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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Any debate on defence policy should be grounded in key current operations. I should therefore like to start by laying out the policy context for our major existing deployments, before setting out our future thinking.

Ministers have a responsibility to develop a clear policy framework that allows front-line service people to understand what they are being asked to do, and why, and ensures that they have the resources to succeed. It is then for our military commanders to ensure that that policy is implemented on the ground. Without motivated, informed and properly supported people, policy is just empty words.

I have made it a key part of my role over the past five years to see for myself our military contribution to overall UK and international efforts, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. I pay tribute to the achievements of our troops. They carry out their role with the highest degree of professionalism, commitment and dedication to duty. Those are the attributes that they are delivering in the highest measure in our two main operational theatres—Iraq and Afghanistan—and I want to touch on both of those areas.

On Iraq, to withdraw prematurely would represent a huge disservice to the Iraqi people, undermining their hopes for a better future after Saddam’s tyranny and the recent and current sectarian insurgency. What is needed is a measured and agreed process of transition. This week, we have seen two good examples of that approach: first, the announcement of the Iraqi security forces taking responsibility for Al Muthanna, and secondly, the new Basra security plan, announced yesterday, that will increase the number of Iraqi security forces patrolling the streets to make the city a safer place.

The plan also has a public services element, supported by the coalition provincial reconstruction team, to provide local people with the know-how to ensure the provision of vital services—things that we all take for granted in our own communities, such as clean water, reliable electricity supplies and refuse collection. As in Al Muthanna, our objective is progressively to transfer responsibility to the Iraqi security forces in the other provinces in Multi-National Division (South-East): Maysan and Di Qhar and Basra.

In Afghanistan, forces from 36 countries are now assisting the Afghan National Government through the NATO-led, international security assistance force, working within and under a full UN mandate. In Afghanistan, too, we have a duty to play our part in helping a fledgling democratic state to overcome fanatical and undemocratic antagonists. As in Iraq, and previously in the Balkans, transition is a key
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feature of our strategy. With our allies, we are training and equipping local police officers and soldiers to take back responsibility for the control of their country in the face of intimidation and terror.

Over time, a process of transition from ISAF to the Afghan security forces will take place. Completing that process is not simply a moral obligation to the Afghan people; success is also essential for future British security interests. If the Karzai Government were to fail and Afghanistan were to be an unpoliced and impoverished black hole, there could be no greater boost for worldwide Islamist extremism and no more certain way to ensure abundant and uninterrupted supplies of heroin on our streets. That is why we the United Kingdom, along with others, have made a long-term support commitment to Afghanistan.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman gave the number of countries that are assisting in Afghanistan. How many of them are also represented in Helmand province?

Mr. Ingram: There are a number of countries in the south, which is part of phase 3 of the process. Canadian, Australian, Dutch and forces from other nations are assisting as well. Clearly, the United States is still there as well. We have deployed a significant force to Helmand, but the south is, of course, bigger than Helmand, and it is going to the north of that area as well. Our military deployment in Helmand is part of the planned NATO move into the south to support the Afghan National Government. There is a tendency to focus on military developments, but it is important to place them in context. The real measure of success, of which the military effort is but a part, is effective civil policing, economic development, reconstruction and social cohesion.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but we had a useful debate yesterday, and he made a very good contribution. I did not agree with everything; I did not get the chance to address every point that he made, but he has a lot of knowledge on the subject. I hope that his intervention will be about Afghanistan.

Mr. Ellwood: I wish to raise that very issue. The subject of today’s debate is the Defence Committee’s fifth report, “The UK deployment to Afghanistan”. I appreciate that the Minister takes a huge interest and has an obligation to speak, but he is just about to touch on other areas that go far beyond the military interest. Therefore, why do we not see members of the Foreign Office team here and, importantly, the Department for International Development team, given the huge sums of money that are coming from those Departments as well?

Mr. Ingram: I do not see any representative of the Conservative Foreign Office team in opposition to me. The debate is one of the four planned debates on defence. This one is on policy. It so happens that the
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Defence Committee has tabled its report on Afghanistan, and those members of the Select Committee who are present can clearly make their contribution in the light of their report and the Government’s response to it. I take the point—as I recollect, it was made yesterday—that there should be greater engagement and debate across the Government, either from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or from DFID. I understand that that was raised earlier during businesses questions. That will be taken on board, and we must consider how best we ensure that there is an understanding that such things are co-ordinated across the Government and not solely defence-led.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con) rose—

Mr. Ingram: I will give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I hope that he will not suggest, as he did on Iraq, that we should pull out of Afghanistan.

Mr. Ancram: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I would not presume that he can give me instructions on what my intervention should be about. In fact, I was not going to ask him a question about that.

On the general policy, since the strategic defence review in 1998, have not the envisaged levels of commitment gone up and the envisaged levels of resources, both human and financial, gone down? Are not our armed forces more undermanned, more ill-equipped and more under-trained than at any time in the past 60 years?

Mr. Ingram: I agree in part with some of that, but not with the latter part. If anything, there is a greater intensity in ensuring proper training. In many ways, the nature of the deployments that our troops have undergone has given them greater awareness, greater knowledge and greater capacity to keep up their skills. There was a long time—it was certainly before my time—when that must have proved difficult, because we had a static position in Germany. Sadly, we had the experience of Northern Ireland. Much of that experience has helped us elsewhere.

In terms of training and knowledge, that is not the picture that I have of Her Majesty’s armed forces at present. In terms of equipment, I would accept that that was the picture in the early stages of our deployment—but, of course, needs must. What happened in Afghanistan happened, as did the attacks on the twin towers. They happened, and not by design or with predictability. We had to react, and we did so—I believe correctly.

At the same time as we were having to react to that, we had a major exercise under way in Oman, which had been planned five years before. Its purpose was to ensure that we had the necessary logistic support and the right kit—that the kit being used was capable of working in hostile environments such as those in Oman. We could have cancelled that exercise.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): You tried to.

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Mr. Ingram: We did not try to. We decided to continue with it because it was teaching us invaluable lessons, as is clear if one looks at what is happening now in terms of logistic support, the way in which urgent operational requirements have been triggered in, and how our personnel are currently kitted out. Complaints about equipment by our personnel to people who visit them are now very rare. I am not saying that there are no complaints, but they are very rare, and they are certainly at nothing like the level they were at five years ago.

On reshaping and restructuring the armed forces overall, we could have a debate about future army structure, and the projected size of the new navy, while remembering the ships we are purchasing—I will address that later in my speech—which require fewer personnel to serve on board. That is the case even for the new larger aircraft carriers, for which I think about 200 fewer personnel are needed. That meant there would be a reshaping. We have also reshaped the RAF; about 7,500 posts have gone. The RAF has never been busier, and, actually, it is delivering to tremendous effect. So we should get this issue into the proper context. If the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) is prepared to say, drawing on his parliamentary experience, that the armed forces were always fully manned and always equipped beyond need, he is not living in the real world.

I have been talking about the tendency to focus on military developments and the importance of putting that in context. I said that that has to be part of an overall package of delivery of civil policing, economic development, reconstruction and social cohesion. As the House will be aware, the means by which we hope to achieve that is through the proven route of a provincial reconstruction team to be based in Helmand. It will combine the various agencies of UK Government delivery—the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. That mechanism has already delivered in the north and west of Afghanistan. I recognise that the south is a more difficult environment, but we are determined to succeed.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Will the Minister state whether he believes that there are sufficient forces in Afghanistan to deliver all the things that he has said they wish to achieve in that very large country?

The Minister also mentioned heroin and the drug supplies that come from Afghanistan. What support is he getting from within Afghanistan to help to eradicate those supplies?

Mr. Ingram: On the latter point, we have been able to equip, train and assist a standing Afghan force that deals with eradication, and it is very successful. The problem is huge, and it will not be solved overnight. [ Interruption. ] I hear the points that are made, but I do not hear any solutions, other than those that we are seeking to deliver. If anyone has a better solution for dealing with the increase in the opium crop, I will be interested to hear it, because we will certainly take on board any good ideas.

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On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, we have always said that we will keep the size of the deployment under review. We recently made an announcement in respect of sending a company of the RAF regiment to lay down better force protection at Kandahar airfield. We will always examine what we are doing and listen to what the field commanders are saying—about whether they need particular expertise, or strengthening in one area or another. All that is judged on a military basis—although, of course, it must ultimately have ministerial approval—so if there is such a requirement and it can be met, it will be met.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He will be aware of the deaths of four more American soldiers last night and of subsequent comments by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. President Karzai, commenting on the security situation in Afghanistan, said last night:

How does the Minister interpret those comments, in terms of both how we are carrying out Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF deployment?

Mr. Ingram: First of all, we have to discuss that with President Karzai. The incident referred to is recent, and he clearly has specific views on what should be happening. We have an international capability, which is seeking to deliver. If more needs to be done, let us see if more can be done.

What we are seeking to do in Afghanistan has been well planned, well structured and has a very clear focus. I say again to the hon. Gentleman that if he thinks we should be doing more, he should tell us how, and we should also set that against his view that we are overstretched and we cannot run campaigns in two theatres. If he wants us to do more, where does he think that will come from?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: Hold on a moment.

When demands are made, they have to be set against available resources. That is what we seek to do. We are also constantly seeking to engage greater international buy-in to this. That process will continue; that is part of what NATO force generation is all about. We cannot commit other countries; we cannot force them to do things. We can only consult our allies and seek to get the best possible lay-down of military presence. Also, we keep closely in touch with President Karzai; we listen to his concerns, and if we can react, we will do so.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The Minister asked what could be done to make better use of existing resources. Does he not agree that the time has now come to fully integrate ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, because western, NATO military forces in Afghanistan cannot make the best use of resources if there are two command structures, even given the current attempts to co-ordinate them?

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Mr. Ingram: That will come, but the point is that they are under two separate command structures because they are carrying out two distinctly separate roles.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has sophisticated knowledge of these matters. He knows what we are doing. We have worked successfully in the north and the west, and we have proved that we can deliver in a particular way. We then said, “Let’s look at what can now be delivered in the south”—which is stage three of the development. It took a good number of months to build up force capability and to see what to do. We are almost fully deployed—but we are not there yet. However, we are already taking action against whatever force comes up against us—such as insurgencies inspired by the Taliban or tribal warlords. When that has proved successful, the intention is to move into the east.

This has been a progressive process, which has “approvability”. We are now in the most difficult environment: the south. This stage will take time, but difficult time scales will be set down for the military commanders to make judgments as to when we can make the next move in the process. I agree that what the right hon. and learned Gentleman recommends is required, but we are not yet at the stage to do that.

Let me now turn to broader issues.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No. The comprehensive approach that we have adopted in both Iraq and Afghanistan guides much of the work of the MOD. We work increasingly closely with other Departments on a range of security issues. The conflict prevention pools and the post-conflict reconstruction unit are major innovations in joined-up Government. They bring together MOD, FCO and DFID resources for a more strategic approach to conflict reduction. They integrate the Government’s conflict prevention work in a wide range of countries. Countering the proliferation of non-conventional arms is a good example of that and is a cross-government priority. Our work on instruments such as the non-proliferation treaty and the chemical weapons convention aims to eliminate certain types of weapons of mass destruction.

In particular, we are actively pursuing global partnership activities in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. For example, I recently visited Shchuch’ye, in the Russian Urals. In Shchuch’ye, the MOD, on behalf of the UK and other international donors, has implemented projects to enable the construction of a key chemical weapons destruction facility. The UK’s role has been to bring together some 10 international donors, with a funding commitment of £55 million, as part of a major Russian/US-led project designed to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles of the former Soviet Union.

The MOD is also actively working with other Government Departments to further the UK’s commitment to gaining international support for an arms trade treaty, which will improve international mechanisms and reduce the flow of irresponsibly traded conventional arms, particularly in areas of conflict. There are too many parts of the globe from which this illegal and evil
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trade emanates, which is why we need renewed and better-focused international mechanisms to deal with the problem.

Running alongside that is the important role played by the MOD’s defence diplomacy initiatives, which are aimed at changing attitudes and perceptions among emerging states and at helping the development of democratically accountable armed forces. Our financial contribution is in the region of £50 million and covers conflict prevention and management, as well as post-conflict reconstruction. That contribution is made within the financial and policy framework of the global conflict prevention pool and the defence assistance fund, and brings together defence diplomacy and defence development work. All that is conducted within a common strategy, and in the light of shared conflict analysis agreed between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MOD and the Department for International Development. The programmes delivered through this mechanism can make a real difference, whether in sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere.

There is only so much that the United Kingdom can do in isolation, however. We contribute strongly to the wider work of international agencies to deliver change. This is why we are keen to see the UN being properly transformed to deal with the new global challenges and threats. NATO is also undergoing a dramatic transformation so that it, too, can respond to the full range of global security challenges; the most prominent example is the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. NATO continues to make a vital contribution to ensuring stability in Kosovo.

On the European front, the European security and defence policy is progressing. It is proving to be both an effective partner to NATO, and is able to act in its own right when NATO as a whole chooses not to be engaged. It is contributing a peace support mission in Bosnia, after taking on that role from NATO. Of course, NATO will remain the natural choice for operations involving both European and north American allies, and it remains the essential basis of our collective defence.

The European Union also has the potential to bring together its diplomatic, judicial and economic strengths, alongside its ability to conduct a range of military operations. Both the EU and NATO have the potential to play a role in partnership, or individually, to promote world security. They are co-operating in the Balkans—in both Bosnia and Kosovo—and they are working together to support the African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. NATO is playing a vital role in Afghanistan, and the EU has helped to end the civil war in Aceh.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and whether he believes that the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons by any signatory to the non-proliferation treaty that currently holds weapons would indeed be illegal—not to mention very costly—and probably immoral.

Mr. Ingram: If my hon. Friend cares to hold on, I will deal with that issue in some detail.

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