Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


11 JULY 2006

  Q20  Mr Hamilton: The security situation in Helmand Province has altered and is quite tenuous. Has that altered the proposal of the timetable for ISAF to look at the remaining issues in eastern Afghanistan?

  Des Browne: The transfer of authority in relation to stage three of ISAF is due on or about the end of this month, as far as I recollect, and then it is our ambition that we will move quickly to stage four because the logic of this deployment of ISAF forces south and east is that the best opportunities may be created when stage four takes place and then we can, as people will understand and would have been obvious to you in Afghanistan, bring under the single control of ISAF quite significant assets which the Americans have available, in particular air support, and you would have seen the significant presence of air support that the Americans have available at Kandahar Airfield. The conditions that will allow that are a matter for discussion in NATO, and in particular involving the United States, and those discussions continue. It is our ambition to be able to see an early move to stage four, for the very obvious reasons that I have just expressed.

  Q21  Mr Hamilton: The takeover is on 31 July so that is going to be rather difficult. Minister, could I express a view that, like most Members of Parliament, we have a good feeling in our constituencies for what is happening throughout the area. I support Afghanistan. I believe that what we are doing there is good work and I am pleased to see that the troops actually believe the same. However, I am rather concerned that more and more people are not distinguishing between Afghanistan and Iraq, ie in one country it is an army of occupation—that is a point of view—and in the other country we are there to try and support. It does worry me that the view being expressed by I think a substantial number of the public is that they see no difference. How do you overcome that?

  Des Browne: The fact that people play from one theatre into another their views, whether they be prejudiced views or whether they be views that they hold for reasons of analysis, and the transfer of views that relate to one theatre into another is a degree of prejudice, and I do not use that in a pejorative sense. That does concern me. Repeatedly in the opportunities that I have had to put across an explanation of what we are doing in Afghanistan I have faced down just those allegations on a number of occasions, but I have long learned that I cannot control what other people say or do or indeed write. Those people who are opposed to the Government's position in Afghanistan in that sense get a vote as well as everybody else and they exercise that vote and will deploy the resources that they want in order to undermine the Government's position. My position is unequivocally clear, and I have made it plain in the House on a number of occasions and outside of the House, and that is Afghanistan is a noble cause, supported by the United Nations, supported by NATO, supported by a significant number of other countries (almost the whole of the developed world), supported by the Afghan Government themselves, and supported by the Afghan people. The only way that I can overcome the prejudice that you identify in other people is to continue to explain as best I can why we are there and what we are doing and hope that people begin to understand it. I have, I have to say, had a sense over the last weeks that some of these arguments are beginning to get through, certainly in the media, and that there has been a balanced reporting of Afghanistan, explaining not just the challenges, which are manifest and everybody knows are there (and it does not make the place any less dangerous or any less difficult to do because it is a noble cause) but I think there is a degree of support for what we are doing in Afghanistan that would be reflected in public opinion.

  Chairman: Almost every single colleague here has caught my eye and I will be as fair as I can be and I will get round to everybody but I will start with Mark Lancaster.

  Q22  Mr Lancaster: I want to probe the nature of the reinforcement. I mentioned it briefly in the Chamber but when you look at the troops that you have announced yesterday, certainly from an infantry point of view, they are all composite companies. We are talking about a company being formed from a whole Commando brigade. We are talking about a company being formed taken from the Second Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. We are having to cobble together companies in order to try and reinforce Afghanistan. If the current spike of activity continues beyond the duration they are expecting of a couple of months, is this not a clear sign of the absolute overstretch of our troops? What are you going to do next? Cobble together more companies? Is there a single formed infantry company going or are they all composite companies?

  Des Browne: I am not in a position to answer that question in detail. It may well be that Brigadier Andrews is able to answer that question specifically.

  Brigadier Andrews: I am sorry, I am not able to.

  Mr Lancaster: Can you really not find one single formed company to go to Afghanistan at the moment?

  Chairman: This is not meant to be critical of Mr Lancaster but I think he asked it yesterday.

  Mr Lancaster: I did not get an answer.

  Chairman: It would be helpful if you could possibly write to us with an answer to the question which has now been asked twice.[2]

  Q23 Mr Lancaster: And no answer.

  Des Browne: Chairman, I appreciate that and to the extent I am unable answer that question, then clearly that is a criticism of me and I should have anticipated that very specific question. I will provide the information. I suspect that the question is designed in that form to draw attention to a broader issue than just that specific point.

  Q24  Chairman: That is fair.

  Des Browne: If I can address the larger issue, which is the issue of whether I am anticipating or, indeed, expecting that we will need to do just the sort of thing that Mr Lancaster suggested that I would need to do next, I say to him that a significant amount of thought and preparation went into that announcement yesterday. As I said in the House, the process of review started some time ago, indeed, it started around about May, and it went through the normal processes of being "staffed up", as they say in the Ministry of Defence, until the point when it came to me, and I am satisfied that we have now made a decision that will give us the full strength and the configuration that we need for the future in Afghanistan and so I am not anticipating or expecting doing the sort of thing that Mr Lancaster has suggested. With regard to the question of stretch, I do not accept that we are overstretched. The CDS made it perfectly plain yesterday that our forces are stretched in relation to certain key aspects. There is a degree of stretch but we are able to carry out what we need to do. That is all set against, of course, the context that, in my view, we do not have any alternative but to do what we are doing in Afghanistan, for all of the reasons that I have listed on a number of occasions in the House and do not wish to repeat.

  Q25  Chairman: Secretary of State, did you say you do not accept that there is a degree of overstretch or that you do accept that there is?

  Des Browne: I do not accept that we are overstretched; I accept that there is stretch.

  Q26  Chairman: Even though you said yesterday that most of our forces would be outside the harmony guidelines?

  Des Browne: Yes. I am praying in aid the words of the chief of the defence staff, who, when asked these very questions yesterday repeatedly on the media, said, yes, our forces were stretched but they were not overstretched.

  Q27  Mr Hancock: I would like to ask two specific questions. I think the word that you used was people being "prejudiced" against the Government's actions on behalf of this country in Afghanistan. I think "prejudice" is the wrong word. I think most people in this country rightly thought the fighting in Afghanistan was over and believed that to be the case four or five years ago and are a little surprised by what has happened. So, I do not think "prejudice" is the right word, I think the British people are rightly surprised at what has happened in Afghanistan. My main question is this: once again, it would appear that the UK are providing a disproportional amount of fighting soldiers to those of our NATO allies, excluding the Americans, and I am a little surprised, to say the least, because I thought when we entered into this, other than the command structure, which was going to be wholly UK, the fighting elements or the other troops involved would be fairly spread across other NATO countries. I await with great interest, unless you can tell us today, announcements in other foreign capitals of NATO countries of their increased numbers of deployed troops to Afghanistan who will actually do some fighting. I think the British people are entitled to a straight answer about where our NATO allies are on this very important issue of troops who will do fighting in Helmand province, the same as British soldiers are expected to do.

  Des Browne: In relation to the preamble to your question, I used the word "prejudice" in the context of the question that Mr Hamilton asked in a very specific way and I made it very clear that I was using it in a very specific way, but it would not advance anybody's understanding of anything for us to debate that at any great length, so I will resist the temptation to do so. ISAF is a NATO force. It is true that we have accepted responsibility with the Danes and, to a lesser degree, the Estonians, who make a very small contribution to what we are doing but, nonetheless, are presently for Helmand province. We have accepted the responsibility to generate the force that is necessary to do the task that we have taken on, and I look to all of our other NATO allies to generate the force that is necessary to carry out the responsibilities that they have taken on. I accept that that needs to be a continuing discussion and I continue to have those discussions both with the NATO commander, with the General Secretary of NATO and with my fellow ministers of defence in NATO countries to encourage them to do more where they have the capability to do it.

  Q28  Mr Hancock: Has the British Government specifically requested the NATO Council to increase the number of troops deployed from other NATO countries to Helmand province?

  Des Browne: No.

  Q29  Mr Hancock: Why not?

  Des Browne: Because I do not accept that it is necessary for us to specifically request other countries to provide forces for Helmand province. I think we need to look at what we are doing in Afghanistan across the country, and other countries, including many of our NATO allies, are making a significant contribution, proportionate in many cases to their ability to be able to do it in other parts of Afghanistan, but we continue to argue for additional deployments where we believe there is the appropriate capacity for that to happen.

  Q30  Chairman: Do you believe that the share of the load in Afghanistan taken by the British is fair?

  Des Browne: I believe that the share of the load taken by the British in Afghanistan is appropriate to the level of responsibility that we took on. We took on the responsibility to make a contribution in the context of the weight of NATO forces and Helmand, but the overall force that NATO have deployed in Afghanistan covers more than just that part of Southern Afghanistan.

  Q31  Mr Hancock: Very few of the countries have troops on the ground who are actually willing to go in and engage the enemy, whether that be the Taliban or anybody else, and disproportionately the UK are bearing the brunt of that, with the exception of the American forces that are deployed there, but they are not there as part of NATO, they are there as part of the US Armed Forces. The American soldiers in Afghanistan are not under NATO command?

  Des Browne: The forces that are deployed to the south in terms of ISAF and are under the commander of ISAF are not deployed there with any caveats that prevent them doing what you say.

  Q32  Mr Jenkins: Secretary of State, I wonder if you would outline something for me, either today or in a note. I am not quite sure with regard to Afghanistan the exact position we are in and why we are there. I have got two stories here. First of all, when we went in we went in with "scenario A" and we are now meeting, albeit I think for legitimate reasons, more resistance, so we need extra troops to safeguard and secure "scenario A". The alternative story is that we went in to do "scenario A", it went so well we moved on to "scenario B" and now we require the extra troops to ensure that we are going to do and A and B at the same time because we are now pushing back the Taliban and gaining greater ground at a faster rate than anticipated. Could you clarify exactly what it is, which scenario is the right one, and also can you tell us what the difference is between A and B, so that I can have it clarified in my own mind?

  Des Browne: I think what we cannot do, Mr Jenkins, is separate the need for security from the necessity of rebuilding and reconstruction. The two of these go together in the context of Southern Afghanistan. We need to create security in order to rebuild, and it is the division of these two necessary component elements of what we are doing into separate processes or parts of the process, saying that they are mutually contradictory that is at the root of this apparent confusion about what we are doing in Afghanistan. I cannot make it any plainer than to say that the original configuration of the force, including Apache helicopters, Attack helicopters, including artillery, including some of our most able fighting units should have made it clear to anybody and, indeed, was explained as being configured and also to generate the security that would allow reconstruction to take place. These are not two contradictory elements of what we are doing and to suggest that we went in to do reconstruction and now we are doing something else is fundamentally to misunderstand what I believe was explained quite clearly by my predecessor at the point of deployment. Chairman, if you would allow me just a few sentences on this. I will not go into the detail that I could, but what has happened is that when we deployed, in terms of delivering security, the commanders on the ground saw an opportunity to go further and to go faster than we had originally planned. That has been successful. The measure of success, of course, is contradicted by the fact that we have lost brave soldiers in doing that, apparently, superficially, but that is not the only determinate of whether this is successful. We have in fact, in doing what we have done, created a degree of security in very key and important parts of Northern Helmand, and in doing that the commanders made a decision to reinforce the best way of government and to support the Government. That has generated a level of challenge in terms of the resource that we have had, that has now been fed back to us and we have reinforced and increased deployment in order to hold that success, to sustain it for the length of time that it needs to be sustained but also to allow it to continue to do what was at the core of our plan in the first place, which was in Central Helmand.

  Q33  Mr Borrow: I just wanted to touch on the issue of confusion over what the mission is, because some of the commentators here in recent weeks have talked about confusion about what we are trying to do in Afghanistan and, certainly when we were there last week, I thought that the service men and women had complete clarity on what the mission was. I wonder, Minister, whether you want to comment on the fact that, if our service men and women in Afghanistan had absolute clarity on their role and their mission, is it not strange that so many commentators here seem to be so confused?

  Des Browne: With respect, Mr Borrow, I do not think it is strange because there are people who, for whatever reason (and I will avoid the word "prejudice" again) consider it in their interest to be able to suggest that there is confusion about this and create the confusion and then consult that confusion that they have created to say that there is confusion. There has been, in my view, clarity about what we are doing. What we are doing in Afghanistan is necessarily complex because it is a very complex environment and it is an environment which has been created after three decades of conflict and, indeed, a substantial part of that outright warfare. It is a very complex environment, but there is a clarity about what we are doing, and it does not surprise me, frankly, that the message that the members of the Committee got back from our forces on the ground had the clarity that I got from them when I visited Afghanistan. Indeed, when I go to Iraq I distinctly remember conversations with 18 year old squaddies who had a far clearer understanding of what they were doing than many people back here thought. In any event, be that as it may, they have the clarity, their commanders understand what they are doing, their commanders understand the complexity of the situation and they understand what they need to do to be able to achieve their objective. There is the danger that this analysis begins to sound complacent, but it is not complacent in any sense at all. The dangers that are involved in this are significant, the level of risk that our troops take on when they do this are significant, and I understand that, and that is why I take very seriously my responsibility to ensure that they have the resource to carry it out, but, frankly, and I repeat what I have now said on a number of occasions, it does not help their safety for people to be playing into that environment the fact that there is confusion. I want to make this point. It was instructive yesterday, in my view, that there was played on our media an interview with a Taliban commander, and the timing of that interview must have, probably did, predate the actual announcement in Parliament of the deployment of extra resource. Anybody who wants to understand the danger of seeding confusion when no confusion exists should listen to that interview and hear that man, who is capable of some of the worst brutality you can imagine, saying, quite specifically, "British Forces say they are here for reconstruction purposes. They are not. They are here for different purposes altogether. They are here to fight a war". Feeding that information back into the communities of Southern Helmand puts our troops at risk. The Taliban have a very, very impressive information operation and every single word that is said here in our media and in our Parliament is taken advantage of by them and, in my view, it is careless with the lives our soldiers to seed confusion where no confusion exists.

  Q34  Mr Borrow: Secretary of State, that is the point. The people that I speak to in Helmand and, indeed, some of your own commanders and diplomats, take the view that we are very far behind in terms of the information war that the opinion is being dominated by the Taliban with the villages, and that also extends to reconstruction. According to your people, actually only a tiny amount of reconstruction has been delivered so far. You talk about having an environment of security to do reconstruction, but what is to stop you, as the Dutch are doing, using large groups of locals and branding that reconstruction British, because we have only got a limited window to maintain the goodwill of the Afghan villages?

  Des Browne: I think the simple answer, Mr Borrow, is that there is nothing to stop us taking advantage of opportunities that present to us to use local labour, whether it be organised by us or organised by other companies or organisations in the communities or, indeed, the communities themselves to do just that work. Part of the announcement I made yesterday was to employ 320 engineers from 28 Regiment Royal Engineers to start those sorts of projects in the environment that we are creating.

  Q35  Mr Jones: Like Mr Borrow, I was quite impressed by the clarity of what the mission is in terms of people we met right from General Richards downwards. Also, talking to commanders on the ground, they were quite clear that they anticipated the action which is taking place now, the difficulties that would take place in terms of taking, I think, as one described it, the fight into the Taliban's back yard and also arguing that it was important to do that rather than sitting in bases and waiting for them to come to you; but I have to say, Secretary of State, have we not got to also agree and accept that your predecessor, in terms of the way he spun this out in terms of the spin machine he obviously uses on a daily basis even in his new department, actually led the public to believe that this was going to be a little bit like the North, it was going to be a cakewalk, there was not going to be any real action and, in fact, we were going to be welcomed with open arms in Helmand. Are we not actually responding really in the press to that map that he set out and the confusion that he set out that you are now able to demonstrate quite ably what is actually going on?

  Des Browne: I do not accept that my predecessor, John Reid, did anything other than explain how difficult this was going to be, and I have repeatedly gone back to the extensive statement and question and answer session that was conducted in the context of that statement on 26 January to reassure myself that he did do all of what I am saying and explain how difficult this was going to be when he announced the deployment. I think what has happened is that you have used a particular phrase which is now being taken out of context and, in fact, consistently misreported. In the context of questions that were put to him about what the purpose was in going into Afghanistan, to use the phrase which, as I say, has now been taken out of that context, he was reassuring, I thought, the question, and others, that it was not our intention to go there to hunt down the Taliban.

  Q36  Mr Jones: But it was; I am sorry. General Richards and others explained to us last week that part of the plan, which is taking place now in terms of Operation Mountain Thrust, was always to go after the Taliban; so this idea that somehow we have walked into this by mistake, unless commanders have told us something different and it is wrong, that was always part of the plan?

  Des Browne: That is quite a complex question actually and when I give you the answer I think the Committee will realise that. Operation Mountain Thrust is an aspect of Operation Enduring Freedom, which is not under ISAF control and is not part of what we are doing with the Helmand taskforce.

  Mr Jones: I am sorry; that is not what was explained to us last week.

  Mr Havard: Yes, it was. You have misunderstood it.

  Q37  Chairman: Let us allow the Secretary of state to answer.

  Des Browne: There appears to be a significant disadvantage to me, Chairman. I was not with the Committee last week in order to be able to settle this competition as to what was actually said, but let me just explain to the Committee what my position is and what my understanding is. I think that may be helpful and may advance the discussion and debate. Operation Enduring Freedom is the American-led operation to hunt down the Taliban, to hunt down the terrorists. It is undoubtedly the case that in the northern part of Helmand, in the mountains in particular, that operation is taking place. As I understand the situation, the coincidence of that operation taking place and other factors created an opportunity for us in terms of our deployment to move into that area to create some level of security. That is what happened, but we were not part of Operation Mountain Thrust in doing that. I understand that that creates a degree of complexity because the same, or near, space can be occupied by two operations doing different things. The intention and the deployment of our troops into Helmand was to generate security with a view to development and to continue with the reconstruction focus. Clearly, that meant that we had to be ready to fight in certain circumstances, particularly since it was expected. It had been anticipated in the planning that people, including the Taliban, would want to stop us trying to do that. That is what has happened. However, because of a whole series of factors, some of which are relating to what I have just said, some of which are relating to opportunities to reinforce the local governments and were operational decisions by the commanders, we have got ourselves into the position where we are further ahead and more geographically spread than we had planned to be in the first place, and that is the necessity for the additional resources.

  Chairman: I do not want to get into a debate about what we were or were not told last week, so if you could carry on with the Secretary of State.

  Q38  Mr Jones: The important point, which was made to us on a number of occasions, I accept the difference between the two operations, but it was made quite clear that the operation right from the beginning was not to sit in bases and wait for the Taliban to come to us, we were actually going to go and take the fight to them. In terms of how that was spun out originally, that was not how it was done, the idea that this was going to be a reconstruction phase. I am not saying that I disagree with the strategy, I think it is a correct one, frankly, to actually take the fight to them if you are going to bring in the reconstruction, but it is quite clear from the commanders who have briefed us that that always was part of the strategy, which actually was a correct one.

  Des Browne: I think this is a discussion about whether my predecessor explained this properly or not. I am absolutely certain that he did explain it properly. I am also certain that those people who did not want to hear it explained in that way, took advantage of one phrase that you have used and have themselves spun that phrase into a position where it is now routinely misrepresented in order to support a particular argument. I do not think repetition of it here would help, and I am not going to repeat it, but that is what happened and I do not accept the fundamental premise of your argument, with respect, Mr Jones, that John Reid did not explain what was happening properly.

  Chairman: I want to move on to the very important position of the Afghan National Army, Dai Havard.

  Q39  Mr Havard: Can I say one thing that I brought away from this visit was that there had been a change, and the change was the visit of the DfID minister, in part, the fact that the quick improvement projects were going to go ahead and the fact that you have got 320 engineers going to support that activity is absolutely crucial, it seems to me, in the whole business of the reconstruction, but the other element in that to support it is the Afghan National Army. We saw the new training camp being built just to the side of the bastion, and all of that sort of stuff. Unlike the Americans embedded trainers, we have these mentors, liaison OMLETs, or whatever they are called. We met some of those, and I notice in your statement yesterday, and I would like you to explain this a bit further, if you would, you said, "We are going to step up our efforts in this area and we are therefore deploying additional staff in Helmand to do that, because these Afghan National Army people are being trained as they are deployed." Naturally the Governor wants people on the ground, and that is happening, but I wonder whether you could say something about that, because the other element that we also saw was the new officer/cadet training establishment, which was not there when I went there last November, and they have done an amazing amount of work in the period since January to get it up and going, but it is a question of how you resource these things. What I could see was resources being taken from operational activity in order to support a training activity, and so I would like to know a little bit more about how you are going to resource that element which seems to be absolutely crucial in any plan that you have got about security involved in the Afghan National Army?

  Des Browne: I think that you are absolutely right to recognise the development of the Afghan National Army and the improvement of their capability to be able to take over responsibility for security increasingly as being very important. That development clearly is part of our exit strategy from Afghanistan. When I visited Afghanistan I was able to see on the ground the success of the OMLETs, the success of those people whom we had embedded with Afghan National Army units. I was struck by the fact that there were fewer of them than I had expected, and I took advantage of an early meeting with Defence Minister Wardak to quite specifically challenge him to provide additional resource. He also recognised how beneficial it had been to his troops to be working very closely with ours. Indeed, we have troops in Afghanistan who are with these kandaks, as they call them, actually living with them, fighting with them and sharing everything with them, which has been remarkably successful; and the reports back that I was given, and I am sure you were given, was that these were very brave people who were very good soldiers and they were developing significantly under our tutelage. I am now told that additional Afghan troops are being sent to Helmand and we are increasing our ability to be able to provide that level of support to them. I have to say also, I discussed with the Minister the possibility that by deployment to the Regional Army Headquarters and other places we would be able to interact with these troops before their deployment so that we could encourage them to come into Helmand, which for some of them is a challenge because of what they hear about Helmand province, and that is what we are seeking to do with the additional resource that I have identified.

2   Note: See Ev 22 Back

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