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5.20 pm

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments about the work of our Armed Forces. Whatever detailed questions we may wish to pursue about arrangements on the ground or the attitude of the Afghans, the one thing that we can all be proud of is the work our Armed Forces have done—and we should always pay tribute to the sacrifices they have made. I think that that unites everyone.

Both noble Lords asked a number of questions and I shall try to deal with all of them. There was some crossover between them. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, that a great deal of work has been done on opium and drugs. The production of poppies is often closely related to those areas where the Taliban has a significant degree of control. We have worked with the Afghan Government. We advise them and try to assist them, but they take the lead in what is their domestic problem. We have to increasingly accept that while we can offer advice, give guidance and make suggestions, we are trying to get to the situation where the Afghan Government control Afghanistan. One thing we have to do is to extend their range of governance, because that has been one of the problems.

The attitude of the Afghans and the situation of corruption, which is often linked to poppy production, concerns everyone. That is one of the reasons we say that our role is not simply military; it is to help the Afghan Government establish the rule of law and a justice system for their transition to a more sustainable democratic country in which people can go about their normal lives with the guarantee of proper justice being administered in that area. There is a long way to go. There is no tradition of a court system that we would recognise. That is one of the problems and one of the reasons why we have put some effort into not only trying to train an Afghan police force but also giving help, advice and training to people who might be judges within that system or work within the court system. It is very complex. The backlog of training and the lack of experience is significant, and something that we have to take on board all the time.

General McNeill was quoted regarding the need for more troops and the size of the forces that are there. I remind the House that we are in Afghanistan under a United Nations resolution with NATO in the lead. Forty countries are contributing in one way or another. Seventeen ISAF countries are working in the south and the east in difficult circumstances. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in another place a short time ago that the attitude within NATO and within our allies generally has been improving.

At the Riga conference when ISAF was talking about how many troops could be deployed, the figure was 32,000; at Bucharest it was 47,000. By the time of the Brussels discussions just last week, the figure had grown to 50,000. Therefore, we are seeing significant improvements and more of our allies putting in helicopters or providing support. Although we always want people to do more—I do not think that we should make any bones about that—there is movement in the right direction. Not least for that reason I do not think that our announcement today cuts across the national security strategy about the overall reduced commitments that

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we will see. They will not be instant but we can see the direction in which we are moving in those areas where we are committed.

Questions were asked about support and equipment. There have been concerns in the past and things could have been done differently in some areas but we have learnt a great deal given the unique nature of the deployments in which we have been involved. The threat that we are facing changes almost on a monthly basis. Therefore, we have had to adapt. At one time a certain type of body armour might seem to have been adequate but we have learnt how to improve it, and the same is true of vehicles. At certain times certain vehicles are extremely popular because troops feel safe in them, but if the threat changes you have to adjust that situation. We have seen significant improvements in terms of helicopters and the vehicles that have been provided already such as the very successful Mastiff vehicles. Ridgback vehicles will come into operation next year. Personal protection afforded by way of kit has improved significantly. We take all these issues extremely seriously. However, the situation is changing so it will always be a challenge. We will always look to find new ways of keeping one step—or, we hope, slightly more than one step—ahead of the challenges that we face.

Mention was also made of the amount of aid that is given to Afghanistan and whether the percentage is less than that given to Bosnia and Kosovo. Considerable aid is going into Afghanistan but the basic infrastructure is very limited. We cannot transform an area just by putting more money into it. We must be able to put in sustainable infrastructure and to co-operate with the Afghans as regards what they can absorb. The commitments that were made recently at the Paris conference show that people are willing to provide aid and support to Afghanistan but that must be done in a way that will produce sustainable and lasting benefits.

The House needs to understand just how difficult it is to patrol the border with Pakistan, which I think is nearly 3,000 kilometres long and comprises some of the most difficult terrain anywhere in the world in terms of altitude and small passes. That is a real difficulty which causes great concern and is a problem on both sides of the border, both for the Pakistanis and the Afghans. Much of what can be done comprises getting better co-operation between those countries, and that is what we have to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Lee, said that perhaps we were too optimistic because there was a thread of optimism running through the Statement. It is a cautious optimism, but if you look at the security situation now compared with that of a couple of years ago you will see that things have changed considerably, as was said in the Statement: nine-tenths of the incidents occur in one-tenth of the country. Therefore, much of Afghanistan is much more peaceful and much calmer than it was.

I understand that some escapees from the Kandahar prison break-out have been recaptured but details are very shaky. In terms of whether the Afghans are receptive to advice, I go back to what I said earlier about our willingness to provide advice on the justice system. That includes prisons but again we are building

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up a system with a different culture for the future than has perhaps existed in the past. We have to be aware of the difficulties that are involved.

The noble Lord asked whether any FRES-type vehicle would be deployed, were it available in Afghanistan. He should be aware that FRES is a programme for replacing existing vehicles over a number of years with vehicles that will be part of an integrated group, so that they will be compatible and which will have radios and electronic counter measures that do not interfere. It is an important concept for replacing vehicles. On what aircraft will be used, we have no plans to use Typhoon at the moment, although obviously all those things are kept under review.

We understand that there are issues still to be met, but both noble Lords who have spoken have shown that there is concerted support for the basic activities in which we are engaged in Afghanistan.

5.31 pm

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, will my noble friend accept that I, like every other Member of the House, echo the condolences that she expressed to the five brave young men of 2 Para who died bravely serving our country. They will be long held in our esteem and memory.

I have a couple of questions on the Statement. First, would it not be of greater assistance if our NATO allies did two things? The first would be to match the sort of expenditure on defence that we and the French are making so that they are in a better position to afford a proper contribution to a mission that they themselves have voted for, and in doing that, it would be helpful if they produced fewer caveats in relation to the deployment of their troops. It is clear that some of the troops of our NATO allies are deployed at less than the optimum if they are deployed in areas in which caveats make them less useful.

Secondly, I heard my noble friend’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, on the question of the poppy harvest and understand its complexity. But the proportion of the Afghan gross national product that derives from the cultivation of poppies and the illegal production of drugs from them is linked to criminality, as she said, and has a destabilising effect on the redevelopment of Afghanistan. I do not expect her to answer today, but will she undertake to look again at the report of the Senlis Council—a respected international consortium of charities? It examined at some length the process of the drug harvest in Afghanistan and concluded that in circumstances in which there is a global shortage of medical opiates, a useful contribution to the resolution of the drug problem could be the scheme proposed by the Senlis Council for the transfer of those illegal drugs into medical opiates, which would at least have the prospect of providing a realistic income to Afghan farmers who cannot readily replicate the income that they have now with some of the schemes that have been put forward.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I know that my noble friend has followed with great interest what has happened in NATO over many years since his days in the Foreign Office and that he follows carefully

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what happens in Europe. His comment on expenditure on defence by European allies is valid in terms of a comparison, but it would be unwise for any Defence Minister to suggest to other countries exactly what they should be spending on defence. However, the comparison is valid and my noble friend makes his point well, as he does with his point about the caveats that are sometimes made by those who are willing to deploy. I remind my noble friend of what I said earlier: more countries are giving more aid now than happened a few years ago, and we have also been able to get more countries to assist with some of the equipment that is needed. While there have been problems, and we would still like our allies to do more, there has been some improvement, which is important.

In respect of poppies and opium production, my noble friend is right to say that this is a significant part of the Afghan GNP—I think about 30 per cent—and it is linked to criminality and the control that the Taliban has in certain areas. It is destabilising for many; it prevents them getting an alternative existence because of the way in which those factors work together. Yet, when I was in Afghanistan a couple of months ago, real efforts were being made to get people to grow other crops. Wheat was mentioned at that time because the conditions are favourable, and given the world price of wheat, there has to be some potential there.

My noble friend mentioned a global shortage of medical opiates. I have heard that argument before and looked into it. The International Narcotic Control Board says that there is not a problem with the availability of licit opiates, but there have been some production problems with diamorphine. They have been limited, but it is not due to a lack of raw material. According to the Department of Health the situation improved in 2007, which is expected to continue in 2008. Our real efforts should be directed towards bearing down on proper production per se.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, is it not crucial to the consolidation of our military successes, which we all so greatly admire, that our parallel civilian effort should be planned and delivered by a clear chain of command with a single, identified decision taker at its head? Do the Government accept that? For how long, if at all, has it been in place?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is quite right to say that we need to plan for the future, and should do so in conjunction with the Afghans. We need to have co-ordination. He will know that Kai Eide has been appointed as the civilian co-ordinator on these matters and that people in the Foreign Office, the MoD and indeed, DfID work closely together. All have representatives in Afghanistan to ensure that there is as much co-ordination as possible.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I recently had the great privilege to visit our forces in Afghanistan. As a former soldier, the one word that I come back with is “pride”—immense pride in all that they are doing and how they are doing it. However, as a former adjutant

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general and the one responsible for personnel, I came back with some concerns that were not reflected in the Statement.

I refer to the sustainment and long-term ability of the Armed Forces to maintain the numbers, standard of training and professional performance over time. The Armed Forces can ill afford to lose people of the calibre of Brigadier Butler who happened to be in my regiment and who was mentioned, and others. It is not just them. I was worried by the haemorrhaging of pilots and skilled crews in the Apache regiment, which is a crucial part of our operation, people in the logistics organisation, the middle piece of regiments—the sort of sergeants’ mess of potential young officers leaving after six years. I did not get the feeling from talking to them that the arrangements needed to maintain sustainment of their regiments into the future were sufficiently well supported. Will the Minister say how happy she is with that position?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord brings far more experience to this topic than I do and I am glad that he reported back from his visit to Afghanistan saying that pride was the first word that came to his mind. We all have concerns about how we make sure that we do the very best by those who go on operations and risk their lives. We have lost people from the Armed Forces—that has probably always been the case—but the word “haemorrhaging” is not the impression that I have got from talking to people who are directly responsible for our Armed Forces today. We have to make sure that our standards are maintained, that our training is good and that our equipment is the best that we can provide. There is a great deal of confidence that the overall effort is extremely purposeful. Many people feel that they are fulfilling the role they have always wanted to fulfil in making a difference in a vital situation. That satisfaction is what leads to much of the pride and many of those serving in Afghanistan get a lot of job satisfaction, despite all those pressures. We should look after them but the fact that most of them come back feeling that they have done a job that was worth doing is something that we should be reassured by.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I congratulate the Government on a Statement which bore a close resemblance to the transcript distributed to us in advance, which itself is an index of greater stability and confidence. To revert to what the Statement calls “the civil effect”, what planned complement of personnel do the British NGOs working in the country have and what proportion is being delivered on the ground?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord hits on a very significant point. We have had to work out how those NGOs that are willing to go to Afghanistan and be deployed there are able to work throughout the country rather than only in certain areas. This is one of the difficulties that we have had because some areas have been extremely dangerous and the overall picture has been somewhat patchy. As I said earlier, 90 per cent of the violence is now in just 10 per cent of the country, so we can make a difference

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throughout a wider area. In terms of engineering and the development of water and hospitals, we have had a good deal of co-operation from a large number of NGOs that are making a difference to the lives of ordinary people in Afghanistan.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords—

Lord Hylton: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: There is time for both, my Lords, but it is this side’s turn.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, it seems a long time now since the then Foreign Secretary, when sending our troops into Afghanistan, said that he hoped they would not be there for long and could leave without firing a shot. Do the Government have any estimates of how long British troops are likely to remain in Afghanistan, of the number of killed and injured which will be tolerated, and of the total cost of the operation over the estimated time? Finally, I do not think that the Minister answered the question put to her by the noble Lord, Lord Lee, about the threat of President Karzai to commit troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, on the last point I said that the problems of the border could not be solved simply by patrolling that border. Discussions and negotiations were needed between the two countries, which face similar problems on either side of that border.

We are not giving a target for how long we will remain in Afghanistan. We have said that this is going to take a long time. Nor have we given a target for the total cost. We should not underestimate the nature of the task. Afghanistan has been very unstable for a long time. It is, as I said earlier, the fourth poorest country in the world, so it will take a great effort on the part of a large number of Governments—not just Britain by any means—to turn that country round. The noble Lord suggests that we should think of the total cost. However, we also have to consider what the cost would be of not being in Afghanistan, in terms not just of the drug issues, since it would allow even more opium to be produced, but of harbouring terrorists, because we have seen in the past what happens if organisations such as al-Qaeda have a free haven. The costs of not being involved in Afghanistan would be very great indeed.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, the Statement says:

Can the Minister clear up whether this means throughout the whole of Afghanistan or only within the British military areas of responsibility? I understood that Germany was taking the lead on police training. Does that continue? Could the noble Baroness say whether Britain is securing a fair share of the $2 billion per year police training budget? Has police training at least started in Helmand and Kandahar provinces?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, we are involved in police training, just as we are involved in training the Afghan National Army. Different countries are willing to take a lead on different issues, and as the

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noble Lord points out, Germany has said that this is one of the areas that it feels comfortable taking on. I cannot give him the apportionment of the costs off the top of my head but I will write to him. Police training is taking place in the south as well as in other areas.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, in answer to a question about the sustainability of the operations, and particularly the retention of our troops, the noble Baroness said: “We”—I take it she meant Her Majesty’s Government—

Would that include paying our soldiers a proper rate of pay?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will know that last year’s pay increase for the Armed Forces was considerably above that for the rest of the public sector. We should be proud of that, and we have this year accepted the recommendation of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. We have done many other things to help those on operations and I am not ashamed of and do not apologise for the priority that we have given to supporting our Armed Forces.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, given that this is a NATO operation, mandated and underwritten in international law by a Security Council resolution, it is absolutely right that, as we have the finest forces in the world, we should contribute to it, provided that the Government are satisfied that we have sufficient personnel and equipment to fulfil the role properly. But is there any reason why we should be paying the cost of our military contribution? Would it not be much fairer if all the members of NATO, including the countries which make a military contribution, paid into a fund in proportion to their GDP to finance the entire NATO military operation, and that those countries which make a contribution should be fully refunded from that fund?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion and one that I have not heard. I reiterate that 40 nations now contribute to the operations in Afghanistan. That is a significant improvement on the early days and we look to build on that. More people are going some way to pull their weight.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I am told that there is a serious shortage of doctors in Afghanistan to care for the injured and, indeed, for the general health of our forces there. Is that the case?

Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, when I was in Afghanistan a couple of months ago, I visited our field hospital. I was surprised by the facilities there, how modern, up to date and advanced they were, and I heard no complaints whatever from any of our Armed Forces that there was any shortage. Our Armed Forces are well looked after on operations and some of our developments have made them the leading armed forces in the world when it comes to making sure that proper attention is given to those deployed.

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