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29 Apr 2009 : Column 869

Afghanistan and Pakistan

12.32 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): With permission, Mr. Speaker, following my visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier this week, I should like to make a statement on the Government’s strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

First, I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all those serving in our armed forces, and remember with gratitude those who have given their lives in the service of our country. As I saw again on Monday, our armed forces are facing enormous challenges with great skill, determination and courage. They are the best in the world, and we are immensely proud of them.

Our counter-terrorist strategy, published last month, set out how we are working to tackle terrorism around the globe, but one priority—indeed, the greatest international priority—is the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are the crucible for global terrorism, the breeding ground for international terrorists, and the source of a chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are of course different countries at different stages of development, but as the document we are publishing today emphasises, together they face this shared challenge of terrorism. In Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban are using mines and suicide bombs to carry out attacks on our troops and on innocent civilians. In Pakistan, the army and security services are now dealing with the wider territorial ambitions made clear by the Pakistan Taliban. Last year alone in Pakistan itself, 2,000 civilians and security personnel were killed in terrorist attacks. Suicide bombs in Pakistan, once relatively rare, were used 60 times last year and are at the same level this year—an almost tenfold rise in over two years.

We know that terrorist leaders are orchestrating attacks around the world from the border areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we know also of the stronger connections that now exist between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, and between them and al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. That requires us to take further, more determined and concerted action.

In our December 2007 strategy, we made the right long-term decisions for Afghanistan, decisions that were reinforced in the conclusions of the United States’ review last month. Now, following our own review to identify what is working and where we need to go further, I want to set out an updated strategy for our actions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how we will mobilise our resources to take those actions. In both countries we are working with the elected Governments, including through our commitments to support their economic development and through combined development and stabilisation expenditure of £255 million, £256 million and £339 million—a total of almost £1 billion over three years. In both countries our involvement is focused on the tasks that are necessary to enable them to counter the terrorist threat themselves.

For Afghanistan, our strategy is to ensure that the country is strong enough as a democracy to withstand and overcome the terrorist threat, and strengthening Afghan control and resilience will require us to intensify
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our work in the following key areas. First, we will build up the Afghan police and army and the rule of law, and we should now adopt the stated goal of enabling district by district, province by province handover to Afghan control. Secondly, we want to strengthen Afghan democracy at all levels, including by ensuring credible and inclusive elections and improving security through that period. Thirdly, we want to help strengthen local government in Afghanistan, not least the traditional Afghan structures such as the local shuras. Fourthly, we want to give people in Afghanistan a stake in their future, promoting economic development as the best way of helping the Afghan people to achieve not just stability but prosperity.

In Pakistan, our strategy to tackle the same underlying problem of terrorism results in different proposals. First, we want to work with the elected Government and the army, but while Afghanistan’s forces are at an early stage and so international forces have to play a front-line role, by contrast Pakistan has a large and well funded army, and we want to work with it to help it counter terrorism by taking more control of the border areas. Secondly, not least through support for education and development, we want to prevent young people from falling under the sway of violent and extremist ideologies.

Let me address the proposals in turn. As I said to the House in December 2007, success in strengthening Afghanistan to withstand terrorism will ultimately depend on building the Afghans’ capacity to take control of their own security, so we want to work to build up the Afghan army from its current strength of 80,000 to a total of 134,000 by late 2011. I believe that we will need even greater numbers than that for the future. Already 300 of our forces in Helmand are dedicated to training them. Nationally, we are leading the training of non-commissioned officers and have trained over 18,000, and together with France we have also trained over 1,000 army officers. As many Members know, Afghan army brigades have fought bravely alongside our troops, as we saw in a major operation to drive insurgents out of Nad Ali earlier this year, and 90 per cent. of the Afghan public see their army as an honest and fair institution.

However, the same is not yet true of the police, and that must be achieved if Afghans are to spread the rule of law throughout their country. We have 120 civilian and military advisers working with the police, and I can tell the House that, as resources are freed from the south as the US moves in, we will over time shift the balance of our operations away from front-line combat and towards an enhanced contribution to training both the army in Afghanistan and its police.

At its 60th anniversary summit last month, the NATO alliance unanimously agreed that supporting the Afghans to build a stronger democratic Afghanistan was its highest priority. Afghanistan is about to hold its second presidential election. A safe, credible and inclusive election is essential. We are providing £15 million for election support, and President Karzai has given me further personal assurances about his determination to ensure credible, inclusive elections. I also reiterated to him the concerns that we and the whole world have about the Shi’a family law, and I welcome his decision to review that draft Bill. I urged him to step up his Government’s efforts to tackle the corruption that has discouraged Afghans from backing democracy against the Taliban,
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and I made it clear that we will support the Afghan Government as they take forward the process of reconciliation.

Our aim is to divide, isolate and then remove the insurgents and offer those prepared to renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution the prospect of work and security. However, those who refuse must prepare for a long and difficult battle, in which there can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state.

Just as the Afghans need to take control of their own security, they also need to build legitimate governance. We will strengthen our efforts on localisation, civilianisation and the promotion of economic development so that Afghan people have a stake in their future. Our local joint civilian and military teams are supporting the Afghan social outreach programme in Helmand. In key districts, we are helping district governors reach out to the traditional tribal system through shuras, which, as I saw on Monday, are now empowering local solutions to local problems. To support that, we have doubled the number of deployed civilian experts. We are encouraging other countries to follow that example and urging the United Nations to play a greater role in co-ordinating the civilian effort. Last month, the Secretary of State for International Development announced an additional £50 million for development assistance. Today he is publishing his Afghanistan country plan.

Britain remains Afghanistan’s third biggest donor, with more than £500 million committed over the next four years. In Helmand, that allows us to support the building of a road to Lashkar Gah and the refurbishment of the hydropower dam, from which up to 200,000 people will benefit through irrigation. We are also investing £30 million over four years to work with the Government on a new programme of agricultural support, which includes the wheat-seed programme in Helmand as a viable alternative to poppy and, nationally, improved access to credit so that more Afghans can invest in farming.

Following my visit last December, the Defence Secretary and I approved a temporary increase—until August—in the number of British troops deployed to Afghanistan, from just over 8,000 to around 8,300. Now, to strengthen security throughout the election period, I have authorised a further increase to 9,000 until the autumn. To ensure that our forces are properly protected, especially from the growing threat of mines and roadside bombs, we will deploy permanent additional units for that purpose. Some are in the process of deploying now, with others joining them soon. After the election and through the autumn, we plan to return our troop numbers to 8,300. As always, we will keep the position under review, based on the situation on the ground.

I am determined that Britain will fulfil its international commitments. I believe that, with a deployment of more than 8,000 troops, concentrated in the Taliban heartland of the south, and with the additional costs of the reserve—which increased from £700 million in 2006 to £1.5 billion in 2007-08, then to £2.6 billion in 2008-09, with last week’s Budget estimating £3 billion for 2009-10—we are shouldering our share of the burden in Afghanistan. As more NATO troops deploy to the south, we will be able to share that burden more fairly.
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At the NATO summit this year, allies offered around 5,000 more troops in addition to the extra 21,000 combat and training troops that the United States plans to deploy, many of whom are destined for the south. I also welcome the additional Australian deployment announced this morning—an extra 450 personnel, bringing the total of Australian troops to around 1,550.

We will continue to place the highest priority on the safety of our forces, providing the necessary funding, with more than £1 billion in urgent operational requirements for vehicles in the past three years, including Mastiff patrol vehicles, which are among the best protected in the world. We have increased helicopter numbers and flying hours by 60 per cent. in the past two years.

It has become increasingly clear in the past year just how crucial Pakistan and its border areas with Afghanistan have become to stability in Afghanistan and to our national security at home. Those border areas are used by violent extremists as a base for launching attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan. As President Obama said, al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within. Although the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are different and require distinct approaches, we can no longer consider the terrorist threats arising in the two countries in isolation from each other.

While in Pakistan I met President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani and former Prime Minister Sharif and we discussed stronger action against terrorism and violent extremism. We are agreeing clear shared principles for our bilateral relationship: that terrorism and violent extremists present the most significant threat to both Britain and Pakistan; and that, throughout Pakistan and especially in the border areas, there must be long-term good governance and economic development to underpin progress on security.

To deliver on those principles we agreed an enhanced strategic dialogue to bring together our senior diplomatic, military and intelligence teams on a more regular basis. We will support that closer co-operation immediately, through a £10 million programme of counter-terrorism capacity-building, working with Pakistan’s police and security services. As Pakistan steps up the fight on terrorism, so we will focus greater attention on the basic human challenges that Pakistan still faces in education, health and respect for human rights, in each of which failure serves only to fuel radicalisation.

Britain’s development programme in Pakistan will become our second largest worldwide. We will provide £665 million in assistance over the next four years, but we will refocus much of our aid, including more than £125 million of education spending, on the border areas of Pakistan. We are working for the establishment of a World Bank trust fund for development in those border areas and we will press other countries to increase their contribution. With UK support, the recent Friends of Pakistan meeting and the donor conference in Tokyo have already delivered pledges of $5 billion over the next two years. Next month President Zardari will visit the UK. We will take forward our shared efforts to tackle terrorism. We will support economic development and harness the international community’s assistance for Pakistan, but we will also continue our discussions to agree a concordat to strengthen our practical co-operation to meet all the terrorist challenges.

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Forty countries and more have shown the international community’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan. In December 2007 we led the way with our proposals to complement the brave action of our troops by building up the Afghan army and police and local government to give Afghans more control over their own affairs. Tackling terrorism in and from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan drives forward our new set of proposals today. We will complement the necessary military action with economic, social and political progress aimed at building stronger and more effective democracies and strengthening the ability of the Afghan and Pakistan authorities to take greater responsibility for action against terrorism, building the strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan upon which their security and our security here in Britain ultimately depend. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for giving his statement today, although for a minute it was quite a close-run thing.

There are many things in the statement that we agree with. Above all, we can agree that the professionalism, dedication and courage of our armed forces personnel in Afghanistan are incredibly impressive. I have been three times in the past three years, and whether one is up the Helmand valley at Sangin, in Lashkar Gah or back at base in Camp Bastion, they are people of whom we can be incredibly proud. They have that can-do attitude, but we must always be careful as politicians not to take too much advantage of the fact that the Army and our armed services are always there and ready to serve.

I want to ask the Prime Minister about three areas: first, our overall strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; secondly, the situation in Afghanistan, particularly with respect to the elections; and finally, the deteriorating situation in Pakistan. Last month President Obama set out a new US strategy, which he summed up in a single sentence:

Is it not essential that our strategy is as tightly defined, as hard-headed and as realistic as that? We are not in the business of trying to create a new Switzerland in the Hindu Kush; we want to help provide security and deny al-Qaeda those training bases. President Obama also stressed that the Americans would not just press on blindly with their strategy, but would regularly assess whether they were making real progress against clear benchmarks and would hold themselves accountable. Given that we have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years now, what plans does the Prime Minister have to do the same here in Britain?

Next, on preparations for the August elections and the planned increase in troop numbers, we have said that we would be ready to support an increase for the elections, as long as it was clearly justified and backed up by extra equipment, such as helicopters and adequate force protection. In his statement, the Prime Minister gave some figures for the helicopter hours and capacity up to now; can he give us the future figures that will accompany the increase in troops for the election?

The Prime Minister talked about our NATO allies sharing a fairer burden in Afghanistan, as was announced at the recent NATO summit. Can he tell us when this
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commitment will be delivered, and how many of the extra troops will be based in southern Afghanistan? I believe that he said in his statement that many of them would be in south Afghanistan; can he tell us how many?

The US has announced a substantial troop reinforcement of 21,000 troops, including another 8,000 for Helmand province. Will the Prime Minister tell the House—in some detail, if possible—how the US forces will fit into the command chain in Helmand and Regional Command (South), and what implications their arrival will have for the combined British effort in Helmand?

No Afghan really likes the presence of foreign soldiers on Afghan soil, and the sooner we can safely reduce that number, the better. So it is right that we press ahead with the Afghanisation of the effort to bring security to that country. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that the Afghan national police have been seen as the weakest link in the security chain. Does he really believe that progress is now being made? The stories that we hear when we are there are pretty horrific. Progress is clearly much better in the army, but it is still reported that there is serious under-representation of Pashtuns in the army. Will the Prime Minister tell us what is being done about that?

It will clearly be difficult for the elections to be free and fair. Will the Prime Minister tell us what progress has been made on electoral registration and whether the Government expect that it will be possible for proper independent monitoring of the elections to take place?

Next, what happens in Pakistan is clearly as important for our security as what happens in Afghanistan, so for the purposes of our strategy we should treat them as one. The plotters of 9/11, the killers of Benazir Bhutto, the men who bombed London, and many others involved in many plots against our country either came from or were trained in western Pakistan, in the federally administered tribal areas extending all the way down to Baluchistan. That is where al-Qaeda remains active.

Pakistan, as we all know, has an enormous standing army, but it is configured for a conventional battle against a perceived external threat. It is not designed to deal with the sort of existential threat that Pakistan now faces from within. The Prime Minister talked about providing the assistance that Pakistan needs to train and equip its forces to deal with that threat. Did he meet the heads of the army on this visit? As things stand, what is his assessment of the Pakistan armed forces’ ability to come to grips with the Taliban’s continuing advance towards Islamabad? Are reports accurate that the Taliban are setting up militant training camps in the areas that they currently occupy, such as the Swat valley, and that many young people are joining those camps?

Will the Prime Minister also comment on what is being done to disrupt the activities of the Quetta shura, which, by all accounts, exerts a malign and controlling influence on both sides of the border? Can he comment on specific reports that the Quetta shura holds meetings around Pakistan, including a recent one in Karachi?

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