10 July 2006 : Column 512
Afghanistan: UK Forces
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about UK deployments to Afghanistan.On Thursday, I spoke about Afghanistan during the defence debate. I reiterate the enormous debt we owe to the British soldiers who have given their lives, and who have been injured, serving there. I also salute the bravery of all of our forces working to bring about lasting change in Afghanistan. On Thursday, I also said we had received requests for additional forces in Helmand and that I would announce our response as soon as possible. I will do that today. But first I want to place this response, and indeed the whole of our deployment to Helmand and Afghanistan as a whole, in its proper context. On 11 September 2001, a devastating terrorist attack was launched against the West from within Afghanistans borders. This happened at least in part because we abandoned Afghanistan to become a failed state after the Soviet occupation. And this is why it remains overwhelmingly in our national interest to ensure Afghanistan does not revert to a haven for terrorists. It is also in the interests of the Afghan people, the vast majority of whom have no sympathy for terrorism or violent extremism. There are many malign influences holding the Afghans back and we need to fight them, but we should be under no illusion about what is required to succeed. Only by rebuilding Afghanistan, by strengthening its Government, its security forces and its legal system, and by tackling its desperate poverty, will we be able to help Afghanistan make real and lasting progress. I have heard all sides of the House agree that we should help. The UN agrees. NATO agrees. Thirty-six countries are providing troops to seal their agreement. We all agree. Everything we do and say should reflect this consensus. It is also important to recognise where our efforts in Helmand stand in relation to the strategy for Afghanistan as a whole. NATO has been in charge of this mission for three years. It has helped generate the confidence for millions of refugees to return, and improved access to better medicine and education. It has followed a clear plan to expand security and reconstruction, from the north, to the west, and now to the more challenging south. We have been engaged in that process throughout, having until recently provided a provincial reconstruction team in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The southis more challenging, but this was always well understoodwhich is why NATO sought a firm platform of progress in the north and west first.
10 July 2006 : Column 513
Let me turn specifically to Helmand. We began deploying to Helmand in February, building up to full operating capability on 1 July. It has been said that we have been over-optimistic about that deployment, that we told the House this would not be difficult and that we sent the wrong force. None of this is true. We said from the start that this was going to be a challenging mission. My predecessors Statement to this House on 26 January included a sober assessment of the threat. The force package reflected this. It was designed by the military and endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff. It contained attack helicopters, artillery and armoured vehicles. We deployed tough, capable units, with robust rules of engagement, because we expected violent resistance.We knew that the Taliban, the drugs lords and certain tribal elements would resist any attempt to bring security to the people of Helmand. We knew that the kind of people who behead teachers, burn schools, smuggle drugs and assassinate government officials were not likely to stand by and allow progress to happen. Yes, we have taken casualties, but we have overmatched the opposing forces every single time we have faced them. They have tried to block our deployment, and failed. They will continue to try to disrupt our missionand they will fail again. Let me turn now to that mission. Some say it is confused and that it is spurious to say that this is about reconstruction, when the reality for soldiers has been fighting. We always knew that there was a probability of violent resistance. That is why we sent soldiers to do this task. But that does not change our overriding purposewhich is to rebuild. We have been accused of naïvety by drawing a distinction between the ISAF mission to spread security and the US-led mission focused on counter-terrorism. But this distinction is not naïve at all. In both cases, soldiers will have to fight, but the nature of the ISAF mission reflects the fundamental fact that we will not reach a lasting peace simply by killing all who oppose us. We will reach it when Afghanistan has changed; when the Government have been able to deliver such security, development and prosperity that the ordinary Afghans will no longer tolerate terrorists and criminals in their midst. This is why rebuilding is our mission. Our forces on the ground understand this. The Afghans understand this. The mission is simple; it is the delivery that is complex.That complexity arises from the situation. Three decades of conflict have stripped the south of all signs of governance and robbed many Afghans of hope. And in that uncontrolled space, violence, criminality, narcotics and extremism have flourished. We have confronted these threats and learnt much about them since we deployed. As with any deployment, these experiences have allowed us to review our forces and our approach. That is what we have been doing in recent weeks. Let me explain why we need to adjust and strengthen our force structure in Helmand. The original intent was to tackle the challenges incrementally, spreading security and reconstruction
10 July 2006 : Column 514
from the centre of Helmand out. But commanders on the ground grasped an early opportunity. They saw the chance to reinforce the position of the local governor, the Afghan Army and police by going into northern Helmand and challenging the impunity of the Taliban there. In doing this, we moved faster towards achieving our ultimate objectives, but we extended ourselves. This is a development we must respond to. But our actions have brought about this developmentour decisions and our determination to grasp the challenge. It is not, as some suggest, a failure to anticipate a violent response to our arrival. Yes, the violence has increased, but that was inevitable. We are challenging the power of the Taliban and other enemies of the Afghan Government, and they are reacting. But despite their efforts, we are spreading security.Our commanders have asked for additional forces to secure these early advances in the more remote communities in the north, while also being able to make progress in central Helmand. Last Monday, I said I was aware of ongoing work on additional resources. I was also aware that as part of this process, the chiefs of staff were going back to operational commanders and urging them to ensure they had asked for everything they needed. This iterative process produced a recommendation which I received on Thursday, as I said in the House on that day. I and the chiefs of staff have considered this recommendation and I have now endorsed it. I am grateful for the support and assistance of other departments, especially the Treasury, in working through the necessary detail of this process as quickly as possible.Let me outline the key elements of this additional force. To accelerate the reconstruction effort in the current security environment, we will deploy 320 engineers from the Royal Engineers, 28 Engineer Regiment, to start projects to improve local infrastructure. A company from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines will provide force protection for them. These deployments will take place in September. We will deploy an additional infantry company, drawn from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, to provide more mobile forces, and two platoons, from the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, to provide additional force protection. There will be small increases in headquarters staff. We will also boost our medical and logistical support to reflect the increase in troop numbers.We will step up our efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan National Army. These brave soldiers have fought side by side with us in recent months and are the key to our eventual exit strategy. We are therefore deploying additional staff in Helmand, and to the regional Army headquarters for the south. Great strides have been made already in this essential task and, following the forthright discussions I had with Afghan Defence Minister Wardak, additional Afghan troops have been sent to Helmand. More will follow. There are also around 2,300 Afghan police and military in Helmand, building to 4,800 or so in 2007.
10 July 2006 : Column 515
As with previous deployments, there will be a requirement to deploy reservists. There are some 150 reservists serving in the joint operational area, including members of the sponsored reserves. Some 450 call-out notices will be served on individual reservists to fill approximately 400 posts in theatre. One of the main reasons for the increase in reservist numbers is the planned deployment of100 reservist personnel from 212 Field Hospital. These enhancementssome 870 personnelwill place additional demands on our air transport. We have already increased the flying hours available for attack and support helicopters, as requested by commanders. Today I can say that we will also be making more support helicopters and one additional Hercules C-130 available. We also plan to deploy a radar installation, provided by No 1 Air Control Centre, Royal Air Force.All these additional deployments will be made as soon as possible. But I also want to cover the planned changes to the force structure resulting from the roulement
in October, when the units currently comprising the Helmand task force, drawn predominantly, but not solely, from 16 Air Assault Brigade, will complete their tours. They will be replaced by units drawn principally from3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, including 42 and 45 Commando, and other supporting elements including 12 Signal Regiment. This roulement
will also involve a change to the force structure, reflecting the differences in the two brigades structures and equipment, including the requirement to support the Commandos Viking armoured vehicles. This represents around an additional 125 personnel. The House will also be aware that last month I announced the deployment of 130 personnel from 34 Squadron of the Royal Air Force to increase force protection at Kandahar airfield. This is a complex picture. Some troops will be going immediately, others in October; some will constitute an enduring addition, others are being deployed on a surge basis. But as a result of todays announcement, the steady-state size of the Helmand task force will increase between now and October from some 3,600 to some 4,500 personnel.I am aware that our Armed Forces are heavily committed. As I said in the personnel debate, around 18 per cent of the Army is currently deployed on operations. This is challenging, but sustainable. Taking into account deployments in Iraq and the planned increase in personnel to Afghanistan, most of our deployable units will operate outside harmony guidelines. I do not accept this lightly, but I do believe it is necessary, and judging by comments made in this House in recent months, so do the majority of honourable Members. We will do all we can to minimise the impact of this, and we will continue to seek further contributions from our NATO partners to relieve the pressure in some of these areas. Some commentators have suggested that there are insufficient infantry soldiers deployed in comparison to the forces overall size. Let me be
10 July 2006 : Column 516
clear that the delivery of this mission is not borne by the infantry alone, and it does a disservice to a great many brave men and women to suggest otherwise. Of the six deaths in Afghanistan since the deployment, half have been from other arms. The infantry do have a challenging task, but so do all our forces in Afghanistan. Airpower, artillery, light armour and others are involved in combat. But the work done by the provincial reconstruction team, the training teams, and those who enable the others to operate is every bit as essential to eventual success. Some more infantry are indeed deploying, but the fundamental balance of combat forces to others carrying out vital roles will not change. This is because the mission has not changed.There have been questions raised about the capability of NATO, and of the intentions of the US. NATO now has many more troops, to reflect the greater challenge in the south. Rules of engagement have been made more robust. This morning I spoke to Commander ISAF, General David Richards. He told me that in the south there were effectively no caveats placed by nations on the use of their forces. Across Afghanistan he was seeing a new NATO where such caveats were becoming a thing of the past. He also said he was confident he had the forces to do the job, and that he had been encouraged to see nations suchas Germany and Spain considering making additional forces available.I believe that NATO is thoroughly fit for this role. It has been suggested that because it does not have forces in every province, it cannot succeed. But this misses the fundamental point that we are in a stage when NATO is expanding in Afghanistan. Months ago, there were no NATO troops in the south at all, and few US troops. Soon there will be nearly 9,000 in the south, part of a total of around 18,500. NATO is building on a success that many seem determined to ignore.As for the US, last week I spoke to General John Abizaid, the US commander responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq. He was absolutely clear about the US commitment to Afghanistan. The US is not leaving this to NATO. It is part of NATO and is likely to be the biggest force contributor in Afghanistan for some time to come. Accusations that it is abandoning NATO are misplaced.Lastly, I want to address counter narcotics. I said that stability was the key to Afghanistans future. Part of that stability must be delivered by the Afghan Government facing up to the evil of narcotics. President Karzais personal commitment to this has been clear, and we must help. Again, the aim is simple, even if the implementation is difficult, and it is the same aim as for all other aspects of our taskto rebuild. We will make a lasting impact on the narcotics industry only by strengthening all aspects of Afghan life, so the economy can function without drugs money and farmers have alternative livelihoods to turn to. This will take time but the process must start now.
10 July 2006 : Column 517
Our soldiers are not narcotics police and we do not ask them to be. They are not waging a narcotics war; they will not destroy poppy fields and fight farmers for bags of opiumthey are helping to create the conditions of security and development in which the narcotics industry will be weakened and eventually driven out by the Afghans themselves.I trust that I have made my position clear. My decisions on these matters have been shaped by what I saw and heard when visiting Afghanistan. Our people there are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. They know why they are there. They recognise the importance of their task. They have achieved a great deal already and I intend to give them what they need to secure these achievements and help the Afghans towards the stable future they deserve.My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement, I am bound to express concern that what it has told us today clearly comes as more of a surprise to the noble Lord and his ministerial colleagues than to the rest of us. The defensive tone of the Statement and the confession that this deployment is outside harmony guidelines is surely an admission that we have an insufficiently large standing Army. The cuts forced through by this Government are now putting enormous strain on our troops and their families.
The Statement follows a week of confused anouncements by the MoD. It is now painfully clear that several of the planning assumptions made in preparing for this deployment have proved to be disastrously mistaken. The military strength and resourcefulness of the Taliban are considerably greater than in the optimistic scenario adopted by Ministers. The Statement points out that the mission deliverance is complex. I hope that our servicemen and women really do understand what they are supposed to be doing there.
There are a number of gaps of detail in the Statement. Will the Chancellor be funding the additional reinforcements? Will troop numbers be increased for the training of the Afghan army? The Afghan national forces, army and police, with which our troops were to co-operate, have proved inadequate and unreliable. What representations have the Government made to their German colleagues responsible for training the Afghan police, to ensure that there is a vetting procedure to prevent Taliban infiltration?
The Minister failed to answer a number of the questions that I asked in response to last week's Statement. I will therefore put them to him again. What discussions are the Government having with the Pakistan authorities about insurgents crossing from the lawless border areas of Pakistan? When do the Government anticipate the reconstruction and opium eradication can start? When will we see NGOs on the ground? Is there sufficient medical support in theatre? We welcome the extra medical support mentioned in the Statement, but is it enough?
10 July 2006 : Column 518
We welcome the extra support helicopters. How many will be sent and when? Will the Minister assure me that they will not come from Iraq? The Apache has clearly been successful in Afghanistan. Will more be sent? We welcome the additional company and two platoons of infantry, but does the Minister seriously believe that this is a sufficiently large fighting force? These reserves are coming from Cyprus and form part of the essential reserve force for both Afghanistan and Iraq. From where will they be replaced? We welcome the extra engineers and logistical support to improve the local infrastructure. We have few enough resources to conduct a parallel hearts and minds campaign to entice the local population to back us.
The Statement says:
But it was only last April that John Reid optimistically remarked that it may not be necessary for British troops to engage the Taliban because their primary role was reconstruction, not counterinsurgency. Our Armed Forces are now having to seek out the Taliban, something that Ministers said was never part of the mission. Do the Government now appreciate what our troops are likely to be taking on?
There really must be a full debate in this House on the strategic context of the deployment of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan. We on these Benches have been asking for that for months, but the request has been rejected by the Government. Ministers have a duty, not only to Parliament, but to our Armed Forces, to bring these issues to both Houses to enable full debate on the purposes and progress of this mission. I cannot understand how the Minister responsible for defence issues in this House cannot support a debate.
This mission to Afghanistan must succeed. We will all be the losers if we are eventually forced to abandon Afghanistan. We shall have shown that we lack the will and skill to restore a failed state. All NATO members have to recognise how high the stakes are and that NATO's reputation and future is on the line.
Our troops in Afghanistan have our full support. Once again, the Government are relying on their courage to make good the shortcomings, in preparation and in judgment, of those who have sent them into action.
Lord Garden: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for relaying the Statement and providing me with an early copy of it. As I have said on previous occasions, from these Benches we support the mission in Afghanistan while regretting that the hapless adventure in 2003 into Iraq has meant that we have failed to give Afghanistan the priority that it was both promised and deserved, as the Statement tells us. While Iraq was not then a threat to the UK, even if it has now become one, Afghanistan was different. It provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda training camps, which produced thousands of terrorist graduates, some of which have already committed mayhem around the world, against British citizens, among others. To those problems, we must now add the
10 July 2006 : Column 519
flourishing narco-economy, which supplies the majority of heroin on our streets. We therefore have a direct and real security interest in the long-term stability of this war-torn land.
I do not join in the criticism on the definition of the mission. Unlike in Iraq, I agree that we have a coherent strategy in Afghanistan, which tries to bring together the political, economic and security dimensions. That is a good startbut making it happen is difficult and, as the Statement says, it is delivery that is complex. We focus very much on British involvement, but we must bear in mind all the time that this is a multinational effort and ensure that all components of that multinational effort keep in step in Afghanistan. It is entirely reasonable for our commanders on the ground to assess the situation, take opportunities, as the Statement tells us they did, to exploit particular openingsin this case to reinforce part of the north of Helmand provinceand then to revise the force levels accordingly and change the mix if necessary. I welcome the fact that the Government have responded quickly to the commanders needs.
All of us who have followed what has been going on in Afghanistan have come to the same conclusionthat increased mobility for our forces is an important enabler. We have heard from across the Benches in the various debates the importance of transport helicopters. They are in demand for all operations, but are particularly important both in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Statement makes a rather vague reference to what is being provided in terms of extra flying hours and extra airframes. Does the Minister know how many extra helicopters there will be, what sort they are and what percentage of extra hours will be done? Whichever the answer is in terms of hours or airframes, it is not that that is the problem; the problem is providing the air crew to fly the helicopters. In answer to my Written Question on 24 May, the Minister showed just how hard-pressed the Royal Air Force Chinook, Merlin and Puma and the Royal Navy Sea King crews are already. What effect will the new level of activity have on our ability to train more helicopter crews, which we so badly needif we are sending people forward, they cannot train people back at home; and on the excessive overstretch felt by this particular component, the helicopter air crew?
The phased enhancement of troop numbers is appropriate in reaction to the operational developments described in the Statement. The question there is what consequential effects there will be by having unplanned extra deployments and reinforcements going forward. What will be the effect on the training plans for those forces and on other theatres of operations? Will the Minister assure us that the Ministry of Defence is looking urgently at where it might scale back other commitments that our forces have? We keep on having the promise that things will be done, but could the Minister write to us with a series of things that will be done to reduce the load on our forces when it is possible?
I was astonished to see a month ago that we seem again to be volunteering for the guardroom by offering an enhancement to our NATO response force package
10 July 2006 : Column 520
for next year. We do not want to go looking for extra tasks at the momentand when we look at the figures in the Statement, a snapshot of 18 per cent is meaningless. It is a question of what is the sustained effort that we are asking our forces to undertakeand for some specialists it is a continual load that goes on year after year, causing problems with retention, training and experience level.
I especially draw attention to the question of the reservists and the medical side. We have spoken about it before; the Statement says that we shall enhance the medical capabilities out there and we are using reservists for it. At the same time, when we dealt with reservists, the Government announced that we were reducing the number of medical reservists. Does that mean that we are going to reconsider that part of the equation now that we know that we need more?
The question of providing on-call close air support is not addressed in the Statement. The media have focused on Apaches, and there is some mention of themalthough the problem with providing extra hours in that case is also a problem of providing extra crews to do it. But the Afghan veterans of the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation do not fear helicopters as much as they fear ground attack fighters. The F16s and the Harriers can respond more quickly when our troops get into difficulty, and we have to ensure that we have an adequate number on quick reaction for that. If we are not sending moreand the Statement seems to suggest that we are notwhat are we doing to generate more from our NATO allies?