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Before closing, I want to address some misconceptions about this decision which have circulated over recent days. The first is that our recent decisions on Iraq were driven by our desire to do more in Afghanistan. That gets things the wrong way round. Our planned draw-down in Iraq, announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week, is driven by the conditions on the ground. It is the situation in Iraq that determines what we do there, not the situation in Afghanistan, but of course our plans for Iraq and for other operational theatres, including the Balkans, affect our ability to do more in support of NATO in Afghanistan. In that context, our decision last week on Iraq makes today’s decision that much easier.

The second misconception is that the enhancement reflects poor planning in the first place. That is simply not true. As a general point, it is wrong to suggest that any enhancement must reflect poor planning. Inevitably, much is learned during a deployment, especially in the early stages, and the force structure should adapt. That was reflected in the enhancements that we announced last July and in some aspects of the roulement announced on 1 February.

It is however a straightforward error to interpret today’s decision as implying anything about the adequacy of the Helmand taskforce. That force is clearly up to the job; it overmatched the Taliban in every engagement last summer, and during the winter it has been able to take the fight to the Taliban on our terms, while securing the area around the provincial capital and vital reconstruction projects such as the Kajaki dam.

Today’s decision is a commitment to the southern region as a whole. The additional forces will meet NATO’s requirement for troops who can work across the region, in Kandahar and elsewhere. They provide commanders with greater flexibility and greater capacity to support the Afghan military while they develop the skills and confidence to do the vital work for themselves. As I have said before, that remains our long-term exit strategy.

In announcing this significant additional commitment, I assure the House that my resolve to secure contributions from others remains undiminished. However, I put it to the House that we must protect the progress that we have made so far, and protect the Afghans’ own hope and determination. That is the Government's intention. We believe in this mission; we believe in the international community’s aims in Afghanistan and are proud to play our full part in achieving them.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his statement and prior notice of it.

Yet again, it is to be greatly regretted that we read about the announcement of extra British troop deployments in the press at the weekend before hearing it in the House of Commons. I fully accept Ministers’ assurances that they did not intend the information to come out; on this occasion, incompetence is probably preferable to contempt of the House.

The Conservative party has always fully supported the aims of the Afghan mission, and the Secretary of State has frequently been generous in accepting and acknowledging that. We believe that it is essential that
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we be successful in Afghanistan for the future of global security, the future of NATO and the future of the Afghan people themselves.

Those of us who have visited Afghanistan have marvelled at the courage and commitment, in the most difficult circumstances, of our armed forces. If our commanders in the field tell us that they need more troops to make the mission successful, clearly those troops must be supplied.

A number of issues result from the Secretary of State’s statement, however. An extra 1,400 troops are being sent, equivalent to about 20 per cent. of the current total. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the extra equipment being sent will match that increase? In particular, does he believe that the increased number of helicopters and the requisite number of armoured vehicles will be made available sufficiently to provide fully for the security of the increased number of troops being sent?

What will it all mean for the harmony guidelines? It is welcome that troops are coming back from Iraq, but almost exactly the same number are going to Afghanistan. Already the increased tempo and the length of separation for families are causing a retention problem, particularly in the Army. The pressure of overstretch is bearing down hard on service families. What is being done and what will be done to help them in potentially worsening circumstances? Unhappy service families are a clear recipe for unhappy servicemen and women.

The Secretary of State was right to say that there cannot be a military solution alone in Afghanistan. Military success is dependent on political success. What is being done now to tackle the almost endemic problem of corruption in Afghanistan, including at the highest levels of the Government in Kabul? That corruption threatens to undermine the cohesion of the state of Afghanistan, and the acceptance of the authority of the Kabul Government. Corruption in the police makes progress especially difficult. Can he update the House on that problem, and tell us who is in charge of improving the situation?

Do the Government believe that the new troop deployment is likely to be the peak United Kingdom troop level? As the House well knows, previous rumours about extra troop deployments have almost always turned out to be true. Currently, it is rumoured that the Government are already considering a further increase in troop numbers later in the year. Is that correct?

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Secretary of State’s statement today related to NATO. He said:

That ought to give food for thought to those who want a bigger EU role in the defence of our country; it makes my blood run cold.

The cohesion and credibility of NATO is on the line in Afghanistan. Common security must mean common burden sharing. The number of caveats at present is unacceptable. For example, German forces are not able to operate at night or be involved in counter-narcotics operations, which is not acceptable in the longer term.
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At the Riga summit, all the major decisions—on the longer-term role of NATO, its decision-making structure and financing—were avoided. It is a scandal that only four NATO nations now contribute more than 2 per cent. of their GDP to defence.

The bottom line is that the United Kingdom, the United States, the Canadians and the Dutch—surprise, surprise—contribute by far the greatest to security in the southern and most dangerous part of Afghanistan. Of our 7,700 troops, 7,200 will be in Helmand—few, if any, other nations come close to that proportion. We are taking a disproportionate burden. UK taxpayers and the UK military are taking a much bigger share of the burden than we should in what is supposedly a communal operation. Our NATO partners need to recognise that if NATO is to exist and flourish in the future, that position is not tenable.

Des Browne: I, too, regret that the information leaked as it did. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) knows—as I spoke to him on Friday and expressed my regret—that in my view the leak was in the interests neither of the Government nor of the work that we were continuing to do in preparation for the announcement. To some degree, however, I am surprised that his words did not turn to dust in his mouth as he was saying them, because information that has been leaked to members of the Conservative party about things going on in my Department is repeatedly communicated to me at the Dispatch Box. I welcome the fact that he has committed himself to ensuring that that stops; I look forward to discussing with him how to do that, and how to ensure that members of his party do not encourage such leaking. Sometimes the information put into the public domain—he knows that I have expressed this view previously—reduces the security of our troops and operation, and is not in the interests of those troops whom some people affect to support.

The hon. Gentleman asked about equipment, and specifically helicopters. We are increasing both our helicopter and fixed-wing airlift with the increased force levels and tasks. On helicopters, we are deploying enhanced Sea Kings to fill the medical role, which will free up more Chinooks for the transport role. We judge that we have the necessary assets to meet the requirement, but we keep that under review. On all other equipment, including Warrior armoured vehicles, I am advised that the additional equipment is exactly what is needed to support the deployment.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we shall continue to operate at a high operational tempo for the foreseeable future. I am hopeful that, in at least one other theatre of operation, we shall, in the comparatively near future, be able to announce a draw-down of our troops and that, in the medium term, the pressure that those troops are under will diminish. That, however, will be a function of our ability to take forward that and other operations which I know he and his party support. We have to keep such matters under review, but it is not our intention to maintain the tempo beyond a point that is manageable for our troops.

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The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to identify corruption as an important problem. I said in my statement that the support of the Afghan people for their Government and for our ability to deliver security is crucial, but it is also crucial that the Afghan people see that corruption is being challenged by the Government. Responsibility for seeing that through lies with President Karzai and we remind him of that on every occasion we engage with him. He has recently appointed an Attorney-General who has shown a specific commitment to that aspect of his work, and it is reported back to me that he is doing brave and good work.

On training for the police and the armed forces, the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that those of us in NATO who have responsibility for that training, and the Americans, focus continually on corruption, but I think that the problem would be better tackled if we started to draw some of those forces from the communities that they serve rather than continuing to do as we have done, which is draw them from other parts of Afghanistan and, to some degree, impose them on communities. Our ability to get people to behave appropriately in their community depends on the community accepting them and seeing them as coming from the community, rather than as imposed on the community.

The hon. Gentleman repeated in his own words the points that I made about the need for the burden to be shared across NATO. The House knows my view on caveats: they are restricting the commanders’ ability to deploy troops appropriately where they are needed across the whole Afghanistan theatre. The sooner people remove those caveats and allow their troops to be deployed where they are most needed, the better it will be for all of us.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my right hon. Friend has considered this decision carefully, knowing the pressure that it will put on our forces. I believe that the decision is the right one, because it is important that we respond to the requests from our men on the ground and the chiefs and give our servicemen in Afghanistan every help and support they need in fighting the terrorism of the Taliban. However, will he take an early opportunity to engage in a bit of plain speaking with some of our European NATO partners? Their forces are deployed in Afghanistan to defeat terrorism, not to sit in their barracks and leave the fighting to us.

Des Browne: My right hon. Friend may well have been present at some of the conversations that I have had with some of our allies. I take every opportunity to make clear our view that the burdens and the risks should be shared across all of NATO, but the fact is that we have had a request from SACEUR. To respond to an earlier question, we were asked to provide two battlegroups for the south, but we had to balance our assessment of the need against our capacity and our belief that in the NATO mission others must also bear some of the extra burden. Our judgment, on balance and based on the advice of the chiefs, was that we should send one battlegroup and the force enhancements that I announced today and earlier this month.

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Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I begin by reaffirming the Liberal Democrats’ support for our operation in Afghanistan.

I recognise the logic that has led to the extra deployment, although I share the frustration of others at the fact that other NATO members have not been able to pick up more of the burden. Will the Secretary of State keep up the pressure on NATO allies, given that the operation could prove to be quite a long haul?

How does today’s statement square with the Ministry’s commitment to end the situation in which we are operating beyond defence planning assumptions by the end of this year? Given the announcement last week of the beginning of the draw-down of troops from Iraq, will this statement not effectively undo that in one fell swoop? If we are to keep up the operation in Afghanistan over a period of years, is it not essential that we complete the draw-down from Iraq as quickly as possible, so that we do not continue operations on two fronts? The Secretary of State described the role that the four Sea Kings will play, but surely there will be a need for a great deal more than that. Has he made any progress in procuring further helicopter capacity?

Des Browne: As I said in answer to a question during Defence questions, we continue to press our allies, as appropriate and where they have the capability to deploy helicopters, to do so in a way that will support ISAF. Of course, helicopter lift is crucial to the campaign that we are involved in, as is all air lift. The hon. Gentleman, by a simple process of arithmetic, seems to relate these figures to those announced last week on Iraq, and he presses upon me the draw-down of our troops in Iraq. His party’s policy is that, no matter what the circumstances, we should withdraw from Iraq. I think that he understands the Government’s position—in my view, it is a more appropriate one—regarding our commitment to the Iraqi people, not to mention to the security of our own troops, which is that we will continue to look at our commitments in Iraq in relation to the conditions there. If we continue to make progress in improving the Iraqi security forces and their ability to serve the security of their own people, we can make progress—as I hope we will—in drawing down from there. However, troops are of course deployed in other theatres, and as I have said, and without wishing to be more specific than this, it is our hope that some time later this week we can announce a draw-down of troops from other theatres, which will relieve the pressure—to some small degree, I accept—on the operational tempo issue. However, it is not our intention over the medium term to be in the position that we are currently in. The situation is manageable, but I have conceded at the Dispatch Box that we cannot sustain it in the long term without doing damage to the core of our troops.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): Apart from reinforcing troop numbers against the expected Taliban spring offensive in Helmand and around Kandahar, what is the precise mission objective of this newly enlarged force, what are the exact conditions that have to be met for that objective to be achieved, and within what time scale is it expected to be achieved?

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Des Browne: The mission objective has not changed. It—combined with our exit strategy, which, as my right hon. Friend will be aware, is shared by at least 36 other countries and is in the context of the United Nations resolution—is to ensure that the Government of Afghanistan, elected by their own people, can deliver government, security and economic prosperity to those people. When we will achieve that I am not in position to say here, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that, as he knows, we have made significant progress in the north and west of the country toward that objective. However, given that it is one coherent country, if we do not make progress in the south and east, we will be unable to sustain the progress that we have made in the north and west. I am certain, given the fundamental logic of that, that he supports all such efforts. If so, he should ask himself whether he supports in the first place the mission to allow the people of Afghanistan to proceed toward that objective themselves, having lost 2 million of their own people in securing their freedom. If so, he should support today’s announcement, because it is manifestly the right thing to do in order to achieve that objective.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I support today’s announcement, but we have been asked to provide two battlegroups and we have said that we are providing only one, so does the Secretary of State have any idea where the other battlegroup will come from? Will the further deployment place additional pressure on the training schedule, which is what makes our troops so good?

Des Browne: In my statement to the House, I said, advisedly—I cannot find the exact words—that the deployment was being made on unequivocal military advice. Those are not just words. In preparation, and in responding to the request, having been encouraged to do so by the military, I tested that advice significantly and raised the issue of pressure on our troops, because that matter is at the forefront of my mind, as I have said repeatedly at the Dispatch Box. Until I was satisfied that the deployment was manageable in relation to the troops that we have available, I was not prepared to agree that we would do it, but I am satisfied that it is right.

There may well be a consequence for the training of some troops, because our operational tempo is higher than our planning assumptions set out. The question is whether that will damage our troops in the long term, and the advice I have is that if we are able to see it through and we do not sustain it over an extended period, we will be able to deal with the issue. However, I do not seek to present the position to the House as anything other than it is, and it would be entirely wrong of me to do so. The deployment generates a challenge in relation to training, which as a country and as a Government we need to be prepared to address in the near future.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend never ask himself the question: what is the point of a NATO of that number of nations if it is not prepared to commit itself 100 per cent., without caveats, in a conflict such as that in Afghanistan? Is not it already the case that there are two types of NATO partner—those who are in it for the greater good and those who are in it for themselves?

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Des Browne: I ask myself all sorts of questions but I cannot, with hand on heart, say that I have asked myself that question, or repeatedly asked it. However, I get my hon. Friend’s point. With one or two exceptions—there are perhaps two parties represented in the House that wish us to withdraw from NATO—there is support for the NATO alliance on both sides of the House. There is certainly support in the official Opposition, there is support on the Liberal Democrat Benches and there is support on our Benches. Why? Because that alliance, despite all the criticisms that we may make of it, has proved to be the most enduring and effective political and military alliance the world has ever seen.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Until now.

Des Browne: NATO has never before been posed a challenge of this nature. Progress is being made. It is not being made, in my view, at the same pace as the challenges from the environment that we are dealing with are being generated, but progress is being made. I do not propose to talk about specific countries at the Dispatch Box, no matter how much I am encouraged to do so, but there are countries that have come a long way in a comparatively short period in terms of what they are able to do and what they are prepared politically to allow their troops to do.

We need to consider another issue. There was evidence of that last week. The Italian Government fell because of, among other things, their commitment to Afghanistan. They may well stand up again and may be able to deal with that. In my view, they will be able to do so, but they fell and we have to recognise that when troops are deployed in such circumstances, they are subject to political developments in other countries and the rhythm of their elections. That is one of the challenges that we need to learn to recognise in these alliances, but at the end of the day I support NATO and I will continue to support and challenge the members of NATO not to be an alliance in which the burden is not shared appropriately. However, there is no alternative, in my view, to NATO and it has proved to be the most enduring and effective political and military alliance that the world has ever seen.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): To ask a question that is repeatedly asked each time we get an admission of mission creep, why are we yet again sending a small and under-supported contingent of our finest young men to risk their lives in a war in Afghanistan that even a NATO army of 100,000 could not permanently win, as the Russian commitment of 300,000 troops in the 1980s clearly demonstrated? To reverse Fouché’s aphorism, it is worse than a folly; it is a crime.

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