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With respect to hon. Members, I do not wish to expand the debate into a debate about operational matters. I wanted to refer to operational matters because I thought that the House deserved a response from me as Secretary of State so that it would know exactly what the position is. If hon. Members wish to ask questions
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about this part of my speech, I will be happy to answer them, but I am anxious not to expand the debate at this stage.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I think that what Members are looking for, and many of us are confused that we are not getting, is a general assurance that when our armed forces are put into a combat situation where their lives are at risk, there is a general principle, which is that whatever they ask for to secure life and limb they will get without question. Can the Secretary of State give me the assurance that whatever they have asked for, they will get if we can possibly give it to them?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman asks for an assurance that he qualifies at the end in a way that allows that me to say, “Of course.” Given the body language that I see around me, with the nodding heads and the responses to the hon. Gentleman’s question from his hon. Friends, I believe that everybody understands this. I do not stand here at the Dispatch Box with the operational experience or skill to be able to make decisions. As I have said before, I rely substantially on advice from people who have those skills. The process has been gone through, as a result of which recommendations have come to me. I have made it perfectly clear publicly, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary did on Monday, that we will be open to responding to those recommendations appropriately in any way that we can. I will announce that to the House in detail as soon as I can.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The reason why Iraq was brought up is that the governmental commitments mean that we have a case of overstretch. We have not seen more troops tasked to Afghanistan, because none are available. That is the quagmire that we now face. When I was in Afghanistan very recently, I heard from Brigadier Ed Butler, from General Jones, the head of NATO, and from General Richards, the head of the international security assistance force. They are all desperately in need of more equipment. They cannot do the job under present circumstances because the mission has fundamentally changed from peacekeeping to war-fighting. Until the Secretary of State and his Ministers recognise that, we will have more losses, as we had this weekend.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman puts me in a somewhat invidious position, because contemporaneous with the conversations that he reports to the House in shorthand, I had detailed conversations with all those same people, and I stand before this House unequivocally saying that that is not what they said to me. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should have a more detailed discussion outside the Chamber in which he can report to me exactly what was said to him and who said it.

Let me say one other thing to the hon. Gentleman. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at this Dispatch Box yesterday, we have part of a responsibility for the international effort in Afghanistan that is shared with more than 40 other countries. Not all those countries have sent troops but some 38 have. I think that 38 is the right figure, but it does not matter—it is a significant number. My responsibility is to ensure that in the context of our commitment to the task that we have taken on,
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and for the safety of our troops, I provide those troops with the very best resources.

At the end of the day, there is broad agreement across the House that not doing what we are doing in Afghanistan is not an option. It is not only about the Afghan people to whom we owe a responsibility, or about the security of the region, but about the security of our people on our streets in this country and across the developed world. The forces in Afghanistan who are resisting what we are seeking to do—to enable the Government’s writ to run in that country—were there before we ever became involved and were allowing the training of terrorists to go on in order to deliver the sort of activity that they delivered to the people of New York and potentially deliver to the whole developed world. There is no “do nothing” option.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I think that most fair-minded Members would accept that it is important that my right hon. Friend reaches his decision fairly in the way that he has outlined. He mentioned the 37 other countries that are already involved. Is he urging other countries to make significant further contributions as well? While British forces often form the glue that holds international coalitions together, it is also important that the expertise that some other countries can bring is provided in greater numbers and greater strength.

Des Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Indeed, I am grateful for the support of Members on both sides of the House, particularly, through me, their support for those who are doing this very difficult job in Afghanistan and paying the terrible price that they have been paying recently for their engagement particularly with the Taliban. We accepted the responsibility for doing this in the context of ISAF and under the leadership of NATO. We have made it very clear to NATO that we expect our allies in NATO to step up to the plate and to provide the level of support that we know that they have and can be deployed to deliver the results that NATO has taken responsibility for delivering. I will continue to do that through the appropriate NATO channels, and through General Richards and others, to ensure that people deliver what they are capable of delivering.

My principal responsibility, as I have used the first part of my speech to repeat to the House, is to ensure that the troops in the Helmand taskforce whom we have sent to take part in the reconstruction of the part of Afghanistan for which we have taken responsibility are given the equipment to do the job that they need to do, and, in particular, given the security to be able to do it as safely as they possibly can, recognising that it is a very dangerous part of the world. In short, that is why we sent Apache attack helicopters with artillery and why we sent some of our finest troops there to do the job in the first place.

If hon. Members will allow me, it is time that I made some progress on the broader waterfront of our debate.

Yesterday’s death, together with other recent fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq, remind us that, although the nature of modern conflict is different in many ways from conflicts of the past, the ultimate human cost is the same.

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Over recent weeks, I have had the privilege of meeting many of our servicemen and women, who come from all parts of the UK, serve in all parts of the UK and across the globe and display the courage and professionalism that make our armed forces the envy of the world. However, I have also been reminded of how, as well as being ultimate professionals, they are, first and foremost, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters. We must support and respect them not only as professionals—I stress that they are professional—but as people. That is the subject of our debate today—how we support our armed forces.

The first point to make is that we are asking our armed forces to do more than ever, placing greater demands on them and their families, and therefore placing a correspondingly greater duty on ourselves to support what they are doing. The Ministry of Defence currently has more than 24,000 service personnel on operations in more than 15 countries. That includes around 7,200 in Iraq, around 5,000 in Afghanistan, and around 900 in the Balkans. More than 300 are supporting various UN deployments around the world. There are approximately 8,500 in Northern Ireland, although the welcome political progress, albeit not yet completed, of recent years has allowed troop numbers to be reduced there.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend describes the brave work of our troops around the globe and the extent of our commitment. I am therefore worried that, earlier this week, he announced a major reorganisation of the Defence Logistics Organisation—which will affect more than 400 members of staff in my constituency in Telford—relating to a co-location project. It is the wrong time, when our troops need front-line support the most, to undertake such reorganisation. Will he and his colleagues agree to meet trade union representatives to discuss the matter? I am fearful that we will lose many skilled civilian staff if the decision goes ahead.

Des Browne: I am conscious of the importance of not only those who serve in uniform but the civilians who support them, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I shall say something about that later, assuming that I do not feel that I have taken up more time than I am entitled to take. Lest I do not get to that part of my speech, let me make a couple of points.

There is never a right time for reorganisation. There are always things going on, and, in my experience of the Ministry of Defence, that will apply for the foreseeable future. People will be deployed throughout the world and they will need logistical support. It will always be argued that there is no right time to undertake reorganisation. However, if the motivation is to improve the service that we provide for those whom we ask to operate on the front line, as it is in this case, the right time for reorganisation is now, when we realise that it can be done. A detailed statement was made and I was conscious, when making it in written form, of the debate today, when hon. Members would have an opportunity to make a contribution from their constituencies’ and other perspectives.

My hon. Friend asked a specific question about consultation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for the armed forces, my
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noble Friend Lord Drayson, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for defence procurement, and I made a specific point of meeting the trade unions in confidence, as we did with the industry, before making the statement. We felt that that consultation was appropriate. We made it clear to the trade unions that all our announcements are subject to consultation. If my hon. Friend has read the statement, he knows that it specifically states that. His request that we consult those who have worked for us and served us loyally for many years and whom we greatly value receives a ready, positive response. That consultation will take place.

I am conscious that modernisation has consequences for those who work for us, but we must accept them for two reasons. First, we must release resources and use them to support directly those whom we put in theatre. Secondly, we must ensure that we have the most efficient method not only of buying the equipment we need for those whom we put in theatre but of supporting it through life.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): My right hon. Friend spoke of the corresponding duty that we owe our armed forces. In Afghanistan, our armed forces serve alongside those of 40 other countries under United Nations authority as a result of the invitation by President Karzai. Does not he believe that we could better engage with and inform the British public about exactly what our armed forces are doing and the reason for it, as part of that corresponding duty to them?

Des Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he anticipates part of my speech. If he and other hon. Members will be patient, I will try to cover that issue as quickly as possible.

I referred to those whom we have deployed in operations throughout the world. Our reservists, too, have an important role to play. They contribute exceptionally valuable sets of skills. Last year, some 1,300 reservists were called upon to support operations, especially in Iraq, where there are some 450 in theatre, but also in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. That is not new—around 10 per cent. of our forces deployed in Bosnia in the mid-1990s were Territorial Army volunteers. However, the numbers have been increasing since we strengthened the reserves in the 1998 strategic defence review, precisely to bring them closer to the regular forces and make them more deployable.

In the past two months, I have met both regular forces, reservists and civilians at home and abroad. In Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, I have been struck by the difficult work that we ask them to do, and the harsh and dangerous conditions in which they have to do it. In return, it is our duty to ensure they are well motivated, well equipped, well protected and properly trained, and that their welfare is given proper priority. I fully accept that obligation and I shall try to comment on each aspect if hon. Members will bear with me.

The first duty that we owe all our men on women on operations is a clear sense of why they are there. There has been some speculation in the House and elsewhere that our mission in Afghanistan, especially in Helmand,
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is unclear. I just do not believe that that is true—more importantly, nor do the men and women who are carrying out the mission. They are there to help the Afghans rebuild their country after three decades of continuous war. However, first, they must establish a level of security that will allow the rebuilding to begin. That is an especially challenging task in Helmand, which has been an essentially lawless area for years.

The various elements—the Taliban, the drug lords, the criminal networks—that have profited from the lawlessness will resist any attempt to bring security to the local people. That is understandable from their perspective. They will attack our forces. We know that—we knew that before we deployed our forces and we were prepared for it—and we will defend ourselves. If necessary, we will use force to pre-empt attack. Helmand is a dangerous place; this is dangerous work. As I have said and as my predecessor continually said in and outside the House, that is why we sent soldiers to do it. However, it is also vital work. One cannot rebuild Afghanistan without tackling Helmand, the south and the east of the country.

We must rebuild Afghanistan. We cannot again abandon its people or allow it to become a training ground for terrorism. The UN and the international community understand that. That is why there are troops from 40 countries—from Germany to Sweden to Canada, as well as the United States—alongside ours. Most importantly, our troops understand that.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): How many of the 38 other countries have troops in Helmand province?

Des Browne: Of the 38, three have troops in Helmand province. I do not have a list of all the countries that have a presence in different parts of Afghanistan and how many troops they have deployed. I could get it and read it out but it would not tackle the hon. Gentleman’s point. I believe that his point is that we have taken on the most dangerous part of the country. He should ask the Canadians about that. They are in the province next door to us, in Kandahar, and were there before we went into Helmand province with the taskforce. They have suffered significant casualties. I am told that, in Afghanistan’s recent history, the Taliban have used Kandahar as a base for years.

That is the key to defeating the Taliban, and the Canadians have taken that on with the United States of America. We are taking on a very dangerous part of the country, and we are equipped and able to do that. That is not only my view, but the view of the commanders whom we have asked to do this job on the ground. But there are others who are sharing those dangers with us equally by taking on other parts of Afghanistan that are just as dangerous, if not—in some people’s view—more so.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he has been very generous. My intervention is on NATO and on the collective footprint that we are supposed to be creating in Afghanistan. He mentioned the impact that Germany was making, but he must know that constitutional caveats prevent the German troops from getting involved, and even from getting out of their trucks. They cannot fire a shot. They are much
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more limited in what they can do. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned Kandahar, the neighbouring province to Helmand. The next province along is Nimroz, where there is not one international soldier because NATO does not have enough forces available. This is what worries the Conservatives. We are very much in favour of what the United Kingdom is doing in Afghanistan, but we do not believe that there are enough troops for the task. That is why NATO in Brussels needs to sort itself out.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman clearly has extensive and accurate knowledge of the situation, no doubt based on his recent visit to Afghanistan as well as on other sources. Of course some of the troops deployed there are subject to caveats, but that does not mean that they cannot do an important job—

Mr. Ellwood: That is not what I said.

Des Browne: Well, from the way in which he asked his question, the hon. Gentleman might have left the House with the impression that the Germans were not doing as worthwhile a job because of the caveats, but they can be deployed in parts of Afghanistan where improvements have already been made. Such deployment then releases troops who are not subject to caveats to move into other areas. That is why the NATO command is a boon for what we are seeking to do. As it increasingly takes over responsibility across Afghanistan, it will be open to General Richards and others to deploy forces in a way that takes the best advantage of their abilities. Equally, however, some countries have lifted the caveats from their troops in light of the circumstances in Afghanistan because they increasingly accept that those caveats are a hindrance to doing the job required there.

I recognise the challenge that faces NATO, but I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that there is no point in wringing our hands about the training of terrorists when we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move Afghanistan forward in the south and east in the same way as we have done in the north and west, and, once and for all, to get a Government in there who can hold that ground and deny it to terrorists for training. We have to do that job, although I accept that it generates challenges for us.

Some people—I exclude everyone whom I see in the House at the moment—suggest that there is confusion about what our troops are doing there, but our troops are going into villages in Afghanistan and telling people what their mission is, because they know and understand what it is. That puts the lives of our troops in danger, however, and anyone who does not understand that is getting perilously close to being guilty of criminal negligence. We are asking our troops to go out and explain to the local people that they are there for reconstruction purposes. If the Taliban are able to relay, from discussions that take place in the United Kingdom, that that is not the case, and that we are there for some other purpose—such as hunting the Taliban—or that our primary focus is crop eradication, that would put our troops in danger, given the nature of Afghanistan. We must be very careful about how we debate these issues in the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who, in my absence, made that specific point in his urgent question on Monday. We must all accept that we have a common responsibility to be very careful
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about how we debate this issue. If we accept that the job must be done, and that we must commit our best resources to it, we must all accept the responsibility to behave in a way that will keep those troops safe. To suggest—for political or other reasons—that they have vulnerabilities, or that there is confusion when no confusion exists, puts people’s lives at risk.

There is clarity about what we are doing, but how we do it is complex. However, confusing the complexity with the objective is putting people’s lives at risk. I know that everyone whom I see in the House today accepts their responsibility to play their part, but I must send out that important message to people outside the House. Playing political games, or other games, with what is going on in Afghanistan is putting people’s lives at risk, and we have to be very careful— [ Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) should not shake his head as though I am accusing him of that. I have particularly exonerated those in the House today. However, he gives me the opportunity to say something that I have been wanting to say—

Mr. Ellwood: These matters have to be debated.

Des Browne: Many things have been said about me since I became Secretary of State for Defence— [ Interruption. ] Just a moment. However, nobody can say that I am not prepared to debate these issues. I am prepared to debate them and to try to get them right. My responsibility is not just about my job and me; it is to ensure that the job that we have taken on, and that we accept that we must do, in Afghanistan in order to make the world a much safer place, is done properly. It is also my responsibility to ensure that those whom we have put in at the sharp end are made as secure as possible. There should be no suggestion that there are other motivations behind our task, because they just do not exist.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I endorse entirely what the Secretary of State has said. He will understand that almost all of us in the House share his view. When the Minister for the armed forces appeared before us on the Defence Committee, we identified certain issues that were sensitive and could cause harm to our soldiers on the ground. We therefore requested that we go into private session, where we were able to share our concerns privately, and discuss them seriously and in great detail. The Minister will be able to respond in his own way, but at least we have had a proper discussion about those matters in a sensible and informed way.

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