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Des Browne: My hon. Friend asks a perfectly sensible and appropriate question. I give the answer that I always give from the Dispatch Box when I am asked to give dates relating to future developments on security matters, particularly on handing over control, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. The answer is that it will depend on conditions on the ground. An assessment by the ISAF commander and the Afghan Government came to the conclusion that their forces were reaching the stage where they could increasingly take over security in the city on an incremental basis. I am not aware that the process is taking place in any other part of Afghanistan, but it is not surprising that the capital city and surrounding area should be first, because that
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is where the concentration of forces and their training takes place. As we found in Iraq, we can reach a certain point in respect of the training of forces where this process accelerates. We started out with just one or two provinces in Iraq, but we can see today that many provinces have been handed over. That is exactly how we will do it in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend should keep asking the question, and I am sure that I will be progressively more able to answer it in a positive way than I am at the moment.

Coming back to Iraq, I have made many visits and seen the work that our forces are doing to help the Iraqis make the objective of security and stability a reality. Since the end of March, our forces have been supporting Prime Minister al-Maliki’s security surge in Basra. After some early challenges, those operations have yielded very considerable success. On Sunday, the Iraqi security forces concluded their sector-by-sector clearance of the city, as a result of which I can report to the House the current situation in Basra: the grip of the militias has been broken, with their leadership in flight or in hiding, and huge quantities of illegal weaponry have been recovered. There are now early but encouraging signs that life in Basra is returning to normal. The city is much more relaxed, with women feeling once more able to dress as they wish, and the university campus is vibrant.

What we are seeing in Basra has not happened overnight. It is the product of years of hard work, principally by our armed forces and by the Iraqis. Through our training and mentoring, we brought the Iraqis to the point last December where they could take the lead in Basra, with the transition taking place later, when our forces could step back from the city. We have also worked hard to separate those willing to participate in the democratic process from the extremists. All that has exposed the true nature of the militias, which had previously used our presence in the city as a cover for their violent criminal activities.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am delighted to hear what the Secretary of State says about the recent upsurge in violence being more under control in Basra. Can he explain why an American Major-General and a brigade had to be deployed there to achieve that aim?

Des Browne: All the American resources in Basra came there for two principal reasons. First, on account of the decision of Prime Minister al-Maliki, Basra became the main effort for the Iraqi security forces. Consequently, senior members of its command came into the city. They worked with and were mentored by the American troops that came with them. Secondly, they also deployed American mentor troops, particularly from Anbar, to augment the 14th Division, which was trained and mentored by the United Kingdom. The Americans came with the Iraqis as they were deployed, so they brought additional resource—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance resource and other resource enablers—with them, to the advantage of the whole operation. That accounts for all the numbers. This was not an American deployment—

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): So it was a training exercise?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman interrupts with a sedentary comment about whether that was a training exercise. He clearly does not understand what MiTTs—
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military transition teams—are. All the Iraqi troops, as they have been trained and developed, are mentored by the troops that operate with them. As they come forward, so do those who work with them, but in significantly lower numbers than the Iraqi troops themselves. They eat, sleep, fight and work with them, so it is not a training exercise, but a process of mentoring and ensuring that the Iraqi troops are able to continue to do what they have been trained to do. That entirely explains the position. The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who is a keen student of these matters, will have noted that my explanation is exactly the same as the one that General David Petraeus gave when he was asked the same question by our media on his recent visit here.

I have outlined the reasons why the Iraqi security forces have enjoyed such strong public support, reflecting a widespread recognition that the men of violence are not fighting for the people of Basra—as they used to suggest—but against them.

Patrick Mercer: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Des Browne: I think that I have taken enough interventions. The point I am making is that the militia pretended that they were fighting for the people of Basra, but the people of Basra now know that they were fighting against them.

However, such progress does not mean that we can simply declare success now and bring our troops home. Although real progress has clearly been made, it remains fragile, and needs to be consolidated and sustained. Lasting stability requires the Iraqis to make political and, above all, economic progress. The biggest single worry for the people of Basra is not security, but unemployment. Progress is being made: only the day before yesterday, a new market was opened in the Jameat area of Basra, built as a joint British-Iraqi venture, while last week I attended a reception for the Basra development commission at No. 10 Downing street, which brought together the captains of British industry, and they showed a great interest in investing in southern Iraq. We have been following up on that with some success, but all of this will take time to fix.

This—successful—operation has shown that the Iraqis still have some way to go before they can operate without our assistance. They remain reliant upon us and our coalition partners for advice on how to plan and execute their operations, as well as for logistic and medical support and for specialist capabilities, such as fast jets, helicopters and surveillance. So our forces still have an extremely important job to do. In particular, our focus is on the following: completing the training of the 14th Division of the Iraqi army, which will provide the backbone for the long-term Iraqi security presence in Basra; taking forward the development of the Iraqi navy; and setting Basra’s international airport on the path towards international accreditation. For the time being, the number of British forces in southern Iraq will remain broadly unchanged, while our military commanders continue to analyse the force levels we need to deliver these tasks in the changed and changing environment, but we will continue to reduce our force levels as conditions allow, and we will, of course, keep the House informed of our plans.

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We look to Iraq’s future with growing optimism, but we also recognise the real challenges that remain. Iraq’s neighbours have their part to play, alongside UK forces and our coalition partners, in helping Iraq move to a stable and prosperous future—and it is as much in their interests that that future be stable and prosperous as it is in the Iraqis’ interests. Syria should continue to clamp down on the movement of foreign fighters, and Iran must stop arming those who threaten the democratically elected Government of Iraq and the coalition forces. We want to see all Iraq’s neighbours, including Iran, playing a responsible role in the region.

In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq we are seeing slow but steady change towards states that are democratic and accountable, and that respect the rule of law and protect all their citizens, and change away from states that support terrorism or ethnic violence, or defy the legitimate will of the international community.

Having focused on current operations, I should now turn to future threats. It is the prime responsibility of any Government to ensure, as far as possible, the safety and security of their people, and that responsibility is at the core of Government policy. We do not believe that any state with ballistic missiles currently has the intent to target them against the UK mainland, but we know that ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction are proliferating among states of concern. The pace of that proliferation, as well as the intentions of the states developing those capabilities, is hard to gauge. However, we do know that intentions can quickly change, and we must be ready to respond to those changes.

At Bucharest, NATO again clearly set out its position on ballistic missile defence:

Therefore, this is not just a US-UK issue, or a US issue with a number of other allies. This is, and has long been, a NATO issue.

From the public discussion paper we issued in December 2002, we have been very open about the assumptions and reasoning behind our policy on ballistic missile defence. As we have said many times before, the UK Government have no plans independently to acquire ballistic missile defence assets, nor do we have existing plans to host US ballistic missile interceptor sites in the UK. Nor are we engaged in any secret discussions with the US on these issues, as the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam would have us all believe. We already contribute to the US system, through the early warning radar information provided by RAF Fylingdales and by allowing the satellite data routed through RAF Menwith Hill to be used in the BMD system, and we also have close co-operative arrangements with it on technology programmes. When I announced to the House last July that the upgrade to the radar at RAF Fylingdales was complete, I noted:

There have been accusations that the Government slipped out the announcement on RAF Menwith Hill just prior to the recess. That was not the case. After consulting with the Cabinet on a US request to use the satellite downlink at the station for BMD purposes, I
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replied to the US Defence Secretary on 17 July, and the announcement on 25 July was both timely and proper.

We would be foolish not to keep a vigilant eye on the world and on changes in the strategic threat. If in the future we decide that the acquisition of such technology becomes essential to the security of the United Kingdom, we will re-examine the position. However, such a re-examination would not come from a desire to follow blindly the defence policy of any other nation, but from a recognition of our need to provide for our own national security against emerging threats. We cannot delay our planning and consideration of this issue until the strategic environment is such that a ballistic missile defence capability becomes a necessity. In terms of such highly complex systems, many years of development are required to produce something that is feasible and credible. If there is a need to take further steps on participation in missile defence, the Government will—as they have done consistently in the past—present those propositions to the House and have the necessary discussions, but we would only seek to do this when there are proposals or propositions to be made that go beyond the principles agreed with Parliament in 2003, and at present there are none.

I hope that that—brief—contribution makes the Government position clear, and that now the Liberal Democrats and their leadership will, instead of constantly suggesting that they will have to drag us to the Dispatch Box to debate this matter, engage in the discussion and tell us what their party’s position is in relation to this essential part of the security of this country and of our NATO allies, almost every one of which is signed up to exploring the potential of this form of defence.

Finally, I must pay tribute to those who make the UK’s defence policies a reality. As I speak, British forces are making a huge contribution to international security—a contribution of great cost to some, but of great benefit to many. The men and women of the British armed forces prove themselves on a daily basis to be of the highest calibre. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, British military personnel are demonstrating once again that they are world-class professionals. But their service is not without sacrifice. Families up and down the UK know only too well what an enormous cost those in the armed forces can—and do—pay. I owe them—and this House and the nation owe them—a huge debt of gratitude. We live in a safer place because of their brave and dedicated service. In recognition of the huge amount they do for us, it is absolutely right that we continue to assess and improve our support to them, both at home and on operations. The personnel Command Paper, the national recognition study and our review of many support policies are undertaken in exactly that light.

I have no doubt the whole House will join me in thanking every member of the armed forces for their hard work in defending the UK and its interests. I commend their work to the House.

1.59 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Since the previous defence in the world debate, 95 British service members have made the ultimate sacrifice and have not come home from Iraq or Afghanistan. They died, as many of their predecessors did, making Britain safer and giving
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a better life to citizens of countries that enjoy far fewer benefits than us. This House should never forget that.

I wish quickly to recognise an important day in our nation’s history. Some 63 years ago today, Winston Churchill announced to the House that the sacrifices of millions had finally led to the end of hostilities in Europe, saying:

The declaration of Victory in Europe day brought to a close six years of total war in Europe. Of course, that in turn led to the bipolar cold war, the rise of NATO, the creation of what we know today as the European Union and, 63 years later, the interdependent, globalised world that we face today.

Since the proclamation of VE day on 8 May 1945, the world’s strategic environment has greatly changed. We now live in a truly global economy—a world where Britain’s economic and security interests are so interlinked into a larger global interdependent network that we have an unavoidable shared set of interests with a multitude of actors in all parts of the globe. We also face the unavoidable importation of strategic risk. As recent events have shown, instability in one corner of the globe will quickly affect everyone. In the current instance, the root of the instability lies in the American credit market, but it could just as easily lie in an energy security crisis in Japan or China, or in some, as yet, undefined problem.

That interdependence has major implications for how we think about and organise our national security structures. The luxury—although that is perhaps not how we saw it then—of the bipolar world of the cold war allowed us to set a clear direction for our national security. The unpredictability that we currently face forces us simultaneously to be both reactive and proactive, and to adapt to ever changing challenges.

Conservatives welcome this debate, and I wish to raise a number of issues: the situation in Iraq, and Iran’s involvement there; the threats that we continue to face in Afghanistan; energy security, the new scramble for the Arctic and the potential threats posed by a resurgent Russia; the need to deal with asymmetric threats; and the need to maintain the primacy of NATO and to ensure its political and military flexibility to deal with changing threats.

Let me begin with the situation in Iraq, where there are grounds for optimism on a number of fronts. First, the American surge under General Petraeus seems to be delivering tangible improvements in security. Like the Secretary of State, I was fortunate enough last week to spend some time with both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, both of whom I found to be impressive and sincere. There is also cause for optimism now that Prime Minister al-Maliki has taken on the militias in Basra. There is a tendency in this country to see the whole conflict in Iraq through a religious prism of a Sunni-Shi’a conflict, but there is also a strong nationalist tradition in Iraq, and the willingness of its Government to tackle the often Iranian-supported militias seems to have had the effect, at least in part, of uniting the Kurds and Sunnis behind the Prime Minister and of convincing the population in the south that they have not been abandoned. The Prime Minister’s campaign against the militias seems to have been genuine and
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sustained, even if perhaps it was, in parts, inadequately planned and required British and American support. Thankfully, it seems to have had some success, but in the future the Iraqi Government will need fully to involve coalition planners, and to do so in a more timely fashion.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I would like to raise one thing that was not on the hon. Gentleman’s list. One legacy of the 63 years to which he referred has been our physical presence in Germany in large numbers. Does he support the reduction in those numbers and the evolving of our presence into wider co-operation with Europe and NATO?

Dr. Fox: If the hon. Gentleman will have a little patience, I shall come to exactly that issue towards the end of my speech.

Some 4,000 British troops remain in Iraq. Some of our forces are embedded in, fighting with and mentoring the Iraqi security forces, enabling them to take eventual control of their own security affairs. Those on the ground argue that British troops are playing an important role, and that this is no time to be talking about withdrawing them from Iraq. We should listen to those voices, but the Government need to explain continuously to the British public, with clarity, exactly how they see the role of British troops developing and how the overwatch operation will change over time. In particular, there needs to be an honest appraisal of the risks posed to our troops, directly and indirectly, from Iran.

General Petraeus has been openly critical of Iran’s involvement in Iraq, and two weeks ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, blamed Iran for its

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

That is an important matter. The Secretary of State has all but said that Iranian involvement has led directly to the deaths of British troops in Iraq, but we need to hear more about what is being done by British forces and at the diplomatic level to counter the threat that Iran poses to Iraqi stability. The hard-won gains of emerging democratic authority, improving stability, and the sacrifices made by coalition troops and the Iraqi people cannot be allowed to be put in jeopardy by the actions of the Iranian regime.

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