With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about UK deployments to Afghanistan. On Thursday, I spoke about Afghanistan during the defence debate. Today, I reiterate the enormous debt that we owe to the British soldiers who have given their lives and who have been injured while serving there. I also salute the bravery of all of our forces who are working to bring about lasting change in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, I said that we had received requests for additional forces in Helmand and that I would announce our response as soon as possible. I will do that today; but first, I want to place that response and indeed the whole of our deployment to Helmand and to Afghanistan as a whole in its proper context.
On 11 September 2001, a devastating terrorist attack was launched against the west from within Afghanistan’s borders. That happened, at least in part, because we abandoned Afghanistan to become a failed state after the Soviet occupation, and that is why it remains overwhelmingly in our national interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to a haven for terrorists. It is also in the interests of the Afghan people, the vast majority of whom have no sympathy for terrorism or violent extremism. There are many malign influences holding back the Afghans and we need to fight them, but we should be under no illusion about what is required to succeed.
Only by rebuilding Afghanistan, by strengthening its Government, its security forces and its legal system and by tackling its desperate poverty will we be able to help Afghanistan to make real and lasting progress. I have heard hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that we should help. The UN agrees. NATO agrees. Thirty-six countries are providing troops to seal their agreement. We all agree, and everything that we do and say should reflect that consensus.
It is also important to recognise where our efforts in Helmand stand in relation to the strategy for Afghanistan as a whole. NATO has been in charge of that mission for three years. It has helped to generate the confidence for millions of refugees to return, and improved access to better medicine and education. It has followed a clear plan to expand security and reconstruction from the north to the west, and now to the more challenging south. We have been engaged in that process throughout, having until recently provided a provincial reconstruction team in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The south is more challenging, but that was always well understood, which is why NATO sought a firm platform of progress in the north and west first.
Let me turn specifically to Helmand. We began deploying to Helmand in February, building up to full operating capability on 1 July. It has been said that we have been over-optimistic about that deployment, that we told the House that it would not be difficult and that we sent the wrong force. None of that is true. We said from the start that it was going to be a challenging mission. My predecessor’s statement to the House on 26 January included a sober assessment of the threat. The force package, which was designed by the military and endorsed by the chiefs of staff, reflected that. It contained attack helicopters, artillery and armoured vehicles. We deployed tough, capable units, with robust rules of engagement, because we expected violent resistance.
We knew that the Taliban, the drug lords and certain tribal elements would resist any attempt to bring security to the people of Helmand. We knew that the kind of people who behead teachers, burn schools, smuggle drugs and assassinate Government officials were not likely to stand by and allow progress to happen. Yes, we have taken casualties, but we have over-matched the opposing forces every single time that we have faced them. They have tried to block our deployment, and failed. They will continue to try to disrupt our mission, and they will continue to fail.
Let me turn now to that mission. Some say that it is confused and that it is spurious to say that it is about reconstruction, when the reality for soldiers has been fighting. We always knew that there was a probability of violent resistance. That is why we sent soldiers to do the task, but that does not change our overriding purpose, which is to rebuild. We have been accused of naivety by drawing a distinction between the ISAF—international security assistance force—mission to spread security and the US-led mission focused on counter-terrorism. But that distinction is not naive at all. In both cases, soldiers will have to fight, but the nature of the ISAF mission reflects the fundamental fact that we will not reach a lasting peace by force alone; we will reach it when Afghanistan has changed and when the Government have been able to deliver such security, development and prosperity that the ordinary Afghans will no longer tolerate terrorists and criminals in their midst. That is why rebuilding is our mission. Our forces on the ground understand that, and the Afghans understand it. In that sense, the mission is simple, but its delivery is complex. That complexity arises from the situation. Three decades of conflict have stripped the south of all signs of governance and robbed many Afghans of hope. And in that uncontrolled space, violence, criminality, narcotics and extremism have flourished. We have confronted those threats and learned much about them since we deployed. As with any deployment, those experiences have allowed us to review our forces and approach. That is what we have been doing in recent weeks.
Let me now explain why we need to adjust and strengthen our force structure in Helmand. The original intent was to tackle the challenges incrementally, spreading security and reconstruction from the centre of Helmand out. But the commanders on the ground grasped an early opportunity. They saw the chance to reinforce the position of the local governor and the Afghan army and police by going into northern Helmand and challenging the impunity of the Taliban there. In doing that, we moved faster towards achieving our ultimate objectives but also extended ourselves.
We must respond to that development. But it is our actions—our decisions and our determination to grasp the challenge—that have brought about the development, and not, as some suggest, a failure to anticipate a violent response to our arrival. Yes, the violence has increased, but that was inevitable. We are challenging the power of the Taliban and other enemies of the Afghan Government, and they are reacting. But despite their efforts, we are spreading security.
Our commanders have asked for additional forces to secure the early advances in the more remote communities in the north, while also enabling more progress to be made in central Helmand. Last Monday, I said that I was aware of ongoing work on such additional resources. I was also aware that, as part of that process, the chiefs of staff were going back to operational commanders and urging them to ensure that they had asked for everything that they needed. As I said in the House on Thursday, that iterative process produced a recommendation, which I received on that day. I and the chiefs of staff have considered the recommendation, and I have now endorsed it. I am grateful for the support and assistance of other Departments, especially the Treasury, in working through the necessary detail of this process as quickly as possible.
Let me outline the key elements of the additional force. In order to accelerate the reconstruction effort in the current security environment, we will deploy 320 engineers from 28 Regiment Royal Engineers to start projects to improve local infrastructure. A company from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines will provide force protection for them. Those deployments will take place in September. We will deploy an additional infantry company, drawn from 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, to provide more mobile forces, and two platoons from 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment to provide additional force protection. There will be small increases in headquarters staff. We will also boost our medical and logistical support to reflect the increase in troop numbers.
We will step up our efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan national army. Its brave soldiers have fought side by side with us in recent months, and they are the key to our eventual exit strategy. We are therefore deploying additional staff to Helmand, and to the regional Army headquarters for the south. Great strides have already been made in that essential task and, following forthright discussions that I had with the Afghan Defence Minister, Wardak, additional Afghan troops have been sent to Helmand, and more will follow. There are also about 2,300 Afghan police and military in Helmand, building to about 4,800 in 2007.
As with previous deployments, there will be a requirement to deploy reservists. Some 150 reservists are serving in the joint operational area, including members of the sponsored reserves. Some 450 call-out notices will be served on individual reservists in order to fill approximately 400 posts in theatre. One of the main reasons for the increase in reservist numbers is the planned deployment of 100 reservist personnel from 212 field hospital.
Those enhancements—totalling some 870 personnel—will place additional demands on our air transport. We have already increased the flying hours available for attack and support helicopters, as requested by commanders, and today I can say that we will also make available more support helicopters and one additional Hercules C130. We also plan to deploy a radar installation, provided by No. 1 Air Control Centre, Royal Air Force.
All those additional deployments will be made as soon as possible. I also want to cover the planned changes to the force structure resulting from the roulement in October, when the units currently comprising the Helmand taskforce, drawn predominantly—but not solely—from 16 Air Assault Brigade, will complete their tours. They will be replaced by units drawn principally from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, including 42 and 45 Commando and other supporting elements, including 12 Signal Regiment. That roulement will also involve a change to the force structure, reflecting the differences in the two brigades’ structures and equipment, including the requirement to support the commandos’ Viking armoured vehicles. That represents approximately 125 additional personnel. The House will also be aware that last month, I announced the deployment of 130 personnel from 34 Squadron Royal Air Force to increase force protection at Kandahar airfield.
This is a complex picture. Some troops will be going immediately and others in October; some will constitute an enduring addition, and others are being deployed on a surge basis. But I can tell the House that as a result of today’s announcement, the steady-state size of the Helmand taskforce will increase between now and October from some 3,600 personnel to approximately 4,500.
I am aware that our armed forces are heavily committed. As I said in the personnel debate, about 18 per cent. of the Army is currently deployed on operations. That is challenging, but sustainable. Taking into account deployments in Iraq and the planned increase in personnel to Afghanistan, most of our deployable units will operate outside harmony guidelines. I do not accept that lightly, but I do believe that it is necessary, and judging by comments made in this House in recent months, so do the majority of Members. We will do all that we can to minimise the impact, and we will continue to seek further contributions from our NATO partners in order to relieve the pressure in some of those areas.
Some commentators have suggested that insufficient infantry soldiers are deployed in comparison with the force’s overall size. Let me be clear that the delivery of this mission is not borne by the infantry alone, and it does a disservice to a great many brave men and women to suggest otherwise. Indeed, of the six deaths in Afghanistan since the deployment, half have been from other arms. The infantry do have a challenging task, but so do all our forces in Afghanistan. Air power, artillery, light armour and others are involved in combat. However, the work done by the provincial reconstruction team, the training teams, and those who enable others to operate is every bit as essential to eventual success. Some more infantry are indeed deploying, but the fundamental balance of combat forces to others carrying out vital roles will not change. That is because the mission has not changed.
Questions have been raised about NATO’s capability and the intentions of the United States. NATO now has many more troops to reflect the greater challenge in the south. Rules of engagement have been made more robust. This morning, I spoke to Commander ISAF, General David Richards. He told me that, in the south, effectively there were no caveats placed by nations on the use of their forces. Across Afghanistan, he was seeing a “new NATO” in which such caveats were becoming a thing of the past. He also said that he was confident that he had the forces to do the job, and that he had been encouraged to see nations like Germany and Spain considering making additional forces available.
I believe that NATO is thoroughly fit for this role. It has been suggested that because it does not have forces in every province, it cannot succeed, but that misses the fundamental point that we are at a stage when NATO is expanding in Afghanistan. Months ago there were no NATO troops in the south at all, and few US troops. Soon, there will be nearly 9,000 in the south—part of a total of about 18,500. NATO is building on a success that many seem determined to ignore.
As for the US, last week I spoke to General John Abizaid, the US commander responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq, and he was absolutely clear about the US commitment to Afghanistan. The Americans are not leaving this to NATO. They are part of NATO and are likely to be the biggest force contributor in Afghanistan for some time to come. Accusations that they are abandoning NATO are misplaced.
Lastly, I want to address counter-narcotics. I said that stability was the key to Afghanistan’s future, and part of that stability must be delivered by the Afghan Government facing up to the evil of narcotics. President Karzai’s personal commitment to this has been clear, and we must help. Again, the aim is simple, even if the implementation is difficult, and it is the same aim as for all other aspects of our task: to rebuild.
We will make a lasting impact on the narcotics industry only by strengthening all aspects of Afghan life, so that the economy can function without drugs money and farmers have alternative livelihoods to turn to. That will take time, but the process must start now.
Our soldiers are not narcotics police, and we do not ask them to be narcotics police. They are not waging a narcotics war; they will not destroy poppy fields; and they will not fight farmers for bags of opium. They are helping to create the conditions of security and development in which the narcotics industry will be weakened and eventually driven out by the Afghans themselves.
I trust that I have made my position clear. My decisions on these matters have been shaped by what I saw and heard when visiting Afghanistan. Our people there are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. They know why they are there, and they recognise the importance of their task. They have achieved a great deal already, and I intend to give them what they need to secure those achievements and to help the Afghans towards the stable future that they deserve.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for making it available in advance to the Opposition. I join him in saluting the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, their families and their civilian support.
The Secretary of State was right to remind the House at the outset of the reasons behind our involvement in Afghanistan: it is a failed state that acted as an incubator to terror, which was inflicted on innocent people in New York, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere, possibly even in London. A failing Afghanistan represents a threat to our national security. We can choose to confront the forces of terror at their source before they develop, or we can wait until they develop, and confront them here on our doorstep. Not confronting them at all is not an option. Dealing with the savagery and fanaticism of al-Qaeda and its allies will have an unavoidable cost, but the cost of failing to tackle them could be incalculably greater. Security is never a cost-free option.
In the House last week, I said that there were three reasons why we must not fail in Afghanistan. First, the reputation and cohesion of NATO is on the line. Secondly, failure would embolden our enemies in the region. What state could then feel safe? What if the next target for destabilisation were to be Pakistan, with its nuclear capability? That is a truly terrifying thought. Thirdly, we owe the people of Afghanistan, broken by decades of war and attrition, the chance to enjoy peace, stability and prosperity. We must not abandon or betray them.
The Government have two basic duties: to maximise the mission’s chance of success; and to minimise the risk to our forces in carrying out that mission. We intend to fulfil our constitutional role by holding the Government to account, not for the aims of the mission, but for its delivery.
We have set out a number of questions and reservations in recent months. On 26 January, I said in the House:
“There is widespread support in the House for the strategic objectives…set out by the Government, but the Secretary of State will be well aware of widespread anxieties that the level of resources committed by ISAF may not be sufficient to achieve the stated objectives, and that we may consequently be drawn into an escalated conflict.”— [Official Report, 26 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1534.]
It was always to be expected that our deployment would lead to increasing Taliban activity, and that has certainly happened. Those who took a less optimistic view than the Government have been shown to be correct.
I am pleased, however, that the Secretary of State has today provided greater clarity about our other main reservation: the anti-narcotic role. We have often said in the House that using our forces overtly to destroy poppy crops would result in farmers being pushed into the arms of the Taliban. The reduction in poppy production is not a role for our soldiers, but for the Afghan Government, supported by international assistance in providing substitute incomes. We must not allow the Taliban the propaganda weapon that our troops threaten the income of poor Afghan farmers. I note the assurance that our forces will not be used as narcotics police, and we will monitor events closely to ensure that that is true on the ground.
What are our specific questions about the delivery of this mission? First, can the Secretary of State tell us what are the most recent plans from the Americans in relation to reducing their troop numbers in Operation Enduring Freedom? Surely we must do all that we can to persuade our United States allies that they cannot reduce their commitment in the current security circumstances, with the upsurge in Taliban violence. Given that rise in Taliban activity, would it not also be sensible to ensure an early merger between OEF and the NATO mission? The circumstances of the mission have changed markedly. Would not that simply reflect the reality on the ground? What discussions have taken place about it?
What discussions have been held at Head of Government level about increasing the contributions from other NATO countries? There will be some 15,000 to 18,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, of whom 5,000 will be British, with more on the way. Whatever the capabilities and professionalism of our forces may be, we cannot be expected to carry NATO in this manner. Our NATO allies must understand how frighteningly high the stakes are, and those who may long for a security relationship without the United States need to realise that a defeat for NATO in Afghanistan would be likely to produce greater American isolationism and unilateralism—the very things that they claim most to resent. All must carry their share of the burden.
The Secretary of State talked of making more support helicopters available. Will there be more attack helicopters as well? Where will the extra helicopters come from? How many will there be, and when will they arrive? How many extra personnel are being earmarked to help train the Afghan army? Where will they come from, and what will the time scale be? And what of the police? What representations have been made to the German Government, who are responsible for training the police, that they must have sufficiently robust vetting procedures to stop Taliban infiltration of them, which would pose a security threat to our troops?
Finally, can the Secretary of State tell us about the plans to put non-governmental organisations on the ground? If they are not there, there will be no reconstruction at all. Will the Secretary of State consider the plans outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, to install an international co-ordinator in Afghanistan to ensure that money is not wasted, and that the Afghan people benefit, not the middle men?
The tone of the statement leads me to believe that the Government now recognise that the impression given to the British public was that this mission was less dangerous than it has turned out to be. Sadly, the admission that these operations will be outside harmony guidelines constitutes an acceptance of the reality of overstretch. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that under this Government we now have an insufficiently large standing army.
It is vital that we give our forces all that they need to do the job, for the price of failure in Afghanistan would be intolerable. The Government deserve the support of the House in achieving their aims, but they need to get their detailed decisions right at this point, for the patience of the British public and the House is not inexhaustible. Above all, the security not only of ourselves but of future generations is at risk. The stakes could hardly be higher.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his unswerving support for our engagement in Afghanistan. It is very important that our troops, particularly those whom we have deployed in Afghanistan, know that there is support for what they have been sent to do. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—without going into the same amount of detail in setting out the geopolitical situation—that doing nothing is not an option. That, of course, underpins the Government’s approach.
When we began to deploy in February, continuing until 1 July when full operational capability was reached, we sent the force package for which the military commanders had asked. It was designed by the military commanders—in consultation with the chiefs of staff—to do the job. The purpose of our deploying further resources is to reflect the experience and learning gained from that deployment.
I dealt specifically with the issue of narcotics because I felt that it, among other issues, required clarification—not that there was any doubt about the objectives that we set for our troops when we sent them to Afghanistan in the first place. Indeed, I remember reading carefully what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he announced the deployment on 26 January not only in the House, but elsewhere. He made it clear then that we were not sending our troops out to be narcotics police. However, given the commentary that there has been since then, I felt that it was important to make it clear again that there is no change in the position. That is not what our troops are doing in Afghanistan.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the continuing size of the American commitment to Afghanistan, particularly in the context of Operation Enduring Freedom. Before coming to the House, I spoke to the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, specifically about that matter. His response to me was that the Americans deploy their resources in Afghanistan and in other theatres in response to the circumstances, that forces increase and sometimes reduce and that that is what they will continue to do, but he gave me a reassurance, which I have reiterated to the House in the context of the statement, that the Americans' commitment to Afghanistan will be unwavering.
The hon. Gentleman has referred on more than one occasion to the fact that we need to remove the distinction between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom. That is one of the issues on which I disagree with him. My concern is that, if I were to accede to his request in relation to that and encourage NATO and others to do away with that distinction, exactly what I think will put our troops on the ground at risk in Afghanistan would happen. We would at one stroke do the job the Taliban are trying to do with their information operation in communities all over Helmand province, and that is to suggest to people in those villages that what we are telling them we are about there—reconstruction—is not the truth and that we have other objectives. If I were to accede to his request to remove the distinction between Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF even conceptually and argue for that more broadly with NATO, I would achieve that objective at one stroke.
The hon. Gentleman asks about further helicopter support. I had to decide whether I would be able to give detailed information to the House today and, if not, whether to delay the statement, or whether to make the statement in the way in which I have because there is other work to be done in relation to helicopters. I assure the House and the hon. Gentleman, however, that the helicopter support that will be made available to support the package will be that which has been asked for by the commanders on the ground.
On the issue of NGOs and reconstruction, it is clear to me, from my experience both in Afghanistan and from what was reported back to me from Afghanistan, that our long-term objectives there will be served by the success of reconstruction, but that we will not be able to achieve that reconstruction without security and we will not be able to build the security without reconstruction. We have deployed the significant resource of engineers in order that they will be able to enhance the reconstruction that we can do and the security that we can create in the communities through the deployment of our resources thus far.
May I reiterate our support for the engagement in Afghanistan and pay tribute to the courage and professionalism of our forces who are undertaking that dangerous work? It is essential that we build long-term stability in Afghanistan not only for the Afghan people but because, as others have said, lawless chaos provides sanctuary to militant extremists, and that threatens everyone’s security. I also stress our support for the deployment of additional troops announced today. Where they are able, the Government clearly must provide the commanders on the ground with the troops and equipment that they need.
Can the Secretary of State tell us how much of what he has announced today is totally new and how much of it is an acceleration of plans that already existed? Is he confident that the additional deployment he has announced will be sufficient? Is the breaching of harmony guidelines and the dependence on reservists to which he has referred sustainable for the long term, as it is becoming increasingly clear that this will be a long-term job?
Is he satisfied that all the helicopter, lift and air attack capability that is required has now been committed, and can he tell us where the men to do the proposed extra flying hours will come from? Will the additional commitment impair our ability to train more crews back home?
The Secretary of State tells us that a sober assessment of the threat was made at the start of the mission, and I am sure that that is true, but the former Secretary of State for Defence described it as
“a small but hugely significant step”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1533.]
It remains hugely significant, but it looks somewhat less small than it did in January. Of course we have to respond to changing circumstances and a more challenging environment, but can the Secretary of State tell us whether the role and operational objectives of British troops have changed at all from that time?
We have the lead responsibility for counter-narcotics, but there has been a record harvest in the south of the country, and there are grave questions about the feasibility of simultaneously achieving both security and counter-narcotics objectives. A concerted strategy is needed to provide alternative livelihoods for those who depend on narcotics. The Secretary of State said in his statement that that process must start: does he mean that there is as yet no strategy, or simply that the practical work on the ground must now start? Finally, with two weeks until the summer recess begins and given the fast changing environment, can he tell us what measures the Government have in mind to keep Parliament in the loop as changes are necessary over the summer recess?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and the leader of his party for their support for the additional deployment of troops to Afghanistan. I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) was able to express his support when he did not know what that deployment was going to be. That was a positive step.
In my statement, I sought to explain in detail the motivation behind the decision for each of the elements of the additional resource. I do not accept that any of it is an acceleration of anything that was planned, other than that a review of our deployment was planned at the point of deployment at about this time, as I have explained on more than one occasion. That has in the past been explained to the House.
The hon. Gentleman asks about additional flying hours. My understanding is that additional flying hours that have been agreed in response to the request of the commander in the theatre are as much a function of our ability to support the helicopters in those additional times as they are a function of the availability of people to fly them. The hon. Gentleman asks if the deployment is sustainable, and I assure him that it is. I identified the challenges that it sets in terms of harmony guidelines, and I accept that they are far from ideal. Steps need to be taken in the short term, or in the longer term, to address those issues, which were debated at some length on Thursday in the context of the personnel debate. The solution to that will take some time to develop.
The hon. Gentleman asks if there has been any change in role, and there has not been. On his final question, we will do what any Government can to ensure that when Parliament is in recess, information on a wide range of issues is communicated appropriately to those who need to know.
I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend this afternoon, responding as it does to the requests from our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend has outlined the Government’s objectives in Afghanistan and how we are responding to the latest developments there. Can he say a little more about our reserve forces? They now operate with our regulars in a much more integrated way than ever before, and I think that that is right. Our reservists also make a unique commitment. They have full-time jobs outside the armed forces in civilian life. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 allows the Government to mobilise the reservists for a maximum of one year in every three, but as a result of discussions with employers and the reservists, the Government have tended to mobilise them for a maximum of 12 months in any five years. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that he sees no reason to move away from that five-year rule as a result of this latest development?
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. I do not see that either my announcement today or the level of deployment of reservists that has been required would indicate that we will move away from that frequency of deployment. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the significant contributions made by reservists and to recognise that as a result of reforms in training and structure they are more suited to deployment than they were in the past. I also pay tribute to their employers, who support us well when we have to deploy their employees.
The Secretary of State may have heard last week of my concern that the deployment to Afghanistan, which I fully support, is being conducted on something of a shoestring. Last week, when we visited, we met some fantastic men and women who are doing their excellent best with the resources they have, but we heard that deployment of the Harriers and its subsequent extension to March next year carried a condition imposed by the Treasury that it should be at no additional cost. Will the Secretary of State remove that condition and assure us that none of the deployments that he has announced today carries the same extraordinary condition?
I understand that the right hon. Gentleman was in Afghanistan with his Select Committee only last week, so he brings up-to-date information to the House. I am pleased that he was as impressed as everybody who visits our troops in Afghanistan with the job that they are doing and the bravery that they show. When I was a Treasury Minister I was partly responsible for the process of agreement about deployment of the Harriers, which is on a staged basis, and I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that it does not in any sense inhibit what we are seeking to do in Afghanistan. Indeed, he will have noticed that Harriers were being deployed with significant effect right across the theatre; they are very much in demand and are being used extensively not only by our troops but by others. I can tell him categorically that none of that deployment carries with it any qualifications in relation to costs.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that at least two conditions must be met if the mission is to be successful? First, the mission must have the support of the Afghan people and, secondly, those in the international community who could contribute forces must accept that the mission is necessary and justified. If my right hon. Friend agrees, will he reinforce the point that if there is any confusion between what Enduring Freedom has done, and is doing, and the ISAF commitment, it could undermine both those aims? Does he agree that the United Nations needs to clarify the mission, given that it is about three years since it did so, and that many people in the international community and in this country have forgotten that there is a UN mandate?
I have not forgotten that there is a UN mandate. I spend a lot of my time reminding people that there is a UN mandate, which is supported by NATO and a significant number of countries—almost all the developed world—including countries whose presence is remarkable given their past history, such as the Scandinavian countries. Indeed, I understand that Swedish troops are in Afghanistan with no caveats. From my dealings with our partners in NATO or others deployed in ISAF, I have no sense that there is anything other than the fullest commitment to the noble cause of seeking to rebuild Afghanistan, no matter how difficult that may be, for the very reasons that were articulated at some length by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). I have absolutely no doubt about that level of support.
I agree that it would be a disservice to our forces to confuse what they are doing with Operation Enduring Freedom. None the less, that operation is necessary because terrorists are still at large in parts of Afghanistan, and it is right and appropriate that we should try to eliminate them.
Was the now apparent failure to deploy sufficient troops and equipment to Helmand province at the beginning of this operation the result of inadequate intelligence as to what was needed, or of the absence of a clear mission purpose, or, as now appears most likely, of overstretch and the reluctance of the Government in the face of that to make the necessary deployment? Had there been a more realistic deployment, is it not possible that the lethal opposition that our forces have faced in Helmand province might at least have been better constrained? Can the Secretary of State now say that he is confident that no further additional deployment will be needed to achieve that position?
May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the configuration of the original force package that was sent to Helmand province as the Helmand taskforce in Afghanistan was a result of what the military commanders asked for and what was agreed by the chiefs of staff and recommended to Ministers? Before coming to the House today, I phoned the military commander in Helmand province, Brigadier Ed Butler, and asked him whether—in the knowledge of the resources that we were now deploying to Afghanistan—he, the commander with responsibility, felt that we had sufficient resources to carry out the task that had now developed out of the nature of his deployment in the first place. He said yes.
I welcome the statement, its reiteration and its clarification. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that this is an internationally agreed and endorsed operation, and given that there are so many countries involved—he mentioned 36—it will be important that other NATO partners also increase their presence in this mission? Will he tell us what discussions he is having with his partners in NATO? He mentioned the increase from 3,600 to 4,500 by October, which is a 20 per cent. increase in the taskforce in Helmand province. Is there going to be a similar increase by other NATO partners to assist in this vital, necessary international job?
Today, General Richards, the commander of ISAF, told me that he had the resources that he needed to do the job. He said—as all commanders do when I have this conversation with them—that if there were more resources that he could employ, he could always employ more resources, but I asked him whether he had sufficient resources to do the job. I have been in conversation with him, the Secretary-General of NATO, and a significant number of our allies at Defence Minister level to insist that for additional resources—where they are available—should be deployed.
In relation to the transfer of authority for phase three, which is due to take place at the end of this month, although there are some shortfalls against the ideal solution, General Richards told me this morning that he is pleased with recent developments in these areas and is confident that they will be filled, and he has been reassured by the efforts of NATO’s senior commanders.
Will the Secretary of State please convey to the Prime Minister my continuing conviction that sending British troops into Afghanistan is like throwing kerosene on to a burning tent, and that the more troops we send, the higher and fiercer the flames will burn in Afghanistan, throughout the Islamic world and on the streets of this country?
The hon. Gentleman has the merit of being consistent in relation to these matters and I respect him for that, as he understands and knows. In this House, in a rhetorical way, he repeatedly makes clear the position that he has sustained. I am sure that he was saying exactly the same thing when ISAF was deployed in both north and west Afghanistan. He ought to look at the progress that has been made there now.
Those of us who support my right hon. Friend in what he has set out today nevertheless recognise that the point about the contributions made by other NATO allies is central and important. Is he aware that a debate is taking place in the German Parliament, as it is in other allies, about where we should go with this? What can he do to ensure that the message that failure in Afghanistan is unthinkable is communicated through him and his colleagues in other allies’ Governments?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that no one who has had a conversation with me about Afghanistan has not been told exactly what the hon. Member for Woodspring repeats every time he comes to the Dispatch Box: failure is unthinkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is the future of NATO. Failure in Afghanistan would be significant for NATO’s future as an organisation that can deliver on its objectives and generate the amount of force necessary to protect those whom it was designed to protect in this very much changed and difficult world in which we live. I repeat that message consistently. My understanding from the conversations that I had today before coming to the House is that whatever the debate is being held in Germany’s Parliament—it is entirely appropriate that that debate should take place—the Germans are in fact considering increasing their deployment in Afghanistan.
I very much welcome the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has made, but does he not agree that what is especially shameful about the NATO allies’ response to the mission is the fact that given that the commander, General Richards, is a NATO commander—Commander Allied Rapid Reaction Corps—the operation is a NATO operation, so not to support it wholeheartedly is to show that NATO’s transformation is inadequate and incomplete? The allies now need to take grown-up, real decisions, especially about the deployment of airlift, which they have in abundance, and make some use of that.
I accept that the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on significantly challenging issues for NATO. The process is ongoing. For example, as was confirmed to me today, although I have recognised this development myself, real progress has been made in NATO on caveats to such an extent that, for the deployment in the south, no caveats are now in any sense restricting the commander, General Richards. There are other significant challenges, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the British Government have made quite a novel and significant suggestion for the long-term solution of one that he identifies. However, the support that he and others in the House can give me to continue to communicate the message to our NATO allies is welcome.
I welcome the statement. Last week, I visited Helmand province with the Select Committee. Morale is high and the troops are committed to the job that they are doing. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating not only them, but Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development staff on the job that they are doing as part of the provincial reconstruction team down at Lashkar Gah? Does he concur with General Richards’s statement to us that the UK’s commitment to the military operations in Afghanistan more than meets the commitments that other international partners are making?
I have no difficulty at all in joining my hon. Friend in extending congratulations. I gladly take any opportunity that I get, whether at the Dispatch Box or otherwise, to congratulate our forces on the work that they do not only in Afghanistan, but in other theatres. I will add to the list of those who should be congratulated on the progress that has been made in Helmand, which he witnessed, not only in Lashkar Gah, but beyond, of which today’s statement was a function. We should also extend congratulations to the Afghan national forces, who are fighting along with our forces very bravely. When we consider the scale of the challenge that we face and the commitment that we need to support the Afghans, we should consistently remind ourselves that those brave people have lost 2 million of their own citizens fighting for the freedom to get themselves to the stage at which they are. That is why the international community must stay with them.
Lessons from previous engagements teach us the importance of employing sufficient troops at the start of an action in order to achieve success. Given the size of the Taliban forces encountered by our troops, is the Secretary of State confident that the deployment that he announced today will be sufficient, and that a series of future incremental increases will not be necessary, as they will not provide the required cohesion?
I do not accept the criticism implicit in the first sentence of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have said repeatedly that the force package that has been sent was what the military commanders asked for, and that the need to reinforce that package is a function of our success, even though our success in engaging the Taliban has generated challenges for us in the early days. I will not estimate or guess the size of the Taliban forces, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that not everyone who fights with the Taliban supports them ideologically. People fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan for all sorts of reasons; some fight with them because they pay them. Part of our objective is to give those people a message that there is a future for them without the short-term lifespan of such fighting. Part of the challenge is to try to break those people away by engaging with them and explaining that they have a future that does not depend on their being a hired gun for anyone who will pay them $10 a day, or less.
Is the Secretary of State aware that many people outside the House will regard his statement today as an example of mission creep, and think that we are starting an unending deployment of British troops in Afghanistan? Can he give us an idea of the maximum number that he is prepared to deploy, and for how long?
Without hesitation I can tell my hon. Friend that I will not answer that question specifically. He may find that a cause for criticism, and I will just have to live with that. It is because this is not mission creep that we have to identify additional resources. We have to deploy those resources to achieve the mission and the objective that we set; as we deployed, we identified prospects for success that now have to be reinforced. I just ask my hon. Friend, who, I suspect, is a consistent critic of any deployment of ours in Afghanistan at all: what is the alternative for the people of Afghanistan and the developed world if we, who are capable of doing so, do not accept the challenge of stopping that country once again becoming a training ground for terrorists?
I am pleased to hear that we are sending reinforcements but saddened that there are no announcements on helicopters. Twelve helicopters for operations in Helmand is not enough. I would like, too, the possibility of sending some mechanised infantry to be discussed. Can the Defence Secretary tell the House whether or not such troops were requested? I accept that 16 Air Assault Brigade is a formidable unit for taking ground, but it was never designed to hold ground, which is a light infantry operation.
I echo concerns that have been expressed about NATO. The fact that 36 countries have troops in Afghanistan is impressive on paper, but one third of those countries are offering only 60 troops or fewer, which is laughable. Indeed, 34 of the 36 nations do not match Britain’s contribution to Afghanistan. I urge the Defence Secretary to speak to his colleagues and make sure that our NATO representatives and colleagues match our efforts in Afghanistan, as they are not doing so at the moment.
May I repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have already told his right hon. and hon. Friends? I have conversations on those subjects continually, not only with the Defence Ministers of NATO countries but with people who have responsibility for generating the forces in Afghanistan. I have received assurances from those people, on whom I depend for advice on matters that I bring before the House. On the current deployment and the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, I checked today with the commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler, and asked him whether he now has the resource that he needs and requested for the mission that he has been given, and he confirmed that he has. That is a comprehensive answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Is not one of the main reasons why we have lost more British lives in the past four weeks than in the previous five years the fact that we are associated with the American operation “enduring stupidity”, which seeks to bomb the Afghans into democracy and to destroy their livelihoods? The country has been anarchic and ungovernable by outside forces for centuries. Is not the alternative that the Secretary of State seeks for us to detach ourselves from that operation and to devise our own practical alternative, which is to transfer to the Afghan farmers the licence for using their poppies in order to manufacture morphine? Is he not concerned that the Taliban are not on their own, as he says? We are also fighting against those who are defending their livelihoods, some who are Tajiks fighting against the Pashtuns, and many others who are warlords and who are every bit as wicked under Karzai as they were in previous years.
I am tempted to say that when my hon. Friend reads in Hansard the question that he has just asked, he will see that in the second part of his question he has contradicted the assumption that he made in the first part, about the motivation of the people who are attacking our troops. First, Afghanistan is a democracy. It has a democratically elected Government, President Karzai is a democratically elected president, and it has a democratically elected Parliament. It may not be what my hon. Friend recognises as democracy, but it is significantly better than the Afghan people have ever had in their lifetime. It is that very democracy which we are in Afghanistan to protect. Secondly, it is entirely inappropriate to attribute blame to those who are seeking to support that democracy and to give the Afghan people the opportunity to throw off the tyranny of those whom my hon. Friend accurately describes as having brutalised them over three decades. They were doing it long before the Americans, the British or ISAF ever went anywhere near Afghanistan, and to suggest that that is the motivation for the criminality and their crude violence now is totally to misunderstand what is going on in Afghanistan.
Last week, when I saw my former unit, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, I discovered that the company there was a composite company made up from the whole brigade. I see from the statement today that a company will be drawn from 3 Commando Brigade. That is an unnamed company, not from a commando, but from a whole brigade. When the Ministry of Defence has to send composite companies rather than formed units, what further evidence does the Secretary of State need that our armed forces are at overstretch?
In the statement that I made to the House, I sought to be candid about the degree of pressure that we were putting on our forces, and to suggest that I was not hiding from the consequences of the decision that we have made today.
I am glad my right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that many of the Taliban fighters are paid by the Taliban. Although I recognise that we do not want British troops burning poppy fields, who will be responsible for stopping the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan, 60 per cent. across the Iranian border, and the money into the Taliban war chest?
The responsibility for counter-narcotics lies principally with the Afghan Government, of course with support from, among others, ourselves, who are the lead partner nation for the Afghans in counter-narcotics. The strategy has several strands, and it is only when all those strands come together that we will see a counter-narcotics strategy that allows Afghanistan to move away from an economy that is over-dependent on narcotics and consequently can be exploited in the way that it has been, and that we will be able to interdict, to the extent that we can, the flow of narcotics on to the streets of our country.
The Minister is aware that we will not win this unless we get the reconstruction right. Commanders on the ground say that only a very small amount of reconstruction has been delivered to the people of Helmand. Given the need to maintain the good will of ordinary villagers, is it not time massively to upscale the budgets and the delivery of reconstruction, to drop DFID’s somewhat politically correct idea that all reconstruction, or most of it, should go through the Afghan Government in Kabul and filter its way down to Helmand, and to start to brand reconstruction as British, thereby safeguarding our troops in Helmand?
I know that the hon. Gentleman as a member of the Select Committee has had the opportunity to consider these matters in some detail, and he identifies a very important correlation between reconstruction and security. It is not possible to plan for reconstruction without security, and it is not possible to sustain security without reconstruction. That is why, at the beginning of the deployment part of the statement, I announced to the House the significant increase in military engineers who will improve the prospects of our being able to do reconstruction in these communities immediately behind the introduction of security to them, recognising that it is difficult to ask those who are associated with non-governmental organisations and do not have military capability to take on the level of risk that that set of circumstances generates.
It is not a shortage of funding for reconstruction that is the challenge, it is the ability to be able to deliver it and configure it in a way that is consistent with the precarious level of security in which we may have to start to deliver it. That is why a substantial part of this deployment is designed to achieve just that.
I hope that the Secretary of State has noted that a significant number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed widespread concern about our NATO allies who have not given sufficient support in Afghanistan. Would he accept that some of his responses have been slightly complacent, all too diplomatic and not sufficiently robust?
I do not think that it will surprise the right hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member to learn that I do not recognise his description. I have sought to be candid with the House in terms of accepting the scale of the challenge not only that NATO faces, but that I face as the UK Defence Minister, to engage with our allies to ensure that we generate a sufficient level of force to be able to see this task through. At the end of the day the right hon. Gentleman will have to understand that I depend for advice on those who have the specialist skills to be able to inform me of whether the deployment of resource is sufficient to do the job. I repeat to the House that I made inquiries before I came to the House today from those who can best tell me and they have confirmed to me that they are confident that we will be able to deploy sufficient resource throughout the south to see stage three of the ISAF deployment meet its objectives, and to move then quickly to stage four, when of course we will be in a different set of circumstances and the resources available will be significantly greater across theatre.