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Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has the merit of consistency and he speaks regularly on this issue and challenges me in exactly the same way. I respond to him, I hope, consistently by saying that there is no comparison between what we—the world, by and large—are seeking to do in Afghanistan and what the Soviets tried to do when they invaded and took on the whole country. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman knows this, but the evidence not only from polling—whatever fragility that has—but from our
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troops on the ground and from our communication with the Afghan people suggests that the vast majority of the Afghan people want us to be there. They are subject in parts of Afghanistan to the most horrific violence perpetrated by a comparatively small number of people who have been practising it on them for decades. I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is significant evidence of progress and he cannot deny that. Some 5 million people who have connections with that community have gone back to live there since the world released the country from the terror of the Taliban. Those 5 million people cannot be wrong; there must be some reason for them to believe that they were going back to an improved set of circumstances.

Of course, there are difficulties and challenges, but I spoke today to our commander on the ground and he gave me—I will repeat it to the House if it wants me to—a litany that went on for about five minutes of the progress that has been made just over the winter. He was very keen that I should make the point in the House that the ability of the Taliban has been overestimated, because they appear to be much more successful in their information operations than we and NATO have been. In his view, the Taliban in Helmand province are becoming increasingly desperate about their ability to engage with and overcome our troops. That may not continue, but there is, in his view, no sign of the expected spring offensive. That does not mean that it may not develop.

We need to be ready for the worst possible assessment so that we are able to deal with and match the Taliban, as we have been able to do. At the same time, however, we need to bring development and economic prosperity to the people, so that they can in the long term face down the Taliban. We are making progress on that; it is not the same challenge that the Soviets took on.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): I am concerned that those nations who are prepared to put their servicemen and women in the most dangerous situations could find support within their home communities undermined by the failure of NATO allies to get involved. Could my right hon. Friend give an assessment of how robust and for how long the existing support will continue? If there is not support for the commitment across the alliance, there is a danger that, country by country, those that are pulling their weight now may find that their Governments no longer have the support of their populations.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. The Taliban seek to do two things. The first is to undermine the faith of the Afghan people in the international security assistance force and the ability of their own troops to deliver security for them. Equally, the Taliban seek to undermine support in the countries that support the Afghan Government. By explaining what is actually going on and explaining in an honest and straightforward way the challenges and difficulties that we face, I hope to continue the support of the British people for what I consider to be a noble cause and, more important, an absolute necessity for our security.

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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Today’s statement confirms the point that I put to the Prime Minister back in October: the majority of EU and NATO countries are refusing to deploy their troops to Helmand province. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if those countries are refusing to help to rid the world of terrorism and are adding to the overstretch of the British armed forces, they should at least fund the operations that we are putting forward?

Des Browne: Where countries are unable, as some of them are, to provide troops that can engage in the sort of tasks that are needed in Helmand province, or where they are unwilling to do so, we suggest that they ought to find some other way of supporting the challenge that needs to be supported. That said, almost all the countries have already committed themselves, through the Afghan compact, to making contributions to the development of Afghanistan. I would not want it to be thought that I said that they were not providing money to support the Afghan Government, because most of them are.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): I think that my right hon. Friend will have the full support of the House in pressing our allies in Europe and elsewhere into supporting the intervention and the effort in Afghanistan, but does he share some of my concern that if many of those nations were going to make a bigger contribution, they would already have done so? Taking his earlier point that there is no military solution, alone, to this issue, does he agree that there needs to be a rethink politically if we find that militarily we are not getting the necessary reinforcement? Does he accept that there is nothing worse that being bogged down in something over which one has little control and which one cannot win?

Des Browne: If I did not think that we could make progress in increasing security to allow the complementary elements of the appropriate comprehensive approach, which will deliver exactly what we are looking for in Afghanistan, I would not commit one further member of the British armed forces, or supporting civilians from other departments, to Afghanistan. On the contrary, I would argue for the withdrawal of our troops. I believe that we can make progress. We might not be able to make it at the pace that, ideally, we would be able to make it at if we had access to more troops, but we will be able to make progress. It is necessary for us to reinforce the progress that we have already made and to move on to the next stage, by doing what I am announcing today.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Provincial reconstruction teams remain the cornerstone of our progress in Afghanistan. In today’s statement it is significant that, for the first time, our troops will be operating in two provinces—Nimruz to the west of Helmand and Daykondi to the north of Kandahar—where no provincial reconstruction teams currently exist. What plans are there to put PRTs in those provinces, bearing in mind that six months ago scoping reports were set out? The Danes, for example, were going to go to Nimruz. However, as far as I know, there are currently no PRTs there and no nations offering to put PRTs there.

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Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is right to identify those gaps, but, of course, he will appreciate that there is a progression across Afghanistan. All that I can say to him is that my hope is that that situation is temporary and that, as we generate greater and better security in the south, we will be able to identify countries that will be willing to deploy those resources into those provinces.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): May I ask the Secretary of State to clarify part of his statement? Speaking just among ourselves, when he said that we must be realistic about how many nations have the ability to take on the tasks facing NATO in the south and the east, would he put the greatest emphasis on their lack of military capability or their lack of political will? Which is the biggest deterrent?

Des Browne: Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Romania and the United States have both the capability—in differing measures—and the political will, as the evidence of their presence in their south, where they are carrying out difficult tasks, indicates. I am not in a position—and I am not inclined, in any event—to go through other nations and to categorise them one way or another. We must continue to work with our allies and to encourage them along the road that some of them have made progress along in order to be able, in an appropriate period of time, to do what we have all set out to do in Afghanistan.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): Is not one of our problems in Afghanistan the fact that we have conflicting objectives? We seek to support the Government and defeat the Taliban militarily on the one hand, but, on the other, we seek to destroy the poppy crop. May I suggest that we will never get the local political support that we need to defeat the Taliban while we continue to try to destroy what is virtually people’s only source of livelihood? If we lay off the poppies, we might have a little more chance with the Taliban.

Des Browne: I am well aware of the need to balance the two objectives. The fact of the matter is that they are not unconnected. The Taliban and others prey on the population in relation to the production of poppy. Progressively, as we are able to generate the security that allows the economic development that generates alternative livelihoods, we ought to be able to address eradication. That is happening in other parts of Afghanistan, and the sooner we are able to do it in the south and the east, the sooner we will be able to make quick progress.

As I said to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) earlier, I have spoken about this issue from the Dispatch Box on numerous occasions. If the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) would care to read what is recorded in Hansard, he would not need to give me any lessons on the requirement to balance our desire to reduce poppy cultivation in Afghanistan with the need to maintain security and our ability to move forward.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): We heard about endemic corruption in the police earlier, but may I ask about the Afghan army, because I do not think that my
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friend addressed it during his statement? What progress are we making? Is there a problem with retaining Afghan soldiers, and how well equipped are they?

Des Browne: There is a problem with the retention of soldiers in the Afghan army and a challenge regarding equipment. However, my hon. Friend must realise how young the force actually is. For the assessment of the force as it is built up and progresses, I rely on those who know and understand all these things, and they tell me that the Afghan soldiers are enormously brave and capable. Given that the army has been in existence for a comparatively short time, it attracts the admiration of the British forces.

Of course, there are significant challenges. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will applaud the announcement by the United States of America of significant investment for the development of the Afghan security forces. However, that does not mean that there will not be setbacks to the development. As I said earlier, there is a growing realisation throughout the alliance that we will have a better prospect of developing and sustaining the Afghan security forces if we let them grow more organically from the communities with which they are involved, rather than recruiting all the members from the north and thus deploying people in the south who are ethnically different from those whom they are policing, which has been the tendency in the past.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Given the reported incursion of some 700 Taliban fighters over the Pakistan border to attack the Kajaki dam, does the Secretary of State understand the reasons behind President Karzai’s recent statement that Pakistan was effectively operating as a sanctuary for the Taliban with the consent of the Pakistani authorities? If we cannot be assured of the full and active co-operation of Pakistan, will the deployment allow us to raise border security in the Canadian and British zones to the level already achieved in the American sector in the south-east, or will our troops, because of an open border, remain more vulnerable to attack?

Des Browne: If the hon. Gentleman has not visited the border, I am sure that he can contemplate what it looks like: it is a mountainous and rugged part of the world. Given the nature of the challenge, the history of the two countries and the movement of people back and forth over the border, it would be entirely inappropriate to seek assurances. We need the Pakistan Government and the Afghanistan Government to work together, because they have sovereignty on either side of the border, to ensure that there is not this influx of fighters, such as from among the significant number of Afghan refugees who still remain in refugee camps in Pakistan. We cannot wish that away, and we cannot separate the two countries, but NATO and the United Kingdom regularly support the Governments in working together to solve the problem, which will be with them for a significant time. We should never underestimate the contribution that Pakistan’s Government have made. They have lost 700 members of their security forces in seeking to police and control the border. That is not an insignificant contribution, and we should not test their
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commitment to the issue against the fact that a centuries-old problem has not been solved in a comparatively small number of years.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): We entered Afghanistan because it was in the British interest to do so, and I commend my right hon. Friend for having the strength of character to restate the case that we should never again allow the country to become a breeding ground for terrorism. Does he agree that many Members of the House thought that the long-term test for NATO would be how it rose to the challenge of Afghanistan, and although many Members will still give the alliance their unequivocal support, as a result of his statement they will feel that its long-term future is in greater jeopardy?

Des Browne: Most challenges offer opportunities, as well as show weaknesses, and I think that over time NATO will be capable of taking the opportunities that the challenge generates. The fact is that most people who assess the strategic situation that we and the world will be in for the foreseeable future identify the fact that that we will need to be part of an alliance that is capable of doing the sort of work that we are doing in Afghanistan, capable of deploying forces in situations of conflict, and capable of supporting conflict resolution. The developed world—indeed, the world—does not have any alternative but to stand up those capabilities and develop them, as well as the political will to do that work. I am satisfied that, despite the problems faced by me, the UK Government and the alliance, the alliance will, over time, prove to be up to the challenges.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State concede that article 5 of the north Atlantic treaty is based on mutual risk? Germany has aspirations to sit on the UN Security Council this week, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, it has defence and foreign policy aspirations in relation to the European Union, too. Is it possible for the Secretary of State to ask the Germans whether they would be good enough to move some of their 3,000 troops in the north down to the south?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in his shortened definition of article 5, in terms of mutual risk, and I agree with the words that he used. He can rest assured that I have asked the Governments of all the forces in Afghanistan that are capable of being deployed in the south whether they are prepared to deploy them there.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in recognising the role that thousands of servicemen and women play in Afghanistan. They will welcome the extra flexibility that will come from the additional manoeuvre, reconnaissance and surveillance capability that he today announced will be deployed. I welcome the increase of 7 per cent. in the manning requirement of the Marines, but what is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we can recruit the necessary number of Marines—always acknowledging, of course, that the requirement is at a higher level than it was in 2000, before the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq developed?

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Des Browne: My hon. Friend knows that recruitment is increasing. There are two challenges to sustaining the number of forces that we need: we have to recruit, and we have to retain. Retention is as much of a challenge as recruitment, as was implied in the questions asked about operational tempo. There is no question but that the effect of the sustained operational tempo on families and those who support our troops generates part of the challenge, in respect of retention. In addition, sometimes once people have experienced the operational theatres, they are satisfied, in terms of their military career, and are happy to move on, for personal development reasons—and, of course, they are free to do that. What we seek to do, as my hon. Friend knows, is identify particular challenges and deploy enhancements or encouragements in the way in which we remunerate those people so that we can hold on to them, and that is exactly what we are trying to do for the Marines.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Secretary of State said that the mission was in our national interest, but that is no more or less true for us than it is for our partners. What is definitively in the British national interest is allowing the Army to recover from the overstretch arising from all the missions that it has undertaken in recent years, many of which have not enjoyed enormous public support, to put it mildly, which caused greater anxiety in the Army, as there are difficulties in retention. There are ways of achieving our objectives in Afghanistan other than a military occupation in support of the Government of our choice, so if our international partners are not prepared to help us with our current strategy, will the Secretary of State keep those under review?

Des Browne: This is not a military occupation. It is support for a Government who have been properly elected on a democratic basis. Despite all the criticisms that we may make of some people who serve in that Government and of their past, they are democratically elected. More importantly, NATO, with others, is carrying out the request of the United Nations in a United Nations Security Council resolution, so it is entirely inappropriate to describe it as the hon. Gentleman did. However, on the initial part of his question, I have already recognised that operational tempo generates challenges, and I have spelt out on more than one occasion exactly what we seek to do to address that. May I just tell him that politically his party must make up its mind about where it stands? It cannot have it both ways. The Shadow Chancellor cannot suggest—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Hoyle.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has considered requests to deploy the Gibraltar regiment to Afghanistan to ease the pressure on troops from the UK who have been deployed as a matter of course as a result of the revolving door situation. As he did not mention it in his announcement, will extra personnel be deployed from the medical regiment to ease the situation in Afghanistan, too?

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Des Browne: I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend answers to such specific questions, but I will write to him with the particulars that he seeks, and ensure that the letter is placed in the Library of the House for everyone to read. I am advised that members of the Gibraltar regiment have served with distinction in our operational theatres, but I cannot answer the very specific question that he asked because I do not have any recollection of such a request being made.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): In answer to an earlier question, the Secretary of State said that although the request was for two battlegroups to be deployed, he is deploying only one. Will he confirm where the other battlegroup is coming from, and what assessment has he made of the risk implications for the deployment, given that we have not been able to employ the two battlegroups that were requested?

Des Browne: This question has been asked before, and I think that the answer was implied in the information that I gave. I repeat that we were asked to provide two battlegroups for the south. We had to balance that request and our assessment of the need against our capacity and the belief that, as it was a NATO mission, others must bear some of the extra burden. Our judgment was that we could send one battlegroup to complement the force enhancements that I announced earlier this month. The request is still in place, as are other unfulfilled parts of the CJSOR—the combined joint statement of requirement—which, in my view, are responsibilities for others to pick up.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend understand the frustration and anger of British defence workers who have no option but to compete for contracts from companies based in NATO countries which, at a time of need, have refused to support our troops?

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I always try, particularly when speaking to those who work in our very important defence industries, to understand their frustrations if they express them to me. I am sure that, throughout the country, there is no shortage of them in the state of mind that my hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Some elements of the battlegroup that the right hon. Gentleman announced today were to be deployed to Afghanistan in the normal course of events. My son is a young officer in the 19th Royal Artillery. What extra arms and men will be available in order to hold ground and villages that are taken by the Army, which has not had the necessary resources to maintain its presence there, and what extra resources can be used to win the hearts and minds of people, in Helmand province particularly?

Des Browne: I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s son, although I do not know him personally, and to all the others who work with him or are deployed with him—indeed, all our armed forces, who are prepared, as I am sure his son is, to accept the challenge and to carry it out, as he no doubt will, with great distinction, professionalism and courage.

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