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When I met my ministerial colleagues in Krakow earlier this year, I therefore suggested that NATO needed a rapidly deployable force that could signal our commitment to the defence of alliance territory—we called it the alliance solidarity force—because no potential aggressor must ever be allowed to think that he has a window of opportunity before NATO can effectively respond. I am
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glad to say that that has stimulated thinking in NATO, and I look forward to receiving a report back at our ministerial meeting in Brussels next week.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Secretary of State is moving on from the issue of resources, but I should like briefly to bring him back to it. He has talked about the need to train local military forces to enable NGOs to operate in a much more benign environment when stabilising countries. However, does he think that the application of British resources between the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and his Department is correctly structured to enable us to achieve the overall outcome that we want across the whole of Government? With so many resources now in DFID and with the problems that it has in applying them to military training, my observation would be that there is now an issue that we need to address. Does the Secretary of State share that conclusion?

Mr. Hutton: I share some thinking in common with the hon. Gentleman. The conflict prevention pool is a useful innovation, and it is proving to be a useful source of resources, helping us to do some of the work in Afghanistan, for example. Have we got every nook and cranny of the policy right? Probably not. There is also the question of how much we are prepared to invest in such initiatives, which is a wider matter on which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor expresses his views from time to time. However, I think that we have the beginnings of a much better approach. It needs to develop and—let us be honest—it could probably do with more resources as well. However, there will be an opportunity to look at such issues in future spending rounds, and I very much hope that it is taken. By the way, I should also inform the hon. Gentleman that I have not finished talking about resources—I am coming back to that subject.

We will always, rightly, look to NATO for collective defence, but I believe strongly that the European Union can play its part too, using armed forces alongside its civilian capabilities. That is not about duplicating what NATO can do. Indeed, the real problem is that European countries have too few defence capabilities, not too many. I want to see Europeans developing more capability that they can put at the service of NATO or the European Union. I want to see Europeans taking more responsibility for solving the world’s problems, whether through NATO or the European Union. I also want the European Union to show what it can do when it focuses on outcomes rather than institutions, as it has done in countering piracy in the gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, for example.

In sum, we need organisations that can respond, recognise the nature of a risk when it appears, think rapidly and imaginatively across boundaries, flex resources to where they are needed and work in partnership to implement solutions. I hope that we can leave behind the old yah-boo anti-Europeanism that has bedevilled debates on the subject in the past, because it does not advance our national security interests. Instead, it hinders them.

As for our capability, I would mention just two emerging priorities. We will need to build and maintain an advantage over our adversaries in information and decision making. Advanced forms of collection, including
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through unmanned aerial vehicles, should be integrated in our forces and not just seen as an additional luxury. We will also need to develop capabilities that protect our information networks from increasingly sophisticated attacks. Such non-kinetic attacks on our vital infrastructure from cyberspace are clearly attractive to our adversaries, and we have got to counter them. How we decide on the appropriate capabilities and how we acquire them on time and on budget will be vital to the success of our armed forces in defeating the threats that we now face and might face in future.

Today we do not just have to plan for contingent threats against a sophisticated state adversary, where the practical implications of our planning assumptions are tested in large part by their deterrence effect. As the past decade has instead proved, today our armed forces are engaged in less conventional, counter-insurgency and peace enforcement operations in defence of our national security, so now our planning assumptions are tested in the heat of battle, with no room for delay or failure. Every one of our servicemen and women has the right to know that we are doing everything possible to ensure that every pound of investment in our equipment programme goes towards the front line and is not wasted in inefficient or weak processes of acquisition.

That is why I asked Bernard Gray in December last year to conduct a detailed examination of progress in implementing the MOD’s acquisition change programme, as I hope right hon. and hon. Members will recall. I have to be satisfied that the current programme of change is sufficient to meet the challenges of the new combat environment that we now face. To date, I am not. I expect to receive the report shortly. Bernard Gray has conducted a thorough and wide-ranging analysis. I am confident that when his report is published, it will be both honest about the scale of the task that confronts us and clear in describing a detailed and radical blueprint to reform the process of acquisition in the MOD from top to bottom. That is something that we must get right. There can be no room for complacency, and given the current tempo of operations, we have no choice but to act with urgency. I will publish Bernard Gray’s report before the summer recess, and I will come to the House again to outline the Government’s response to it.

Given the size of the challenge that we face, I am in no doubt whatever that change must happen and that it must be radical. There must be changes to the system and structure of acquisition process, changes to the incentives that drive and determine behaviours—behaviours that have often led to waste, delay and efficiency, bedevilling the efforts of both Labour and Conservative Governments over a long period—and changes to the skills sets of those involved in acquisition. I am committed to doing everything that I can to make it possible for our armed forces to be better served, and I will make future announcements in due course.

Most members of today’s armed forces joined after 9/11, in the new security environment that it created. That is the context in which they have always experienced operations. Their language is that of counter-insurgency and their primary enemy is the terrorist in civilian clothing, indistinguishable from the civilians he mingles with—the terrorist who threatens not just our people, but our friends and allies across the world. Our edge in defeating that threat is acquired in the training that our people receive and the equipment that they use, which is
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second to none, backed up by satellite bandwidth or a UAV controlled from thousands of miles away. We must ensure that our policies, systems and capabilities reflect today’s realities, so that those who serve today are given the best support possible. However, we will fail those who will serve us in years to come if we fail to plan now for tomorrow’s emerging threats. I will not allow that to happen.

2.27 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I add my tribute on behalf of all my Conservative colleagues to the military personnel and civilians from this country who have been killed or injured, including Cyrus Thatcher? They have sacrificed themselves for our safety. There is not a man, woman or child in this country who does not owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all those who have made that sacrifice on our behalf.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Fox: No, I will not.

It says everything about the priorities of the current Government and their business managers that the annual debate on defence in the world is squeezed by a topical debate, on a day when they knew that most MPs would be away from the House. I can just hear the Government business managers asking, “What subject is so unimportant that we can stick it in the Commons on polling day for the European and local elections?” and the answer coming back, “Why not defence in the world? It’s only about Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest—nothing terribly important.” It leaves most of us on the Conservative Benches virtually speechless that a debate of such importance to our national interest, the well-being of our armed forces and the morale of their families should have its annual slot reduced to less than four hours.

In the year since we last held this debate the world has become a more, not less, dangerous place. Nine thousand British troops in Afghanistan are engaged in some of the heaviest fighting since the Korean war. As our ground troops come home from Iraq, the mission of the Royal Navy is now in question because the Government have failed to secure a legal mandate with Baghdad. Russia is rearming, and still occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia—with illegitimate elections recently having been held in the latter—and it has threatened to militarise the Arctic region, to the great concern of our close allies in NATO, especially Norway and Canada.

Piracy is running rife, not only off the horn of Africa but in less mentioned places such as the gulf of Guinea and the strait of Molucca. NATO is struggling to find its way in the 21st century, and the EU is aiming to increase its defence integration. Iran, in an unprecedented move, recently deployed six warships to the gulf of Aden, is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon, and in eight days’ time will hold presidential elections that will have a huge impact on future policy.

The Taliban were recently operating within 60 miles of Islamabad, and as I speak, Pakistani security forces are heavily engaged in offensive operations across the
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north west frontier and the federally administered tribal areas. North Korea has tested its second nuclear bomb, is preparing another long-range missile test, and has torn up the armistice that brought an end to the 1950-1953 Korean war.

The British armed forces are participating in about 15 NATO, EU, United Nations and OSCE operations around the globe, and we have a military presence in the form of 41,000 British troops in 32 countries and overseas territories. It is against that backdrop that the Government have decided to hold a debate on this subject today, meaning that, for obvious reasons, it will be poorly attended in the House and go largely unreported in the press. The real tragedy is that we need more, not less, understanding among the British public of the threats to our wider national security.

When we think about Operation Telic and the presence of British forces in Iraq, we mainly think about the contribution of our ground forces—and let us make no mistake: the men and women serving in our Army and the Royal Air Force have contributed bravely and professionally to make Iraq a better place. I associate myself with all the Secretary of State’s comments about the huge and historic role that they have played in contributing to the future well-being of that country.

Recently, however, the focus has been placed increasingly on the Royal Navy and the outstanding work that it has been doing in training the Iraqi navy and protecting Iraqi oil platforms. I say “has been doing” because, as has been reported this week and confirmed by the Government, the British and Iraqi Governments have failed to finalise a deal to enable the remaining British forces in Iraq to continue to train their Iraqi counterparts after last Sunday. Consequently, there are about 700 UK soldiers and sailors without a legal mandate in Iraq who are unable to carry out their training mission with the Iraqi navy.

Furthermore, it is rumoured—I would welcome Government confirmation of this—that at least two British warships have been removed from the combined taskforce 158, which provides security for Iraqi oil platforms and ports in the northern Persian gulf, the economic lifeblood of Iraq that they have been asked to protect. This has forced an additional and unexpected burden on to our allies in the region, who are having to fill the gap. This applies most notably to the Americans, who claim not to have the resources available to meet this requirement. Our Navy has an extremely important role in the Gulf, and it is extremely well respected in the region by our allies. I would say to all those who talk about a lack of respect in the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom that they ought to go and talk to those serving in the American fifth fleet. They would find out just how highly those people regard the Royal Navy and how important its contribution is in that part of the world.

It is unacceptable to have up to 700 British service personnel without a legal mandate in Iraq, especially when that has a negative impact on our relationship with the US. The Government should have sorted this issue out during President Maliki’s recent visit to London in April. At that time, they were upbeat about what might happen, and the Secretary of State has been relatively upbeat today, but we should not really have reached this point, should we?

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Mr. Hutton: No, we should not have reached this point. Unfortunately we have, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that that is not for the want of trying by Her Majesty’s Government. I want to make it quite clear, however, that the position that he described with regard to the lack of a legal mandate is not accurate. The legal mandate for the UK forces’ presence in Iraq expires on 31 July. It is true that our mandate to conduct operational and training activities expired on 31 May, but it is not the case that the remaining UK forces in Afghanistan lack jurisdiction or effective protection under the agreements that we have with the Iraqi Government.

Dr. Fox: I am grateful for that clarification—although I am sure that the Secretary of State meant to say “Iraq”, not “Afghanistan”. That is reassuring, but it does not get away from the fact that we have failed to reach agreement on a matter that is of great importance not only to our armed forces but to our allies.

What about the so-called British legacy in Iraq that we have heard so much about? The last time we heard about this matter from the Government in the House, we were told that there were only four locally hired contractors representing British trade interests in Iraq, all of whom were apparently based in Baghdad, leaving Iraq’s second city, Basra, and the northern city of Irbil completely neglected. As I have said in the House before, and as echoed by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, our lack of trade presence means that we may have shed blood for Iraq, but stand little chance as a country of benefiting from the contracts flowing from Iraq’s fiscal surplus. There is a lot of potential for Iraq to become a regional financial and trading hub, and we must do all we can to ensure that that becomes a reality. A stable and prosperous Iraq, as the Secretary of State says, is in all our interests, but a strong UK role in supporting this is also in both our interests.

I now turn to Afghanistan. As we head into the summer months, and leading up to the presidential election, our forces are confronting a resurgent Taliban across most of the country. Compared with this time last year, there has been a 55 per cent. increase in coalition deaths. IED—improvised explosive device—events are up by 80 per cent. and there has been a 90 per cent. increase in attacks on the Afghan Government. Since January there have been more than twice the number of insurgent-initiated attacks in Helmand than in Kandahar, the province with the next highest number attacks.

It has been said by many that the No. 1 objective of any counter-insurgency campaign is to protect the local population. This was accomplished against all the odds in Iraq, thanks to the clear views of General Petraeus, and one aspect of the Iraq surge can be, and needs to be, replicated in Afghanistan. I understand, of course, that there are no direct parallels, but there are undoubtedly lessons to learn from the other experience.

One lesson that needs to come across to the British public is that 80 per cent. of the civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban, not by coalition forces. While that does not excuse civilian deaths, and demonstrates that we are still unable to protect the local population in the way that we would like, there is a story here that needs to be told. There is a misrepresentation in some foreign media that our forces are systematically targeting and killing Afghan civilians, which could not
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be further from the truth. Unlike the Taliban, our troops do everything possible to minimise the threats to civilians. It is a point that our own media should focus on a lot more, because in this political environment we must not allow negative stereotypes to be created by default, which is a risk we are running. As the incoming American commander, Lieutenant-General McChrystal, said during his Senate confirmation hearing this week,

That is the difference between us in this conflict.

On my last trip to Helmand in March, I was pleased to find a renewed shift of emphasis from the central Government in Kabul to more focus on provincial and district governments across all of Afghanistan. The problem of governance in the country, including widespread corruption, must be tackled because it is undermining our efforts to achieve stability. Focus needs to be placed on empowering local and district governments. Local solutions for local problems has been the only way in most of Afghanistan for thousands of years, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said in an earlier intervention. To believe that we can have working democratic central Government without first having working local government is naïve, especially when in many cases we are dealing with tribal codes that pre-date even Islam.

I think most would agree with the Government that everything must be done to build the capability of Afghan security forces. The Afghan national army has come a very long way and is probably the most respected governmental institution in the country, although it still has some way to go. The Afghan national police, on the other hand, are viewed by the majority of Afghan citizens as incompetent and corrupt, and will continue to present the biggest challenge to the west, particularly in terms of capacity building, for some time to come.

While we are on the subject of Afghan security forces, will the Secretary of State take today’s opportunity to expand on the comments of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who said on 29 April that

Will the Government provide us today with some idea of a timeline? Will the number of British troops stay the same as this shift of operations occurs? I am sure that the whole House would be interested to know what mission UK forces in Helmand province will have after the 10,000 US marines are deployed there. How will we avoid ending up with what ultimately might be called “Charge of the Knights syndrome”, with a small force, dwarfed by the Americans territorially and numerically, that is less and less in control of events?

The problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan are increasingly recognised as being inseparable. We cannot achieve stability and security in Afghanistan until we disrupt the Taliban/al-Qaeda network attacking from Pakistan. Just across the border from our forces, Pakistan faces an existential threat from Islamist extremism. Unfortunately for Pakistan and the west, it is a threat that Pakistan is ill-equipped to fight. The Pakistani armed forces are trained, resourced and manned for
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state-on-state warfare against a perceived threat from India. I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on that subject.

About 65 per cent. of the Pakistani military is Punjabi, yet the area along the border where the military is operating is predominantly Pashtun. To all intents and purposes, members of the Pakistani military are regarded as foreigners in the federally administered tribal areas and their presence can at times exacerbate the situation. Although we must train and equip the Pakistani military for counter-insurgency operations, we must do all we can to build Pakistani capability in the round, especially in policing and the Frontier Corps in FATA.

Lastly, will the Secretary of State update the House on how many of the 5,000 NATO troops promised at Strasbourg have arrived in Afghanistan? They were promised ahead of the presidential elections in August, which are only a couple of months away. There has been little mention of the status of those troops, or of how many of those promised have arrived on the ground.

Failure in Afghanistan cannot be an option, for two reasons. First, it could mean the effective end of the NATO alliance. What would happen to our credibility and to the cohesion of NATO if we were seen to have failed our first major test since the end of the cold war? Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, a defeat of western forces in Afghanistan would act as a shot in the arm for all Islamic fundamentalists worldwide. To every jihadist, it would be a sign of weakness in our resolve. Neither outcome can be acceptable to us.

At the weekend I visited Hong Kong and Singapore, where one very different security topic dominated the media. North Korea’s detonation on 25 May of its second nuclear bomb was a clear breach of UN Security Council resolution 1718. Here in London, there is a tendency to sit back and watch events unfold in North Korea as if there was no impact on the national interests of the United Kingdom and in the hope that others, such as the US and China, will take care of matters. However, the truth is that, like it or not, we are affected by events in North Korea.

Last week at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Asian security conference, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said:

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