Iraq and Afghanistan - Defence Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 60-78)


28 OCTOBER 2008

  Q60 Mr Heathcoat-Amory: There has been mission creep since before you were Foreign Secretary, to be fair to you, but our aim has become the overcoming of an insurgency. If our aim throughout the world is to support democratic Governments against overthrow, truly our national mission is without end. I want to know what the definition of success is, and when we can come home. The best way of doing that is to link it much more precisely to our own security. Frankly, recent international terrorist threats, as far as we can assess them, have not been solely or even mainly derived from Afghanistan.

  David Miliband: That is because we are there.

  Q61  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: It is desirable to have a democratic, strong Government in Afghanistan, but that is too far removed from our own security to be a realistic or precise war aim that we can judge that we have met and so end the campaign.

  David Miliband: Obviously, that is a ridiculous argument. You are saying that there is no reason for us to be there. I am saying that we are there to prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the Government and thereby providing a home for al-Qaeda. You are saying that there is no evidence that al-Qaeda is a threat in Afghanistan. Precisely, but that is because we are there. There is a democratic Government in Afghanistan, and not a Taliban Government providing a home for al-Qaeda, because there are international forces there. There cannot be anyone in this room who believes that if there were no international coalition there, the Afghan Government and security forces alone would be able to prevent the overrun of the country. The Afghan National Army now has 60,000 people and it is on track to have 134,000 by 2012. That is a good proximate indicator of the development of the capacity of that Government to protect their territory. That is the mission as it was in 2001. The reason for being in Afghanistan in the numbers that we are is that a weak state such as Afghanistan—it is one of the weakest in the world—became the home for al-Qaeda. There are arguments and debates to be had about the right tactics in-country, but the mission is one that we should unite around and it is clear. It means that when Afghanistan is able to defend its country from overrun, it will not need us.

  Q62 Sir Menzies Campbell: I enjoyed those rather surreal exchanges. May I put two propositions to you: one military and one political? The military proposition is, "We're not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army. We may well leave with there still being a low but steady ebb of rural insurgency." The political proposition is, "If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this." I suspect that the language is familiar to you, because it is that of Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the former British commander. Does that language now reflect and represent the objectives of the British Government in Afghanistan?

  David Miliband: The objectives of the British Government in Afghanistan were set out by the Prime Minister in his statement to Parliament in December. The point that the brigadier makes seems to me to be wholly consistent with what I was trying to persuade David Heathcoat-Amory we were saying: we are there because there is a strategic threat that the Afghan Government will be overrun if we are not. When we are convinced that they can prevent themselves from being overrun, they will not need us. In respect of the politics, as I said earlier in answering Adam Holloway, those willing to play by the constitutional rules should be playing at politics. That means sitting across a table with them in a political debate, and some Taliban have moved over. I do not think that we should be in a position where anyone believes that anyone in the Government thinks that only a military strategy can win, and we should not be in a position where anyone in the Government is saying that if ex-Taliban are willing to play by the rules, they should not come in under the Afghan Government's programme. Of course they should.

  Q63 Sir Menzies Campbell: Let me see if I can encapsulate that in plain language. Can we stop using expressions such as "winning the war", and are we willing to talk to the Taliban?

  John Hutton: Ming, can I say one or two things about all this from my perspective? First of all, Mark Carleton-Smith is a very fine officer.

  Q64 Sir Menzies Campbell: Those who know him, either directly or by reputation, would not dispute that for an instant.

  John Hutton: I accept that. The point that I want to make is this. What Mark was saying probably reflects the right perspective to take in relation to all these matters. We have never said and never sought to argue that the sole focus of our campaign in Afghanistan must be perceived purely in a military context. Securing greater security is vital. But we have always made it clear, and the Foreign Secretary has made it abundantly clear today, that to succeed in the counter-insurgency operation—and we want to succeed—we must succeed and prevail in a number of areas. We must provide greater security—I will come back to that in a second—but we must see more political development and more governance. That relates largely to what Adam Holloway was saying a second ago. We must get tougher on narco-crime and deal with some of the manifestations of corruption. On the other half of the brigadier's comments on the level of insurgency, I think that we should be realistic about the opponents that we are facing. There will probably be a hard core of irreconcilable Taliban ideologues left on the ground. Mission success in that context therefore means, as the Foreign Secretary and others, including the Prime Minister, have made clear, giving Afghan security forces the capability to deal with and manage that type of situation. That is the reality that we confront. We must succeed in the counter-insurgency operation for all the reasons that the Foreign Secretary has made clear, to deny the country to the international terrorists who would export their terror to our doorsteps. I would confront people here and elsewhere who say, "Look, it's hopeless. We can't succeed; let's get out." We must always ask the question, "Are you comfortable with the Taliban and their supporters running Afghanistan and exporting international terror?" I do not believe for a second that anyone with any sane views on the matter would countenance that as an outcome that we should be prepared to tolerate. It will be a difficult campaign. We know that. All the troops who have served over there would tell you that if they were in this room. We are not delusional. We are hard-headed in our analysis of the threat that we face and the realities on the ground, but we must be all the way in to come out of this campaign in a sensible way. That means leaving behind a capable Afghan security force able to deal with the Taliban and their residual supporters. That is what I think Mark Carleton-Smith was trying to say, and in saying that, he has my complete support.

  Q65 Sir Menzies Campbell: Do I take it from that, then, that we will stay as long as necessary?

  John Hutton: Yes.

  Q66 Linda Gilroy: The debate that we have just been having illustrates, perhaps, how difficult it is to win the propaganda war. Secretary of State, you mentioned that in your opening remarks. Like many MPs, I have about 1,000 constituents deployed in Afghanistan, and I am as keen as anybody to see a realistic debate about the aims, goals and mission, not one that plays into the hands of the insurgents. Is enough attention being paid to winning the propaganda war?

  David Miliband: The Government should never come along and say, "Everything is going fine." You can always do better. I do not know about propaganda or communications, but there is the issue of what Afghans believe, and it is very important to have in mind that the big question for Afghans is, will we stick with them? They are, in my experience, very clear about what they want, and they do not want to go back and live under a Taliban regime—they just do not. They are like any of us in terms of the decent lives that they want to live. But what they need to know is whether we will stick with them, which is why the Taliban take propaganda very seriously and why we, or the Afghan Government, have to take it very seriously. John or the general can say a bit about the position here, but, secondly, the MOD facilitates a significant number of journalists going to Afghanistan and doing honest reporting about the situation there. Sky, the BBC, newspapers and journals have been there, and they report what they see, not what they are told. In my experience, that provides a platform for the sort of realistic discussion that is at hand. The—spectacular is perhaps the wrong word—high-profile attacks that the Taliban do, such as assassinations, are designed to kill and to send a message. Sometimes it is harder to have a realistic discussion there, but we should welcome the openness of this and other discussions that try to ensure that not just your constituents and their families, but the whole country understand the rationale, the mission, the allies and the course of the conflict.

  Chairman: Could I ask my colleagues to be brief in their questions now? I want to get on to a few areas, particularly counter-narcotics and the internal politics of Afghanistan. But while we are still on the British strategy, I call Robert Key.

  Q67 Robert Key: I agree with everything that both Secretaries of State have said about the British mission and its importance to the security of our own country, with one exception—the determination to establish a western liberal democracy throughout Afghanistan. I fear that western liberal democracy is so unlikely to grow in that culture that we might sacrifice the very stability that we seek by spending too much time talking about democracy, and not enough time talking about stability.

  David Miliband: I know what you are driving at, and in foreign policy, there is a profound debate about whether security comes before democracy or democracy comes before security, or whether they come together. If you accept that the consent of the Afghan people is absolutely central to the argument, and that they do not want the Taliban but the Taliban could overrun them, you quite quickly come to the conclusion that some features of a democratic nation, such as elections, are an important part of the Afghan situation. However, it is very important not to read off from a commitment to ensure that elections take place in as much of the country as possible, and registration is ongoing now, that somehow we are deluded into thinking—I wrote an article about this, actually—that we are building British suburbia in Lashkar Gah. Democratic and genteel suburbia is not being created in Lashkar Gah, and we are under absolutely no illusions about that. What I would seek to persuade you of is that western liberal democracy is founded, yes, on elections, but also on a whole penumbra of civil, social and democratic rights, such as a free press, the rule of law and an independent judiciary. It would be great to have that in Afghanistan, but anyone who has been there knows that we are a long way from achieving it. What I would try to persuade you of also is that we understand the absolute centrality of security to this. But, to then say, "Look, don't bother with all this business of having an elected Government in Afghanistan," would be a grave mistake, not for PR reasons, but for reasons of consent or progress. I plead with you not to believe that an election is not important. Yes, the Jirga process is very important in Afghanistan. The fact that one is happening today is very significant. It is important to persevere in trying to hold national elections. I am trying to persuade you that that is not because of any of us is naive about building suburbia—we are not—but it is an important part of consent.

  Q68 Mr Jenkin: Whichever candidate wins the presidency in America, he is committed to a surge in Afghanistan. No doubt we will be asked to play our part, so it is likely that the Government will come forward with proposals to send an extra brigade to Helmand, is it not?

  John Hutton: We welcome the commitment to deploy further US forces in Afghanistan. That will help, but we have not yet received any formal request.

  Mr Jenkin: Let us be realistic.

  John Hutton: Bernard, I have the greatest respect for you, but I am not going to sit here today and speculate about any such request. I would say two things. First, we are pulling our weight in Afghanistan. We have deployed more than 8,000 troops—ours is the second largest NATO contingent in Afghanistan. We have always said that there has to be the broadest possible burden-sharing across NATO in the context of Afghanistan. We welcome the additional US forces, which will be helpful, but it cannot be the role of the UK to fill every gap in the ISAF sweep.

  Q69 Mr Jenkin: No, I appreciate that, but the strategy that we will be asked to take part in is a surge strategy. I return to what the general said earlier. Of course it is not just about extra troops doing the same things. The surge is required, and I believe that we can convince the Taliban that they cannot win—indeed, we must do so—but to achieve that we will need to produce the comprehensive approach that we keep talking about but have not quite succeeded in delivering. If we are effectively to militarise the operation further, do we not have to give the military more of the means of delivering the comprehensive approach than they are allowed at the moment? Is not the correct lesson of Anbar that the American military were able to take handfuls of dollars into the villages in order to buy the support of the tribal war lords in Anbar province? Tying the British Army up with the puny little stabilisation fund, which has to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process that is controlled by the Department for International Development—a Department that answers to an altogether higher moral authority than the Army—is not the way to conduct a comprehensive approach.

  John Hutton: If I receive advice that we need to deploy further UK troops in Afghanistan, I shall take that advice very seriously. As all you guys know, I would obviously have to go through the appropriate procedures here in government—the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Cabinet. I have received no such request. I am not going to sit here today and speculate about force levels. However, as I said in answer to one of Paul's questions about redeployment from Iraq, there is common ground, in Committee and outside, that in some areas we need to improve our deployable capabilities. Helicopters are one obvious example. If it becomes possible, sooner rather than later, to use the Merlins that are currently flying in Iraq, they would be a very useful force addition for our guys in Helmand. I am not going to say that there are not areas of our deployment that we need to look at, to see whether we can enhance them, but I do not think it is sensible for me to sit here today and speculate about overall troop numbers and potential surges.

  David Miliband: May I come in on the surge question? It is very striking that anyone who talks to David Petraeus or Ryan Crocker about the experience in Iraq will find that they are the first to say we cannot kill our way out of the problem that we have in Iraq, and we cannot kill our way out of the problem that we have in Afghanistan. In other words, they stand up for the comprehensive approach with more drive and muscle and commitment than anyone from any other arm of Government. It is the military who are the first to say that you need the politics, the economics, and the social development. In that sense, we should be thinking about a political surge and not just a military one.

  Q70 Mr Jenkin: But the NGOs will not go there. The security is not good enough for the NGOs to provide the civil and political surge.

  David Miliband: The NGOs that have no choice are the Afghan NGOs. We must be careful about making sweeping statements in that respect. Security is important, but we always fall into the trap of thinking that the first recourse is outside forces or NGOs. The first recourse is Afghans, and then outsiders fill the gap, not vice versa.

  John Hutton: I met some of the guys working for Oxfam in Afghanistan in Kabul. Virtually all their staff are Afghan nationals. British NGOs are clearly active there, but they are working with locals to deliver a very good service.

  Q71 Richard Younger-Ross: To make it clear, most members of both Committees have been to Afghanistan, most of us understand why we are there and most of us understand that it may be a long time before we can come out. I think that what frightens us most is that we appear to be going backwards rather than forwards. Just talk to our NGOs: five years ago, they had free access across virtually all the south and the south-east, but in your conversations with Oxfam, you would have been told that that is no longer the case—they do not have free movement. What are we doing to ensure that the NGOs can work freely and drive around the south without fear of being blown up by the Taliban?

  John Hutton: That is a question about the level of security generally and how we interact with the Afghan security forces to help to facilitate that kind of mission. The governor in Helmand is committed to doing it, and we work closely with the Afghan police and national army to support that type of activity. Again, I take issue with your description of the situation in Afghanistan. With respect, it is a great disservice to present the situation in those terms. I do not believe that the situation is going backwards, as you described it. I accept that there are fundamental problems that still need to be addressed, but in Helmand one can see signs of progress, which I tried to describe earlier. One can see similar evidence of progress, both civil and economic, in other provinces in Afghanistan. I urge everyone to be careful about how they describe the situation in Afghanistan and not to fall into the trap of over-generalising.

  Q72 Richard Younger-Ross: We are having successes. We have had military battles and have managed to force the Taliban to change their tactics, but in that success, we appear to be creating other problems for ourselves. One of those is the security situation. Freedom of travel is far more restricted than it was. Politicians in Helmand cannot drive to Kabul; they must hitch lifts on military aircraft when they can, because it is not safe for them to travel otherwise. Also, terrorists have simply deployed to the other side of the border, into an area of Pakistan where the writ of even the Pakistan Government does not run. How are we going to deal with those two problems?

  David Miliband: Can I come in? The point that you are making about highways is very significant. It is important for trade, but it is also important for the other functions that you describe. In the end, it is partly an army matter, but it is also a police matter, which refers back to the discussion that we started to have about the difficulties in respect of the police. If you are asking whether sufficient priority is being given to the highways question and people's ability to get around, I would say yes. I was in Afghanistan in February with Condoleezza Rice, and it became clear then that the question of highway security needed to go up the agenda, and it has done so significantly. As for your other question, I am not sure which part of the 2,600 km border with Pakistan you were referring to, but the generic point is that we need pressure and a comprehensive approach on both sides of the border. To take one example, in the federally administered tribal areas, the female literacy rate is less than 3%. Political parties are not allowed in the FATA—they have not been allowed since 1947. They were not allowed under us, and the Pakistanis have continued that. It is not falling into the trap of being wide-eyed about liberal democracy to believe that those facts are a significant hindrance to decency and security on the Pakistani side of the border. The Pakistani Prime Minister was in China this week at the ASEAN summit, and he made the point that there are 120,000 Pakistani troops on the frontier. They are mainly from the frontier corps, interestingly enough, rather than the elite parts of the Pakistani army. The comprehensive approach that we are talking about on the Afghan side needs to be taken on the Pakistani side as well, but with one significant difference: the Pakistani army is the most effective part of the Pakistani state, and it needs to orient itself towards the threat that it faces from Afghanistan, not the threat that it used to claim Pakistan faced from India.

  Q73 Chairman: We have 10 minutes left, and I am conscious that you have both been generous with your time. I intend to finish in 10 minutes, but I will take the Pakistan question a little bit further, as well as a couple of other matters. There is a problem, is there not, in that the Afghan Government do not accept the Durand line as an international border? People can walk across an international border by walking from one side of a village to another, or by crossing a street. What can we do to get co-ordination between the Pakistani and Afghan Governments, so that there is real security on that border and all our other efforts are not undermined?

  David Miliband: Sir Mark Lyall Grant, rather than just Mark Lyall Grant, as he was introduced at the beginning, is not just the political director of the Foreign Office: he was our High Commissioner in Islamabad. You have heard enough from me, so why does not he chip in on this Pakistan point?

  Sir Mark Lyall Grant: The whole Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship is extremely difficult, but, as the Foreign Secretary said earlier, there is a strategic opportunity now, with the change of President in Pakistan. President Zardari made a very significant step by inviting President Karzai to come to his inauguration as soon as he was appointed, and they have met two or three times since then. It is necessary to use that political good will and underpin it so that there is more of a structured relationship between the two countries, which, beneath the presidential good will, allows the military relationship, the intelligence relationship and the trade relationship to flourish. Once you start doing that, you can deal with extremely difficult questions such as the Durand line, which, as you rightly say, the Afghans do not recognise and the Pakistanis do. That can be dealt with only if the overall bilateral relationship works. If that relationship works properly, you have the opportunity to conduct joint military operations, which is probably a lot more effective than unilateral action on either side. If we can get to a stage at which that top-down relationship can be filled out, cemented and concreted, with a network of relationships between the intelligence agencies, the armed forces and the national security advisers, you have a chance of building a joint strategy, rather than two separate strategies, which is what you see at the moment.

  Q74 Chairman: Given your knowledge and experience of Pakistan, how optimistic are you that the politics of Pakistan will allow that to develop?

  Sir Mark Lyall Grant: There is an opportunity. Pakistan faces some very severe challenges, the most serious of which in the short term is the economy. We have been working on providing international support for the economy in Pakistan, because if Pakistan defaults on all its international loans, political stability will be threatened and all our other objectives and the Pakistan Government's objectives will be undermined. The first task is to shore up the economy. Pakistan is currently discussing with the International Monetary Fund a possible package that would help to do that. If that works, I think that there is a chance. President Zardari was elected by a large majority, and he has a working majority in the Parliament. The Opposition are broadly supporting what he is trying to do on counter-radicalisation and counter-insurgency, so there is an opportunity. I would not like to say that it will definitely succeed—one can never say that about a place such as Pakistan, which has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years—but there is a strategic opportunity, and it is really important that the international community takes advantage of that to make a difference regarding the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship.

  Q75 Sir John Stanley: Foreign Secretary, just so that this question is not misunderstood, I want to make it quite clear that I absolutely believe that if we let Afghanistan fall back under Taliban control, it will be a serious risk to our national security and to a great many other countries, quite apart from being a human rights catastrophe for every woman and girl in that country. Having said that, would you accept that the writ of the Karzai Government, at the very best and most optimistic estimate, does not run beyond approximately one fifth of the area of that country? Would you accept that that is broadly correct?

  David Miliband: I would not accept that statistic, no. Equally, I have said that Afghanistan has never been run from Kabul like a traditional state. There remain parts of the country that do not answer to the writ of the Afghan Government, but I would not stick to the 20% figure; I do not see where you have pulled that from.

  Q76 Sir John Stanley: I think that you would accept that if Afghanistan is going to be a unified state, governmentally and politically, we clearly have a huge and long-term job to do to create real government the length and breadth of the country. We are in for the long haul. The Defence Secretary has said today that as far as the UK is concerned, we are there for as long as it takes. Many of us in this Room meet many other parliamentarians from different countries. We know that Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany and, indeed, many other countries that are committed in Afghanistan are just teetering now as to how much longer they will stay there. Apart from the Americans, ourselves and the Afghan Government, which other countries can you tell us are committed to being in Afghanistan for as long as it takes?

  David Miliband: Let me just give one example. I totally take the prefacing that you made for your remarks. I completely accept the good faith that you expressed on that and I totally accept your point that no one should create unrealistic expectations about how quickly the situation will change. In respect of your question, it is striking that for all the difficulties, with caveats and the rest of it, the German Government should just have agreed, within the last month, to increase their troop contribution as well as their aid contribution. I do not say that in a "gotcha" way or in an "I've played my joker and that answers the point" way, because you are raising a very serious point about how the burden is shared across the western world. I do not say it in order to say, "There, it's not a legitimate question you've asked, but we've answered it." However, for all the difficulties in Canada or Holland, it is worth reflecting on the fact that Germany, the country that has had probably the biggest debate about whether to send anyone to Afghanistan, should have increased its numbers. The Germans did not have to do that, but they have done it. Bernard Jenkin asked earlier how we would answer if a new US President picked up the phone to us. That will be a question for all the other NATO allies as well. It is right to say that it is tough and difficult, but it is not right to be of the view that we are the last people on the bridge. I do not think that is right.

  Q77 Sir John Stanley: I asked, Foreign Secretary, whether you could name any country apart from the Americans, ourselves and the Afghan Government that, as a matter of policy, will be there for as long as it takes.

  David Miliband: There are 41 countries there, and I do not have in my head whether all of them have been asked this question in the same sort of way, but I gave you the example of Germany. I can talk to you about the discussions I have with foreign ministerial colleagues. Some of them have, per head of population, taken a greater toll than we have, but I think that there is widespread recognition that this is a long haul. The truth is I have not been through the 41 nations and found out how many of the Foreign Ministers have been asked the question, but I do not think any Foreign Minister is under illusions that it is a quick fix. I believe all of them recognise the importance of this to their country and want to make a contribution towards it.

  John Hutton: It might be helpful, Chairman, if I sent a note to the Committee itemising those members of ISAF, our supporters in this campaign, that are talking to us and have made commitments to increase their dispositions and deployments in Afghanistan. I hope the Committee would find that quite reassuring.[2]

  Chairman: It would indeed. The final question will be asked by Ken Purchase.

  Q78 Mr Purchase: When the Foreign Affairs Committee was in Afghanistan, we heard repeated time and again this mantra: "Why are we in Afghanistan? Well, if we don't go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan will come to us." Those people were not talking just about the terrorist tactics of religious fanatics in Paris, Rome or London; they were talking about narcotics. We see Afghanistan on the streets of Birmingham, London, Manchester—in fact, every city in the UK. You have a huge job to do but, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary, should we not be putting a great deal of effort into stopping the trafficking routes that are well known in Afghanistan and thereby preventing the massive export to the west of Afghan narcotics? Would that not be a major contribution to producing stability in Afghanistan?

  John Hutton: Yes, we need to focus more effort on this. That is exactly what NATO Ministers resolved to do at our meeting in Budapest: not to target the small farmers, because that would be a mistake, but to target the narco-traffickers and those who run the laboratories. There will be more effort to tackle that problem. It is also worth reminding ourselves of one interesting statistic. The most recent UN survey of the situation in Afghanistan found that there had been a decrease in opium production and a significant decrease in opium cultivation. I am not for a second saying that the problem has been resolved—that would be stupid; quite manifestly it has not—but there is a recognition now, shared between ourselves and the Afghan police authorities, that we must get much more serious about tackling the problem if we are to have wider success in our efforts in Afghanistan. We are committed to doing that.

  Chairman: Secretary of State for Defence and Foreign Secretary, thank you for coming. Lieutenant General Wall and Sir Mark Lyall Grant, thank you. This has been a useful and valuable session, and we are grateful. Thank you very much.

2   See Ev 20 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 9 February 2009