Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

3.51 pm

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we are of course all very grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating this very important and sombre Statement. Will she at the outset accept that we endorse, 100 per cent, everything that has been said about our brave troops, about those who have fallen, and about the grief of their bereaved families? Let us also keep at the forefront of our minds those who have been severely disabled, some grievously and for life, and the need for sustained care and support for them in the years ahead. We must never forget them.

We all realise the immensely difficult decisions at stake here, but we also need to see this latest Statement in the correct and wider context. The obvious first question that I have to put to the Leader of the House is whether we yet have a really clear definition of our objectives, strategy and vision in Afghanistan-in Helmand province-and in Pakistan and the other areas where al-Qaeda is setting up training cells and where its units are flourishing, such as Somalia, which was mentioned towards the end of the previous Session in this House.

Secondly, is the balance between military effort and civilian-led strategy to entrench stability and squeeze out the terrorists yet anywhere near correct? Have we taken account of the fact that the US is revising its whole aid and reconstruction strategy at this moment? Indeed, just how does this announcement today fit in with Mr Obama's imminent announcement on troop levels and on overall Afghanistan strategy? Have we got the proper focus on the central task of helping to eliminate al-Qaeda leadership and encouraging the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the border and the Durand line to yield up, or at least curb radically, Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, who are almost certainly still hiding in these areas?

Thirdly, while we welcome words about support for Pakistan, how in practice can we contribute most effectively in encouraging Pakistan to fight the Taliban or its more extreme elements, or maybe eventually to bring some of the less extreme ones to the negotiating table? Is that what the Prime Minister means in the Statement when he talks about "reaching out to reconcilable elements of the insurgency"?

Fourthly, are our security and intelligence resources providing all they can to support co-operation with those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and even of Russia and China, as urged in a recent article by His Excellency Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador here and in Washington, who is known to many of us? The noble Baroness may have seen that very important article.

Fifthly, what can we do to reinforce the apparently increasingly successful American-led efforts to throttle al-Qaeda financially? That really does seem to be yielding some dividends, if that is the right expression.

Sixthly, we have a direct interest in the opium and heroin issues. What progress are we at last making in replacing all the poppy crops, as the Americans did effectively in Turkey some years ago? Indeed, what progress are we making in our overall counter-narcotics strategy, with which we have been struggling now for several years?

14 Oct 2009 : Column 232

Finally, what success have we achieved in persuading our NATO allies and our European neighbours to commit larger forces to the theatre? Are we planning a new international conference with allies to clarify aims, as I think was earlier proposed and promised?

In the longer term, the political need is clearly, in the very accurate words of Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles, to put the leaders of the area's many tribes "back in charge", as well as to give the Afghan Government, Afghan forces and Afghan police full responsibility for stabilising and governing their country. That, I know, is what we aim to do. In the short term, however, more troops on the ground may be the only answer. It is very hard to judge and we need to see what President Obama will shortly decide, because that must influence our overall approach.

We welcome the provision of mine-protected vehicles and Merlin helicopters, although the only thing that one can say about that is, "About time too". One thing is crystal clear: any soldiers we send, as well as all those already there, must have the best possible equipment. The Prime Minister seeks assurances from the military that it will be so equipped, but surely this is the wrong way around. It is the military that needs assurances from the Government because of past disappointments and clear past failures. That is the very minimum requirement that the Armed Forces deserve and the public now expect from this Government, and it is what we want to hear unequivocally from Ministers in all future reports to Parliament on Afghanistan and Pakistan developments, which we hope will be both full and regular.

3.57 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, we always start these Statements with a good deal of cross-party support, but the very detail of the numerous questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, shows that, although there is cross-party support with regard to a safer Afghanistan and a stronger Pakistan-we certainly share the tributes which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, paid to the dead and the wounded-it is right, when forces are fighting such a war, that the Government are questioned closely.

I have always felt that, by any definition, the fighting in Afghanistan is a just war. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, reminded us yesterday, as the Prime Minister did today in the other place, of just the price that we are paying for that war, so it is always, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, a sombre moment when we talk about sending troops into battle. We appreciate the very real dilemma for Ministers when faced with these decisions. Afghanistan, of course, has a long history of humbling empires, so "We're here because we're here because we're here" is not a strategy for a commitment such as this. We need to justify extra troop deployment in terms of a clear and winnable strategy and what one expert has called obtaining an "exit ramp from combat".

As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has said, the Government must also guarantee that troops are well equipped. There is the worry that, in the Statement, Ministers are simply playing catch-up on equipment supply. Any really decent forward planning would

14 Oct 2009 : Column 233

have shown that this kind of material was needed and should have been ready, rather than implying that there are still problems in supply.

I understand that Ministers have to take decisions and that the buck stops with them. That is why the military advice that they get should be untainted by politics and I hope that, in giving frank advice to Ministers, the senior military retains itself within that. Otherwise, trust does break down. As well as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, I worry when the Prime Minister talks about this new commitment being in the context of commitment from other allies. Has any country, other than the impending announcement from the United States, made such a commitment?

I was glad that the Statement linked in Pakistan because quite clearly this is now not just an Afghanistan problem but a regional one, and important on many fronts. However, the description of the present state of Pakistani politics by the Prime Minister is a little on the sunny side, if one listens to other informed observers about the situation there. I also share with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the query about what has happened to Europe's call for a broader-based international conference, because that is important.

It is also important that, when looking at the regional commitments, we look at two contrasting neighbour countries, both with a probable role in a long-term solution. What are our relations with the Saudis, supposedly some of our closest allies, in the fairly open knowledge that the Saudis are major contributors to some of the more extreme Islamic organisations? On the other hand, Iran-that problem child of the region-could and should be playing some role in solving that region's problems.

Finally, and again echoing the noble Lord, Lord Howell, there is the question of whether what is announced today-an upgrade in troop commitment, with further numbers-matches what most people argue is probably the longer way forward of getting a proper hearts-and-minds policy in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Clinton said something about the need to have some outreach, and in his own Statement the Prime Minister talked about involving reconcilable elements. How is that to be progressed? How are those initiatives going to be taken? As I have said, nobody comes to these Statements without a sense of the heavy responsibility that Ministers carry, but there is a duty on the Opposition to question, within a broad desire to see ultimate success, the strategy and content of policy.

4.04 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful for the endorsement from both noble Lords opposite of the bravery of our troops and the sacrifices by them. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, drew our attention to the families, who we often think about only in the context of the troops who, sadly, die when they are in theatre. It is good to remember today the families that are left behind when their loved ones are away fighting. Not long ago I met several brave wives and partners and I promised to bring their bravery to the attention of the House. I am glad that the noble Lord also mentioned the sustained needs of the wounded. I

14 Oct 2009 : Column 234

believe that not only are this Government providing the most excellent care for soldiers when they go to Selly Oak, but also that things are improving for their long-term care.

The noble Lord asked for a clear definition of objectives, strategies and vision. Today's Statement clearly articulates what our strategy is and what it has been for some time. I am reminded of the Statement made by the Prime Minister in April this year. Today's Statement builds on that strategy by taking a slightly different approach, but still building on the strategy of "Afghanisation". The noble Lord also asked how our strategy fits in with that of the United States. In many ways we are trailblazing here. As the Statement says, the Prime Minister has had many conversations with President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and I am confident, from what the Prime Minister has said, that our strategy will dovetail with that of the US when it is announced.

Before I go any further, perhaps I may draw the attention of the House to a recent statement by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, in which he says:

"I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement of an increase to our force level for the mission in Afghanistan".

There is also a statement from Sir David Richards, Chief of the General Staff:

"We asked for 9500 and that is what we have got".

I believe that this is tangible proof that the Government are working in tandem with military chiefs of staff, which is something that was much needed.

In relation to Pakistan, our contacts with the military in Pakistan are good and I would draw the attention of noble Lords to a brief mention made in the Statement of a meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan that took place in September. There were several key outcomes from the meeting which point to the fact that all these friends are working together to support Pakistan, including the establishment of a multi-donor trust fund for the border areas to provide co-ordinated financing mechanisms for donor-supported areas affected by terrorism, militancy and extremism. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the Friends of Democratic Pakistan include Saudi Arabia and Iran, so we are all working together for the benefit of the people of Pakistan and in fighting the terrorists there.

I have been asked about the poppy crop. Great progress is being made through the wheat initiative that we have had this year and it is clear from the statistics for 2008-09 that the poppy crop has gone down. However, we are anxious to ensure that counternarcotics is not a strategy on its own, but that it is mainstreamed into all aspects of governance. Like all noble Lords, we are aware that there is a direct link between finance for terrorism and the poppy crop.

We talk to our NATO allies all the time and we are trying to encourage them to send more troops to Afghanistan. We believe that one or two countries may be ready to do that, but we will certainly keep talking.

In response to the points made about equipment, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who said that the Government are not doing their duty and are somehow shifting the blame on to the military-not shifting the blame, I shall not put it like that, but

14 Oct 2009 : Column 235

saying that it is the military that must decide. I believe that the Government are doing their job and that we are going about this in the right way. We are working with the military, but of course the needs of our troops on the ground change all the time and these types of equipment are not kept on the shelf. It takes time to ensure that the right equipment is available in the right place, and that is what we are doing all the time. I think that we are now getting the balance right.

The noble Lord was quite correct that it is important that the Government are questioned closely about this just war. While all of us in this Chamber broadly agree that this is a war that has to be fought and are wholeheartedly behind our troops, we have somehow failed to undertake our duty as Members of the House of Lords, as well as members of the Government and Opposition, to get that message out to the people of this country, whose support our troops on the ground need and deserve.

I agree that military advice should not be tainted by politics. I was asked about the EU. I do not know where we are in terms of a conference being called, but we certainly welcome the increased attention that the European Union is paying to Pakistan. The UK is giving its full support to the work of the Swedish presidency of the EU, designed to lead to an enhanced and more coherent EU contribution to the civilian effort in Afghanistan. We look forward to the outcome of the October European Council, which will endorse and give momentum to this strengthened approach. It is just one more reason why it is important for us to be working with our allies in the European Union and why we need a strong European Union.

4.11 pm

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I, too, thank the Leader for repeating the Statement. I make it clear that the questions that I shall pose today are based on consultation with my Afghan colleagues.

Does the noble Baroness agree, first, that the insurgency will not be eradicated by force alone, however augmented it will be? Does she agree, secondly, that the Afghan police are just not up to the job and thus urgently require adequate training resources in order to put in place anti-corruption and civilian protection mechanisms? A further run-off of the election would probably result in a far lower turnout; fraud and violations would continue; and the expense would be prohibitive. Therefore, should not the votes as collected be now announced? At the same time, there should be a vast increase in investment in regeneration programmes in the safer zones. There should also perhaps be a clear-cut, long-term and timed agenda for the country, which should be agreed with all bilateral and multilateral donors, who will have significant influence if acting as a body. Finally, does she agree that the future focus should be on training, development and co-ordination of aid donors and the promotion of Afghan leadership, together with a possible new, transitional Government, and away from armed conflict?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I agree with each and every one of the points made by the noble Baroness. It is of course right that the insurgency will

14 Oct 2009 : Column 236

not be eradicated by force alone, but that is the whole purpose of our strategy and that which has been outlined by General McChrystal. It is about "Afghanisation", which involves both a military effort and a civilian effort working in tandem. It is all about providing support to, and working in partnership with, the Afghan troops and police and improving the governance of that country, so that the Afghan people are able to take control of their own country and ensure that it is not overrun by terrorists. It is about hearts and minds and development as well as the military effort, but without the military effort, these other things could not fall into place.

The noble Baroness spoke about the elections. We have to be patient and let the process run its course. We support the various investigations that are taking place and hope that there will be a declaration in the not-too-distant future.

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that the whole House recognises the grave situation that we now face? We may not be losing, but we are certainly not yet winning. The Statement has not to my mind changed things in any way that will make a significant difference to the grave situation that is being carried mainly on the courage and amazing bravery of our forces, who are paying a very heavy price.

I found the timing of the Statement rather extraordinary. I do not know whether it was meant to pre-empt what President Obama is going to say. The United States is the lead player. If, as the noble Baroness said, the Statement dovetails with the discussions between the Prime Minister and the President and is an indication of what President Obama is going to say, I have a real concern as to whether a new and adequate strategy is being prepared.

In that connection, this very carefully worded Statement makes clear that even this proposed very limited increase is conditional on three conditions and will not happen unless they are met. The second condition is that every soldier is fully equipped. As Secretary of State, I certainly saw it as my responsibility on behalf of the Government to see that our forces were properly equipped and in no sense sold to a general that it was his job. Everyone knows that there are not enough helicopters. Even with the welcome announcement today, that is nothing like enough. Compared to the American provision it is woefully inadequate. So that condition is not yet met.

The third condition is that all countries in the coalition bear their fair share. I have now listened to three Secretaries of State for Defence, in the rapid speed at which they turn over in this Government, each saying, "Everyone else has got to bear their fair share. We are going to talk to them and make sure that they do". They never come back with any adequate answer. With great respect to the noble Baroness-I understand entirely the position she is in-she has repeated exactly the same sentence. She said, "We are going to go on talking to them". If other countries in the coalition do not bear their fair share and the conditions are not met, will the Prime Minister not provide even this very limited number of extra troops?

14 Oct 2009 : Column 237

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, earlier referred to the conditions. The three clear conditions do not relate to troops from our NATO allies. I will have to check, but I believe that they relate to extra troops from the Afghans themselves. If one looks at the Statement, I believe that it refers to extra Afghan troops, not to allied troops.

In relation to the three conditions, I read briefly an extract from the Chief of the Defence Staff, which I cannot find just at the moment. He said that he is confident that the conditions will be met. As regards the timing, is the noble Lord saying that if our commanders on the ground and our military troops are saying, "We need more troops", we say, "Sorry, you have to wait for the Americans"? We are not saying that. We have put down three important conditions which do not relate to the Americans. They relate to three other things which we are confident will be met. I am sure that our troops will be on the ground in the not too distant future.

Lord King of Bridgwater: I know that this is a very difficult and long Statement and that the House will have great-

Baroness Crawley: With great respect-

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords-

Baroness Crawley: With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord King, we do not have a debate at this stage in a Statement. It is questions and answers.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: The Statement says,

I beg the pardon of noble Lords. I was not wishing to mislead the House and I take back what I said earlier. However, I am confident that the Prime Minister would not have made this Statement if he were not confident that this condition could be met. That is exactly what the Chief of the Defence Staff also thinks. This is not me speaking: it is the Prime Minister and the Chief of Defence Staff who will have had conversations with their counterparts.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House continues to assert that we have here a well founded strategy. We are questioning her so vigorously because it seems to be a set of aspirations and conditions rather than a strategy. I say that because a strategy should incorporate what will happen if the three conditions are not met. That is missing today.

I say with respect to the noble Baroness that the bottom line of page 4 says,

On that note she tells us that Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir David Richards are completely behind the increase in force levels. Will she also tell us what will happen if the conditions are not met? What will be the positions of Sir Jock Stirrups and Sir David Richards?

Finally, given the Government's rosy view of what is happening in Pakistan-which does not seem to take into account the divided political parties, the infiltrated army, which we saw only this week in an

14 Oct 2009 : Column 238

attack, and a population that does not possess any resilience-what will we do if our strategy of Pakistanisation fails?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, of course noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, are right to question me carefully on this. The Government have a strategy-it is right to have a strategy-but all noble Lords would wish the three conditions to be there to ensure that our troops are properly supported in every way, with enough troops on the ground and enough equipment. That is why we have the conditions. We are confident that the conditions will be met. Again I say that Sir Jock Stirrup, and all those people who are so much better equipped to deal with these matters than I am, are confident that they can be met. Noble Lords laugh at me-they do not think that that is adequate-but it is the case that if the conditions cannot be met it must mean that the 500 extra troops will not be going to Afghanistan; that is the clear outcome.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page