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I recognise the extensive work that the hon. Gentleman has done on the issue. Before this debate, I checked on the southernmost part of Helmand that I have visited, Garmsir, which he will know well. A forward operating base was established there after the Americans cleared it out. The information that I got back was that Garmsir continued to make progress, not
just with regard to the market but in the area of governance. That is the latest information that I had. I wanted to check, following my experience there. If he has information that he wants to pass to me or to my ministerial colleagues, of course we will accept that, but I have not had any information of the sort that he describes.
A sustainable strategy requires us to build the capacity of the Afghan security forces. A British battalion runs Army mentoring for the Afghan national army throughout Helmand, including in the US areas. Some 4,000 trained Afghan soldiers are now based in Helmand, 450 of them fighting alongside us in Operation Panther's Claw. A sustainable strategy also needs follow-through on the civilian side. When our forces go into villages and districts in Helmand, they are followed by the Afghan national army and national police, and by civilian and military stabilisation staff, who work with local officials and tribal elders. We have doubled the number of civilian stabilisation staff in the country in the past year.
David Miliband: No, I will finish up now. The Helmand operation on the civilian side is run by the joint civil-military mission. It has British, American, Danish and Estonian civilian and military staff working alongside each other. The Department for International Development and the United States Agency for International Development have teams working closely together to create alternative livelihoods, including for former insurgents, and to reconstruct vital infrastructure.
Mr. Jenkin: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being admirably brief and very generous in taking interventions. May I report to him that when the Defence Committee took evidence on the comprehensive approach last week, Lord Malloch-Brown, a Foreign Office Minister, made it clear that Ministers were still "on probation"-his words-in terms of the Government's delivery of the comprehensive approach? There is no Cabinet secretariat for the comprehensive approach, no Cabinet Sub-Committee, and no sub-committee of the Ministerial Committee on National Security, International Relations and Development. How are the Government actually delivering the comprehensive approach, when Whitehall is simply not geared to deliver it?
David Miliband: There are two very clear answers to that. First, there is the Cabinet Committee structure, including Committees right up to the one that the Prime Minister chairs. Secondly and more importantly, however, as I said to the hon. Gentleman in our last such debate, the biggest proof of the joining up is the combined military-civilian mission in Helmand. That is where the joining up is most important; where civilian and military staff need to work closer together; and where the civilian and military staff need to work with the Afghan people. The proof of the joining up is in the area where it needs to make a difference, and in the end that is not in London, but in Helmand province.
Over the next few months, there are some critical milestones. In Afghanistan, as we try to build the capacity and legitimacy of its Government, the immediate priority is the elections on 20 August. Our objective is that these should be as credible, secure and inclusive as possible,
not only because they will be the first Afghan-led elections since the 1970s, but because they will determine the political direction of the country for the next five years. Given the security and political situation in which Afghanistan finds itself today, none of that will be easy, but we are working with the UN, the EU, the US and the rest of the international community to give the Afghan people the best chance that we can of them expressing their will.
That is why the British Government have agreed to additional troop deployments-to help those who want to vote to do so safely-alongside international and Afghan election observers. All the time, we must remember that our aim is to split the insurgency. The Taliban foot-soldiers must be convinced that the Afghan Government will be in charge in the years to come and can provide the protection and security that they want.
As the objective of our mission is our own safety, the ultimate test is our own safety, but there are important proxies for progress. NATO forces have trained 90,000 army personnel and 80,000 Afghan police, and they are now working closely alongside the international troops and civilian staff. The number of poppy-free provinces jumped from six to 13 in 2007, and this year it rose again to 18, representing more than half the provinces in the country. Cultivation was down by 19 per cent. last year.
School attendance or basic health care are not the reasons why we are conducting military operations in Afghanistan, but they are down-payments to the people of Afghanistan, and the increases in the number of students, from 1 million in 2001 to 6 million today, and in the number of people living in districts with access to basic health care, from 10 per cent. of the country to more than 80 per cent. today, are the building blocks of legitimacy and support from the Afghan people.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Since we last held a debate about Afghanistan, on 5 February, 41 British soldiers have lost their lives on operations there, and, as the House will recall, three of those recently killed were just 18 years old. It is fitting for us to remember today, as the Foreign Secretary did in his speech, their sacrifices and their families, and to pay tribute to their selfless courage. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Defence Secretary, put it very well the other day, when he said:
"We are fortunate that in a society without conscription we have people courageous and committed enough to put their lives at risk voluntarily for the security of their country and their fellow citizens."
As Members of Parliament, we should have the humility to recognise that the deployment of the British armed forces overseas ultimately rests on the consent and will of the British people, who make the sacrifices necessary to maintain those efforts; and it is therefore vital that the British public understand why we are in Afghanistan and support our aims there. That is why the recent public concern about British fatalities, and the questions of resourcing, should be of serious concern to all of us and, particularly, to Ministers.
We have occasional debates, as the Foreign Secretary said, and this one was announced on Monday after the recent casualties. However, I put it to Ministers that the Government would have done well to accept the proposal that we have consistently made over the past three years for regular, quarterly reports to Parliament on our objectives in Afghanistan, the benchmarks by which progress is measured and the success or otherwise in meeting those objectives and benchmarks. The Government speak occasionally of significant progress in Afghanistan, but the public and Parliament see little formal basis for such assessments other than assertions by Ministers. There would be greater public and parliamentary understanding of the situation if we had that regular updating of our objectives, a restatement of strategy, a reminder of the reasons for being there and a regular assessment of progress. It is not too late for the Government to institute such a quarterly arrangement, which, as I say, we have called for now for three years. Maintaining public support and understanding of our military and political efforts in Afghanistan is an important responsibility of government.
It is vital, too, that we are clear about what we are trying to do, and the Foreign Secretary was clear about that in his speech. We went into Afghanistan not out of choice, but out of necessity-to deny al-Qaeda the use of Afghanistan as a launch pad for training and planning attacks on western targets. It was a collective national purpose that was accepted by all parts of the House, and the consequences of failure are so serious for the whole region and the wider world that we have to do our utmost to make it work. So, although there have been what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition described yesterday as sometimes "lofty" and "vague" objectives over recent years, the Foreign Secretary has moved the Government towards defining our objectives in a more tightly drawn fashion. He said on the radio on Saturday that our objective is
"to ensure that Afghanistan can not again become an incubator for terrorism and a launching pad for attacks on us."
"to permit the people of Afghanistan to decide their own future in a way that enhances their security and livelihoods without presenting a danger to the rest of the world."-[ Official Report, 5 February 2009; Vol. 487, c.1044.]
Paul Flynn: Osama bin Laden still has a safe haven in which to plan his attacks on the west, and the incubator for terrorism has moved. Can the right hon. Gentleman think of any way in which we can secure a military victory to ensure that that incubator for terrorism disappears? We have not made any progress in that area for the past eight years.
If the Afghan Government were functioning as we wanted them to, with the widespread consent and support of Afghan people throughout the country, and, if the writ of the Government of Pakistan ran properly through all its territory, we would be in a stronger position with regard to the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises. However, there is a fundamental disagreement about the issue, and I think that he has always been on the other side from the majority in this House. We
should respect that view, but, for those of us who believe that it was necessary to go into Afghanistan, most of us believe also that it is still essential to make the mission work.
John Reid: Does not my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) illustrate how he misunderstands the nature of the conflict? There will not be a victory parade on a given day, in a given place, for a given, defined objective of territory. But, as long as we are denying al-Qaeda the capacity and space to attack us in the west, and denying the Taliban the right to impose their will on the people of Afghanistan by terror, we are winning.
Mr. Hague: That is an accurate reflection of our objectives, but the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) was also right to point out that we have not achieved them yet. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that, so the issue before us is how we go on to achieve them.
Mr. Hague: That is an important point-it is indeed a NATO operation. As has been shown in this debate, many of us would like some other NATO members to make a bigger military contribution; all parties in the House have called for that for years. The hon. Lady is right about that.
I want to finish the point about proper assessment and the benchmarking of progress. In his statement in April, the Prime Minister said that in September, after the Afghan elections, there would be a review of the appropriate troop levels and the United Kingdom effort in Afghanistan, and I hope that there will be such an assessment in the round. One area on which it should focus is whether the additional powers given to the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan in March last year have resulted in improved civil-military co-ordination on the ground; such co-ordination will be essential as Operation Panther's Claw makes progress.
As things stand, Parliament has few means of monitoring progress on that essential area. To cite another example, it also has few means of monitoring the number of successful reconstruction projects completed in areas of UK responsibility. If there is to be a review in September, I hope that it will restate for the nation clear, tightly drawn, realistic objectives and restate and set out more
clearly a strategy that includes sufficient attention to building Afghan capabilities, so that people in Britain and other NATO countries know that their troops will not be in Afghanistan for ever. I hope that that strategy will be agreed by all the principal allies now engaged in Afghanistan.
I want to press Ministers on three aspects of the Afghan campaign, and I shall try to do so briefly. They are troop numbers, helicopter capability and the follow-up to Operation Panther's Claw. It follows logically from having the right strategy that we should be confident that we have the right number of troops in Afghanistan to meet our military objectives and that those troops are properly resourced. An extremely damaging perception has crept in over recent years. Ministers' public assurances that our forces in Afghanistan will be given whatever they need are not upheld in reality. In the House this week, the Prime Minister said:
"I repeat that I have been reassured by commanders on the ground and at the top of the armed services that we have the manpower that we need for current operations."-[ Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 29.]
But on a visit to Afghanistan this week, the Chief of the General Staff said that the Army needed more "boots on the ground" to secure areas and win the confidence of the Afghan people. That echoes his reported remarks in March that 2,000 extra troops were needed in Afghanistan and that elements of 12 Mechanised Brigade had been earmarked for Afghanistan. In contrast, the Prime Minister announced on 29 April a temporary increase of 700 in UK forces. In the debate in February, we asked Ministers to bear in mind the overstretch of the armed forces when evaluating any request for additional troops-not that we were aware of any of the military advice that was then being given. That overstretch remains a serious factor.
It has been suggested in the press that the Defence Secretary's predecessor supported the deployment of 2,000 extra troops and that the United States was expecting the United Kingdom to deploy them. Indeed, it is said that of four options presented to Ministers, the deployment of 2,000 was clearly preferred among military commanders-something that the Government have never confirmed in public and of which the House has never been informed. However, the Prime Minister and Chancellor opted instead for an increase of 700, and for a tightly limited period.
When the Defence Secretary winds up the debate today, I hope that he will feel able to tell the House exactly what happened-what options were put in front of the Prime Minister and what criteria were used to reject the military advice to send 2,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Ministers might have had valid reasons for rejecting the request. They might have decided to reject it because of the overstretch of the forces, because they thought that the military case had not been properly argued or because they did not want to accede to the request without other NATO countries increasing their forces. One can imagine reasons why they might make the decision, but it is important for them to explain those reasons frankly to the country, so that we can evaluate the policies of the Government on this matter. Ministers should explain the reasons for their decision.
In earlier debates, I have made the point that there should be a unity of command in a military sense for NATO forces in Afghanistan, but there should also be a
clear unity of command within the Government in Britain, so that everyone can be clear about which Minister is primarily responsible for our strategy in Afghanistan. General Dannatt said this week:
"We've got to think through the way that we operate, the resources we've got, the numbers we've got...to make sure that we're giving ourselves the...best chance of succeeding".
The House and the country need to know who in the Government is in charge of the war on a day-to-day basis and who makes sure all the time that the issues raised by General Dannatt are thought through. If no Minister is in charge of Government strategy in the round on a day-to-day basis, should that situation not be put right by the Prime Minister?
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): May I read to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's reply to a parliamentary question in which I asked him who is responsible for determining the UK's strategy in Afghanistan? He said:
"I accept responsibility for UK strategy in Afghanistan. I refer the hon. Member to the statement I made to the House on 29 April".-[ Official Report, 4 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 639W.]
Mr. Hague: That illustrates the point, in a way. Clearly, the Prime Minister is not going to spend his entire day, on a day-to-day basis, consumed by these matters, but there should be a Minister in the Government who does spend his or her time in that way. Of course this requires Ministers to work together, but it also requires a clear sense of ownership of the strategy and the problem, and that is not evident at the moment.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Everyone in this House, from whichever party, despises the Taliban and everything they stand for. However, is the right hon. Gentleman really telling us, and the public, that if enough troops and resources were available the Taliban would be decisively defeated, perhaps over the next eight years, and never surface again? Is there not a danger of misleading the public?
Mr. Hague: I do not think it is impossible for us to succeed. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether I think it is possible that we could succeed on the basis of the objectives that I have been talking about and that the Foreign Secretary clearly shares, on behalf of the Government, I do think that. I do not write off the possibility of success. However, it requires not only the necessary resources but one or two other matters that I want to deal with briefly in the remainder of my remarks.
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