Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


11 JULY 2006

  Q1 Chairman: Secretary of State, you are most welcome to your first evidence session in front of the Defence Committee. Could I ask you to begin by introducing your colleagues, who I am sure we know already but nevertheless it would be helpful if you could for the record?

  Des Browne: Thank you very much indeed, Chairman. Can I thank you for inviting me here today. Can I just say I am a strong believer in democratic accountability, and having been a member of select committees myself, as I am sure you are aware, I think they have a real role to play in holding the Executive to account. I have with me to my right Brigadier Stephen Andrews, who is the Director of Service Personnel Policy Strategy; and David Gould, who is the Deputy Chief Executive of the Defence Procurement Agency.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you very much. You have been Secretary of State for two months. Could you say very briefly please what your top three priorities are?

  Des Browne: As you point out, I have been in this job for two months now, or 10 weeks as I reminded myself this morning. I have made it my priority over those 10 weeks to focus on the key strategic issues that defence is facing, and top of the list is of course Iraq and Afghanistan, and ensuring that our forces have the clear direction that they need and also the support, including force protection, that they need in both theatres, which I know is an issue that members of this Committee have taken a close interest in, and I am sure we will come on to that over the course of this session. There are also key issues in defence spending and procurement and of course the vital business of protecting the reputation of our Armed Forces. If that meets your requirement for three: our deployment in theatre; spending and procurement; and reputation.

  Q3  Chairman: Thank you. How will we know whether you have succeeded?

  Des Browne: I am absolutely certain that over the course of my term of office many people will make it their business to set exam questions for me and will also mark those papers and decide whether or not I have succeeded. I think that in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan our strategic approach to both is clear. There is in Iraq a developing opportunity with the standing up of the Government in Iraq for us to move to the position of transition to a democratic and, hopefully, peaceful Iraq. In Afghanistan I fear that our commitment may be significantly long term and it will be some time before we know whether we have a sustainable long-term position in Afghanistan, given the nature of that country. The test in relation to defence spending and procurement is whether we can achieve the ability to be able to deliver to our forces at the front-line the resources that they need and the support for those resources throughout the life of those resources, if they are platforms or more substantial capabilities, and also the ability to respond with the flexibility with which we will need to respond in this changing world and the terms of deployment of our expeditionary forces. Of course, the challenge in terms of defence spending will be to ensure that we have enough financial support to achieve those objectives.

  Q4  Chairman: Those are not very hard-edged criteria, would you not agree, as to whether you have succeeded or not as Secretary of State?

  Des Browne: Well, with respect Chairman, from where I am sitting 10 weeks into this job I think they are very challenging and hard-edged criteria. I have of course inherited, as you are aware, within the structure of government a number of performance targets which were with the Department before I came and we are, of course, in the process of a Comprehensive Spending Review which will generate other measures of success or failure or challenge going forward, but from the perspective that I have at the moment, I think these are very challenging and hard-edged. I have to accept, however, Chairman, that it seems to be that in the changing world in which we live there is not going to come a time when we are going to be able to say that the challenges that we face now and the issues in defence are completed. We will be looking at them long term and I am looking, from where I am at the moment, as these being long-term challenges.

  Chairman: Okay, thank you. You mentioned Iraq just now and moving on to that, Mark Lancaster?

  Q5  Mr Lancaster: Secretary of State, you will be aware that the Committee went to Iraq last month and I want to first explore, if I can, the handover of control of security for the four provinces for which we are currently responsible. On 19 June you announced that some time in July the Al Muthanna Province will be handed over to Iraqi control. We are now in the middle of July; is that still on schedule?

  Des Browne: As far as I understand it, the Iraqi Government intend to formally take over responsibility for Al Muthanna Province on 13 July.

  Q6  Mr Lancaster: Right, so literally within the next two days, hopefully. When we were there we visited Ten Division, which is the Iraqi division in the south there, and met Major General Abdul Al Latif Taban Mohammed. One of his principal concerns was that he lacked any great logistical support or equipment. Whilst his soldiers were making rapid progress, he lacked that support. Given that he lacked that support, are you still confident that the Iraqi Armed Forces as well as the Police are in a position to take over control of that province?

  Des Browne: I am satisfied that the process that was gone through to make the decision to commence the transition to local Iraqi forces in Al Muthanna was conducted properly and was exhaustive. I have to say that this is the beginning of the process. I recognise that while 10th Division of the Iraqi Army has made considerable progress, and quite a significant amount of it under our tutelage, because we have, we believe, trained 90% of that force to a very high standard—and can I just say slightly tangentially that I appreciate greatly the visits of your Committee both to Iraq and to Afghanistan and the very strong message that that gives to our forces on the ground of interest by parliamentarians cross-party to what they are doing and is very important to morale there. I, too, have visited Iraq now twice in the 10 weeks that I have been the Secretary of State and met with Major General Latif to discuss these very issues. I recognise that there are still challenges in relation to logistics but I am satisfied that we are making progress with regard to them. During the process of handover we will need to satisfy ourselves with our coalition partners that the logistical support that is necessary for the Iraqi Army to be able to play the role, as it will, in Al Muthanna Province is available to them. Bear in mind, of course, that while we and others who are with us—the Japanese in particular—will remove our small force from Al Muthanna, we will continue to overwatch and ensure that the forces get the support that they need.

  Q7 Mr Lancaster: If I can move on to the other three provinces briefly, Chairman, if I may, the first two, Maysan and Dhi Qar; where are we with those provinces. If I were a cynic I would say that one of the considerations would be whether or not there were any provinces in the north that could also be handed over at the same time to balance them. Is that a factor?

  Des Browne: I am not sure that, with respect Mr Lancaster, I fully understand the question of balance. You may want to supplement that question and perhaps you should do it now because I am not entirely sure—

  Q8  Mr Lancaster: From a political point of view, it would be advantageous to the Iraqi Government to have perhaps Kurdish provinces in the north handed over at the same time to give balance.

  Des Browne: I think the Committee will be aware of this from those whom they have spoken to in Iraq. In my second visit to Iraq, I spent a considerable amount of time speaking to ministers in Iraq in the new Government, to establish from my own point of view how well this Government was working together to get some sense of whether it had a coherent programme moving forward, but that is another matter. The point I want to make is that in your meetings with Iraqi ministers and your observation of what they have said, you will see that there is an ambition in the Iraqi Government, particularly expressed by the Prime Minister, to see substantial progress in relation to transition across Iraq, having announced at the beginning that they have a significant ambition to achieve transition in a substantial number of provinces within the next 12 months or thereabouts. I think that process as it evolves, with the Iraqi Government in the lead, will provide the level of balance that you think is politically important—and I agree with you that it will be politically important to see that this is not just happening in one part of Iraq because there are, arguably, 14 out of the 18 provinces that could be considered for inclusion in that process. As far as Maysan and Dhi Qar are concerned, it is our view, and I have expressed this view, that significant progress has been made in relation to both of those provinces. Dhi Qar, where the Italians were based, is, in my view, an early contender for inclusion in the process. I would be disappointed if the Iraqi Government, in consultation with the coalition, did not announce relatively soon that Dhi Qar was to be included. That is the same view as I take about Maysan but I recognise that Maysan has a particular geographical feature which requires some consideration, and that is the border with Iran. Of course, Maysan Province has always had that geographical feature. It has always been positioned where it is, and the history over centuries of that part of the world has meant that that border has not been recognised by a significant number of the people who live there because they believe that historically it was imposed on them by others who did not understand their culture. In terms of advance and in terms of suitability and inclusion for discussion in the process of transition, then my view is that Maysan Province ought to be included in those early discussions, too.

  Q9  Mr Lancaster: Finally, Chairman, just to complete the picture, can we look at Basra. When we were there we saw—and you will be aware, Secretary of State—that they are using this traffic light system of red, amber and green to assess whether or not a province is ready for handover, and Basra was red so the least likely to be handed over, but we are told hopefully they were looking at a date in October or November, which is really quite soon considering it is currently at red. We are also assured that any decision will be conditions-based, based on the effects on the ground. Is it just a coincidence that we seem to be aiming towards an October/November handover of Basra which happens to coincide with the next movement of our troops and perhaps an opportunity to downsize the number of troops? If I were a cynic I would say that apart from being conditions-based perhaps it is also politically-based and that there may be a connection to freeing up troops in Iraq to go elsewhere?

  Des Browne: Obviously, Mr Lancaster, you are free to be as cynical or otherwise as you choose to be. You can search anything that I have said or my predecessor has said or indeed any minister has said in relation to this and you will not find anywhere that we have put a date on any of these transitions. I am not in the business of putting dates on transition because we have been very clear from the outset—and this has been agreed with the Iraqi Government and with our allies there, the coalition forces—that the readiness or otherwise of a province for transition will be dependent upon conditions. It would probably be gratuitously boring of me to repeat those conditions because I am sure that every member of the Committee is familiar with the four of them. I see the Chairman nodding so I will resist the temptation that I am putting in front of myself to do that. It is undoubtedly the case that Basra, of the four provinces for which we have responsibility in MND(SE) in terms of command, is the most challenging. It is undoubtedly the case that there has been a significant amount of Shia on Shia violence there in the context of a power struggle in the political and economic situation, particularly in the period before the Government stood up. It is undoubtedly the case that although it is not nearly as bad as this sort of violence has proved to be in Baghdad, that there is also violence between the Shia and Sunni communities there. All of those issues, in my view, have to be addressed by a combination of a security plan which has been agreed almost in its totality with the central government, supported politically by the central government of Baghdad, reflecting hands-on leadership and direction by the government in Baghdad for the application and implementation of that security plan. It has partly been implemented in the sense that the Iraqi Army has been deployed to provide security in the streets of Basra, to some effect, although there continues to be violence, and I do not deny that and I suggest that that violence continues to create a challenge for us. Our ability to be able to deal with that and our ability to be able to reduce the threat to the point where their forces, including the Police (which needs significant reform) can deal with it, will be the beginning of us beginning to discuss the possibility of transition.

  Mr Lancaster: Thank you.

  Q10  Mr Holloway: Slightly following on from that, when we were there, I do not know what others felt but I found it slightly surreal that three years after the invasion we were still conducting patrols without an Iraqi face. I know that was down to the particular local political circumstances but what are we doing now in order to maintain the tolerance of the Iraqi civilian population and not look like an army of occupation? To what extent are we now wandering around with Iraqis?

  Des Browne: As I have already said to Mr Lancaster, we have in the context of the Basra security plan, although it is not properly completely formed and not properly completely supported in my view by the central government yet (although there is no lack of will to support it, there are details that have to be worked out) a significant deployment on the ground of the Iraqi Army, and we are supporting that Army in its patrolling on the ground in Basra in the hope that we can instil and build a level of security to create an opportunity for us to deal with the elements in the Police that need to be dealt with. Of course, that requires a degree of political coverage. These steps are now being taken but it is a transitional process.

  Q11  Mr Holloway: Do all our patrols have an Iraqi face now?

  Des Browne: I am not in a position to answer that question specifically but I will write to the Committee with the specific answer to that.[1] I have an impression but I would like to just check with the commanders on the ground what the specific answer is to that very specific question.

  Q12 Chairman: Could you do so because I think we have had the impression that that has improved quite significantly in the last three weeks or so, but it would be helpful if you would write to the Committee.

  Des Browne: Chairman, can I say I know it has improved significantly and I know that substantially the answer is yes. So the simple answer to the question is yes but I will establish whether or not it is absolute.

  Chairman: Thank you. Dai Havard?

  Q13  Mr Havard: Can I ask you about Provincial Reconstruction Teams. I have made three visits to Iraq in the last two years and the one thing that has been concerning not just me but a lot of other people is the mantra which we are all chanting which is that there is no military solution and that you also have to have reconstruction and politics put together with it in order to achieve anything. Over a period of time we have now got elected processes and Iraqis apparently in control of certain things. What were to me dysfunctional processes like the CPA and the Project Contract Office, have gone away. The latest idea to try and knit these things together is Provincial Reconstruction Teams. I was pleased to see some sort of intent—and the essential idea has come from our experience in Afghanistan presumably—but what is the process? Is it a way of us simply being able to better co-ordinate our responses in relation to that or is it a way of driving forward what ought to be the Iraqi national development and redevelopment plans?

  Des Browne: The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are primarily a focus for bringing together the assets that we have in Basra, which is what you are asking me about, not only from the military, from the MoD, but also from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from the Department for International Development, to focus our collective attention on reconstruction. I think the Committee will understand and certainly will understand clearly from their recent visit to Afghanistan that there is a correlation between the ability to be able to deliver security and to be able to deliver reconstruction. Those reconstruction teams also work in conjunction with the development arms of the Iraqi Government in order to deliver improvement and change. Can I just say that there are a number of very specific projects being led by the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Basra that have made significant progress.

  Q14  Chairman: Could you give an example?

  Des Browne: There are two projects in particular, one in relation to water and sewerage and the other in relation to electricity that have been long, involved projects that are within months of delivery. The difficulty is that they will not show until all of the work is done but all of the work is almost complete and they will be able to show significant progress. The second problem is that what work has been done, for example reconstruction work in relation to the electricity infrastructure, has been significant and improving work, but the security situation in parts of Iraq is such that we cannot advertise that that work has been done, because we have done it with Iraqi partners and we recognise that there is a danger if we advertise that work has been done with the coalition forces it might identify potential targets for other people, and we have to be very careful in terms of the personal security of Iraqis who work with us. That is a limiting factor in terms of being able to celebrate and brand improvements that have taken place but they are taking place inexorably.

  Q15  Mr Havard: Can I just follow that through for a second. That is part of the problem, is it not? One of the questions I was going to ask you was about finance. As I understand it, it is a way of drawing on a whole raft of different types of finances from all the organisations to which you have alluded, and maybe others later, but the whole business about who you involve in the process and the fact these are seen to be Iraqi plants at the end of the day and that the Iraqis are benefitting, not contractors from somewhere else, is a real problem, is it not, because you want to show to Iraqis that it is they who are doing it and they who have had successes, and yet we seem to be pretending that it is going to be some separate agency that has come in and delivered for them rather than with them or that they have done it?

  Des Browne: I do not think there is any sense of pretence about this at all. The one factor which will meet all of our needs in terms of Basra is to be able to see the improvements taking place and to be able to allow the local governments at provincial level or alternatively the central government to be able to take credit for that.

  Q16  Mr Havard: They should be claiming the victory.

  Des Browne: With respect, Mr Havard, it is not a question of victory; it is a question of improving the situation and showing to the people of Basra and the south east of Iraq, and indeed other parts of Iraq, that democratically elected government and good governance will deliver opportunities for them in terms of not only security but developmental opportunities and economic advance. It is that virtuous circle of security providing development providing security providing development that will eventually embed the democracy which is already well established in Iraq.

  Q17  Mr Havard: The PRT will be a driver for that? That is its intention?

  Des Browne: The PRT is making a significant contribution to that, yes.

  Chairman: We have a lot of ground to cover. I want to move on to Afghanistan.

  Q18  Mr Hancock: I want to ask one small question. It is about the assets once they are provided, the electricity, sewerage and water, which are vitally important. Are you satisfied that once they are commissioned and in place that there is an adequate force available to protect those assets or will that be a job for the coalition?

  Des Browne: I would say to you, Mr Hancock, that since the Iraqi Government stood up there has been a significant reduction in attacks upon the electricity infrastructure. We have argued from here that there was a relationship between the ability of the Government to be able to take control of its own country and the level of insurgency, and that includes attacks on infrastructure. The early indications are that—and it is maybe too early to say whether that will be sustained—there is progress in that direction.

  Chairman: Moving on to Afghanistan, David Hamilton?

  Q19  Mr Hamilton: Minister, yesterday you announced a substantial increase in the number of troops going into Afghanistan. Will that force us to reduce our commitments in Iraq, Bosnia or Kosovo?

  Des Browne: I think the answer to that is that we will take decisions in relation to the level of our deployment in all of those theatres in relation to the circumstances of the theatres themselves, and they will not influence each other.

1   Note: See Ev 22 Back

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