Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con):
Although the Secretary of State is right that troops on their own cannot provide the entire solution, troop density levels in counter-
insurgency operations are still very important. Ten thousand British troops account for roughly two thirds of the population, and 20,000 Americans account for one third. Does he not think that that balance is out of kilter, and that we need to put it right?
Mr. Ainsworth: The changes that Major-General Carter has announced will address that issue to a degree, but not to the fullest extent, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows and the mathematics will clearly tell him. Kajaki is another area that we need to think about, and plans are being worked on, but I am not in a position to say what the proposals are, because they have not been completed. However, people are aware of the very issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, and of the need for a proper balance of forces throughout Helmand province.
In the Task Force Helmand area of the province, we need to be able to take full advantage of the increase in troop density from, as I said, 7,700 or thereabouts a year or so ago to 20,000 now. That is not counting the additional ANSF personnel who are flowing into the province as well. Further rebalancing is therefore being looked at, but there are various propositions and none has been finalised, so I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that there has been more than the handover of Musa Qala. But Musa Qala will help, and all the troops from that area will be redeployed to central Helmand, giving additional support and troop density to the people operating in that area.
Just as in Sangin, political progress is needed throughout Helmand to consolidate the military progress that we have made. On 7 March in Marjah, President Karzai held a shura and listened to the grievances of local people. The significance of that should not be underestimated. He was told in no uncertain terms that the people did not want the Taliban, but nor did they want Afghan Government officials who abuse their power. I totally agree with the Foreign Secretary in the approach that he set out last week. The security that ISAF can provide will become permanent only when it is provided increasingly by the Afghans themselves, and consolidated by a political process of reintegration and reconciliation.
Building on the agreements at the London conference, we will support the Afghan Government's national peace and reintegration programme. President Karzai has announced his intention to hold a peace jirga at the end of April; the trust fund to offer economic alternatives to those who renounce violence and who work within the democratic process has already received pledges of more than $140 million; and a good start has been made on the growth of the Afghan national security forces, with recruitment in the Afghan national army increasing sevenfold since the end of 2009. We have opened a new window of opportunity for governance, development and the political process of reconciliation and reintegration to take hold. We have the time to succeed, but we certainly have no time to waste. Our forces are shouldering a heavy burden to protect our national security, so let me directly address some of the accusations that have been made in the past week.
It is fair to say that in Iraq, and in entering Helmand in 2006, we-I include our military planners in this-did not, with hindsight, get everything right. Risk is inherent
in military operations, and as the military will tell us, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In both cases, the situation on the ground changed rapidly, and we had to adjust posture and learn lessons quickly. For instance, in 2006 when UK forces first entered Helmand, insurgent fighters came at us in groups of up to 100; now they increasingly use IEDs, which, as we are all too aware, cause the majority of UK fatalities. In 2009 more than 70 per cent. of the UK's fatalities involved IED strikes, compared with 20 per cent. in 2006. As the situation evolved in Afghanistan, the force lay-down, the air support and the breadth of available equipment have had to change, too, but some requirements cannot be delivered overnight.
However, let me be clear: no commander has been asked to achieve objectives for which they have not been equipped or manned. No urgent operational requirement to address changes in circumstances or new threats has been turned down by the Treasury. As the circumstances have changed, so have the resources. Funding from the Treasury reserve has been provided at the level required to meet the need. It has risen from £738 million in 2006-07, when we had about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, to an estimated £4.5 billion this financial year to support 9,500 troops.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Defence Secretary mentioned urgent operational requirements. He will know that BAE Land Systems in Hadley in my constituency has worked very hard to meet those requirements, yet today people there are in fear of losing their jobs if the Government have awarded the upgrade to Warrior, with the new cannon, and the upgrading of other armoured vehicles, to foreign companies rather than British companies. Would he like to state on the record what the Government's position is?
Mr. Ainsworth: On the Scout vehicle, we have run a competition, in which two companies have been involved, both of which have been treated fairly. It has been a long and thorough process, and an evaluation has been made. Of course we are mindful of the position of jobs, and there are jobs created in the UK as result of both those bids. Overwhelmingly, however, when we come to take a decision on the Scout, which will happen in the very near future, that decision must be based on capability. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the wrong priority, but I do not. I am as much wedded to protecting British jobs, British companies and British industry as anyone else. As I said, a lot of jobs in Great Britain are coming from both the bids. We must be mindful of that, but we must be mindful, overwhelmingly, that we are buying a vehicle that is the best that we can get for our armed forces. That is the basis on which the decision will be taken and the basis on which BAE Systems has been treated, along with its competitors in this process.
The Secretary of State mentioned Op Telic and referred to lessons learned. What I picked up during my last visit to Afghanistan was the fact that we are now on Op Herrick 10. Each time we have been there, the brigade commander has almost had to reinvent the wheel in working out what counter-insurgency tactics are most appropriate for Helmand. The consequence of this has not gone unnoticed by the Americans. Given the name of this debate, "Defence in the World", I pose
this question: what do we bring to the table that assists the Americans or allows us to stand up and be counted? We used to be experts in counter-insurgency, but we have now fallen behind the curve, and that is something that this House needs to address.
Mr. Ainsworth: I would say to the hon. Gentleman that that is a little harsh. The Americans learned some huge lessons in Iraq around the time of 2006-07, and all credit to them for that. At the time when that campaign was going south at a worrying pace, American minds, at the very highest level, turned to how to turn the situation around, and we should be every bit as respectful of the capability that they showed in doing that. The hon. Gentleman has just been to Afghanistan. If he gets out in the area in which Operation Moshtarak is taking place, not only in the American area but on our side of the line in the Nad Ali area, he will see that some superb counter-insurgency lessons have been learned and are being implemented. We must all try to make absolutely certain that those lessons are properly understood and embedded across the entire force. It is all right having that excellent understanding where the main effort is, but we need to ensure that every battle group has the same level of understanding and campaign continuity. It is very important to improve campaign continuity; I accept what he says in that regard.
Ann Winterton: On this occasion, the Secretary of State is quite wrong. I want to ask him about the lessons that have been learned in Afghanistan, and before that in Iraq. They have been extremely hard-learned, because we had completely forgotten how to fight a counter-insurgency war. As most of the casualties have come from IEDs, why did this country sell its Chubby sets, which would have protected routes, and why are we still using a mediaeval system of Barma route clearing? When will Talisman-I am grateful to the Minister for the Armed Forces, who recently wrote to me about it following the previous debate-be fully operational in Afghanistan?
Mr. Speaker: Order. We have got quite a bit of time for this debate, but a lot of people want to take part, and I suggest that future interventions should not imitate that which we have just heard, at any rate in length.
Mr. Ainsworth: Talisman is in theatre and being used. Of course lessons are learned all the time, but the IED threat in Iraq was significantly different from the IED threat that we face in Afghanistan. In Iraq there were shaped charges aimed overwhelmingly at armoured vehicles on semi-metalled roads and so on. In Afghanistan, small IEDs are being laid on an industrial scale to maim and injure our troops. There are very different methods and devices, and of course we have to learn as quickly as we can from the changing threat.
We have deployed a 200-strong counter-IED taskforce, along with specialist equipment, to find and disable IEDs and to help identify and target the networks that lay them. Of course, we cannot find and prevent every IED laid by the insurgency, but we can ensure that our
troops have the best equipment available to protect themselves from the threat. Since 2006, the urgent operational requirement process has provided for 1,700 additional heavy armoured vehicles as the threat of IEDs has grown, including first Mastiffs and now Ridgbacks, which offer world-leading protection. At the repair facility in Camp Bastion, I saw one Mastiff that had been blown up six times, once in Iraq and five times in Afghanistan. Every single person survived, and it has been repaired every time and is still going strong. At the joint helicopter force in Bastion, I saw the Merlins, Sea Kings, Chinooks and Apaches that our troops rely on, and I was assured that availability is meeting demand.
I find myself again disappointed by the Conservatives. Despite the record, they would have the public believe that our troops are not being properly resourced. In doing so, they are both painting a false picture and undermining public support for the mission, and for what? For short-term party political gain. Who is playing politics with our armed forces now?
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) accuses the Prime Minister of electioneering by visiting theatre. Is he really saying that it is inappropriate for the Prime Minister to visit troops, hear from them and thank them for a major operation? [Interruption.] Opposition Members say that the problem is timing alone, but the hon. Gentleman will know-if he cares to know-that we cancelled a lot of people's visits to Helmand province because of stage 1 of Operation Moshtarak. A lot of people in the House were not able to go, and I had to change the date of my visit to Helmand to ensure that I did not burden people. The Prime Minister had to get his visit into the window that was provided between the end of the first stage of operations and the start of the relief in place, as did I. It is quite disgraceful for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the timing was an issue. We were cancelling other people's highly desirable trips to Helmand province because of operational need, because of the fact that we were in the middle of an operation and because the relief in place was about to start. That was what dictated the timing, and the hon. Gentleman is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the Secretary of State tell us why previous visits took place just before the Prime Minister was thinking of calling an election some two and a half years ago, and during the middle of the Conservative party conference? Is there not a pattern emerging here, in which the Prime Minister of this country uses the British armed forces as some sort of photo opportunity in order to get votes?
Mr. Ainsworth: I say to the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends that I have never criticised anybody in the Opposition for visiting theatre, or for producing webcasts from it in order to advertise what they are doing. I have never done that, and I would not dream of criticising anyone on that basis. Let me explain why. It is because I will not play party politics with the Afghan operation in the disgraceful way that was done last week.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab):
Frankly, I wish my right hon. Friend would move on because he should not give any credence or credit to the disgraceful
and not very honourable remarks that were made by Conservative Members after the Prime Minister's visit. Is it not the case that between 1997 and 2003, an extra 17 per cent. of fresh new money was given to our military services, which then decided what to do with it? To attribute problems in the field to the then Chancellor is like blaming the Treasury Secretary in America because American soldiers fall in the field in Afghanistan. The Conservative party is a disgrace on this issue.
Bob Spink: This issue cuts right to the heart of the morale of our troops, which is damaged by people playing party politics with these matters. I think that is disgraceful. On troop morale, the right hon. Gentleman knows that when forces return from active service, they face many issues and problems, one of which is getting housing. Will he consider what action the Government could take to force local councils such as Castle Point to give priority to our returning heroes, as that would help their morale?
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the treatment our troops get back here and the appreciation shown to them here is important, as well as the support they need out in theatre. We have made some changes to oblige local authorities to treat our troops properly; we must ensure that those are properly implemented and enforced so that our troops get a place on the housing list, as well as help with health.
Let me move on to some other issues raised over the last week or so. The hon. Member for Woodspring has accused the Government of cutting the order for light protection vehicles when, as he well knows, buying an initial order is standard practice to ensure that we can incorporate the lessons learned from the vehicle's use in later orders. We need 200 of these vehicles for Afghanistan. Ordering the initial batch now means that those vehicles will be delivered to Afghanistan as soon as possible. We are simply trying to deliver world-leading equipment to our troops. Who is really playing politics with our armed forces?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that Ministers are trying to suppress news from Afghanistan during the election by quoting the Purdah code, drawn up by civil servants to guide the behaviour of civil servants to try to ensure fairness between the parties. Is he actually suggesting that the Government intervene to alter the rules governing the civil service during an election? The only person playing politics with the operation in Afghanistan is the hon. Gentleman. In the Opposition day debate that he called just two weeks ago, he at no point offered any alternative.
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman says, "Quite right". So, should the Conservatives win the forthcoming election, the shadow Chancellor's emergency budget after the election will presumably be a "wartime" budget. Would the hon. Member for Woodspring like to confirm what his plans are for the defence budget under a Tory Government? Would he like to stand up now and tell us? Can he confirm-he has repeatedly failed to do so to date-that he will match Labour's promise to increase the defence budget by more than inflation in the next financial year? Once again, answer comes there none.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): I rise to seek clarification on that point, because my understanding is that the Conservatives intend, on their first day in government, to examine the break clauses in a variety of contracts, including those for the aircraft carriers, possibly with a view to cancelling them to save money. That is hardly an indication that more money will be available for the defence budget, is it?
Mr. Ainsworth: I understand that that is precisely what has been said, but it goes far wider than that. The point I am trying to bring out is this: the Conservatives' criticism of resources and deliberate misrepresentation of what has happened over a period of time will not replace straight answers about their intentions. We have made it clear that next year, there will be a real increase in the defence budget. Try as we might, we cannot get an answer from the hon. Member for Woodspring, who, when asked, said from a sedentary position, "You'll have to wait." The electorate will have to wait until after the election to see what the Tory party's intentions are.
Mark Pritchard: The Secretary of State talks about straight answers, but would he like to put on the record whether the procurement of the aircraft carriers will form part of the Government's strategic defence review?
Mr. Ainsworth: I have been very clear that that will form part of a strategic defence review. I have equally said that it would take a very strange turn of events for the aircraft carriers to become unnecessary. That is why we ordered them and are building them, and why we are cutting the steel and getting on with the job right now.
Mr. Jenkin: I trust the Secretary of State will be in the Chamber when I rise to deliver my remarks, because I will be addressing some of the points he has raised. Can he give a guarantee that defence spending will be ring-fenced for the next four years, because that is what he seems to be promising? If he is not promising that, he should be very clear about it.
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman must not try to put words in my mouth. I have produced a Green Paper and said that there will be a strategic defence review. He is a genuine campaigner for defence and I know that deep down, he is appalled by the lack of a commitment from Conservative Front Benchers. All I said is that we cannot get a commitment from them-