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However, it is his father’s tribute that is the most moving:

This week, we have had almost a fatality a day. The fact that Lance Corporal Nigel Moffett has as part of his regimental family someone who has ended up in the House of Commons is purely a coincidence, but the tributes paid apply to all the soldiers who have died over the past week and the perhaps more than 300 soldiers—I do not know the numbers—who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan serving our country since 2003. We should also not forget that for every fatality that we mark at Prime Minister’s questions by naming these soldiers—now, seemingly, every Wednesday—rather more seriously wounded soldiers are coming back from theatre whose lives will be completely dominated by the experience that they have suffered serving our country.

Of course, in addition to that, we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the psychological consequences for soldiers who are taking part in operations of an intensity perhaps unseen in large parts of the second world war, despite their coming from a country that is effectively at peace. We, as a country, obviously have to pay our debt and make sure that soldiers who have been wounded seriously, physically and psychologically, are supported properly.

We also owe the soldiers who are serving us something else. I shall now make, as gently as I can, a rather serious political point. The Americans are seriously reconsidering their strategy in Afghanistan. That has important implications for how we conduct our operations in Helmand province. Our forces in Helmand province are being joined by a large number of US forces as we speak. Sadly, whatever the merits and capabilities of Defence Ministers, we have a Government and a Parliament that have lost their authority, and there is now a serious requirement. If we are to discharge our debt to soldiers who are fighting and dying for our country, we must regain the authority of the Government and the Parliament that those soldiers serve. In the circumstances, that can be done only by the people giving a new mandate to a new Parliament and Government. I hope that Ministers and people more widely will reflect on the fact that right now, we in Government and Parliament are not giving the quality of leadership that we should give to those men and women serving on our behalf.

The speech made by the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), and the speech with which the Secretary of State opened
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the debate contained important reflections on the conduct of our operations in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be taken separately. At the strategic level, they must be dealt with together. There are obviously particular problems about our ability and capacity to give direct help in Pakistan, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, made clear. However, in a sense, and in strategic terms, Pakistan is a much more important entity than Afghanistan. The threat from Pakistan’s weapons of mass destruction, the size of its population, and the size of the British Pakistani population—given that I am shadow Minister with responsibility for counter-terrorism, I am only too aware of the domestic issues in that regard—mean that Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan, but they are very much linked.

On Afghanistan, I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend said about localism; he referred to the provincialisation of policy there. That is extremely important. Due to issues of geography and ethnicity in Afghanistan, a central authority has always struggled to exercise authority in a comprehensive way over the whole country, and if that is the model that we are trying to follow, we simply will not succeed. It would appear that we are learning, albeit all too slowly, about the methods that will achieve our objectives. Last year I was lucky enough to see the young officer cadets of the Afghan national army being trained by British forces in Kabul. As has been said in this debate, the training and mentoring—effectively the creation—of that army is gradually emerging as an important success.

Of course, that sits alongside the catastrophic failure of the training and development of the Afghan national police. It is the Afghan national police with whom the average Afghan is in contact daily. Certainly when I was in Afghanistan a year ago, their corruption, criminality, ineffectiveness, inefficiency and the rest appeared to be making a more negative than positive contribution to our potential success in the conflict. I was struck by the parallel that my hon. Friend drew with the Charge of the Knights operation, and there does appear to be a parallel, given the Americans’ entry into the southern part of Helmand province and the Prime Minister’s indication, which my hon. Friend quoted, of a change in the nature of the British role in Afghanistan. We should be involved in an informed way in those negotiations, so that we can see what they mean in terms of the number of troops who are committed, and for our future commitment to, and concept of, British operations in Afghanistan. It is difficult to be a part of those negotiations, however, when the country is in political limbo and the future of the Government is uncertain.

The Secretary of State’s speech also contained some important reflections. He answered my intervention—up to a point—about the balance of resources between the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence in contributing to reconstruction, to reconciliation and to rebuilding failed states. However, he did not quite get around to saying this: conflict is probably the most important driver of poverty, and, if we cannot address conflict, we cannot address poverty.

We will have to look seriously at the balance of resources and compare the money that DFID appears to have with that which the Foreign Office and the
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MOD have to devote effectively to defence, diplomacy, infrastructure building, state building and everything else. There is a complete imbalance between the interests of the people whom we are trying to serve, not least in their simple relief from poverty, and the very much wider set of British national interests that must be secured in the states that we seek to help.

The Secretary of State introduced an interesting discussion about cyber-security. From the words that he used, he appeared to talk about the MOD’s responsibility to secure its own information technology, but, given the capacity for a cyber attack, from a state-sponsored hit all the way down to terrorists trying to attack the information technology that controls key parts of our infrastructure and, even, to the lone hacker, we must have a better discussion of cyber-security.

Particular thought must be given to, and an examination made of, the MOD’s role and responsibility for securing civil national infrastructure, because, if information technology systems were attacked from outside by whatever source, there would be crippling consequences for the United Kingdom, as, indeed, there would be for any country. We, as a nation, must decide who will take responsibility for that. Currently, the lead appears to be sitting inside GCHQ, but that comes with a whole variety of compromises in respect of how public it will be in providing that defence. On that issue, there is an important debate to be had.

I listened with wry amusement to the remarks about Bernard Gray’s expected report on reorganising procurement. I could not help but have a sense of déj vu about the issue, because the idea that we must be able to do procurement a great deal better appears to have been a constant over decades. From my examination of the issue during my 15-year association with it in one way or another, however, I have been struck by the fact that the United Kingdom appears to do defence procurement rather better than many—indeed, the majority of—other nations. I do not know whether we are still in such a position in the global league table, but I am slightly suspicious of a proposal to rip up all our defence procurement arrangements and of the idea that, if we replant them slightly differently, we will achieve the golden objective of producing the most efficient set of such arrangements in the world and save ourselves a vast amount of money. Systems can always be improved, but I wonder whether a revolution in the defence procurement process is necessary. I hope that when Mr. Gray produces his report, it will be looked at carefully—and sceptically, because there have been many efforts in the field, and not all have improved matters significantly.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies) rose—

Mr. Blunt: If the Minister will forgive me, I shall not give way. I want to conclude my remarks, as two Members wish to speak before the winding-up speeches begin.

I began my remarks with a personal reflection about my family and my wider regimental family, and I want to finish by saying that we must not forget the enormous contribution made by our servicemen and women. That is why I am horrified at the circumstances and timing of this debate. It is about a very important subject; our
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fellow citizens who are serving their country are fighting and dying for us. I do not think that Parliament has distinguished itself with the choice of timing for a debate on the contribution that those people are making.

4.47 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and join the chorus of disapproval for the lamentable state of this debate and its timing.

I invite the House to reflect on what we face at this moment in the Afghan conflict. I have in front of me the Op Herrick casualty and fatality tables, issued by DASA—Defence Analytical Services and Advice—up to halfway through May. I shall not dwell morbidly on the numbers, but this year is likely to be worse than last year. The rate of casualties this year so far is higher than at the same point last year; on the current trend, we will have more casualties this year than in any year since the conflict began. The fact that there is only a handful of colleagues from both sides of the House in this debate sends a lamentable message about how much the House cares about the issue. That is not a criticism of right hon. and hon. Members; as we know, a very great many, if not all, care deeply about the matter. However, given that the Chamber is so empty this afternoon, there is something wrong with the mechanism used to discuss these things.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth rose—

Mr. Jenkin: I see the Minister itching to intervene.

Mr. Ainsworth: I have listened to the stream of criticism from Members about the timing of the debate, and I understand people’s anger. However, let us reflect on our own responsibilities for the situation. There are lots of Members from both sides who spit before someone gets the word “modernisation” out of their mouth. We have a system in which we have five defence debates per year on the Adjournment and nobody from the various parties is prepared to get together, make suggestions and talk constructively about a better way. It is a disgrace—but it reflects on us, and we ought not to throw the blame elsewhere.

Mr. Jenkin: I was not throwing blame; in fact, I was trying to avoid that.

We must change the current system, and I have some suggestions to make. We have not had a debate on a motion on Afghanistan since Op Herrick began. If there were a debate on a Government or Opposition motion as to whether we support the current policy in Afghanistan, I am sure that a great many colleagues would attend and take part.

I have a suggestion for my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee. It is our job as a Select Committee to sit down and discuss how defence issues are debated and scrutinised in the House as a whole, and we could make recommendations about whether there should be some changes. For example, should the five debates be on debatable motions tabled by the Government in order to find out whether the House had confidence in the aspect of policy under discussion, thereby allowing the Opposition parties to table amendments and divide the House on them?

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There is another disadvantage to these very broad debates. When we come into the Chamber, we think that we are going to discuss defence in the world, and then hear announcements about equipment, points raised about spending on research and development, and tributes paid to individual servicemen. It is too broad and unfocused, and a debatable motion might improve the focus.

I am afraid that I am going to ignore Iran and North Korea, Russia and Georgia, Somalia and piracy, and all the other issues challenging global security. Having long called for a debate on Afghanistan alone, I shall concentrate on what is going on in Helmand and what flows from it. The question that must preoccupy us is whether more foreign troops in Helmand would break the deadlock. I would hazard three reasons why that might not be the case. I somehow doubt that more kinetic effort, more bombs and bullets, more helicopters, more knocking on doors in the middle of the night to try to find the terrorists, more civilian casualties, and more alienation would not lead to more insurgency.

It is tempting to believe that the strategy pursued in Anbar by General Petraeus, which empowered the Anbar tribes to take charge of their own security, in co-operation with the American military forces and the emerging Iraqi forces, might be replicated in some way in Helmand. However, that is to misunderstand the very different nature of tribal society in Helmand compared with that in Anbar. Anbar was firmly anchored in an established nation state with a strong sense of national identity—Iraq. That national identity exists to some degree in Afghanistan, but the tribal loyalties are far stronger, and, in the case of the Pashtun tribe, span its borders, as they reach into the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan. Pashtunistan is a country that exists in the minds of everybody who lives there—it is just not drawn on the maps that were left by the British empire. The Pashtuns have very strong tribal traditions. Pashtunwali is the honour code that requires someone to avenge the death of one of their kinsmen, which means that the effect of civilian casualties is perhaps 10 times more corrosive than in Anbar. The conduct of counter-insurgency operations therefore has to be 10 times more careful to avoid civilian casualties than in Anbar.

There is cause for optimism, because I believe American policy is shifting and developing. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State quoted General McChrystal, who has been nominated the American commander in Afghanistan and who has said:

He went on to say:

I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who served with the Light Dragoons, that that sentiment would be familiar to any soldier who served in Northern Ireland. Counter-insurgency is about tying one arm behind one’s back to observe legality, proportionality and rigid discipline to a strategy. It is about ensuring that the tiniest things do not get blown up into huge strategic problems. That is extremely difficult, and I believe that the American army has learned
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counter-insurgency far faster than we ever imagined it would. We have to stop pretending that we in the British Army do it much better than everyone else, because the Americans have caught us up and may even be overtaking us in their capability to deliver it.

There is hope, but I remain sceptical about whether large formations of foreign military forces will work in a country where the foreigner is regarded with great suspicion, especially if he arrives carrying powerful weaponry and destructive power. I am sceptical about whether the big American surge will solve the problem. There are two more reasons for that, one of which is stated in the Government’s own paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Page 9 of that paper, in section 3, “Afghanistan—the current situation”, states: “The solution remains political”. Although there are other factors, the problem has been the political failure in Afghanistan, to which I tried to draw the Secretary of State’s attention—the failure in Kabul, the failure of the Karzai Government, the Bonn constitution and the western-imposed Afghan national consensus, and the corruption of that Government.

The Government’s paper continues:

that word again—

Clearly the surge in operations in Afghanistan is an attempt to deliver that decisive blow, but it seems to me unlikely that it can be delivered by military means. It must be delivered by other means—by binding in the tribal structures that exist in that strong society in Afghanistan and recognising that the authority of the Kabul Government simply does not, and never will, extend into the outreaches of that extraordinarily disparate country. Governance has to arise from the strength of the local communities and cannot be premised on some abstract constitution that was written at a conference in Bonn with a substantial part of the Pashtun tribe simply not represented.

My other reason for scepticism is that the pivotal, decisive strategic engagement has shifted out of Afghanistan and is taking place in the Swat valley. That seems to be where the weight of Taliban power is concentrated. It is where they are based and from where they launch their operations. The war in the Swat valley may be the conflict that turns the war in the whole region, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend is correct. However, until military operations are properly co-ordinated across the international border, the effect could be that the Taliban who do not wish to stand and fight against the Pakistan regular army are pushed out of the Swat valley, go to southern Afghanistan and head off to engage with our forces in Helmand and other coalition forces in Kandahar. Proper strategic co-operation is needed, so that if the Pakistani army conducts such an operation, it at least beats the Taliban over the international border into, for example, the prepared ambush positions of Afghan or coalition forces, as appropriate.

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Mr. Jenkin: I agree with my hon. Friend to some extent, but even he is dealing at a sub-strategic level. That leads me to my next point about the importance of Pakistan.

I commend the Government for including Afghanistan and Pakistan in the same document, although we were slightly playing catch-up with the Americans, who were already on that track. However, Pakistan is crucial. There are 800,000 citizens of our country who have Pakistani origin. [Interruption.] The Minister says that there are probably more. However, thousands and thousands of untraceable exchanges and movements between Pakistan and our country are a direct security threat to our streets, towns and cities.

The part of the document that assesses the current situation in Pakistan refers to the “severe challenges” facing the Pakistan Government, the sharply deteriorating economic situation and the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. It states:

The document goes on to refer to the

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