Previous Section Index Home Page

We all welcome the increase in UK aid that the Prime Minister has announced. Will he tell us how that aid will be linked to Pakistan’s performance in fighting terrorism? In particular, what help will the Government offer Pakistan to deal with extremist propaganda?
29 Apr 2009 : Column 875
Ambassador Holbrooke, who was in Britain recently, has drawn attention to the scores of low-wattage radio stations operating in the Swat valley. Apparently, night after night, they broadcast lists of people who are going to be executed. What are we doing to help the Pakistanis to jam those radio stations?

Terrorism and extremism must be confronted, but we must do that by working with the Government of Pakistan, and by drawing on our long history and knowledge of that country to help them to deal with the mortal threat that they now face. Does that not require patient, steady work to build up relationships and close ties with Pakistan? Is that not the vital role for Britain, now and in the future?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for that level of agreement about what the strategy has to be, now and in the future, and I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the focus has to be greater than ever on the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, from where so much terrorist activity happens. We all have a shared interest: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Britain. Two thirds of the attacks or plots in Britain come from Pakistan, and 2,000 Pakistanis died last year and as many are dying this year as a result of terrorist plots. We know that the Taliban in Afghanistan have been active in killing not just British soldiers but civilians who refuse to abide by their wishes.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, yes, it is right to focus the Pakistan army and security services on the border areas. It is true that the federally administered tribal areas and the North West Frontier have never been fully brought under control by a democratic Government in Pakistan. It is also true, however, that there are 120,000 troops from Pakistan on the Afghan border, although of course the major effort has been reserved for protecting the border with India. We are working with the Pakistani army, so that it can be trained in counter-terrorism capability. Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, was with me in Pakistan and met General Kiani, the head of the Pakistani forces. There is ever closer co-operation between our two countries on these issues, and we have put £10 million immediately into counter-terrorism support in Pakistan. At the same time, we want to see regular conferences at diplomatic, military and political levels to look at the problems that we face.

It is true that there are well publicised incidents in Pakistan of the Pakistan Taliban gaining more control, but it is also true that there have been huge operations by the Pakistan army—two days ago, yesterday and, I believe, today—to take on the Taliban. The army has been very active in trying to deal with this issue. There was of course a motion passed in the Pakistan Assembly that allowed sharia law in a particular place, but I believe that the parliamentarians are now reconsidering that decision.

On Afghanistan, it is right to say that police training has been slow. It is therefore essential that we do more. There is a big NATO effort—the Germans were in the lead—and it is important, as we discuss these things with the Americans and our European partners, that the emphasis is on training the Afghan army and police. The Afghan army is to rise to 134,000. My own view,
29 Apr 2009 : Column 876
and that of the Defence Secretary, is that that will still be too small a number, given the terrain in Afghanistan, and that we will probably have to train far more Afghan soldiers. That is why a lot of our resources will be devoted to training.

We are reconfiguring our troops in Afghanistan for one very precise reason: the tactics of the Taliban have become those of guerrilla warfare. The use of roadside devices and improvised explosive devices has become common, and we have to prepare and arm our troops to deal with that problem and reconfigure our numbers in those areas where there has been significant trouble. When I was in Lashkar Gah, an operation was going on not so far away, and the bravery and dedication of our troops in clearing the areas so that they can sustain communities that are free from the Taliban was very impressive indeed.

The Leader of the Opposition raised the question of development expenditure. He is absolutely right to say that we are trying to combine the measures, militarily and politically, that will help to strengthen the Afghan state and Pakistani democracy, while, as they take on the terrorists, providing support for development so that people can see that they have a stake in the future. In the northern part of Pakistan, we are offering a very substantial redirection of aid, enabling 300,000 children—girls—to go to school, and the provision of books that will teach people the history of Pakistan and not the teaching of the madrassahs. That additional expenditure on education goes side by side with what we are trying to do to restore and gain democratic footholds in those areas.

In Afghanistan, the key areas are not just education and health. There are 6.5 million children at school, and we have been building health centres, but there is also new development on roads, the building of dams and irrigation in agriculture. The agricultural seed programme is very successful. I talked to Governor Mangal in Helmand, and he believes that all those things are moving forward. Our strategy is therefore exactly the same as the American strategy announced a month or two ago. In December 2007, we set down the idea of Afghanisation as the way forward, and our strategy now is to back up democratically elected Governments and to ensure that the elections are fair—£15 million has been put into election organisation. Incidentally, electoral registration has been going very well. There could be two rounds in the election and there must be proper monitors. We have to bring in people from outside to perform that role, but on this occasion there must be Afghan monitors as well.

Our strategy is to combine support for the developing institutions of Afghanistan and of Pakistan with development aid, so that people know that they have an economic and social stake in the future. I believe that that is the right strategy not just for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for Britain.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and very much welcome his decision to visit those two countries and increasingly to deal with them together—that has to be right—just as I warmly welcome the move from the Obama Administration in Washington to engage with neighbouring powers such as Iran, Russia and China on the region’s stability.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 877

I join the Prime Minister and others in commending the extraordinary work of our troops in Afghanistan. They really do an outstanding job in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but it is clear that public support here at home for the conflict is under strain. We support the decision to send more troops to Helmand to get the job done. Given the overstretch of our armed forces, I understand why we are sending only a small number, but does he agree that the worst of all worlds would be to send reinforcements without committing enough resources to do the job properly? Our brave servicemen and women need to be able to improve security—not just hold the line against the Taliban—if we are to be able to bring this deployment to an end.

When President Obama launched his new strategy on Afghanistan a few weeks ago, he talked about an “exit strategy”, though understandably for the moment with no timetable. Will the Prime Minister tell me about the preparations and criteria for the NATO and British exit strategy in his approach? Does he agree that long-term stability will be achieved in Afghanistan only if we can secure the country’s economic and social development, and deliver a major increase in the size and quality of the Afghan security forces, especially the police? He has spoken a great deal about that already.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that because, I imagine, no Afghan Government for the foreseeable future will be able to afford adequate security forces, the international community will have to commit to long-term funding support? If so, what will Britain’s long-term funding contribution be?

It is clear—it seems to me, at least—that the international community may find itself committed to Afghanistan for many years. So, to ensure that our forces have the right resources for that and other deployments in the future, will the Prime Minister agree to a full strategic defence review to ensure that we plan for the needs of peacekeeping and asymmetric warfare, not cold war era state-to-state conflict?

Moving on to Pakistan, there are serious concerns about that country’s stability, not least because it is a nuclear-armed state. Its future is obviously of immense concern to us all. Will the Prime Minister tell us what progress was made in ensuring that those weapons, whose very existence is a huge risk in this tinderbox region, are kept in safe hands?

Britain has a unique role to play, given our historical relationship with Pakistan and the large Pakistani community here in Britain, so does the Prime Minister accept that his rather clunking remarks at the height of a counter-terrorism operation that did not even lead to any charges being brought were the perfect example of how to raise anxieties both within Pakistan and in communities in Britain?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry to start on a discordant note, but the duty of the Government is to protect the citizens of our country, and we have to take what action we think is necessary—based on decisions made by the police and, in cases, the judiciary—to protect the security of the citizens of our country. That is exactly what we did and exactly what we will continue to do.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s points about Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are raising the number of troops during the election period to 9,000 to ensure that the
29 Apr 2009 : Column 878
elections can proceed without intimidation and without violence, following the registration of the voters. I am confident—because of that increased number and because 10 other countries have committed to provide additional troops during this period to the tune of 5,000, as well as the additional representation of American forces—that we will see an election that I hope will be free and fair. It will need Afghan monitors as well as outside monitors for the terrain to be fully covered, but I hope that we have taken the measures necessary for that.

On the longer-term strategy for Afghanistan, I repeat that our aim is that Afghan people themselves can take more control over their own affairs, so I see a process where, province by province, as has happened in Kabul, Afghan control can be established in the different areas of the country, obviously starting with the north. Parts of the Helmand area could, over time, be passed over to local control. For that, we need greater Afghan army numbers and greater professionalism on behalf of the Afghan police. We also need to support the local shuras and local government in the tasks that they carry out, and that is what we intend to do.

America is bringing troops into the south because that is the area of greatest difficulty. To answer a point that the Leader of the Opposition made that I did not answer earlier, everybody will be working under the ISAF arrangements, including the Americans in the south.

On Pakistan, I agree with the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) that there is a need to tackle terrorism at all levels. We will continue to do that.

Three years ago, we spent about £700 million on Afghanistan. That is rising to £3 billion next year. That enormous cost is being met by the British taxpayer to ensure security in Afghanistan, and of course in the border areas, to prevent terrorism in Britain and to strengthen the Afghan democracy. We want others to join us in sharing that burden in Afghanistan.

On defence strategy as a whole, I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree, looking at the documentation over these last 10 years and more, that we have been consistently reviewing our strategy since the end of the cold war. Nobody could have expected some of the events, particularly those after September 2001, that have affected our country and many others. We must have a defence strategy that is not only consistent but able to respond to whatever events happen round the world.

Des Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab): First, may I offer my personal condolences to the family, friends and comrades of the soldier in the 1st Battalion, the Welsh Guards, who gave his life this week in Afghanistan?

My admiration for our troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and for the civilians who support them, knows no bounds. Over the time in which I had the privilege of visiting them regularly, I became very concerned as to whether the vocabulary that I had at my disposal was adequate to express my admiration for them. We tend to repeat the same phrases all the time, but those are the only words we have. We have enormous admiration for our troops, and it grows every time we see them.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his statement and welcome the publication of a revised strategy. It shows confidence to revisit and revise the
29 Apr 2009 : Column 879
strategy, as that suggests that we are reflecting and are on the right lines. My experience in this area suggests to me that almost every other country in this alliance will probably do the same thing now that we have done it. In the past, we have tended to have given them permission to put such thoughts in writing and to develop a strategy because we have done so.

Over the coming weeks, a proliferation of tests will be applied to the strategy to see whether it is correct, but the only test that matters is whether it goes with the grain of the communities that we are trying to serve in Helmand province and beyond, in the Afghan-Pakistan area. That is why the fact that the Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Please have a seat. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not wish to be cruel, but he is now on the Back Benches and the difficulty is that there must be only one supplementary? This is not an opportunity for a speech. Out of respect, will he please finish? He will know next time.

Des Browne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I apologise.

At the shura that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attended, what did the tribal leaders tell him that the people they represent want? Did their requests fit with the grain of the strategy?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my friend, who served with great distinction at the Ministry of Defence. There is great respect for him right across the Chamber of the House.

I visited one of the shuras in Helmand, at Lashkar Gah, and the message I got was very simple: people want security, and they want it to be guaranteed by our presence, a stronger Afghan army and a stronger Afghan police force. They want that security to be the basis on which they can build prosperity for their families, making use of the agricultural land in that area while at the same time getting education and health care for their families.

It is very clear that we are responding to the wishes of the Afghan people. That is why it is so important that we unite in our strategy of dividing, defeating and, eventually, decommissioning the terrorist forces that operate there.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Bearing in mind that there are probably more potential international terrorists in Britain than in the Tora Bora mountains, may I nevertheless congratulate the Prime Minister, no doubt under the influence of the new American Administration, on at last moving away from the political and strategic follies of the last seven years, and on making a much more realistic assessment—that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by foreign military forces, that the existence of foreign forces in Afghanistan radicalises Pakistan, and that Pakistan is a far greater problem because it is a nuclear power and a vastly bigger country with a vastly bigger population? May I give my advice, which is that we should give every encouragement to the Pakistan army to resume political control of that almost ungovernable country before there is an international nuclear catastrophe?

29 Apr 2009 : Column 880

The Prime Minister: Pakistan has been under military rule for half its existence, and people, including the army, want to see a democratic Pakistan taking control of its own affairs and being able to deal with the terrorist problems in its midst. On reflection, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is the right course, not only now but for the future. Of course we must take action against the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that is exactly what we are doing. We are working closely with not only the American Government but 40 other partners in NATO to do so.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): In six months’ time, British troops will have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years. Now the numbers are going up to 9,000 and the conflict is spreading over into Pakistan. Is it not just a matter of time before the conflict spreads over for real into Pakistan, and British troops are also deployed there? Is it not time for a complete rethink of the whole strategy, which is beginning to look awfully like that which sucked the Americans deeper and deeper into Vietnam and ended up with a humiliating retreat 15 years later?

The Prime Minister: In the seven years that we have been in Afghanistan, a democracy has been established for the first time, the Taliban have been removed from power and 6 million children are going to school, a third of those children are girls who never got the chance of education before. We are building health care centres with the Afghan people, and we are now trying to build up an Afghan democracy, which has a strong army and police force to protect itself against terrorism. I agree with my hon. Friend that the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan are the source of many of the terrorist problems faced not only by that region but around the world. The way to deal with that is to work with the Afghan people and the Pakistan people to defeat that terrorist threat.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I welcome the decision that recognises the simple fact that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan effectively does not exist and is completely porous. But will the Prime Minister also acknowledge that additional aid to the two countries will first go towards poverty reduction, which will be its prime purpose, and that the rights of women and human rights will be respected by the Governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan? Given President Karzai’s statement that the last leader who stood up for the rights of women was the king in 1929, who was assassinated, and that he did not want to follow his example, that is not leadership that we should respect. We should require him to understand what that international support is for.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been involved in international development for many years, for sharing his knowledge with the House. The Shi’a family law is completely unacceptable and we have made it clear to President Karzai that in our view it is a breach of the Afghan constitution, which respects human rights. Yesterday, at the press conference we held, he said that he accepted that anything that breached the constitution and undermined the fundamental rights of people in his country could not be an acceptable law for the future. We will continue to press him on that issue.

Next Section Index Home Page