Previous Section Index Home Page

Let me take each of the three principles in turn. First, on the military, is it not the case that with the international security assistance force, Operation Enduring Freedom and the separate Afghan military commands, we simply have too many chains of command? All the evidence in defeating counter-insurgencies anywhere in the world is that there has to
12 Dec 2007 : Column 308
be a single chain of command. What progress has the Prime Minister made with the US and with NATO towards getting these rationalised?

Specifically on British forces, we have seen success in Sangin, at the Kajaki dam and now in Musa Qala, but is the Prime Minister satisfied that this time, there are sufficient Afghan forces to hold the ground that has been taken? On equipment and training, Lord Guthrie recently raised the example of a brigade being deployed to Afghanistan without having first been trained on medium machine guns. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that this will not happen again? As he knows, one cannot spend time in Helmand without hearing concerns about the lack of battlefield helicopters. He talked about that in his statement. Does he now regret the decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004, and can he explain why the Government waited until this year before placing orders for new and converted helicopters?

The Prime Minister talked about burden sharing. Can he tell us precisely what progress is being made in ensuring that we get a greater contribution from our NATO allies?

On forces welfare, the Prime Minister has taken up our suggestion of additional pay in theatre. Will he now take up another suggestion—simple—that soldiers’ leave should begin when they step off the aircraft on UK soil, not when they leave Afghanistan?

On pay, is it not now clear that the new Ministry of Defence computerised pay system is not working properly? We had problems with the Royal Air Force earlier, and now we have some Territorial Army officers not being paid at all. Can the Prime Minister tell us today how many people are not being paid properly and what he is doing to put these failures right?

Next, political progress. The general problem is that the writ of the Karzai Government does not extend to the whole country. In many places, Helmand included, the Afghan police are seen as corrupt. What steps are we taking in terms of mentoring, leadership, training, pay and discipline structures, and after six years, why are we still not getting this right? The UN drugs and crime chief has said:

A new anti-corruption tsar, Izzatullah Wasifi, has been appointed. Will the Prime Minister comment on reports in the newspapers that Mr. Wasifi was once convicted in the United States of attempting to sell $2 million-worth of heroin?

Thirdly, on co-ordination, aid has been provided by the US, the UN, the EU and NATO as well as by dozens of smaller agencies. We have been arguing for more than a year that there should be a single high-profile figure to take charge of co-ordinating the international effort and providing real leadership in the way that Lord Ashdown did in Bosnia. The Prime Minister spoke about it, but can he actually tell us when he thinks it is going to happen?

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): February.

Mr. Cameron: February. Thank you, but why was it not in the Prime Minister’s statement? The whole point is to announce things to the House of Commons! I know that the Foreign Secretary’s speeches are normally
12 Dec 2007 : Column 309
corrected after they have gone out, but he might want to advise the Prime Minister rather more about how to get the content right in the first place.

On aid— [Interruption.] Calm down, dear; there are more questions to answer. On aid, can the Prime Minister—with the help of the Foreign Secretary, who is now fully engaged in this—tell us how much of the very substantial UK aid is being spent in Helmand and how much in the rest of the country? Should we not be focusing our aid efforts to a much greater extent where our soldiers are deployed and where so much is at stake?

This country is giving a tremendous amount to Afghanistan in money and in lives. Conservative Members believe that it is a worthwhile effort, but the country wants reassurance. With that in mind, can the Prime Minister give a commitment to full quarterly reports to Parliament on this issue? Ultimately, as the Prime Minister knows, our success or failure in Helmand depends on the ordinary Afghan and on whether he or she feels safer and better off since British forces arrived. Does the Prime Minister feel that we are in danger of disappointing the high hopes of security and reconstruction?

The Prime Minister: First, let me deal with where we agree. We agree on praising the bravery, courage and professionalism of the forces. On Monday, I met some of the men who had either been in Musa Qala or who were about to go there, so I know what a tremendous effort British forces have been part of—working with the Americans and with the Afghan forces themselves, while at the same time taking a leadership role with enormous skill, expertise and bravery. They have reason to celebrate a huge success this Christmas, which turns back the Taliban at the time when people are retreating to the hills for Christmas. That is a psychological blow against the Taliban as well as a military success. It means that over the next few months we can build on what we have achieved in Musa Qala so that people in that area have a stake in the future—a Taliban-free future for that province.

We also agree that work has to be done with the Afghan Government on fighting corruption and the drugs trade. We agree that there is a need for a co-ordinator, and we have been pressing for that for some years. At the same time, the changeover will take place in February, as had been announced previously by the Government to the House of Commons.

We further agree that it is important for our aid money to show results in Helmand where we are based. Of the £450 million going into aid over the next few years, a very substantial part will go to Helmand. It is also important to build up the government of Afghanistan, so we want to increase the authority of the national Government over the whole country. That is why some of our resources are going into building systems of government, including for economic development across the whole country.

Let me repeat what I said in my statement—that our aim is to isolate and eradicate the Taliban insurgency and to isolate the leadership. We are not negotiating with the leadership and we do not propose to do so. However, we want to support President Karzai in his efforts at reconciliation. If he is successful in bringing across members of the previous insurgency, who then
12 Dec 2007 : Column 310
declare that they will give up fighting, support democracy and be part of the system, that will show that the efforts to achieve reconciliation will have been important to the whole country’s future.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly stressed the importance that should be attached to the Afghan leadership and the Afghan people taking more ownership. I repeat that there will be 70,000 Afghan members of the armed forces by the end of next year; 20,000 more will be trained during the course of next year—and at a very high level because they are benefiting from the expertise of the British forces. Forces on the ground tell me that the Afghan army is well trained and well equipped for the tasks that it has to carry out.

On equipment, six Merlin helicopters have been ordered and will be available later, while eight Chinook helicopters are being upgraded for the work that can be done in Afghanistan. I have also announced that new blades are being fitted to Sea King helicopters for such work. As part of burden sharing, I have approached a number of European Governments, particularly in eastern Europe, who are not involved to the same extent as we are in the Afghanistan effort, and asked them to provide helicopters to support the NATO effort. I am confident that, in addition to the helicopters that we are adding to our fleet, we will get more support from those east European countries as the process of burden sharing takes root.

The right hon. Gentleman raised several other issues. On pay, we have a new computer system and I believe that the Defence Secretary’s efforts to ensure that it improves and gets the right payments to people are now bearing fruit. On the question of payment to the troops themselves, I think that it will have to be recorded that over the last year, we have tried to improve the position both through the troops’ pay settlement and through the allowances given for being at the front. We in Britain have a six-month rota, while America tends to be longer, which is one of the reasons why the arrangements that the right hon. Gentleman asked about are different. There is a £2,300 payment for being on the ground in theatre for several months.

We have also improved the allowances available for council tax, which has been reduced by £140, while at the same time extending facilities available for e-mailing, computers and telephoning—providing more minutes and more facilities for contacting relatives at home. Postal services have also been made free for the armed forces, which is entirely right. I am conscious that we need to do more on accommodation for the armed forces at home, which is why a substantial amount of the spending settlement has been allocated to accommodation.

On each of those areas where questions have rightly been asked about the support that we give our armed forces, we are systematically taking action to improve what treatment is available. That is in recognition of what I suspect the whole House will want to support—the courage, professionalism and dedication of the people who give up their time to serve our country and serve democracy for the future.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): The death of Sergeant Johnson reminds us of how much is at stake here. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, particularly the positive feedback from the conflict at
12 Dec 2007 : Column 311
Musa Qala, but is it not the case that all rural guerrilla armies attach little importance to holding towns, and that, conversely, the military command of NATO has acknowledged that it finds it very difficult to hold territory that it has cleared? What has fundamentally changed the dynamic of this conflict to give the Prime Minister a more optimistic view of the future?

In respect of the UK contribution, the Prime Minister made some helpful, sensible and practical suggestions about the supply of helicopters, but has not the number of functioning Apache helicopters fallen from 60 per cent. to 50 per cent. over the last year? Is not one of the lessons the fact that we need to think more fundamentally about reorientating the defence budget towards immediate defence needs rather than those of the cold war? Will he have a fresh look at the very large £6 billion Typhoon commitment, which, if cancelled, would free up resources for immediate defence needs and troop welfare?

On the number of troops employed, is the judgment about numbers based on defence needs or is it simply reflecting the reality, acknowledged by the chiefs of staff, that British forces—including the 4,700 who were tied down at Basra airport providing cover for the continuing American presence in Iraq—are massively overstretched?

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to stress the importance of development assistance and we greatly welcome that, but is it not true that the annual budget of the Afghan Government on development is about £18 billion and that a large part of it is disappearing into waste and corruption? What is being done to introduce more effective safeguards?

The Prime Minister acknowledged the role of the poppy economy in the lives of peasant farmers in Afghanistan, so what is he doing to stop the indiscriminate destruction of poppy crops driving those farmers into the arms of the Taliban?

Finally, may I ask the Prime Minister about the precarious position of British public opinion? Is he aware that surveys in the past year suggest that a majority now favours withdrawal within a year and is increasingly concerned about the 86 deaths? There is a consensus among the parties in the House that we should continue to support the Afghan forces, but what is he going to do to persuade British public opinion that this activity is necessary and right?

The Prime Minister: I had hoped that there would be all-party agreement on what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman does not fully appreciate what I think is the central message of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban and we must prevent the return of al-Qaeda to use the country as a base, and to do so we must strengthen the politics, society and economy of Afghanistan. I hope that that will be common ground.

Where we have had to make sacrifices and where we are in for the long term, of course we must persuade the British public continuously of the importance of what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman asks what has changed in Musa Qala. What has changed is that we
12 Dec 2007 : Column 312
now have competent Afghan forces, which are able to move in and take control of the area with the support of the Americans, the British and other NATO forces. I believe that over the next period of time we shall see an ever more competent Afghan army, given support by trainers from Britain and elsewhere. At the same time, as I reported, people who either had an indirect relationship with the Taliban or were previously fighters are coming over and deciding that their future lies within the democratic constitution of Afghanistan.

As far as the weaponry is concerned, I mentioned that Merlin, Chinook and Sea King helicopters would be moving into Afghanistan in greater numbers over the next period of time. We need fast jets as well, as the Secretary of State for Defence reminded me, but the hon. Gentleman should not pose one against the other. We are determined not only to provide the equipment that we can for our forces, but to persuade other countries to share the burden. If there is one lesson of the past year or two, it is that we can, if we work at it, persuade other countries to play a bigger role in making their contribution to Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of heroin. It is true that half the heroin of the world comes out of Helmand province. It is also true that although we have made huge progress in other provinces, where poppy growing has ceased, we have not made the progress that we want to make in Helmand. Addressing that issue will mean a mixture of things. I hope that he would agree that it will mean eradication of the crops on the ground, rather than aerial bombing, as well as persuading people to take up different activities. This is not a short-term easy win for us, but something that we have to work at over the next period of time.

One of the ways we can do that is by strengthening what the hon. Gentleman rightly said is a weakness—the central Government of Afghanistan. Of course there has been corruption, and waste and failure, but it is important to remind ourselves that progress has been made. However, as I stressed to President Karzai when I met him, it is important that he should have Ministers in place who command confidence. It is also important that he should work with the development effort, which should be more co-ordinated, on behalf of the 38 nations involved in Afghanistan. If we can do both those things over the next year, I believe that we shall see greater progress.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): May I congratulate the Prime Minister on the comprehensive framework that he has announced to the House and on building on the military success of our servicemen and women from throughout the UK, including marines based in Plymouth, who will be deployed again next year? I understand that a handful of women have joined the Afghan police service. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Afghani Government to do more in that respect? Will he also encourage the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Department for International Development to put some money into a programme for Afghan parliamentarians, to help them to develop the capacity to hold the Afghan Government to account?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said, particularly about her constituents
12 Dec 2007 : Column 313
who have performed brave service in Afghanistan, through the work of the Navy and the naval reserves. I also agree with her that women have an important part to play in the future of Afghanistan. When I said that Afghanistan had a higher proportion of women MPs than most western countries, I was talking about a country where 80 per cent. of women were not given the chance to read and where primary and secondary education were denied them for years. Enormous advances are being made. I also agree with my hon. Friend that we should support the development of a police force that comprises women as well as men, and I shall look at what she said about that.

There is another point to make. The advances that can be made in local government can be made also with support from local councils and people who are involved in local government in this country. I know that strenuous efforts are being made to link up experts on local government here with those people in Afghanistan who want to create better systems of local government there. In all those areas, local communities here as well as the Government have a role to play.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I welcome this statement and I echo the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) in congratulating and thanking our quite outstanding armed forces. The Prime Minister referred to greater burden sharing by our allies. Yes indeed—but how, precisely, does he intend to achieve that? Does he expect that the statement of requirements issued by NATO itself, currently thousands short, will be fulfilled, and if so, when?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s initial remarks, in which he praised the courage and dedication of our armed forces. I am also grateful for what he said about burden sharing, which must be—this is common cause among us all—an important part of the next stage. When it comes to vital equipment, I believe that it is possible to persuade some of our allies in NATO—and, indeed, some outside—to make a contribution where they have equipment that can be put on the ground. I am thinking particularly of countries that I have talked to in eastern Europe that have helicopters, which could be of great benefit as transport helicopters in Afghanistan.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that that raises bigger questions about burden sharing within NATO and about the procedures that will be adopted in the future. I know from talking to the Secretary-General of NATO that when it meets at Easter to discuss those issues, burden sharing will be on the agenda. That might be the right time to consider both financial arrangements and equipment arrangements that move NATO forward from where it has been, to a system where there is far greater burden sharing built into the basic things that NATO does.

Next Section Index Home Page