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Des Browne: When I was in Basra I met the Staffords, and no words are good enough for me to describe my pride in the work that those young people are doing in very difficult circumstances. But—I ask my hon. Friend to convey this to their families and others in his constituency—their morale is high, and they are very proud of the work that they do. They tell me
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repeatedly, “This is what we are trained to do.” They know that they are the best in the world at doing it, and they are right: they should do their work with pride because they are brave and professional. Of course, their families will want to know when those young people will be coming home. Our wish is that they come home safe. I shall say something about the dangers that they are facing, because I think it appropriate for us to be candid about the difficulties that they face as well as the good work that they do. There will be the normal roulement, and of course they will come home.

My hon. Friend asked me specifically when we will have reviewed and assessed our troop strength following Operation Sinbad. We are involved in the process at the moment. Part of the purpose of my visit at this time was to assess, in the later stages of the operation, its effect and the difference it has made, as far as that is measurable. I do not think my hon. Friend or the House will have very much longer to wait, but I ask Members to be patient. I would rather not give a specific date at this stage, because we are assessing conditions rather than anticipating an event.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the confidence of the Iraqi people in their own defence forces has some longevity, and will remain after United Kingdom forces pull out of Basra? Is he sure that they believe in the integrity and honesty of those forces? Might the only reason that they have confidence in them now be that a substantial number of United Kingdom forces are there to police their activities? Is the Secretary of State concerned about what will happen between the public in Iraq and their armed forces once we leave?

Des Browne: The complexity of the hon. Gentleman’s question is betrayed by the time that he took to ask it. It is difficult for me to give a specific answer, but if he will be patient I will say something about the Iraqi security forces and will try to give him an idea of the improvement that I think is taking place. However, the short answer to his question is that it depends on who is asking—as in every environment—and it depends on which forces are being asked about. Some people have confidence in the Iraqi army; some people have confidence in the Iraqi police. One of the problems with trying to test opinion, as we do in that country, is that people tend to be optimistic. When they are asked the simple question, “Are you confident that your own forces can deal with these issues?”, a large number will reply that they are, which is partly an expression of desire rather than of real confidence.

There are still difficulties. Progress is being made, but it is difficult progress in difficult circumstances. We must be honest and candid. There comes a point at which we must transfer responsibility to the troops so that they take it and learn from it when they are in the lead or on their own, as they were in the later stages of Operation Sinbad. As I have said, things are getting better, but they have not yet reached the point at which conditions will be right for transition. Local governance must be strengthened further and the security situation needs a great deal more improvement. While it is encouraging that the Iraqi army has been able to take the lead in Operation
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Sinbad, we must remember that it is a very new and very raw army that still has much to learn. Our military training teams are doing fantastic work, as I saw with my own eyes. They tell me that there is a problem with absenteeism and discipline, but they also say that every day that they spend training the Iraqi army they see improvement, and every day the army becomes stronger and better trained than the day before. Our troops tell me that they believe that training is one of the most crucial things that they are doing in Iraq, and that it will help the country’s future.

As many Members will know—some have also been to Iraq—we have much to do to improve the Iraqi police, and in particular to reduce corruption.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend say something about infiltration of the police forces and the army? Has he any evidence of that?

Des Browne: There is no doubt that there has been infiltration of the police force by militia elements in the south-east of Iraq. That is why an important part of Operation Sinbad, as we moved across the city, was to concentrate on attempting to clear out those elements police station by police station. Only two days ago, I spoke at some length to the head of the police training team, an assistant chief constable by the name of Dick Barton. [Laughter.] I do not find anything amusing in that. It is the man’s name, and he does a sterling job.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is he a special agent?

Des Browne: Mr. Barton certainly has special talents. I have engaged with him on my visits, and I now have significant confidence in his assessment. He made an interesting observation to me about—this will be counter-intuitive to most Members—the value of the involvement of one lawyer in improving the rule of law in Basra. Police officers probably do not do this often, but he was effusive in his compliments for the contribution that that lawyer had made in putting backbone into the judicial and prosecution processes. Perhaps as a result of my professional background, that chimed with my view that building up the justice system and the rule of law is crucial to our ability to make, in particular, the police forces effective.

I have digressed, but I shall now address the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham). He wanted to know about the level of infiltration. That was high, but the assessment of the very experienced police officer I mentioned was that currently 90 per cent. of the police are good officers who are willing to serve the people of Basra and Iraq, although he also said that 10 per cent. of the police still needed to be dealt with.

Our police teams have been systematically visiting police stations, helping to bring them up to scratch. There has been significant improvement. It must be said that on Christmas day we disbanded the notorious serious crimes unit in Basra, which was the most corrupt part of the police and was at the heart of the death squads. We demolished the police station as a physical and visible sign to the people of Basra that that unit had gone. There has been significant
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progress—it has been difficult to achieve, but we are moving in the right direction. However, as I always say, there is still a long way to go.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I agree that between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of those in the police force and military want a safe and secure Iraq, but is the Secretary of State aware of a Pentagon report that states that about 80 per cent. of the make-up of both the police and the military are former Ba’ath party members? Does he concede that it was a mistake to disband the Ba’ath party in the way that was done after the invasion, not least because that got rid of not only good police officers and soldiers, but 80,000 teachers and 80,000 doctors?

Des Browne: Anyone who knows anything about Iraq knows that the de-Ba’athification process has been retrospectively regretted for its zealousness. There is an ongoing process with the Iraqi Government in respect of how that process can be tempered, or how people who have significant talents—particularly those with deployable skills that are necessary for Iraq in the future—can return to public life. However, we should not underestimate how difficult that is for a substantial number of the people of Iraq. We should thank God every day that we did not have to live through the process that many Shi’a people had to live through. It is difficult in such circumstances to get the balance right, and we should understand that and not be so quick to judge some of the errors that were made. However, the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct that part of the consequence of de-Ba’athification and of how it was carried out was that it took out of public life people who were capable of making a positive contribution. Getting the right balance on that through the process of reconciliation is one of the great challenges that the Iraqi Government face. We need to support them through that, and we are doing so in the best way that we can.

Hon. Members might be interested to learn that some of the people who have knowledge of our experience over the past 10 or 15 years in Northern Ireland have been going out to Iraq to speak to Iraqi politicians—and in particular to Ministers and Prime Minister Maliki—about the lessons that we have learned from the processes of reconciliation in which we have been involved. The Iraqis have expressed gratitude to me specifically for the information that they gleaned from those meetings.

I said last year that we would be in a position to draw down a substantial number of troops this year, and I am confident that that remains the case. We are in the process of looking at reposturing our forces in Basra to reflect the shift away from taking the front-line security lead and towards strengthening the Iraqi security forces. An announcement will be made in due course, when we have worked through the detail of the plans. However, I say now that draw-down does not mean that we are leaving Iraq and under no circumstances should be interpreted as such.

Finally, I wish to comment on the increasing threat to our bases from indirect fire, principally rockets and mortars. I discussed that with commanders in Basra on
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Tuesday. The increase in indirect fire is a worrying trend. The threat is becoming more sophisticated and dangerous, and the links to Iran and Hezbollah are more evident. Our forces are not standing idly by as the threat develops—they are taking steps to deal with it by targeting the terrorists through intelligence-led operations, and with some success. We are also always looking to strengthen our defensive measures, but Members will understand that for reasons of operational security I am not in a position to say much more than that on the subject, other than to assure the House that we take it very seriously and that we acknowledge the risk our brave men and women face.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): On draw-down, will the Secretary of State make it clear that as long as British soldiers are in Iraq we will not take the Tornado squadron out of Kuwait? The last thing we need is to lose air cover.

Des Browne: I do not want what I am about to say to be misinterpreted, but I am not going to give specific and hard assurances on such matters at the Dispatch Box. I will need to take advice as circumstances develop. We are in a coalition and we do not depend for air cover entirely on the Tornadoes, but the Tornadoes provide a very important element of our air cover, and they are in demand not only by our troops but on occasions by others because of the Tornado crews’ abilities and skills. I cannot currently envisage a situation arising such as that which my hon. Friend describes—that the Tornados will not be there when our troops are in Iraq. However, circumstances change and we will need to continue to look at the changing circumstances.

My answer to my hon. Friend’s question also depends on what he means when he refers to our troops in Iraq, because in future we might well be in a long-term relationship with the Iraqi Government and in a much more benign environment than is currently the case.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Can I take the Secretary of State back to his point about the seriousness of the attacks on our bases? As he will be aware, there is a system called the Mamba which is able to track incoming mortars and provide an accurate fix on their source. Can he reassure us that sufficient such devices are available to our armed forces in Basra to ensure that we have the maximum protection?

Des Browne: That question deserves an answer, but I am not currently in a position to give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer to it. However, I will write to him and make sure that the House knows the answer. Let me reassure him that this matter is at the top of commanders’ priorities—as the hon. Gentleman can imagine, as he knows about these particular circumstances. We are looking in detail at this matter to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to protect our forces. I should add that, clearly, the best thing that we can do to protect our forces is to deal with the threat where it arises, rather than with the consequences of it. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the specific point he raises.


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Can I mention an issue that I might need to find a way of dealing with? I am keen for Members to get specific answers to the questions they ask when they are legitimate questions to ask, but we must also be careful that we do not put into the public domain information that the enemy can take advantage of. Drawing a line between my inclination to be candid and straightforward and putting information into the public domain that jeopardises operational security has to be considered. We might need to find a way of properly dealing with this issue.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): The Prime Minister has said several times that we all want to get the troops out of Iraq as soon as we can but that that can take place only after we have handed over responsibility for security to the Iraqis. Do the Government still anticipate that the remaining provinces will be handed over this spring, and can the Secretary of State give, in broad terms, an indication of what British troops will continue to do in Iraq after that has happened?

Des Browne: The process of handing over, or provincial Iraqi control as it is known—or PIC as it is known to those who love to use only the first letters of words, as the military do—is a condition-based process. We are only one of several parties who are involved in making the decision on that. Part of that process is that the Iraqi Government must not only have a willingness to take over control, but be in a position to do so.

The point about our troops in Multi-National Division (South-East) is that we are making progress along the strategic path that we have set and we are not deviating from it, which means that in the near future, we will be in a position to re-posture our troops. Exactly how we do that will depend on the commanders’ advice on the ground as to what the specific operational plan should be. That will then affect the number of troops that we need, because protecting static bases is more expensive in terms of troops and manpower than collecting people together. However, there is of course a consideration as to whether collecting people together in that environment makes them more vulnerable, and as to how we can protect them there. All those matters have to be decided by operational commanders.

The intention is to get to the point where we can hand over control not just to the Iraqi security forces, but to their local government and politicians, so that they can run that part of the country independently of us and we can adopt a posture of over-watch. We will do, for example, what the Australians do in Dhi Qar and al-Muthanna, the two provinces that have been handed over: stand by, ready to go to the assistance of the local security forces, if necessary. Interestingly, in both those provinces the political situation and the security situation have remained stable. Although there have been incidents, on both occasions it was possible for local politicians and security forces to deal with them. They did so in a perhaps more Iraqi way than we would have, but through a mixture of exactly the same factors as we would use in dealing with disturbances on the streets in any of our communities. In other words, the local political leadership and the security forces—
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the police, or others—deal with them and try to calm the situation. That is the position that we are trying to reach. I hope that that has been of assistance to the hon. Gentleman. Some people become obsessed with the specifics of the assessment, but in our view we remain on course. However, we have to make sure that the conditions are right and that everybody is able to move at the same pace with us along this route.

In Afghanistan, the challenges are different and the environment is different, but many of the basic principles are the same. We cannot succeed by military force alone, but at the same time, progress is impossible without basic stability and security. As a result of our efforts, basic security is improving but it is still under threat. In one of the world’s poorest countries, where development is desperately required, the Taliban stand in the way, callously indifferent to the interests of the local people.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being very generous. He is absolutely right to say that progress has been made in Afghanistan in recent months. Part of that progress is down to the strong leadership offered by international security assistance force IX, the headquarters, led by General Richards, which is changing over. Is the Secretary of State aware, however, of the genuine concern that, as we move to ISAF X, there is a complete lack of capacity and that many of the systems being put in place will be lost? Can he confirm that a trawl is being made of British staff officers who are likely to deploy in April to bolster ISAF X?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman, who served in Afghanistan and made a contribution to the improvement there, obviously knows what he is talking about. He will have noticed that I made a written statement today about the normal roulement of the forces in Afghanistan, and he will see from it that we intend to make a contribution to the replacement for the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, which will be led by General McNeil. So the hon. Gentleman is correct in suggesting that we will make a contribution, and we will of course look for officers with the talent to do so. As he knows, providing such leadership is one of the great contributions that we can make. It is very highly valued and sought after by our NATO allies—and, indeed, beyond that, across the world. Everywhere I go, Ministers of Defence ask me whether their officers can train with ours in our officer training system in the United Kingdom. We should be proud that we are able to do that. That we can give our senior officers the opportunity to show their expertise and to make that contribution internationally is an enormous positive. I see no reluctance to go among those who are candidates for such jobs; indeed, some who have done so ask me whether they can stay longer than was planned.

It is precisely because of Afghanistan’s clear and overwhelming humanitarian need that the international community is united in its support. That unity, embodied by NATO’s military presence, has delivered real change in the last five years, and I make no apology for restating that. Not only is that point often lost in the urgency of immediate events; it is also
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the clearest demonstration of the role of defence in the world that I could hope to give.

In the past five years, the terrorist training camps have gone and in their place is a democratically elected Government. Of course, we can find criticisms of that Government, but we should be honest with ourselves about where they have come from and the circumstances of that country; we sometimes set an unrealistic standard against which to examine them. Education is spreading. Some 6 million children are in school, and more than 13,000 primary and secondary schools have been reconstructed. School enrolment has quadrupled. The schools are full of girls, and women are able to teach once again. New health clinics are opening and vaccination programmes are saving lives. Most importantly, according to the UN, nearly 5 million refugees have returned home, believing that their country has a future.

That future now hinges of the fate of the south and east. It is here that the struggle with the Taliban is being played out, and where the needs of the Afghan people are most acute. If we can support the Government in extending their influence into these previously lawless areas, build the capacity of the Afghan security forces and deliver demonstrable progress to the local people, the Taliban’s complete lack of any positive alternative vision for the future will be exposed. Only then will they finally and completely be rejected.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Des Browne: I will, but after that it is probably time that I exercised a little discipline regarding giving way; otherwise, I shall start biting into the time available for Back Benchers.

Mr. Walter: The Secretary of State has outlined the achievements and we commend them, but the poppy crop has not decreased; in fact, it has increased. The United States announced last week that it is committing another $10 billion to military and development support in Afghanistan. The Secretary of State for International Development has estimated the poppy crop to be worth some $600 million. Could we perhaps be a bit cleverer and seek to withdraw the poppies from the market by spending on this issue just a small proportion of what we are prepared to commit militarily?

Des Browne: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is saying in an indirect way that we should buy the crop.

Mr. Walter indicated assent.


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