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From here, it is impossible to put a time limit on when that army will be able to conduct large-scale security operations on its own, but my right hon. Friend
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ought to look at what has happened recently in Iraq. In a comparatively short period, the Iraqi army has gone from being almost totally dependent on the support of the allies to being capable of carrying out operations that it plans and commands itself. When one reaches the tipping point in relation to the training of an army, then, at least in my experience over the past two years, the process of improvement accelerates quite dramatically.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome the statement, the progress that the Government have been able to report and the reaffirmation of their acknowledgement that the situation cannot be won by military means alone. Specifically, I welcome the news that extra Engineers are going and the emphasis on giving them the ability to focus on civil reconstruction work. I also welcome very much the increase in helicopter crew numbers.

I, too, recently visited Afghanistan, and I was deeply impressed by the work of our young men—they are, in the main, very young men—particularly in searing heat of more than 50°C. It was truly humbling to see at close quarters just what they are doing on our behalf. I pay tribute to all those who are serving in Afghanistan, and have done, on our behalf. I was also very impressed by the deeply thoughtful and measured way in which the British troops go about their tasks and how the long-term impact of everything they do is always very clearly in their minds.

We did not hear in the statement anything specific about the poppy crop, and I should be interested to hear from the Secretary of State whether this year there has been any progress in persuading Afghan farmers to plant alternative crops. Last year’s poppy crop was the biggest ever. That in itself is worrying, but with the price having dropped there may be better prospects for persuading farmers to look for alternatives.

When I returned from that visit, my biggest concern was the state of British public opinion, which does not truly understand what we are doing in Afghanistan, why we are doing it, or how long it will take. Given that there is broad political consensus in the House on the issue and we are all committed to the long term, between us we must do something to try to move public opinion forward. In that regard, it is a matter of regret—to me at least—that the announcement should have been made on a day when George W. Bush is in the country. I fear that there is confusion in the public’s mind between what we are doing in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The biggest connection between the two is overstretch, and the sooner the public can be persuaded to see those situations separately, the better our chances are of getting the public on board for a long haul in Afghanistan.

Des Browne: The timing of the new announcement was dictated by the decisions that were made. Once they had been made, I determined that I would come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity to explain them. Unfortunately, I had to be at a NATO meeting last week, on Thursday and Friday, otherwise I would have been able to make the statement earlier. I always try to make statements to the House at the earliest possible opportunity.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s introductory remarks and am delighted that he and his party are in exactly the same place as the significant majority of those in the
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House and, indeed, in the other place in respect of what we are seeking to do in Afghanistan. Of course, many people say that the mission is impossible. They either say that it cannot be done and we should not be engaged in Afghanistan, or they misrepresent the situation. They do exactly what I suspect the hon. Gentleman fears in respect of the coincidence of the visit of the President of the United States and the statement, which is to look at everything that we do militarily through the prism of Iraq. That is deeply unhelpful. I have spent a lot of my time as Secretary of State trying to persuade our media that Afghanistan is the right place for our people to be. The fact that 40 countries are involved and that many of the most developed social democratic countries in the world are present with troops on the ground is an indication of just how right it is.

This morning I had a conversation with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, in which his support for what we are seeking to do in the context of the Security Council resolution was completely unwavering. We all have a responsibility to try to shift British public opinion. I believe that it has shifted in relation to the rightness of the mission and the military objectives, and we now have to shift it in relation to the progress being made in all the other complementary parts of the comprehensive approach and explain to the public that we need strategic patience in order to do what we are doing in a very difficult and challenging environment.

As for counter-narcotics, this year we will, as usual, have to wait for the official count as regards the assessment of the poppy crop, but early indications suggest that we have stabilised or reduced the production of poppy. There may be several reasons for that. The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies that that generates an opportunity. The whole focus of our efforts in northern Helmand is designed to put together the secure spaces that we have generated and to control the ability to communicate between them. That is part of the key to creating a secure logistical environment for moving other, legitimate, crops around so that they will not be taken advantage of by the Taliban. That will be key to building sustainable alternative crops for the farmers in Helmand province.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I join my right hon. Friend in supporting the considerable efforts of British forces in Afghanistan, particularly because failure would result in the complete reversal of women’s rights in that country. However, I still believe that we pay far too little attention to engaging with women in terms of solutions for the security of Afghanistan. I would be grateful if he could confirm how many servicewomen will be going to Afghanistan as a result of his announcement; whether we have recruited any female translators, who are often the only people who can communicate with women on the ground; and what efforts are being made by ISAF to adopt a comprehensive plan regarding UN Security Council resolution 1325.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend makes several important points. She will be aware that the representation of women in the Parliament of Afghanistan is proportionally greater than the representation of women in our Parliament, although that is not the end of the story. She will also be aware that a third of the young people—6 million—who are in education in Afghanistan are girls or young
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women, none of whom were educated under the Taliban. As she knows, there are still attacks on women and occasions when things happen particularly to women that suggest we are not making any progress, but we need to ask ourselves whether the lot of women in Afghanistan would be better if we were there or not there. I was in Lashkar Gah a couple of weeks ago and saw significant numbers of women on the streets of that community for the first time, and I know which way they would vote.

On my hon. Friend’s specific questions, I do not imagine that she expects me to have those statistics at my fingertips, but I will ensure that she gets them and that they are given to her in such a way that everybody else in the House can share that knowledge.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): After another sad week in Afghanistan, may I remind the Defence Secretary that on 27 February 2006 I warned his predecessor that we could not hope to fulfil our declared objectives in that country with 100,000 troops or even 300,000 troops? Recently, the outgoing NATO general has said that he would wish to see 400,000 troops there. What is the point of sending yet another small contingent, particularly bearing in mind the fact that the main terrorist training grounds are in Pakistan and that the great majority of our NATO allies are determined not to allow their troops to become committed in serious fighting?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has the merit of consistency, but in my view—he knows that I have enormous respect for him—he is consistently wrong on this subject, and I am absolutely determined to prove him wrong in respect of the observations he made to my right hon. Friend the former Defence Secretary on 27 February 2006. I have been in Afghanistan on many occasions in the past 25 months; with respect, I am not sure whether he has been once. If he wishes to come with me to Afghanistan, I will take him there. He can see on the ground what our people are doing and talk to our troops—

Sir Peter Tapsell indicated assent.

Des Browne: But mostly, he can talk to Afghans. The significant difference between his historical analysis of the situation and what we are doing is that on previous occasions those who failed in Afghanistan were fighting the Afghans, whereas we are fighting with the Afghans. That is the significant difference.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I pay tribute to my constituent, Private Cuthbertson, who was killed in Afghanistan last week.

May I ask the Secretary of State what assurance he can give regarding steps being taken to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan? As he will know, in the past there have been a large number of civilian casualties, which has been a source of friction between NATO forces and President Karzai. I would be grateful to know what we are doing to minimise them and what recompense is available when they occur.

Des Browne: I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent. I am sure that my hon. Friend has been a
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support to the family and friends involved, and has made it clear to them that the deaths, terrible as they are, and which can never be explained in a way that is satisfactory to families, are part of a greater whole that has made a significant difference to many millions of people in Afghanistan. The men and women who do this work are genuine heroes. With respect, that work is not restricted to members of the armed forces. A number of young men and women working in Afghanistan come from Departments of State, including civil servants from the Ministry of Defence; they have volunteered to work in that difficult environment and are doing a sterling job.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I know exercises him, and we have discussed it on several occasions. The most relevant part of his question was his use of the past tense. We have made significant improvements. The last commander of ISAF, General McNeill, was very conscious of the effect that collateral damage, or civilian casualties, had on the overall mission, apart from the effect that it was having on those people caught up in it. He issued a series of instructions dealing with the issues raised by my hon. Friend, and they have had a significant effect. We should never forget that all the civilian casualties caused by ISAF operations are accidental. Those caused by the Taliban are, more often than not, caused deliberately.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Last week, I met the chairman of the Helmand provincial council, who was visiting London, and he mentioned the positive help given to provide security against insurgents, the training being given to the Afghan police and army, and reconstruction works, including the building of schools, hospitals, clinics, houses and roads. It was a positive speech, and I took great comfort from the knowledge that none of that could have come about were it not for the bravery of our armed forces. The Secretary of State referred to Afghanistan as a noble cause. In order that the British people fully appreciate that, could I urge him to redouble his efforts so that people know that our military personnel are making a huge difference to the lives of ordinary Afghans, ensuring that their country does not return to being a haven from which terrorism is exported around the world?

Des Browne: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman because I saw his news release following his meeting with the chairman of the Helmand provincial council. He has done what is necessary, which is explain to the people of his constituency, through an Afghan voice, exactly what our young men and women are achieving. The quotations included in the press release from that genuine Afghan voice speak much more eloquently than Ministers of the Crown, the armed forces or, with all due respect, Members of this House could. What we need—and I have been trying to get—are more Afghans telling us the substantial difference between life now and what it was only five or six years ago, because of the presence of our young men and women in their country. That message will convince our people that the sacrifices and investments that we make in Afghanistan are worth while. Not only that, but when we get that country into some sort of stabilised position and can deal with the issues, which the hon. Member for Woodspring
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(Dr. Fox) rightly identified, of governance, corruption and counter-narcotics, it will make a substantial difference on the streets of our communities, which will be safer and more drug free than they are now.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the progress that has been made in Afghanistan. Does he agree that one of the keys to more progress in southern Afghanistan is co-operation with Pakistan? Despite the critical statements that are often made, and which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) repeated today, does my right hon. Friend agree that Pakistan is making a genuine sacrifice? More than 1,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the northern territories and on the borders of Pakistan.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend raises an issue mentioned by the hon. Member for Woodspring, which is key to a sustainable and peaceful future for Afghanistan. There is a mirror image of Afghanistan’s problems on the other side of the border in the Fatah and tribal areas of Pakistan. With respect, hon. Members need to be consistent. We cannot celebrate the election of a democratic Government in Pakistan without living with the consequences of control in that country moving from the military to politics. The engagement with politics in the areas that we are considering will create challenges for that Government, but we universally welcomed the elections, to the extent that they were successful, in Pakistan. However, they have consequences. The army is moving from the position that it previously occupied in the Pakistani community, and that change is important to the future stability of that part of the world. When I was in Afghanistan and subsequently in Pakistan, and when I spoke this morning to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, I concentrated on the need—I know that my colleagues do it all the time with institutions and on visits to the region—to get the two countries to work together across the border, recognise that they share a series of common problems and stop blaming each other for the problems in their countries. That is the only way we will make progress.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Following directly from that, does the Secretary of State agree that one of the key issues is that of patrolling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? To do that, we need to fulfil the terms of NATO’s combined joint statement of requirements—in other words, provide more troops. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the only way we can avoid the catastrophe of the forces of Afghanistan or Pakistan making incursions into the other? What more can we do about that patrolling?

Des Browne: The necessity for a battle group that can manoeuvre around the border is crucial. However, that is only part of the solution to problems on the border. I emphasise that there are 2,900 km of the most mountainous border one can imagine. There needs to be an acceptance on both sides of it that both countries face the same problems, with the same roots. There are opportunities for the two Governments to speak to each other. Indeed, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan was in Kabul immediately after I was there and after I spoke to him in Pakistan. Some progress was made, although this morning’s press conference or statements by President Karzai suggest
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that the progress has gone backwards a bit. However, we need to keep working with those two countries so that their forces, which will be there in the long term, recognise the issues that they have in common on that border. If we can get them to live up to commitments made separately to secure and police the border, that is as much a long-term issue as any challenge that we face in that part of the world.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The Secretary of State made an optimistic statement about Afghanistan. Will he comment on the way in which the Taliban’s tactics appear to have changed into that of a guerrilla war against an occupying force? Increasingly, there is pressure on those forces to cross into Pakistan. What effect will that have on the politics of Pakistan? How long does he expect British troops to remain in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: The only answer I am prepared to give to that question is that British troops will remain there until we assess that the Afghan security forces are capable of sustaining the security that has been created. We are making remarkable progress in that regard. To the degree that there was optimism in the entirely realistic statement that I made to the House, it was realistic optimism; but there was some pessimism in it, too. I recognise the challenges that we face, and we have to redouble our efforts to deal with them.

I say with some regret to my hon. Friend that there is no answer to the problems that the Pakistanis and Afghans face in that region that involves the international community turning its back on them. To refer to ISAF, which is in Afghanistan at the request of the democratically elected Government there and supported by a UN Security Council resolution, and which represents almost the whole world—there are no national voices suggesting that we should not be there—as an occupying force that people are somehow justified in fighting against is entirely to misrepresent what we are doing there.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Although the Secretary of State said that 50,000 Afghan troops had now been trained, fewer than 10,000 of them have been fully equipped. What will NATO do about the shortfall in equipment, to ensure that the 50,000 trained Afghans have the right equipment to allow them to participate in the sort of action in which British troops and others are currently involved?

Des Browne: There are, I think, 55,000 trained Afghans in the national army. There are also a greater number of police officers, who have been partly trained but who substantially need retraining, and we are working our way through that. Properly equipping an army of that size to face an insurgency is a challenging task. Every day we make more investment in doing that, but at the same time we are trying to ensure that the Afghan institutions of government learn how to do that for themselves and to sustain their own army. So we are doing many things, investing billions of dollars from the international community—mostly from the United States of America—in equipping this army to deal with the insurgency challenge that it faces. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a measure of exactly where we are in that process from the Dispatch Box today, but I know from my observations of that army, as it has been trained and equipped over the past two years, that we
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have made a lot of progress. All those soldiers who are deployed and working with ours in the south are equipped well enough to deal with what they need to do.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and in particular his indication of the progress being made militarily, which is a tribute to the courage, commitment and professionalism of our armed services. He has outlined some of the benefits that have now accrued to the Afghan people from our presence, but could he give an assessment of the development of Afghanistan’s public infrastructure and national economy?

Des Browne: The Afghan economy has grown at the rate of about 9 per cent. or more a year since 2001. Frankly, however, that masks the problem in the Afghan economy, which is that a substantial proportion of the real economy relies on drugs. Breaking the link between the Afghan economy and its dependence on drugs is crucial. At the heart of that is the ability to deal with the comparatively small number of people who are extremely influential in Afghanistan. My assessment is that if we can develop the governance and justice system of Afghanistan in the short term, so that it can deal with the comparatively small number of very influential families and their leaders, we will be able to make important progress in developing the Afghan economy. However, exactly when we will be able to do that will be a function of our ability to get the Afghan capacity built up. As I said earlier at Question Time, we must bear in mind the fact that Afghanistan has been ravaged by decades of violence and that we start from a very low base.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that the whole country should be extremely proud of the performance of British armed forces in Afghanistan. However, even after this welcome, if very small, addition, there are still critical gaps in the military structure which, unless filled, will prevent us from completing the mission successfully. Will the Secretary of State, together with the Prime Minister, urge the Germans, who have remarkable and substantial engineering assets in the north, to realise that their business is south and that we and the Americans will provide them with force protection so that we can get on with the absolutely essential, almost untouched part of the vital reconstruction, without which the mission will not be able to proceed?

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