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14 Jan 2010 : Column 879

We find ourselves at a crossroads in Afghanistan. We have a new strategy-a counter-insurgency strategy based around protecting the people of Afghanistan to deny the insurgents the centre of gravity. I think that that is the right strategy. We have a renewed international focus and vast numbers of troops and equipment, primarily American, pouring into theatre. There is evidence to suggest that President Karzai recognises the importance of tackling corruption, and there is, finally, an understanding that delivering good local governance will provide enduring stability and security in Afghanistan. This all looks very promising-but all of us in the House would recognise that we do not wish to raise unrealistic expectations about the time scale in which progress can be made.

The Foreign Secretary was right to begin by reminding the House of why we are in Afghanistan. There is only one justification for sending our armed forces into combat-because we believe that we are facing a national security imperative. It was essential that we denied to al-Qaeda the space that was being used to train and prepare for terrorist atrocities, and we largely dealt with that threat very early on. But there is a wider reason for being there-a geopolitical reason of regional stability. We cannot allow the contamination and destabilisation of Pakistan-a much larger and more important regional player, and a nuclear power to boot. It is correct that we remind the British public of the wider reasons why we are there, and see it in a proper geopolitical perspective. It is essential for us to do that in order to maintain public support.

We must also remind our public about what the cost of failure would be were we prematurely to leave Afghanistan. Were we to be forced out, for one reason or another, on a timetable not of our own making, that would, as the Foreign Secretary suggested, be a shot in the arm for every jihadist globally, because it would send out the signal that we did not have the moral fortitude to see through what we believed to be a matter of our own national security-something that the Minister for the Armed Forces dealt with in his recent speech, which I commend. The impact of such a situation would be felt beyond the Hindu Kush and the Durand line: it would extend across the region into the middle east and north Africa in one direction, and south-east Asia in the other. We do not find ourselves in an easy situation in Afghanistan, but to leave prematurely without achieving our objectives would have far greater costs that would run many years into the future. We should be under no illusions: if we are not successful in Afghanistan, that will fuel latent fundamentalist sentiment in this country, as well as in others, and diminish our national security. The other reason we need to be successful is that if we are unsuccessful, that would suggest that NATO, in its first major challenge overseas, did not have what it takes to see through a very difficult challenge. That would be divisive and damaging for NATO's credibility and cohesion.

If we can describe failure, how can we describe what success looks like? I believe that there is a clear consensus that success in Afghanistan will be achieved when we have a stable enough Afghanistan that is able to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers and allows the
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country to resist the re-establishment of terror bases of the sort that the Foreign Secretary talked about. Those who are critical of policy in Afghanistan will say, "We'll never wipe out al-Qaeda", or, "We'll never wipe out the mindset that leads to this fundamentalist, violent behaviour." Of course we will not be able to wipe it out, but we will be able to contain it. We are talking about degrading the ability of those forces to a degree that they can be managed by the Pakistani and Afghan forces themselves without a need for wider coalition efforts. It is correct that we set that in its context. We are not trying to achieve the unachievable, but setting ourselves realistic aims. I believe that the goal of security is achievable, and that therefore our mission in Afghanistan is winnable.

As I said, we have a new security strategy. In a population-centric counter-insurgency, success is defined by how many people are secure, not by how many insurgents are killed. That is, to some, a rather subtle change in how we describe the mission, but it is extraordinarily important. Eighty per cent. of the population in Afghanistan live in the rural areas, not the cities. Only 5.1 per cent. of the population in Afghanistan live in Helmand, and only 4 per cent. live in the British area of responsibility in Helmand. I say that because there is a great temptation in our media and those who comment on these things to read Afghanistan and Helmand as being synonymous. We are part of a greater coalition effort, and we need to see Afghanistan and what we are doing there in the round.

For the past three and a half years, British forces have performed superbly and gallantly in the face of a very determined Taliban insurgency. We have seen an increase in the number of British troops, and we are now seeing a greater increase in coalition numbers and a very welcome increase in numbers in the Afghan national army.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): As the ethnic makeup of the Afghan national army is moving in the opposite direction to the 2003 guidelines, might the Pashtuns resent Tajik control over the country's security?

Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend makes an extremely useful point. That is an argument for getting wider and better coverage of all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan within the Afghan national security forces-a task that the Government of Afghanistan need to turn their mind to.

As I said, counter-insurgency is about protecting the population. It requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand province; that is why the expected uplift in troop numbers is so welcome. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) noted, Britain is currently responsible for two thirds of the population in Helmand and 50 per cent. of the terrain, but with only one third of coalition troop strength. There needs to be a rebalancing between the UK and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand's assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand. It is very important that the British public understand that this is not the same as what happened in Basra. It is not a case of our handing territory over to the United States-it is about having a better match between our capability and our resources. The Foreign Secretary was correct that those who make such arguments are in fact talking nonsense.

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The most important question for us to answer as politicians-it is very often thrown at us-is this: what is different about Afghanistan now that would lead us to believe that we can be successful, when, as those who are against the war in Afghanistan always say, the Russians were unsuccessful? There are a number of fundamental differences in what is happening in Afghanistan today. First, we are there supporting a democratic Government in Afghanistan, not trying to apply a regime to it. Secondly, the development of the Afghan national security forces is coming on apace-faster than many people thought possible-which is a great tribute not least to the British trainers involved in the process.

Thirdly, there is the regional emergence of China. When we look at what China is doing in Afghanistan on contracts for copper, it becomes possible to see Afghanistan becoming a net contributor to the global economy if it is given a sufficient period of stability. Fourthly, the advent of globalisation, with the ability of Afghanistan to export products-largely agricultural products-to its neighbours also provides the chance for prosperity and stability through economic development in a way that was not possible before. Fifthly, something else that is not fully appreciated is the fact that there is a large Afghan diaspora, who would have many of the skills for improving governance and professional services, but they need to be given sufficient time to settle down and graft their skills in.

We must avoid taking the defeatist view that we cannot succeed in Afghanistan. Many indicators suggest that we are actually making considerable progress and that there is considerable scope to give the people of Afghanistan the prosperity and security that they want, so that we can have the security that we want.

1.41 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): May I join the Foreign Secretary and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) in expressing deep gratitude and admiration for all those who have paid with their lives in the conflict in Afghanistan on behalf of this country and their families? We also remember all those who have been wounded-some extremely seriously-in that conflict. I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to journalists, and civilian and non-governmental organisation workers, who are also under threat. Some have lost their lives, most recently the journalist Rupert Hamer.

We need to spend more time debating Afghanistan in the House. I think we will see an increasing amount of consensus on this subject, particularly following the changes in strategy towards the end of last year. The Government are increasingly emphasising the need for a political strategy to go alongside the military strategy at international, national and local levels. That is extremely welcome. The Foreign Secretary was right to point out a number of strong, positive developments in recent months. Although some have been cynical in reacting to the opinion poll we saw, I think it is very positive. It was the latest of a series of polls that have been run for more than six years, asking the same questions, so it has a degree of strength and credibility, and a foundation, and it points in the right direction.

There has been a reduction in civilian deaths following the introduction of new strategies by General Stanley McChrystal. That is critical to winning hearts and
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minds. Most civilian deaths are caused now by Taliban insurgents. The efforts of the Pakistani Government are particularly welcome. Let us hope-the signs are positive-that those will be sustained.

The announcement that Turkey is to hold the two conferences-the trilateral conference and the wider international conference-is welcome, and I hope the Minister can confirm that China and Iran have agreed to go and talk to Turkey at those conferences. Hopefully, they will assist the preparation for the London conference so that that can be as successful as possible. We have also had reports of successes in the implementation of the counter-insurgency strategy in different Afghan provinces. It is a very early stage, but the reports are positive.

We should have no illusions: the task is tremendously difficult. As we look ahead and try to push and question the Government to ensure their policy is as good as possible, we need to recognise some aspects of the challenges that perhaps we have not focused on enough. We seem to have a lack of knowledge about the Taliban in their many guises, and about Afghan culture across the many different areas of Afghanistan. We need to do more work and to spend more time on that to ensure that it can feed in to the political strategy, so that we are extremely well informed and so that we can play our part as a true partner to the Afghan authorities. That is why some of us are very worried by the report from the think-tank, the Centre for a New American Security, by Major General Michael Flynn earlier this year. He talked about the shortcomings in American intelligence, and said that US intelligence in Afghanistan was still

We need to improve the quality of intelligence. That is absolutely critical.

I wonder how well prepared we are for a rich political strategy in understanding how the Taliban respond to the new counter-insurgency. We have reports of a number of assassinations of tribal leaders, commanders and elders who are not linked to the Taliban-they have doubled to nine a week recently, according to some sources. The intimidation of people who might be susceptible to switching sides and playing a key role in reintegrating Taliban people and local people into the mainstream of Afghan politics needs to be understood and dealt with as quickly as possible.

In the short time that remains to me, I shall ask the Minister a few questions. Have India, Russia and Saudi Arabia been invited to the conferences in Istanbul and London? Have they responded positively? I believe their role is critical. Has the successor for Kai Eide finally been decided? There are reports that the Swedish diplomat Stefan Di Mistura is being considered, but when will an announcement be made? Can Kai Eide's successor play a role in London and begin to meet some of the key players? What is the Government's position on the possibility of parliamentary and district council elections this year? Are they going to go ahead and are we supportive, or do we think that a Loya Jirga or other proposals, some of which come from President Karzai, the best approach?

On a practical matter, the Foreign Secretary spoke of the importance of training the Afghan national police, but I do not believe the EU has done enough to get
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enough police trainers out there. It is good that the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is emphasising that, but can the Government push it too? Finally, President Karzai is coming to London. The London conference is important for putting pressure on him, but the international community and the people of Afghanistan need to ensure that he is living up to his promises. I hope the Government and the American Government continue to put pressure on him, because his role in bringing the conflict to an end is critical.

1.47 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I listened with great interest to all three speeches and agreed very much with what was in them. I have been to Afghanistan once. I must tell my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Defence Ministers that after 1945, some 200 US congressional delegations visited Germany to talk to General Lucius Clay, who was, as it were, the commanding officer in charge of Germany on behalf of the allies in that period. As a result, there was strong support in the American Congress for the continuation of a policy that previously would have run against American views that, on the whole, one should not get involved in foreign entanglements.

I have not found a great deal of enthusiasm and support from the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office for visits to Afghanistan, other than those, appropriately, for Select Committees. However, I think it would be helpful if many more Members of the House went there. When I went with a NATO delegation to visit Pakistan, I took the opportunity to go to Kabul to meet people and inform myself, but I had to pay for my own trip-more accurately, the Foreign Office paid for the £200 flight on a UN plane, then spent six months asking me for the money back. I am not sure whether that was a claimable expense, but I paid it from my own pocket. Therefore, please will the Foreign Secretary involve the House in the matter of Afghanistan, because every Wednesday since June 2003, the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Opposition parties have had to pay tribute to the men who have fallen in Iraq and now, increasingly, in Afghanistan? The tributes certainly represent what the House and the nation think of those brave sacrifices, but I sometimes question whether the nation will accept those sacrifices, year after year, from our rather small professional Army. The reasons we are in Afghanistan were set out eloquently by the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and the nation needs to know those reasons. Visiting Afghanistan can help with that.

We also need a sense of history. Afghanistan is presented as a zone of permanent turbulence and violence. In fact, for most of the last 200 years, Afghanistan has been at peace, although yes, it has been poor and underdeveloped. When I was a student at university, Afghanistan was where all the hippies went to buy their Afghan coats, among other things. In the early 1970s, a Marks & Spencer was opened in Kabul. Where Marks & Spencer operates, civilisation often follows. I am not suggesting that it should be a goal of foreign policy to get Marks & Spencer to reopen in Kabul and other Afghan cities, but we should acknowledge that the present conflict is the result of a particular confluence of political decisions emanating from outside Afghanistan.

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Those decisions include the desire to launch jihad, supported by the US and Great Britain, in the 1980s, and the provision of Stinger missiles, paid for by the Saudis and built by the Americans, to the jihadis. We created a monster and were then surprised that, after the Soviets had been driven out of Afghanistan, the monster did not quietly evaporate into thin air. We ignored Afghanistan after 1987 for many years, allowing it to become the incubator and supporter of the Taliban, with the consequence that they gave shelter to Osama bin Laden, which led to the planning of the 9/11 attack.

After 9/11, the reasonable criticism can be made that we took our focus away from Afghanistan and walked down the road to Iraq. I shall not enter into that debate now, but we should be conscious that more British soldiers have died in what one might call President Obama's war in Afghanistan than in President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. The failure, twice in the last 20 years, to focus due political and strategic attention on Afghanistan has cost us dear.

I would like to see some unity of command. I referred to General Lucius Clay earlier. He was an engineer and builder, not a fighting general, and he was the supreme governor of Germany in the immediate post-war period until German political institutions were able to get back on their feet. I have no idea who runs Afghanistan. I have no idea which Government department is in charge. Who can give orders to whom? When I was there, there were three different European Union offices- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) says that that is no surprise, but there are five or six British offices each thinking that they are doing the British Government's work, and I question the level of co-ordination. We know that efforts were made to engage the services of Lord Ashdown. I would have welcomed that, but it was rejected by President Karzai. Do we have efficient joined-up government in Afghanistan?

Those on the Opposition Front Bench say that by creating a so-called War Cabinet they would focus attention on Afghanistan. I politely suggest that they should find a word other than "war" to use. We are winning battle after battle: when British troops take on the Taliban face to face, there is only one winner, despite the sad sacrifices that are made. But the notion that we will win a war in Afghanistan commands no serious support anywhere, even among those who support our presence there. If the Opposition create a War Cabinet, they may be asking it to achieve the unachievable. Surely we should be thinking more of containment than of confrontation-I think that the shadow Secretary of State made that point. We should see this in the context of what happened after the second world war, when there was a sense among some that we could confront, take on and roll back ideologies that were oppressive and opposed to our way of life, not to mention supporting military and violent action against western interests all over the world. But wiser heads prevailed, and we adopted a philosophy of containment rather than military destruction.

I continually wonder why the British are taking more casualties-in proportion to the number of troops present-than any other nation save Canada, and incidentally I pay tribute to the Canadian troops too. I regret that the Conservative Canadian Government have set a deadline for pulling their troops out, but I doubt
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that if a Liberal Administration were to be elected next year, there would be any change in policy. I am not a military expert, but I wonder why it is necessary for so many British servicemen to fall in action or to come home with hideous and life-crippling wounds. We may have to ask our military whether they have got their strategy quite right.

There has been much talk about Pakistan and the solution to Afghanistan. In part, I accept that Pakistan must be involved, but there will be no solution in Pakistan until India changes its strategic approach in the area. According to a report in Le Monde on 8 January, The Times of India reported a secret conclave of the Indian general staff at Simla in December, at which they discussed the double-front strategy-an assault on both China and Pakistan. General Kapoor, the Indian chief of staff, has talked about a limited military attack on Pakistan, but it is beyond belief that a fellow Commonwealth country and nuclear-armed power-and a democracy to boot-can be talking about a military assault or invasion on Pakistan, when we need Pakistan to focus on Afghanistan.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is perhaps not playing as constructive a role as it could in respect of Afghanistan, especially given its alleged support of the Taliban in many places?

Mr. MacShane: There is no doubt that the ISI was the godfather-if not the mother and father-of the Taliban back in the 1990s, and after 1987, because the international community failed to fill the vacuum left by the Soviets. I agree, but of course in 1989 democracy was suspended in Kashmir, and 500,000 Indian troops moved in. Since then, between 50,000 and 70,000 people have been killed in probably the biggest bloodbath of Muslims in recent times under the Indian army occupation. Some of that was in response to Pakistan-initiated terrorism-the horrible explosions at Srinagar and elsewhere-but India is not even on the way to finding a political solution to the problem of Kashmir, and it is under pressure given the Bombay massacres and other issues. When the Pakistani army faces on its eastern flank an army of up to 500,000, national security demands that it put the bulk-80 per cent.-of its armed forces there. We would like as many Pakistani soldiers as possible on the north-western front to sort out the insurgency there and to end the protected area for the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda and the people moving across to cause trouble in Afghanistan.

As long as India refuses to talk or to find a political and peaceful solution-I am not talking about any transfer of sovereignty, but about finding a way forward; India is by far the biggest country in that region-of course, Pakistan should do a lot more. However, we must be careful not to typecast Pakistan as somehow an Afghanistan in waiting. I am utterly appalled at the ugly, invented acronym, "Afpak", that Richard Holbrooke used at the Munich security conference last year, as though Afghanistan and Pakistan are one combined problem. It is a racist, unpleasant acronym, and I am glad to say that I know, from recent visits to Washington and from talking to senior officials from both the State and Defence Departments, that they do not use it any more. We need to involve India more in finding a regional solution.

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