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NATO cannot do the work of supporting governance and development by itself; nor should it. We have to improve the way we work with organisations such as the United Nations, the European Union, non-governmental organisations and national Governments who provide civilian capability. Yesterday, we agreed to develop new proposals for improving civil-military partnerships throughout all stages of operations, from planning to execution on the ground. NATO does not and should not pretend to be the sole means of creating and maintaining security. The civilians and military working in places such Afghanistan or Kosovo are working for the same aims; it is not a zero-sum game, where support for the UN or the EU is a defeat for NATO or vice versa.
Many commentators feared that the summit in Riga would be a waste of time and at worst a failure. Those fears were unfounded. The summit reaffirmed the strength of purpose within the alliance and its commitment to remain a force for good in the 21st century.
NATO is not perfect. It needs to prepare for tomorrows challenges while continuing to adapt to todays operational needs. It has started the process of transformation and it is the responsibility of all of us, individually and collectively, to support that process. In protecting our security and our vital interests, there is no alternative to working within international organisations, and over the past 50 years NATO has proved itself to be one of the best we have. It deserves our continuing loyalty and support.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Secretary of States statement reflects the outcome of a very disappointing summit. Had it been otherwise the Prime Minister would undoubtedly have been at the Dispatch Box to claim the credit for himself.
We agree with the communiqués goal of avoiding unnecessary duplication between NATO and the EU. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is crucial that EU members of NATO take active steps to prevent such duplication? Indeed, what duplication would ever be necessary, and is not that at the heart of the present crisis in relations between NATO and the EU, which is of the Prime Ministers making?
We welcome the call for member nations to halt the decline in defence spending, but it underlines the Governments failure to reverse the decline over the past 10 years. Why has the summit abandoned the spending floor of 2 per cent. of gross domestic product? Have the Government allowed that commitment to be dropped?
The big question is, of course, AfghanistanNATOs first out-of-area operation, which is the most critical challenge facing NATO and the future credibility of the organisation. Is it not profoundly disappointing that France, Germany and Italy, which together have more than 5,500 troops in Afghanistan, have all flatly refused to commit them to Helmand, where they are most needed, save, as the communiqué states, in emergencies? Surely the continuing loss of British, American, Dutch and Canadian soldiers
constitutes such an emergency. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Minister for the Middle East, who said:
The view seems to say that its alright for British soldiers to die in defence of the West, but its not alright for others?
Does the Secretary of State understand the magnitude of the challenge facing him when this nations European NATO partners fail to meet their obligations? We now have an Army of under 100,000. We are committed to two major concurrent operations. We are short of helicopters and close air support, and lack proper protective vehicles, and we are supplied with second-rate ammunition. How long does he think that he can sustain this tempo of operations without others shouldering their fair share of the burden? Now we are told that the Royal Marines have had the promised extra money denied them, as they are in theatre, with the consequent damage to their morale.
What discussions took place at Riga regarding the need for a greater commitment to reconstruction in Afghanistan and what decisions were reached in respect of poppy cultivation? Does the Secretary of State agree that to destroy the livelihood of poppy growers without offering them comparable incomes will put the lives of our armed forces at greater risk and increase support for the insurgents?
Russia was the ghost at the feast. We note that NATO is to assess the risk to our energy security, but why is there nothing of substance in the communiqué on that vital matter? It has been a firm Government policy that Serbia could join the partnership for peace only once it had delivered those accused of war crimes, and yet we were told that Serbia would join the PFP without delivering. Why the U-turn? What signal does that send to those who have shielded war criminals for years?
Finally, we note that NATOs missile defence feasibility study has been completed. Why has the Secretary of State not reported to the House on those developments, which are vital to the security of NATO members? Why does he refuse to answer questions about that matter in this place? Did he discuss with his NATO counterparts the possibility of ground-based interceptors being located on British soil?
We believe that NATO remains the cornerstone of our security, but it faces a potentially serious crisis. The summit failed to meet the challenge. It is time for all its members to demonstrate their commitment now.
Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows that I share his ambition that we will work with our NATO allies to develop a capacity and capability that transforms NATO into an organisation that meets the evolving challenges of the 21st century. He will be pleased to know that all partners in NATO confirmed their ambition in relation to that objective in a co-operative fashion.
On budgets, we have not abandonednor have we asked NATO to abandonthe 2 per cent. commitment. As the declaration recognises, in the case of some partners, there has been a fall in investment in respect of a reduction in their budget. We have to halt and change that direction of movement. There is a commitment in the communication towards that.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, we ought to celebrate the success of the transformation that has already taken place in NATO towards the expeditionary capability that we are seeing so successfully deployed in Afghanistan. However, that is not to say that there are not still challenges. Some of those challenges were discussed at length and relate to caveats and to a commitment of forces. Significant progress was made in that regard, but there is still much to do and I make no bones about that.
I do not think that it is appropriate that we recognise only the loss in Afghanistan of soldiers who come from certain nations. Many other nations, including some of those that have deployed soldiers to the north and west of the country, have also lost brave troops in engendering the progress in Afghanistan. It would be entirely inappropriate if, as NATO, we reduced our policy in Afghanistan to a balance of body counts. That is not the appropriate way to look at things. Sacrifices have been made by other countries.
Afghanistan, in parts other than the south, needs to be maintained in its state of progress and forces need to be deployed in that regard. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that the commanders on the ground need to have the flexibility to be able to move their troops, in relation to the operation plan, across the whole country. However, we should not become Helmand or southern-focused any more than those who are in the north or the west should become focused on only those parts.
On the comprehensive approach, there has been significant development. That is reflected in the declaration, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has read, in terms of the commitment for NATO to work. The area is difficult, and I understand that. As I explained in my statement, it is not a zero-sum game between the European Union and NATO, and it should not be allowed to become one. He is perfectly correct to say that there is no need for duplication, but there is a need for co-operation and, in particular, strategic co-operation.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance notice of it. I agree that it is good news that all the NATO member states have recommitted themselves to the action in Afghanistan. What assumptions were made at the summit about the length of the commitment in Afghanistan? In reconfirming their support, are all the member states up for a long haul, which it is generally agreed now is what they are in for?
On caveats, the Secretary of State has done his best to reinforce the smiles and the declarations at the end of the summit, but, rather like Budgets, these things often look better at the time than they do a day or two later. He has said that he cannot go into the detail of caveats today because other countries will have to confirm their arrangements. How long does he think that that confirmation process will take? Is it true that the larger countries, with the significant numbers, have agreed only that they will help in an emergency? Surely they would have helped in an emergency in any case, or else what sort of an alliance is it?
It is doubtless welcome that Slovenia and Luxembourg have agreed to lift their caveats, but with 50 and 10 troops respectively, that is not going to make
a big difference to the shortages of troops in southern Afghanistan. Is the Secretary of State assuring us that serious progress has been made in dealing with the shortage of 2,500 or so troops in the south? He mentioned helicopters. Will he confirm whether he is confident that the helicopter shortage has also been addressed?
Will the Secretary of State tell us what discussion, if any, there was about NATO developing relationships with countries outside the north Atlantic area? Australia and Japan, for example, have been referred to in recent days. What was the French attitude to that? What future does he see for NATO entering into relationships with sympathetic countries in other parts of the world?
Des Browne: On the last point, the hon. Gentleman will be aware from the declaration that Riga has successfully delivered the first step towards deepening NATO partnership relations with existing partners, with troop contributorsof whom there are 18 over and above the 26 NATO nations, in operations across the globeand potential contributors to NATO-led operations. The part of the declaration that deals with that covers a number of pages and he will have to take the time to read it himself. In response to his question, that means that non-NATO countries, such as Australia and Japan, will be able to discuss existing and future operations with NATO in a flexible, transparent and pragmatic way, and will have access to the partnership tools, which are important, currently available only to existing partners. Those are significant steps forward and they were unanimously agreed.
I understand the concentration on Afghanistan. That was the priority in terms of operations for the summit itself. There is an understanding by all those involved in Afghanistan that this is a long-term commitment. However, I hasten to add that that does not mean a long-term commitment in its current phase. As we have seen, there are parts of Afghanistan where our commitment to the country has moved it on significantly. Holding that improvement is, of course, important. Stabilising it, and building governance and economic development in those areas is important to continued security. I am careful to qualify the commitment to the long haul, because it is often erroneously interpreted as a suggestion that there will be a long haul of, for example, the sort of war fighting that we have seen in Afghanistan in the immediate past, but that is not what I mean. There is a commitment by the developed world, beyond NATO, to a long haul in Afghanistan, because there is no alternative.
I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentlemans specific questions about when things will happen. One of the delights of NATO is that the countries are all different, and they have different ways of making decisions. Some of them constitutionally require the involvement of their legislature in making decisions and announcements, so we must just wait and see what happens. However, there has been an important step forward in accepting the principle that the troops deployed to such a theatre ought, in principle, to accept the same risks. That issue has to work its way through, and I accept that there are still challenges.
We should not belittle the contributions of some of the smaller countries. Some of them make
contributions that are significantly disproportionate to their size. Importantlyand I make this point advisedlythe effect that they have with comparatively small numbers of specialised troops is often disproportionate.
John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friends statement, but does he agree that the future success of NATO, which is the best military alliance that we have ever had, is dependent on greater transatlantic defence industrial co-operation? To that end, does he agree that an early settlement of the issue of the sovereign capability to upgrade and maintain the joint strike fighter will help us?
Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to reiterate the Governments often-stated position on the subject. I do not think that anyone in the House has any doubt about how important the issue is to the joint strike fighter project; it is a condition precedent. Of course, it is assessed that the joint strike fighter may potentially make a significant contribution to our armed forces capabilities. The point that he makes is almost axiomatic.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Secretary of State made an announcement that contains some good things. The NATO response force announcement was good, too, and good news was announced about the C17s. On a point that has just been raised, the ringing declaration that, in an emergency, NATO countries would support each other implies that if there was no such declaration, that might not have happened. Was it not deeply disappointing that there was not a much greater commitment from the larger European NATO countries to Afghanistan? If the Secretary of State is right to say that NATOs credibility was at stake, does he not agree that one small step is not nearly enough, and that NATOs credibility has been rather damaged by the disappointing summit?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution and his recognition of at least two of a number of significant developments and areas of progress. He is right to point out how significant it is that the NRF has reached full operational capabilityan advance for NATO. We ought not to consider any individual summit as a defining moment for NATO, either immediately after it or retrospectively. Our collective commitment to Afghanistan has set a number of challenges for NATO as an alliance, and the issue that he mentions is but one of them. As for the idea that the challenge occurred when we deployed into Afghanistan, and had not existed in the NATO alliance for some time, we have made progress on the issue, just as we have made significant progress on partnerships. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in the subject of partnerships, and I look forward to the Defence Committee, of which he is chair, addressing the relationship between NATO and the EU in the future. Of course, the Department will co-operate fully with that investigation and that report. When we make
progress, we should not seek to present it as failure. Progress is progress, and there has been significant progress.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. A number of hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. May I remind hon. Members of Mr. Speakers ruling that Back Benchers should ask one supplementary question?
Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): May I ask the Secretary of State whether the summit considered Irans role in the region of Afghanistan, given Irans destructive role in respect of Iraq and Lebanon? Did the NATO summit deal with the issue of whether it would be possible to consider an initiative that would encourage Iran to play a more constructive role, and was it considered that Turkey could play a role in that regard?
Des Browne: NATO has long recognised, in its deployment in different regions of the world, that other countries in the region play a significant role in achieving objectives such as, in the case of Afghanistan, nation building. There was, of course, discussion of all its neighbours, including Iran, and discussion of the often-repeated evidence that forces from Iranand, often, the deployment of weapons of Iranian origin in theatrehave a detrimental effect on our ability to achieve those objectives. The members of NATO call on countries in the region to make a positive contribution, and we consistently, in diplomatic and other ways, call on Iran to make a positive contribution.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): If NATO will not match the commitment that the mission requires it to make in Afghanistan, is not the time approaching when the mission in Afghanistan will have to be limited to the resources that NATO is prepared to commit to that operation?
Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will know that I am in constant touch with not only our commanders on the ground, but the commanders of the international security assistance force, and they reassure me that, at present, they have the resources to carry out the job. That is not to say, however, that I do not recognise, as he does, that war fighting tends to be seasonal in Afghanistan. We ought to recognise that we have time before the likely development of that seasonal effect to address the continued shortfall in relation to the combined joint statement of requirement, and we will continue to do that.
Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): I am encouraged by my right hon. Friends comments about the elimination of national caveats by some nations. Does he not agree that all participants, regardless of the size of their contribution, should take equal risk? Is it not completely unacceptable that British soldiers should be in harms way to a greater extent than other participants, and other NATO allies, involved in the operation?
Des Browne: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have consistently said, from this Dispatch Box and elsewhere, that the alliance should share the burden and the risk, and he is entirely correct in what he says. We have made some progress towards that objective, but there is still work to be done.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Is it not plain that Ministers deployed British troops to the southern provinces of Afghanistan without adequate equipment, and without making proper provision for reinforcements? Is that not negligence of a very high degree on the part of Ministers, and in different circumstances, would it not give rise to charges of corporate manslaughter?
Des Browne: The right hon. and learned Gentleman overstretches himself in his peroration. On the first part of his question, I do not accept that the force was not properly configured; it was configured according to advice, and it turned out to be more than capable of doing the job. Despite the fact that that force met significant resistance and violence from a formidable foe, it overcame and overmatched that foe repeatedly, to the extent that there has been significant progress. In the past few months there has been a significant reduction in the violence in Helmand. It does our troops and forces on the ground no service to represent what they have achieved in a comparatively short period, against a formidable foe, as a defeat.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that NATO forces are effectively in control of armed activity throughout Afghanistan, that they are heavily bogged down in Helmand province, and that other NATO member states do not want to contribute to the operation? How long does he think that that will continue, and is there an end in sight?
Des Browne: The basis of my hon. Friends question utterly misrepresents the facts. There was serious war fighting over the summer in Helmand province, but the suggestion that our troops are bogged down is far from the truth. In fact, in most of the province, our troops move around quite freely, and there has been significant improvement in some areas. Construction work, for example, is starting to result in marked improvements to security in areas where previously there was violence. There is, of course, continued violence, but not at the tempo or scale of a few months ago. I repeat what I said earlier at the Dispatch Boxwar fighting in Afghanistan tends to be seasonal, but there is no reason to assume that that is the only explanation. To describe the current situation as my hon. Friend did is to misrepresent it. As for the length of time, it will take us as long as we needno one is suggesting that there is any alternative but to do what we need to do in building the nation in Afghanistan.
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