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16 Jun 2008 : Column 675


3.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Last December, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a clear and long-term framework for bringing security and political, social and economic development to Afghanistan. I would like to give the House an update on some of the progress that we have made since then in Afghanistan, based on my most recent visit to Afghanistan last month, and to set out future plans for the UK’s military contribution to the NATO-led international security assistance force—ISAF.

The security situation in Afghanistan has improved in the past 12 months. The Taliban’s leadership has been targeted successfully, and recent operations in southern Helmand have disrupted severely their training and lines of communication. That has had two principal effects. First, their sphere of influence has been reduced; nine tenths of the security incidents are confined to one tenth of the country, and the rest is relatively peaceful. Secondly, we have seen them reduce their ambition from insurgency to terrorism. The Taliban’s campaign is now limited to intimidating Afghan communities, coercing the vulnerable into becoming suicide bombers and carrying out brutal and indiscriminate attacks on the international community and, above all, on the Afghan men, women and children themselves. As the Taliban’s conventional attacks have failed, we have seen their tactics shift to the use of mines, roadside bombs and suicide vests. Those tactics run deeply counter to the Afghan culture, as does the Taliban’s reliance on paid foreign fighters—the so-called “$10 Talibs”, who now make up the majority of those doing the fighting for them. I fully recognise that the Taliban’s new tactics pose a different but very serious challenge, both to our forces and to the local people. We need to ensure that we do all that we can to mitigate the new danger, and I am fully engaged on ensuring that we do so.

I share the understandable international concern about the breakout from Kandahar prison that took place on Friday 13 June. The Government of Afghanistan are leading the response to the incident and we are monitoring that closely. We have always said that the challenge of supporting an Afghan lead on security goes wider than providing support to the Afghan armed forces to include the justice sector, and we are already engaged in supporting a programme of justice reform that includes work on prisons. International support to the Afghan Government’s security response is being provided through NATO’s presence in Kandahar. Let me conclude on this point by saying that notwithstanding the extremely serious nature of this incident, it does not change our view that the Taliban are losing the fight in southern Afghanistan.

The Afghan people, like people the world over, long for security, stability and prosperity. They understand that the Taliban cannot deliver those things. Our forces, alongside the US, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and Danish forces, and many others, are in Afghanistan to fulfil a UN mandate, to support the elected Government, to train and mentor the Afghan army and police, and to give the Afghan people hope for the future. I believe, as I think do the majority of this House, that Afghanistan is a noble cause, but we also know that it comes at a tragic human cost, as we have been reminded over
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the past week. The recent deaths of five members of 2 Para—as well as the 97 other UK fatalities in Afghanistan since 2002 and all those UK personnel who have been wounded or otherwise scarred by this conflict—are an enduring measure of the dangers that our young servicemen and women face on operations on our behalf.

The military know better than anyone that this is a campaign that cannot be won by military means alone. Once security has improved—it has already improved— delivering improvements in infrastructure, governance, the rule of law, schools, hospitals and services must follow. Generating those things in a country that has been devastated by decades of conflict and that is the fourth poorest country in the world is difficult and challenging—it will be a long-term endeavour. But I saw real progress there during my trip, and there is now a tangible sense that life for many Afghans is improving. In Helmand, they have a new and extremely able governor—Governor Mangal—who is spreading the writ of the Government of Afghanistan further into that once lawless province. During the week of my visit, the local people of Garmsir reopened their hospital for the first time in two years. In Lashkar Gah, they had also just opened a new high school, and some of the girls attending that school will represent the first women in their families ever to go to school and receive an education.

We the UK are not alone in our commitment to Afghanistan. Last week, 80 countries and international organisations met in Paris at the international conference in support of Afghanistan. In Paris, the Afghan Government’s national development strategy was launched. That plan provides an Afghan blueprint for the future development of their country. Last week in Paris, the international community pledged $20.4 billion to help to fund it and reaffirmed its support for Kai Eide’s role in co-ordinating its efforts to help to deliver it.

I am not underestimating how much remains to be done, but the green shoots of development and democracy are becoming even more firmly rooted in a security environment that has improved out of all measure since UK forces deployed in southern Afghanistan two years ago.

The focus on development does not mean that we are complacent about security—in fact, far from it. As I said before, the shift in tactics, while being in one sense a sign of strategic weakness, presents us with a different but still very serious challenge—one that our forces are confronting with the same courage, professionalism and intelligence that they have shown throughout the campaign. At the same time, the Prime Minister’s December statement made it clear that, over time, we plan to rebalance our military commitment from one based on direct combat operations to one of support for the Afghans’ own security forces. There is some good news here: the Afghan national army is a success story. Afghan soldiers are fearless and redoubtable fighters and the ANA is respected and admired by the Afghan people. Their professional competence is also increasing by the day. The first ANA kandak—or battalion—has now reached capability milestone 1, which means that it is capable of fully independent operations. Our soldiers are finding that the mentoring that the Afghan national army requires has reduced as its capability and experience has grown. That is no mean achievement.

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Creating an effective police force is, however, proving to be a more difficult challenge. To accelerate that process, the coalition has introduced a process called focused district development, which is, in effect, a mass training and retraining of the Afghan national police, district by district. That ambitious plan has an annual budget of $2 billion, and it is making a big difference. But we have to accept that creating an independent, effective police force in Afghanistan will not happen overnight.

Counter-insurgency campaigns are ultimately about winning the support of the local population. With the diminishing relevance of the Taliban’s campaign and the increasing delivery of development, I am in little doubt that we are winning that, too. It is in this context that I have, with the military advice of the chiefs of staff, decided to make a number of adjustments to the profile of our forces in Afghanistan. Currently, we have 7,800 troops in Afghanistan deployed to Helmand, Kandahar and Kabul. As a result of a recent review, I have approved the removal of around 400 posts from the Afghan operational establishment table. Those posts are no longer required due to reorganisation and the changed nature of the tactical situation. At the same time, we have identified a requirement for, in total, 630 new posts, creating a net increase in our forces in Afghanistan of some 230 personnel, to around 8,030 by spring 2009.

Broadly, those adjustments have three aims: first, to improve the protection afforded to our personnel; secondly, to increase the capacity of our forces to deliver training and mentoring to the Afghan national security forces; and thirdly, to increase the capacity of our forces to deliver the civil effects of reconstruction and development in an insecure or semi-secure environment. All those aims are vital if we are to sustain the progress that we are making.

Let me set out the nature of those changes. The first objective of the force adjustments is to increase the protection that we are able to give to our brave servicemen and women as they conduct their mission in Afghanistan. In the months ahead, we will deploy more troops to man the additional Viking and Mastiff vehicles that we have already ordered. Further specialists will deploy to man reconnaissance and warning systems in our forward operating bases in Helmand. We will also reinforce the Royal Air Force Regiment squadron that helps defend Kandahar airfield.

The House will recall that the improvements that we have made to ground support and crewing arrangements for our CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache helicopters have increased the total amount of flying time per month available to our commanders in Afghanistan. Part of the uplift will be delivered by an increase in helicopter crews, which I am announcing today.

Among the most potent of all our capabilities in deterring and denying the insurgency is our ability to project close air support. In Afghanistan we have a contingent of Harrier GR7/GR9s that have proven time and again their value in defending the lives of our troops, our allies and those whom they are there to protect. The Harrier force first deployed to Kandahar airfield in November 2004 and has been operational continuously ever since. That is an impressive record by
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any standards, but I am mindful of the strain that that extended deployment has put upon the crews, their families and the wider role of Joint Force Harrier. I have therefore decided to withdraw the Harrier force by spring 2009 and to replace it with an equivalent force of Tornado GR4s.

I have already mentioned that by developing the Afghan security forces we are setting the conditions to allow them to take an increased role in their own security. To accelerate that we will expand our fourth operational mentor and liaison team to accelerate the development of the Afghan national army, and we will continue to train the Afghan national police. In particular, we will focus our efforts to help Afghan national army and police commanders to develop the skills they need to lead their forces effectively in a demanding and often very dangerous area.

The improved security situation that our forces are generating has provided us with a real opportunity to increase the rate of our delivery of civil effect. I have therefore decided that when 3 Commando Brigade deploys to Afghanistan this October, it will deploy with an additional infantry battalion headquarters and sub-unit. The forces will operate in southern Helmand to ensure that we are able to consolidate and exploit the security gains that we have made in that area and 3 Commando Brigade will also deploy with an extra troop of Royal Engineers to support our provincial reconstruction team by undertaking quick impact projects in support of the local community. Those forces will be supported by more medical, logistical and equipment support troops.

In addition we will attach civil-military co-operation officers to each of our battle groups and we will form military stabilisation teams on the model of the ad hoc team that we deployed with great success in the wake of the reoccupation of Musa Qala. Both measures will enable us to take forward development projects including quick impact projects in areas where the level of threat remains high.

My announcement today of a net uplift of 230 additional troops does not in proportionate terms represent a very significant increase. It does mean our mission is expanding. It means we are taking the steps necessary to take our mission forward as effectively as we can, with a force whose profile and capabilities are optimised to the conditions that they face. As I have explained, the uplift and rebalancing will enable our forces to strengthen their protection and to increase the rate at which they can build Afghan capacity in security, governance and development. Some of those new capabilities will need a year before they are available for operations in Afghanistan, but others will deploy much sooner. Of course, we shall continue to work to develop the optimum balance of forces and capabilities, in conjunction with the Afghan Government and our allies, in what can be rapidly changing conditions. The additional forces will ensure we can maintain the growing reach of the Afghan Government in Helmand, increase the military contribution to development and accelerate the pace of Afghanisation.

We talk in this House in terms of numbers, units, and strategies, but as the events of the last week have reminded us all, behind these numbers are individual young men or women, working courageously in strange, difficult and dangerous conditions far from their family back home. I am constantly impressed by their bravery and resourcefulness, and on behalf of the Government
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and I am sure the whole House I express our gratitude for their service to the nation, and commit myself to continuing to do everything we can to support them.

I commend the statement to the House.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I fully associate the Conservative party with all that he has said about our servicemen and women and the dangers that they face.

Those who have given their lives in Afghanistan are irreplaceable to their families and friends and we will remember those families in our thoughts and prayers. We will also share their pride that we still have professional and courageous servicemen and women who are brave enough to sacrifice themselves for the security of the people of this country.

We must always remember that we are in Afghanistan for reasons of national security, to deny a safe haven to those who would commit indiscriminate acts of terrorist murder on men, women and children. We must remember that it is an international mission sanctioned by the UN and led by NATO. The Afghanistan compact, which followed the London conference, set out four objectives: increased security, drug reduction, an efficient Executive and economic and social development. Progress has been made on social development, but the process of government remains compromised by corruption and a lack of co-ordination between the military, reconstruction and political missions. The military command also needs greater clarity of purpose and simplification of structure—a point regularly raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and he raised it again today in talks with President Bush.

There has been no progress on the drugs issue, with no alternative sources of income being made available to those for whom growing poppies is the only means of feeding themselves. If anything, the situation has deteriorated. Security has improved in some parts of the country, as the Secretary of State said, but it remains undermined in the south by the continued insurgency, the breakout of Taliban prisoners in Kandahar, and the Pakistani Government’s attitude to border issues. A former NATO commander, General McNeill, recently said that more troops were needed to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency. He said that

and he expressed concern that NATO could become a “two-tiered alliance”, with an insufficient number of countries truly committed to fighting against the Taliban.

We have seen how the fighting in the south of the country has been left to the Americans, the British, the Canadians, the Dutch and a number of valiant smaller forces, while some of the biggest NATO allies have been risk averse, to say the least. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assessment of how great a threat is posed to the achievement of the aims of the Afghan compact by the underactivity of some of our NATO allies, and does he agree that the message from the United Kingdom should be that it is unacceptable for all those in NATO to have the same insurance policy if only some of us pay the full premiums?

We will now have 8,000 personnel in Afghanistan and 4,000 personnel on active operations in Iraq. We have consistently raised concerns about the force size in
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Afghanistan. Does the Secretary of State believe that, with the increase that he announced today, the force size is now sufficient for the safety and effectiveness of our troops, and can he tell us by how many troops General McNeill believes NATO, as a whole, is short? How confident can the Secretary of State be that he can fill the 630 new posts that he announced today with correctly qualified personnel who have had sufficient rest and training? He tells us that some of the announcements that he made today will take a year to come into effect; can he be more specific on that point?

Recent deaths in Afghanistan have shown the Taliban’s shift towards suicide bombing as a tactic. We have seen in Iraq what that can mean. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that all necessary protective equipment is available to minimise the risk to our armed forces on the ground, and can he give an assurance that there is the fullest co-operation from the Afghan police and military in attempting to minimise those threats? The increase announced today was predictable, but does it not make a mockery of the Government’s national security strategy, published only 12 weeks ago, which said that

That is a dangerous and harmful fantasy; what we have is overstretch.

I believe that the Government are genuinely committed to a successful outcome in Afghanistan, and they know that they have our full support on that objective, but they need urgently to address the gap between commitments and military capabilities if we are to succeed. Above all, we need to recalibrate expectations. We cannot simply drop a Jeffersonian democracy on to a broken 13th-century state and expect it to work in five or even 10 years’ time. It will be a long haul, so we must properly plan for a long haul, and not for six-month rotations for our commanders, or sixth-month or annual budget allocations for reconstruction efforts. We need to bring our military and financial planning into line with the political reality. I am sure that those on both sides of the House agree strongly that the costs of failure are far too high to contemplate.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed both inside and outside the House the mission in Afghanistan, on many occasions. It may not appear so from his contribution, but there is much less between us than people who heard him for the first time today might imagine. I am grateful to him and his Front-Bench colleagues for the support that they have consistently given our mission, and for their appreciation of the complexity involved, which was implicit in his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman made so many points that if I sought to answer them all, I would stretch the patience of the House, so I promise to do what I usually do in the circumstances. I will read the Hansard record of his questions carefully, and if I do not deal with them, I will respond in writing, so that everyone in the House can see the answers to his specific questions. However, the heart or gravaman of what he said must be responded to. I carefully constructed the statement to the House to show that we were responding to changed circumstances on the ground, which have been brought about by an acceleration of progress in the past 12 months, largely
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because of the contribution of our forces, but not only because of that, as he knows. Indeed, the situation in the south of Helmand province has largely been created by the deployment of the marine expeditionary unit that served with our forces in the lower part of the Helmand valley, and which has transformed the area around the town of Garmsir. I am responding to that, because that marine expeditionary unit plans to be there only until about November, so we are putting some forces down there who will work alongside Afghan security forces to hold what has been achieved and keep the Taliban from reinfecting that part of the country.

May I tell the House—and I think that this is important—that there are of the order of 17 countries in ISAF represented in either the south or the east, where the heavy lifting is being done? I agree with the hon. Gentleman about sharing the burden across the whole alliance. I repeatedly make those points, and there is now some success to be gleaned from that advocacy, in which I and indeed others engage in NATO. I should share the statistics with the House, because they show an impressive commitment by the alliance, the broader ISAF alliance and, principally, by NATO. When NATO met in Riga last year, there were 32,000 forces in the ISAF. When we met in Bucharest, there were 47,000, but when NATO Ministers met in Brussels only last week, there were 50,000, and those numbers are increasing. That is a measure of the level of commitment: there are more helicopters, there is more helicopter time, and other allies are now taking steps, in conjunction with initiatives that we have generated, to improve helicopter availability. In short, the NATO alliance has been transformed by its engagement in Afghanistan. I have a different way of going about it from the hon. Gentleman, but I think that my way has shown significant progress in that regard, in the number of countries that are there, the absence of caveats for their forces, and the significant increase of force deployed in the south.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House on 11 June that we are making progress in training the Afghan army and police. Clearly the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes that forward—especially the additional deployment for training purposes. Does he have in mind a time frame for the completion of the training of the Afghan army?

Des Browne: We have trained 55,000 members of the Afghan army to date, but they are not all trained to the level at which they can conduct operations without significant support from command and control, logistics and planning. As I said to the House earlier in Defence questions, the first kandak of that army has reached capability measurement 1, which means that it is capable of moving forward. There are other niche capabilities in the Afghan national army and security forces that are very effective. The other day, we saw the biggest ever haul of drugs seized by an Afghan force which we trained in part.

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