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Can the Leader of the House reaffirm that, despite the challenges we face in Afghanistan, progress has been made? Can he confirm that the Government are continuing the strategy which the United Kingdom has pursued, with our partners in the international coalition, and that it has not changed? If it has changed, can he tell us in what respects? I am sure that all noble and gallant Lords will be as vigilant in respect of the strategy under this Government as they were under the previous Government.
Returning briefly to the issue of spending, in opposition the now Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary argued for a bigger Army and for its expansion by three battalions. Are the Government going ahead with that?
The Strategic Defence Review gives rise to the statements made over the weekend by the Secretary of State for Defence on the future of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence-statements to the media, of course, not to Parliament. Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to Sir Jock Stirrup and Sir Bill Jeffrey for their public service to the nation? Will he explain to this House the reasons for their departures? Will he confirm that they will both play a role in the implementation of the Strategic Defence Review and remain until it is completed?
I restate our support for the mission in Afghanistan, which is, as the Prime Minister has rightly said, first and foremost to protect our national security. As this is the noble Lord's first Statement to this House on Afghanistan on behalf of the Prime Minister-and, therefore, the first occasion on which we have responded as the Official Opposition-I assure him that, as the Government proceed to take difficult decisions in the best interests of our mission in Afghanistan and of our troops, they will have our full support.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for what she has said and for the questions she has posed. There were quite a few and I do not pretend for one moment that I shall be able to answer all of them right now. She is only too aware of the difficulties in replying on behalf of the Prime Minister, who speaks in another place, while being asked questions here. However, I shall do my very best.
I also thank the noble Baroness for the broad statement of support for what the new Government are doing. In many instances we are following the footsteps of our predecessors. As a generality, it is important to our forces abroad that they feel there is combined and united political support. I do not take that, of course, as stopping the noble Baroness from asking her incisive questions; I would be amazed if she did not continue to do so.
On the question of continuing the strategy, it has not changed fundamentally; we have very much the same interests in mind. However, there are different priorities, particularly in trying to press forward more political change. We are trying to promote a political surge at the same time as a military surge in order to win the military war and the people-and-minds war on the ground, and to encourage the Taliban to understand that the time for laying down its weapons has now come.
The noble Baroness will have seen in the newspapers this morning and over the weekend that the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence is due to retire. That was envisaged a while ago and there is nothing extraordinary in it. It is true that Sir Jock Stirrup is leaving early. However, I am informed that he will play a full role in the Strategic Defence Review and that that role will be important and significant in it coming to its conclusions.
The noble Baroness asked whether we would continue to support the families. I can confirm that we shall do so. That is why we have also announced that we should look again at how the R&R rules work in terms of travel time for soldiers returning to this country, as well as looking at the review of the military covenant, putting at the heart of that covenant the welfare of our military.
I cannot confirm that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has met the formidable women of the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force families federations, but I am sure that their interests are very much uppermost in his mind and those of the Secretary of State for Defence and his ministerial team.
The increase in funding of £200 million that we have announced is substantial. I can confirm that it is new money; it is not at the expense of existing programmes. Of course, I cannot say that in the future there may not be some reordering of it, but it is new money, to be spent during the next few years on trying, as I have explained, to unfold the strategic objective of helping the restoration of a civil society within the nation of Afghanistan.
As the noble Baroness correctly noted, the relationship with Pakistan is vital. It is extremely well understood. The sacrifice that the armed forces of Pakistan have made these past few years is equally recognised and understood, as are the close links that exist between this country and Pakistan. I am glad to say that, in general, the relationship between us and Pakistan is extremely good, and the amount of money which is spent by various agencies from the United Kingdom to Pakistan will be continued.
I am unable to tell the noble Baroness when the Strategic Defence Review will report. We are in the very early days of working out exactly how it will take place, but as soon as I have more information on it, I shall let her know.
It has been persuasively argued by long-term Afghan experts that the war against the Taliban is unwinnable for many reasons, some of which have been listed by the noble Lord. One of them is that the training camps supplying fresh batches of suicide killers for export are now based largely in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which are on the whole outside the reach of the Pakistan authorities. The link between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is almost negligible now. Nor is the Taliban centrally involved in exporting terrorism; it is concerned much more with domestic control. It would seem that the justification for the surge looks increasingly thin. Does the Minister therefore agree that a different, perhaps more limited, strategy is called for? I suggest, for example, as have others, that a strategy which focuses on protecting the main cities, together with maintaining a highly trained, mobile force to take out any remaining training camps, is possible, desirable and therefore to be recommended.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, the Convenor of the Cross-Benchers, makes some important and valid points, but it is the view of the Government that the key area for us to spend time and money on is the reintegration and reconciliation process of dealing with Taliban leaders. The noble Baroness rightly said that it is an unwinnable war if the only means at our disposal are military. It is not a war that can be won simply with guns and arms; it needs to be part of an overarching political process. That is why we are very glad that the peace Jirgah that took place early in June was a success. It was part of what we believe to be the inclusive political settlement, which is so necessary in restoring the peace and security
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Lord Clinton-Davis: I share the views expressed on both sides of the House about the soldiers who have died recently in Afghanistan. Can the noble Lord say what is happening immediately to enable the Afghans to become a more effective fighting force? What programme is contemplated to give that aim practical effect?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, a key plank of the role of British forces is to help and encourage the Afghan national security forces themselves to become better able to provide the security that is required. There are currently around 120,000 Afghan national army personnel and 105,000 Afghan national police personnel. It was agreed at the London conference a few months ago to set targets for the ANSF growth by the end of 2011 of 171,000 for the ANA and 134,000 for the ANP. That means that there is a huge role not just for British forces but for our NATO allies and partners in helping, training and encouraging Afghan national security forces to take more of the burden. It is our wish that, as they do so, we will be able to withdraw.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I welcome this Statement from the Prime Minister repeated in this House. The Prime Minister is right when he talks of the need to accelerate the process which will lead to the eventual withdrawal of Britain's 10,000 deployment. Can the noble Lord indicate whether there is a timescale for the withdrawal? That would put an urgency on the Karzai Government to reach some sort of decisions on the basis of which they can take fuller control rather than depending on British soldiers to maintain the situation in Afghanistan. Is there any further information about the recent revelation of the news about the ISI in Pakistan collaborating with the Taliban in Afghanistan on the basis of which the insurgency seems to be gathering quite a lot of pace?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dholakia asked about timetables for withdrawals. The view that I have always held on these matters, which is shared by the Government, is that rather than giving artificial dates we should do what we can when we can. No British soldier wishes to stay one moment longer than needed and required in Afghanistan. The steps that we are taking and continue to take are those designed to ensure that that withdrawal can take place. We hope, as the current mission unfolds over the next two or three years, that a substantial change will take place.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House touched briefly on the point raised by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition in relation to Sir Jock Stirrup but he did not answer the specific question that my noble friend put. Will the noble Lord tell the House why it is thought necessary that the Chief of the Defence Staff be asked to leave his post at this juncture?
Lord Strathclyde: I think that the noble Baroness is trying to stir up trouble for the Government on this subject, but I really do not think that there is any. There are no particular reasons. I am sure that there is a series of different reasons for why this decision has been taken, but Sir Jock will be staying in post until November. That also allows me to answer the noble Baroness's question that I did not answer before: that is around the same time as we hope the SDR will be published. Sir Jock will be playing a major part in that, and he would not be if there was any discomfort or unhappiness between the Government and him. I can confirm that the relationship is as good as it should be.
Lord Boyce: My Lords, I welcome the statement. I notice, however, that there is a lot of emphasis on the subject of our troops coming home, which is laudable in many senses but is in danger of perpetuating the uncertainty with which this whole operation has been run for the past four years. Can the House be reassured that the Government will give full and strong emphasis to this being a fully fledged campaign, something to which the noble Lord the Leader alluded in the answer before last?
Lord Strathclyde: Yes, my Lords. I have said that no British soldier wishes to stay in theatre a minute longer than is required, but we have a job to do. We will stay there to complete the job that needs to be done, and today was an opportunity to lay out our general strategy and priorities. We will fund and support our troops on the ground and take steps to make sure that they are given the very best of equipment, political support and everything else that they require.
Lord Patten: My Lords, in warmly welcoming the statement made in another place by my right honourable friend, I wish to raise a question concerned not with great matters of security or strategy but rather with the emotional and spiritual problems that face our brave young women and young men who are serving in Afghanistan. Does my noble friend agree that they are greatly helped by the advice and counsel that they receive from chaplains of all sorts? I use that term generically, from Muslim via Jewish to Christian and back. Will he confirm that such spiritual and emotional support, which is so valuable to people on the front line, will continue to be available for just as long as our troops stay in Afghanistan?
Lord Strathclyde: Yes, my Lords. My noble friend has made a good point and asked an important question about how we see the welfare of our troops, not only when they are in theatre but also when they return to
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We want to put our Armed Forces in the front and centre of our national life again. We are going to rewrite the military covenant and look after their families. There is a key role for civil society in working with people who work in our Armed Forces and those who are retiring. We are also going to look at how to improve accommodation for Armed Forces families and channel more funding into state schools in barracks towns. There is a substantial agenda but we have a great opportunity, with so many members of the Armed Forces in theatre at the moment, to get it right. It was correct for the Prime Minister to lay this out right at the beginning of our term.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I welcome the Statement and the intention to do more for the military covenant. The Americans and President Obama have talked about withdrawal starting in 2011, and now we appear to be talking in the same terms. Can I take it that we and our American colleagues will be moving together on this, not separately?
As I am on my feet, I should like to say how important it is that the Government's confidence in the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, is loudly and clearly enunciated, particularly bearing in mind the avalanche of adverse criticism that has appeared in the media-in a most co-ordinated way, it would appear-following the statement by the Defence Secretary at the weekend.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, on that point I reiterate the full confidence that we have in the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, for the work that he has done-and, indeed, for the work that he is going to do over the next few months. As for a longer-term withdrawal, that will happen in discussion and by negotiation with our military allies in ISAF. However, I repeat: there is no intention to leave Afghanistan until the job that we have set out on has been done, and done effectively. That is, not least, because we feel that we are at a vital stage of the job that we are doing there and can see the creation of a strong and stable society in Afghanistan becoming a reality.
Baroness Goudie: My Lords, I welcome very much the Statement by the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister today, and the commitment to funds for the future of the Ministry of Defence. More importantly, however, there is also the commitment to the funds for development. That is extremely important for women and children in Afghanistan. We made a commitment at the London conference to assist women and children in education, not only in schools but at university. By a quota system, almost 50 per cent of the MPs in Afghanistan are women. Those women do not have access to the President or proper access to Ministers. As well as a commitment to education, we
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Lord Strathclyde: The noble Baroness is quite right. Development goes hand in hand with the work of the military and, as the Statement laid out and as I have said again this afternoon, this is very much a partnership and it must, almost by definition, include qualitative improvements in education and health throughout Afghanistan, helping younger women and young men to meet their potential. Since the London conference, good progress has taken place on commitments made there on a number of important areas: on corruption; on development and governance; and on reconciliation and reintegration. I very much echo what the noble Baroness has said this afternoon. It is uppermost in our minds.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, the Leader of the House referred to the success of the Jirgah earlier this month. Can he say in particular whether greater acceptance was manifested at the Jirgah by the people of Afghanistan of the Karzai Government as representing their interests, and whether specific measures were taken-or have been indicated-on the corruption which has been undermining the acceptability of that regime?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it has long been well known that there are problems of corruption in Afghanistan, but a presidential decree has strengthened the high office of oversight and the refocusing of Afghan ministries on tackling corruption. I do not think that any of us would be complacent in saying that the problem faced in Afghanistan is very substantial. My noble friend mentioned the Jirgah; that is but part of a process, but it is an important part in gaining the confidence of people and thus the greatest possible acceptability of the Government to govern in Afghanistan. As I said, parliamentary elections will take place in September. That is a further step on the way. If those elections can, as I very much hope, take place well away from a background of political corruption, that will be another way of demonstrating support for the new Government through normal parliamentary means.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, given that we have little time on our side, may I ask my noble friend a personal question? His courtesy to your Lordships' House is such that it is difficult to imagine that he could increase that courtesy but, when he is repeating a Statement made by the Prime Minister, will he contemplate rising to do so after the Prime Minister has sat down? Unless he does so, it is impossible for the Printed Paper Office to release the Statement to Back-Benchers. Alternatively, will he contemplate changing the rules of engagement of the Printed Paper Office?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my understanding has always been-this just goes to show how you can get things wrong-that the prime ministerial Statement is issued as the Prime Minister stands up, but perhaps
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Lord Patten: My Lords, let me pick up the baton of the Olympic and Paralympic debate before my noble friend's welcome Statement. I remind the House that a good maxim in the planning of great public projects in London is: "Never forget the Dome". Another maxim is: "Always stick closely to the core reasons why any public project in London is being brought into existence". There is much talk in the media and by the commentariat about everything connected to the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, ranging from urban renewal and legacy, via green initiatives, to the better understanding of foreign languages, but it can be much too easy to lose focus on the core considerations. The last Government disastrously and hilariously lost control of the Dome project because they had wandered off from the core considerations that the Dome was all about.
I believe that there are three core considerations affecting the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. The first are the competitors-the athletes who compete in the Games. That is why we have the Olympics in the first place, although sometimes when one listens to debates one wonders whether other people realise that. The second core consideration is the security of those athletes and of those who watch them in ever more threatening times. The third is the ability of athletes and spectators to get with ease to all the venues. I am thinking not just of the Olympic Park in east London, which is what we hear about most of the time, but of all the other venues to which people will wish to go.
On the first core issue-the athletes-I must declare my interest as a member of the advisory board of the British Olympic Association. I am convinced that athletes' interests have been constantly advanced by the British Olympic Association under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Moynihan-whose speech we look forward to almost as much as we do to the maiden speech that is coming down the track from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, which is why so many of us are in the House this afternoon-and, in relation to the staging of the competition itself, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Coe. We could not be in better hands than those of those two great Olympians.
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