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10 July 2006 : Column 1134

All those additional deployments will be made as soon as possible. I also want to cover the planned changes to the force structure resulting from the roulement in October, when the units currently comprising the Helmand taskforce, drawn predominantly—but not solely—from 16 Air Assault Brigade, will complete their tours. They will be replaced by units drawn principally from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, including 42 and 45 Commando and other supporting elements, including 12 Signal Regiment. That roulement will also involve a change to the force structure, reflecting the differences in the two brigades’ structures and equipment, including the requirement to support the commandos’ Viking armoured vehicles. That represents approximately 125 additional personnel. The House will also be aware that last month, I announced the deployment of 130 personnel from 34 Squadron Royal Air Force to increase force protection at Kandahar airfield.

This is a complex picture. Some troops will be going immediately and others in October; some will constitute an enduring addition, and others are being deployed on a surge basis. But I can tell the House that as a result of today’s announcement, the steady-state size of the Helmand taskforce will increase between now and October from some 3,600 personnel to approximately 4,500.

I am aware that our armed forces are heavily committed. As I said in the personnel debate, about 18 per cent. of the Army is currently deployed on operations. That is challenging, but sustainable. Taking into account deployments in Iraq and the planned increase in personnel to Afghanistan, most of our deployable units will operate outside harmony guidelines. I do not accept that lightly, but I do believe that it is necessary, and judging by comments made in this House in recent months, so do the majority of Members. We will do all that we can to minimise the impact, and we will continue to seek further contributions from our NATO partners in order to relieve the pressure in some of those areas.

Some commentators have suggested that insufficient infantry soldiers are deployed in comparison with the force’s overall size. Let me be clear that the delivery of this mission is not borne by the infantry alone, and it does a disservice to a great many brave men and women to suggest otherwise. Indeed, of the six deaths in Afghanistan since the deployment, half have been from other arms. The infantry do have a challenging task, but so do all our forces in Afghanistan. Air power, artillery, light armour and others are involved in combat. However, the work done by the provincial reconstruction team, the training teams, and those who enable others to operate is every bit as essential to eventual success. Some more infantry are indeed deploying, but the fundamental balance of combat forces to others carrying out vital roles will not change. That is because the mission has not changed.

Questions have been raised about NATO’s capability and the intentions of the United States. NATO now has many more troops to reflect the greater challenge in the south. Rules of engagement have been made more robust. This morning, I spoke to Commander ISAF, General David Richards. He told me that, in the south, effectively there were no caveats placed by nations on the use of their forces. Across Afghanistan, he was
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seeing a “new NATO” in which such caveats were becoming a thing of the past. He also said that he was confident that he had the forces to do the job, and that he had been encouraged to see nations like Germany and Spain considering making additional forces available.

I believe that NATO is thoroughly fit for this role. It has been suggested that because it does not have forces in every province, it cannot succeed, but that misses the fundamental point that we are at a stage when NATO is expanding in Afghanistan. Months ago there were no NATO troops in the south at all, and few US troops. Soon, there will be nearly 9,000 in the south—part of a total of about 18,500. NATO is building on a success that many seem determined to ignore.

As for the US, last week I spoke to General John Abizaid, the US commander responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq, and he was absolutely clear about the US commitment to Afghanistan. The Americans are not leaving this to NATO. They are part of NATO and are likely to be the biggest force contributor in Afghanistan for some time to come. Accusations that they are abandoning NATO are misplaced.

Lastly, I want to address counter-narcotics. I said that stability was the key to Afghanistan’s future, and part of that stability must be delivered by the Afghan Government facing up to the evil of narcotics. President Karzai’s personal commitment to this has been clear, and we must help. Again, the aim is simple, even if the implementation is difficult, and it is the same aim as for all other aspects of our task: to rebuild.

We will make a lasting impact on the narcotics industry only by strengthening all aspects of Afghan life, so that the economy can function without drugs money and farmers have alternative livelihoods to turn to. That will take time, but the process must start now.

Our soldiers are not narcotics police, and we do not ask them to be narcotics police. They are not waging a narcotics war; they will not destroy poppy fields; and they will not fight farmers for bags of opium. They are helping to create the conditions of security and development in which the narcotics industry will be weakened and eventually driven out by the Afghans themselves.

I trust that I have made my position clear. My decisions on these matters have been shaped by what I saw and heard when visiting Afghanistan. Our people there are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. They know why they are there, and they recognise the importance of their task. They have achieved a great deal already, and I intend to give them what they need to secure those achievements and to help the Afghans towards the stable future that they deserve.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for making it available in advance to the Opposition. I join him in saluting the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, their families and their civilian support.

The Secretary of State was right to remind the House at the outset of the reasons behind our
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involvement in Afghanistan: it is a failed state that acted as an incubator to terror, which was inflicted on innocent people in New York, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere, possibly even in London. A failing Afghanistan represents a threat to our national security. We can choose to confront the forces of terror at their source before they develop, or we can wait until they develop, and confront them here on our doorstep. Not confronting them at all is not an option. Dealing with the savagery and fanaticism of al-Qaeda and its allies will have an unavoidable cost, but the cost of failing to tackle them could be incalculably greater. Security is never a cost-free option.

In the House last week, I said that there were three reasons why we must not fail in Afghanistan. First, the reputation and cohesion of NATO is on the line. Secondly, failure would embolden our enemies in the region. What state could then feel safe? What if the next target for destabilisation were to be Pakistan, with its nuclear capability? That is a truly terrifying thought. Thirdly, we owe the people of Afghanistan, broken by decades of war and attrition, the chance to enjoy peace, stability and prosperity. We must not abandon or betray them.

The Government have two basic duties: to maximise the mission’s chance of success; and to minimise the risk to our forces in carrying out that mission. We intend to fulfil our constitutional role by holding the Government to account, not for the aims of the mission, but for its delivery.

We have set out a number of questions and reservations in recent months. On 26 January, I said in the House:

It was always to be expected that our deployment would lead to increasing Taliban activity, and that has certainly happened. Those who took a less optimistic view than the Government have been shown to be correct.

I am pleased, however, that the Secretary of State has today provided greater clarity about our other main reservation: the anti-narcotic role. We have often said in the House that using our forces overtly to destroy poppy crops would result in farmers being pushed into the arms of the Taliban. The reduction in poppy production is not a role for our soldiers, but for the Afghan Government, supported by international assistance in providing substitute incomes. We must not allow the Taliban the propaganda weapon that our troops threaten the income of poor Afghan farmers. I note the assurance that our forces will not be used as narcotics police, and we will monitor events closely to ensure that that is true on the ground.

What are our specific questions about the delivery of this mission? First, can the Secretary of State tell us what are the most recent plans from the Americans in relation to reducing their troop numbers in Operation Enduring Freedom? Surely we must do all that we can to persuade our United States allies that they cannot reduce their commitment in the current security
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circumstances, with the upsurge in Taliban violence. Given that rise in Taliban activity, would it not also be sensible to ensure an early merger between OEF and the NATO mission? The circumstances of the mission have changed markedly. Would not that simply reflect the reality on the ground? What discussions have taken place about it?

What discussions have been held at Head of Government level about increasing the contributions from other NATO countries? There will be some 15,000 to 18,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, of whom 5,000 will be British, with more on the way. Whatever the capabilities and professionalism of our forces may be, we cannot be expected to carry NATO in this manner. Our NATO allies must understand how frighteningly high the stakes are, and those who may long for a security relationship without the United States need to realise that a defeat for NATO in Afghanistan would be likely to produce greater American isolationism and unilateralism—the very things that they claim most to resent. All must carry their share of the burden.

The Secretary of State talked of making more support helicopters available. Will there be more attack helicopters as well? Where will the extra helicopters come from? How many will there be, and when will they arrive? How many extra personnel are being earmarked to help train the Afghan army? Where will they come from, and what will the time scale be? And what of the police? What representations have been made to the German Government, who are responsible for training the police, that they must have sufficiently robust vetting procedures to stop Taliban infiltration of them, which would pose a security threat to our troops?

Finally, can the Secretary of State tell us about the plans to put non-governmental organisations on the ground? If they are not there, there will be no reconstruction at all. Will the Secretary of State consider the plans outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, to install an international co-ordinator in Afghanistan to ensure that money is not wasted, and that the Afghan people benefit, not the middle men?

The tone of the statement leads me to believe that the Government now recognise that the impression given to the British public was that this mission was less dangerous than it has turned out to be. Sadly, the admission that these operations will be outside harmony guidelines constitutes an acceptance of the reality of overstretch. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under this Government we now have an insufficiently large standing army.

It is vital that we give our forces all that they need to do the job, for the price of failure in Afghanistan would be intolerable. The Government deserve the support of the House in achieving their aims, but they need to get their detailed decisions right at this point, for the patience of the British public and the House is not inexhaustible. Above all, the security not only of ourselves but of future generations is at risk. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his unswerving support for our engagement in
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Afghanistan. It is very important that our troops, particularly those whom we have deployed in Afghanistan, know that there is support for what they have been sent to do. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—without going into the same amount of detail in setting out the geopolitical situation—that doing nothing is not an option. That, of course, underpins the Government’s approach.

When we began to deploy in February, continuing until 1 July when full operational capability was reached, we sent the force package for which the military commanders had asked. It was designed by the military commanders—in consultation with the chiefs of staff—to do the job. The purpose of our deploying further resources is to reflect the experience and learning gained from that deployment.

I dealt specifically with the issue of narcotics because I felt that it, among other issues, required clarification—not that there was any doubt about the objectives that we set for our troops when we sent them to Afghanistan in the first place. Indeed, I remember reading carefully what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he announced the deployment on 26 January not only in the House, but elsewhere. He made it clear then that we were not sending our troops out to be narcotics police. However, given the commentary that there has been since then, I felt that it was important to make it clear again that there is no change in the position. That is not what our troops are doing in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the continuing size of the American commitment to Afghanistan, particularly in the context of Operation Enduring Freedom. Before coming to the House, I spoke to the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, specifically about that matter. His response to me was that the Americans deploy their resources in Afghanistan and in other theatres in response to the circumstances, that forces increase and sometimes reduce and that that is what they will continue to do, but he gave me a reassurance, which I have reiterated to the House in the context of the statement, that the Americans' commitment to Afghanistan will be unwavering.

The hon. Gentleman has referred on more than one occasion to the fact that we need to remove the distinction between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom. That is one of the issues on which I disagree with him. My concern is that, if I were to accede to his request in relation to that and encourage NATO and others to do away with that distinction, exactly what I think will put our troops on the ground at risk in Afghanistan would happen. We would at one stroke do the job the Taliban are trying to do with their information operation in communities all over Helmand province, and that is to suggest to people in those villages that what we are telling them we are about there—reconstruction—is not the truth and that we have other objectives. If I were to accede to his request to remove the distinction between Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF even conceptually and argue for that more broadly with NATO, I would achieve that objective at one stroke.

The hon. Gentleman asks about further helicopter support. I had to decide whether I would be able to give detailed information to the House today and, if not,
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whether to delay the statement, or whether to make the statement in the way in which I have because there is other work to be done in relation to helicopters. I assure the House and the hon. Gentleman, however, that the helicopter support that will be made available to support the package will be that which has been asked for by the commanders on the ground.

On the issue of NGOs and reconstruction, it is clear to me, from my experience both in Afghanistan and from what was reported back to me from Afghanistan, that our long-term objectives there will be served by the success of reconstruction, but that we will not be able to achieve that reconstruction without security and we will not be able to build the security without reconstruction. We have deployed the significant resource of engineers in order that they will be able to enhance the reconstruction that we can do and the security that we can create in the communities through the deployment of our resources thus far.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): May I reiterate our support for the engagement in Afghanistan and pay tribute to the courage and professionalism of our forces who are undertaking that dangerous work? It is essential that we build long-term stability in Afghanistan not only for the Afghan people but because, as others have said, lawless chaos provides sanctuary to militant extremists, and that threatens everyone’s security. I also stress our support for the deployment of additional troops announced today. Where they are able, the Government clearly must provide the commanders on the ground with the troops and equipment that they need.

Can the Secretary of State tell us how much of what he has announced today is totally new and how much of it is an acceleration of plans that already existed? Is he confident that the additional deployment he has announced will be sufficient? Is the breaching of harmony guidelines and the dependence on reservists to which he has referred sustainable for the long term, as it is becoming increasingly clear that this will be a long-term job?

Is he satisfied that all the helicopter, lift and air attack capability that is required has now been committed, and can he tell us where the men to do the proposed extra flying hours will come from? Will the additional commitment impair our ability to train more crews back home?

The Secretary of State tells us that a sober assessment of the threat was made at the start of the mission, and I am sure that that is true, but the former Secretary of State for Defence described it as

It remains hugely significant, but it looks somewhat less small than it did in January. Of course we have to respond to changing circumstances and a more challenging environment, but can the Secretary of State tell us whether the role and operational objectives of British troops have changed at all from that time?

We have the lead responsibility for counter-narcotics, but there has been a record harvest in the south of the country, and there are grave questions about the
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feasibility of simultaneously achieving both security and counter-narcotics objectives. A concerted strategy is needed to provide alternative livelihoods for those who depend on narcotics. The Secretary of State said in his statement that that process must start: does he mean that there is as yet no strategy, or simply that the practical work on the ground must now start? Finally, with two weeks until the summer recess begins and given the fast changing environment, can he tell us what measures the Government have in mind to keep Parliament in the loop as changes are necessary over the summer recess?

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman and the leader of his party for their support for the additional deployment of troops to Afghanistan. I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) was able to express his support when he did not know what that deployment was going to be. That was a positive step.

In my statement, I sought to explain in detail the motivation behind the decision for each of the elements of the additional resource. I do not accept that any of it is an acceleration of anything that was planned, other than that a review of our deployment was planned at the point of deployment at about this time, as I have explained on more than one occasion. That has in the past been explained to the House.

The hon. Gentleman asks about additional flying hours. My understanding is that additional flying hours that have been agreed in response to the request of the commander in the theatre are as much a function of our ability to support the helicopters in those additional times as they are a function of the availability of people to fly them. The hon. Gentleman asks if the deployment is sustainable, and I assure him that it is. I identified the challenges that it sets in terms of harmony guidelines, and I accept that they are far from ideal. Steps need to be taken in the short term, or in the longer term, to address those issues, which were debated at some length on Thursday in the context of the personnel debate. The solution to that will take some time to develop.

The hon. Gentleman asks if there has been any change in role, and there has not been. On his final question, we will do what any Government can to ensure that when Parliament is in recess, information on a wide range of issues is communicated appropriately to those who need to know.

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