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Iraq

3. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of new counter-insurgency measures in Iraq. [142911]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Last Monday I visited Iraq and discussed the coalition’s counter-insurgency operations with General Petraeus and others. The military part of the counter-insurgency strategy has a number of strands, including targeted operations and restriction of freedom of movement. The political and economic regeneration efforts are key components, and it is the Iraqi Government who must deliver for the people. If they do not, the insurgents will seek to fill the gap. When I met the Iraqi Prime Minister and the presidency council with the Chancellor, we pressed this point.


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Mr. Holloway: A couple of weeks ago the Defence Committee was in Washington and there was considerable interest in what the Prime Minister-elect might do about Iraq. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Prime Minister-elect about the future of British troops there?

Des Browne: I have discussions with a number of people about the future of the British troops in Iraq, but the hon. Gentleman can be reassured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is, as we know, shortly to be Prime Minister, supports entirely the strategy in which we are engaged with our allies in Iraq, and supports the process of transition of the Iraqi Government and Iraqi forces to providing security. That is exactly the message that my right hon. Friend gave the Iraqi Government, and which I gave to those whom I met when I was in Washington recently myself. I am sure that that is the message that the hon. Gentleman was able to give his interlocutors when he was in Washington.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Has the counter-insurgency programme revealed more about the origins of small arms used against coalition forces, ordnance used against them, and explosives used against both coalition forces and the people of Iraq, and whether those bear the fingerprints of Iran or have emanated from Iran? Can my right hon. Friend update the House about what his Ministry knows about the routes from Iran of the weapons being used against us and the people of Iraq?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is aware that there is evidence to suggest that armaments and, in particular, improvised explosive devices—roadside bombs, for want of another way of describing them—are being deployed against our troops in southern Iraq, and that they have their provenance in Iran. That is why we have UK forces deployed along the border in Maysan and why we continue to train and mentor the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement, which has ultimate responsibility for border issues. It is also one of the reasons why the coalition and the Iraqi security forces conduct boarding operations in Iraqi territorial waters and the northern Gulf.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Whatever the effects of new counter-insurgency measures in Iraq, does the Secretary of State agree that our forces are suffering high numbers of casualties in southern Iraq? The battalion referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, recently returned having suffered 50 wounded, as well as the three killed. The 4th( )Battalion the Rifles in its first 48 hours suffered 15 casualties, plus one killed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the number of wounded from Iraq is becoming one of the best-kept secrets in this country? If the public were made aware of the numbers, they might be able to give more support to our returning soldiers and understand the problems that they are going through.

Des Browne: There is nothing secret at all about the number of wounded in Iraq. Indeed, the figures are on the MOD’s website. Since I have become the Secretary of State, we have been updating that information
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fortnightly to ensure that it is current, because there were complaints when we were updating it monthly that it was being held back for too long. We are able to update it fortnightly, so there is no question of the information being kept secret. From my point of view as Secretary of State, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Just as yesterday and over the past week the knowledge of the sacrifice that our services made in relation to the Falklands was part of the country’s appreciation of their contribution, the people of this country should know exactly the sacrifices that our young men and women are making for our freedoms when they are in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am very conscious of the level of casualties and our need to do everything we can to reduce that casualty rate to a minimum. I am pleased to say that through our counter-insurgency strategy we have seen some progress in that regard, in relation to how we deal with indirect fire in southern Iraq.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): To return to the Iranian influence mentioned by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to welcome the talks between the United States and Iran on the general security situation in Iraq. However, given that, as he says, it is British forces in southern Iraq who are facing the insurgency, as are British forces on the border with Iran, what involvement did the UK have in those discussions? Was a British general present at that meeting between the United States and Iran, and if not, why not? As our armed forces are involved, surely we should be part of those discussions.

Des Browne: The reason why there was no British general present at the meeting between the US ambassador to Iraq and the Iranian ambassador to Iraq is that no military people were present at that meeting at all. It was a meeting between the ambassadors of those respective countries. We should of course welcome that development in terms of the engagement between these two countries, which have not had such a level of engagement for some decades. The hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House can rest assured that we take every opportunity that we can to impress on the Iranians the need for them to counter the flow of weaponry, support and training that we believe is coming into southern Iraq and other parts of Iraq. It is not in the interests of Iran, which will continue to have close relations with Iraq in the future, to destabilise that part of Iraq. We make that very clear to them and take every opportunity we can to do so.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend accept that the only way to bear down on this is through direct talks with the Iranians, and indeed the Syrians, to make it clear that if they are in any way supporting the insurrectionists’ activities in Iraq, we will take a dim—or even stronger—view of that? I wonder what attempts he is making to talk to the Iranians and the Syrians.

Des Browne: I cannot make it any clearer to my hon. Friend or to anyone else that we take every opportunity we can to get that message across to the Iranian Government. In our view, the most effective interlocutors and the best carriers of the message are those who represent Governments in the region, particularly the
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Iraqi Government. On a recent trip to the Gulf states, I made it perfectly clear to those who regularly engage with the Iranian Government that they should give that Government the clear message that they are potentially destabilising southern Iraq and that, in the long term, they are undermining their own interests by their behaviour—not to mention the view that we take of their supported attacks by proxies on our own soldiers.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): One other aspect of this issue is that if the counter-insurgency operations are successful in southern Iraq and in Baghdad, particularly those supported by Iran, there is a risk that Iranian-supported insurgents may simply move their operations and start to operate against our forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of that risk?

Des Browne: There is already emerging evidence that weaponry which has its provenance in Iran is crossing the border into Afghanistan, as I have said from the Dispatch Box before. We are taking steps to try to stop that traffic and to get the message back directly—on this occasion, directly by conversations between, among others, our respective ambassadors in Afghanistan, in order to get the message across to the Iranians. I think that the House knows that Iraq is already meddling in a detrimental way in the affairs of a significant number of countries in the region—[Hon. Members: “Iran!”] Sorry; Iran is already meddling in a detrimental way in the affairs of a number of countries in the region, and in my view, to repeat what I have said previously, it presents a strategic threat to the security of the region.

Afghanistan

4. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): What progress is being made in reconstruction work in Helmand province. [142912]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The Helmand provincial reconstruction team has implemented more than 120 projects to provide tangible benefits to local Afghans. Examples include the building or refurbishing of 12 schools, improvements and repairs to roads and three bridges, six projects improving local health care facilities, and five projects improving the rivers and irrigation canals that enable local farmers to earn a living. We have also constructed a bus station near a major market, which is one of two that have been upgraded with UK funding.

Ms Taylor: I remind my right hon. Friend of the statement by UNICEF:

I remind the House that the Taliban have banned education for all women, and tyrannised them and their families lest they attempt to enter the process. What is being done to change that?

Des Browne: Among the better indicators of success in Afghanistan, where there are still significant challenges, is the fact that about 6 million children are
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now in school, 37 per cent. of whom are girls. The Taliban did not educate girls at all. It seems to me that that is exactly what we are doing to address the issue.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is unrealistic to expect my Royal Engineers colleagues to deliver reconstruction and development in Helmand. The very best that they can do is deliver stability. When does the Secretary of State expect sufficient stability to be provided to enable non-governmental organisations to return in numbers to the province?

Des Browne: I know that the hon. Gentleman has significant knowledge of what is happening in Afghanistan and, in particular, in Helmand province. He will know that there are NGOs operating there, but not in the numbers that we should hope and expect. In my view, the most important development would be getting the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to open an office in Helmand province. If the United Nations were present that would indicate to NGOs across the world that Helmand province was a place where they could do their business. When I was at the United Nations recently in New York, I spoke about this with the Secretary-General and, indeed, with the person responsible for the security of its people, and I hope that we shall soon be able to make some progress in that regard.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): We are now almost half way through the Helmand mission, which was presented as one of reconstruction. The hope was expressed that not a shot would be fired, but 500,000 rounds have been discharged, and we have lost 54 of our courageous soldiers there. It is clear that without the co-operation of the NGOs, who will not operate there because it is too dangerous, very little construction can continue. Is it not time to re-examine the purpose of the Helmand mission so that we can concentrate on attainable objectives that will reduce the number of casualties among civilian Afghans and British soldiers?

Des Browne: The loss of any life is a tragedy and British forces take exceptional care to avoid such incidents as generate civilian casualties. I discussed this recently with my NATO colleagues and raised it with the UN Secretary-General. All agree that avoiding civilian casualties is a matter of the highest priority. This week, of course, showed that the Taliban had no such concerns when they exploded a bomb in the centre of Kabul. That is part of the problem. I know precisely what my hon. Friend is asking me to do, but if he wants me to posture our troops in such a way in Helmand that we hand over the province to people capable of that level of atrocity and brutality, I am not prepared to do so.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): The Secretary of State recently said—and not before time—that greater emphasis should be laid on winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Why, then, was I told in a written answer of 15 March that only one British Army officer serving in Helmand province has passed the speaking exam in Pashto? Has the Secretary of State been told that in the first three Anglo-Afghan wars, if British officers serving there were to qualify for promotion, they had to be able to speak the local language, although to no avail?


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Des Browne: It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman was given that answer on 15 March because it was the right answer to the question that he asked. I accept that there is a challenge for us in the UK to have more native speakers engaged in that area. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that in my own experience of visiting that area on a number of occasions since I took on my present responsibilities—as with almost all the other parts of the world I visit—a lot more people speak English now than did in those days.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps are being taken to reduce the dependence of the rural economy on the opium trade?

Des Browne: Counter-narcotics is, of course, a significant challenge. Although progress has been made in some parts of Afghanistan where security has been improved to a particular level, the production of opium has increased in other parts, including the province of Helmand where we have responsibility. The answer is to develop infrastructure and, in particular, alternative livelihoods for peasant farmers so that we can encourage them to move away from growing poppy, which they are often pressurised into doing by insurgents—and, increasingly, by the Taliban themselves. We are constantly working to improve governance across Helmand province and the south of Afghanistan and to improve the opportunities for local people to generate their livelihoods in an alternative manner.

Iraq

5. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What equipment and training were provided to British troops involved in the invasion of Iraq in terms of protection against the possible use of weapons of mass destruction. [142913]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Troops preparing for combat operations in Iraq were trained before deployment in operating and surviving in a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear environment, and undertook further training in theatre. Armed forces personnel involved at the start of combat operations in Iraq were provided with individual nuclear, biological and chemical clothing and detection equipment.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for that answer. It is absolutely right for our troops to be given the best possible protection against any threat that they might face, but as the Secretary of State knows, there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Indeed, the defence and intelligence services appeared to know that when Ministers were telling us that there were plenty of them. On what date was it therefore decided that those precautions and that equipment could be safely withdrawn from our troops?

Des Browne: No such decision has been made. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that insurgents in Iraq are deploying chlorine bombs, which fit into the category of chemical attacks, so we need to keep our guard up against that sort of development. Over and above that, of course, we have occasionally
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encountered stocks, albeit pre-1991 stocks, of Saddam Hussein’s weapons. They also pose a continuing danger if we come across them, so we have taken no decision such as the hon. Gentleman mentions.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Theatre-specific tactical awareness training sessions were supposed to be mandatory for forces imminently to be deployed in Iraq, but over the four years of this conflict, there have been exemptions. Will the Secretary of State tell us what those exemptions were and whether the decisions about them were taken at command level or ministerial level?

Des Browne: I am afraid that I shall have to write to my hon. Friend about that. I cannot deal with such specificity of questioning in terms of the brief in front of me, but I shall get back to him and ensure that the whole House is made aware of the answer.

Afghanistan

6. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [142914]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in Afghanistan remains stable, if fragile in places. UK forces, as part of the wider ISAF—international security assistance force—mission, are engaged in operations to extend the authority of the Government of Afghanistan across Helmand province and southern Afghanistan.

Malcolm Bruce: Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s previous answers, and given the escalation of fighting in Helmand province, the casualties among our forces and last week’s report by the Red Cross, indicating that more and more civilians were being displaced from their homes and becoming casualties, too, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what steps he is taking, first, to strengthen support for our troops and, secondly, to ensure that our allies give much greater support to the activities required in the region? What measures can he ensure are taken to win the hearts and minds of people so that they believe that reconstruction and development will happen rather than escalating war?

Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman should know that as a result of the series of announcements I made about our force levels in Afghanistan, numbers have gone up to slightly less than 7,000 and will increase to 7,700 by the summer. That force, which is based around the Helmand taskforce, equipped with attack and support helicopters, armour and artillery and endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, is my response to the challenge we face. I am pleased to say that although NATO has not yet been able to meet the force requirement of the commander, there have been improvements in the number of troops deployed in our support in the south and across Afghanistan by several of our allies.


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