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House of Commons

Monday 28 April 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [201526]

9. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [201534]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in Afghanistan is stable, if fragile in places. In 2007, the Afghan national army and troops from the 40-nation international security assistance force achieved significant tactical success against the Taliban. This success has geographically restricted the insurgents’ ability to conduct sustained activity. During 2008, NATO figures show that 91 per cent. of insurgent activity has been reported from only 8 per cent. of the districts of Afghanistan. Yesterday, the Taliban carried out a cowardly attack on the mujaheddin victory parade. This attack illustrates perfectly their irrelevance to the future of Afghanistan. While the country celebrated liberation, the Taliban were firing indiscriminately at unarmed civilians. In tactical terms, that will prove to be a disaster for them.

Mr. Goodwill: When I was in Helmand province in February, I was surprised to learn that many of the farmers would prefer to grow wheat, which is now highly priced on world markets, rather than poppies. However, they had to grow poppies because of Taliban intimidation. When does the Secretary of State think that we will have the security situation sufficiently under control for Afghan farmers to feed their own people and not feed the habits of people in the west?

Des Browne: That is exactly the case in an increasing number of provinces in Afghanistan—indeed, more are poppy-free than ever before. The greatest concentration of poppy growing happens to be in those provinces where there are the greatest security challenges. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand from his visit why that is the case. Because of the work of our troops in Afghanistan, particularly over the past 18 months, the number of areas under the control of the Afghan Government that are secure enough for farmers to make that transition is increasing. We will find in the outturn of the figures for this year that the Afghan poppy crop has reduced, but there is still a long way to go.

Mr. Benyon: Given that a large proportion of the injuries suffered by members of our armed forces in Afghanistan are from roadside bombs and similar improvised explosive devices, why are we still deploying troops in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan in so-called snatch Land Rovers, when we know that such vehicles offer little or no protection against such devices?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman and the House will know, because I have gone to some lengths to keep the House up to date, that we have been increasingly
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providing our troops with vehicles that offer the highest level of protection. Indeed, through Mastiff and Ridgback, on which we hope to make significant progress over the coming months, we will be providing a total of 400 new vehicles that will offer that level of protection. The hon. Gentleman will know also, because it is reported back here regularly, that Mastiff has proved enormously popular with the troops in saving lives.

My obligation as the Secretary of State is to provide commanders on the ground with a range of vehicles. Our experience in Afghanistan shows us that the issue is not just a need for protected vehicles, in the sense of protected against such explosions; rather, we also need vehicles that give our troops both the necessary flexibility and movement, and a presence on the ground that is specific to the communities in which they are working. I fulfil that obligation. We provide a range of vehicles to the commanders. I do not intend to dictate to our commanders, with a long screwdriver from London, which of those vehicles they should use, but I am conscious of the need continually to develop and to deploy more protected vehicles, subject to that requirement.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Has President Karzai not become a liability? He has demonstrated an inability or an unwillingness to tackle corruption in high-level officialdom and is failing to crack down on drug trafficking. Is there not a lesson to be learned from Pakistan? The President there said that he was the only person to lead the country, but a new civilian Administration now are getting on reasonably well. Is that not the future for Afghanistan? Should Karzai not go?

Des Browne: I am slightly at a loss to understand my hon. Friend’s underlying point, because President Karzai is a civilian. He was freely elected and is the democratic choice of the people of Afghanistan, and has proved to be a very good leader in very difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend addresses an important issue, which is the need to deal with corruption, drug trafficking and the relationship between them in Afghanistan, which permeates a large part of society there, up to the highest levels. President Karzai recognises that; indeed, when he addressed the NATO summit in Bucharest recently, he recommitted himself to dealing with those issues. However, we should not underestimate how difficult that is to do in Afghanistan.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): One contribution to security that could be made would be to have more helicopters. Her Majesty’s armed services have 1,451 helicopters, but how many of them are in Afghanistan? At the forthcoming NATO Parliamentary Assembly, some of us would like to make the case for our European partners, including the Turks, to make a greater contribution with the 3,900 helicopters that they have. Will the Secretary of State place in the Library the facts about helicopters in Afghanistan so that hon. Members on both sides of the House can make the case for greater European involvement at that important NATO gathering?

Des Browne: To the extent that placing that information in the public domain is consistent with force security, I will do that. However, as I have said to other hon. Members, if I am not able to put that information in the
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public domain, I am content that individual Members, or groups of Members, should be given detailed briefings, as long as they respect the briefings. I am sure that they will, as they have in the past.

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the need for more helicopter support. That has been an issue for our troops for some time, and I am pleased to say that in southern Afghanistan in the past year we have increased available helicopter hours by more than a third. The significant point that my right hon. Friend makes, which is known to the House, is that there is a significant number of helicopters in the world that are not deployable. That is exactly why the Prime Minister announced at Bucharest an initiative in the form of a helicopter trust fund, which is attracting significant support. Between seven and 10 countries have indicated their willingness to contribute to the fund and allow those helicopters to be deployed either by training pilots to fly them in Afghanistan or by fitting them with necessary equipment. I look forward to seeing countries carry out the promises that they have made.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Secretary of State is well aware of the role played by Nimrod aircraft and their crews over Afghanistan. He also knows that QinetiQ has produced a report with 30 safety recommendations about those aircraft. How many of those recommendations have been complied with?

Des Browne: I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman specific figures, but I shall check them and ensure that he receives the figures and that all hon. Members are able to access the information in the usual fashion. So far as his consistent and welcome concern about the safety of the Nimrod crews and aircraft is concerned, I assure him that I constantly obtain reassurance from those with the necessary technical ability that the aircraft are safe to fly.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Were the events in Kabul over the weekend evidence that the Taliban are changing their tactics? Are we beginning to see an increase in asymmetric warfare? If so, is the Secretary of State going to reassess our whole approach in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: The fact that the Taliban have been forced to change their tactics in that way shows the success of ISAF, particularly the exceptional work that our troops have done in Helmand province in repeatedly facing down the Taliban and over-matching them. The Taliban have been driven to use that asymmetric approach, which is entirely uncharacteristic of the Afghan approach to conflict. That is why the latest assessment shows that the Taliban enjoy support from only about 4 per cent. of the population of Afghanistan. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s encouragement that we should change our tactics, we will continue with the tactics and the comprehensive approach that we have been so successful in developing in southern Afghanistan with our allies. We will also continue to support the Afghans in building the capacity to deal with the increasing asymmetric attacks.

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Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Has the Secretary of State noted the recent warning by the Foreign Minister of Turkey—the only Islamic member state of NATO—that unless there are major changes of policy in Afghanistan, public opinion there will increasingly turn against the foreign military forces that are currently fighting the Taliban?

Des Browne: I am acutely aware of the need for ISAF and for the whole international community, including the United Nations, to continue to enjoy the support of the Afghan people. The main focus of everything that we do in Afghanistan is to maintain the support of the Afghan people in achieving the objectives that they share with us. It is welcome that other allies maintain a focus on that, but our measurement of the support that we enjoy from the Afghan people suggests that it is being sustained. However, I am aware of that risk. The only answer is to build on the ability of the Afghans to deliver security and government to their own people. That is the focus of everything that we do.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that, despite the picture of stability that he is painting, the burden on our 7,000 service personnel in Afghanistan is very great? Given that the Prime Minister is no longer able to achieve his ambition of scaling down our 4,000 troops in Iraq, does he have any other ideas about how our 7,000 troops in Afghanistan might be reinforced and the burden on them lessened?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that when NATO gathered in Riga a year ago, there were 32,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan; when it gathered in Bucharest recently, there were 47,000 such troops there and, in addition, a number of countries—including France and, indeed, the United States of America—made further commitments. Currently, 2,200 American troops are deploying to southern Afghanistan, which will significantly increase our ability to deliver what we are doing in that part of the country. Increasingly, other countries are either taking on a greater share of the burden or increasing their already great share of the burden that they take on.


2. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future role of British forces in Iraq. [201527]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Our forces in Iraq still have a wide-ranging and extremely important job to do. They continue to play a positive role in helping to bring security and stability to Iraq. In Baghdad, we have over 200 senior officers and supporting staff working in the coalition headquarters. In the south, the primary focus of our forces is now on training and mentoring the 14th division of the Iraqi army and enhancing command and control capabilities in Basra, including at the Basra operations command. The 14th division remains some months from becoming fully operational.

We also support more directly the Iraqi security forces in their efforts to ensure the rule of law in Basra. In recent weeks, this has included providing fast jet and
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helicopter support and surveillance, as well as logistic and medical support. In addition to the focus on the Iraqi army, British forces are heavily involved in mentoring and training the Iraqi navy, supporting the Department of Border Enforcement and helping to protect the oil platforms. Finally, we facilitate economic reconstruction efforts—notably, setting Basra’s international airport on the path to international accreditation.

Mr. Harper: During a press conference last Friday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff blamed Iran for

in Iraq. He went on to say how recent operations in Basra had revealed

Does the Defence Secretary agree with that assessment, and what is being done by British forces to counter the threat Iran poses to Iraqi stability?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is quite right—and, of course, the Admiral is quite right, as he is in possession of a significant amount of the available information. Evidence suggests that a significant proportion of the equipment and armaments being used by insurgents in Iraq is of Iranian origin or has been transited through Iran. Any Iranian links to armed groups in Iraq outside the political process—either through the supply of weapons or through training and funding—is unacceptable. With our allies, we are seeking to challenge that in a number of ways. Through our support for the Department of Border Enforcement, we seek to interdict the transfer of any such weaponry from Iran into southern Iraq; and through supporting the searches conducted by Iraqi security forces, we have discovered, seized and destroyed a large amount of weaponry that appears to have been sourced from Iran. By seeking to influence the Iranian Government diplomatically in a number of ways, including involving other influential countries in the region, we are trying to get it across to Iran that it is not in its long-term interests to have instability in southern Iraq or any part of Iraq at all. We are also endeavouring to deal with the insurgent and other groups that the Iranians seek to support in Iraq—and we have done so very successfully recently.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Whatever our overall view of the presence of British forces in Iraq, clearly their safety and well-being should be a paramount consideration of the House of Commons. Following on from my right hon. Friend’s written statement to the House on Thursday, should we assume that the Government are planning on force levels of about 4,000 at least until the autumn?

Des Browne: My written statement was not intended to encourage the House to draw that inference. I have always made it clear that we keep our troop numbers under review. As I made clear when I made my oral statement, and it was reinforced in my written statement, we have decided to maintain our troop numbers in southern Iraq at about 4,000 while the Iraqi-led operations to enforce the rule of law in Basra continue. We are working with our coalition partners to define the support that the Iraqis will need over the coming months. It
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remains our clear intention to reduce troop numbers in Iraq as and when conditions allow, but while the situation on the ground continues to evolve rapidly, as it does, and while military commanders continue to assess that the changing environment in Iraq requires the prudent decision to take time to consider any further reductions, I will stick with that decision.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): But does the Secretary of State agree that his Minister of State was absolutely correct, as he often is, when last summer he told the Select Committee on Defence that the minimum viable military force in Basra was about 5,000? Can the Secretary of State explain how it was that he ever came to be persuaded that the figure of 2,500 was anything other than completely meaningless?

Des Browne: We have about 4,000 troops in Iraq. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to read the letter from the Chief of the General Staff, which was circulated down through the chain of command and put on the MOD website following his recent visit to Iraq. I think that I shall arrange for a copy of that letter to be placed in the Library of the House so that everyone can have access to it if they are not IT literate and cannot get it off the MOD website.

The letter goes into some detail to set out why our current troop levels can and continue to make a significant contribution to a substantial operation that is taking place in Iraq. The point that I am making to the right hon. Gentleman—I cannot make it any simpler than this—is that this is classic overwatch. The figure that we have is, in the assessment of this country’s leading soldier, whose reputation is worldwide, the right one.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend mentioned the Navy and its role. Will he say a little more about what the Navy is doing to support the work of the Iraqi navy and the importance he attaches to that?

Des Browne: I attach a great deal of importance to it. On a recent trip to Iraq, I visited the Navy. It is training marines and the Iraqi navy, which is comparatively small but developing towards the objective of it being able to take over responsibility for security, or at least to make a significant contribution to it, in the northern Arabian gulf.

With other allies, we provide security for those important oil platforms on which the whole Iraqi economy and its income depend. It is the ambition of the Iraqi navy that it will be able progressively to develop to be able to take over or add significantly to that security. It has made enormous strides and is shortly to take delivery of new ships in order to do that. At Umm Qasr, we have been continuing that training for some time—quite quietly, without much comment publicly, but very successfully.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): When the Secretary of State made his statement to the House on 1 April, he said that it was too early to assess the effectiveness of last month’s Basra Operation Charge of the Knights, against the Sadr militia, of which we were given just 48 hours’ notice. Can the Secretary of State now provide the House with such an assessment,
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and also tell us what arrangements he has put in place to ensure that British military commanders have a full and timely say in any future operations in which our armed forces may be required to assist?

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said about troop numbers, will he also tell us whether the call at the weekend by Moqtada al-Sadr to his militia to limit their attacks on British and US forces will have any implication for the number of British troops deployed in southern Iraq?

Des Browne: I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman’s questions in reverse order.

The latest outpourings from Moqtada al-Sadr merely add to the confusion that has emanated from his leadership of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia and his own political organisation. We do not rely on such statements, and I have always taken the view that our troops are at risk of attack from that source, so my answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that statement will have no significant effect on our assessment of the risk to our troops.

In answering the hon. Gentleman’s principal question, let me direct him to the Chief of the General Staff’s assessment—which is very fresh, as he returned from Basra only days ago. While there was some criticism of the planning of the first phase of the operation, we have been involved in the planning and support of the later phases, and they have been extremely successful. The information that I have suggests that there are clear and encouraging signs that Basra is springing back to life, and that the firm action taken by the Iraqi security forces has extended their control to most of the city. I have many pieces of information from citizens of Basra that show how relaxed they are in the new Basra, as they see it.

All those developments are very positive, but the situation is fragile. We must ensure that we see the operation through, and that we can enable the 14th division of the Iraqi army in particular to sustain the security that it has created.

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