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Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend this afternoon, responding as it does to the requests from our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend has outlined the Government’s objectives in Afghanistan and how we are responding to the latest developments there. Can he say a little more about our reserve forces? They now operate with our regulars in a much more integrated way than ever before, and I think that that is right. Our reservists also make a unique commitment. They have full-time jobs outside the armed forces in civilian life. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 allows the Government to mobilise the reservists for a maximum of one year in every three, but as a result of discussions with employers and the reservists, the Government have tended to mobilise
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them for a maximum of 12 months in any five years. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that he sees no reason to move away from that five-year rule as a result of this latest development?

Des Browne: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. I do not see that either my announcement today or the level of deployment of reservists that has been required would indicate that we will move away from that frequency of deployment. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the significant contributions made by reservists and to recognise that as a result of reforms in training and structure they are more suited to deployment than they were in the past. I also pay tribute to their employers, who support us well when we have to deploy their employees.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. As many Members hope to catch my eye, I make a plea for single supplementary questions and brief answers so that more may be successful.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Secretary of State may have heard last week of my concern that the deployment to Afghanistan, which I fully support, is being conducted on something of a shoestring. Last week, when we visited, we met some fantastic men and women who are doing their excellent best with the resources they have, but we heard that deployment of the Harriers and its subsequent extension to March next year carried a condition imposed by the Treasury that it should be at no additional cost. Will the Secretary of State remove that condition and assure us that none of the deployments that he has announced today carries the same extraordinary condition?

Des Browne: I understand that the right hon. Gentleman was in Afghanistan with his Select Committee only last week, so he brings up-to-date information to the House. I am pleased that he was as impressed as everybody who visits our troops in Afghanistan with the job that they are doing and the bravery that they show. When I was a Treasury Minister I was partly responsible for the process of agreement about deployment of the Harriers, which is on a staged basis, and I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that it does not in any sense inhibit what we are seeking to do in Afghanistan. Indeed, he will have noticed that Harriers were being deployed with significant effect right across the theatre; they are very much in demand and are being used extensively not only by our troops but by others. I can tell him categorically that none of that deployment carries with it any qualifications in relation to costs.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that at least two conditions must be met if the mission is to be successful? First, the mission must have the support of the Afghan people and, secondly, those in the international community who could contribute forces must accept that the mission is necessary and justified.
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If my right hon. Friend agrees, will he reinforce the point that if there is any confusion between what Enduring Freedom has done, and is doing, and the ISAF commitment, it could undermine both those aims? Does he agree that the United Nations needs to clarify the mission, given that it is about three years since it did so, and that many people in the international community and in this country have forgotten that there is a UN mandate?

Des Browne: I have not forgotten that there is a UN mandate. I spend a lot of my time reminding people that there is a UN mandate, which is supported by NATO and a significant number of countries—almost all the developed world—including countries whose presence is remarkable given their past history, such as the Scandinavian countries. Indeed, I understand that Swedish troops are in Afghanistan with no caveats. From my dealings with our partners in NATO or others deployed in ISAF, I have no sense that there is anything other than the fullest commitment to the noble cause of seeking to rebuild Afghanistan, no matter how difficult that may be, for the very reasons that were articulated at some length by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I have absolutely no doubt about that level of support.

I agree that it would be a disservice to our forces to confuse what they are doing with Operation Enduring Freedom. None the less, that operation is necessary because terrorists are still at large in parts of Afghanistan, and it is right and appropriate that we should try to eliminate them.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Was the now apparent failure to deploy sufficient troops and equipment to Helmand province at the beginning of this operation the result of inadequate intelligence as to what was needed, or of the absence of a clear mission purpose, or, as now appears most likely, of overstretch and the reluctance of the Government in the face of that to make the necessary deployment? Had there been a more realistic deployment, is it not possible that the lethal opposition that our forces have faced in Helmand province might at least have been better constrained? Can the Secretary of State now say that he is confident that no further additional deployment will be needed to achieve that position?

Des Browne: May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the configuration of the original force package that was sent to Helmand province as the Helmand taskforce in Afghanistan was a result of what the military commanders asked for and what was agreed by the chiefs of staff and recommended to Ministers? Before coming to the House today, I phoned the military commander in Helmand province, Brigadier Ed Butler, and asked him whether—in the knowledge of the resources that we were now deploying to Afghanistan—he, the commander with responsibility, felt that we had sufficient resources to carry out the task that had now developed out of the nature of his deployment in the first place. He said yes.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement, its reiteration and its clarification. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that this is an
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internationally agreed and endorsed operation, and given that there are so many countries involved—he mentioned 36—it will be important that other NATO partners also increase their presence in this mission? Will he tell us what discussions he is having with his partners in NATO? He mentioned the increase from 3,600 to 4,500 by October, which is a 20 per cent. increase in the taskforce in Helmand province. Is there going to be a similar increase by other NATO partners to assist in this vital, necessary international job?

Des Browne: Today, General Richards, the commander of ISAF, told me that he had the resources that he needed to do the job. He said—as all commanders do when I have this conversation with them—that if there were more resources that he could employ, he could always employ more resources, but I asked him whether he had sufficient resources to do the job. I have been in conversation with him, the Secretary-General of NATO, and a significant number of our allies at Defence Minister level to insist that for additional resources—where they are available—should be deployed.

In relation to the transfer of authority for phase three, which is due to take place at the end of this month, although there are some shortfalls against the ideal solution, General Richards told me this morning that he is pleased with recent developments in these areas and is confident that they will be filled, and he has been reassured by the efforts of NATO’s senior commanders.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will the Secretary of State please convey to the Prime Minister my continuing conviction that sending British troops into Afghanistan is like throwing kerosene on to a burning tent, and that the more troops we send, the higher and fiercer the flames will burn in Afghanistan, throughout the Islamic world and on the streets of this country?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has the merit of being consistent in relation to these matters and I respect him for that, as he understands and knows. In this House, in a rhetorical way, he repeatedly makes clear the position that he has sustained. I am sure that he was saying exactly the same thing when ISAF was deployed in both north and west Afghanistan. He ought to look at the progress that has been made there now.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Those of us who support my right hon. Friend in what he has set out today nevertheless recognise that the point about the contributions made by other NATO allies is central and important. Is he aware that a debate is taking place in the German Parliament, as it is in other allies, about where we should go with this? What can he do to ensure that the message that failure in Afghanistan is unthinkable is communicated through him and his colleagues in other allies’ Governments?

Des Browne: I can reassure my hon. Friend that no one who has had a conversation with me about
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Afghanistan has not been told exactly what the hon. Member for Woodspring repeats every time he comes to the Dispatch Box: failure is unthinkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is the future of NATO. Failure in Afghanistan would be significant for NATO’s future as an organisation that can deliver on its objectives and generate the amount of force necessary to protect those whom it was designed to protect in this very much changed and difficult world in which we live. I repeat that message consistently. My understanding from the conversations that I had today before coming to the House is that whatever the debate is being held in Germany’s Parliament—it is entirely appropriate that that debate should take place—the Germans are in fact considering increasing their deployment in Afghanistan.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I very much welcome the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has made, but does he not agree that what is especially shameful about the NATO allies’ response to the mission is the fact that given that the commander, General Richards, is a NATO commander—Commander Allied Rapid Reaction Corps—the operation is a NATO operation, so not to support it wholeheartedly is to show that NATO’s transformation is inadequate and incomplete? The allies now need to take grown-up, real decisions, especially about the deployment of airlift, which they have in abundance, and make some use of that.

Des Browne: I accept that the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on significantly challenging issues for NATO. The process is ongoing. For example, as was confirmed to me today, although I have recognised this development myself, real progress has been made in NATO on caveats to such an extent that, for the deployment in the south, no caveats are now in any sense restricting the commander, General Richards. There are other significant challenges, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the British Government have made quite a novel and significant suggestion for the long-term solution of one that he identifies. However, the support that he and others in the House can give me to continue to communicate the message to our NATO allies is welcome.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the statement. Last week, I visited Helmand province with the Select Committee. Morale is high and the troops are committed to the job that they are doing. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating not only them, but Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development staff on the job that they are doing as part of the provincial reconstruction team down at Lashkar Gah? Does he concur with General Richards’s statement to us that the UK’s commitment to the military operations in Afghanistan more than meets the commitments that other international partners are making?

Des Browne: I have no difficulty at all in joining my hon. Friend in extending congratulations. I gladly take any opportunity that I get, whether at the Dispatch Box or otherwise, to congratulate our forces on the
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work that they do not only in Afghanistan, but in other theatres. I will add to the list of those who should be congratulated on the progress that has been made in Helmand, which he witnessed, not only in Lashkar Gah, but beyond, of which today’s statement was a function. We should also extend congratulations to the Afghan national forces, who are fighting along with our forces very bravely. When we consider the scale of the challenge that we face and the commitment that we need to support the Afghans, we should consistently remind ourselves that those brave people have lost 2 million of their own citizens fighting for the freedom to get themselves to the stage at which they are. That is why the international community must stay with them.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Lessons from previous engagements teach us the importance of employing sufficient troops at the start of an action in order to achieve success. Given the size of the Taliban forces encountered by our troops, is the Secretary of State confident that the deployment that he announced today will be sufficient, and that a series of future incremental increases will not be necessary, as they will not provide the required cohesion?

Des Browne: I do not accept the criticism implicit in the first sentence of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have said repeatedly that the force package that has been sent was what the military commanders asked for, and that the need to reinforce that package is a function of our success, even though our success in engaging the Taliban has generated challenges for us in the early days. I will not estimate or guess the size of the Taliban forces, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that not everyone who fights with the Taliban supports them ideologically. People fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan for all sorts of reasons; some fight with them because they pay them. Part of our objective is to give those people a message that there is a future for them without the short-term lifespan of such fighting. Part of the challenge is to try to break those people away by engaging with them and explaining that they have a future that does not depend on their being a hired gun for anyone who will pay them $10 a day, or less.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that many people outside the House will regard his statement today as an example of mission creep, and think that we are starting an unending deployment of British troops in Afghanistan? Can he give us an idea of the maximum number that he is prepared to deploy, and for how long?

Des Browne: Without hesitation I can tell my hon. Friend that I will not answer that question specifically. He may find that a cause for criticism, and I will just have to live with that. It is because this is not mission creep that we have to identify additional resources. We have to deploy those resources to achieve the mission and the objective that we set; as we deployed, we identified prospects for success that now have to be reinforced. I just ask my hon. Friend, who, I suspect, is a consistent critic of any deployment of ours in
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Afghanistan at all: what is the alternative for the people of Afghanistan and the developed world if we, who are capable of doing so, do not accept the challenge of stopping that country once again becoming a training ground for terrorists?

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am pleased to hear that we are sending reinforcements but saddened that there are no announcements on helicopters. Twelve helicopters for operations in Helmand is not enough. I would like, too, the possibility of sending some mechanised infantry to be discussed. Can the Defence Secretary tell the House whether or not such troops were requested? I accept that 16 Air Assault Brigade is a formidable unit for taking ground, but it was never designed to hold ground, which is a light infantry operation.

I echo concerns that have been expressed about NATO. The fact that 36 countries have troops in Afghanistan is impressive on paper, but one third of those countries are offering only 60 troops or fewer, which is laughable. Indeed, 34 of the 36 nations do not match Britain’s contribution to Afghanistan. I urge the Defence Secretary to speak to his colleagues and make sure that our NATO representatives and colleagues match our efforts in Afghanistan, as they are not doing so at the moment.

Des Browne: May I repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have already told his right hon. and hon. Friends? I have conversations on those subjects continually, not only with the Defence Ministers of NATO countries but with people who have responsibility for generating the forces in Afghanistan. I have received assurances from those people, on whom I depend for advice on matters that I bring before the House. On the current deployment and the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, I checked today with the commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler, and asked him whether he now has the resource that he needs and requested for the mission that he has been given, and he confirmed that he has. That is a comprehensive answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Is not one of the main reasons why we have lost more British lives in the past four weeks than in the previous five years the fact that we are associated with the American operation “enduring stupidity”, which seeks to bomb the Afghans into democracy and to destroy their livelihoods? The country has been anarchic and ungovernable by outside forces for centuries. Is not the alternative that the Secretary of State seeks for us to detach ourselves from that operation and to devise our own practical alternative, which is to transfer to the Afghan farmers the licence for using their poppies in order to manufacture morphine? Is he not concerned that the Taliban are not on their own, as he says? We are also fighting against those who are defending their livelihoods, some who are Tajiks fighting against the Pashtuns, and many others who are warlords and who are every bit as wicked under Karzai as they were in previous years.

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Des Browne: I am tempted to say that when my hon. Friend reads in Hansard the question that he has just asked, he will see that in the second part of his question he has contradicted the assumption that he made in the first part, about the motivation of the people who are attacking our troops. First, Afghanistan is a democracy. It has a democratically elected Government, President Karzai is a democratically elected president, and it has a democratically elected Parliament. It may not be what my hon. Friend recognises as democracy, but it is significantly better than the Afghan people have ever had in their lifetime. It is that very democracy which we are in Afghanistan to protect. Secondly, it is entirely inappropriate to attribute blame to those who are seeking to support that democracy and to give the Afghan people the opportunity to throw off the tyranny of those whom my hon. Friend accurately describes as having brutalised them over three decades. They were doing it long before the Americans, the British or ISAF ever went anywhere near Afghanistan, and to suggest that that is the motivation for the criminality and their crude violence now is totally to misunderstand what is going on in Afghanistan.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Last week, when I saw my former unit, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, I discovered that the company there was a composite company made up from the whole brigade. I see from the statement today that a company will be drawn from 3 Commando Brigade. That is an unnamed company, not from a commando, but from a whole brigade. When the Ministry of Defence has to send composite companies rather than formed units, what further evidence does the Secretary of State need that our armed forces are at overstretch?

Des Browne: In the statement that I made to the House, I sought to be candid about the degree of pressure that we were putting on our forces, and to suggest that I was not hiding from the consequences of the decision that we have made today.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I am glad my right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that many of the Taliban fighters are paid by the Taliban. Although I recognise that we do not want British troops burning poppy fields, who will be responsible for stopping the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan, 60 per cent. across the Iranian border, and the money into the Taliban war chest?

Des Browne: The responsibility for counter-narcotics lies principally with the Afghan Government, of course with support from, among others, ourselves, who are the lead partner nation for the Afghans in counter-narcotics. The strategy has several strands, and it is only when all those strands come together that we will see a counter-narcotics strategy that allows Afghanistan to move away from an economy that is over-dependent on narcotics and consequently can be exploited in the way that it has been, and that we will be able to interdict, to the extent that we can, the flow of narcotics on to the streets of our country.

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