Skip to main content

Troop Deployment (Helmand Province)

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

I thank the Speaker for granting me this debate and I apologise to the Minister for trashing a second morning of his time.

The Government’s commitment to Afghanistan is brave and principled. As I am sure the Minister will point out, we cannot allow it again to become a failed state—one from which the likes of Osama bin Laden could plot the murder of thousands of innocent people. One should not invade countries and then run, leaving chaos in one’s wake. A stable Afghanistan is in Britain’s national interest. Unlike our invasion of Iraq, we had compelling reasons to invade Afghanistan, and for wider strategic reasons we had to play a part in introducing stability and democracy there.

As the Minister is aware, during the Easter recess I went to Afghanistan, and I managed briefly to visit Helmand province while there, so I hope that he will forgive me if I am not completely up to date. I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject and I do not have huge armies of knowledgeable advisers, but during my visit I conducted about 47 substantive interviews with Afghans and other well-informed people, with the emphasis on seeking the thoughts of the ordinary people of Helmand province.

The main headline that emerged from those discussions is that the British public have not been alerted by the Government to the great dangers that confront our troops and officials in the province, nor to the great risk of doing further damage to our reputation in the region. Announcing our deployment, the then Secretary of State for Defence said that he hoped, as we all did, that we would leave Afghanistan without a shot being fired. That was a somewhat optimistic observation.

At the moment, we have more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, and more than 2,000 in Helmand province. I am reliably informed that we would be hard pushed to get more than a couple of hundred on the ground—out of camp—at any one time. Helmand has a population of about 1 million, spread over an area the size of Wales and the west midlands. There are more than 1,000 villages. The area is dominated by the mighty Helmand river, and most of its population live within 10 km of the river banks. As one flies into the province, one is struck by the cultivation along the river banks. The guy in the next seat may shout over the noise of the aircraft, “Down there, look at that green; 80 per cent. of that is opium poppy and it will end up on your streets.”

In the 1950s, Helmand was known as little America. A huge programme to build irrigation systems opened thousands of hectares of desert to cultivation and created a huge farming zone. Recent wars have all but destroyed that. In 2001, about 95 per cent. of the crops were destroyed by drought, leaving many families internally displaced, in debt and destitute. There is virtually no government in the rural areas outside the traditional structure of mullahs and elders. The Government are seen as corrupt, remote—and far away.

With the exception of Helmand’s new governor—as the Minister knows, his relationship with the British is extremely close—most provincial government is completely corrupt. The last governor of Helmand was removed when opium may or may not have been found in his office, and his brother Mullah Amir remains the deputy governor. As one officer put it to me, the police are corrupt from top to bottom and police cars are the favoured vehicle for exporting the opium poppy.

In the south, Afghanistan has a 160 km border with Pakistan, but to the local population that is little more than an accident of history because it does not reflect family ties or economic activity—nor the long history of smuggling and the exchange of people. Indeed, when I first heard the word “Helmand” I was 18, and watching the mujaheddin attacking unfortunate Russian conscripts on one of their infiltration routes from Baluchistan and Pakistan into Afghanistan.

The Minister will be aware that a sizable Afghan population remains in that province of Pakistan, and that high levels of the Taliban and al-Qaeda organisations can be found there. Those groups may or may not be planning things from Pakistan, with or without the help of Pakistan’s rogue inter-services intelligence, and trying to co-ordinate attacks on NATO troops. A couple of days ago this appeared on an Islamic website:

“On June 15, armed forces of the Islamic State of Afghanistan ambushed and terminated eight puppet regime soldiers and destroyed their…vehicles”.

Another entry says:

“On June 14, armed forces of Islamic State of Afghanistan attacked a joint convoy of puppet soldiers and puppet policemen in Hasan Kariz area…which left three puppet policemen dead and two…injured. A vehicle was also destroyed in the attack.”

Helmand was the birthplace of the Taliban and there remain substantial numbers of Taliban in both the towns and the villages. In the past few months, so-called night letters have been distributed, calling on local people to fight the British. That would not be the first time. In 1880 the Royal Regiment was virtually wiped out in the disastrous battle that it fought along the banks of the Helmand river at Maiwand. A British officer wrote, rather pessimistically, at the time that

“making war and planning a campaign on the Helmand from the cool shades…is an experiment which will not, I hope, be repeated”.

Well, the experiment is being repeated and the Taliban tell people in their night letters that their grandfathers are scratching at the soil in their graves to get out and kill the grandsons of the British troops they massacred.

That is the bad news. The good news is that ordinary Afghan villages badly want British troops. They want security and reconstruction. Since the 2001 invasion, opium production has increased immensely. Most families are involved in its production. It is not something with which they necessarily feel comfortable; but needs must. The opium yield per hectare is about $5,400. The yield for wheat is about a 10th of that. People might not starve without the money from opium, but it certainly helps family finances. Attempts at eradication are seen as unequal and unfair. When I was in the country I tried to see a very senior police officer, but his deputy told me, “He’s out. He’s busy making money.” It turned out that he was in the poppy fields, directing that afternoon’s eradication programme—presumably sparing the fields of farmers who could pay.

A couple of weeks ago a special forces officer who had just come back told me, while drinking tea on the Terrace, that he had lost count of the number of times he had been to an area in which he had been told eradication had taken place, only to find that the fields that were supposed to have been eradicated were intact, but that on the margin smaller farmers who had not been able to pay had had their crops destroyed. The process is thus seen as corrupt and inequitable. It forces out smaller players and allows bigger drug producers to consolidate.

The UK seems a bit confused about what it is doing about opium. We are the G8 leader on drugs, but one feels a certain sensitivity. Sitting in the garden of the British embassy in Kabul, having a quiet chat, I asked a senior official whether there was to be any change in our policy of providing “lift, cordon and planning” for counter-narcotics operations. The official answered that he was sure that the Minister’s position had not changed—remember, this was supposed to be a friendly chat—and that he could only refer me to Hansard for what he said. That felt bizarre.

The Afghans are not stupid and we are kidding ourselves if we think that they will not notice if we get involved in the corrupt destruction of a crop that provides people with their livelihood while we cannot provide the conditions or means for them to earn a less harmful living. We will not generate good will by standing around while tractors dragging discs destroy crops that feed families. I am categorically not saying that we should do nothing about narcotics that damage vulnerable people, but I do not buy the supply side argument. Even if we could eventually destroy every poppy in Helmand there would be no resultant shortage on the streets of Gravesham. The situation is corroding Afghanistan from its people to its Government, and everything in between, but battles must be fought one at a time, at a time of one’s own choosing. Fortunately, the harvest has just taken place, which will give the British breathing space so that we do not have to get involved immediately.

The end state is unclear and the objectives are confused. Is this a matter of counter-narcotics, counter-insurgency or nation building? Inequitable counter-narcotics operations will inevitably lead to insurgency, which can only have a negative impact on nation building. One major gripe in the villages, and a huge gap in our credibility in Helmand, is that we are working not only with a police force that is seen as 99 per cent. corrupt and whose members are involved in trafficking, but with national, provincial and district governments that are floating on the stuff. I imagine that the whole region is being swamped with signals and electronic intelligence as we look for Osama and his friends, but we have somehow failed to use that large amount of intelligence material, which points to the involvement of an extremely close relative of the President of Afghanistan, and no prosecution has yet been made. That matters, because the individual concerned is, in effect, the business partner of the biggest trafficker in Helmand, and the locals all know it. We are seen as connected with the eradication programme, but these guys are banking tens of millions of dollars and building ornate villas.

Successfully prosecuting a large trafficker would send a positive message to the villages of Helmand. As General Ulumi, the former Communist governor of Kandahar, put it to me,

“no one protects the villages and keeps them safe…They see most of the national income going into the pockets of a small group of warlords and drug dealers”.

The villagers feel attacked from all sides. Jolyon Leslie, who used to run the UN development programme and who has been in Afghanistan, including under the Taliban, for about 15 years, says that

“they might have their school burned down by the Taleban, and then get beaten up by the Police for not stopping the Taleban from burning down their school. The trouble is the Taleban have not gone away, or if they have, they come back at night”.

We decided to go to Afghanistan based on the assumption that Iraq would be stable by the time we did so. That assumption was pretty shaky anyway, but the conditions in which both would happen at the same time never pertained. As a result, we are carrying a large strategic risk in failing to achieve results in Basra and Helmand. When we decided to go in late 2004, we were keen to support the NATO mission and prove that it was usable, deployable and relevant.

The model that we have taken to Helmand is pretty much a first, with an unprecedented amount of planning. There is joined-up government, which is much to the Ministers’ credit. The Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office are working together to deliver the force that buys time for development and governance initiatives to take place.

However, that is all very little. The resources that have been allocated are inadequate. The military budget is £1 billion and the DFID budget was initially £10 million, with perhaps another £11 million, although that may have changed. Not only is the civil-military spend disproportionate, but the military commander is dependent on DFID for delivering his success, and it is unlikely that DFID will deliver. I have not been able to confirm this, but I think that the US has allocated $300 million for its poppy eradication and alternative livelihood programmes in Jalalabad, and the Afghans appear content with that. Even £21 million looks a bit light by comparison. This is what people call buying peace, but more than £1 billion over three years will create a fairly tiny footprint in Helmand, and I have referred to the 200 troops that we could routinely have had on the ground.

We have taken ownership of a huge problem, with the little prospect of gain. We have also not been told by what criteria the Government will measure success. One aid worker told me that

“it is absurd to think that you can create the conditions in Helmand…to pour in armed with hand pumps”.

As I keep hearing, however, we are where we are. As usual, our troops get on with things and do what is asked of them.

Clearly, Afghanistan’s centre of gravity is Kabul, and our national contribution in Helmand is really a tactical activity. We must do what we can to join up central and provincial government and clean up governance and police. We must also develop the Afghans’ own apparatus to ensure that we do not leave Afghanistan as an aid state or a narco-state.

The stated objective of Her Majesty’s Government is strengthening the power of the Kabul Government, but, historically, any attempt to strengthen the centre against the periphery in Afghanistan has failed. Afghanistan is not a nation, but a loose confederation of tribes. The establishment of democracy will not replace tribalism, which Afghans prefer, but cause huge resentment between Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras.

One senior officer who has been heavily involved in some of the more interesting military operations since Labour came to power warns against unnecessarily picking fights, and says that we should guard against considering every militia man with an assault rifle as being Taliban. Troops who have their own area of responsibility may end up having fights that do not help us at all. He says:

“It is a mistake to wind the locals up and give them an excuse to join the Taliban. Company sized swoops through your village and helicopters flying low overhead could act very effectively as a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban. We must be careful not to provide a self defeating profile.”

In Iraq, we were until recently in the absolutely woeful position of conducting patrols without an Iraqi face. We must not repeat that mistake in Afghanistan. The senior officer says that we must be seen at all times to be backing up the Afghan army and the Afghan national police.

I do not know how far we have been able to go, in terms of cleaning up the police and working with reliable officers. If we do not manage to do that, the Afghan villagers will simply see us as an extension of a corrupt police force. One westerner who has lived in Helmand for over a decade believes that cleaning up the police and working with them is the key enabler. He believes that once we have done that, we can prepare Helmand for development, which will move people away from insecurity and drug production. Others cite the example of Dhofar, where a small, discrete contribution of UK forces is working with local forces to secure the environment for development. Obviously there are differences; there, the threat was external and everything was not polluted by drugs. Also, critically, we were prepared to be there for the long haul, which does not seem to be the case in Afghanistan.

There are recent reports of insurgents who have operated in Iraq arriving in Afghanistan, in Helmand province. Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of those reports, it seems inevitable that jihadists will transfer their devastating roadside bombing techniques from Iraq to Afghanistan. One British officer who served in both Iraq and in Helmand province in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion maintains that troops are getting killed in Iraq by roadside bombs because we do not have enough helicopters. He says that we seem to have forgotten the lessons that we learned in south Armagh. There, we faced devastating culvert bombs in the early 1970s. Vehicle movement was completely stopped and patrols were done on foot and by helicopters. Bessbrook Mill was the busiest heliport in the world. Of course, there are foot patrols in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is no longer the default setting, as it was.

There is another footnote to the lessons learned from Ireland. There, people in the key jobs that required continuity would serve for two years, albeit with rather different leave arrangements, in order to build up long-term relationships. Of course, Afghanistan is not Northern Ireland, where we had absolutely no choice other than to think of the long term. That point is not lost on many commanders to whom I have spoken, even if it is not axiomatic to tri-service chiefs, among whom corporate memory seems to be rather short.

At the time of the abduction and rescue of two special forces guys in Basra last year, the brigade commander’s staff are reported to have spent hundreds of hours making the case for more helicopters and more troops. That request was for the most part denied, apparently because it would look presentationally wrong. We are about to take delivery of a couple of hundred partly irrelevant air defence jets, just when the size of our battlefield helicopter fleet is proving completely inadequate to the task. Another officer who will shortly take his troops to Afghanistan rang me the other night to say that he had just heard the likely number of helicopter hours that he would be allocated in Helmand. He said:

“We will be completely hamstrung without choppers—it looks like we are going to have to drive everywhere. Day to day resupply and troop movement will really eat into the hours.”

It is not good enough to say that we do not have the air frames and the crews that the troops on the ground so desperately need. If we cannot do the job properly because we do not have the kit or the air crew, either we should not be doing it or we should start shopping, fast. Most people to whom I have spoken describe more battlefield helicopters as the urgent operational requirement. There are a number of other issues connected with the safety and effectiveness of our troops and officials in other Government agencies, of which the Minister is aware, but I do not propose to blunder into those in public.

In conclusion, the condensed view of many people with whom I have been in contact is as follows: the people of Helmand desperately want us there. They want security and reconstruction. They remember the 1950s, when they had irrigation and produced crops, and when they had proper roads and access to markets. They want those things again. They do not want endless war and opium. They want deliverance from poverty, but they also believe that there is a grave danger, given our tiny number of troops and the NATO model, of disappointing such high expectations. Of course it can be done and our troops are doing everything they can to ensure that it happens, within the constraints of the resources that they have.

The average Afghan is in his village and, metaphorically, sitting on the fence. He can either jump off it on the side of security and reconstruction or he can go the other way: the way of the Taliban and the side of insecurity, drugs and poverty. My fear is that the Taliban and external actors might be able to make the villagers feel that security is worse than it was before the British arrived. There would then be no development and another strategic failure, which will do nothing to make our people safer.

Order. It might be helpful for hon. Members to know that I intend to call the Front-Bench winding-up speakers at, or very close to, half-past 10. Approximately four Members have signalled their wish to speak, so with even a moderate degree of self-discipline it ought to be possible for everybody to make a contribution.

The whole Chamber owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) for his interesting, well thought-out, well researched and thoughtful contribution this morning.

When the present Home Secretary was Secretary of State for Defence, he said that he would deploy to Helmand only if there was full support from DFID. I want to speak about that this morning, but before I do so, I should like to give some thanks and make some comments.

Last year I was fortunate, along with the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), to go to Afghanistan as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. May I, through the Minister of State, thank the officials in the MOD who organise that scheme? It must sometimes be a complete headache having a group of Members of Parliament lumbering around military establishments, but they look after us extremely well.

We were struck by the incredible work of the RAF in heavy lift. It has few heavy transport planes, which it is having to use in both Iraq and Afghanistan, working 24/7. It is a phenomenal task and the people involved do it incredibly well. We were also struck by the professionalism of our forces in Kabul. What a contrast we saw between UK squaddies out on patrol, making eye contact and being friendly with locals, and our American cousins, who are bunkered down in Humvees, travelling at huge speeds around Kabul, frightening the locals and causing mayhem. It is no wonder that people do not respect the United States; it is not difficult to see why that is so.

It was impressive seeing the work that was being done to train the Afghan army, but that process will obviously take a long time, particularly the building up of middle management and the relationships between sergeants and junior officers. None of us should genuinely expect much from the Afghan army for some time. That is not because they are not people who are committed and of good will; they are starting a long way back in respect of their training.

I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has disappeared. He and I were looked after by the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, which is being amalgamated into the Rifles. I hope that it will be able to keep its back badge. The Minister smiles, but such things matter in terms of the history of our nation. The regiment defeated the French in Egypt, despite the fact that the French were attacking in both directions. Despite the amalgamations, we hope that soldiers in the British Army can keep such things, which are icons.

Everyone recognises that British forces will do an extremely professional job, but in the brief time that I have left I want to talk about DFID. It has been in Afghanistan for some while, but its time has been spent almost entirely in Kabul. The work that it has been doing in Afghanistan is almost entirely about helping the machinery of government to work in Kabul—helping President Karzai and Government Ministries to work. That is not an easy post. It is an unaccompanied post. The number of DFID staff who are particularly interested in Asia is not that great; most of them are interested in Africa. I think that it has not been easy to recruit staff to go to Afghanistan for DFID, although it has had some extremely good people there.

As far as I can discover, there has never been an oral statement from DFID on what it is doing in Afghanistan, and I have tracked down only one written statement, which was made on 31 January. It talked about the 10-year development plan, but nothing very detailed has ever been provided about Helmand. The written statement reinforces the fact that DFID has felt happier or has been more focused on helping

“the Afghan Government’s planning and budgeting through more effective delivery and use of aid, resulting in greater impact on poverty”

and reducing

“the risk of funds being misused through weak administration or corruption.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2006; Vol. 442, c. 17WS.]

DFID has been focused on the machinery of government in Kabul. Hon. Members know little about what DFID is doing in Helmand. How many UK-based staff are working in Helmand? Are they working through local non-governmental organisations and other local organisations? What are they doing to seek to establish alternative livelihoods? Or are we in a chicken-and-egg situation? Is security not yet good enough for DFID and other staff to get to Helmand? We do not even know yet what work DFID is doing in Helmand.

I know that many colleagues want to contribute to the debate. It would be extremely helpful if we could have the information that I have mentioned. The Government have made it clear that in this area of policy winning hearts and minds is partially what the military are doing in bringing in security. However, the question is also what DFID can do to increase and enhance alternative likelihoods. We need to know both sides of the story. Because Helmand will be difficult for journalists to access, we are rather dependent on the Government telling us what they are doing. Perhaps the Minister of State could ensure that colleagues in DFID appreciate that they also need to be telling this story; they also need to be telling us what is going on. Alternative livelihoods in Helmand and in Afghanistan as a whole will never be easy, but we need to see the complete picture.

I shall keep my remarks particularly short because I came into the Chamber a tad late. It is a delight to take part in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) for initiating it. It is an honour to follow my friend from the trip to Afghanistan, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), and I, too, express my respect for the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, which hosted us in Mazar-e-Sharif and looked after us very well there and in Kabul.

I have three quick observations to make from the trip and from what I have read since. The first is an optimistic one. When we make such a trip, we realise how good our troops are, and not only at peacekeeping. The hon. Gentleman and I also saw the provincial reconstruction teams. We took a rather long journey to see how they engaged with some of General Dostum’s warlords. It was very moving as well as interesting to see them sit down and talk through issues that were arising, trying to bring about genuine peace on the ground. It was interesting to see the degree of detail that they have to go into. That just shows the commitment of our forces.

The second issue, which has been alluded to, is training. It is obvious that the real battle is training and retaining people in the army and police force of Afghanistan. That will not be a quick win; a long-term structural effort is required. The worry was that the work was being undertaken in different ways by different national entities. The French were training the officers and we were training the NCOs. There were clear tensions about the training. The fact that officers got the same level of training as NCOs and not much more than ordinary troops suggests a somewhat superficial command structure. We must keep putting effort into that.

My third point, which I make no apology for raising again, is about how we manage not just our entry to this difficult scenario—I support our having troops in Afghanistan, for reasons that I shall give in a second—but our exit strategy, inasmuch as this is an international commitment. Afghanistan is not like Iraq where, in effect, the United States and the United Kingdom are leading a peacekeeping effort.

Operations in Afghanistan are under the auspices of the United Nations, and therefore the UN must take responsibility through ISAF. We all know about the difficulties in getting clear commitments from some of the players in the lead-up to the British going into Helmand. The Dutch going into Uruzgan was a classic case. They would not go in until they had their own air cover. Thankfully, that situation was resolved, but I would like the Minister to describe the management process. We cannot keep 5,000 troops there indefinitely. We have to know how we will move through the responsibility that we have taken on, who will replace us and how they will do it, and what will happen.

The Americans continue to pursue various elements—for example, al-Qaeda and the Taliban through Operation Enduring Freedom—but in their own way will begin to reduce the number of troops that they have on the ground. We learned a simple fact about US logistical problems, in that the US uses many reservists. Come the end of their year, having paid off their mortgage, the reservists leave—I am sorry to be cynical, but it appears like that when one is out in the field—but the Americans do not necessarily have people to replace them. There are drivers affecting British military forces that are completely outside our control.

I wish to conclude with a question that has always worried me and which prompts my belief that we have to be in Afghanistan. What is the alternative? There is every threat that the Taliban could return and that Pakistan could be further destabilised. I went to Pakistan shortly before I went to Afghanistan. It is clear that President Musharraf is in a difficult situation with both the north-west frontier province and Baluchistan already somewhat in the grips of more extreme elements. We must recognise that the future of the whole region depends on some level of stability in Afghanistan, but that can happen only if we will the means and the minds of the people. That is why what our provincial reconstruction teams are doing is so important.

I heard what has been said about money. Perhaps the message from this debate is not for the Ministry of Defence but for the Department for International Development. If it is serious about moving through the military stage, which, sadly, we will be in for some years, substantial resources must be channelled through DFID conduits. However, the UN must recognise that this is a real test of its authority. Will it be able to engage properly in reconstructing a country that has known nothing but conflict for decades? It will be difficult to achieve that objective, but the alternative is far worse.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this debate. I would like to start by thanking and congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing this extremely timely debate on the situation in southern Afghanistan. Given the seriousness of the challenges facing our troops in Helmand province and the escalating violence in Afghanistan in recent weeks, this is an appropriate time to discuss these matters.

Without wishing to ignore or downplay the importance of issues such as whether our mission there was planned with sufficient clarity as to its objectives or adequately resourced, I should like to raise another factor that will be critical to the long-term peace, stability and reconstruction of Afghanistan. That is the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). My theory is that without much greater trust, co-ordination and pooled effort between the Governments of those countries, the situation will continue to deteriorate, the risks facing coalition troops will increase and the long-term success of the project will be even more difficult to achieve.

Five years ago the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan were seemingly smashed by the United States-led Operation Enduring Freedom which, although derided by many now, drew widespread praise at the time for its design and execution. Yet here we are in 2006 and Afghanistan is facing a resurgent Taliban movement that threatens to overwhelm that fledgling democracy and poses a real challenge to both coalition troops and the Afghan army.

Given that Afghanistan shares a rugged porous border of nearly 1,500 miles with Pakistan, and that Taliban fighters have found more than a few welcoming homes in the semi-autonomous tribal areas on the other side of that border, the goal of eradicating those militants was never going to be solely concerned with what happened within the Afghan interior.

Effective security in the border areas of both countries is vital for the overall reconstruction effort, but it is not easy to achieve, given that neither Kabul nor Islamabad has ever managed to extend any meaningful authority to those parts. That was well understood by military planners from the outset. However, while—under the auspices of the tripartite commission, which involves the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan—significant steps have been taken towards achieving a co-ordinated approach to stopping the cross-border flow of Taliban fighters, the overwhelming picture is one of mistrust, finger pointing and too little effective action by the Pakistan and Afghan Administrations.

Throughout the past 12 months, the Government of President Karzai have repeated complaints that militants in Pakistan are freely crossing the border and that Pakistan is being used as a launch pad for attacks inside Afghanistan.

Two months ago, the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, Haji Omar, vowed to continue attacks against foreign forces in Afghanistan. The claim is not just that the Taliban have found a safe sanctuary in the north-west frontier province of Pakistan, where they have been able to set up a major logistics hub and training camps and to carry out fundraising and recruitment, but that they have also received help from Pakistan's two provincial Governments, from Pakistani Islamic extremist groups, and from various Pakistani criminal gangs—while the Government in Islamabad looked the other way. Such claims may carry some truth, but the way in which they have been aired publicly by senior Afghan politicians and officials—at embarrassing moments for the US and Pakistan—has done nothing to strengthen the partnership that needs to exist if the Taliban problem is to be dealt with effectively.

Not surprisingly, President Musharraf’s Government hotly deny that they are providing any kind of safe haven for Taliban fighters or that they are providing less than full commitment to the anti-Taliban cause. I believe that Mr. Musharraf has shown great courage and taken personal risks in the fight against terrorism, but it would not be surprising if some of his lieutenants were less eager to quell Afghanistan’s insurgency, given that they remain dismayed at their loss of influence over a country that, under Taliban rule, they controlled to a significant extent.

Three months ago yet another joint statement was issued at the end of a tripartite commission meeting. It said that the three sides had agreed to enhance communication and co-ordination in order to fight al-Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas in the border area. However, verbal commitments to greater co-operation have been made all too often. Back in 2003, when Pakistan was utilising 60,000 troops in the semi-autonomous tribal areas to seek out al-Qaeda and Taliban members, the Afghan Government angrily accused it of effectively invading their territory. Such accusations and suspicions have even led to the sporadic exchange of gunfire between Afghan and Pakistani border outposts in the past two or three years. That is not the kind of partnership that is needed if the Taliban and al-Qaeda are to be defeated.

Many hon. Members will be aware that the situation is exacerbated by the border dispute to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham alluded, which dates back to the colonial era. Pakistan regards the border as settled; Afghanistan does not. In 2003, the Pakistani Government announced that they had begun fencing the border with Afghanistan, using as a justification their need to block infiltration by Islamic militants. That served only to raise suspicions even further on the Afghan side that Pakistan was seeking to close off any future discussions about the border.

The US has tried to resolve the border issue through the tripartite commission, but so far its effort has had little fruit. It is not just about which particular rocky mountainside the border should cross; the significance of the problem lies in the fact that the colonial border divided Pashtun tribal families who now want easier access to each other. They are the very people that the Taliban are trying to enlist in their cause.

There are fears in Pakistan about the spread of Taliban sympathies within the western border and in other parts of the country. According to reports from Pakistan earlier this year, the Taliban recently opened an office in the capital of south Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal areas, supposedly to help restore law and order.

As the UK shoulders an increasing burden for resourcing and leading the military campaign in Afghanistan, and as the US commitment is reduced, it is right for Her Majesty’s Government to consider what steps they can take to help neutralise the points of conflict between the Afghan and Pakistani Administrations, to encourage greater confidence-building measures and to create a much stronger anti-terror partnership between the two Governments.

Crucially, the UK needs to consider how it can strengthen and support the work of the tripartite commission, which has been led by the US and needs to become far more effective. The meeting of the commission two weeks ago in Pakistan was the first time that NATO and the international security assistance force participated as full members. It is important that our involvement with the commission is meaningful from the start. The shared interests of Afghanistan and Pakistan—security, trade and development—should be a healthy foundation on which to build a successful partnership, but that partnership seems very far off.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing this important debate, and I offer my congratulations and thanks to the Chairman. Mr. Bercow, it is the first time that I have come under your tutelage, and it is a pleasure. I imagine that you are frustrated to watch us speaking with such authority in a debate about international issues. I am surprised that you did not ask us to end early in order to hear 10 minutes of your own views on the subject. Maybe that will happen; who knows?

I am pleased to be participating in this debate. It is not very long ago that I was speaking with the Minister in this very room on the same subject. As we have heard in a number of contributions today, it is not just a military matter any more; it is much more. I put on the record my disappointment that we have received no representation from the International Development team or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office team to answer our questions.

It is always a pleasure to see the Minister here, but it has been up to the Opposition to call this debate. Large numbers of British soldiers, DFID and other organisations are working in Afghanistan. Whenever there is a threshold of interest in another country, it deserves a major debate on the Floor of the House, not a Westminster Hall debate secured by the Opposition. We are here today, however, and the debate has been useful so far.

I had the pleasure of visiting Afghanistan last week—I got back on Thursday—with General Jones, who is the NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. General Jones is overseeing the expansion of ISAF forces as ISAF takes over three of the four regions of Afghanistan.

Hon. Members have expressed concerns about link-ups and the overstretch that our forces are experiencing. Some 36 countries are participating in the international security assistance force, with 10,000 troops. That looks very impressive on paper, but the unfortunate reality is that many countries are participating with caveats—restrictions or limitations imposed by their Government on how troops can and cannot be used. A simple but stark example is that German troops cannot go into combat. They are not allowed; their Government prevent them. Obviously there are historical reasons that need to be respected, but because of the number of combat troops available to do the job, it limits NATO’s ability.

There are also concerns about incompatibility between nations. NATO forces have a lot of experience of working together in Bosnia, Kosovo and other operations. However, in Afghanistan, there are still incompatibility issues in communications and, most importantly, airlift and logistics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham mentioned in his opening speech. The problem I discovered is that all the heavy and medium airlift capability is limited to the home country; in other words, Britain, for example, moves our own troops around Afghanistan, but we do not donate any of our aircraft to NATO. If NATO and ISAF want to move troops to react to a situation in another province or another area of Afghanistan, they have to request from the home nation the ability to use a C-130 or a C-17. That does not allow NATO to act as one. Logistically it is hampered.

There is also concern about equipment. The most worrying is to do with something called blue force tracker. That is a new piece of equipment stuck on to every single vehicle, allowing HQ to monitor it via satnav. The French refuse to use blue force tracker because they want to use another system that is being created by Thalys. That rival system is not yet on the shelf as it has yet to be invented. Huge frustration was expressed by General Jones and by General Richards, head of ISAF, who asked why we could not agree: why cannot Governments come together and collectively determine what is needed and what is not, rather than waiting until we are out in the field to discover that there are frictions in that area?

My hon. Friend also mentioned mission creep. Many of us here have military backgrounds. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) pointed out so eloquently, this is a DFID situation as well. NATO is creating an umbrella of security in Afghanistan, which is fundamental. But while we have a limited period underneath the umbrella of security that we are creating, that is when DFID and other international development organisations must come in and help Afghanistan to get off its knees. Otherwise when that umbrella of security is removed we will be left with an Afghanistan in the same place as it was three or four years ago, and we will have failed.

If we go to visit the provisional reconstruction teams as I did in Helmand, we will see that there is mission creep everywhere. NATO is very much involved, and certainly the British are, working hand in hand with DFID. There is just one DFID representative in Lashkar Gah, but she is working closely with our military. In the same way, this is a G5 project, which is a military term. It is mission creep; it is not going out there providing security. It is that extra step of going down to help to build a school. That is what is happening, but it is being done unofficially. It is unco-ordinated and there is no one above making sure that one hand knows what the other is doing. The problem is that we discover that many organisations are interfering with each other. There is no overall umbrella organisation controlling the international development emphasis. That is the one lesson that needs to be learned. I encourage the Minister to speak with his colleagues in DIFD to see whether that can be rectified.

Poppy crops have been mentioned. We cannot separate them from our task in Afghanistan, much as we went out there to deal with the terrorist aspects. Unfortunately we cannot separate those from what is happening. Last year was the biggest crop ever grown in poppies: 4,100 tonnes. That is after the millions of dollars spent trying to tackle the problem: $400 million was spent last year, but it had no impact whatever because it resulted in the largest crop ever seen.

In a meeting with President Karzai—I brought this up the last time we had a debate—I suggested the idea of a pilot scheme to purchase the poppy crops in a particular area; for example, Helmand, so that they could be removed and used to make the morphine and so forth that we need due to the shortage in the world. That was dismissed last time by a number of British representatives, by the Minister of State here and by other representatives too. President Karzai agrees that it is worth pursuing; so do General Jones, SACEUR, General Richards and the PRT team in Helmand.

It is appreciated that there are problems. Will people deliberately grow poppies simply to come in on the trade? There are only about 250,000 people involved in the poppy trade, but the impact that they are having on the rest of the country is phenomenal. We should think a little wider; we could certainly say, “We will buy the poppy crops off you this year, but next year, you have to match your poppy crop with a wheat crop.” That way, we are weaning people off growing poppies. That would prevent money getting into the hands of terrorists, who are causing so much mayhem around the world. It would also pour money into the local economy. Some 90 per cent. of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan, so we have a vested interest in challenging what is going on.

Helmand province is facing an awful lot of challenges. It has about 500 policemen, who are not trained; the whole programme of police development is about two years behind schedule. That is hindering the process because there is no overall collective responsibility in that area. Also, something called Talibanisation is occurring, and not only in Helmand. That is when locals and parts of tribes who are in debt have no loyalty to Afghanistan as a whole, but only to their family and then to their tribe. They get a large payment from organisations to come and take a pop at Americans or NATO troops and so forth. International development agencies need to help those individuals through alternative lifestyles, but I am afraid that that is not seen to be working, as a collective measure.

As has been mentioned, NATO’s footprint is actually quite small. We speak of Helmand province a lot because that is where the British presence is, but there are 30 provinces in all, and the neighbouring province of Nimroz is actually empty; there is not one British, American or NATO soldier, or one international development organisation, in that province. It is the same size as Helmand, yet there is no one there at all. If a terrorist organisation is in Helmand, and things get busy there, where do we think it will move to?

My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) eloquently illustrated the problem with the Pakistani border. When I visited it, it was clear that SUVs and other vehicles were able to drive straight through the border by paying some sort of tariff to the tribes that operate on the border. Pakistan certainly needs to do more to challenge what is happening there. There is no military presence in the 150 miles between Lashkar Gah and the border. If we are to tackle those issues, we certainly need more troops in the province.

I end on international development issues. While I was in Kabul, we met a number of agencies, and I took a look at some of the operations working on narcotics. Hon. Members will be aware that the issue is a G8 responsibility, the UK being the lead nation on that particular subject. There are six major organisations in Kabul run by the Afghans themselves, including the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, the Afghan national police, and so forth. On the NATO or military side, there are all the PRTs in the country, ISAF and the American equivalent, which is the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, and the operational mentor liaison teams.

In addition, there are other organisations, such as the counter-narcotics trust fund, the inter-agency operations and co-ordination cell and the joint co-operation management board. They have just been created in Afghanistan. In addition, there are all the UN organisations, the United States Agency for International Development, the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the US embassy, the British Embassy, the EU mission and the EU Commission—which do not talk to each other; they have offices on different sides of Kabul. The World Bank is there as well. That is not to mention the Department for International Development and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which I understand is now helping with narcotics, too.

That is far too many organisations for us to really achieve the mission of dealing with international development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Everybody from President Karzai down to the head of the PRT in Helmand province agrees that there is an urgent need for a co-ordinator, a Paddy Ashdown-type character, with the power to cut through the red tape imposed by donor countries on how money should be spent. [Interruption.] I thought that might get the Lib Dems excited. What is needed is a co-ordinator with the authority to influence the international agencies. That is not happening, and money is being thrown down the drain. The consequence is the largest poppy crop ever.

If we fail in Afghanistan, it will not be due to the size of the forces that we have sent there; it will be because we have not taken advantage of the fragile blanket of security that those forces provide. I believe that we have about two years to get it right.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing the debate. He set out his case in a probing and thorough manner. He says that he is not an expert, but he sounds pretty knowledgeable to me, and I hope that I will be as knowledgeable as he is following my visit to Afghanistan next month.

We have a duty to support the people of Afghanistan in their effort to build a secure environment where they can thrive and prosper. I want this morning to put some questions that may assist the Minister in his thinking and planning, as we strive together to create such an environment. My remarks will focus on six aspects of the question: defining success, clarity of role, Pakistan and the threat assessment—something that has already been discussed—overstretch, non-governmental organisation support and supplies.

Afghanistan has had its fair share of invaders over the centuries, including King Darius, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Russians, the Soviet Union, the United States and the Taliban. It comes as little surprise, therefore, to learn that Haji Abdul Qadr, a village elder in Helmand, recently remarked:

“We are very suspicious about the arrival of more foreign troops on our land. We are suspicious because for 30 years”—

more than 30 years—

“Afghanistan has been a chess game for outsiders like the Russians, the Pakistanis, the Arabs and the Americans. We are afraid. When people talk about things as black and white we do not see good and evil. We see the head of a cobra.”

Asked whether the Government could help to find him a job, an unemployed Afghan man of 22, from Lashkar Gah, asked which Government: the government of the foreigners, the Government of Karzai, or the Government of the Taliban? That sets the context of the challenge in Helmand and of the debate. The Liberal Democrats continue to support international efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, and Britain must accept its share of the burden.

My first questions are about vision. It would be helpful if the Minister would enlighten us with a vision of success. When will we know if we have succeeded with our deployment? The Defence Committee noted ministerial

“reluctance to discuss an exit strategy”

from Afghanistan. That may be understandable but I hope that the Minister will seize the opportunity today to be more forthcoming and publicly state the targets by which he will measure the success of the deployment. Has he reflected on the claim that the mission in Helmand will last for three years? There is much scepticism about the chances of completing its objectives within that time. Will the Minister set out a more realistic timetable for completion?

As to the clarity of the mission, it has been reported that British forces may seize drugs and traffickers if they are discovered in the course of routine operations. Yet the forces are not permitted to take direct pre-planned action against the drugs trade, including the eradication of the opium poppy. Does it strike the Minister that that is confusing and complex? If there is a likelihood that opium poppy and drug traffickers will be discovered during action, when our forces are planning that action, what will the role of the British troops be in such circumstances? I would welcome some clarification on the grey area between security action and anti-drug action.

While I am discussing the drug situation, I might mention that the relationship between the poppy growers, the drug barons and the Taliban is an important one. Is the Minister concerned that the effort to beat the drug exports from Afghanistan will support any fledgling alliance between the Taliban and the drug barons? Does he have any evidence that such alliances are developing? Will he outline what measures are in place to disrupt any alliances of that type that develop?

The hon. Member for Gravesham spoke about Pakistan, and I want to discuss the threat assessment. Have the Government received a threat assessment from commanders on the ground in the south of Afghanistan? A written answer put the number of Taliban in southern Afghanistan at possibly more than a thousand, and another stated that there are

“a range of illegally armed groups in the south”.—[Official Report, 15 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 2291W.]

It added, however, that the number of individuals involved could not be determined. I would welcome some clarity on that apparent contradiction.

The chief of staff for coalition forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Chris Vernon, says that the Taliban’s leadership is operating across the border in Pakistan, in the Balochistan provincial capital of Quetta. The Pakistan Government deny that accusation and are demanding “actionable intelligence” to prove it. The Afghan President, however, agreed with the British chief of staff and blamed Pakistan for allowing the Taliban to hide in its border areas. I am sure that the Minister will not reveal his assessment of the threat from the Taliban, but can he give us assurances that the apparent disagreement between the Pakistan Government on the one hand and President Karzai and the chief of staff on the other is being addressed and that a common view is developing?

On transportation, there are concerns that supplies to Helmand will be threatened by the loss of Hercules aircraft in conflict, as well as by the lack of defence aid suites and of explosive-suppressant foam in the wings. Can the Minister reassure us about the security of the supply lines? Are sufficient helicopters in play? Is he confident that the promise of helicopters from our allies will be maintained for the duration of the mission?

I turn now to NGO support. In the light of ISAF’s tougher mission in Helmand and the recent increase in violence, there is concern that civil-military relations will be complicated. Have the Government taken into account the increased threat to those working in ISAF? What discussions have the Government had with NGOs about security arrangements and the impact of bringing Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF closer together? What security has been planned for NGO staff, who may be put at risk by an increased military presence in the region?

I turn now to overstretch. As the Minister will know, the Government announced in the 1997 strategic defence review that they would be able to undertake either one major operation on the scale of the 1991 Gulf war or one sustained lesser deployment, such as the Bosnia operation in the mid ’90s, alongside preparations to mount a second, relatively small operation elsewhere. That approach was updated in 2002 to reflect the experience of having to do more small operations than had been planned. The problem, as the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the National Audit Office said this year, is that the assumptions are always broken. For at least the past seven years, our forces have been operating at levels higher than those in the planning assumptions, even when those assumptions have been revised. Obviously, that causes overstretch and means that some equipment will wear out more quickly than planned. Resources are allocated against planning assumptions, and while occasional fluctuations above the plan are to be expected, a continuous over-tasking causes cumulative problems.

With our current commitments in a range of locations throughout the world, there is little doubt that our forces are suffering from overuse and have had to call on their reservists to plug gaps on too many occasions. The ability to respond to currently unforeseen crises will inevitably be limited. Like others, I am concerned about the likely consequences of that overstretch, which might make the armed forces less attractive to new recruits, at a time when recruitment levels are suffering, and that is not welcome. Does the increase in commitments mean that UK forces are continuing to work beyond defence planning assumptions? Have we adhered to harmony guidelines? I would welcome details of how the UK’s complex commitments around the world are to be reconciled.

The main questions in which my party is interested are these. How will the Minister define success in Helmand? Will he bring clarity to the mission and to our role in combating narcotics activity? I hope that he will reassure us that the apparent disparity of views between Pakistan, our commanders on the ground and President Karzai is being addressed. Liberal Democrats have long-running concerns about overstretch in our armed forces, and I hope that the Minister will address our concern about the provision of security for NGOs, which are doing vital work. Finally, we need to ensure that the supplies for our armed forces are secure.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) for securing the debate, particularly given the on-the-ground, detailed knowledge that he brings to it as a result of the time that he spent in the country recently and in his youth. I also pay tribute to my colleagues, who have made sure that we have had a wide-ranging debate on the military and international development aspects of this issue. In addition, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who is not in his place, for his robust support for ensuring that the Glosters get their back badge. The Minister would expect me, as a Gloucestershire Member, to support that initiative, and I hope that he bears that in mind when he responds.

I am sure that the Minister will want me to give him sufficient time to respond to the many questions that have been raised, and I, too, want to ask him a few questions. Before I do, however, it is worth saying on behalf of the Opposition that the United Kingdom has a clear national interest in being involved with Afghanistan. We saw what happened when it was a failed state run by the Taliban regime. We have a clear interest in being there and ensuring that it is a successful, democratic state. The Conservative party supports that mission. The reason for asking the questions that we do is to ensure that we maximise its success and minimise the threat to our forces.

One question that has already been raised is on the resources that we have available. In response to the Defence Committee report on the UK deployment, which was published last week, the MOD stated that it believed that the force package that it was sending was

“sufficient to meet the threat”.

Immediately following the publication of that report, the Government had to announce that they were sending more troops to Afghanistan to secure the airfield at Kandahar.

Other hon. Members have touched on the scale of the province and the job that needs to be done there. It would be interesting if the Minister would say whether he is confident that the troops we have deployed there will be sufficient for the task in the future. The wider question has already been alluded to: given that the mission will go on for the long haul, do our defence planning assumptions need to be revised and do we need to examine our overall military resource?

On that subject, it is clear that NATO views our deployment in Afghanistan—or its deployment there—very much as a decade-long commitment. The current British mission is for three years. Given comments that the Government have made about the difficulty of that mission and the challenge that we face, it seems likely that we will be there for much longer than that. Will the Minister outline the Government’s current thinking about how long the mission will last?

Given that the need for the mission is clear and that a clear case for it can be made to the British people, having an honest and robust discussion now about the length of time that we are likely to be in Afghanistan, the difficulties in the mission and the risks that we face is the best way to ensure that, whatever troubles we have in the future, we retain robust public support.

Obviously, this is a NATO-led operation, but, as I said, the role of the UN is crucial. Clearly, the UN has various resolutions on Afghanistan and cannot wash its hands of this. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the only way to secure a force that might be able to continue after the NATO involvement is if the UN gets directly involved? What are his views on that?

I thank my neighbour for that intervention. My opinion of the efficacy of the UN is probably somewhat lower than his. He makes a sensible point about planning for involvement after the NATO involvement. The challenge has already been outlined by hon. Members talking about other national forces being deployed: the use of such forces is heavily restricted and subject to caveats.

The reality is that while this deployment remains of real danger to our troops, relatively few countries will be prepared to put their money where their mouth is. That probably means that the United States, the United Kingdom and perhaps one or two other countries will bear a significant burden simply because other countries are not prepared to deploy their troops in situations where they may come into harm’s way. That might not be a satisfactory outcome and we should do what we can diplomatically to try to change it, but that is the situation that we face.

One question that has been outlined relates to the availability of helicopter lift in Afghanistan and whether the lift is sufficient. Given the terrain, helicopters are vital; getting around that country by road alone is not adequate. Will the Minister comment on that issue, which was raised by the Defence Committee? When our soldiers were attacked 10 days ago, sadly leaving one officer dead and two seriously injured, did we have sufficient helicopter lift capability to ensure that they were able to be extracted quickly? Is the Minister confident that in any such future engagements helicopter lift will be available to ensure that our troops in difficulty have speedy extraction from danger?

There is some circularity on the issues of counter-narcotics and reconstruction. In its report, the Defence Committee stated that it believed that there was a fundamental tension between the UK’s objective of promoting security and stability and the counter-narcotics strategy. In its reply, the Ministry of Defence said that it did not believe that there was such a tension and that long-term stability could be obtained only if the opium trade were tackled. The difference in the two views is on the time scale involved. We agree with the Ministry of Defence and the Government that in the long term Afghanistan will be stable only if the drugs trade is tackled, but trying to tackle it in the short term before there is a proper security environment will be risky. Will the Minister comment on that? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I am not sure whether the resources and the work being done on the ground by DFID and the Foreign Office are adequate for the task.

If we table questions to the three Departments we get different answers. The MOD makes it clear that there can be no long-term security if the opium trade is not tackled whereas the Secretary of State for International Development states that delivering alternative livelihoods to those involved in the trade is highly dependent on the security situation. We need to decide which of those priorities should come first. If they are to be done in parallel we will need a more significant troop presence on the ground.

Looking at the role of the two operations, the then Secretary of State for Defence, now the Home Secretary, said on 26 January that we were deploying our force to protect and deter. The ISAF mission was unchanged, focusing on reconstruction. He made a clear distinction between insurgency or terrorist attacks on our forces, which would get a robust response, and our forces having a primary counter-terrorist role. We have repeatedly been told that it is not an offensive mission, but the lines seem increasingly to be being blurred. Last week, the press reported British involvement in Operation Mountain Thrust. Will the Minister confirm the nature of that mission? Was it an offensive mission, and was it undertaken by British forces under Operation Enduring Freedom or ISAF?

The Minister has said that the operation planned for ISAF will not involve it undertaking counter-terrorist operations, which remain the preserve of coalition assets under OEF. In a written question last week, the Secretary of State was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) whether he classified al-Qaeda and Taliban forces as insurgents or terrorists for the purpose of possible engagement by UK forces. He stated in his reply that no such classification of that threat was necessary for the purposes of the engagement of our forces in Helmand.

A distinction was clearly made by the then Secretary of State when he outlined our mission. He said that we would respond robustly but that ISAF would not primarily be a counter-terrorist operation. The written answer from the current Secretary of State seems to blur that distinction. If there is no attempt to define whether the threat that we face is terrorist or insurgent, then the nature of the missions is widened.

I have been pondering something that the hon. Gentleman said a minute or two ago and his following remarks. Bearing in mind that a sizeable number of soldiers from the Colchester garrison are already in Afghanistan, is he advocating that more British troops should be deployed there?

I am advocating that the number of troops should be equal to the mission. I want the Minister to outline the nature of the mission in which we are engaged and ensure that it is properly resourced, which we will be able to judge when he responds.

I want to leave the Minister the remaining 16 minutes to answer my questions, so I shall draw my remarks to a close.

I do not think that I have served under your chairmanship before either, Mr. Bercow. You have chaired the proceedings very well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) on securing the debate. As ever, such debates are worth while and serve a genuine purpose. He has not trashed my morning, because I hear things that make me reflect and think. In the time available I will not be able to answer all the questions that have been asked, but I shall do my best to touch on some of them in general terms and some specifically.

I thank the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for their contributions, and I also thank the two Front-Bench Opposition spokesmen.

Before I deal with the issues raised in the debate, I wish to pay tribute to Captain Jim Philippson, who was killed in Afghanistan on 11 June. In the same incident, two of his fellow soldiers, from the Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery, were seriously injured. Captain Philippson’s death underlines what a demanding mission our forces have in Afghanistan. I know that all hon. Members will join me in offering condolences to Captain Philippson’s family, and sympathy to the injured soldiers and their families.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) asked how casualty evacuation was delivered. An investigation is being held into how rapid our response was, and I shall write to him about that. We try to deliver a rapid and effective CASEVAC approach at all times, but lessons must be learned if it does not deliver as it should. It is an ongoing investigation and we will find out the background.

Everyone accepts our reasons for being in Afghanistan. We all vividly remember the terrible events of 11 September 2001, which provoked a justifiable international reaction. It is worth remembering that it was the first time in its 57-year history that article V of NATO’s treaty had to be invoked. If we had not acted, Afghanistan would have remained a cauldron of competing fanatics, tribal warlords and drug smugglers. In short, it would have remained the ideal breeding ground for a new generation of global terrorists. There were noises off—some did not think that it was justified—but in the wider political spectrum it was recognised to be fully justified.

We must prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for the likes of al-Qaeda and other insurgents. We must help her people rebuild their nation as a functioning, stable, secure and prosperous country. To put it bluntly, it is in our interests to do so. It will always be in the interests of the Afghans, but it is also in our interests. It is the right thing to do: we are helping a people, a society, to recover from the corrosive impact of decades of war, criminality and repression.

The hon. Member for Gravesham clearly set out his support for, and justification of, our presence in Afghanistan; and everyone else who contributed to the debate, in their own way, made a similar point. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) spoke about the extent of our commitments globally. It is always easy to criticise, but those who make such criticisms ought to say what we should not be doing. Questions are easily asked, but answering them is much more difficult. Does the hon. Gentleman not want us to be in the Falklands, in the Balkans, in Northern Ireland, or in Iraq under a United Nations mandate? Does he not want us to be involved in sub-Saharan Africa? When he raises such questions, he should ask himself where we should not be. Perhaps we are to be enlightened.

The answer is quite clear. We should not have started from that position. We stated our opposition to the Iraq war from the early stages.

I am not going to debate whether we should be in Afghanistan—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] We are where we are, and such a question must be answered from that point, and not from where it is thought we should be. When the hon. Gentleman asks the question, he should ask himself those other questions. We are in Iraq under a UN mandate. Is he now saying that we should withdraw our troops? If so, it would be an interesting development of Liberal Democrat policy.

Why are we in Helmand? As we have heard, it is an ungoverned space and the conditions are unquestionably severe.

I have only 10 minutes left to respond to the debate, but if I find time I shall certainly do so.

The authority of the central and provincial authorities is weak. There is no question about the influence of the insurgents, no matter how they are defined, and the drug traffickers are in a strong position. Large parts of the province lack any real government, and its people are unquestionably very poor. As the hon. Member for Gravesham pointed out, it was once the bread-basket of Afghanistan, and that is what we are trying to recover. Can we restore that part of Afghanistan and revive the legitimate economy in the region? That is our objective. We want to make a positive difference. By doing that there, we can help the rebuilding of the whole of Afghanistan.

I responded last week to the Defence Committee’s recent report. It noted some of the issues that must be addressed, and the issues that it raised are valid, but overall it endorses our objectives in Afghanistan. It recognised, as the Government do, that our goals are ambitious. They will not be achieved easily. Things will not happen overnight. There is no simple equation. That applies to any troubled part of the world where we try to achieve a stable economy and the redevelopment, or sometimes the creation, of a society that understands the benefits of democracy and all that flows from that. That applies wherever we find ourselves, and Afghanistan is no different.

I was asked how long the mission is for. We have made a commitment for three years. That is a long-term commitment—longer than usual—but we do not expect to achieve all our objectives within the three years, as I told the Select Committee when I gave evidence. It would be foolhardy to say that we would not have a presence in Afghanistan three years or five years from now, or perhaps even later. However, our current presence in Helmand has a specific purpose. Progress will be uneven, but given the size and potency of our force package, I believe that we can make a real difference.

The Minister does not think that by the end of three years we will have achieved all our objectives, but does he have a sense at this stage of what we can realistically expect to have done by that time?

I can speculate. There is always the danger of being too specific, because the nature of the environment that we are in can create uncertainty. Things will be extremely difficult. We do not know what will be thrown at us. However, we have planned very carefully for this mission. We know the potential strength that is there and we have put in place a potent force to deal with it. Of course, it is not just a UK presence. Other countries are heavily engaged in all that. It is part of NATO’s mission. Again, we know the purpose of what we are seeking to do.

We started in Kabul. For too long, Afghanistan was Kabul-centric. There was no governance beyond Kabul. We then developed the concept of provincial reconstruction teams. We reached out into the north and the west. Those who have visited Mazar-e-Sharif will have seen the benefits of that. It was a more benign part of the country, but it was not without dangers. In the early stages of that PRT, there were real threats on the ground. However, we have stabilised the situation. We have got a measure of development and support from the local population.

It was logical that next we had to take the benefits of that—the construct of that—and look at other ungoverned parts of Afghanistan, which is what we are doing. That is stage 3 of ISAF’s development. It is why we are in Helmand and the rest of the south. If we make good progress there, the next step is to move into the east and stage 4. That is an ambitious programme. It cannot be delivered by the UK or even by the UK and US together; it has to be multinational. There has to be international buy-in. There has to be that NATO commitment.

The hon. Member for Gravesham asked about the financial commitment. I know that he was not saying that money alone can solve the problem. It cannot, but money is a real trigger for progress. At the London conference earlier this year, the UK committed £500 million. That is a sizeable tranche of money, and it is in addition to the £1 billion or more that we announced for our military commitment. The sum, which is across Government, is not just for Helmand but for the whole of Afghanistan. It is part of a total donor commitment from international pledges of $10.8 billion—again, a sizeable package of aid. The question is how the aid is delivered and used to achieve the objectives.

I want to make one or two other points. I have been asked many questions, and I want to give some detail in my responses.

In Helmand, we plan to spend £38 million on non-military activity this financial year, and there is an ongoing commitment of £20 million per annum for support programmes. The overall change in Afghanistan is truly substantial. Consider the number of people who are now at school, the number of health clinics that have been built and the way normal society is beginning to come into play. Those who have visited the country and tried to understand it appreciate the benefits that have come mainly to areas in and around Kabul and in the north and the west. We must now try to replicate those benefits in the south and the east.

On co-ordinating our activities with DFID, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East was right to point out that there is only one DFID representative in the south. At present, security issues do not allow easy transference out of the social and economic programmes that we need to deliver. Interestingly, because of close ministerial engagement and the new way of working cross-Government—there is a sharp focus in Government on delivering across Government agencies—DFID could be working in the field alongside military personnel as a way of delivering its programmes.

I do not accept that our efforts are unco-ordinated. They are not yet well specified because the situation on the ground has to be better understood and stabilised. We could put civilians’ lives at risk if we just go out and start to do things. Clearly, it would be detrimental and highly damaging if lives were lost. We must ensure that we get a return from our programmes when we go out to deliver them. We have shown that we can do that in the rest of Afghanistan, so let us build on that model.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about multi-agency working. There are many agencies in Afghanistan, and that is a good thing. It shows buy-in by the international community. A joint co-ordination and management board has been created to oversee the Afghanistan compact. The board is chaired by the Afghans and the United Nations and brings together ISAF, the combined forces command in Afghanistan, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Union and other agencies. The hon. Gentleman’s criticism that multi-agency working can result in dissipation and duplication is valid. Agencies should not compete with each other but should be complementary. That is how we seeking to develop programmes.

The point was made about DFID’s role and how the Department should answer these questions, and I do not disagree. We are open about what we are trying to do, but if the view is that there is a paucity of response from DFID or other Departments, I will ask my colleagues to ensure that their message is getting out. Getting the message out is one of the benefits of this debate.

I have many more points to make but time is working against me. I will consider some of the key issues that have been raised and write to hon. Members to give them a better understanding of where we are going.

The men and women of our armed forces play a major part in our work to help bring about a more stable and secure Afghanistan, and they do so in difficult, uncomfortable and often dangerous conditions. Anyone who has seen them deployed on operations will know that they act with great courage, restraint and good humour. They deserve our full support, and I know that that opinion is shared by everyone in this Chamber.