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Volume 449: debated on Monday 24 July 2006

The security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is stable, but fragile in places, including Helmand and the rest of the south of Afghanistan, where the rule of law has yet to be established fully.

With the Prime Minister advocating a NATO force of 20,000 for south Lebanon, and with real uncertainty over the US draw-down from Operation Enduring Freedom, is the Secretary of State concerned that we may end up with too few troops in Afghanistan, without the right equipment and without enough lift capability? What discussions has he had with Secretary Rumsfeld, and what is his assessment of the chances of other countries joining the international effort in Afghanistan?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, 37 other countries are involved in Afghanistan. One would be hard-pressed to find countries that are not. I have spoken to Secretary Rumsfeld about continued support from the United States and the transfer of authority at the end of this month. The United States will continue to be a member of NATO and to provide significant support. Indeed, in the south it will continue to provide a bridge in relation to the air support that is necessary. Having spoken recently to General Richards, who will be responsible for that, I am satisfied that there are sufficient forces and assets to maintain the operations that we are setting out to achieve.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend heard the “Today” programme a week or two ago, when the Taliban spokesman excused the bombing of schools by saying, “Oh well, actually we don’t bomb schools. We only bomb girls’ schools.” Is any special protection being afforded to such schools?

I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House after her recent illness and hope that she keeps well.

I did indeed hear that interview. The House should celebrate the fact that of the 5 million additional children who are now in school in Afghanistan, one third are girls, whereas no girls were educated at all under the Taliban regime.

In relation to Helmand province in particular, my hon. Friend may be aware that in the village of Nawzad, where our troops are providing a degree of security, the Taliban had not only closed the school, but taken it over and were using it as mortar base plate location. Delivering security is exactly the sort of activity that we have been conducting in those communities which will allow those schools to reopen. We will provide protection for the teachers and encourage the children, including the girls, to attend school.

The Secretary of State announced today that he will be sending two extra Chinook helicopters to Afghanistan. That is unreservedly to be welcomed. I congratulate him on making an announcement that brings forward things that will cost extra money. Does he accept, however, that that needs to be far from the end of the story? An extra two helicopters may well not be enough, given the importance and difficulty of the essential job that we are carrying out in Afghanistan.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, which I welcome. He will know that that was part of a statement that I made; I have no doubt that we will get to the other parts later in these questions. He will know, too, that those two Chinook helicopters were requested by commanders on the ground and staffed up to me by the chiefs of staff who approved that request, and I acceded to it. When I made the announcement about additional deployments in Afghanistan, I gave a figure to the House that included the anticipated cost of the additional helicopter support. The right hon. Gentleman will be reassured that in the same statement I said that we would keep helicopter and air support provision under review, and we will do just that.

My right hon. Friend knows that the role of the RAF will be absolutely fundamental in Afghanistan. Is he therefore absolutely satisfied that there is sufficient security for our air personnel, even with the assistance of the RAF regiment, to protect them from constant incoming attack?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the RAF is providing significant support in Afghanistan, not only for our troops in the south but for other troops deployed in that part, particularly from the Kandahar air base where our Harriers are based. We have made the decision to continue to base the RAF there for some time into the future. She ought to recollect that not long after I was appointed to this job I made an announcement that we were deploying additional troops to the Kandahar air base to provide full security. Consequently, having made that decision and having deployed those troops from the RAF regiment, I am satisfied that security is sufficient for the RAF.

Why are the few helicopters that we have in Afghanistan based in Kandahar where our troops are not, rather than in Helmand where they are?

The reason our helicopters are based in Kandahar, which is a comparatively short distance from our troops in Helmand—

The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head. I have the advantage of having been there, seen the distance and indeed travelled in a helicopter from Kandahar to where we are based. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the helicopters are there because we believe that at present we can provide the level of support and in particular the security better at Kandahar than at Camp Bastion. At some time in the future we may well be able to provide that security at Camp Bastion, but that will be a matter for commanders on the ground and not for me.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we have managed to train 28,000 soldiers and in excess of 30,000 police officers in Afghanistan—but we are not finished there. Not only are we training Afghanistan forces, but in Helmand province we are working with them very closely. In fact, we have deployed trainers and mentors who are working, living and eating with Afghan Kandaks and, as the commanding officer on the ground says, are prepared to die with them if necessary. That is having a significant effect on their ability to deliver security for their own people.

The whole House appreciates the excellent work that the British forces are doing in Afghanistan. As far as Helmand province is concerned, Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, is reported in the Colchester Evening Gazette only today as saying that morale is exceptionally high. The mission in Afghanistan is of enormous importance and UK troops are performing a vital role, but how do the Government reconcile the comments reported in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian made by General David Richards, head of the NATO international security assistance force, who says that Afghanistan is “close to anarchy”, with their own assurances that

“neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan”?

The hon. Gentleman disadvantages himself by relying on a press report of what General Richards said. In fact, when General Richards used the word “anarchy”, he used it specifically in relation to the lack of coherence in the network of international Government and non-governmental organisations operating in Afghanistan. He was not referring to the security situation or to the rule of law in the country. Lest it be thought that, by explaining the context of that reference, I am being complacent in any sense, I add that he went on to say that a number of measures were now in place that would tackle the problem of coherence in the Afghan and international community’s response, including President Karzai’s creation of a policy action group to co-ordinate and drive through key elements of Afghanistan’s development. He was not talking about security at all when he used the word “anarchy”.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how the new contingent of British troops being sent to Afghanistan and their support staff will contribute to economic and social development, particularly in Helmand?

My hon. Friend asks an important question, because a significant proportion of the additional troops whom we deployed to Afghanistan consists of 320 engineers. That is recognition, based on observations made in the early weeks and months in Afghanistan, of the fact that in order to deliver reconstruction in the context of improved governance, which will be the future security of the people in Helmand province, we must be able to find a method of doing so in a fragile security situation. That is exactly what the deployment of those engineers is designed to do. Through that deployment, we will take advantage of the progress that Commander Ed Butler and his troops made in the early months in Afghanistan to build on that security by delivering progress to communities across the south of Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province.

As the House is aware, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), are in Afghanistan, and I thank the Secretary of State for helping to facilitate their visit. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, we support the mission and, above all, the work undertaken by Her Majesty’s armed forces, but Parliament has a duty to hold the Government to account for their policy in Afghanistan.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Richards, who, on Friday night, said that western forces were “short of equipment” and were “running out of time”. He said, too, that there was a lack of unity between the different agencies responsible for implementing the reconstruction work, which means that the situation, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, “is close to anarchy”. How on earth does that square with the written answer that the Secretary of State gave my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring last week, in which he said:

“Neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups, currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan”?—[Official Report, 18 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 342W.]

Surely there is an element of complacency in that, which ought not to be there?

There is no complacency at all. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is with the hon. Member for Woodspring in Afghanistan, and I was pleased to be able to assist in ensuring that they could have that experience and could communicate to our troops in Afghanistan their support and the support of other Members of the House. Before they left, they confirmed to me that they would be pleased to take that message to our troops in Afghanistan.

In answering the question as I did, I was doing exactly what I, and my predecessor, have done on a number of occasions in relation to Afghanistan: I drew a distinction between the strategic threat that the Taliban could pose to the Government of Afghanistan, and the localised threat that I have, on a number of occasions at this Dispatch Box, candidly admitted that they pose. I do not believe—nor does General Richards—that the Taliban pose a strategic threat to the Government of Afghanistan. That is what my answer to that question was designed to impart. If the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard, he will see I have used that phraseology in that very context on a number of occasions. Indeed, it has been used by myself and by the previous Secretary of State for Defence since March this year, in answer to very similar questions.

Let me just deal with General Richards’s view: I had the benefit of meeting him on Friday morning, and I do not have to rely on the way in which he was inaccurately reported in newspapers. Let me quote what General Richards—

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for not reading out the entire speech that General Richards made, but he made it at a public gathering at the Royal United Services Institute and it has been widely reported. Either all the reporters have got it wrong, or there is something wrong with the right hon. Gentleman’s recollection.

I want to ask the Secretary of State something else about Afghanistan, which is extremely important. Increasing numbers of British troops are being deployed to Afghanistan and the United Kingdom has another role to play there. We have been charged specifically with the lead role in helping the Afghan Government to rid the country of drug production. Last week the Minister for the Middle East said what the strategy should be. Perhaps I am quoting inaccurately and the Secretary of State can tell us if the newspapers have got it wrong, but the Minister said:

“Go for the fat cats, very wealthy farmers, the movers and shakers of the drugs trade”.

General Sir Mike Jackson, Britain’s most senior soldier, said:

“To physically eradicate”

opium poppies

“before all the conditions are right seems to me to be counter-productive”—

“The mission in Afghanistan offers the clearest example of how NATO is successfully transforming…Much progress has been made, and the strength, diverse capabilities, and flexibility inherent in multinational operations is being proved.”

Those were the words that General Richards used to conclude his contribution to the RUSI conference. They are entirely contradictory to the way in which his speech has been reported. Those are his own words, not three or four of them taken out of context.

With regard to drugs, there is no inherent contradiction between our focus on reconstruction and our ambition to rid Afghanistan of narcotics. There is no long-term sustainability for Afghanistan if its economy is substantially based on narcotics. At this stage we are not asking our soldiers to be drugs police officers. That is a matter for the Afghan police. However, we have accepted a responsibility to build up the capacity of Afghanistan to deal with the issue. We are doing that. We are putting significant investment into it, and by the delivery of security, we are creating a set of circumstances where that can be done. All this is perfectly consistent.