Iraq and Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 40-59)


28 OCTOBER 2008

  Q40 Richard Younger-Ross: In terms of Kurdish politics, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Kurds would fight each other, let alone fight Saddam's forces. Are all the Kurdish parties united in the view that they will work for a mixed Kirkuk?

  David Miliband: That would be a large claim. In my two visits to Erbil, and in meetings here with Prime Minister Barzani, I have emphasised that there is a huge amount to be gained from opting in to Baghdad politics and by trying to strike bargains on Kirkuk and elsewhere. I would not want to say that all aspects are therefore committed to unity, but the Kurdistan Regional Government has given a strong message about its commitments, which now need to be seen through.

  Q41 Mr Havard: There is a report from the International Crisis Group today that suggests a deal called "Oil for Soil". It suggests a trade-off of resources. That report has come out this afternoon and I received it before I came to the sitting—I am not trying to trap you. The idea is that the Kurds would become, if you like, an argument deferred. I spent a week in Baghdad last November arguing about the provincial elections process. Is the elections process not the thing that will help to reconcile the different groups?

  David Miliband: As we discussed earlier, the provincial elections and the political positioning that is going on are healthy signs and a good thing. There remain issues within Iraq about Kirkuk and, if you are talking about the Kurds, with the PKK and terrorism in Turkey and the Turkish Government's military response. That is why it is important to be pretty sober about working against the violence in Iraq and about all factions and communities opting in to the political system. Yes, the elections are a vital way in which to divide the spoils.

  Q42 Chairman: We will move on to Afghanistan in one minute, but I have a final question on Iraq. You saw the Syrian Foreign Minister yesterday. One of the problems that Syria and Jordan raise is the very large number of refugees—a total of more than 2 million. Is there any possibility that the Government will assist either Jordan or Syria to cope with the huge burden that they are dealing with at the moment?

  David Miliband: I had a very useful three hours of talks with the Syrian Foreign Minister yesterday and you will have seen from the joint statement that we put out a specific reference to the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. He did not raise with me the question of British assistance for the return of those people; it is a bilateral matter for Iraq and Syria. Obviously, I emphasised the importance of Syria continuing to crack down on the flow of fighters and arms into Iraq, which is a significant part of developing Iraq's security.

  Q43 Chairman: What about Jordan? Is there any possibility that we will help Jordan, which is not a particularly wealthy country, and is a close ally and friend of ours?

  David Miliband: That is not something that the Jordanians have raised with us on the shopping list of bilateral issues. Obviously, there are several hundred thousand Iraqi refugees in Jordan, but the matter has not been at the heart of our relationship.

  Chairman: Fair enough. Let us move on to Afghanistan.

  Q44 Mr Arbuthnot: Afghanistan, as you said earlier, presents a much more challenging environment than Iraq. How would you assess the security situation? Is it more or less stable than a year ago?

  David Miliband: Do you want me to answer that?

  Mr Arbuthnot: Actually, an answer from both of you would be helpful.

  David Miliband: John should say something on that, because he has just come back from Afghanistan. The truthful answer is that the situation is different in different parts of the country, and it is important to separate reality from perception. To that extent, there is a propaganda war as well as a real war. As an overview, one can say that in conventional fighting, the coalition forces, including ours, more than hold their own. The Taliban and its various groups were decisively repulsed on a number of occasions. That explains the turn of the Taliban to traditional insurgency tactics and why many people now describe the operation as a more conventional counter-insurgency operation than as a traditional military operation. It is also important to recognise that there is a particular set of dynamics in Kabul, where there have been high-profile attacks on aid workers, not on the military. That is the overview, and we can now get into the different situation in different parts of the country. The truth is that the situation in the east has significantly improved, including in the last few months. We were looking at figures on that this morning, so we can talk about the east, about terrorist attacks on individuals in Kabul and we can talk in detail about the situation in Helmand, but the important point today is that in the conventional theatre, the conventional confrontation, coalition forces win decisively. There is no evidence of the Taliban rolling back gains that have been made by coalition forces. Equally, it is important to say that the new asymmetric tactics being used by the insurgency are difficult to fight against and pose a different kind of challenge. They challenge the minds of the Afghan people, as well as challenging them physically. That is why the Afghans want to hear a clear message that we recognise that this is a long-term mission, and that it is an economic, social and political mission as well as a military one. Also, as I keep saying, our forces and those of other countries are making an enormous difference, because if they were not there, it is clear that there would be a decisive victory for the other side, notwithstanding the gains—which I hope we will talk about—in building up the Afghan national army. From most of the reports that I have read, from the different Committees and the statements that people have made, most of the people in this room recognise that the Afghan national army, which is 60,000 or so-strong at the moment, is one of the vital signs of hope in Afghanistan.

  John Hutton: There is not much I would add to that, other than that it is obviously the case in the south, where Task Force Helmand is based, that there has been an increase in violence aimed at us and our Afghan security partners. As David said, I was there last week, and I know that many of you guys have been there yourselves and seen it on the ground. Despite the increase in violence, however, there are reasons to be clear that we are continuing to make progress. Although it sounds paradoxical—an increased level of violence, but signs of progress elsewhere—that is often the hallmark of some insurgency campaigns. In addition to the work of our forces, which deserves the highest praise, the progress that struck me most when I was in Helmand is the growing capability of the Afghan national army, which is visible in Helmand. It took the lead recently, as you will know, in operations around Lashkar Gah, when the Taliban attempted to raid the city. It proved itself to be a highly effective and capable force of men, so we are seeing an increased capability on the Afghan side. Governor Mangal continues to do an exceptionally good job in leading the civilian reconstruction work, and some of the political processes that are essential adjuncts to the security operations that we have mounted. In Kabul itself, my understanding is that there has been a reduction in the number of violent incidents. I know that there are problems in some of the surrounding districts. David is quite right, it is a huge mistake to over-generalise. There is evidence of progress, but there is also evidence of how tough this campaign is going to be on the security side; the Taliban are well resourced and they are fighting us hard.

  Q45 Mr Arbuthnot: May I ask if you will accept that it is your job to set out a narrative of what we are doing there, in such a way as to convince the British public first, that we have right on our side, and secondly, that we have a strategy that is likely to succeed? So far, that seems to be a bit of an uphill struggle. What do you think needs to be done to put that right?

  David Miliband: The way I would put it is, first, the British people want to know that we have a clear rationale for being there. I think the rationale is provided by the fact that in the '90s, Afghanistan became the home for al-Qaeda. That is the founding rationale for our mission in Afghanistan. Secondly, what is that mission? It is to make sure that the Afghan Government are able to provide their own security, so that they are not overrun by the Taliban and its allies, which would create a safe space for al-Qaeda, so there is a clear mission there. Thirdly, a rationale and a mission need a strategy, which must be a comprehensive strategy, not simply a military one. It is important to draw attention to the Prime Minister's statement last December, which set out in some detail a comprehensive approach. That approach covers the economic, the political, the social, but also the military. Those four factors need to work together, with a different balance in different parts of the country. What has become more evident over the past 10 months since the Prime Minister's statement is the interdependence of the situation in Afghanistan with that in Pakistan. If we had been having this meeting last year, we would have talked about Pakistan, but probably not with the importance that it has today. I guess that it is common ground between us that stability and security in Afghanistan will not be achieved without stability and security in Pakistan and vice versa. Therefore, the comprehensive strategy needs to be applied on both sides of the border. After apologising for the length of my answer, I turn to the final question of the capacity of the international forces and the home forces—Afghan and Pakistani—to implement the strategy. It is right to say that over the past three or four months the international community has had a responsibility to raise its game. The appointment of Kai Eide as the UN representative filled a void that existed for too long. Moreover, there was the unification of command under General McKiernan of the ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom functions. There is also a need for the Afghan and Pakistani Governments to up their game. John met Afghanistan's new Interior Minister who has the vital job of improving Afghanistan's governing capacity. We have also had contacts with President Zardari in the months since he took office. His Government need to have governing capacity as well. In the end, the two Governments need to work together. One thing that was not happening this time last year, but is happening now, is that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments are working together. Under the previous regime in Pakistan, there was mutual suspicion, not to say hatred. The fact that President Zardari and President Karzai are now seeking to work together and that today is the day of the mini Jirga, which brings together the two countries, is something that needs to be built on.

  Q46 Mr Keetch: Following that point, Foreign Secretary, we have asked you in the past about raising the game of some of our colleagues out there. The reality is that no one around this table doubts the commitment of the British forces. We welcome the improvement of the Afghan forces, but are we really seeing greater involvement of other NATO countries on the ground? Until those countries start to play their role, we will not see a real transformation. Group after group have said the same. The New York Times said in October that there was a downward spiral. General Riley told the Defence Committee in July that no one could say that we were winning. Our own Foreign Affairs Committee heard very concerning reports at the UN just a couple of weeks ago. Unless and until we see our NATO allies playing their full role, we will not see a real turnaround in the situation.

  David Miliband: It is important that we do not just see this as a binary divide by which either you are doing your job or you are not. There is a range of ways in which we want more countries to do more. However, there have been significant developments since I last appeared before the FAC, including the decision of the French Government to increase their capacity, and the incorporation of the French into the heart of NATO command structures, which should happen at the 60th anniversary of NATO meetings next April. We want all countries to play their maximum role. Some of the smaller European countries have high numbers per head of the population—Croatia is in my mind. I know that it is not yet an EU country, but it has aspirations to be a member of the European Union—and they are there without caveats. I am thinking also of Estonia. It is also important to say that it is not just a military mission. The economic, political, social and development roles are important as well. You veered into the question that James Arbuthnot started with, which is the question whether we are winning or losing. John says that there is progress, but there is real struggle in different parts of the country and we need to disaggregate that to see that this is a fight to test the strength of both the Afghan Government and the coalition forces in different ways.

  Q47 Mr Moss: On the occasion of the Foreign Affairs Committee visit to the United Nations, to which Paul Keetch just alluded, we heard rather disquieting evidence from a senior Afghan diplomat about the security situation in Helmand province deteriorating literally by the week. In fact, he told us that, at the time he was speaking, there was only one district in the whole of the province under Government control. Is that still the case?

  John Hutton: It does not correspond to my understanding of the situation. I would be grateful to receive more information from you about that. We have a security presence in eight of the 13 districts in Helmand province and, as I said in my answer to the original question from James, in addition to the work of the ISAF forces, which are doing some fantastic work with the Estonians, the Danes, ourselves and the Canadians in Regional Command South, we are seeing a growing capability on the part of the Afghan National Army itself. First and foremost, that has to be one of our critically important objectives. It is not my view of the situation that, in the way you have put it, there is only one district under effective Afghan-governed control in Helmand, no.

  Q48 Mr Moss: If the situation was better than we were told, why is it reported that the commander of Task Force Helmand asked for an additional 4,000 men to help in the province?

  Lieutenant General Wall: He was reported on Sky News as having opined that if he had more forces, he could make use of them in terms of increasing the proportion of Helmand both geographically and by the percentage of the population that can be secured over time and enjoy Afghan governance. However, we need to be absolutely clear about the case for increased force levels in a general sense in Afghanistan. The case can be made, but it needs to be linked to progress in a number of other areas, particularly in relation to the business of governance. There is no point in making the investment of securing more space and effectively increasing the perimeter you are defending against random Taliban incursions—let us be clear that that is all it can manage to do at the moment and that the Taliban cannot win this campaign militarily, no way—unless you are in a position to move in the governance reconstruction and stabilisation effects. These have to be inspired by the Afghans themselves. We have learned that quickly this year in particular. If we do it for them and they stand by and watch, it just does not count; it is just another bit of concrete. However, if it is something that is used as a vehicle for engendering Afghan governance at a tribal and district level, it has a significant resonance. At the moment, the area that we are holding as part of this clear, hold and build strategy is just about consistent with the Afghan Government and Governor Mangal's ability to deliver some form of governance within that area. As we have always said, this is going to be sequential, incremental and gradual and will take quite a bit of time. That is how it will be done. The notion that you make progress by flooding in more forces in the short term without all those other factors being able to be brought to bear is, we believe, misleading.

  Q49 Chairman: A number of my colleagues want to come in on that point. I will try to get everybody in, but can I just clarify something, Lieutenant General? You said "the area we are holding." Could you give us some indication of how big that area is?

  Lieutenant General Wall: It is the main swath of the Helmand valley. It is five key districts—from Garmsir in the south up through Lashkar Gah up to Gerishk, Sangin and Musa Qala. Unfortunately, it encompasses a large proportion of the agricultural land available for agricultural purposes and more than 60% of the population of Helmand, which by the way, is the biggest province in Afghanistan and is more than half the size of the whole of regional command east. This is not a trivial undertaking or achievement.

  Q50 Chairman: Is it true, however, that the five districts to which you refer have come under attack to the extent that provincial buildings and Government facilities have been destroyed? Would it be correct to say that from day to day, or week to week, those areas vary, depending on what the situation is?

  Lieutenant General Wall: No, that would be misleading. The one thing that is significant about the effort is that it has been incrementally moving in only one direction, with the exception of Musa Qala, which, as we know, has changed hands and is now, yet again, in Government hands, fortuitously. The Secretary of State was there the other day and can vouch for that. That was the fourth district that we had secured. I do not see any prospect of those reverting to strong Taliban influence. The fifth one, Garmsir, has been brought about this year by the work of the American marines, who came to Helmand and did some excellent work, and we now have that perimeter secured as well. That is in the southern part of the tract that I have described.

  Q51 Mr Illsley: On that point, you said that the ISAF forces control five of the 13 Helmand provinces. I do not want to keep coming back to this, but we were told on 7 October, quite clearly, by the Afghan UN ambassador that we controlled only one province in Helmand out of the 13: we had controlled four in the previous weeks but they had fallen and we only controlled one. So the impression that we got from that meeting in New York was that we had little control over Helmand, which tends to contradict what you are saying to us now.

  Lieutenant General Wall: I think that is fair.

  Q52 Mr Illsley: Foreign Secretary, on Pakistan and Afghanistan, and our forces and the Taliban, when the Foreign Affairs Committee was in Afghanistan three or four years ago, we were told that some of the former warlords still held their own private standing armies. For example, in the north of Afghanistan, one former warlord had a standing private army of 8,000 men, which is a substantial number given the number of NATO forces in Afghanistan at any time. Given their control of narcotics, borders, customs duties and so on, some warlords had incomes in the order of £250 million per annum, which funded the private armies. Is that still an issue in Afghanistan? Are those people part of an equation? Is the tribal nature of the country such that, at any time, those people could go offside again and become part of the insurgency? What are we doing to try to keep them onside?

  David Miliband: That is a very good point. The short answer is yes, but be careful with a short answer with such a complex situation. First, I try not to refer to "the Taliban", because it is a complex beast and it is important to be clear about that from the outset. So when the Afghan Government talk about reconciliation and those affiliated with the Taliban who are willing to engage and play by the constitutional rules, they are making sense, because some are criminal associates of the Taliban, some are ideologically committed and some have personal links. It is important to recognise that it is a complicated picture. Secondly, the insurgency to which you referred in Afghanistan involves a wide range of groups. It involves some al-Qaeda and a range of Taliban groups and includes a set of criminal elements. I would not describe the warlords, in your phrase, as part of the insurgency, but they are certainly beyond the control of the state. It is also true that the tribal nature of Afghanistan's society is, in some ways, its defining feature and it would be wrong to pretend that that has disappeared or been eradicated. Afghanistan has never had a central Government in Kabul whose writ has run right across the country. Until we went to Helmand there was no Government presence there. That brings home the scale of what is being done. That is even before you get into the business of the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban, and the differences between them, which one can do. The short answer is yes, a significant number of arms remains; yes, there remains a significant tribal nature to the society; yes, although one has to be careful when using the word "armies", there are a significant number of armed people under control; and, yes, in some parts the narcotics industry funds that. The fact that 18 provinces are now poppy-free is obviously significant and good, but there are significant links. That is why it is right, in some ways, to talk about narco-terrorism.

  John Hutton: It is also important to note that the NATO Ministers in Budapest had a lengthy discussion about the impact of narco-terrorism on the campaign in Afghanistan. We made decisions there about refocusing effort and support for the Afghan police authorities in tackling this issue. We provide significant support to boost Afghan capabilities in tackling narco-crime. Is there more that we need to do? I am sure that there is, and we need to find the right way forward on that. There is an indissoluble link between narco-crime and the insurgency, and if we are serious about making progress there, we have to be serious in this area too. I can report to the Committee that it is the very clear view of the new Interior Minister that this is one of his priorities for action. We all have to focus on this issue, and we all have to see some progress on it. We are determined to work with the Afghans to do exactly that.

  Q53 Mr Holloway: Is not all this a little delusional? How on earth are we to make this work if we continue to support a deeply corrupt and inept Government? One person not unknown to Her Majesty's payroll said the other day that we started off with a strategic insurgency out of Quetta, and what we have got now in Helmand is a peasants' revolt. How are we to solve this problem if we continue to have the kind of Government that there is in Kabul at the moment?

  John Hutton: No, I do not think that our strategy in Afghanistan can be described in the way that you have described it. I think that it is pretty hard-headed and that we know the areas where we need to see improvements. We do not kid ourselves about that.

  Q54 Mr Holloway: What about the Kabul Government and corruption?

  David Miliband: Corruption in and around the Government, or corruption that is associated with the Government, is raised in every single meeting that any member of the British Government has with the Kabul or other authorities.

  Q55 Mr Jenkin: So what?

  David Miliband: So what? The first suggestion was that we do not recognise corruption as a big issue, but we do. It is important, indeed central, not just to our confidence but to the confidence of the Afghan people in their Government. Secondly, the long-awaited move of Mr Atmar into the Interior Ministry has been central to the argument about the need for the Afghan Government to crack down on corruption. Thirdly, this has to take place locally as well as nationally, so, yes, there are responsibilities on Kabul, but there are also responsibilities down the line, hence the importance of the gubernatorial structure—the governors of each province. Frankly, if you have clean governance at a provincial level, that makes a huge difference, and anyone you talk to in Helmand will tell you that the presence of Governor Mangal in Helmand is a significant change.

  Q56 Mr Holloway: Precisely, so how can we have any chance of winning when we have a President whose only telephone number in Helmand province is that of Sher Mohammed? How are we going to win with a Government in support of such a Government?

  David Miliband: It is important to put on record that President Karzai is the elected leader of the Afghan people, and that that is why we deal with him.

  Q57 Mr Holloway: Yes, but do we want to win?

  David Miliband: Secondly, the idea that he has only one contact in Helmand would be a surprise to anyone who has spent any time in his company.

  Q58 Mr Holloway: I think you know what I am saying.

  David Miliband: Is it right that we are absolutely robust about the responsibilities from top to bottom of Afghan government and Afghan society to recognise the cancer of corruption and what needs to be done about it? Yes, we are, and we are at one with you in trying to make sure that not only our views, but the views of the international community, and, critically, of the Afghan people, are also put clearly.

  Q59 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: All successful wars need precise war aims, which, when achieved, terminate the campaign. I understood that British intervention in Afghanistan is tied to our own security and to denying international terrorism a platform, but that seems to have become, by process of expansion, an aim of pacifying an enormous country and of propping up a weak Government when the country has seldom in its entire history been properly unified. We have seen a process of mission creep. Is there not a case for redefining our aims much more precisely, and linking them to our own security?

  David Miliband: David, I have had this pleasure before when I have come to a meeting of the Committee and said something at the beginning to define our position, but half an hour later you have accused me of saying something that pretends that you were not in the room when I said it. I used the phrase, "What is our rationale in Afghanistan?" in answer to James Arbuthnot 28 minutes ago, at the start of the Afghan part of the session. I said that our rationale was completely linked to the fact that if Afghanistan became a home for al-Qaeda to launch attacks on the west, that would be a threat to our national interest. That is point one. Secondly, I said that our mission is to ensure that the Afghan Government are able to protect their own people from the Taliban and their allies undermining and overthrowing Afghanistan's Government, and that as soon as that was done our military mission would be completed. The fact that it is the 174th poorest country in the world means that we may have a development mission there beyond that, but the reason for our military presence is absolutely clearly linked to the need to ensure that Afghan forces can prevent the overthrow of the democratically elected Government. There was no mission creep in what I said, so I do not understand how you can assert that.

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