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3.43 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Our armed forces are committed across the world, and I intend to concentrate on Iraq, Afghanistan and NATO. While our armed forces are so heavily committed, I am sure that we would all wish to say thank you to our service personnel, wherever they serve, and to remember that in Iraq and Afghanistan many have died or been wounded in body or mind. We need to remember that they have not suffered in vain. What they have done in both those countries is something of which we can be exceptionally proud. We can be proud not only of what they have been doing, but of them. We can also be proud of their families, who have to stay at home worrying about their sons and daughters, which is often the most difficult thing of all. We should therefore also pay tribute to the families and say thank you to them.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the right hon. Gentleman also pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces, including the Dutch and Danish forces and others, who have fought alongside British troops in Afghanistan and have lost their lives? In some cases, because of the numbers of troops that they have deployed, they have lost proportionately more than countries such as ours.

Mr. Arbuthnot: That is true. I am thinking in particular of the Canadians, who have lost a large number of troops in Kandahar province. We need to remember that we are not alone in Afghanistan. Some other countries are doing extraordinary things with small resources, and we are extremely grateful to them for working alongside us.

Let me start with Iraq. We still have more than 4,000 UK personnel deployed in Iraq as part of Operation Telic. I personally think that that is the minimum number that we can have as a viable self-sustaining force in Iraq. We were told as much by a general in Iraq last year and by the Minister of State. I am delighted that the Minister is in his place now, because I want to tell him that he was right.

The role to be played in Iraq is one of overwatch, which is necessary in support of an Iraqi army that is doing well but still needs support. Intervention through ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—artillery, air power and other methods is right and proper, as are the need for training and mentoring and the need to do a small part of patrolling the border with Iran. The next change in the number of troops in Iraq—I hope that it will not be too far off—should take our presence down to a small number, with between 200 and 400, or perhaps 500, troops. They should do much more specialist things, relying on others for logistics and support.

I do not understand how the figure of 2,500 was ever on the table. How was that figure reached? It was always unrealistic and, I think, meaningless. The suspicion is that it was politically motivated—a figure plucked out of the air. That suspicion needs to be dispelled, if it can be. How on earth did the Secretary
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of State come to agree with it? I have to express my disappointment that it was ever put forward or supported by the Ministry of Defence. There is a risk that the MOD budget is predicated on the basis that we would be down to 2,500 troops in Iraq by now.

Dr. Julian Lewis: My right hon. Friend refers to the Secretary of State’s agreeing with the reduction to 2,500. I remind him that there is widespread suspicion that the first the Secretary of State knew about the reduction was when he heard it announced in the international media.

Mr. Arbuthnot: We look forward to hearing the answers to these important questions, which relate to the relationship between Ministers and the armed forces whom they lead.

The Defence Committee visited Iraq last summer, and we hope to do so again this summer, subject to the points that have already been made about our medical fitness. Every time we go to Iraq we are immensely impressed by the men and women of our armed forces whom we meet. They are absolutely outstanding and so are their achievements.

Obviously, questions remain about the coalition mission in Iraq. The US surge seems to have been successful in many respects in controlling the levels of violence. The Iraqi security forces seem to be growing in capacity, although they still need support. In that context, I believe that the recent operation in Basra, led by the Iraqis with the support of the British and the Americans, was not a bad thing but a good thing. It was the Iraqis taking control of their own destiny. Let us never forget that that is what we want them to do. The more they can do that, the less necessary the presence of our troops will be.

Moving on to Afghanistan, as we reduce our troop levels in Iraq, however slowly we are able to do that, we have increased our commitment to Operation Herrick. We now have about 7,800 service personnel in Afghanistan—more than any other country apart from the United States. On the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) has drawn attention to the real risk that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are conflated in the public’s mind. They are very different operations; they arise from different circumstances. We must make the case for each of them separately. An unpopular incursion into Iraq, although it has achieved some real successes, looks likely to drag down in the mind of the public the much more difficult incursion into Afghanistan.

The events of 9/11 are fading gradually into people’s memories as history. The horrors and fears that 9/11 raised are diminishing with time, although in reality the dangers of al-Qaeda and international terrorism remain absolutely huge. Of course, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded of the important point that when we invade a country, we need to be sure what we will do with it when we have been successful, and we need to provide the resources to secure the peace as well as the war. That is what we in the west have failed to do.

The Defence Committee visited Afghanistan in April last year. We hope to return to Afghanistan later this year. In the report that we published in the middle of last year, we concluded that reconstruction efforts required a strengthening of the comprehensive approach. There
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is no one answer to the issues; there is no silver bullet for Afghanistan. We said, among other things, that more work was needed to support the training of the police and the judiciary, and that much more work was needed on the winning of hearts and minds in Afghanistan and, indeed, at home. We were, of course, concerned that the burden of fighting and of the resources going into Afghanistan was falling disproportionately on a handful of NATO countries, but I have already paid tribute to the Netherlands and Canada for the outstanding nature of their contribution. Other countries are also contributing a great deal.

I have said that Afghanistan presents a much larger task than Iraq. NATO is trying to create a democratic Government in a country that has no real history of one, and which seems to exhibit little desire for one. The raw material of Afghanistan—resources, education and infrastructure—and the availability of weapons practically everywhere make the task hugely challenging. That challenge is not yet matched by the political will and the resources in the developed world to get the whole country on to a viable road; until it is, we will not succeed.

The future of NATO and ISAF are closely linked. Some NATO members are simply not pulling their weight in Afghanistan; others are bearing greater burdens than are reasonable. We welcome President Sarkozy’s announcement of additional French troops to be sent to Afghanistan. I would welcome even more French troops being sent there. Problems remain—there are national caveats and problems of force generation—but that is symptomatic of the broader soul searching that is needed in NATO as a whole.

We as a Committee published a report on the future of NATO earlier this year. We thought that it was an important contribution to the debate, and some of our conclusions moved in these directions. We said that the strategic concept of NATO needed to be renewed. Next year is the 60th anniversary of NATO. It needs a new focus. It needs a new clarity of purpose. It needs new political will, above all. That was what we identified as the major shortcoming of NATO at the moment. The point is not just that many NATO countries have fallen considerably below the target of 2 per cent. of GDP, but that the populations of the NATO countries seem to have forgotten what NATO is for. They concentrate much more on the European Union than on NATO, while still being less and less prepared to pay for the defence in which they are clamouring to have a greater say. It is a very odd business.

The Committee placed great importance on the outcome of the Bucharest summit; it was a vital summit for the future of the defence of the western world. I was extremely disappointed that we did not have an oral statement on the outcome of the summit even from the Secretary of State for Defence, let alone the Prime Minister. That meant that we did not have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister on NATO at a crucial stage. For example, what is the response to Russia when it begins serious talks with separatists in Georgia? What is the response to the shooting down of an unmanned aerial vehicle owned and flown by Georgia? Those two things were a direct response to what came out of NATO. We needed an oral statement.

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NATO is the linchpin of our security. We must make sure that it adapts to the challenges of today. If we do not, the United States will lose interest in NATO, and if the US loses interest in NATO, NATO will be dead. The future of the mission in Afghanistan is very important to the future of NATO and to its whole credibility, the upholding of which forms part of the most important duty of Government—the defence of our country.

I must not take up too much time, so I conclude by saying that we must not let our natural focus on Iraq and Afghanistan obscure the many other commitments of our armed forces. We still have substantial forces in Cyprus, although they are often part of the reserve that rapidly goes backwards and forwards to Iraq or Afghanistan, and we have just deployed 600 additional troops to Kosovo. It is essential for the UK to train for, and to be prepared for, the events that we are not facing now but may face in future. However, we are not doing that, because there is nothing left in the locker. We have been told that by the Chief of the General Staff.

We must lift our eyes, we must lift our ambitions, we must lift our pride and we must lift the priority that we place on the defence of our country and on the wonderful men and women who undertake that task on our behalf. That requires leadership and commitment from the very top.

3.58 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): In the brief time for which I will speak, I want to take up four points that were raised by the Secretary of State, a couple of points that were raised by the Opposition and perhaps make one point of my own.

First and most important, on the issue that we are most concerned about, the Secretary of State was reasonably encouraging—responsibly and moderately so—on the two great deployments that we have in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was absolutely right in the phrase that he used. They are the front line of our security. I have not the slightest doubt—I have said it in the House before—that had the terrorists who attacked London and Glasgow last summer had the benefit of a six-month training course in bomb-making and detonation techniques in a safe haven for terrorists in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, they would have succeeded in killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of our people. That is the fundamental reason for our deployment there and for the brave British servicemen and women fighting there doing such a vital job. The risks to their health and lives—and it is tragic if those risks result in death or serious injury—are risks that have to be borne. We must be deeply grateful to those who are prepared to take on that enormous responsibility on behalf of the rest of our country.

It is clear from the history of any counter-insurgency operation that 70 to 80 per cent. of the outcome is down to psychology. That is why it would be fatal to go down the road set out by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I know from personal experience that he has considerable knowledge of and interest in these matters and takes a responsible line on defence issues, but he is trapped in a party that has a terrible record of mixing short-term party politics with the defence of the nation. The greatest possible threat to our making a permanent positive contribution to providing stability
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in Afghanistan and Iraq, to defending ourselves from terrorism, and to ensuring that we have the best possible chance of leaving those countries with reasonably stable and democratic Governments for the long term—the best way of undermining any such chance of that scenario—would be to do what the Liberal Democrats urge on the Government, which is to make public statements on exit strategies or set public deadlines for pulling out of either of those operations.

Willie Rennie: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but did he regard the Prime Minister’s statement last year that we would reduce the number of troops to 2,500 from the spring as that of a statesman or of someone who was seeking short-term party political advantage?

Mr. Davies: It was clear at the time that the Prime Minister believed that the situation in Iraq was such that it enabled us, and made it sensible for us, to reduce the number of troops from between 4,000 and 5,000 to 2,500. One can readily understand how in certain circumstances that would be a reasonable thing to do. Obviously, it would be desirable if it were possible to do that without jeopardising the success of the operation. Matters have become more complicated since then, however. It has become important to support the Americans during their surge and the al-Maliki Administration in Baghdad in trying to gain control of the country. It is very much a matter of psychology. The events in Baghdad and Basra over the past few months have shown how difficult things are. The Iraqi forces initially ran into quite a lot of trouble and bother. It was sensible to decide that this was not the moment to reduce further our forces in Iraq.

I listen with great interest to the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, and often learn a lot from him, but I did not follow what he said today, which was to the effect that we could either have a viable critical mass in Iraq of 4,000 to 5,000 troops or have 500 or fewer. Things do not work like that. It may be possible to go down to a lower level of troops provided that there is a commensurate reduction in the threat. Clearly, if there is no threat, we do not need any force protection. Presumably, those are the circumstances in which he envisaged having a small training programme, or something, involving a few hundred of our troops. I would have thought that if there were a threat to them, they would need their own force protection, which would require a number of troops being available substantially in advance of that. It may well be that the Prime Minister felt last autumn that we were moving towards that situation. Clearly, we are not, but that does not mean to say that over the long term we will not succeed in making a considerable success of the operation. Perhaps in five or 10 years’ time, if we can withdraw from an Iraq that is reasonably stable—if it is, for the first time in its history, a democratic country—we will be able to look back with pride on having kept our nerve despite the obvious and understandable public pressures to throw in the sponge and pull out prematurely.

The second thing on which I want to congratulate the Government is quite remarkable: the number of initiatives that they have taken in the past year or two to provide material support for our troops. There has been an
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announcement in short order of two armed forces pay reviews, which have been accepted by the Government. I think that the results of those public sector pay reviews are the only ones to have been accepted. The one last year increased the pay of people in the lower ranks by 9 per cent. That is real money, frankly.

At the same time, we have had the introduction of the tax-free deployment allowance and concessions on council tax, and rightly so, but they are without precedent. Commitments have been given to spend more money on improving housing, and it is very important that that be done. I will not make a party political point by saying who is actually to blame for the present administration and ownership of military housing in this country. Instructions have been given to health authorities to do what they really should have been doing automatically since 1948 and the introduction of the health service—to give priority to patients presenting with symptoms as a result of service in our armed forces.

I have left out several things, such as the significant increase in the compensation limit. There has been an enormous number of initiatives in this field. It is a remarkable record of achievement, and as far as I can see the Government have got absolutely no credit for it whatever. I suppose that it is not surprising that they were given no credit from the Opposition Benches—party politics comes into issues even as important as this—but the media have not picked up at all on these points. However, there is no doubt that the armed forces are aware of the continuing effort.

Thirdly, the Government have also made tremendous progress in addressing the issue of the equipment of our forces deployed on these difficult operations. There is no doubt that, as often happens when one suddenly has to send an expeditionary force to an entirely new combat zone thousands of miles away, there are bound to be deficiencies. I suppose that there has never been a case in history of a country deploying such an expeditionary force far from home and at short notice, and there not being severe deficiencies in the personal and other forms of fighting equipment, and people not having what they ideally would have liked in those difficult circumstances. However, that issue has now been addressed, and very creditably so. The urgent operational requirements system is really working, and we are getting equipment out to Afghanistan and Iraq within a few months of the requirement being identified by the military on the spot.

In the past few months, I have had the opportunity to speak to more than 300 serving men and women in this country, many of whom had just recently returned from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The universal view of everyone whom I asked about personal equipment—I ask that question on every occasion, as you can imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because this is a live issue often debated in the House—was that the equipment now available to them in Iraq and Afghanistan is absolutely second to none, including to that of their American counterparts. They were very conscious of that point. That is another considerable achievement on the part of the Government.

Unfortunately, because of the delays in coroners’ inquests, coroners’ judgments are still being made about the unfortunate deaths of our servicemen and women from three years ago. The Government have taken steps to spread out the inquests across the country, so those delays will now decline. References to the inadequacies
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of personal equipment are at least three years out of date. The tabloids pick up on that and present it as a current story—as a reflection of current reality—when in fact, that position ceased to exist some years ago. That is completely unjust and unfair, and needs to be corrected.

The fourth and final issue that I want to address and that was raised by the Secretary of State is the quite different one of anti-ballistic missile defence. I totally agreed with what he said: the Government are absolutely right to renew and update our co-operation with the Americans on this subject, giving them the benefit of the output at Menwith Hill and Fylingdales. The Government are also right to keep the matter under review. I do not want to draw any conclusions as to what we should be doing over the next few years in this area, but it is a very serious problem.

The fact is that the Iranians are investing in ballistic technology to an extraordinary degree. They have developed the Shahab 2 missile and are now developing the Shahab 3, with which they can potentially already achieve a range of more than 1,000 km. One has to ask why they are doing that. If we believe last December’s American defence community report—it said that the Iranians abandoned their nuclear weapons programme in 2003, which would be very good news indeed—we have to ask what other kind of payload the Shahab 3s are designed to carry. Presumably, it is biological or chemical weapons—weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Ahmadinejad may be a lunatic but even he cannot be quite so mad as to spend this vast amount of money in developing ballistic missiles simply in order to carry high explosive. The cost-impact ratio would be utterly ridiculous by any standards. There is a real threat and problem there.

The Secretary of State is right that, for the foreseeable future, we need not think about locating terrestrial land-based anti-ballistic missile systems in this country. But I am reassured that the Americans are in agreement with the Polish and Czech Governments on locating systems there. We should keep the matter under constant review and come back to it from time to time in the House. I appreciate that the Secretary of State took the initiative in raising the subject this afternoon. No one asked him to do so or raised it with him and I hope that the Government will continue to keep us informed. There will be consensus among reasonable people in this House on taking whatever responsible measures may be required in the light of the threat over the next few years. I put it no more strongly than that.

The official Opposition—the Conservative Opposition, whom I used to support officially, but not always with great conviction in recent years—made me feel this afternoon that I was glad that I was not on those Benches. I thought how embarrassed I would have felt if I had been. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) implied strongly that he thought that it was a priority for us to get into the business of building icebreakers.

Robert Key: No, he did not.

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