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16 July 2009 : Column 506

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that if a degree of stability is ever reached in some of those hostile territories, a military presence will still be needed, but in the longer term such a presence will have to be provided by the Afghan army so that at some time our troops can come home?

Mr. Davey: I absolutely accept that and I shall come back to the subject later.

There are tough questions surrounding our views on the Taliban and on the intentions we think they have to foment and protect international terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda. Is the conservative Pashtun nationalism that characterises much of the Taliban inherently jihadist? The Taliban may be deeply unattractive and unpopular with many Afghans, but do they represent an inherent threat to us and other countries? Is there any intelligence assessment to tell us that the Taliban might agree to fight al-Qaeda themselves, if only ISAF-the international security assistance force-were to withdraw from the south of Afghanistan? How would that be viewed in relation to the objective of ensuring stability in Pakistan? These strike me as not unreasonable questions to ask. I am simply asking for far more honesty and rigour in how we approach the definition of our objectives.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman considered this point? He and I think most of the speeches so far, have concentrated on the situation in Afghanistan when we know that during the last couple of years there has been an enormous spread of the Taliban in Pakistan, which is also associated with al-Qaeda activity? Will he comment on the implications for the much more serious situation in Pakistan if our efforts in Afghanistan were to fail? If the Taliban, still supporting al-Qaeda, were able to resume control, that would not only be bad news in Afghanistan but make the task of the Pakistani Government infinitely more difficult, with far more ominous consequences for the rest of the world.

Mr. Davey: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right to say we need to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to support the Pakistan Government in achieving what we have asked them to do, but that still prompts the question of when sufficient stability will have arrived in southern Afghanistan to provide an acceptable level of stability in Pakistan. I accept his point, but it still raises other questions, which are precisely those I am seeking to raise.

The political stability required to provide us with sufficient security from a repeat of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks might have quite a messy, chaotic and confused aspect. It may well be that that type of political stability could be provided by a state that is relatively weak. That is why I am trying to tease out from the Government whether they really expect a western-style strong democracy to provide the political stability we need or whether there is some other shape to it.

I believe that we are sometimes in danger of suggesting that we have to defeat the Taliban totally and everywhere in order to win and then withdraw our troops, but that does not seem to me to be realistic. We need to focus for part of the time on how best to contain the Taliban with strengthened Governments in Kabul and in Pakistan.

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Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is right to make the point that we should begin to lower expectations about the eventual outcome. Our former ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, made the point that we could not expect a western-style democracy suddenly to spring out of the soil in Afghanistan and that something much less than that might be all that was necessary for an exit strategy.

Mr. Davey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those points.

When we think about our counter-terrorism strategy more widely I believe this point becomes clearer, because the terrorist threat we face in Britain does not uniquely live somewhere confined to the mountains either side of the Durand line. As we have seen, that threat can come from our own towns and cities and it can be fomented as much by our presence in a foreign Islamic country as by our absence. My guess-honestly, it can only be a guess-is that our deployment so far has been an effective part of our wider counter-terrorism strategy: by denying al-Qaeda its previous space, ISAF has made our citizens appreciably safer. However, the job of Ministers is not to guess but to ask for intelligence assessments to decide which strategy makes the country safer.

I presume that the Foreign Secretary sees spine-chilling accounts from the intelligence services of how many al-Qaeda fighters are in the region, and how many hundreds or thousands of foreigners are travelling from all over the world to join their jihad against us. When was the last time that he or the Prime Minister assessed, against the evidence and intelligence, the progress of our policy on Afghanistan in achieving its central counter-terrorist objectives? Have the Government assessed whether Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF deployment is the best way to use our resources to make Britain and the world safer? Ultimately, can Ministers assure us that there is a serious remaining threat to Britain and the world posed by al-Qaeda fighters, if they are still there, and from the danger of a failed state in Afghanistan or Pakistan leading to the resurgence of an al-Qaeda threat? Unless that threat remains, is real, and can be tackled by our presence, the mission's objective is undermined-I do not believe that it is, but we need to be reassured that the Government are asking such questions of our intelligence services and military.

On resources for our troops, the three charges made against the Government relate to helicopters, vehicles and troop numbers. On all accounts, the Government have at best been slow to address those issues, and at worse made serious errors.

Paul Flynn: Is there not a grave danger that if troop movements take place more in helicopters in future, we might see a repeat of what happened during the Russian invasion when 20 helicopters were shot down? Were that to happen, we might see our soldiers dying not in twos or three, but in 30s or 40s?

Mr. Davey: I do not have the full information to answer that question, because I do not know the full weapon capability of the Taliban, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) informs me from a sedentary position that they do not have the weapons that the Mujaheddin had against the Russians and their helicopters. I defer to others on the exact details.

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Sir Menzies Campbell: It might also help my hon. Friend, in his consideration of the matter, to know that the defensive aids available to helicopters are much more sophisticated now than they were during the Soviet invasion and occupation.

Mr. Davey: Indeed. Let us be clear that the role of helicopters is judged to be crucial by everyone across the House. Those of us who want to criticise the Government for failing to provide sufficient helicopters in a timely fashion are right to make that challenge. The all-party Defence Committee report published today has gone into huge detail: parliamentary colleagues talked to soldiers, commanders and other experts, and found that we have not been ensuring that the helicopter fleet is ready. The report is alarming-though it does not use alarmist language-in concluding:

That is extremely serious. I hope that whichever Defence Minister responds to the debate, some of the Defence Committee's criticisms will be addressed.

Ms Gisela Stuart: It is right to question the Government, and to criticise if fault is found. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that in a week when eight dead soldiers were returned, three of whom were so young that they were still in primary school when the Afghan conflict started, politicians should not create the impression that the casualties would not have been inflicted if only we had the helicopters? We must be sensitive.

Mr. Davey: I completely agree with the hon. Lady.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, perfectly fairly, that because a helicopter contains a large number of people, it can cause a large number of deaths at any one time. That is true. Provided that the helicopters are available to them, commanders on the ground will need to weigh the risks in the balance, and decide whether one method of transport is safer than another.

Mr. Davey: I agree. I believe that such decisions should be made by the soldiers and commanders on the ground, not by us in the House of Commons. Our job is to provide them with the necessary resources in the first place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked a question that did not receive a reply. If, for some reason, it is dangerous for the figures relating to the absolute number of helicopters two years ago and the present number to be in the public domain-of which I am not entirely convinced-surely those figures can be shared with members of the Select Committee so that they can, on our behalf, hold the Government to account for the statements that they are making about helicopters.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The shortage is serious for a number of reasons, many of which have been aired this afternoon. If commanders on the ground are given the option of moving troops by air as well as by road-we saw plenty of that in Northern Ireland-and if there are not enough helicopters, many victories on
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the ground will become pyrrhic if we do not dominate the ground afterwards. That is what we are currently seeing in parts of Afghanistan.

Mr. Davey: I share the hon. Gentleman's view.

Ann Winterton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: I am sorry, but I want to make some progress. I do not want to take too much of the House's time: I want others to be able to speak.

When it comes to troop numbers, the case against the Prime Minister's judgment seems even stronger. As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, the chiefs of staff appear to have put to the Prime Minister a recommendation-not an option-in stating that the provision of 2,000 extra troops was their preference. It appears that cost was a key issue in the rejection of their recommendation. If that is not the case, the Secretary of State can stand up at the Dispatch Box and deny it, but so far we have heard no denial of those reports, although the charge is fairly serious. I hope that the Secretary of State will at least try to respond to it when he winds up the debate.

I do not think that anyone is arguing that a reinforcement of 2,000 troops would have transformed our fortunes in Helmand-of course it would not-but it is clear that more troops would have helped to do the job of winning more territory ahead of the key elections. However, even more troops cannot help if there is no link between their presence and the political solutions that we are trying to achieve. General McChrystal is at least trying to stop the military part of the campaign from making the political solutions more difficult with his instruction to reduce the number of civilian casualties.

More should have been done much earlier to prevent civilian casualties. When the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked about the number of casualties in February this year, the Foreign Secretary promised to write to him with the best estimate that the Government had. Perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us what that figure was, and whether there is any update.

Of course, a political solution through our military presence means doing much more than simply limiting the collateral. We are told that the civilian surge is key to that, and is being developed and improved, but the critical question must be "What is the involvement of ordinary Afghans in that surge?" The Foreign Secretary has rightly talked about "Afghanisation" of the efforts, but I want to hear in far more detail how that is being implemented.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Of course General McChrystal is right to place the emphasis where he does, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not try to give the impression that we have been cavalier about civilian casualties in the past. We have done all that we can to avoid them, and we investigate them thoroughly whenever they arise. The Taliban kill far more Afghans than our forces do.

Mr. Davey: I can reassure the Secretary of State that I agree with him on that point, but I hope he accepts that there have been many reports suggesting that the Americans
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have been rather more cavalier than the British forces in that regard. I think that that is why General McChrystal-not me-gave that instruction.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon, but I am not going to take any more interventions.

I assume that Governor Mangal is central to organising the civilian surge, at least in Helmand; but is he? I think we need to know about the nature of the involvement of the Afghan people. The civilian-military operations may have a great deal of British and American input, especially in terms of finance and specialist skills, but can we be told in the winding-up speech how many Afghans are working with these teams, and how are local fears of being branded a collaborator should the Taliban retake a village or town being overcome? That is critical to achieving the local political solutions we need, and we cannot move from the military to the political solutions unless we deal with that fear.

Part of my concern about the current strategy-if we can call it that-is that one rarely hears a convincing description of what shape the political solutions envisaged in Washington, London, Kabul and elsewhere will take. The elements are there and they are repeated often. They include the following: the elections in August; the emphasis on having local political solutions, which is vital given the reality of decentralisation in Afghanistan; the importance of building the Afghan national army and police force; and the investment in non-narcotic agriculture. Yet it all seems to lack coherence. Perhaps General McChyrstal will bring some coherence after he has completed his current review, which will presumably take into account the election result. However, one has to ask some serious questions about whether the Government are playing their full role in making sure that everything is coherent.

On the elections, how is ISAF planning to judge whether they have been a successful exercise that confers genuine legitimacy on the victor? With half the population registered to vote at the last estimate, and with widespread accusations of fraud in some provinces, do Ministers believe this election can provide the springboard that we all hope for? One also has to ask searching questions about security and the international monitoring of the campaign and polling day itself. When he replies to the debate, can the Secretary of State say a little more about the preparations for this election, as that is clearly a critical part of the journey to political progress?

In describing that political progress, I would like the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary to say a little more about how they view the role of the Taliban. Have the Taliban been engaged in any shape or form by our diplomats or security services? Are there any successful attempts that Ministers can point to of having engaged parts of the Taliban and peeled them away? If there are such examples, we need to hear about them, because the plans for reconciliation and a political solution depend on it. We need the Government to address those questions, otherwise concern will remain about the direction we are taking.

My final remarks relate to Pakistan. It appears that some progress has been made; either through persuasion, bribery, reassurance or simply of their own volition, the Pakistani Government appear to have grasped some
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difficult nettles, and they deserve credit for that. Our Government are therefore right to proffer our strong support, with development aid and counter-insurgency expertise. As the Foreign Secretary noted, providing assistance to the refugees of the fighting is also critical. The better co-operation we have seen between ISAF and Pakistan, and between Presidents Karzai and Zardari, also bodes well. Do the Government think that can be sustained, and how are we helping in that, and does it mark the strategic shift we all want? We have heard about the Pakistani army now patrolling parts of the border to stop the Taliban regrouping in Pakistan. That is fantastic, but can it be sustained?

The better relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan points to what we need in the wider sense-the inclusion of all the region's players to create the solution. Secretary of State Clinton deserves a lot of credit for trying to do that. Everyone is aware of the many historical and political sensitivities that arise in any one of the region's players being involved, such as India's disputes with Pakistan over Kashmir, and the fact that the Iranians, who have been extraordinarily helpful in the west of Afghanistan at different times, have many arguments with Britain and America. We need to find the diplomatic skills to see beyond those historical sensitivities and disagreements, in order to find a solution that will work in Afghanistan.

I believe that President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke and General McChrystal have produced something that we can all rally behind-ISAF and the many countries involved in this enterprise. We are now entering a critical phase, and the effort, the extra resources and the extra political capital put behind it now need to be made to work. The Government know they have the support of all the main parties on this, but they have got to start answering more searching questions to make sure they retain the support of the country.

3.20 pm

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I declare an interest, as registered. May I begin by expressing my condolences for every one of the young men and women who have given their life or sustained injury in the cause for which we sent them? We should remember them every moment of every day.

In the limited time available to me, I wish to touch on the questions before the House, which concern strategy, resources, Government posture and the nature of the conflict. The strategic objective, which has been the subject of much discussion here, has been clear from the beginning. It may have been formulated in different ways, but it is as follows: to protect our country's security by assisting the democratically elected Afghanistan Government to reconstruct their civil, political, military and economic capacity.

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