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British Forces (Afghanistan)

Volume 448: debated on Monday 3 July 2006

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the position of British forces in Afghanistan.

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our condolences to the families of Corporal Thorpe and Lance Corporal Hashmi, the two soldiers killed on Saturday in Helmand province along with their interpreter. I have no doubt either that I speak for the House in wishing a speedy recovery to the five soldiers injured in the same attack. Our thoughts and prayers are with them all.

I should also explain that, given the time when you decided to take the urgent question, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been unable to return to the House in time from his constituency. I apologise on his behalf.

The losses of life that our forces have suffered over the past few weeks are a tragedy. However, they do not mean that our mission in Afghanistan is somehow confused. The position of our armed forces in Afghanistan is clear. First and foremost, our troops are in Afghanistan to ensure that never again is it is a safe haven for the likes of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Quite simply, the risks are too great to us, our allies, and the Afghan people for us to stand aside and allow the terrorists to return. That overriding aim was clear when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—then Secretary of State for Defence—announced our deployment to Helmand last January, and it is clear today.

Our forces are our contribution to the expansion of the UN-authorised and NATO-led international security assistance force—ISAF. It is not only a British mission. Danish and Estonian troops are embedded into our forces in Helmand. Overall, 36 nations provide troops for ISAF. They, too, have had their casualties. A Romanian soldier was killed last month and Canadian and US troops have also died.

Our troops are there to help foster the environment in which the Afghans, with the support of the wider international community, can develop sustainable governing institutions and spread the authority of central Government across the country. They are there to help build up the Afghan security forces. They are there to help set the conditions for developing the Afghan economy and infrastructure. That means that we also help put in place the sort of environment in which the Afghans, again with international support, can make an impact on the narcotics trade.

Yes, our armed forces have been in action against the Taliban. That was only to be expected. That was why we sent an air-mobile battlegroup, artillery and Apache attack helicopters. Let me be candid. We would not have deployed such a formidable package if we did not think that there was a genuine threat to the safety of our armed forces. It was not pulled together on a whim. We did not pick and choose. We sent what the top military advice in the country—the chiefs of staff—said that we should send. So I want to make it absolutely plain that there has never been a sense that our aims and objectives were unfocused.

Of course, as with any operation, we keep our forces under review. The House will know that we regularly announce force changes for Iraq, as various formations are deployed in and out of that theatre. Afghanistan is no different, and we are working through such a process now. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make an announcement on the roulement of 16 Air Assault Brigade before the recess, but he will not do so until he has received the advice of the chiefs of staff on the precise details of the roulement. That will form part of a much wider NATO process that will be under way in July.

The House will understand that I cannot go into more detail now. However, right hon. and hon. Members can be assured that, despite press reports today, commanders have not asked for extra infantry or air cover. We do not go into matters such as these in detail, for reasons that the House will understand, but I can go as far as to say that the latest requests to the chiefs of staff, which are part of the planned ongoing analysis, include requests for enablers and engineering equipment. I want to make it clear that these requests were expected from the outset and that we expect more requests from theatre as the campaign continues. If they include “combat” elements, we will consider them seriously and immediately, as we always do.

I must stress, however, that we are only at the start of our three-year operation. Our forces in Helmand only reached their full operating capability this weekend, and there is still much to do. We all know that the democratically elected Afghan Government have had little sway in Helmand. It is inevitable that the earliest stages of such an operation will focus heavily on helping the Afghans to create security and stability. Only then can our wider aid and development programmes go forward unimpeded. They have already begun, and once they are fully under way, they will in turn reinforce security and stability as Helmand’s legitimate economy grows and the rule of law expands, and as we curb the influence of the Taliban and the drugs traffickers.

I shall say one final thing. We are committed to the success of the wider international project to help to rebuild Afghanistan, and we can best do that by making a real contribution—political, developmental and military—to the stabilisation of Helmand. Our armed forces are doing a magnificent job in making that happen, and they should continue to receive the full support of all of us in the House.

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that there has been much speculation over the weekend about the unease of British commanders in Afghanistan regarding their ability to carry out the mission defined by the Government. I believe that it is absolutely vital that we succeed in Afghanistan for three reasons. First, failure would be a catastrophic blow to the cohesion and reputation of NATO, and it would embolden our enemies rather than weakening them. Secondly, it would provide a victory for the forces of terror which oppose not only our troops on the ground but our entire value system and way of life, and give them encouragement to further their campaign of terror here at home. Thirdly, such a failure would betray the ordinary people of Afghanistan, to whom we have promised so much.

The Government have two basic duties: to maximise our chance of success in the mission and to minimise the risk to our troops. We intend to hold the Government to account in that regard, as is our duty in a parliamentary democracy. I must add that the tone in which the House conducts this process is also extremely important, because those who wish us harm will be listening intently for any sign of weakening in our resolve.

The Government’s presentation of the likely path of events in Afghanistan has been at the most optimistic end of the spectrum from the outset. The belief that the anti-terrorist operation, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the NATO reconstruction mission carried out by ISAF could in practice be separated for long has always been naive at best. Those who defend and promote the forces of terrorism, and who attack our troops or deny us the territory that we need to provide a stable future for the people of Afghanistan, are our enemies. The Government must therefore give our commanders on the ground everything that they need to carry out their mission successfully.

If our military chiefs have asked for more equipment and personnel, when did they start to do so? What specific plans do the Government have to increase the number of fixed-wing aircraft available to our troops in Afghanistan? What will they do to improve the helicopter capacity currently compromised by lack of numbers and difficulty operating in the severe heat? What do the Government intend to do about increasing the proportion of infantry in relation to support troops? What approaches have been made by the Prime Minister and his Ministers to their NATO and EU counterparts about ensuring that all countries pull their weight in this combined NATO struggle? What representations have they made about the appointment of an international co-ordinator to ensure that the funds for reconstruction are not squandered, which is an issue that my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has championed?

I accept that winning the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and reconstructing that country may require a long deployment and significantly higher numbers of troops and equipment. I doubt very much that it is likely to be, as the Minister said, a three-year operation. I say to those on both sides of the House who have reservations about our involvement in Afghanistan—I know that there are some—that the costs of succeeding in Afghanistan may be very high, but the cost of failure would be intolerable.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. His three points about NATO, terrorists and ordinary Afghans were well made.

On the point about the request for specific military hardware, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on that publicly yet, except to say that when our commanders ask our chiefs of staff for equipment, if those requests are put to Ministers, we will consider them in the usual way. I said in my statement that if such requests were for combat equipment, we would consider them seriously and immediately.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about countries pulling their weight within NATO, of course, it is important in an alliance with 34 countries that all countries contribute their fair share. I will make sure that his points resonate in the appropriate corridors.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about a three-year operation, of course, the Afghanistan of 2009 will still need different agencies of the UK, but our key goal is to build a security capacity for the Afghan Government where it does not exist now. My comments about some of the requests from theatre allude to the need to do that capacity building in the short and medium term. If he has any other fears, he should contact us about those. There has been some misinformed or ill-informed speculation in the press, and I am grateful that he has given me the opportunity to rebut some of the comments made at the weekend.

May I remind my hon. Friend that many Members of the House are justly proud of the role that British troops played in 2001 in removing an oppressive and fascistic Government? Will he reassure the House, however, that our troops are properly resourced for their continuing campaign against Afghanistan’s poppy trade, whose product causes untold misery in my constituency and the constituencies of almost every other Member of the House?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I return to the point that we are in Afghanistan to make sure that it never again has the terrorist training capacity that created such a threat to the world a few years ago. The activity of poppy growers is one of the reasons why Afghanistan is such an unstable narco-state. As we try to create a secure economy in some of Afghanistan’s provinces, it is important to wean people off the poppy economy. Doing that too early and too soon, however, could create insecurity. We need triangulation between civic buy-in from ordinary Afghans on the ground, our military’s role and the way in which poppy traders are dealt with. However, his point is well made.

I associate members of my party with the Minister’s opening expressions of condolence and regret.

I have a personal and particular interest in this matter, because Royal Marines from Taunton have been deployed in Afghanistan—as have troops from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is sorry not to be present this afternoon.

Will the Minister respond to the following questions at greater length? What assessment has been made of the Taliban’s capacity to destabilise British troop deployments, and what is his response to allegations that people in Pakistan have been giving shelter or support to Taliban fighters?

I have three further questions. First, will the Minister expand on how much clarity there is in the NATO mission, and what proportion of time our troops spend on force protection? Secondly, will he comment on how forces can achieve security objectives with counter-narcotics work, given the connections of insurgents, warlords and indeed Government officials with the drugs trade? Finally, will he comment on the declining security situation? In 2005, 1,600 people were killed by fighting in Afghanistan. So far, more than 1,100 have been killed this year, and there are increasing incidences of kidnappings and roadside and suicide bombings. Does the Minister share my concern and that of many other Members that the tactics used in Afghanistan increasingly resemble those being used in Iraq?

Counter-narcotics work is vital to our efforts to promote long-term stability and security in Afghanistan. The drugs trade feeds on and contributes to insecurity in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. However, it is important for our troops to build a security capacity so that the Afghans themselves can fight the drugs traffickers. That will be our key goal over the next three years.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of our relationship with Pakistan. We have good co-operation with Pakistan, which works with us in the fight against international terrorism.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a number of technical points about force protection. I will write to him about those.

After five years of attempts to destroy the poppy trade, this year’s harvest will be the highest ever and the price of heroin on the streets of Britain will be the lowest ever. The last Secretary of State for Defence said that the Helmand venture would end in three years without a shot being fired. What we are now seeing in the formerly peaceful area of Helmand is bitter resentment, not among the Taliban but among the ordinary people: murderous resentment of our troops. If we are sucked into a war in Afghanistan, it could deteriorate into a British Vietnam and provoke Afghan terrorism on the streets of Britain. When will we explain to our American friends and to our Government that it is not possible to win hearts and minds by using bombs and bullets?

I understand that my hon. Friend has long-held, forceful and powerful views on the drugs trade, which are not widely shared across the House or in the international community.

My hon. Friend’s point about winning hearts and minds is not lost on our forces on the ground. They understand that the way in which to deal with a narcotics economy—and in some areas of Helmand, the only economy is based on narcotics—is to build a security capacity in which the Afghans themselves can deal with the narcotics trade, and also to construct long-term development plans so that the economy of Helmand, apart from the drugs trade, can grow.

I do not recognise my hon. Friend’s description of the situation on the ground, but I understand the points that he has made.

If the Minister agrees with me that the Treasury’s £1 billion over three years for this operation is not enough, will he assure the House and the thousands of military families throughout the country that he will not hesitate to seek more funds with which to provide whatever the military need?

The future Panther vehicle must be the answer to many of the Army’s needs in the current circumstances. Only seven are being tried out at present, but 400 are due to come on-stream next year. Will we definitely have 400 Panther vehicles next year, or will that slip?

Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and very close to the Chancellor, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s points are well made.

The Minister referred to our NATO allies. He will know that there has been quite a lot of difficulty getting sufficient forces in Afghanistan from NATO collectively. Can he tell me whether the discussions with our NATO partners have made any recent progress as regards reinforcement not just from those countries that are already in Afghanistan, but from other NATO partners to assist this internationally vital success? As he and other Members have said, we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a failed state, where it could be a base again for terrorists to attack people throughout the world.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the report that I believe his Committee has published today. I am sure that he will realise that I have not yet had time to read it because my day has got slightly busier than I anticipated at 9 this morning. However, I will read it. We are continuing discussions with our NATO partners on the issue that he has raised.

Will the Minister repudiate the view expressed by the Minister for Europe last week that the present Taliban fighting in Helmand and in the south constitutes the most serious Taliban offensive in the past four years? Will the Minister, so far as current policy is concerned, not only ensure that British capability is enhanced, but resist pressure from the Pentagon to use the presence of ISAF in the south as an excuse to reduce American forces? Will he make greater efforts to achieve a single unified command between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, to ensure the best use of western resources?

Our troops face a very serious situation, which is why they are there. The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes his customary wise contribution in the House. Ministers have not yet received a request for any increased capacity, but if they do, I repeat, they will be taken seriously and considered immediately.

May I put it to my hon. Friend that we are going to have difficulty obtaining the support of the people in Helmand province for the fight against terrorism if they suspect that we have gone there to destroy their livelihoods? Therefore this may be the moment to get out and dust down the proposal by the Senlis Council for the regulated sale of Afghan opium—in the same way as already happens in Turkey and India, incidentally—to the international pharmaceutical market. I hope that, sooner or later, someone will take that seriously. I realise that there are many difficulties with it, but they are not as great as the difficulties we face doing it the other way.

I know that my hon. Friend, as a former Foreign Office Minister and a respected former Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, knows about these issues. He raises a big issue. I am sure that his points will be amplified and I will ensure that they are taken seriously.

I join others in paying tribute to all those who are serving in Afghanistan. One of the soldiers who was killed last week was a constituent of mine. Given some of the press reports over the past week or 10 days indicating some rumours and suggestions that there are shortfalls, can the Minister give an absolute and unequivocal assurance that that is not the case and that everything is being and will be done to ensure that all our forces can carry out their functions and battles in Afghanistan to a satisfactory conclusion?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that all our military advice is that the current capacity is acceptable. There are commanders on the ground feeding into the chain of command, and if Ministers receive any requests, as I said earlier, we will consider them seriously and immediately.

I should like to add my sympathies to the families of those who have lost their lives, but laying out in front of the House the precise details of our deployment in Afghanistan, or indeed hard-won intelligence about the Taliban, could place our troops in greater danger. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should continue to be guided by operational requirements of commanders in the field and not press speculation about troop equipment and troop requirements?

My hon. Friend makes a very wise point. Some of the comments in the press are unhelpful. We always take such matters seriously and we always announce them in the House at the appropriate time.

When the former Secretary of State for Defence, now Home Secretary, made the original statement about deployment, many of us warned him that the capacity of the force is driven by the definition of the mission, and that this mission was ill-defined from the word go. I am supportive of what our forces are trying to do, but I have always felt—and now feel even more strongly—that until we look again at the mission and decide that it does not cover the reality on the ground, and try to see it through the eyes of the Taliban, we will continue to underperform in the sense of not giving our forces the right equipment and support. If the Minister does not wish to be accused of complacency, he should do two things. First, he should not wait for the Chiefs of Staff to come to him, but go to them and demand to know what the forces need to deliver the mission. Secondly, he should then give it to them.

The Chiefs of Staff are no shrinking violets, and they are not backwards at coming forwards, as they say on West Bromwich high street, but the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I reread the debate in January when my right hon. Friend the then Defence Secretary announced our deployment. He said that the mission was clear and that there could be no security and stability if insurgents, illegal armed groups and the drugs trade were not tackled. Our role is to help the Afghans to do just that. Only then will the Afghan Government, with support from the international community, be able to set about the long and difficult task of reconstruction and development. I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman joins us in that goal.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given this response, because it is important that both sides of the House show our sympathy for those troops who have lost their lives and their families. We also express our strong support for the troops serving out there. Will he ensure that those troops are not left wanting equipment? The biggest breaker of morale is overstretch, so will he also ensure that the troops get the leave to which they are entitled? That is the biggest boost we could give them.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. I am sure that our troops will know that they have the full support of Members on both sides of the House, and I hear the point that he made about overstretch.

In many conflict situations, people start to want revenge more than they want peace. In the battle for hearts and minds, the danger is of creating vast resentment. Would it not be sensible for the Government to revisit their strategy from the perspective of how we can persuade people, instead of increasing the use of force?

Our commanders on the ground understand the need for civic engagement. They are responsible for security building in Afghanistan and they understand that if ordinary Afghans do not buy in to what they are doing, our security objectives will not be met.

My hon. Friend the Minister has outlined the fact that the troops have been in Afghanistan for four and a half years and will be there for at least another three. In addition to the tragic loss of British troops, can he tell us how many Afghan casualties there have been in the four and a half years? He said that the troops’ position has huge public support, but that is not obvious from what is happening in Helmand province and the rest of Afghanistan. Is my hon. Friend aware that many people in the region, including Pakistan, and in other parts of the world simply do not see the British presence in Afghanistan as anything more than an occupying army that should not be there?

My hon. Friend makes his customary point, but the operation is backed by UN mandate. Our coalition partners are clear that our objectives are never again to allow al-Qaeda and the Taliban to build a terrorist capacity that is a threat to the way of life all over the world. I would have thought that even my hon. Friend would wish us to achieve those objectives.

If the worthy aims of the mission are to succeed, it is essential that command and control be better synchronised, as has been mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), as well as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the former Foreign Secretary. Would the Minister therefore agree that, when General Richards comes to take over his command, it should be a command of the whole mission in the whole area?

Secondly, does the Minister agree that, as it is a NATO mission, it is important that our other NATO allies cough up a great deal better than they have done so far, with proper fighting brigade-level formations to enable the mission to succeed?

The hon. Gentleman always makes a forceful and wise point to the House, and I will reflect his views back to the Chief of Staff, but our 34 coalition partners should play their role in making sure that our objectives are achieved.

Contrary to the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), many service families in my constituency are entirely behind the mission in Afghanistan and entirely understand the need for it, but one of the things that they are understandably anxious about at the moment are the recent deaths. It would relieve their anxiety if they were absolutely certain that the methods of communication between them and their loved ones serving in theatre were open at all times. Sometimes there have been difficulties in getting parcels, letters and e-mails through. Will the Minister make sure that that communication, which is important to morale both for troops and families, is guaranteed?

One of the sad parts of my being at the Dispatch Box today is that I have had to cancel a meeting with representatives of families of the three services; I would like to go on record as saying that I will rearrange that meeting as quickly as possible, and those points are just some of the issues that I intend to discuss with them.

The Minister will know that, from the Secretary of State’s original statement, it would be fair to say that the level of violence encountered by British troops has been greater than was expected. The main mission was to bring in civilian support teams to bolster the Afghan civilian infrastructure in Helmand province. Can the Minister tell the House how many of those support teams—with Foreign Office, Department for International Development and non-governmental organisation volunteers—have actually been deployed in Helmand, and whether any of them have as yet suffered casualties?

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information right now, but I will write to him about it in more detail. On his point about capacity building, I do not recognise his description of the mission as being in some way tougher than we thought it would be; we knew it would be dangerous at the start, but we knew that we had to capacity-build the security forces of the Afghan Government, as I have already said. Perhaps the request coming from theatre to which I alluded in my statement suggests to the hon. Gentleman that we are addressing that point.

I am grateful for the assurances that my hon. Friend has given this afternoon that the mission is part of the support that is necessary to build the capacity of the new Afghan state and the new Parliament and—crucially for us in the Chamber—to support the parliamentarians as they seek to build democratic institutions throughout the whole of Afghanistan. Is it not important that the Minister’s Department should do everything that it can to argue that, despite the difficulties and the terrible loss of life that we are experiencing, we must stay to see through reconstruction and a viable Afghan state? Is it not important that all Members of the House support that position?

Yes, is the short answer to my hon. Friend, but let me give two quick answers. First, she is right that our presence has allowed the first democratically elected Afghan Government for many decades to be put in place, and secondly, our goal now is to make sure that their authority can be enhanced and improved.

There are increasing reports of large-scale civilian casualties resulting from US air strikes in southern Afghanistan. What discussions has the Minister had with his US counterpart, as whatever the short-term military advantage that flows from taking out Taliban fighters embedded in civilian areas, the resultant loss of civilian life has potentially a corrosive effect on local sympathy and support, and could make the already difficult task of the British forces on the ground nigh-on impossible?

We talk to our American colleagues regularly about these issues, but the Taliban and the drug traffickers are killing people—innocent civilians—every day in Afghanistan, as a result of their terrorist aims, and until we can give the Afghan Government the capacity to deal with that, we have to be there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) mentioned the numbers of Foreign Office and other civilian Government staff working in Afghanistan. I understand that they will only travel outside their offices in armoured Warrior vehicles. Given the absence of adequate air cover at the moment, should not those Warrior vehicles be reserved for the Army on the ground, so that they can get the full benefit of them?

The way in which such people travel varies in different parts of Afghanistan, but our advice from the Chiefs of Staff is that our capacity is appropriate for current circumstances.

Several hon. Members have spoken about the mission. Soldiers understand that it is absolutely essential that one has a clarity of mission, which all energies are devoted to fulfilling, yet the Minister has spoken about narcotics, the economy, the Government and all sorts of things. What exactly, succinctly and clearly, is the mission that our soldiers are pursuing, and to which their energies should be devoted?

This seems to be round 2 of the defence debate the other week and I know that the hon. Gentleman does not give his support to our Chiefs of Staff, but they tell us that our mission objectives are clear and that they will be met.

Order. May I tell the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) that he should stand up to try to catch my eye from the start of the statement, to give me an indication of who wants to speak?

Will the Minister admit that the lives of everyone in our armed services—men or women—in Afghanistan and Helmand province are very valuable indeed? Will he therefore perhaps go a little further in indicating that all the equipment that is required by our armed forces to ensure that their lives are put in as safe a situation as possible will be provided? In the light of the additional opposition to our personnel in Helmand province—this is along the lines of the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—is it not right that the original mission should be reviewed?

The hon. Gentleman always stands up for our services, and I commend him for that. When the Chiefs of Staff put a request to Ministers, we always take them seriously. If we get any request in these circumstances, his point will be well made and we will take it on board.