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1.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I am pleased to be able to open this relatively short debate on the situation in Afghanistan. It is just two months since our last discussion of the Afghan campaign. Since the debate on 23 November, the conflict in Afghanistan has taken the lives of 11 more British soldiers, and this weekend right hon. and hon. Members will have seen reports of the death of the first British journalist-Rupert Hamer of the Sunday Mirror. These casualties, as the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats said at Prime Minister's questions yesterday, underline the courage and bravery not just of our servicemen and women, diplomats and aid workers, but of everyone on duty in Afghanistan. On behalf of the Government, I want to pay tribute to the fallen, and to the loved ones left behind.

The rationale for the mission in Afghanistan remains to ensure that that country never again becomes an incubator of al-Qaeda and international terrorism. Although in the last few weeks it is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that has dominated the headlines, after the Detroit incident, the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the incubator of choice for international terrorist groups and poses the greatest threat to our security here in the UK.

Over the course of the past 12 months, it has become increasingly clear that the insurgency is strong and, in places, deeply rooted. With some success it has adapted its tactics, turning to asymmetric warfare and laying improvised explosive devices, often with deadly effect. However, it was striking that last week's BBC-ABC opinion poll of 1,500 Afghans across all 34 provinces showed that 70 per cent. of Afghans now feel that their country is heading in the right direction-up from 40 per cent. last year and the highest figure since 2005. A similar proportion-71 per cent.-say they expect things to be better a year from now, which is up 20 per cent. on last year. I will come on to some of the other findings, not least those on corruption, which suggest the areas where the Afghan population want to see change.

Security, governance and regional support are the key to Afghanistan's future. Last year saw notable developments in all three areas. First, we had the reinvigoration of the military strategy. Since his arrival in July, General McChrystal has rightly refocused international efforts on population security, and made the development of the Afghan national security forces a top priority-including through intensive partnering and mentoring. On 1 December President Obama promised an additional 30,000 troops to help General McChrystal to implement this strategy. Following on the heels of the 21,000 US troops and trainers deployed earlier in the year, this represents a very significant increase. And with other international security assistance force countries- including the UK-together providing a further 7,500 soldiers, it will markedly improve the density of international forces in the key provinces in southern Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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Secondly, President Karzai set out at the end of November a clear and ambitious five-point agenda to set his country back on a path to peace and stability. Thirdly, the launch of the Pakistani offensive in the federally administered tribal area means we now have mutually reinforcing strategies on both sides of the Durand line. The insurgents have been pushed out of the Swat valley, Buner and Lower Dir. The military operations are now focused on the federally administered tribal area itself, notably in south Waziristan. Although the military have taken heavy casualties and many thousands of civilians have been displaced, public support for these operations is holding strongly. With 3,000 people killed in terrorist attacks last year, the Pakistani people have every reason to support these military operations.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Pakistani intervention on its own side of the Durand line has made a huge difference. How much confidence does the Foreign Secretary have that the Pakistanis will maintain the pressure throughout this year and next?

David Miliband: This is an issue that I discussed in Pakistan with its leaders last weekend. The Pakistani perspective has been changed significantly by the events of the past nine to 12 months. The prospect of the Taliban 70 km from Islamabad, which was the headline not just in the international newspapers but across the Pakistani newspapers last year, was a chilling explanation of the threat that domestic terrorism poses to Pakistan.

I believe that there is a strong commitment in the Government and the armed forces to take on the campaign against those terrorist groups who threaten Pakistan. However, I counsel two things. First, a military campaign on its own will not undo the political and economic underdevelopment, notably in the FATA. As I have reminded the House before, those agencies still operate under the Frontier Crimes Regulation 1903 and political parties are banned. Secondly, the Pakistani authorities need international help, as I shall say a bit later, in a range of areas.

This year will also revolve around these three issues: security, governance and development, and regional support. That brings me to the Afghanistan conference that will take place here in London in two weeks' time. The conference will be co-chaired by me, my Afghan counterpart, with whom I spoke this morning, and the United Nations Secretary-General's special representative, Kai Eide. Invitations have been extended to the Foreign Ministers of all ISAF partner countries, Afghanistan's immediate neighbours and the key regional players, as well as representatives of NATO, the UN, the European Union and other international organisations, including the World Bank.

As the Prime Minister explained when he announced the conference on 28 November, the aim is

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The Foreign Secretary said that Afghanistan's immediate neighbours have all been invited. Can he confirm whether Iran has been invited; and if so, at what level it will be represented?

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David Miliband: I am very happy to do so. The Iranian Foreign Minister was invited, along with all the other Foreign Ministers who were invited, to attend the conference. We have not yet had confirmation from the Iranian authorities of the level at which they expect to be represented.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary expect the Afghan Government and, in particular, the Afghan Cabinet to have been approved and to be in place by the time of the conference?

David Miliband: I very much hope so.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con) rose-

David Miliband: I hope that I get some credit on the clock for these interventions, because it does not seem to have been adjusted following the last one. [Hon. Members: "It was."] The one opposite me was not, actually.

Mr. Vara: The Foreign Secretary is most generous, and I shall be brief. Will he assure me that he will use the conference as an opportunity to encourage the majority of our coalition partners to do more in the effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Although a small number of coalition countries are being active and helpful, the vast majority could do more, particularly on the provision of front-line forces.

David Miliband: We certainly want the burden to be shared as widely as possible, and the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My own sense is that the clarity of the strategy that is now available makes it far easier for countries to explain to their own people why they need to increase their deployments, whether military or civilian. The response of the NATO countries after President Obama's speech was some indication of that.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: No, I am sorry. The hon. Gentleman is going to make his own speech anyway, so he should contain his enthusiasm.

The basis of the political strategy can be simply stated The insurgency is not a monolith; it comprises many different groups that have, to a greater or lesser extent, co-opted foreign fighters, local tribes, those involved in the drug trade and mercenary foot soldiers who are paid as little as $10 a day. It relies heavily on the support or acquiescence of ordinary citizens, most of whom despise the Taliban but fear reprisal attacks if they resist. The fluid nature of the insurgency makes it resilient, and we know that the different groups feed off and support each other, but with the right political strategy, and the right balance of military muscle and political outreach, we can exploit those divisions.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: No, I am sorry. Let me see how far I can get before the guillotine comes down on my neck.

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The London conference will therefore focus on upgrading the international effort in three key areas: security, governance and development, and regional relations. First, on security, if we want Afghans to resist insurgent threats and bribery, we need them to believe that when international troops draw down, it will be the Afghan authorities, not the Taliban, who prevail. So the conference will focus on how international forces can help to mentor, partner and develop the Afghan national security forces.

ISAF has already trained and equipped 96,000 members of the Afghan national army, and the Afghan national police are also about 90,000 strong. The conference will also consider how the respective roles of the international and Afghan forces should evolve over time. As the Afghan security forces grow and develop, they will need gradually to assume, district by district and province by province, lead responsibility for security. We also hope that the conference includes announcements about the international community's willingness to fund an Afghan-led reintegration programme, so the Afghan Government need a serious reintegration offer for those who want a route out of violence and back into normal Afghan life.

The second priority for the London conference is governance and development. With the Taliban appointing shadow governors and installing courts to deliver their swift but brutal brand of "justice", the Afghan authorities need to guard against being not just out-gunned but out-governed. Nationally, the Afghan Government must respond by tackling corruption. In the BBC-ABC opinion poll that I mentioned, 95 per cent. of those surveyed said that corruption within the police or Government was a problem in their area. We hope that the London conference will help to support concrete steps by the Afghan authorities to improve transparency and accountability.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way briefly?

David Miliband: Okay.

Mr. Baron: On that first objective, given that it will still take a long time to bring the Afghan security forces up to speed, will the Foreign Secretary address the central concern that in Helmand province, for example, the Americans will have twice the number of troops but cover only one third of the population? When it comes to counter-insurgency, does he agree that that ratio needs to be re-examined?

David Miliband: I very much welcome the fact that we are now talking about a coalition effort throughout the south, including in Helmand. I have seen in some newspapers-it is worth putting this on the record-talk of British troops "ceding ground" to the Americans or "retreating" to allow Americans to take over.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): That is nonsense.

David Miliband: That, frankly, is nonsense, I agree. In fact, I wish that I had been able to say that before the hon. Gentleman popped it out of his mouth! That's my line-that it is nonsense. How many years have we been saying in this House that we want greater burden sharing and to ensure the proper deployment of forces according
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to need? I know that General McChrystal very closely scrutinises force densities not just in Helmand province but throughout the country. When I was in Afghanistan in November, I spent the day with him and his team, looking at precisely where, throughout Afghanistan, the greatest deployment of forces was needed, and at how the force densities in the key provinces match the best of counter-insurgency doctrine.

Without going into any operational matters, I assure the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that the appropriate force densities are kept under very close review. The US forces' commitment to support the British effort in Helmand province is already making a difference, and I think that it will continue to make a difference.

Mr. Davey: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

David Miliband: Okay, but this is the last intervention.

Andrew George: Has there been an honest assessment of what the country would look like if the military forces were not there? Is the international military presence not a draw-a focus, an encouragement-for the insurgents and jihadists?

David Miliband: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman means in Helmand province or in Afghanistan more generally.

Andrew George: I mean in Helmand province, in particular, which is very much the focus of the action.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman will know that the significance of Helmand province is, in many ways, its relationship with Kandahar. That is why it is very important to see the provinces not just as separate islands but as part of a whole. I do not buy the overall argument that international terrorism is being drawn into southern Afghanistan only because international forces are there. After all, we are there only because Afghanistan was used in the 1990s and early 2000s as the base for international terrorism.

However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right-I hope that the whole House can unite on this point-that we must in word and deed give no succour to the suggestion that we are trying to create a colony in southern Afghanistan, or anywhere else. It is a pernicious lie that is told to people there, and it is dangerous to us and to our troops because it compromises their work. The suggestion that we are trying to create a colony is certainly part of the jihadi narrative, but it is untrue. The emphasis that we are putting on the transition of lead responsibility to competent Afghan authorities gives the lie to that allegation, but we must carry the process through.

Arguably, the most important reform is to build up structures of local governance to ensure the basic delivery of services, including representation of the people, and those structures will be informal as well as formal. Deciding Afghanistan's internal structures must be a matter for Afghans, but the international community must stand ready to help, and President Karzai's suggestion of a Loya Jirga, a gathering of regional leaders and tribal chiefs, might be an important step in the right direction.

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With respect to economic development, it is clear that only by increasing the training and job opportunities for Afghan people can the Afghan Government tackle poverty and provide credible alternatives to the drugs trade and insurgency. The rise in legal agricultural production over the past two years, with the rising price of wheat and the wheat seed distribution programme, is an interesting indicator of how the Afghan people respond to opportunities for economic development.

The third element in weakening the insurgency is a new relationship between Afghanistan and its neighbours. Building trust is critical to unlocking a more positive dynamic. We hope that by bringing together the key players in London we will build on existing dialogues and possibly enable progress towards a more systematic approach. In that context, we very much welcome the Turkish announcement on Tuesday that its Foreign Minister will convene a meeting of Afghanistan's neighbours to develop ideas for regional co-operation.

Of course, Pakistan is the neighbour with the greatest influence, which is why I visited it last weekend. Its long-term stability demands that we lift our sights above the current military campaign and provide support across a range of aspects of economic and political life. That is why I commend recent EU-Pakistan initiatives such as the UK-Pakistan education taskforce. When 45 per cent. of primary-age students do not attend school, and even those who do struggle to acquire even the most basic skills, there is a desperate need for education reform.

Last year was one of terrible loss for the UK armed forces in Afghanistan. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have constituents with their own, very tragic stories, but the safety of UK citizens from international terrorist attacks depends on the valour of our soldiers. It also depends on the effectiveness of the Afghan Government and the effort of the international community. The London conference will help us to ensure that we have the partnership we need.

1.31 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): We very much welcome this short debate on this extraordinarily important subject. Let me begin by fully associating myself and my colleagues with what the Foreign Secretary said about the sacrifices of our armed forces, 247 of whom have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. All of us in public life in the United Kingdom should be humbled by the willingness of our armed forces to make sacrifices on behalf of the security of the people of our country.

I pay tribute, too, to the work of our international partners in Afghanistan, particularly the Estonians and the Danes in Task Force Helmand, for the tremendous contribution that they have made. Very often, some of the smaller nations that contribute to the coalition are overlooked, and it is right that the House pays tribute to them. It is also right that we pay tribute to the civilians who are giving support to our armed forces, including those from many of our defence companies who provide support for the equipment that is necessary to carry out our role in Afghanistan.

Finally, it is only correct that we recognise the role of service families and the continuing price that they pay for what our armed forces are doing in terms of the effort in Afghanistan.

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