Previous Section Index Home Page

29 Oct 2008 : Column 278WH—continued

and if we are to have a reliable army, we must provide the right number of instructors, trainers and mentors, in a benign environment in which training can occur. If the trainers and the operational mentoring liaison teams keep getting killed and shot, and if that job is seen as the single most dangerous military job in Helmand province at the moment, we are simply not progressing.

On a point that is more wide-ranging, but which is really the same argument, if redevelopment and reconciliation occur and if security sector reform generally occurs and an area is pacified—although that is a relative term—and it becomes as benign as Kabul or Lashkagar have been, the rules of counter-insurgency dictate that there must be enough troops, police, or paramilitaries, whatever they are, to hold those areas and to keep them benign. We cannot have the sort of operations springing up behind our front lines that we have already seen.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to address those specific points and to add his weight to the argument that if we are going to try to contain the situation, if not triumph in this area, there have to be enough troops properly equipped with enough transport, aircraft and resources.

3.28 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I shall be brief, and not inflict my dreadful voice on everyone for too long. Clearly, we will win this only with a political
29 Oct 2008 : Column 279WH
settlement. People have spoken about increasing the capacity of the Afghan national army. That is probably a much more important way forward than increasing the number of foreign troops, apart from those with niche capabilities. We are always told that it is hard to generate an army quickly, but Afghanistan is probably the one country in the world where one can generate large numbers of men under arms quite rapidly. What is happening at the moment and what has happened in history teaches us that in Afghanistan, foreign troops are a problem.

On the subject of the police, we have spoken about police mentoring teams. Actually, what we need more than mentoring teams teaching people how to be good detectives or gather evidence, is political commissars, in terms of the appointment of police chiefs.

Finally, we talk about corruption, but we are supporting a deeply corrupt Government. If we do not deal with that, we will be finished. If we cannot ourselves deal with corrupt senior officials, we can use our intelligence services and police forces to put together dossiers with incontrovertible evidence for the President and thereby get high-profile prosecutions of a few of those people.

3.30 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I want to try to give a positive, upbeat message after what we have heard over the past hour. I have visited Afghanistan twice this year, most recently last month, to meet members of 16 Air Assault Brigade from the Colchester garrison, which I have the pleasure and privilege of representing. I am delighted to say that the last of the 2 Para soldiers returned as recently as Monday, as a big spread in the local newspaper reported. I want to home in on comments made by the commander of 3 Para, Lieutenant-Colonel Huw Williams, who said that the insurgency in Afghanistan will go on for a long time. He said that the international community would not let go, and that it would be wrong to desert the Afghan people now, especially after what has been achieved.

It is in that spirit that I want to quote the words of Victoria Bateman, who contacted me. She is the young widow of James Bateman, one of the young soldiers from 2 Para who lost his life in June. She stated:

Tomorrow, Victoria Bateman will be joining other members of the families of 2 Para at a regimental church service at St. Peter’s church, Colchester, where they will remember the nine soldiers from 2 Para and four others attached to 2 Para who have lost their lives in the past six months. They are among the 32 in total from 16 Air Assault Brigade who have lost their lives.

It is in the spirit of remembering good work in a positive manner that I want to inform Members of the visit to the House of Commons early in the summer by the chairman and deputy chairman of the Helmand provincial council. They were accompanied by two women members of the council, and of course that would not have been possible if the Taliban were still running Afghanistan. Mr. Anwar Khan thanked Britain, especially our armed forces, for all that this country is doing to help his country and its citizens, whom he explained wanted once again to be part of the civilised world after
29 Oct 2008 : Column 280WH
experiencing some 30 years when their country was systematically destroyed. He mentioned the positive role of the help given to provide security against insurgents, the training being given to the Afghan police and army, and reconstruction work, including the building of schools, hospitals, clinics, houses and roads.

As we heard, the Afghan national army is expanding. It will virtually double in size over the next four years to about 130,000 or 135,000 soldiers, and, as I witnessed when I was in Camp Bastion only last month, it is increasingly playing a role in the security of the country. It is losing more men than the allies are.

Having heard the upbeat message from the chairman of the Helmand provincial council, I hope that it is in that spirit that we in the British Parliament look at Afghanistan. The solution cannot be a military one only—I believe that that is accepted—but our military personnel are making a huge difference to the lives of ordinary Afghan people, ensuring that the country does not return to being a haven from which terrorism is exported around the world.

Paul Flynn: Was the chairman of Helmand provincial council upbeat about the fact that at least one half of his province is controlled by the Taliban?

Bob Russell: I must confess that he did not say that, but I would like to move on to how I see Afghanistan in the future. It has to be decentralised, with province-led governance and administration. Yes, there must be a national umbrella, but the reality of tribal loyalties and allegiances must be recognised. Taking that line and bringing in the various factions would be the way forward. The solution cannot be a military one only—politicians and the military have to work together.

As I have indicated in the Chamber in the past, and in Prime Minister’s questions not that long ago, there is a problem, and it is the failure of our European NATO allies to deploy sufficient troops to support the effort. For example, there are 70 caveats which result in other European NATO countries finding it difficult, to put it mildly, to play their part. That is not acceptable.

I endorse the words of Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, whom I met at Camp Bastion. I am sure that it would be difficult to disagree with the top man in Afghanistan when he says that there will not be a military solution. He said that the British troops had taken the sting out of the Taliban in 2008, but that it would be necessary to engage with the Taliban in the future governance of the country.

I appreciate that time is against all of us who would like to contribute to the debate. There is another example of the British military playing a crucial role in the redevelopment and reconstruction of Afghanistan: their incredible achievement only a few weeks ago in taking a turbine through 50 or 60 miles of hostile Taliban country to the Kajaki dam. That was the biggest military effort since the Falklands war. I am told that it was the first time since the second world war that all four battalions of the Parachute Regiment have engaged on a single mission. We should celebrate such achievements.

I regret observations that could be misinterpreted not only by the British people and Her Majesty’s armed forces but by the people of Afghanistan. I cannot speak for the whole of the United Kingdom, but I can certainly speak for the garrison town that I represent, where there is considerable pride in what has been achieved and a
29 Oct 2008 : Column 281WH
certain knowledge that lives have not been lost in vain. It is in the interests of this country and the whole democratic world that Afghanistan does not return to what it was six, seven or eight years ago.

I hope that the Minister will accept that there is a message of hope, and that the British armed forces are doing a good job. That is recognised by many people in Afghanistan. I can only repeat what was put to me by the chairman of the Helmand provincial council. He does not want his province to revert to what it was—a place in which women had no say, girls did not go to school and society was run by tribal warlords. It is important to bring everybody together, and the way forward is to engage the Afghan people more, decentralise, have provincial governance and assist our troops, who need more support from our European NATO allies.

3.38 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, and to hear so many luminaries speak this afternoon. It is a pity that we could not get everyone in. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on securing this extremely important debate.

It is a great pity that, six or seven years on, we are here with a Defence Minister. I like the Minister very much indeed—he is a great man—but it is a pity that he is not a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or from the Department for International Development. That would have been a mark of where we might have been but, sadly, we are not.

Arguments about Afghanistan being a proving ground for NATO, for being an exercise in facilitating the ability of Afghans to cast a ballot, or for the lifting of a country out of poverty are supplementary. Although worthy, they are intermediate goals that are admissible because they facilitate the reduction of the threat of terrorism on Britain’s streets, and the desolation and criminality caused here by Afghanistan’s chief export. That should be our lodestar.

In 1936, the sociologist Robert Merton published “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”, which I am sure the Minister is familiar with; he will certainly be familiar with the law of unintended consequences, which is the guts of it. In Iraq, all five contributing factors that Merton identified as likely to lead to unexpected and perverse outcomes from Government action were satisfied. I suspect that Merton would have been less alarmed by Afghanistan. However, a jaw-dropping failure to understand what was going on was evidenced by the estimation of one of the Defence Secretary’s predecessors, which was that we could do whatever he then had in mind without a single shot being fired. We see it also in a complete failure to get to grips with the nature of the Taliban.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith has had to write 32 difficult letters during his six months in command of 16 Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan. His view is:

If winning means establishing a Jeffersonian liberal democracy in Afghanistan, he may be right. The brigadier says that, at some point, we will have to sit around a table with the Taliban. Well, it is their country; they are not going away. This appears to have dawned, belatedly, on the Kabul Administration. Having laid into western
29 Oct 2008 : Column 282WH
leaders for parleying with insurgents, we now find that Karzai is opening up lines of communications with Mullah Omar. That is good. But we really should have no truck with the conceit of not treating with those we define as terrorists. Indeed, the Government have more experience than most of dealing with those at what we might call the fag end of statecraft, both at home and abroad. Already, the Government are having to hold their nose while dealing with the fragile, corrupt and potentially capricious regime in Kabul and, at the same time, training up their army and police force. Without tackling endemic corruption, there can be no chance of success in Afghanistan by any measure.

During the ultimately successful counter-insurgency war in Dhofar, it was necessary in 1970 to secure regime change: the sultan had to go. But in Afghanistan, in wondering how much progress we will see under the current management, we have to ask—no doubt Brigadier Carleton-Smith has—whether the alternatives would be very much better.

We talk about winning the battle of hearts and minds in a fairly loose way. In total war, the attitudes of civilian populations are of secondary importance to the need to secure military advantage and military victory. The reverse is the case in the sort of counter-insurgency operations we have seen since 1945. With the United Nations reporting that Afghan civilian deaths as a result of coalition action have risen by 40 per cent. this year, I wonder whether the Government have had sufficient regard to the primacy of heart and minds in the ultimate outcome of the two major conflicts that have occurred on their watch. Hearts and minds means aid and development. The UK has chosen to channel its aid largely through the Afghan Government. Will the Minister say whether, in retrospect, he feels that this has been wise?

United States aid is always clearly badged; we see on our television screens buckets of gear going out, clearly marked with the stars and stripes. That helps to paint America in a favourable light and helps give it mitigation in the eyes of many Afghans. The drug barons and the Taliban are building schools and hospitals in the south of the country and making it abundantly clear to the population who they are indebted to. Surely, we should also be shouting our philanthropy from the rooftops.

Government strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is underpinned by the extraordinary service of the men and women of our armed forces. Last week, I had the great privilege of visiting our troops in Iraq, most of whom seemed to have recent experience of Afghanistan. All of them reckon that this will be their last tour of Iraq; all of them reckon they will be going to Afghanistan in the fullness of time. My trip to Iraq allowed me to inspect our range of quaint airborne antiques, which are part of the problem and about which the Minister and I have corresponded. I know that he has also corresponded with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on this issue, in respect of rest and recuperation leave for our troops.

It is important to understand that our troops are first rate. They are doing the bidding of the Government. They must not be taken for granted and I know that the Minister does not intend that they should be, but it is clear to me, having spoken to our troops in Iraq and having had a range of correspondence on this topic, that one of their chief bugbears at the moment—I
29 Oct 2008 : Column 283WH
suspect that this also applies in Afghanistan—is a problem with the airhead, which cuts into their rest and recuperation leave. I hope that the Minister is able to reassure me on the subject of troop transport aircraft and that he will also say categorically that troops are not being delayed at airheads because of the want of aircraft anti-missile kit, which makes service aircraft incapable of operation for trooping flights in Iraq and Afghanistan.

May I also press the Minister on equipment in general? The good news is that the message I am getting is that the new kit coming on line is good, albeit belated. I welcome the Minister’s statement today on the protected mobility package, which looks like it will help to improve safety and security in Afghanistan, particularly. But—there will always be a “but” from me—not all of these are new orders. It would be useful to hear him say how the total of £700 million that is cited is arrived at: whether it is £600 million for the mobility package plus £96 million for Talisman, which is what I think it means, or something different. Perhaps he can say whether we can assume that the element of the mobility package not funded by the reserve will, at £100 million, have to be paid for by the Ministry of Defence or whether it will be in excess of that. In addition, is the £500 million to be taken from the reserve already included in the latest reserve estimates? The Minister will know the implications of that if is so.

May I also press the Minister on training on this new kit? I heard from people in theatre that it is all very well having kit—I saw a lot of it when I was in Iraq—but it is no good if they have to train on it when it is in theatre; they need to train on kit when they are in the UK. Of course, we are cutting back on training because of overstretch, but it is a pity that that appears to be impinging on vital training on the new kit being introduced.

The platoon house strategy has been tried and found costly. If it is the Government’s intention to avoid search-and-destroy operations in favour of “clear and hold”, would the Minister agree that we must find more soldiers? Training and recruitment of the Afghan national army, particularly senior officers, have been slow and our European so-called allies have been found unwilling. That leaves, for practical purposes, ourselves, the US, the Dutch and the Canadians, and at least three of those countries will continue to be over-committed, even post-Iraq.

We may have to start thinking outside the box. General Sir Michael Rose argues that irregular Pashtun militias might be conscripted as force multipliers, citing experience in Oman in the 1970s. A combination of collateral reduction and force multiplication could be crucial as we reach a tipping point at which the uncommitted majority in the south and east of Afghanistan start to decide which side looks like a winner and therefore which one they should back.

More in hope than expectation, I must press the Minister on countries that are not pulling their weight in the coalition, despite being signatories to it. It is accepted that our role in Afghanistan is to protect the home front. If that is so, the same goes in France, Germany and Italy. How long must we indulge national caveats that mean, in the words of one soldier I met last week, that many coalition troops in theatre are about as
29 Oct 2008 : Column 284WH
useful as a chocolate fireguard? It is not just an aversion to losing soldiers. Britain alone has given £600 million in aid to Afghanistan since 2001 and has been at the forefront of what redevelopment has been achieved. Yet the Germans and Italians, for example, having undertaking responsibility for police and judicial reform respectively at the Tokyo conference of 2002, have left both chaotic and inadequately funded. How odd then that our newly minted Defence Secretary should think that the solution is a European army and that those who oppose it are “pathetic” and

since a European force would, apparently,

Not, it seems, in Afghanistan.

Next Section Index Home Page