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The hon. Gentleman asks what our objectives are in Iraq. They have not changed. We are there at present in the context of a United Nations resolution to support the democratically elected Iraqi Government, to ensure that they run the country and, as I said in my statement, to support them at this challenging time. We should bear it in mind that the Government of national unity have been in existence for only 139 days. However, people are judging them against ambitions
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that would be challenging for Governments that had been in power for decades, if not centuries. They are facing attacks on their authority from terrorists. As I have explained from the Dispatch Box on numerous occasions, there are difficulties, especially in multinational division south-east and in Basra, due to competition for economic and political power.

We are there to provide support to the Iraqi security forces and that has not changed. In response to an earlier question, let me say that 307,000 members of those security forces—about half of them police officers—have been trained by the coalition since the training of forces started.

The hon. Gentleman asks about my view of the comments of others—people who, I hasten to add, have no responsibility of government and no responsibility in Iraq—on what they think might be best, or what people think they think might be best for the Iraqi people. In my view, but, more importantly, in the view of the Iraqi people and their Government, the break-up of Iraq is not in their best interests. Their constitutional position allows for federalism in some circumstances, but that is a matter that they need to work through, which is what politics is about. That work may be difficult and challenging, but that is what democratic politics is like. If we want Iraq’s Government to be a democratic Government, exercising control over their own people, we need to support them to do that.

Like the hon. Member for Woodspring, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) raises our inability during the period in which our forces were deployed in northern Helmand—supporting the Afghan provincial government at the request of President Karzai and the national Government—to mobilise our forces in the central part of Helmand to carry out reconstruction work. Everybody knows about that—it is an historical fact, well documented and debated. The decision was made by our commanders on the ground and I fully support them in that. It appears, from the way in which they have been able to fight the Taliban to a standstill and get the support of the local population in those areas, that that effort has been successful. That success must be sustained, which will be a challenge. However, redeployment of forces back into the centre will allow us to carry out reconstruction work.

I have here a document that sets out the reconstruction projects that have taken place in Helmand province, summarising completed projects, current projects and proposed projects. The document was provided to me by the Department for International Development for this statement. Rather than read it out, I shall place a copy in the Library so that all hon. Members can see what has been done. It is not the case that nothing has been done: a significant amount of reconstruction has been done in Helmand province, albeit not as much as we want.

Is General Richards right to say that the next six months will the most important period in the Afghan operation? Yes—but in the five months that I have been in my present job, every next six months has been the most important six months in both theatres of operation. Everybody tells me that, and it is always true. That is the challenge that we face over the winter, and we will have to be up to it.

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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. I visited Helmand province with the Select Committee on Defence in July and I can tell him that the men and women of the Army and Air Force we met there showed a high degree of bravery and morale is very high.

We also visited Lashkar Gah and the provincial reconstruction team there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if press reports that the brave DFID officer has been withdrawn are true, that will be a retrograde step?

Des Browne: The hon. Member for Woodspring also raised that issue, which is at the heart of what we are trying to do in reconstruction. Not only our Government, but our allies in NATO and the EU will consistently be faced with the challenge of helping countries to move from conflict, through reconstruction and into a positive future. Part of that challenge, as he said, is to decide what measure of security is sufficient for us to deploy people who have not signed up to the military. Incidentally, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that all three forces are represented in Afghanistan and are making a significant contribution there. We have to decide, realistically, what degree of security we can generate in circumstances such as those in Helmand province, and whether that is sufficient for us to deploy people who, unlike members of the military, do not sign up for the level of risk that those who sign up for the military are prepared to accept.

That is a significant challenge faced by the international community, and not just the British Government, so I have engaged with our international partners on it. We need to have a debate, because we need to find a way of delivering reconstruction in such circumstances repeatedly in future. There are many countries in Africa that we, as an international community, have ambitions to help. I am not suggesting that UK forces will be present, but other forces will be, and the exact circumstances will be replicated. We need to ask ourselves whether we can expose people doing reconstruction work to that level of risk, or where we can find and generate the partners who can do that work.

Those are not easy questions to answer, but I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who has been to the area and seen the problems for himself, that that does not necessarily mean that people need to be present in the theatre to be able to provide support for reconstruction. We can find partners, and the list of—

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): There is not even one NGO.

Des Browne: That is not entirely correct. We can find partners, in the form of local contractors and other people, who can deliver reconstruction work for us that develops the cycle that we all want, in which security leads to reconstruction and development, in turn generating more security. We all know that that is what we need to do. Simply identifying the problem does not help to resolve it.

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Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I should perhaps declare my interest as someone who may receive the operational payment. Although I shall donate mine to the Royal British Legion, I thank the Secretary of State on behalf of my fellow servicemen, as it is a small step in the right direction. Progress is being made, but it is painfully slow. There is a complete lack of capability or capacity in the provinces. The DFID officer has not been in Helmand for some months, and the military cannot deliver reconstruction; it can only deliver stability. Does the Secretary of State agree that the time has come for a degree of political honesty and that, if we are to achieve what the Government want to achieve in Afghanistan, we will be there not for two or three years, but for 15 or 20 years? The hand-to-mouth existence of the military simply cannot go on.

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “And gallant.”] I apologise; I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his personal contribution. Clearly, because of his own experience, he speaks from knowledge of the situation, and I recognise that. I thank him, too, for his welcome for the additional payment to troops deployed in operational theatre. I am sure that that they will take note of his comments. In passing, the pay review body was of course consulted about the payment and welcomed it. It constantly reviews the information on which it bases its advice, but it is independent of Government and I do not speak for it; it can speak for itself.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to be honest, on behalf of the Government, about the scale of the challenge that we have taken on. I have endeavoured to be just that throughout the time that I have been Secretary of State for Defence. I hasten to add that my predecessor, who had responsibility for deploying troops to Afghanistan, was honest, too. The fact of the matter is that, for political purposes, people seek to edit the words that he used. They ignore the four and a half pages of his statement and take one phrase. That is the dishonesty in the way in which matters have been explained to the people of the United Kingdom.

People need only look at the configuration of the force that we sent to Helmand province. We sent paratroopers, eight Apache attack helicopters, and artillery. If there is any suggestion that that in any way supports a conclusion other than that we were configured for the possibility of doing some war fighting in those circumstances, it defies logic. The fact of the matter is that this was always going to be difficult. The southern part of Afghanistan is the Taliban’s heartland, and it was always going to be difficult. It was always going to require a long-term commitment to that country by NATO, the United Nations and the developed world. This obsession about time does not help us to get the job done. There is no alternative to doing this job: it is the most noble—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I stop the Secretary of State? I allowed a long statement and a long response from Front Benchers because of the nature of this statement. This shows that Front Benchers can take an inordinate amount of time out of these statements. From this point on, I want very brief questions and brief answers. In the near future I will be making a Speaker’s statement regarding the nature of statements
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that are brought to this House. Back Benchers are not getting the chance to which they are entitled.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): In view of the endless slaughter of largely innocent civilians in Iraq and the inability of the occupation authorities to provide the necessary protection in any way whatsoever, is there not a case for seriously considering whether the whole issue of Iraq should be referred back to the Security Council of the United Nations? Why should we believe that the situation will be any different next year or the year after?

Des Browne: The answer to my hon. Friend is perfectly simple. There is due to be a renewal of the United Nations Security Council resolution and we will presumably have the opportunity to debate it.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Given that the increasingly dangerous and bloody mission in which our brave soldiers are engaged in Helmand province is, whatever the Secretary of State says, completely different from the peaceful mission of reconstruction that the Government rashly told us was the original purpose of our deployment, is it not time for the Government to review the whole question of our deployment into Helmand—in particular, so as to determine what benefits it is currently bringing to the people of that province?

Des Browne: The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be aware that the deployment into Helmand is not increasingly dangerous—in fact, over the past four weeks it has become increasingly stable and productive and more generating of circumstances that will allow us to do the reconstruction work that we went there to do in the first place.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. In view of the comments that have been made about the lack of progress in Afghanistan, can he say a little more about the progress that has been made as regards the position of women there? For example, about a quarter of the Afghanistan Parliament comprises women Members—women who, under the Taliban, would have been not only required to wear a certain form of dress but virtually excluded from society.

Des Browne: The simplest answer that I can give my right hon. Friend is that there are now 5 million children in school in Afghanistan, one third of whom are girls who were denied education under the Taliban. However, the most impressive statistic that has come out of what we have achieved as an international community in Afghanistan is that 4.5 million people who chose to live outside Afghanistan and who had families and connections there have gone back to live in the country. This is the single biggest repatriation of refugees that the world has ever known.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Is not the truth of the matter that artillery and Apache helicopters are rather limited in their abilities as regards reconstruction, that the military operation has been wholly unaccompanied by an equivalent level of reconstruction, and that as a result the past six months
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of British efforts in Afghanistan have made worse, not better, the situation with regard to support for the foreign military intervention from the local peasant farmers whom we are trying to help?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman makes exactly the point that I made to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). Because of the way in which commanding officers, appropriately, deployed our troops at the point at which they went into Helmand, they were not available to be able to generate for the central area of Helmand the security that they were sent there to generate in order to support the reconstruction work. Increasingly, however, the opportunity is there for them to be available. They have been supported by the additional troops that I announced in July. That opportunity will become apparent over the winter months. The challenge is whether we can take that opportunity to start the reconstruction at the level that we planned.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of the operational bonus. When I visited Iraq earlier this year, I met the troops and saw the conditions in which they were operating. I represent Portsmouth—the home of the Royal Navy, which is also playing its part in Iraq by protecting Iraqi oil platforms and training the Iraqi navy. Will he confirm that this bonus will apply to sailors in the Royal Navy deployed on operations in Iraq?

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for her support, and for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that the Royal Navy is doing in Iraq to protect the oil infrastructure that generates almost all the income that the Iraqi Government now enjoy from their own oil reserves. I had the privilege of visiting HMS Kent when I went to Iraq in August, and I was able to see for myself the work that was being done. Those people are equally committed, equally brave and equally professional.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Secretary of State has recognised in his statement that there have been genuine concerns about the medical care of the wounded who are being repatriated to the United Kingdom, in that a military-managed wing is to be opened at Selly Oak hospital. Will he tell the House what proportion of those who are repatriated will be treated in that wing, and whether other military-managed wings are to be opened in other NHS facilities?

Des Browne: The disposition of patients in terms of their care is related to their clinical need. I am not in a position to make decisions about the clinical needs of those who return from Afghanistan or Iraq for whatever reason. The majority of those who are medically evacuated from those theatres are returned not because of injuries that they have received in combat but for epidemiological reasons similar to those experienced by the general population. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, therefore, much as I would like to answer his question simply and quickly, I have no idea how to answer it because I have no idea
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what we will be facing. However, one of the beauties of our being able to treat people who are returned to this country in the national health system is that it gives them access to some of the best care in the world.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give us an estimate of the number of soldiers and civilians—in addition to the tragic loss of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—who have died in both countries since the operation began five years ago in Afghanistan and three and a half years ago in Iraq?

Des Browne: I am not in the business of making estimates of the number of people who have died, any more than I would be in the business of estimating the number whom Saddam Hussein killed, or the number of citizens of Afghanistan who gave their lives to secure the freedom and the democratically elected Government they now enjoy. However, if I were to estimate the number that Saddam Hussein killed and the number of Afghans who have given their lives to secure that freedom, I suspect that, in both cases, it would be in the millions.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the soldiers of 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, who have served with great distinction and courage in Afghanistan, losing three of their number in tragic circumstances? Will he also give me a commitment that those men and women will receive the food and water supplies that they need, as there have been logistical difficulties in ensuring that those supplies arrive regularly and on time?

Des Browne: I have no difficulty in accepting the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to pay tribute to those who have served, whether in the Royal Irish Regiment or any other regiment or unit in any of the services. I do that freely because they are entitled to that tribute. However, I should like to make a point about rations during war fighting. It devalues the contribution that troops, particularly soldiers, make in those circumstances—and, to some degree, sanitises how difficult, dirty and dangerous their work is—if we seek to explain the fact that soldiers have to live in uncomfortable positions by saying that it is because of a failure of logistics or supply. Often, this is simply a function of how dangerous the circumstances are, and we ought to recognise that as part of the reason why we should pay such a significant tribute to those people.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he confirm that the excellent United Kingdom support currently given to the Afghan security sector will be continued, and will he consider allowing it to grow? I ask because I think it significant to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. If it does not happen, I think that the indictment for all of us will be that the Taliban will be given the word go, and its tyranny will be seen by all local Afghan people.

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Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for her support. She is right to suggest that in Afghanistan the exit strategy for all who are there from other countries is building up of the Afghan Government’s ability not just to govern, but to secure their own people through professional forces at both army and police level. That is our significant focus, and that is why in July I announced that additional troops would go out and work with the security sector, training Afghan forces to take over from us. We need to do that, we need to do more of it, and we need to do it very effectively, because that is the test of our ability to reconstruct and to secure Afghanistan. My hon. Friend is perfectly correct in that regard.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): In his statement, the Secretary of State asserted that “the best medical care is to be found inside the NHS for our returning troops that are injured”. How does he square that with the farming out of combat-stressed casualties to Labour-donor-run Priory clinics, and the destruction on his watch of the discipline of military psychiatry?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has quoted part of what I said. At that point, as I recollect, I was referring to the quality of care available in a specific trust at Selly Oak which has an international reputation for trauma medicine. That is why the decision was made to base the centre of our medical support there.

I accept that there are challenges in relation to the provision of, in particular, psychiatric care. Statements were being made about that before my watch, and I am endeavouring—with the ministerial team, and with the support of the medical structure that we have—to provide the level of support that is appropriate for those who have undergone these experiences.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to look at his own party’s record in relation to the medical care of our troops before he starts criticising other people.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and in particular for the update on Afghanistan. Will he clarify whether recent successes against the Taliban have been strong enough to create circumstances in which the schools and health centres that they recently destroyed can be rebuilt, and whether it is safe for women to exercise a public role—even a limited one—or to take up employment without fear of execution?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend has set one of a number of tests of whether reconstruction is working. In the detail of the discussions between community leaders, the Afghan Government, the provincial government in Helmand and indeed the NATO forces, the reconstruction of schools is at the heart of what we are about. It is a symbol of significant progress. That is why a statistic that I frequently use as a test of progress is the number of girls in education. The ability to liberate girls and women from the tyranny of the Taliban will, I believe, be the consistent measure of our progress.

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