactory outcome and we should do what we can diplomatically to try to change it, but that is the situation that we face.

One question that has been outlined relates to the availability of helicopter lift in Afghanistan and whether the lift is sufficient. Given the terrain, helicopters are vital; getting around that country by road alone is not adequate. Will the Minister comment on that issue, which was raised by the Defence Committee? When our soldiers were attacked 10 days ago, sadly leaving one officer dead and two seriously injured, did we have sufficient helicopter lift capability to ensure that they were able to be extracted quickly? Is the Minister confident that in any such future engagements helicopter lift will be available to ensure that our troops in difficulty have speedy extraction from danger?

There is some circularity on the issues of counter-narcotics and reconstruction. In its report, the Defence Committee stated that it believed that there was a fundamental tension between the UK’s objective of promoting security and stability and the counter-narcotics strategy. In its reply, the Ministry of Defence said that it did not believe that there was such a tension and that long-term stability could be obtained only if the opium trade were tackled. The difference in the two views is on the time scale involved. We agree with the Ministry of Defence and the Government that in the long term Afghanistan will be stable only if the drugs trade is tackled, but trying to tackle it in the short term before there is a proper security environment will be risky. Will the Minister comment on that? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and the hon. Member
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for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I am not sure whether the resources and the work being done on the ground by DFID and the Foreign Office are adequate for the task.

If we table questions to the three Departments we get different answers. The MOD makes it clear that there can be no long-term security if the opium trade is not tackled whereas the Secretary of State for International Development states that delivering alternative livelihoods to those involved in the trade is highly dependent on the security situation. We need to decide which of those priorities should come first. If they are to be done in parallel we will need a more significant troop presence on the ground.

Looking at the role of the two operations, the then Secretary of State for Defence, now the Home Secretary, said on 26 January that we were deploying our force to protect and deter. The ISAF mission was unchanged, focusing on reconstruction. He made a clear distinction between insurgency or terrorist attacks on our forces, which would get a robust response, and our forces having a primary counter-terrorist role. We have repeatedly been told that it is not an offensive mission, but the lines seem increasingly to be being blurred. Last week, the press reported British involvement in Operation Mountain Thrust. Will the Minister confirm the nature of that mission? Was it an offensive mission, and was it undertaken by British forces under Operation Enduring Freedom or ISAF?

The Minister has said that the operation planned for ISAF will not involve it undertaking counter-terrorist operations, which remain the preserve of coalition assets under OEF. In a written question last week, the Secretary of State was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) whether he classified al-Qaeda and Taliban forces as insurgents or terrorists for the purpose of possible engagement by UK forces. He stated in his reply that no such classification of that threat was necessary for the purposes of the engagement of our forces in Helmand.

A distinction was clearly made by the then Secretary of State when he outlined our mission. He said that we would respond robustly but that ISAF would not primarily be a counter-terrorist operation. The written answer from the current Secretary of State seems to blur that distinction. If there is no attempt to define whether the threat that we face is terrorist or insurgent, then the nature of the missions is widened.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I have been pondering something that the hon. Gentleman said a minute or two ago and his following remarks. Bearing in mind that a sizeable number of soldiers from the Colchester garrison are already in Afghanistan, is he advocating that more British troops should be deployed there?

Mr. Harper: I am advocating that the number of troops should be equal to the mission. I want the Minister to outline the nature of the mission in which we are engaged and ensure that it is properly resourced, which we will be able to judge when he responds.

I want to leave the Minister the remaining 16 minutes to answer my questions, so I shall draw my remarks to a close.

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10.44 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I do not think that I have served under your chairmanship before either, Mr. Bercow. You have chaired the proceedings very well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing the debate. As ever, such debates are worth while and serve a genuine purpose. He has not trashed my morning, because I hear things that make me reflect and think. In the time available I will not be able to answer all the questions that have been asked, but I shall do my best to touch on some of them in general terms and some specifically.

I thank the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for their contributions, and I also thank the two Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen.

Before I deal with the issues raised in the debate, I wish to pay tribute to Captain Jim Philippson, who was killed in Afghanistan on 11 June. In the same incident, two of his fellow soldiers, from the Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery, were seriously injured. Captain Philippson’s death underlines what a demanding mission our forces have in Afghanistan. I know that all hon. Members will join me in offering condolences to Captain Philippson’s family, and sympathy to the injured soldiers and their families.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) asked how casualty evacuation was delivered. An investigation is being held into how rapid our response was, and I shall write to him about that. We try to deliver a rapid and effective CASEVAC approach at all times, but lessons must be learned if it does not deliver as it should. It is an ongoing investigation and we will find out the background.

Everyone accepts our reasons for being in Afghanistan. We all vividly remember the terrible events of 11 September 2001, which provoked a justifiable international reaction. It is worth remembering that it was the first time in its 57-year history that article V of NATO’s treaty had to be invoked. If we had not acted, Afghanistan would have remained a cauldron of competing fanatics, tribal warlords and drug smugglers. In short, it would have remained the ideal breeding ground for a new generation of global terrorists. There were noises off—some did not think that it was justified—but in the wider political spectrum it was recognised to be fully justified.

We must prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for the likes of al-Qaeda and other insurgents. We must help her people rebuild their nation as a functioning, stable, secure and prosperous country. To put it bluntly, it is in our interests to do so. It will always be in the interests of the Afghans, but it is also in our interests. It is the right thing to do: we are helping a people, a society, to recover from the corrosive impact of decades of war, criminality and repression.

The hon. Member for Gravesham clearly set out his support for, and justification of, our presence in Afghanistan; and everyone else who contributed to the debate, in their own way, made a similar point. The
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hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) spoke about the extent of our commitments globally. It is always easy to criticise, but those who make such criticisms ought to say what we should not be doing. Questions are easily asked, but answering them is much more difficult. Does the hon. Gentleman not want us to be in the Falklands, in the Balkans, in Northern Ireland, or in Iraq under a United Nations mandate? Does he not want us to be involved in sub-Saharan Africa? When he raises such questions, he should ask himself where we should not be. Perhaps we are to be enlightened.

Willie Rennie: The answer is quite clear. We should not have started from that position. We stated our opposition to the Iraq war from the early stages.

Mr. Ingram: I am not going to debate whether we should be in Afghanistan—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] We are where we are, and such a question must be answered from that point, and not from where it is thought we should be. When the hon. Gentleman asks the question, he should ask himself those other questions. We are in Iraq under a UN mandate. Is he now saying that we should withdraw our troops? If so, it would be an interesting development of Liberal Democrat policy.

Why are we in Helmand? As we have heard, it is an ungoverned space and the conditions are unquestionably severe.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: I have only 10 minutes left to respond to the debate, but if I find time I shall certainly do so.

The authority of the central and provincial authorities is weak. There is no question about the influence of the insurgents, no matter how they are defined, and the drug traffickers are in a strong position. Large parts of the province lack any real government, and its people are unquestionably very poor. As the hon. Member for Gravesham pointed out, it was once the bread-basket of Afghanistan, and that is what we are trying to recover. Can we restore that part of Afghanistan and revive the legitimate economy in the region? That is our objective. We want to make a positive difference. By doing that there, we can help the rebuilding of the whole of Afghanistan.

I responded last week to the Defence Committee’s recent report. It noted some of the issues that must be addressed, and the issues that it raised are valid, but overall it endorses our objectives in Afghanistan. It recognised, as the Government do, that our goals are ambitious. They will not be achieved easily. Things will not happen overnight. There is no simple equation. That applies to any troubled part of the world where we try to achieve a stable economy and the redevelopment, or sometimes the creation, of a society that understands the benefits of democracy and all that flows from that. That applies wherever we find ourselves, and Afghanistan is no different.

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I was asked how long the mission is for. We have made a commitment for three years. That is a long-term commitment—longer than usual—but we do not expect to achieve all our objectives within the three years, as I told the Select Committee when I gave evidence. It would be foolhardy to say that we would not have a presence in Afghanistan three years or five years from now, or perhaps even later. However, our current presence in Helmand has a specific purpose. Progress will be uneven, but given the size and potency of our force package, I believe that we can make a real difference.

Mr. Harper: The Minister does not think that by the end of three years we will have achieved all our objectives, but does he have a sense at this stage of what we can realistically expect to have done by that time?

Mr. Ingram: I can speculate. There is always the danger of being too specific, because the nature of the environment that we are in can create uncertainty. Things will be extremely difficult. We do not know what will be thrown at us. However, we have planned very carefully for this mission. We know the potential strength that is there and we have put in place a potent force to deal with it. Of course, it is not just a UK presence. Other countries are heavily engaged in all that. It is part of NATO’s mission. Again, we know the purpose of what we are seeking to do.

We started in Kabul. For too long, Afghanistan was Kabul-centric. There was no governance beyond Kabul. We then developed the concept of provincial reconstruction teams. We reached out into the north and the west. Those who have visited Mazar-e-Sharif will have seen the benefits of that. It was a more benign part of the country, but it was not without dangers. In the early stages of that PRT, there were real threats on the ground. However, we have stabilised the situation. We have got a measure of development and support from the local population.

It was logical that next we had to take the benefits of that—the construct of that—and look at other ungoverned parts of Afghanistan, which is what we are doing. That is stage 3 of ISAF’s development. It is why we are in Helmand and the rest of the south. If we make good progress there, the next step is to move into the east and stage 4. That is an ambitious programme. It cannot be delivered by the UK or even by the UK and US together; it has to be multinational. There has to be international buy-in. There has to be that NATO commitment.

The hon. Member for Gravesham asked about the financial commitment. I know that he was not saying that money alone can solve the problem. It cannot, but money is a real trigger for progress. At the London conference earlier this year, the UK committed £500 million. That is a sizeable tranche of money, and it is in addition to the £1 billion or more that we announced for our military commitment. The sum, which is across Government, is not just for Helmand but for the whole of Afghanistan. It is part of a total donor commitment from international pledges of $10.8 billion—again, a sizeable package of aid. The question is how the aid is delivered and used to achieve the objectives.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr. Ingram: I want to make one or two other points. I have been asked many questions, and I want to give some detail in my responses.

In Helmand, we plan to spend £38 million on non-military activity this financial year, and there is an ongoing commitment of £20 million per annum for support programmes. The overall change in Afghanistan is truly substantial. Consider the number of people who are now at school, the number of health clinics that have been built and the way normal society is beginning to come into play. Those who have visited the country and tried to understand it appreciate the benefits that have come mainly to areas in and around Kabul and in the north and the west. We must now try to replicate those benefits in the south and the east.

On co-ordinating our activities with DFID, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East was right to point out that there is only one DFID representative in the south. At present, security issues do not allow easy transference out of the social and economic programmes that we need to deliver. Interestingly, because of close ministerial engagement and the new way of working cross-Government—there is a sharp focus in Government on delivering across Government agencies—DFID could be working in the field alongside military personnel as a way of delivering its programmes.

I do not accept that our efforts are unco-ordinated. They are not yet well specified because the situation on the ground has to be better understood and stabilised. We could put civilians’ lives at risk if we just go out and start to do things. Clearly, it would be detrimental and highly damaging if lives were lost. We must ensure that we get a return from our programmes when we go out to deliver them. We have shown that we can do that in the rest of Afghanistan, so let us build on that model.

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The hon. Gentleman made a point about multi-agency working. There are many agencies in Afghanistan, and that is a good thing. It shows buy-in by the international community. A joint co-ordination and management board has been created to oversee the Afghanistan compact. The board is chaired by the Afghans and the United Nations and brings together ISAF, the combined forces command in Afghanistan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Union and other agencies. The hon. Gentleman’s criticism that multi-agency working can result in dissipation and duplication is valid. Agencies should not compete with each other but should be complementary. That is how we seeking to develop programmes.

The point was made about DFID’s role and how the Department should answer these questions, and I do not disagree. We are open about what we are trying to do, but if the view is that there is a paucity of response from DFID or other Departments, I will ask my colleagues to ensure that their message is getting out. Getting the message out is one of the benefits of this debate.

I have many more points to make but time is working against me. I will consider some of the key issues that have been raised and write to hon. Members to give them a better understanding of where we are going.

The men and women of our armed forces play a major part in our work to help bring about a more stable and secure Afghanistan, and they do so in difficult, uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions. Anyone who has seen them deployed on operations will know that they act with great courage, restraint and good humour. They deserve our full support, and I know that that opinion is shared by everyone in this Chamber.

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