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The Prime Minister has said that the deployment of extra troops is conditional on the military assuring him that they have the necessary equipment and training, but will not people think that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that they have the necessary
equipment? Will people not also ask why, after eight years, we are still playing catch-up on equipment? As we have said repeatedly, helicopters are crucial. Will he tell us what progress has been made on getting more Chinooks to theatre? He said in his statement that the "first Merlin helicopters" will be deployed in the next two weeks. Can he assure the House that all six Merlins from Iraq will be in Afghanistan by the end of the year, as he promised? We welcome the delivery of the new Ridgback and Mastiff armoured vehicles, but, according to yesterday's Public Accounts Committee report, only one in five of the Mastiff fleet were classified as fit in June 2008. Will he tell us whether that completely unacceptable position has now improved?
The Prime Minister tells us that the troops going to Afghanistan will be properly trained and equipped, yet today we see that training for the Territorial Army, including some who are going to Afghanistan, has been cut. Will people not conclude from that that he is not fully on top of what is happening in his own Government? On the additional 500 troops that he has announced, can he confirm that that is what the military have actually asked for? Vitally, will he also make it clear that the troops announced today are new, additional soldiers, not troops who are already there and who have had their stay extended?
I want to return, if I may, to what the Prime Minister said to me when I asked about the military's request for extra troops in the summer. On 13 July, in the House, I asked him specifically whether commanders had asked for more troops to do more things and whether he had been asked for 2,000 more troops. He replied:
"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 the current operations."-[ Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 26.]
Yet we now know that the military did ask for 2,000 more troops in March this year. Will he tell us why that option was rejected? Will he also explain why he gave such an evasive answer on such an important issue as troop numbers? Does he not understand that we are only going to carry the public's confidence if we are straight with them about the choices that we face?
Finally, let me ask about what is being done to put our entire effort in Afghanistan on to a proper war footing in Whitehall. We need a clear sense of direction from Ministers, a clear sense of who is in day-to-day charge, and a Government machine that responds quickly and decisively. Will the Prime Minister tell us today what he is doing to make that happen? Let me be clear: we support the mission in Afghanistan, provided that we are realistic about what we are aiming to achieve. To us, the overriding aim must be to train the Afghan forces so that they can take responsibility for their own security and our soldiers can come back home.
The Prime Minister: I will answer every specific point that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but I want to stress that the decisions that we are announcing today have been made after the fullest possible consultation with our American allies, with the Secretary-General of NATO, with our own military commanders on the ground and with the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff. I have regularly met them over the past few weeks to deal with these issues.
The right hon. Gentleman should also be aware that the National Security Committee has been meeting every week throughout the summer to review events and dispensations. That committee has the advantage of being a committee not simply of Ministers such as the Foreign Secretary, the International Development Secretary, the Defence Secretary, myself and others; its membership also includes the commanders themselves, our security services and those people who can advise us on the issues on the ground. On some occasions, we have had a regular input from our ambassador in Kabul. It is completely not the case that these matters are not being properly co-ordinated at the centre of Government by a National Security Committee with the advice of our commanders at all times and with regular meetings and discussions with our allies.
Let me deal first with the right hon. Gentleman's question about Pakistan. He is absolutely right to say that there are risks in Pakistan, as the Pakistan Taliban in particular are engaged in activities against the Pakistan Government. He should also note, however, that in the past few months in Pakistan we have seen the most encouraging coalition of forces: the Opposition parties as well as the Government, and the security services as well as the army, are determined to take on the Pakistan Taliban in those areas where they have a foothold. They are taking the fight to them, removing them from the territory and doing an incredible amount of work to ensure that displaced people can get back into their own areas.
This was reflected in the Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting that we held at the United Nations. That meeting involved not just ourselves and America; there was representation from all the major countries in Europe and elsewhere wanting to support the efforts of the Pakistan Government to deal with the problem that they face. I have had assurance from President Zardari-we know that there have been discussions because the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary were in Pakistan very recently; the Foreign Secretary is also in direct touch-that the Pakistan Government plan to take their campaign from the Swat valley into Waziristan at some point. They are planning how to deal with not only the Pakistan Taliban but the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda itself. It was encouraging, having defined the problem as one that covers the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, that while we had hoped for years that the Pakistan authorities would take action, they are now doing so. As the Leader of the Opposition said, they recognise that the terror threat is very close to home for them.
On Afghanistan, I was asked about General McChrystal's report and about a number of issues relating to equipment. I want to ensure that people understand the process of consultation that we have gone through, and the logic of the decisions that we have made. The basic elements of General McChrystal's report relating to the principles of future operations involve a move from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency, and a move from an emphasis on holding areas to being with the largest areas of population and winning hearts and minds. The aim is therefore not simply to eliminate the Taliban but to win the support of the Afghan people. It is for that reason that the general is proposing-rightly so; we ourselves proposed this some months ago-that the partnering and mentoring
of the Afghan forces to build up the Afghan army and security forces are absolutely central to everything we do.
When we went in on Operation Panther's Claw, we wanted the Afghan forces to hold the ground. They came, but they were not strong enough or well equipped enough to do so. We need an Afghan army that is properly strengthened and properly equipped. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, that means getting a balanced army across the country as well as getting troops to come from other parts of the country to Helmand, where 30 per cent. of the violence takes place. Our aim is to move from an Afghan army of 90,000 to one of 134,000, and to train the troops but also to have them in action with our own troops right up to headquarters level. We believe that, in the next year, that extra 50,000 or so troops can be achieved through a recruitment rate of 5,000 a month and through those troops being sent into Helmand.
The integration of people who are part of the Taliban or the insurgency and who could be persuaded to come over is a central element of the work that we are doing. The Foreign Secretary emphasised that in a speech only a few weeks ago. The importance of it has led General Lamb, who acted with great distinction in Iraq, to go to work with General McChrystal on the very process of reintegration and splitting the Taliban.
There are Pashtun nationalists, people hired for a dollar or two a day, young people who want to assert their independence, and Taliban and al-Qaeda ideologues. We have got to separate the people who worry that they are hit with an occupying army from those who simply want al-Qaeda or the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan and practise terrorism from that country. I believe that all parties share our determination on political reconciliation, but it is important to note it.
Let me answer the questions on equipment. There will be two Merlin helicopters there very soon and our plan is get six there as soon as possible. The problem has been that we have to re-blade the helicopters from their work in Iraq; then the pilots have to be trained for the difficult and different terrain of Afghanistan. That work is going on; I have seen it at first hand when I have visited the RAF base in which it is being done. I was also asked whether we would have other helicopters. Chinooks will be going there next year; Lynx has been remodelled for high intensity and very hot atmospheres, and they are going there from next summer. With Mastiff and Ridgback, I think I am right in saying that 500 vehicles have been sent to Afghanistan in the last period of time. The equipment for Mastiff and Ridgback is now second to none. Of course we want to get more there as soon as possible, and we are making that happen.
I have already said that I will investigate what the Leader of the Opposition said about the Territorial Army, but I emphasise to him that the Territorial Army is part of our mission in Afghanistan. Anybody who goes to Afghanistan has the assurance that we will do everything in our power to make sure that they are fully equipped for the tasks that they undertake.
I was asked about the numbers of troops in Afghanistan and the issues that arose. A number of options were before us earlier this year for different kinds of operations that we might mount in Afghanistan. We took the necessary decision to send more engineers to Afghanistan
to protect ourselves against the IED threat. A range of options were discussed and we decided to raise the number of troops from 8,100 to 9,000 until we could see what was happening with the American review of strategy and also what happened during the election campaign. We raised the number from 8,100 to 9,000, and we are now making a decision to raise the number again from 9,000 to 9,500. We are redeploying the regional battle group to central Helmand, because that is the best use of it as we try to undertake the task of protecting our forces while at the same time conducting our Afghan support exercise for Afghan troops. The decisions taken have been agreed by all our military advisers as the right decisions to take for the future.
The reason for imposing conditions is obvious. We cannot train the Afghan forces without the Afghan Government making those forces available to be trained. We want to go in harmony with the American decisions that General McChrystal and the President are discussing. I believe that what we are saying today is consistent with what the Americans will decide.
Of course, we want to be absolutely sure that the troops we send are properly and fully equipped for the future. In other words, whenever there has been a need for us to protect our troops and to move forward the campaign, which is now about Afghans taking more responsibility, we have been prepared to send the troops, to make the investment, to provide the finance and to support the troops on the ground. I hope that the Conservative party will be able to maintain what has been a consistent bipartisan approach to a necessary exercise in Afghanistan, and that we can proceed on the basis that there is support in all quarters of the House for the activities that we are undertaking.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, quite a lot of which I welcome. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches have argued that we cannot fight and succeed in this war on half horsepower, with half measures, with half-baked thinking. Time is running out for the mission in Afghanistan and we need a radical change in direction.
The Prime Minister set out today a number of conditions on which the deployment of extra British troops will depend, but does he agree that, ultimately, the key condition is that they should have a realistic chance of success, which requires above all a credible new strategy? The public are rightly cautious about a drip, drip accumulation of British forces in Afghanistan without any overarching strategy to work from or realistic goals to work towards. More troops may be necessary, but they will not be sufficient to guarantee success.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said today about new Merlin helicopters and more Mastiff and Ridgback vehicles, although we need more detail on when they will be available on the ground and on whether the poorly armed Snatch Land Rovers have now been withdrawn from service as the Government promised in the past. Does the Prime Minister not agree with General McChrystal's conclusion that focusing just on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely and that there is more to this than just boots and equipment on the ground? Does he not agree that the key and central failure in Afghanistan is the lack, still today, of a
co-ordinated international plan? What is the Prime Minister doing to advance a political surge to run alongside any new military surge?
As Secretary of State Clinton said this week, not everyone who calls himself a Taliban is necessarily a threat to the United Kingdom or the United States. I welcome what the Prime Minister said a few minutes ago on that issue, but can he be more precise? I see the Prime Minister is smiling, but can he address the point? What programmes, what budgets and what staff have been allocated to the fairly serious job of reconciliation and grass-roots diplomacy in Afghanistan? Beyond the borders of Afghanistan, what progress has been made to bring other countries in the region together, to share intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and to tackle the opium trade?
On military strategy, General McChrystal has highlighted the need to defend urban centres. Does the Prime Minister concede that it is now better to focus our forces on defending the more populated areas rather than operating from remote outposts in a Taliban-dominated countryside in Helmand?
Finally, the Karzai Government have spectacularly failed to win the trust of the Afghan people. They are beset by corruption, crime and the influence of warlords. The Prime Minister talked in his statement about the need for a more inclusive political process, but let me press him again on the issue that I raised with him earlier. Does he agree that, regardless of electoral outcomes, only a full Government of national unity can now deliver a platform for progress in Afghanistan?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman's first remarks were that we did not have a strategy for Afghanistan and that we needed to think it through. His second set of remarks, however, revealed that he has not understood that our strategy is to give Afghans more responsibility for their own affairs, to train up the Afghan army and military, to train up the security forces and police, and to make sure that civilian government in Afghanistan is more effectively done. That is why I will have to correct the right hon. Gentleman when it comes to some of his proposals.
Yes, General Lamb is working on how he can help to reintegrate into civilian society people who desert the Taliban, but in the end it has to be a process of the Afghans themselves coming together and working together for the future. Equally, as far as a Government of national unity is concerned, it is not for us to prescribe what the Government should be. That is for the electorate, and for their verdict to be taken into account by President Karzai, Dr. Abdullah and all the other people involved. If a re-run or second round of the election is necessary, that may have to happen. We have to accept that that is in the hands of the electoral commission, which will make recommendations after it has looked at spoiled and fraudulent ballots.
Our strategy in Afghanistan is to build up the army from 90,000 to 134,000 as quickly as possible; to build up the police from about 98,000 to about 150,000; to build up the civilian shuras and the district and provincial government in Afghanistan to make it more effective; and to be in a position to hand control of Afghanistan, area by area, back to the Afghan people. That seems to me to be the most sensible policy.
As far as vehicles are concerned, there has been a sea change in the way we have brought in Mastiffs and Ridgbacks. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is an issue about small vehicles, and we are looking at that at the moment. I suspect that he will hear from the troops on the ground that, although the IED threat is real, the vehicles brought in during recent months are by far the best they have ever had and the best in the world. We will do everything that we can to ensure that there are better vehicles in the future.
As for President Karzai and governance, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We cannot tolerate a situation in which we have British forces, indeed allied forces, in Afghanistan, and a Government who are tolerating corruption. That is why President Obama, I and others will propose to whoever takes over the government of Afghanistan that there must be a contract that is monitored to deal specifically with corruption, to deal with the appointment of governors in a fair way so that we can deal with corruption in the provinces, to deal with the training of Afghan forces for the future, and to deal with something which, although I was not able to talk about it today, is absolutely important to the Afghan people: to create a climate for economic activity which involves wheat rather than heroin, and in which small businesses can develop and Afghan people can have a stake in the future of their country. That is the way forward, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find a way in which to support it.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I want to accommodate as many as possible of the more than 30 Members who are seeking to catch my eye, so I am looking for single, short supplementary questions and, of course, economical replies.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): On Saturday 24 October, thousands of people will march through London calling for British troops to come out of Afghanistan, and they will represent the views of millions of people in this country. Does the Prime Minister not realise that this is a war that does not enjoy popular support? It has gone on for eight years, it has cost too many lives, and it has no end in sight. Can the Prime Minister produce a strategy to end it, and not to continue the occupation?
The Prime Minister: I must tell my hon. Friend that our strategy is to create a situation in which British troops can start coming home, which means strengthening the Afghan forces to enable them to do this job.
I think that my hon. Friend should remember the circumstances in which we went into Afghanistan in the first place. Forty countries are with us in a 41-nation coalition, and every other country that has been involved in Afghanistan has put troops, equipment or civilian staff into it. It is important to recognise that there is widespread support for this operation across and beyond NATO. I think that before people consider their final view on Afghanistan, they should look at the strategy that we are actually proposing: a strategy that gives Afghans more control of their army and police forces to enable our troops to come home over a period of time.
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