Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

That brings me to the effect that our change in the assessment of what forces we need has on our NATO allies. NATO assumes command at the end of this month in the south and some of the allied forces that we have mentioned have yet to deploy. Can the Minister tell us what briefing has been given to the North Atlantic Council to advise it of our changed perception of the requirement, and whether that has had an effect on the planned deployments by our allies? And what about phase four of this operation? We are only in phase three at the moment—the south. As the Statement says, we have done the north and the west and we are now doing the south, but we have yet to go to the east. Is that still on schedule for next year, or do we have a reappraisal of that?

Finally, I note that your Lordships seem to be establishing a routine, in that every Monday we have a Statement on Afghanistan, yet we are only two weeks from the Recess, which means that we shall not have an opportunity again until mid-October to discuss these matters. The Government in my view were very unwise to go back on their undertaking to have a debate in your Lordships' House on the overall policy towards Afghanistan and Iraq—and I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, is in his place, because he needs to lead in that debate. So how does the Minister see Parliament being kept in the loop through what may be some very difficult challenges in both operational theatres—Iraq and Afghanistan—throughout the summer?

10 July 2006 : Column 521

6.07 pm

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, for the clear and supportive tone that he took in responding to the Statement, which was in stark contrast to that of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, who used language that really belies the situation in which we find ourselves. To describe the series of announcements that we have been through over the past week as confused is, frankly, unfair. My right honourable friend has kept the Houses of Parliament fully apprised of the situation as it develops, and those who are aware of the way in which troop deployments are reviewed and assessed by the military through the chain of command will know that the process takes time. It is a rapid process, considering the scale of the decisions that have to take place, but it cannot be short-circuited. It has to be done by the military commanders on the ground and should not be party to interference or micromanagement by Westminster.

The process that we have been through has been perfectly clear, in that the military commanders on the ground went through a review process at the point when full deployment took place for the first time, on 1 July. They were asked by my right honourable friend to ensure that when they undertook that review they made absolutely sure that they were truly asking for all that they need. Those requests have then been reviewed very speedily indeed by Ministers, in collaboration and discussion with other government departments, notably the Treasury, and a decision has been made very rapidly. That is why I can come to this House today and update the House on this further deployment. To describe our initial deployment as “disastrous” is totally inaccurate. This is a response to a successful deployment, which has been able to move into the northern part of Helmand province earlier than had been anticipated. That requires a reshaping of the profile of the forces necessary, and that is what we are doing.

I turn to the specific questions I have been asked by the noble Lords opposite. Yes, there have been clear representations to our NATO colleagues about the vetting procedures for Afghan police. Noble Lords will note in the Statement that additional forces are being provided to support the training of the Afghan police and army.

I have been asked when reconstruction will start. We have already seen significant improvement. The reconstruction efforts that have taken place through the cross-government collaboration between DfID and the Foreign Office—as my noble friend from that department who has joined me on the Front Bench will know—are making a real change on the ground in Afghanistan. We have seen the number of functioning health clinics increase by 60 per cent. Over 11 million children have been immunised. Two thousand schools have been rebuilt or rehabilitated. This is not the first time I have given the House these data. Why am I being asked when reconstruction will start?

I have been asked about Pakistan. It has been a close ally since the operations in Afghanistan began. We have worked closely with Pakistan to ensure that our deployment and our efforts to tackle the Taliban

10 July 2006 : Column 522

are well co-ordinated. However, the key to long-term stability will be closer relations between the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although there have been differences of opinion lately, there have been some constructive visits that bode well for the strengthening of ties and co-operation.

Both noble Lords have asked about support helicopters. We have discussed that issue, particularly medium and heavy lift helicopters, a number of times in this House of late. We freely accept that we have a deficiency in the total level of helicopter capability. We in the Ministry of Defence are working hard on this. I am personally responsible for ensuring that all action is taken on support helicopters. As the House will be aware, there have been some announcements recently.

I am not at this stage able to come to the House and give the precise numbers and types of helicopters we will deploy. We discussed whether or not it was appropriate to hold back the Statement until we were in a position to do so. We will know that in the next few days, and we will inform the House at that time. I can confirm to the noble Lord opposite, however, that those helicopters will not be coming from Iraq. As I mentioned when repeating the Statement, we are already increasing the helicopter hours. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, with his great experience in this area, knows the considerable logistical crew training spares effect that such a decision has. It is important for us to ensure that all of this is coherent across our helicopter force, and that we have people focused on the matter right now. We are actively working through the implications for crew training and other factors. I will be happy to write to the noble Lord and give him full details on that once the final decisions have been made about helicopter deployment.

The noble Lord opposite asked me directly whether I believe the force is sufficiently large. Frankly, the most important thing is whether our military commanders believe that, and then it is up to Ministers to make sure they get that force and the resources to support it. I can tell the House that that is the case. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has spoken today to the commander of BRITFOR, Brigadier Ed Butler, and made absolutely sure that he is happy that the force he is getting is up to the task. We will continue to do that. The Government are committed to making sure that we win in Afghanistan, and that we are able to support that country in building a stable, democratic country and in turning its back on the Taliban and narcotics.

6.14 pm

Lord Soley: My Lords, did my noble friend find it as extraordinary as I did to hear the Front Bench spokesman for the Opposition say that possibly our troops do not know what they are doing there? First, that flies in the face of all the statements made by senior officers in public. Secondly, it suggests that the troops of 30 other nations also do not know what they are doing. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, our troops are extremely well trained, not least because of their experiences in Northern Ireland, in dealing with intensely complex situations, instead of the old

10 July 2006 : Column 523

confrontational situations that used to apply in the distant past when people like me were in the Armed Forces. They no longer apply. It certainly does not help our troops to hear it being suggested, in this House or anywhere else, that they do not know what they are doing there.

Lord Drayson: Absolutely, my Lords. I am grateful to my noble friend, who makes the point excellently. Our troops know exactly why they are in Afghanistan. The chain of command ensures that that is clear. We have every confidence that with that clarity they will succeed in their goal.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, the Minister will recognise that having got ourselves involved in Afghanistan, for reasons I think the great majority of people appreciate and understand, it is vital that we do not fail. That is important for the reputation and safety of our own country, and for the reputation and safety of NATO.

It was stated by the chairman of the Defence Committee in another place, who has just been in Afghanistan, that there is a story that the continuing activity of the Harriers—which the noble Lord, Lord Garden, has indicated are playing a hugely important role—is sanctioned by the Treasury on the condition that it is at no extra cost. I did not quite understand the Secretary of State’s reply to that question. Can the Minister categorically state that it is not true? It would be extremely serious if it were.

I think this is the first time the Government have recognised in a public Statement how very stretched the Armed Forces are. We are at a very challenging time, and the Armed Forces are heavily committed. That affects both our regular forces and our reservists. In that connection, the Minister has said that the Chiefs of Staff have been going back to the operational commanders to ensure they get what they want. That is a NATO undertaking. General Richards, to whom he referred, is a NATO commander. Will the Minister give an assurance that any requests that have been made to NATO allies have been met? What is the likelihood that we will have significant reinforcement in our own rather stretched situation?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am happy to provide the House with the clear confirmation that there is no Treasury cap on spending for the Harrier force or any other aspect. The Treasury has provided the funds—from the reserves, I stress, not from the defence budget—for this operation. The additional funds that have become necessary because of the re-profiling and the new forces we describe in the Statement today have been agreed by the Treasury.

The noble Lord has raised the issue of air support. It is important for us to stress that the provision of close air support, as also highlighted by the noble Lord opposite, is the responsibility of NATO overall. Part of our role is to make sure that we are making full representations to our NATO partners in the provision of resources. Close air support in the future will be one of those matters.

10 July 2006 : Column 524

As has been stated a number of times recently, it is important to recognise what an important test Afghanistan is for NATO in the 21st century. There is a clear mandate from the United Nations and total international support for the mission. It is a chance for NATO to show its effectiveness. Recent progress, highlighted by the commander, General Richards, shows that we are seeing a stepping up from coalition partners to provide forces alongside our own.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the noble Lord referred rightly to the reconstruction efforts. I believe he said that 2,000 schools had been refurbished and reopened. He may have to reply to my next point by letter, but how many of those 2,000 schools are in full and regular use? In the Statement, the Minister referred to a C130 Hercules aircraft, but it is not mentioned in my printed version, which suggests that it came rather late to his brief. Is there an explanation for that? We are all concerned about Pakistan, not merely about the sealing of the border, so far as is possible, but with the generation of support for the Taliban in many rural madrassas in the north-west and north-east provinces. I hope that the Minister will obtain from his noble friend Lord Triesman some indication of the support that is being given to the president of that country in his efforts to get those rural madrassas included in the national curriculum and thus divert them from indoctrinating young people in jihad.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the 2,000 schools which I mentioned are operating. Part of what we are doing comprises helping to create a secure environment whereby children can go to those schools. The number of schools that are operating fluctuates day by day. There are now 6 million children in school in Afghanistan and, importantly, more than a third are girls. If I can provide further information on the number of schools operating, I shall write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord asked about the C130. The Statement referred to the C130 and there is no reason why that should not be included in the noble Lord’s copy. I am happy to confirm that the C130 is part of the force package that we shall deploy.

The noble Lord asked about the curriculum. He made a good point about indoctrination, which has taken place. We need to focus priorities. The number one priority is to address the real deficiencies in the country’s water, electricity, roads and basic education infrastructure. We also need to push back the indoctrination to which people have been subjected.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am delighted to hear my noble friend’s vigorous assertion that Her Majesty’s forces will in no way be involved in operations against the narcotics industry in Afghanistan. I can imagine nothing that would make their task more difficult, were they to become embroiled in any such activities. Will my noble friend assure us that no other elements of the NATO forces there are under domestic pressure to engage themselves in the affairs of the narcotics industry in Afghanistan?

10 July 2006 : Column 525

Lord Drayson: My Lords, as the lead nation, we have responsibility for counter narcotics. I am happy to give the assurance that we are clear about the importance of separating the security role from eradication efforts. Eradication is the responsibility of Afghanistan. It is our responsibility to provide the governance and security environment whereby the rule of law can flourish such that that industry can be addressed, and thus help the important efforts to provide alternative livelihoods.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden: My Lords, given the level of commitment which the Government are showing in Afghanistan, is the Minister happy about the general recruitment that is taking place and the training that has to follow because this constitutes an increase in the Ministry of Defence’s requirements?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am not satisfied that more could not be done to improve recruitment. That is an area in which we are very active. The noble Lord may be aware of the recent one-army advertising campaign, which has been very effective. The Army, as part of the Armed Forces, is seeing an improvement in recruitment in response to campaigns, which in turn are a response to the challenges that we face. However, despite the challenges which I have set out, we can cope with the situation. While recognising the very real efforts that need to be made to ensure that we meet our commitments and those challenges, it is important that we do not conflate those with our operational tasks. I am concerned that the media are doing that. We need to separate the two. We need to ensure that we modernise and reform our Armed Forces to meet the challenges that they face in the 21st century while being absolutely clear that in both Iraq and Afghanistan we will provide our forces with what they need to win.

Viscount Slim: My Lords, some years ago when people on both sides of the Atlantic celebrated the demise of, and victory over, the Taliban, I said in this Chamber that the Taliban would leave Afghanistan when it wished, that it would return when it wished, and that it would probably return stronger, having restructured and reconstituted itself. I feel that at the moment we are seeing a probing attack by a fairly small number of the Taliban and their friends within Afghanistan. As history has shown, traditionally in Afghanistan there is a measure whereby they can concentrate very large forces when they want from the safety of a position over a border or from somewhere snug in the hills, which are unapproachable.

I have nothing against what has been said from the Government Benches, but my worry in all this is that we are in a very weak position when it comes to a quick reaction force or reserves. I see very little chance of getting reserves there in time. Saying that there is another company and two platoons of infantry does not really constitute the theory of having an immediate force to go to the help of someone in trouble.

We talk about what is in Cyprus and in the UK and about what our NATO allies nearby, and particularly our American friends, can do to help us. However, I

10 July 2006 : Column 526

see the weakness in all this—that the UK contingent, the UK military, has no reserves. That includes fighting, heavy lift, logistic helicopters, the capability to operate at night and the capability of quickly finding a reserve when in crisis. For me, that is the weakness of the United Kingdom at present.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, who has considerable experience of these matters. Therefore, I listened very carefully to his concern about reserve forces. I and my ministerial colleagues quiz force commanders very closely on these matters. We ask them whether they are satisfied that they have what they need to do the job. They have said yes. However, we need to monitor the situation as it develops. We need to keep on asking that question to ensure that our forces are provided with what they need to do the job.

Baroness Northover: My Lords—

Lord Inge: My Lords—

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, we have not yet heard from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, following on from my noble friend’s question, which I do not think the noble Lord addressed, how is Parliament to be informed about Afghanistan and Iraq during the long Summer Recess? I believe that there was to be a debate on Iraq and Afghanistan on 4 July, but it was postponed. What are the Minister and his colleagues doing to ensure that we have a debate on those countries as soon as is possible?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, as the noble Baroness will be aware, debates in this House are a matter for the usual channels. I am very happy to provide support to noble Lords in the form of briefing and information on any matters, including Afghanistan. It is for the usual channels to decide how we debate these issues and Parliament will be kept informed about them during the Recess in the usual way.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is my noble friend able to say something more about the discussions which the Government have had with NATO allies? Has there been reticence on the part of any to enhance their contribution towards their forces in Afghanistan?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend because I am able to inform the House that today my right honourable friend the Secretary of State had discussions with his opposite numbers in both Canada and the United States, for example, and had a positive and robust response in terms of their commitment and support to this mission.

Lord Inge: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement and absolutely agree with him that our soldiers and servicemen out there know what they are

10 July 2006 : Column 527

about. However, I also agree with what the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said about reserves; I have written to the Minister about this. I still look at what General Richards, has and he has no theatre reserve. In our discussions with NATO, I hope we are talking to it about providing a proper theatre reserve for the theatre commander.

Secondly, the Minister has outlined what I think is a hugely ambitious strategy in a country that has never been governed properly. That strategy will demand considerable forces on the ground. Can he reassure me that we have done some worst-case planning and that we know that we can reinforce at very short notice the British contingent in Helmand province?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord who really knows what he is talking about when he asks these questions. As he says, he has written to me and discussed with me his concern regarding the theatre reserve and the NATO response to it. This is an area which Ministers have quizzed commanders on to ensure that they are satisfied. I believe it is a matter which we need to continue to press and we recognise that.

It is important for us to recognise the way in which NATO is developing. It has been said that people had concerns in our initial deployments in the north and the west and about Kabul being an ungoverned area. We have seen the success of the deployment as it has moved through the country. We are now in the very challenging area in the southern province of Helmand and it is an ambitious strategy to support this country in its journey back to a stable state. However, there is no alternative for us in doing this. There is no option whereby we walk away from Afghanistan. That would be absolutely against the interests and security of the people in this country as well as being the wrong thing to do in support of Afghanistan, which, as I described earlier, has developed remarkably over the recent past. We recognise that it is going to take time to be able to help rebuild that country. It is a difficult process, and we are realistic in doing so. We will provide the resources to our forces, alongside their partners in DfID and the Foreign Office to make this support a success.

Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord could say a little more about reservist deployment. I declare an interest as Chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board for the Reserves. It looks as though, as in Iraq, 10 per cent or so of the deployed forces in Afghanistan will be reservists. Of those 400 or so who are to be mobilised, will they be regular reserves or from the volunteer reserves? What are their roles likely to be in addition to those who are going to be deployed with the field hospital? Can he also be certain that the full 28 days’ warning time can be given to those individuals so that their employers, and hence their businesses, can prepare accordingly?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page