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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Most people in this country believe that our armed forces are here to act for the security of our state and in the interests of the United Kingdom. Does not the Secretary of State genuinely feel that we may be extending our armed services too far in the number of operations in which we are prepared to take part? If we are to give soldiers the equipment that they need to give
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them the life that they deserve and the best chances of survival in any operation, perhaps we need to be more selective about the number of operations in which we participate. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?

Des Browne: I agree that we should be discriminating about where we deploy our troops, and I believe that we have been. Indeed, the early part of my speech was designed to give hon. Members and others who may read it an indication of the way in which I am putting into practice the objective that the hon. Gentleman so eloquently sets out of allowing our armed forces the opportunity to recuperate and rebuild from the challenges that we have asked them to face, through reducing our commitment and providing space. Early in the job, I learned something that was counter-intuitive to me, given that I do not have a military background. Outside the military, if people are trained to do something and then deployed to do it, they get better at it. The military has taught me that military skills are sustained by training people, and degraded—or at least in danger of being degraded—by deploying people into operational theatres. That is counter-intuitive, but I learned that quickly from the advice and briefings that I received. I subsequently consistently sought to reach the current position and move further. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

However, I do not want to give the impression that I agree that it is not in our national interest to deploy our troops where they have been deployed. For example, it is manifestly in our national interest to deploy to Afghanistan. We lost the greatest number of UK citizens in a single terrorist incident in the attack on the twin towers in New York, and that terrorist atrocity was planned in Afghanistan. Ninety per cent. of the heroin that is abused on the streets and in the communities of the United Kingdom comes from Afghanistan. I understand that we will not deal with the supply of narcotics from Afghanistan in the longer term unless we deal with the issues here in the United Kingdom, but we need to do both.

Our deployment is manifestly in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom for those two reasons, if not for the fact that we as part of the international community owe the people of Afghanistan a debt of honour to support them out of the decades of conflict that they have had to suffer. Some 2 million of Afghanistan’s own people have died in getting the country to the point at which it now enjoys a limited and fragile freedom. On each occasion in the past on which the international community has promised to support Afghanistan out of conflict, it has not done so. People in this country think that it is in our interests, as a responsible member of the international community, to live up to those commitments. For all those reasons, it is in the interests of the United Kingdom that we should have troops deployed to Afghanistan.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Is it not important that we remember that such actions must be in our mutual interests? Does my right hon. Friend recall meeting, along with me, women from Helmand province who are now councillors there? They told us that it was important that we kept the security that they needed to operate as councillors in the province, so that they could take the important decisions that they need to take for themselves. Without our support, they
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cannot move forward in their important emerging democracy, while we at home cannot tackle the terrorism that we are experiencing unless we secure the emerging peace that we, too, vitally need.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend puts her argument clearly. Enabling people in countries such as Afghanistan to enjoy a quality of life and to be governed in a way that they manifestly want to be will guarantee our long-term security. Future generations in the United Kingdom will be much safer if countries such as Afghanistan and other places that had become ungoverned space—places that could be used as training grounds for terrorists and that gangsters and others could maraud around—become more stable and settled.

We face a problem in getting that across to the people of the United Kingdom, although I never find any difficulty in explaining the narcotics issue on the streets of my constituency. People understand the heroin issue clearly, because it is present in their communities. However, part of the problem in getting the argument across is that we need better to describe the end state that we believe we can allow the people of Afghanistan to take forward themselves. Part of that is substantially dependent on engaging more women in the decision-making process in such countries. I do not think that there is any doubt about that.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab) rose—

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Des Browne: I intend to come to a passage later in my speech that is devoted to Afghanistan. I seem to have triggered the debate on Afghanistan a wee bit earlier than I thought I would, so if my hon. Friends want to question me specifically about Afghanistan, they might want to wait until later.

Mr. Drew: I wish to raise the issue of Darfur. We are talking about being discriminating, but there is no greater conflict in our world today than in Darfur. As we move from the African Union Mission in Sudan—AMIS—to the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, we, along with all other nations in the UN, are committed to ensuring that that force is properly resourced and logistically supported. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that we will play our part—not with troops on the ground, but with support behind the scenes—to ensure that, when we increase the troop numbers to give the people of Darfur the security that they pray for, we also learn the lessons from AMIS’s inability to secure the ground, so that people can begin to return to their homes and live their lives in some hope that the conflict will come to an end?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend speaks for everybody in the House when he makes a plea for the plight of the people of Darfur, given what they have gone through, to be given the appropriate priority. I do not think that anybody would contradict him. However, as he also rightly points out, we must increasingly accept that there are different ways in which we can support different operations. I am proud, as I am sure others are, of the cross-party political leadership that we in the United Kingdom have given on Darfur and of the contribution that our Prime Minister made, along with
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other international partners, in leading the United Nations to an unequivocal resolution that allowed the forces that he recognises as necessary to be deployed. That is underpinned by consistent and persistent investment in development for Darfur, and the support of others.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware, however, that the sustainable improvement of the security of people in places such as Darfur can be supported in many other ways. One of the most important is to make an appropriate contribution to the training and development of security forces in Africa, so that people who have a direct national interest, as has been mentioned, in the settlement of some intransigent conflicts in Africa have the capability and capacity to do that. Our military personnel’s valuable ability to train others in the skills learned by the British Army over centuries has been used across Africa. My hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to do everything that we can to support the deployment of forces in an appropriate way. The most important part of that is to give consistent international political leadership on the issue.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): This week the EU announced its 3,000-man peacekeeping mission to Chad. No one suggests that that is not an appropriate action or an important role, but it will require airlift capacity and other logistic support. The Secretary of State was at the discussions with his EU partners. Will he tell the House what excuse they gave for being able to find airlift capacity and logistic support for the mission to Chad but not being able to provide additional support in Afghanistan, where we seem to be extremely short on the ground?

Des Browne: We will not help to encourage others—which I do a great deal—to become involved and to develop their capability and capacity to make an appropriate contribution to operations if we get into a futile bidding war about this priority as opposed to another. [Interruption.] My point is that neither the hon. Gentleman nor I are in a position to point to any atrocity in any part of the world and say that the people there are more or less deserving than others. Our responsibility, as some of the richest countries in the world collected together, is to do what we can to try to meet all those challenges, if possible, but I recognise that we cannot deal with every challenge. I do not look for such things as excuses or explanations.

On the deployment into Chad, what is happening there is, on any view, a clear extension of what is happening in Darfur, and needs to be challenged and dealt with just as much. If we do not challenge at both sides of the border, we will find ourselves in a difficult situation. As a matter of fact, strategic airlift is still a challenge there, and is not yet resolved. We are not in the comfortable position that the hon. Gentleman suggests, in which people say that they can do that but they cannot do something else. People are trying to do, in good faith, what they believe is right—to deal with difficult circumstances in different parts of the world. His point in relation to people living up to their commitments is not lost on me, and I shall return to it shortly.

Beneath the United Nations, NATO remains central to our collective defence and security needs, as it has
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been for almost 60 years. We also recognise the important benefits that the EU, with its wide range of civil and military capabilities, can bring to resolving crises. We are working hard to build the capabilities and effectiveness of both organisations in a mutually supportive way, so that their efforts and capabilities complement each other rather than duplicate or compete.

We expect NATO allies and EU partners to meet their responsibility in sharing the risks and costs of collective action. Many are doing so and we salute their efforts. But the contribution of some European nations is quite disappointing. All are answerable to their own people and Parliaments, but NATO and European solidarity do not have an opt-out clause.

Our armed forces do not work in isolation. We must use effectively all the levers available to Government: reconstruction and development, foreign diplomacy and the military. That has become known as a “comprehensive approach”. Crucially—because it is these other efforts that will eventually bring lasting peace—the strategic military effort should be driven by political and economic needs, not the other way round. However, at tactical and operational level the military are often leading, and need support from diplomats and development experts. We are working across Government, with non-governmental organisations, allies and partners, to improve our collective ability to do that. Nowhere is the comprehensive approach more vital than in Afghanistan.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): In reply to an earlier intervention, the Secretary of State made the point that in Afghanistan the United Nations agencies were under pressure from the Taliban, whose members were effectively trying to kill their people on the ground. May I put it to him that wherever we are up against militant Islam—or, indeed, other forces such as those confronting the troops deployed in Darfur—we are subject to such risks? It is a fact of the modern military environment that civilians are targeted. I suggest that part of the solution lies in a degree of blurring of the military-civilian interface, and in bringing more civilian skills and expertise to the military framework through reserve forces and other wider measures, rather than simply trying to persuade what are essentially civilian agencies to do work on which they will ultimately be unable to deliver.

Des Browne: On the basis of my experience—particularly in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq—and my observation of other areas that I have not visited regularly, there is much in what the hon. Gentleman says, but his suggestion brings with it other challenges. We must be careful not to create a scenario in which we blur the distinction between NGOs and the military to such an extent that we create an environment in which people other than those described by the hon. Gentleman can operate. I think he will understand that that is a trap. We do not want to drive NGOs out of the environment; we want to create an environment into which we can bring them with a degree of security.

This is a lively and current debate between Governments, NGOs, allies and others. It is an engaged
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debate: no one is shirking the responsibilities that it brings us collectively. But we must find a way of giving NGOs confidence to deploy their workers and others in the environment that we create, where they do not become the target because they are accused of being part of the military structure. That is important. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding in agreement.

We need to consider the issue carefully. It is difficult to establish exactly how it should be dealt with. I should be happy to continue this conversation with the hon. Gentleman—here and in other locations—to try to resolve it, but resolve it we must. I should point out to him that one of the first decisions I made in relation to Afghanistan was to increase our forces there by the deployment of engineers. As he knows, those engineers had a significant effect on the ability to deliver reconstruction in a way that increased the confidence of local people that the challenges posed by the Taliban in their communities were worth taking up, because there was an immediate reward.

Mr. Brazier: I do not mean to make an excessively partisan point, but one of the parts of the Territorial Army that was cut the most was the TA section of the Royal Engineers, although there has been some build-back in the future army strategy. Many of the skills that the Secretary of State has mentioned are readily available in civilian life. The deployment of TA Royal Engineers units would be a very good way of dealing with the present circumstances—until, obviously, an environment is created in which NGOs can once more play a part.

Des Browne: I entirely agree. I do not wish to compete with the hon. Gentleman as a cheerleader for the Territorial Army—I know he has many more years’ experience of that than I have—but I have been astonished and impressed not just by the skills but by the commitment that its members bring to their job. I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman makes in relation to the specific issue, but I am also glad that he recognises the complications of doing that on a grander scale. We must work our way through these matters.

Afghanistan is a noble cause. We cannot allow it to slip once more into disorder, or again to become a haven for international terrorism, nor can we abandon the Afghan people, who have embarked on a course of democracy and peace. We have made significant progress since 2001, but Afghanistan remains a fragile state. To show that it is heading in the right direction, let me repeat some of the indicators of progress there—I hope that those who have heard them before will forgive me. Forty thousand Afghan national army troops have been trained and equipped—indeed, I think that that figure is now out of date and that there are significantly more such troops. Of its refugees, 4.8 million have returned home; that has not been matched by any other country in the world, as nowhere else is there evidence of so many people voluntarily returning because of a change in the political and social environment of a country from which they had sought refuge. Eighty-three per cent. of the population now has access to medical facilities; for substantial parts of Afghanistan before 2001 that figure was in the teens rather than the 80s. More than 5 million children are in
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education, in excess of 1 million of whom are girls who were not educated at all when the Taliban ran the country. President Karzai recently observed in passing—although it is a significant fact—that for the first time in almost 40 years Afghanistan was close to becoming self-sufficient in food production; that is a major achievement, and it has been achieved in a comparatively short time.

However, these advances must be protected and built upon, and doing so will involve facing up to some serious challenges, most of which are not military. Our armed forces are doing the most superb job in protecting the Afghan people from the Taliban, but we must continue to help the Afghans exploit the space that we create, by helping them to govern effectively, to establish and administer fair laws that reflect their society and to spend the international aid they receive. The results must be felt for generations, not for months and years. The will is there, but we must help them develop the means.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Although I take issue with the Secretary of State on the wisdom of our continued presence in Afghanistan, I am sure that we both agree that our troops on the ground are doing excellent work and that we must seriously consider their welfare and morale. Has he received reports of, for example, forward units in Helmand spending 40 days on ration packs and it not being possible to resupply them? Is that the case? Is the Secretary of State aware of such reports, and if so, what does he think that does for the morale of the soldiers?

Des Browne: I am certainly now aware of such reports, but there is not a jot of truth in them. My hon. Friend ought to be very careful about what he says, because of the possible effect on troops’ families back here in the UK of repeating some of the dishonesties that are at large about the circumstances of our forces on the ground in Afghanistan. I know that he will be careful, because he is a responsible person. He asks me directly whether there is any truth in this; I tell him directly that there is no truth in this.

That having been said, however, we must understand that war fighting is dirty, difficult and dangerous. Part of what has been happening over the past months is that because of mass communications, the people of this country, including a generation that has never seen this before, are being exposed in real time—or as near to that as one can get—to the reality of what war fighting is like. Frankly, as I have said, it is dirty, difficult and dangerous. We ought to understand that that is what we ask some of our young people to do, and that it is what we train them for. It devalues their skill, commitment and bravery to point out every single deprivation that comes with war fighting as being somehow a failure on the part of the Ministry of Defence, the Government or some bureaucrat to support them. Sometimes, some of the circumstances in which our people find themselves—and in which their morale is at its highest—are simply a consequence of the very violence that they have to deal with, and from which they have to deliver the communities that they seek to protect.

I make that point clearly to Members and others. We ought to be careful not to devalue the bravery and
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contribution of the people whom we train to do this difficult and dangerous work by describing all its difficult aspects as some sort of failure by a bureaucrat. And as a matter of fact, what my hon. Friend described is not happening.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Of course, the country that has lost the most men in the Afghan conflict is Pakistan. More than 800 Pakistani soldiers have been killed as the Pakistani armies tried to help on the eastern flank. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast bulk of the Pakistani military have to be on their eastern flank, facing Kashmir, because of the half a million Indian soldiers there and the continuing troubles? If India could cut Pakistan some slack on Kashmir, more Pakistani troops could be heading west to patrol and to help us as we try to solve problems in Afghanistan.

Des Browne: My right hon. Friend is right, to the extent that none of the challenges, difficulties, conflicts and confrontations that exist in that region can be resolved on its own; they are all interrelated. Beyond the issues that we have been debating in the past few minutes, there is no doubt that the fact that the ethnic Pashtun people stretch beyond the Durand line into Pakistan, and that parts of the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan—in which there are very significant issues about radicalisation and radical Islam—that are substantially ungoverned, are related to and interrelated in the Afghan situation. That is why we will never find a solution to these problems for the Afghan people without the recognition that there is a significant Pakistani element in this, but also vice versa. That has to be part of the international community’s objective in dealing with this issue. As my right hon. Friend points out, once one gets to Pakistan and into the issues that the Pakistani Government face, one very quickly finds oneself on the other border, considering other issues. So all these issues are, as I said, interrelated.

The challenges that we face in Afghanistan are significant and will take decades of hard work to address, but tackle them we must. Only through an effective and truly multilateral approach will we and the Afghan people have a chance to make that country free from the oppression of the Taliban, and to give all its people—men and women—the opportunities that we, thankfully, take for granted.

In the past 17 months, I have visited Iraq six times. There has been progress, but it has not been easy. However, we have remained true to our strategy of transition, building the Iraqis’ capacity to take responsibility for their own security. Frankly, this is the only sensible strategy, and I believe that the last year has shown that it is working. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed last week, we have now transferred three out of four provinces in southern Iraq for which we had responsibility, and we are on track for Basra to follow suit before 2008. This represents very real progress, which is firmly driven by objective assessments of the evolving situation on the ground. It has become manifestly clear over the past weeks that that is not only our assessment, but that of the Iraqi Government and of our principal ally—the United States of America.

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