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The hon. Gentleman made an interesting, powerful speech. He made some good points and some with which I do not agree. He strung his points together and came to a conclusion that I do not share, but he convinced me that we should have had a more substantial debate at the time at which the deployment into Helmand took place. Looking back, I do not think that there was enough understanding in Parliament, or among the public or the media, of quite how significant the change in our deployment from that point forward was going to be. I do not agree that, if there had been a full-scale debate and a vote, the House would have voted against going into Helmand. Perhaps if we had known then what we know now we might have done so, but we did not and could not know then what we know now.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that the Government had shared with the House, or at least with the Defence Committee, some of their background papers and risk assessments and some of the considerations that they weighed in the balance when they decided, as part of a NATO strategy, that we should go into Helmand. I wish that that had been so, because I wish that Parliament had gone into it with its eyes open. The task of bringing public and media opinion with us would have been easier if more of these things had been brought out at the time. All of that being said, and NATO having embarked on that strategy, I would still have voted to go ahead with it, but a debate over the fundamentals, in that sense, is rather overdue. To the extent that this short debate has begun to serve that purpose, it is welcome.

Bob Spink: No doubt the hon. Gentleman would pray in aid his decision to go ahead the fact that the education of girls in Afghanistan has increased perhaps tenfold during this period. Would he not also agree that, had the money that we spent on the war been spent instead in other ways to promote understanding and education and restructuring in that country in a peaceful way, without the loss of the 170-odd lives, we may have done even better in securing that objective without the loss of life and without quite as much money being spent?

Nick Harvey: That is an interesting point. I do not think that anyone should say that no progress is being made or that nothing is being achieved, because that is not so.

There are things to which we can point that are achievements, but whether, in principle, it would have been right to have committed British troops and put their lives in danger to achieve the objective of securing girls’ education in Afghanistan, I am not so sure. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point; there might, in ideal circumstances, have been other ways of trying to bring about that objective. That brings me to the point that I wanted to make about the assertions made by the hon. Member for Newport, West about the Taliban. He was developing the point that the Taliban represented no threat to the UK and that, if we had left them alone, the UK would have faced no threat and would have been under no threat. I do not think that that assertion is correct, and I do not sign up to the challenge that the hon. Gentleman threw
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down—I listened to John Humphrys throwing down a similar challenge to the Defence Secretary this morning on the “Today” programme—on proving that terrorism would have been the consequence. On many occasions in armed conflict, people have to make their best guess as to what the enemy’s response would be to any particular situation.

We weigh up all the evidence that we have and arrive on the balance of probabilities at what we think the enemy is likely to do. With respect to the hon. Gentleman and John Humphrys, it is not up to those of us who think that the action in Afghanistan is justified or logical to prove that terrorism would result from having the Taliban back; it is up to those of the hon. Gentleman’s view to prove the opposite, given Taliban-run Afghanistan’s history as a haven for international terrorism. It is a perfectly reasonable working hypothesis to say that if the Taliban reasserted control in Afghanistan, the same things could and would happen again as time went on.

One has to look at Afghanistan’s history. Since 1974, Afghanistan has been unstable and has progressively deteriorated. There have been 35 years of hell for the people of Afghanistan, and it is many decades since we could view the country as anything other than a failed state. In that vacuum—that is what a failed state amounts to—international terrorism was able to secure a haven for itself. Only when we have used whatever means we can to put Afghanistan back together as a viable and stable state that is capable of functioning on its own terms—not necessarily as one built on some idyllic western concept of what constitutes a democracy—can we say that we have reasonably reduced the likelihood of international terrorism once again finding a safe haven and a home in Afghanistan. That is a perfectly logical conclusion to draw from the history and from an assessment of the current situation, and I simply do not believe that it is incumbent on anybody to prove that terrorism would follow the return of the Taliban. One has only to look back a short number of years to see that that was indeed what happened.

That said, it is perfectly clear that we are arriving not quite at the tipping point that the hon. Gentleman suggested, but at some sort of strategic stalemate in Afghanistan. One cannot say in all honesty that NATO’s current strategy and tactics are setting us on course to achieve success, victory or the goal of stabilising Afghanistan, and they are certainly not setting us on course to do that in any reasonable time frame. The longer progress does not seem to be made and the longer we continue in this stalemate, the truer the hon. Gentleman’s observation will become that the key rallying point for the insurgents—if one wants to use that word—is the simple fact of foreigners being in the country. That is why continuing to pursue our current strategy and vowing just to stick at it however long it takes is no longer a viable way forward, and I believe that President Obama has arrived at the same conclusion. His surge is not something that he feels bound to implement as a prisoner of his election promises, but something that he is doing with conviction, in the belief that something must be done to get over this impasse.

There is no guarantee that the surge will succeed in the terms that he has set for it. A surge into the large, rural, thinly populated areas of Helmand province is a very different proposition from a surge in the city of Baghdad, and I do not know whether it will be possible
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to achieve even what President Obama wants, but he is right to have embarked on that course, because it is perfectly clear that we simply cannot go on as we have been. We have had a remarkably small number of western troops in Afghanistan all along, given the size of the population and of the country that we are trying to stabilise. In comparison with other international engagements in which stabilisation was the objective, we have lacked boots on the ground from the word go.

There are other problems that we have debated many times before. The Government have set about trying to address the problems with armoured vehicles, but there is still a chronic shortage of helicopter lift capacity. Some of the dangers to our troops would be obviated if we could move them about more in the air and less on the ground. Our strategy has also fallen into disarray, because we have not managed to keep the reconstruction effort, the war fighting and the conflict prevention together as one. In his book, “Swords and Ploughshares”, Paddy Ashdown talked about the need for a “seamless garment”, with conflict prevention, war fighting and reconstruction drawn together as interwoven strands.

Paul Flynn: This is the fourth Army that we have had in Afghanistan in our history. One emerged with just one of our soldiers alive. All our Armies ran out of Afghanistan defeated and our troops were generally slaughtered. The Russians had 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, but the Russians, too, ran away. It is calculated that up to 500,000 troops would be the right number to get some control over the country. How many troops does the hon. Gentleman think should be sent there to guarantee a military victory?

Nick Harvey: But the Russians’ objective was completely different. They were trying to take over the country and run it. We are not trying to do that in any sense. The objective of the NATO presence in Afghanistan is to help the elected Government stabilise the country to the point where reconstruction can take place and Afghanistan can retake its place in the community of nations. That is a totally different objective from bringing in an invasionary force to take complete control of the country and run it.

The difficulties in what we are doing are all too clear. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed up the shortcomings in the emerging governance of Afghanistan. There are shortly to be elections, and it is dearly to be hoped that something more viable will come out on the other side of them, but there are not necessarily grounds for optimism. None the less, we were right to go in at the beginning. The change of strategy in 2006 was agreed in NATO, and we have done what we undertook to do in Helmand to the best of our ability. Equally, however, the hon. Gentleman is right to have sought a debate about the overall strategy, because we will not achieve the undefined goals that we have set ourselves by carrying on as we are at present. I very much hope that the change of tempo that President Obama has signalled is the beginning of a complete change.

The hon. Gentleman is right that a deal would be struck in the end and that a political solution would have to be found. Everywhere we have been involved over a very long time, we have denounced people as terrorists and said that we would have nothing to do with them, only to end up having to sit down and talk to them. There is no doubt that that will ultimately happen
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in Afghanistan, but we must ensure that what emerges enables Afghanistan to rebuild itself over a long period, so that it can become a stable country and not a haven for terrorism. I very much hope that we will get to that point sooner rather than later. Previously, I might have believed that we could carry on as we are doing for 20 years and achieve the outcome that we seek, but I can no longer accept that as valid.

3.19 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) for providing the House with a timely opportunity to consider again the developments in Afghanistan. I am disappointed that more hon. Members are not here for the debate, as there is no doubt that the nation is following closely the progress of military operations in Afghanistan, saluting the extraordinary courage and commitment of Her Majesty’s armed forces, and grieving at the loss of so many fine men and women, whose names the hon. Gentleman read out.

I have a particular reason to grieve, because the Welsh Guards are based in my constituency and they have already taken a pretty heavy hit, not least in the loss of their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, whom I had the privilege of meeting when he gave a cocktail party on the regiment’s arrival in Aldershot and prior to its deployment. Therefore it touches us greatly. Today, the funeral of Major Sean Birchall took place at the Guards chapel a few hundred yards from where we are having this debate. Lieutenant Paul Mervis was also the son of friends of ours. The issue touches the entire nation, and it is appropriate that Parliament should debate it with all seriousness.

Although it was not by any means a sure-footed performance, the Secretary of State tried on this morning’s “Today” programme to set out the reasons for NATO forces being in Afghanistan. They are, first, to prevent the country lapsing back into a failed state that provides a safe haven for those who have plotted the bombing of western cities—a point made admirably by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey); and secondly to enable the Afghan Government to deliver a reasonably stable country, providing economic and social benefits to its people according to their customs. The Secretary of State did not allude to drugs, and it is extremely disappointing that we have made so little progress in dealing with the drugs problem, because there is no doubt that those drugs are reaching the streets of our towns and cities, killing our young people and destroying lives. I know that the hon. Member for Newport, West has some interesting ideas on how that might be approached, and perhaps the Minister will want to say something on it.

With the number of British fatalities approaching the level experienced in Iraq, we have a duty to check how well our national strategy is working. The British Army spokesman on the radio this morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Richardson, set out some of the successes, such as the increase in educational and medical provision in Helmand province, to which he might have added the repair of the Kajaki power station, which has done a great deal to improve the lot of ordinary people in the Helmand valley. The focus is now clearly on the military operation, Operation Panther’s Claw. Helmand is the key battleground, suffering twice the number of insurgent-initiated attacks
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as neighbouring Kandahar province since January. It is important to record that it is not just in fighting the Taliban that British forces are working hard; their commitment to the winning of hearts and minds is central to their understanding of their role in theatre. We should pay tribute to the ability of those men and women, many of whom are very young indeed, to switch from close-quarter combat to metaphorically putting their arms round local people, and trying to help them to improve facilities and their lives, in the face of attack by the Taliban.

Paul Flynn: I hope that I did not give the impression that I thought our British soldiers were primarily responsible for the deaths of civilians. It would certainly be untrue. They have been on course to win hearts and minds from the time they were first there. The great majority of the collateral damage—the killing of civilians, including women and children—results from American bombing.

Mr. Howarth: I was not attributing an indifference to the hearts and minds policy to the hon. Gentleman—far from it. However, he is slightly wrong in singling out the Americans with respect to attacks on civilians. The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan arise from the actions of the Taliban. They are the people responsible for killing so many Afghan civilians. However, those unfortunate, tragic incidents of collateral damage—that rather euphemistic expression that we all use—show why we must invest so much money in high-technology precision equipment that reduces collateral damage. That enables us to look our constituents in the face and say, “We have done everything possible to ensure that our armed forces seek to carry out their mission clinically, and take great care not to inflict casualties on civilians.”

Some of our key concerns were set out by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) during the “Defence in the World” debate on 4 June, which was local and European election day. The Secretary of State promised to write to hon. Members whose questions had not been answered, but a month later, I regret to inform the House we have not yet received anything. I remind the Minister of some of the questions. First, what strategy do the Government have for the mission? My hon. Friend quoted the Prime Minister, who said on 29 April that

We wanted to know the timetable for that shift. Clearly, the emphasis today is concentrated on intensive front-line operations, with no sign of the shift signalled by the Prime Minister. It would be helpful to know whether there is any timetable for that.

Secondly, we need to know what the change in operational emphasis means for British troop numbers and how the UK’s mission will or may change following the ramping up of US forces, which are being bolstered, with an extra 10,000 men being committed to Helmand. There is an issue of command and control. At the moment, the United Kingdom is essentially in charge of
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operations in Helmand, but the dynamics are bound to change if the overwhelming majority of forces in that part of the theatre are American.

My hon. Friend expressed fears that Britain could end up with a “Charge of the Knights” syndrome whereby the UK’s contribution would be deemed too small to accomplish the military task, inflicting damage on the Anglo-American relationship and tarnishing the reputation of our armed forces. That concern has been exacerbated by reports that requests by British military commanders for an increase in troop numbers have been rejected. As Con Coughlin wrote in The Daily Telegraph—I apologise to some hon. Members for mentioning that newspaper, but there we go; I do not think that he was involved in other matters—on Friday:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): Not true.

Mr. Howarth: The Minister says it is not true. Let me just say that it is of course true that the Prime Minister has never shown any interest in providing the support necessary to fund the core military budget. That is evidenced by the fact that there has never been proper funding for the strategic defence review of 1998, let alone a proper budget on which to fight two wars. However, our force of 9,000 is actively participating rather than watching. I would not want to give the impression to anyone that British forces were somehow not participating, but there is no doubt that the Americans are probably the spearhead in Operation Panther’s Claw.

Bob Spink: Would the hon. Gentleman care to say whether it is Conservative party policy to increase the number of troops sent to Afghanistan, and what the numbers might be? Has the Conservative party set out what it would see as an exit strategy, with timings?

Mr. Howarth: If I may, I shall come on to the matter of an exit strategy. I have a passage in my speech on that; the hon. Gentleman and others have mentioned it and it is a critical issue that I want to return to.

My third point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring during the debate last month when he asked the Secretary of State to update the House on how many of the 5,000 NATO troops promised at Strasbourg had arrived in Afghanistan. We still have not had an answer to that question, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.

I want to raise two further issues, including the exit strategy, which the Minister should deal with today so that the British public are clear about the Government’s intentions. First, there is a real imperative to meet the here and now. I understand that the budgetary difficulties that the Ministry of Defence is suffering are leading to battles between each of the services for resources. Some people, particularly those who are Army-orientated, are saying that we must scrap this, that and the other to concentrate on the main endeavour, which is to win in
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Afghanistan. I understand that argument, but there are other issues that we as politicians must address. There are other potential threats to our nation that we must address. We cannot simply devote everything to the here and now.

Having said that, the here and now is important, and it is our duty to ensure that our armed forces have what they need in theatre to do the job that we have asked them to do. There is no doubt that the introduction of new vehicles, such as the Mastiff and the Jackal, have helped, but there are insufficient numbers of them. The US has ordered 10,000 Mastiffs, but the UK has ordered just 235 with delivery already delayed. Furthermore, heavily armoured vehicles are not the universal solution because the enemy increases the power of its mines and roadside bombs to defeat whatever new armour we provide. It is important that people understand that. One cannot simply bolt on more and more armour. That will undoubtedly protect troops, but it will inhibit their wider operations. Some people believe that our only duty is to ensure that troops can travel with impunity in armoured vehicles, and that has been the case so far, but a soldier told me at the Aldershot Army show last Saturday that one reason why troops like the Jackal, which has no top, it that it gives them situational awareness and they can see what is going on. Troops in the back of a Mastiff, and even the driver, have a very limited view outside. I have always said that we should concentrate on the range of kit that commanders in the field need.

The Government’s decision five years ago to cut £1.4 billion from the helicopter budget was an unmitigated disaster. I understand that we have no spare capacity to increase the supply of helicopters, and those that are deployed are being hammered by the tempo of operations, and the inhospitable environment. Although the number of UK forces deployed to Afghanistan has increased to 9,000, the number of helicopters has not changed since late 2006, when the UK had just 4,500 troops in theatre.

The Leader of the House, standing in for the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions today, claimed that the number of helicopters in theatre had increased by 60 per cent. She must know that it is not the number of helicopters that has increased so dramatically, but the number of flying hours, which subjects the machines to vastly increased wear and tear. As long ago as October 2006, an RAF Chinook pilot, Flight Lieutenant Stuart Hague, was reported to have said:

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