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Des Browne: I have read about recommendations of this nature from a number of sources, including from people who have extensive experience in dealing with these issues. If I thought that that was a solution to the problem and was persuaded by the argument, I would readily agree. It seems such a simple thing to do, but the flaw in that proposal is that we could never be assured, in a country that lacks basic administration,
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that we were not simply encouraging the doubling of the crop. Until we can get an administration in place that can assure us that we are not, by putting more money into poppies, simply saying to the farmers, “You can grow some for us, but you can continue to grow them for the dealers, as well, and make twice as much money,” I would not be prepared to spend money in that way.

We have to recognise that dealing with narcotics in such an environment requires us to put in place the basic parts of the rest of our drugs plan. We need to improve the ability to administer these regions. We need a justice system—an issue that I was talking about earlier, but in a different context—that works. We need police forces, particularly anti-narcotics forces, who can arrest people—the key middle-ground people—in the confidence that those people will go into the justice system and stay in it. Once a basic administration is established and the pressure on, and intimidation of, the peasant farmer is relieved, it will then be possible to adopt some of the more sophisticated approaches. However, until then, we need to concentrate on building up the basic parts of the infrastructure that are needed. Having said that, this is a very serious problem. The crop that is currently planted in Helmand and in the south of the country was planted and in the ground before we got there.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): One does not have to disagree with the Secretary of State’s response—that it is not only a simple solution that is required—in order to state nevertheless that there is no excuse for pursuing the strategy, to which the US State Department seems wedded, of actively destroying, suppressing and even spraying the crops from the air, at a time when the basic principle of counter-insurgency means that we should be doing everything that we can to divide the insurgents from as much of the population as possible, not creating a natural alliance between the insurgents and the one eighth of the population who depend on the crop.

Des Browne: I know that many hon. Members—and the hon. Gentleman is one of them—know and understand the component elements of this issue well, and they know the detrimental effect that precipitate anti-narcotics action could have on a broader anti-insurgency strategy. We should not underestimate the intelligence of the US, which also knows and understands those points. There is no expectation that aerial spraying of the crop will take place. Indeed, all the analysis of the risk associated with various methods has been done, and in the end the people who will make the decisions on how to proceed are the Government of Afghanistan.

I know of no plans for aerial eradication. Indeed, I know of no plans for ground spraying in Helmand province either. However, that does not alter the fact that with the support of the governor, using the structures that we have in place and recognising that we need to find an alternative livelihood for the people whose crops we destroy, we need to begin to address the issue of narcotics. We need to send the message that a narcotics-based economy is not the future for Afghanistan. It is a delicate balance, but we take into account all the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

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Mr. Ellwood: The Secretary of State will be aware that I take an interest in this issue and have pressed for action along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) mentioned. The Secretary of State will also be aware that a third of the world’s opium production comes from Helmand province, the very area in which we are trying to work. He will also know that the UK has G8 responsibility for the counter-narcotics strategy and he may be aware that the Afghan Parliament has passed a statute that allows the licensed production of poppy crops. I have evidence from a parliamentary written answer that we have a shortage of diamorphine in this country. It is not rocket science to work out that Afghanistan, which is the fourth poorest country in the world and is unable to get off its knees—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Interventions are getting longer and longer, and there is a time limit on Back Benchers’ speeches in this debate.

Des Browne: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall try to exercise some discipline, too, by not taking interventions.

All the points that the hon. Gentleman makes are factually correct and I accept them. I do not dismiss his suggestion out of hand, but given our inability at the moment to ensure a level of administration in Helmand province that would prevent the farmers from simply doubling the crop, the balance of the argument comes down in my favour. But that does not mean that in the future, when we are in a position to do so, we will not look at some of those suggestions.

The most important thing that we can do is prevent opium production becoming the economy of the country, whoever is buying it. We have to get the pariahs off the backs of the peasant farmers. By the pariahs I mean those who demand that the farmers grow the crop and use extreme violence against them if they are not prepared to do so. We need a system of justice that prevents such people from behaving in that way with impunity in those communities. Diverting our attention to another issue when we should be using our resources to achieve that is, arguably, the wrong thing to do, but we can continue to have the debate and there are valid arguments on both sides.

It is only by securing the south and east against the Taliban that we will safeguard the wider progress already made in Kabul, the north and the west. It is for that reason that we took on this difficult task alongside the Americans, the Canadians, Dutch, Danes, Romanians, Australians and Estonians. We knew that it would be tough and so it proved to be. But we also knew we had the robust, professional armed forces that could deliver in that environment. Over the summer they faced down the Taliban, beating them in every tactical engagement. They released the Taliban stranglehold on many parts of Helmand province and allowed us to begin the vital tasks of reconstruction and building local capacity. Over the winter they have continued to keep the Taliban on the back foot.

The work done in Kajaki exemplifies that. The Royal Marines have been taking on Taliban forces around the Kajaki dam, which has the potential to deliver power to much of Helmand’s population. They have challenged the Taliban’s control of the surrounding
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area and have cleared the cave complexes they previously used as a base. In doing so, they have started to open the way for reconstruction work to take place to renovate the dam. That will be a long-term task, but it serves to illustrate the connection between security and development. I urge hon. Members to bear in mind examples like that, and many others, when they are tempted to question whether our mission is really one of reconstruction.

There is, however, a long way to go in Afghanistan, and particularly in the south. The Taliban have been knocked back but they are not finished. Even now the Royal Marines are keeping them under constant pressure, keeping them off balance, to protect the reconstruction taking place in Lashkar Gah and elsewhere. Hon. Members will, I am sure, have seen and read the stories of their bravery in recent weeks.

The task is not ours alone, but one that belongs to NATO and to the international community as a whole. In Seville next week, I will continue to press this point on our alliance partners. I will emphasise that the UK is playing its part, as NATO’s second largest contributor in Afghanistan after the US. Earlier today, I issued a statement confirming our continued commitment, with the roulement of forces in April and the extension until 2009 of key capabilities such as Harrier, Apache and the Royal Engineers. As ever, we will keep our forces under review, but the next step is to push NATO as a whole to review its force levels and force generation, which I will be doing in Seville. I will keep the House informed of progress and any implications for the UK’s own force structures.

Afghanistan has illustrated in the boldest terms the need for flexible, expeditionary armed forces. We have one of the few forces in the world that has a balance of sheer military capability, immense operational experience, and flexibility across a range of roles. Even so, no one tells me more regularly than military commanders that success in many of the operations that we undertake cannot be delivered by force of arms alone. There is absolute recognition of the need for a comprehensive approach, one that combines all levers of power—economic, developmental, diplomatic and military. In Afghanistan, we have honed that approach, starting with our first provincial reconstruction team in Mazar e Sharif in 2003, and now embodied in the strong cross-Government team working in Helmand.

We must continue to strive to do more, and to strengthen our ability to work as a team in difficult, insecure environments. The armed forces can tackle some non-military tasks. Engineers can help with reconstruction and the military’s organisational flair has wide utility in times of crisis, as we have seen in a wide variety of situations, from humanitarian relief in the Pakistan earthquake to dealing with foot and mouth disease back in the UK. But we also need to develop the ability to deploy specialist skills that the military cannot provide, such that they can be there, on the first day of a new operation, making a difference.

We must also get better at finding local solutions to the problems we face, which reflect the culture and mores of the societies we are trying to help. Our aims are driven by principle, but our implementation must become far more practical, in building local politics free from corruption, and especially in the sphere of law and order. A working supreme court is an
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admirable thing, but it may take 10 years to deliver. A working local court is essential and may take only months to set up. Ask an ordinary Afghan or Iraqi which gives him the greatest sense of progress and he will say the local court every time. Our problem is that many of us in the west charged with development often seem to start from the opposite end.

I have dwelt on Iraq, Afghanistan and NATO for much of this speech. I believe that they represent most clearly what our armed forces can and should be doing to promote peace and stability. I had intended to turn briefly to our other activities, but given the time I suspect that it might be better if I left that for my right hon. Friend the Minister when he responds to the debate, in which those issues will almost certainly be raised.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, and I realise that he has a problem with time, but will he be able to say something about his Department’s plans to replace the Trident nuclear submarine system and the associated costs? When will a decision be taken?

Des Browne: The White Paper published some months ago contained most of what I want to say about Trident, and I have also answered parliamentary questions and spoken extensively outside the House on the matter. My hon. Friend knows that the Government recommend that we should invest in new platforms and boats for the Trident system, so that future generations can benefit as we have from that deterrent. The world is a very uncertain place, but the indications are that the future threat could be similar, if not identical, to the one that we face. I know that he disagrees: I know why he adopts his position, and I honour it, but I believe that the balance of the argument lies with those who wish to make the investment that I have described.

As to when the decision will have to be made, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Select Committee has been looking at that question with some intensity. We should wait for its report before we have a debate on the matter in the House, but I anticipate that that debate—when hon. Members will have an opportunity to make a decision—will take place some time in March.

We ask a lot of our armed forces. They work in the harshest environments, in a huge variety of roles and situations. When called upon to do so, they fight like no one else, but they also do much more. They uphold Governments and help to build nations. They are a genuine force for good in the world and are admired as such internationally.

The work that our armed forces do is not about forcing western values or structures on others. It is about helping people build their own societies, drawing on their own traditions. Security, stability, and the rule of law are not western values: they are universal, and our armed forces promote and exemplify them.

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We are proud of the work that our armed forces do, and the manner in which they do it. They are a credit to our nation.

1.42 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I begin by associating myself with everything that the Secretary of State said about the bravery of our troops, and the commitment of the civilian staff and others who maintain their efforts worldwide.

We are all aware of the courage and professionalism of our armed forces as they face the trauma of combat in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, but we should not forget the role played by service families. They too show great courage and commitment, and they bear much of the problem associated with separation or injury. Sometimes, we in this country should remember the maxim that an injured serviceman is an injured family. Our society should be more aware of the sacrifices that our armed forces make, and the problems that they face.

Those of us in this country who enjoy the protection provided by our armed forces have a duty to support them. The news that emerged overnight shows that some people in our society are prepared to kidnap and kill forces personnel. Whatever their background, that is vile and repugnant. The mediaeval savagery that we have seen in recent times in the middle east has no place in this country, and I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate our security services on stopping what appears to have been a disgusting and dastardly plot.

We welcome this debate, and hope that a wide range of issues will be discussed—for example, how we have arrived at our current positions and force sizes, the threats that we face in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threats posed by Iran and the potential threat posed by Russia, the need to maintain our alliances, and the need to deal with changing global realities.

First, how did we get to the position in which we find ourselves today? Over the Christmas holiday, I spent some time looking at the defence reviews held since the second world war—just the sort of sad thing that our jobs sometimes require us to do. They included the reviews conducted by Sandys, Healey, Mason and Nott, as well as “Options for Change”, “Frontline First” and this Government’s strategic defence review. I was struck by the fact that most of them lacked a foreign-policy baseline. With two exceptions—“Options for Change” and the SDR—the stamp of the Treasury was clearly evident.

In “Options for Change”, there was a genuine attempt to look at the new strategic reality following the end of the cold war. Moreover, I would commend the SDR undertaken by the current Government’s SDR perhaps above all the others: it was an extremely good review and came to very sensible conclusions about the sort of threats that the UK was likely to face.

I returned from Washington this morning—and I apologise in advance for any lapses of concentration this afternoon—and it was interesting to hear there the growing view that all western powers were too keen to seek a peace a dividend at the end of the cold war. They
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did so too quickly, and did not pause to think about the possible threats that could arise from the fragmentation of the Soviet Union.

In medicine, we used to say that the most useful instrument would be a retrospectoscope, and we would do well to take something of a reality check so that we can work out why this country and the US face some of our current problems—and I remind the House that the US Government have just announced a substantial increase of 95,000 in their armed forces, precisely to deal with some of those problems.

The SDR was reasonable in its expectation that the UK should be able to carry out one medium-sized and one small operation simultaneously, plus an occasional additional small operation, but the defence planning assumptions that flowed from that have been exceeded in each of the past four years. We cannot maintain that approach for any length of time: it leads inevitably to overstretch, and to problems such as restrictions on leave and training and increased separation from families. The one sure way to create retention problems is by making servicemen and women unhappy, and the way to do that is by making their families unhappy. I am afraid that that is what is happening at the moment.

Service families already face problems with education, housing and health care, so it does not take much to make a life in the services seem much less attractive than what is available outside. As has been noted in the House before, we need to examine those difficulties, taking account of the demographic and labour market statistics, because the trend of the last couple of years—with substantially more people leaving the armed forces than joining them—cannot be allowed to continue. Even if we are able to replace the personnel who leave, the problem of skills dilution will remain, and that cannot be in our armed forces’ long-term interests.

It is important to understand where we are in respect of our armed forces but, when we review expenditure, we must understand the realities of the increased tempo of their activities, and the effect that that has on them.

The Secretary of State spoke about Afghanistan and Iraq, and I shall turn to those subjects now. His announcement of the roulement in Afghanistan contains a shift in the pattern of our troops’ deployment, with the focus moving from Kabul to Helmand. Only 100 extra British troops are going to Afghanistan, but there will be 600 more in Helmand, because the number in Kabul is to be reduced.

We support our troops, and therefore we support the mission. Although people who say that they support our troops in the abstract but do not support the mission may find that their approach goes down well in the House of Commons, it certainly does not go down well with our troops or their commanders. However, serious questions need to be raised in this House about why the British armed forces must shoulder yet more of the burden in the south of Afghanistan.

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