Iraq and Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


28 OCTOBER 2008

  Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon everybody. Will members of the public please switch off their mobile phones or put them on silent mode? This afternoon, we have a joint session of the Select Committees on Defence and on Foreign Affairs. We did the same thing about a year and a half ago, with the then Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and the then Defence Secretary, Des Browne. Today, we are delighted to have with us two Secretaries of State who are new to the joint session. I understand that this is the Defence Secretary's first appearance before the Defence Select Committee. You have the bonus of the Foreign Affairs Committee as well—so, welcome to you. The Foreign Secretary is well known at least to us on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and we welcome you once again. I also thank your colleagues, Lieutenant General Wall and Mr Lyall Grant, for joining us today. This question and answer session focuses specifically on Iraq and Afghanistan. We might stray on to some related issues, but we will try hard to focus on those two areas. Let me begin by asking about Iraq. What is your assessment of the current security situation in Iraq generally and in the area around Basra where our British forces are?

  John Hutton: Thank you for that introduction, Mike. I was in Basra last week, so I can report what I saw for myself in and around the city. In the context of Basra and the southern part of Iraq, the security situation is probably better than it has been for some considerable time. Committee members will be very aware of the reasons for that. The security situation generally in the south of Iraq is significantly better. That has been brought about by a combination of reasons, and UK forces have played a sterling role in bringing about that transformed situation. Operation Charge of the Knights was a critical event, as were the Sons of Iraq, the Awakening movement and efforts at political reconciliation and broadening the depth and base of Iraqi civil society. There is no doubt in my mind that the situation in and around Basra has been completely transformed. I was able to spend an afternoon in Basra. I sat down and had tea, coffee and dates with local Basrans, while my security was provided entirely by Iraqi security forces. There are reasons for us to be optimistic and confident about the security situation in Iraq generally and particularly in the south. That is not to say that al-Qaeda and the other militias do not continue to pose a real and serious threat, because they do. We know, for example, that they are capable of launching spectacular untargeted attacks against civilian populations, but the general situation is better than it has been for several years. That gives us all grounds for optimism and confidence about the future direction of policy in Iraq.

  Q2  Chairman: Foreign Secretary, do you wish to add anything?

  David Miliband: No, I agree with that.

  Q3  Sir Menzies Campbell: For how long do you expect the present level of British troops to be maintained in Basra?

  John Hutton: For as long as is necessary on the basis of the advice that we receive from our military commanders on the ground. In his statement to the House in July, the Prime Minister made it clear what the two significant roles for British forces now are in Iraq. We must complete the training and mentoring of the Iraqi 14th Army Division. That work is progressing well. It is a capable unit that is taking on more and more front-line security responsibilities. I met the commanding officer, who is a very fine man with very capable commanders. Our military transition teams on the ground are doing a fantastic job of working with and helping the 14th Division to take on an increasing security responsibility. That work is going well and will be linked to the advice that we receive. The work will be largely completed by early next year. The other principal role and mission is to complete the handover of Basra International airport. I hope, touch wood, that that will be largely completed by the end of the year. Our security presence in the south of Iraq is conditional on the situation on the ground, but, as the Prime Minister said in July, we can look forward to a significant change of mission for UK forces in Iraq during the first half of next year. That remains on track.

  Q4 Sir Menzies Campbell: My difficulty with that answer is that the word "necessary" is capable of subjective meaning and interpretation. What is the Government's definition of what is necessary, if that is the target for the maintenance of the existing level of troops? What is necessary in that context?

  John Hutton: I do not think that it is entirely subjective. The two principal missions that we are there to fulfil—the completion of the training of Iraqi security forces in the south and the handover of Basra International airport—will be met by objective criteria. We will work closely with the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi security forces on both of those things. We have no intention of maintaining forces in Iraq other than those necessary for the completion of the mission that we have set out. Last week in Baghdad I spoke to the Iraqi Defence Minister Abd al-Qadir about what might be an ongoing role for UK forces as we move to a more normal, bilateral defence relationship with the sovereign state of Iraq. I assure hon Members and the public that our mission is clear. It will be completed, I hope, in the early part of next year. The only sensible caveat for me to put on the table is the obvious point about security conditions on the ground. If the security environment were to deteriorate, we would have to look seriously at all those issues. At the moment we are on track and we have two finite and clear missions that are progressing well. We hope that in the early part of next year, we can make significant decisions about UK force levels in Iraq.

  Q5 Sir Menzies Campbell: May I assume from that answer that if the next general election were held in 2010 on the last day possible, we could expect British forces to have been substantially withdrawn from Basra?

  John Hutton: Yes.

  Q6 Sir Menzies Campbell: Is it conceivable that the present Government would wish to fight that election without British forces having been withdrawn from Basra?

  John Hutton: Well, that question is probably above my pay grade in government.

  Sir Menzies Campbell: Do not sell yourself short, Secretary of State.

  David Miliband: It sounds like a bid to come on to our campaign committee. We will certainly consider all your suggestions for our campaign strategy. Surely the important point is that we move as a country from thinking about Iraq in terms of Basra's security and the role of our forces there, towards thinking about a security strategy and an economic and political strategy for the whole of Iraq—its diverse regions, north and south, as well as in the centre and Baghdad. That is the transition to a "normal" relationship that one would like to have with a range of friendly countries. It is a significant step and will mean that the debate on Iraq moves to a broader base.

  Q7 Mr Arbuthnot: Secretary of State, in view of what you have said about staying for as long as is necessary, how did you react to the Iraqi Prime Minister's comment, "I think that their stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control"?

  John Hutton: I had the chance to meet Prime Minister al-Maliki when I was in Baghdad last week and I raised the issue directly with him. He is obviously aware of the mission and the role that we have, together, set for UK forces in Iraq. Completing that mission is something that he wants us to do—training the 14th Division and the transfer of Basra International airport. So he is completely satisfied with role and the mission of UK forces. We are capable, given the force deployment that we have there, of supporting Iraqi security forces in hard operations, if that is necessary. But we are at one about the next few months on what the UK forces should be doing and on how we are working with our Iraqi partners in preparing the ground for this fundamental change of mission. I take from the conversation that I had with the Prime Minister nothing other than a union of minds and an agreed position about what UK forces are doing and how we can work together for the significant change of mission next year. There is nothing between the Prime Minister and Government in Iraq and the points that our Prime Minister made in the House in July.

  Q8 Mr Arbuthnot: Really?

  John Hutton: Yes.

  Q9 Mr Arbuthnot: It sounds a bit strange when you say that it is necessary to keep forces into the new year and he says it is not.

  John Hutton: The point that I am trying to make, James, is that, in order to complete the two missions that I have described, that is going to be necessary. So on that basis we have a union of minds between ourselves and the Iraqis on the current level of UK forces.

  Q10 Mr Arbuthnot: How did you react to his comment that the British troops stayed away from the confrontation, giving the gangs and militia the chance to control the city? Did you find that a bit strange, as we did?

  John Hutton: Yes. It is not true to say that UK forces did not help and support Charge of the Knights; we did. We provided substantial support for those operations, which the general might want to enumerate. Our withdrawal from Basra city was done in and with the full agreement of the Iraqi Government and our coalition partners. My view on all those matters remains as I said in my opening remarks. I think that UK forces have played a sterling role in making progress in dealing with the security problems in and around Basra. British forces need and deserve credit, not criticism, for that work.

  Q11 Mr Arbuthnot: I agree with that, but do you think that, in what he said, he was perhaps displaying over-confidence that might make a new status of forces agreement that much more difficult, both for the British to create with Iraq and for the United States to create with Iraq?

  John Hutton: I very much hope not, because we need such an agreement. Again, I raised that point specifically with the Prime Minister and his colleagues when I was in Baghdad last week. I can relay to Committee members the clear view of the Prime Minister of Iraq, which is that it will be necessary to reach an appropriate agreement before the end of the UN mandate at the end of the year. That was his clear view, expressed to me, and we obviously welcome that. There has to be a proper understanding about the legal framework within which UK and coalition forces operate in Iraq as we approach the end of the year. It would not be sensible for there to be any problem in reaching an agreement in the appropriate time scale. I did not detect—again, I have to tell the Committee how I saw it and how it appeared to me, on the ground—anything other than a willingness on the part of the Iraqi authorities to reach an agreement that is acceptable to both sides in an appropriate time frame.

  Q12 Mr Jenkin: Would not it be true to say that, however brilliant our armed forces have been in Basra, the limitation on the size of the deployment, and on some of the things that they were allowed to do for political reasons, has tested the patience of the Baghdad Government and of our American allies in Baghdad, which is why the conclusion now is that, sizeable as our footprint is there, it is really just too small to make a practical impact in terms that Baghdad feels and understands? That was particularly evident when, during Charge of the Knights, we did not feel we had the capacity to deploy on to the streets of Basra when the Americans did.

  John Hutton: No, I do not agree with that. I think that our forces and the size of our deployment in Iraq and around Basra now are appropriate for the mission that they are discharging. I also do not believe that it is true or a fair presentation to say that the UK made a minimal or ineffective contribution to Charge of the Knights or in any way contributed to the deterioration of security in and around Basra. I do not accept those criticisms at all. As far as our coalition partners are concerned, we act in close co-operation and agreement with them about tactics and deployments. We have done so throughout the period that you have described, Bernard, and we will continue to work closely with our allies on all those points to ensure that our mission is effective in Iraq. It has to succeed, it is succeeding and I believe that UK forces on the ground in Basra continue to discharge their role and function with extraordinary professionalism, which I am sure that everyone in this Committee and in the country will be proud of.

  Q13 Mr Jenkin: Nobody doubts the last point; that is not the point at issue. However, there is a sense that British armed forces in Basra have not been fully in the loop of decision making in Baghdad. For example, can you tell us the date on which British armed forces in Basra were informed about Charge of the Knights?

  John Hutton: That might be something that General Wall will address.

  Lieutenant General Wall: Operation Charge of the Knights is something that we could spend a lot of time on. We found out about the operation at approximately the same time that General Petraeus discovered it. It was a hastily put together operation, as we all know. Fortuitously, it turned out to be very successful. I think that, as it unfolded, we were probably apprehensive that it would not work as well as it has. In fact, it has changed the landscape in Basra very considerably, and you have seen that for yourselves. We could get into a lengthy discourse about what happened on the day; the extent to which British people were bypassed and then pulled into the conduct of the operation, and the extent to which American people, who were mentoring the Iraqi formations that were brought down to Basra to increase the size of Iraqi forces there to make the operation a success, were actually outpaced by the speed at which the Iraqis themselves moved and took a bit of time to catch up. We could go into all of that. The fact is that, as the Secretary of State has articulated, we now have an extremely vibrant relationship between our forces and the Iraqi 14th Division and a number of other Iraqi agencies around Basra. That relationship is bought into completely by General Austin, the corps commander, and General Odierno, the force commander who recently succeeded General Petraeus, who himself opined that the way that our forces had tailored themselves to the post-Operation Charge of the Knights situation in Basra was a model for the conduct of the mentoring of Iraqi forces around the rest of the country. So, I do not think that we have anything to be circumspect about in that respect. I think that the size of the force that we have is entirely appropriate for the task that we are seeking to complete. The assessment of the Iraqi 14th Division is very positive. Those who have been down there recently and had a chance to say, "Look at the situation three months ago and compare it with what's going on now", will have seen an exponential increase in the confidence and competence of the Iraqi 14th Division. Things are set fair for our aspirations, as articulated by the Prime Minister in July, to be delivered in the fairly near future.

  Q14 Robert Key: May I return briefly to the status of forces agreement? Are we negotiating that agreement unilaterally, or in parallel with the United States? Will we have to wait for the United States to conclude their agreement before we conclude ours? Please could you explain how the agreement is operating, because there are only eight weeks to go?

  John Hutton: We are discussing that agreement with the Iraqi Government, in parallel with the discussions that they are having with the Americans. We intend to use the basic text that is being settled between the Iraqis and the US forces as the basis upon which we ourselves would reach an agreement with the Iraqis.

  Q15 Robert Key: How will that affect the coalition navies—the Royal Navy, the US Navy and of course the Australian Navy—that are, of course, fulfilling a vital role at the moment in securing the waterways and also in training the Iraqi navy? Do you anticipate that our British naval forces will stay in those waters after the withdrawal of the British Army?

  John Hutton: The agreement would cover the Iraqi territorial waters, of course, and we will obviously have discussions with the Iraqis about the precise nature and mission in support of the Iraqi Navy. However, the status of forces agreement will have to be comprehensive and cover every territorial dimension.

  Q16 Mr Keetch: I want to ask a question about what we have heard from my colleagues about the sense that British forces were bypassed and that the Iraqi Prime Minister said that he wants them to leave the country. My constituents ask—I am sure that all constituents ask this—"What are we still doing there?" If our mission is only to train, which is important, and to do movement of the air base, would it not be better to take the troops and put them into Afghanistan, where they are needed all the time?

  John Hutton: I dare say that we shall talk about Afghanistan in more detail in a second, but the force levels in and around Basra are necessary for the completion of the mission in the context that I have described. Assuming that we are successful in the two outstanding missions and, as we begin to draw down our forces, which I hope that we shall be able to do early and into next year, what then happens to the forces is a decision that we shall have to make. As for deployments into Afghanistan, if that were an issue, we would turn to our military advisers for advice on whether additional forces were needed in Afghanistan and, if so, what additional forces. There is a strong case to be made for additional helicopter assets in Afghanistan, and obviously there is the opportunity to transfer the Merlin fleet from Iraq for those purposes. There is an obvious need for more helicopter assets in the theatre at Helmand and across Afghanistan as a whole, but we have not made decisions about future and further UK troop deployments into Afghanistan. As for Iraq, we are focused on completing the mission and getting the guys home as soon as that is possible.

  David Miliband: Chairman, I wonder whether there is not a missing element in some of our discussion on the three issues that have been raised so far, such as the decision in December in respect of provincial Iraqi control. The whole purpose of provincial Iraqi control was to set the stage for Iraqis to make decisions about their own force deployments and the promotion of security. I am sure on the Defence Select Committee—certainly on the foreign affairs side—there were extensive debates in the run-up to December about the basis on which the provincial Iraqi control decision would be taken. Was it one that included the Americans? Was it one that included the Iraqis? The answer is both cases was yes. Was it based on objective criteria? Yes. Of course, the most extensive discussion was whether it would work. When British forces vacated the Basra palace, would it be maintained by Iraqi security forces or would it be overrun by militia forces? That decision was taken very carefully and it was taken rightly, as has now been proved, because the training of the 10th Division of the Iraqi army and the partial training of the 14th Division had built up Iraqi capacity to such an extent that they were able to make key decisions and take control of their own affairs. That does not mean that the work is complete, because there remains the work with the Iraqi 14th Division and the airport work. It is important to say that, in respect of Operation Charge of the Knights and whatever the ins and outs of who knew what, and when, it is significant that, after 15 December, we wanted the Iraqis to take those sorts of decisions.

  Chairman: We will come to some of the political issues in a minute, but on this area I call Dai Havard.

  Q17 Mr Havard: Can I return to the status of forces agreement? If there is not one, the UN mandate expires and there is nothing. Is there a prospect of that being extended? In all the discussions, we have been running a detention facility, part of which has been an internment facility. In terms of the legality of the process of our people on the ground, how is that being catered for in the discussions, and should there not be a status of forces agreement, how will that be protected?

  John Hutton: There has to be an understanding between ourselves and Iraq about the status of our forces come the end of the year. That was the view of the Prime Minister of Iraq, and it is also our view. As I said in relation to Robert's question, we are proceeding with detailed negotiations that started after my visit to Baghdad last week to agree terms of reference points on the compass with the Iraqi Government about what a UK SOFA would cover. That work is under way and, as I said, we would use the Iraqi-US text as the benchmark for a UK-Iraq status of forces agreement. Obviously, if we get closer and closer to the end of the year and a status of forces agreement does not look like it is materialising, we will have to look at other options, including the prospect of the roll over of the UN mandate. Clearly, we should conduct the negotiations with the Iraqis in good faith. The Iraqis are very clear and were very clear to me and the Prime Minister that an agreement has to be reached before the end of the UN mandate. We are proceeding on that basis. In the situation you also referred to, Dai, in the context of detention, we have two detainees. Obviously the legality of that detention has to be properly secured. We would like to return those two to the appropriate jurisdiction of the Iraqi criminal courts. They are accused of murdering two British soldiers several years ago. Their families and all of us in this country want those people to stand trial for the murder of two British servicemen. As members of the Committee will be aware, there is legal action in the court to test the legality of the transfer of those two detainees into the Iraqi criminal courts. I hope that we can find a way of resolving that pretty quickly. The families need to see justice done. We have clear assurances from the Iraqis about how those two detainees will be treated. We have a clear understanding about the applicability of the death penalty, but I think very, very strongly—it is impossible to put this into words—it is time these two stood trial. That is what we must focus on. Assuming that we can get these issues resolved and the two transferred to Iraqi criminal jurisdiction, we will have no detainees in Iraq.

  Q18 Sir John Stanley: When the sum is finally made of the political benefits or otherwise of our entry into Iraq, it will rest for most people on what has happened to human rights. It is not difficult to think of some very big human rights pluses as a result of the removal of the nasty, semi-terrorist, one-party regime of Saddam Hussein, but equally some glaring minuses have occurred. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have lost their lives; millions have been turned into refugees; religious minorities, not least the Christians, who were tolerated under Saddam Hussein, are now persecuted and terrorised; women's rights have gone backwards; and large numbers of the population have been exposed to rampant criminality. What confidence do you have, Foreign Secretary, that when we leave we will, in human rights terms, be able to say that we have left Iraq better than we found it?

  David Miliband: It is important to try to disaggregate different aspects and to look at different parts of the community. If you go to Erbil and talk to the people there about the sense of security that the Kurds feel in the north of Iraq, you will get a very clear picture of the improvement in their human rights and their position. If you talk to people caught up in the sectarian feuding in Baghdad, you will obviously get a different impression. The commitment to an inclusive political system is very strong. The fact that Iraq is helped by the huge revenues that are coming from increasing oil production encourages the spirit of compromise. The legislative achievements over the past three or four months, notably in respect of provincial elections and other provincial powers, suggest that although you are right to say that the historical ledger will be balanced and there will be some very negative things on the ledger, equally there will be some significantly positive aspects on it, too. I have always said that, in the end, our job is not to review the rights and wrongs of the past five years; it is to make sure that the next five years take forward the positive trends and tackle the negative ones—we have to be open about the fact that there are negative trends as well as positive ones. Not only on the security side, but on the political and economic side there are positive trends on which to build and, gradually, they can surpass the negative ones.

  Q19 Sir John Stanley: Taking your invitation to look forward, what confidence do you have that the half of the population that is female will fare better under a Shi'a Government in Iraq than under the secular Government that preceded it?

  David Miliband: The greatest protection is the equal rights that they are afforded under the Iraqi constitution. It is vital that we ensure that that is followed through in all of our dealings with the Iraqi Government—and, it should be said, in our dealings with Iraq's neighbours, too. That is part of the geopolitics aspect, and it is relevant. The stability of Iraq depends in part on the way its neighbours engage, but the greatest protection for women or for minorities in Iraq—Kurds, Christians and others—comes from their constitutional status and the ability of the Iraqi state to enforce those rights.

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