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On the families of our troops, will the Prime Minister follow through on the important work that the former Defence Secretary was doing, with my support, to back up the wives, partners and families of our armed forces?
On the strategic defence review, will the Prime Minister reassure the House that the front line will not be weakened? In opposition, the Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary argued for a bigger Army and for the expansion of the Army by three battalions. Will that go ahead?
Finally, will the Prime Minister explain to the House the reasons for the departure of Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey? Will he confirm that they will both play a role in the strategic defence review and that they will remain until it is completed? May I ask him to join me in paying tribute to Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey for their service to the nation?
The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her response-both for what she said and the way in which she said it. I know that we will have our differences across these Dispatch Boxes, but on the issue of Afghanistan there is great unity on the Labour and coalition Benches- [Interruption.] Well done; well spotted. That is important, because our troops like to know that everyone in the House is behind what they are doing.
On the specific questions that she asked, Armed Forces day will go ahead as planned on 26 June. She asked about the £67 million spent on countering the IED threat and whether it is in addition to the patrol vehicles that are already on order. Yes; I can confirm that it is. She asked about the strategy generally and what has changed. What I would say-I note what the Foreign Secretary said in his speech on the Queen's Speech-is that we are six months into the McChrystal-Obama strategy of the military and political surge and we want to see that strategy through, so there is continuity in that regard. We must be absolutely clear in our focus on the national security perspective of what we are doing. That is not to say that development work and the building of schools, hospitals and other things are not important-it is just to get our priorities straight. In the end, our route home and our route to a successful Afghanistan is to put security first. That needs to be very clear. On the question about development aid, the £200 million is additional to the existing work we are doing in Afghanistan.
I very much agree with what the right hon. and learned Lady said about backing the wives, partners and families of all those who serve in our armed forces. In recent years, we have put enormous pressure on those families and we need to do more to help them. I have RAF Brize Norton in my constituency and I know the very severe pressures that we put on people. In all the issues around military families-whether it is about the schools their children go to, the health centres they use or time for leave-we want to do more to help, and we are going to give real focus to that.
The right hon. and learned Lady asked about the strategic defence review and whether it would cover the size of the Army. Of course, it will cover all of the issues in defence. Finally, she quite rightly paid tribute to Sir Jock Stirrup and Bill Jeffrey, and I join her in paying tribute to them. They both have been, and are, extremely strong and dedicated public servants, and everyone in
this country owes them that thank you. Sir Jock Stirrup, as the right hon. and learned Lady knows, actually extended his time as Chief of the Defence Staff before the election because he wanted to see continuity-he wanted to see that service continue-and I was very pleased that that happened. For some time he has had in mind standing down in the autumn, at the end of the strategic defence review-at the end of October-and that is indeed what he is going to do, and what Bill Jeffrey is going to do. That will give the new Government time to put in place a proper transition for a new Chief of the Defence Staff to take on the vital work that Sir Jock has done. Let me say again that he has done a superb job as Chief of the Defence Staff. I am working with him extremely well. He came with me on the trip to Afghanistan, and he deserves the gratitude of the House of Commons.
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a risk of conflicting messages? We are saying on the one hand to the Taliban that we will not cut and run and that we will stay for as long as is needed to do the job, but on the other we are saying to the Afghan Government that there is urgency for them to sort out their corruption and their governance. Does my right hon. Friend give priority to leaving as soon as possible or staying for as long as is necessary?
The Prime Minister: First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his successful election as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. I look forward to reading his reports over the course of this Parliament.
I do not think that there is a contradiction, because I think people in Afghanistan want to know that foreign troops will not be on their soil for an extended period, and it is right not to set an artificial deadline about when troops will leave but to do all the work we can to build up the Afghan security forces to give us the chance to leave, and to put pressure-yes, it is pressure sometimes-on the Afghan Government to do all they can to cut out corruption and put in place good governance. It is important that we get on with this work but, as I said, not to set artificial timetables that we then cannot meet.
Mr Speaker: Order. Several hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Colleagues will be conscious that there are a further two statements to follow, and two debates, so single, short supplementary questions and-I know-economical replies are the order of the day.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister referred very briefly to Pakistan and he did not take the opportunity to respond to the questions about Pakistan asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Can he give us his assessment of Pakistan's role, for good or ill, across the Durand line, in a political solution and regional stability involving Afghanistan?
The Prime Minister:
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The role of Pakistan in this is vital. What is encouraging is that in all the conversations I have had
with President Karzai across the past five years I have never heard him as positive about his relationship with Pakistan as now. Clearly, a stable Pakistan and a stable Afghanistan are two sides of the same coin. The encouraging thing right now is that the Pakistan Government and the Pakistan military are pursuing al-Qaeda in South Waziristan and other parts of the tribal areas, and that is making a difference. But of course we have to convince both the Pakistan Government and the Afghanistan Government that we are there for the long term-not the long term with troops, but the long term with support, aid, diplomacy and development-so that they do not think that we will leave them in the lurch once again.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): May I commend the Prime Minister for confirming that our only justification for being in Afghanistan is not corruption or the poppy trade but national security? On that basis, will he also confirm that the decision when we start to withdraw our troops should be based not simply on the Afghan army having increased in size or training, but when we are satisfied that it has reached the level of training and ability to ensure that al-Qaeda cannot return?
The Prime Minister: My right hon. and learned Friend is right. It should be a focus on national security and when we can safely leave the job of securing Afghanistan to Afghan forces. That is not about numbers; it is about capability and he is right to measure it in that way.
"It is time to assert the principle that war is too important a matter to be left to generals. We need to assert the authority of this House and the authority of a politically elected Government over the lack of strategy in Afghanistan."-[ Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 246.]
Therefore, I welcome the Prime Minister's keen interest. We have had too much of this war dictated by the red tops, with their jingoism, and the red tabs, with the generals' priorities before those of the nation. I wish the Prime Minister well in what is clearly a change of strategy, with a politically elected Government in charge.
The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I was once told that the first sign of madness is to read out one's own speeches, but I agree very much with a lot of what he said. It is important that the military feel that they can give unvarnished, clear advice to Ministers, but it is also important that Ministers test, probe and challenge that advice. That is how policy should be developed, and that is how it should be done in future.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): Given that one of the problems in Afghanistan in the past has been mission creep, may I thank the Prime Minister for the clarity of his statement? He pointed out that we are still in the United States military surge phase. Can he assure me that, although the US military are already beginning to talk about a future draw-down, we will keep in constant touch with them to ensure that we operate on the same timeline? Will he keep in touch with not only the US but our NATO allies on this point?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: making sure that we work together with the Americans and our NATO allies is absolutely vital to success. One of the things that strikes me when I go to see what our troops are doing in Helmand is just how close that work is. Sometimes people wonder whether it is right that British troops in Sangin are under American command, and it is right to point out that all the American troops in Kandahar are under British command. Our forces work incredibly closely together, including in the hospitals, and it is a great sight to see.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Could the Prime Minister update the House on the progress made on opium and poppy production and say whether there is now a prison in Afghanistan that is secure enough to hold any of the opium traders should they be arrested?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful for that question. There has been progress, as the hon. Lady will know. The province with the worst record of opium production has tended to be Helmand, but production is significantly down this year. There is a question mark about how much of that is due to poppy blight, how much of it is due to the excellent wheat-seed substitution programme that the British Government have been supporting and how much of it is due to security efforts. It is important as part of the picture that, as we see a more secure Afghanistan, we see more farmers pursuing alternative livelihoods. But again, we need to get the order of priorities the right way around.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): May I welcome both the Prime Minister's statement and his visit, join him in paying tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives and to all those who serve, and assure him that his-our-Liberal Democrat colleagues stand four square behind him in the policy that he has announced? May I ask him a question about the implications for policy at home? Will he now review the work of our domestic Departments to ensure that returning troops have full support for their mental, emotional and physical needs, including their housing, after they have served in theatre in Afghanistan?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful for that question. We have said that we will examine every part of the military covenant and ensure that we fulfil it in all the ways that we should. Housing is clearly a key part of that, and the previous Government, to be fair, were putting money into forces housing, which we need to go on improving. Mental health is the area that needs the most attention. If we think of the combat stress that has been placed on those young men, now year after year, we should really recognise that this is something that needs to go through the rest of their lives, and we need to learn from countries, such as America, where much more is done to follow up mental health issues. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is particularly looking at this area, working between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health.
Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): Further to that question, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will meet a small delegation, together with me, sometime in the future to discuss this very issue? I serve on a panel of inquiry appointed by the Howard League for Penal Reform to consider this issue and why so many returnees end up in the criminal justice system. Will he spare some time to meet us sometime in the future?
The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and either I or the Defence Secretary would be happy to meet him and other colleagues. He makes a very good point: because the whole problem of mental health issues has not had enough attention, we are seeing former soldiers fall through the net and, as he says, too often end up either homeless on the streets or, on occasion, in the criminal justice system.
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to achieve lasting security success in Afghanistan, it is imperative that we exert the maximum possible pressure on al-Qaeda and the Taliban on both sides of the border? Is it the Government's policy to continue the programme of bilateral counter-terrorism co-operation between the British Government and the Pakistan Government initiated by the previous Government here?
The Prime Minister: Yes, it absolutely is our policy to continue that work. The vital role that will be played by Pakistan will encourage it to go on driving al-Qaeda out of the badlands of the tribally administered areas. That is taking place, partly because there is good security and military co-operation, and there is a sense among the Pakistan Government and military that both the British and the Americans are there for a long-term relationship, to help them with this vital work.
Michael Dugher (Barnsley East) (Lab): Given that our forces are engaged in Pakistan, does the Prime Minister share my anger about how the departure of the Chief of the Defence Staff was announced-in an interview between the Defence Secretary and a national newspaper? Did not the CDS deserve rather better than that?
The Prime Minister: As I said, the Chief of the Defence Staff had for some time been intending to stand aside in the autumn after seeing through the strategic defence review, which is a vital piece of work. That is an appropriate time for him to do so. This is a good moment to pay tribute to the work that he has done, which has been genuinely good-I saw it myself in Afghanistan-and the very good leadership that he has given our armed forces.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I join my right hon. Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) in their tributes to two more of our fallen heroes. As some of us in all parts of the House have been pointing out ad nauseam since 2006 that this was an undermanned and underequipped Army, how does my right hon. Friend think it came about that four successive Labour Defence Secretaries were so uninformed?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend takes a very strong view about this issue, and I have listened to him talk about it many times. He is right to say that we went into Helmand province with far too few soldiers and without a clear enough idea of how dangerous the insurgency could become. We also-I made this criticism in opposition-did not have sufficient helicopters and did not move fast enough on vehicles and other equipment programmes. We have to start from where we are and ask ourselves what it is right to do now, and it is right to give this new strategy set out by Stanley McChrystal and President Obama time to work by having a correct number of forces on the ground to deliver proper counter-insurgency and build up the Afghan army and police force so that we can bring those troops back home. The point in the end is, what will make our country safer? Our country will be safer if we can leave behind an Afghanistan that, although it may not be a perfect democracy or a brilliant society, has some level of stability so that it is not a haven for terrorism.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Next year the British and American troops will have been 10 years in Afghanistan. It has cost the lives of hundreds of coalition soldiers and thousands of Afghan people, and the war has spread into Pakistan and created instability in the region. Is the right hon. Gentleman utterly convinced that this strategy of long-term military engagement with Afghanistan is not the cause of future problems and that we should not be thinking of an alternative process of involvement and negotiation rather than constant military activity?
The Prime Minister: Let me try to find some common cause with the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him to this extent: we will not solve this problem by military means alone. There should be a political process, a process for the Taliban to lay down their arms and rejoin Afghan society and, yes, a process led by the Afghan Government of engaging with the Taliban. However, there have to be some red lines. There has to be an acceptance of the Afghan constitution, an acceptance that everything must be done by peaceful means and, above all, the severing of any link with al-Qaeda. So a political process, yes, but let us not pretend that that will come if we walk away militarily.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does the Prime Minister accept that al-Qaeda, as an international terrorist organisation, if it is suppressed in Afghanistan and Pakistan will begin to operate from any one or more of half a dozen other potential harbouring states? Given that it is out of the question that we could ever try to tackle that problem in the extremely costly way that we have tackled Afghanistan, will he undertake to view with an open mind the sovereign base bridgehead solution, which I hope to have an opportunity to discuss with him presently?
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