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Iraq and Afghanistan Update

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I should like to start by expressing my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the brave servicemen who have lost their lives since I last spoke to the House on 24 July. Five soldiers have died in operations in Iraq, all of them killed in action. Twenty seven personnel from all three services have died in Afghanistan, with 11 killed in action and 16 lost in other incidents, including those killed in the RAF Nimrod crash on 2 September. Others have been wounded, and our thoughts should be with them also.

I turn first to Iraq. The House will be aware of the escalation of sectarian violence in recent months, particularly in and around Baghdad. The combined Iraqi and American Baghdad security plan, about which I was briefed in Baghdad in August just before it began, is a major initiative aimed at improving security for all the communities in the city. The security element is closely followed by co-ordinated projects to improve basic services, backed by more than $400 million of funding. In those areas that have been cleared of terrorists and sectarian gangs so far—with 1,700 weapons seized—citizens are reporting better security and are starting to see improvements in their daily lives. That said, however, the overall level of violence across the city, including sectarian killings, remains unacceptable—there was further evidence of that today—but the plan is still in its early stages and there is impressive commitment from American, coalition, and Iraqi forces.

In the UK’s area of operation in south-east Iraq, the biggest challenge lies in Basra city. Two weeks ago, Iraqi and UK forces began a large-scale operation moving through the city sector by sector, strengthening security and improving basic services. One important element of the operation is a renewed effort to improve the capacity of the Iraqi police and to address infiltration by militias. The operation also includes clean-up projects, agriculture projects and projects to improve basic services, including bringing clean drinking water to a part of the city that has never had it before.

Elsewhere in the south-east, in September Dhi Qar became the second province to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities, following al-Muthanna in July. We should congratulate the Iraqis on that achievement, and of course our international partners.

In terms of future planning for the UK in Iraq, I can confirm that the force package for the next routine roulement in November, in which 19 Light Brigade takes over from 20 Armoured Brigade, is essentially what I outlined in my announcement to the House on 18 July. I also draw the House’s attention to my written statement on 11 September, which confirmed a temporary deployment of 360 troops, including specialists such as engineers to help deliver the Basra projects I described earlier, and elements of the theatre reserve battalion, to provide support during the roulement period. Excluding the temporary deployment, this will leave our force level in Iraq at approximately 7,100.

We should be in no doubt that this is a decisive period in the future of Iraq. There is much debate, here in Britain, in America and of course in Iraq, about the best way forward, but all agree that military means alone will not be decisive. This is especially true now, when it is clear that sectarianism and the struggle for power have emerged as a major threat to Iraq’s security. What is required above all is a political solution. That must include a genuine effort at national reconciliation, drawing all Iraq’s communities into a political process and away from violence. Prime Minister Maliki and his Government are trying to deliver that. We and our coalition partners must do all we can to support them and to strengthen their resolve—but so, too, must the international community as a whole and Iraq’s near neighbours in particular.

Let me turn to Afghanistan. The achievements and losses of our forces in Helmand province rightly have been the focus of our attention in the last two months. The work our forces are doing there is difficult, dangerous and exhausting. I salute them, particularly the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who are coming home, having been relieved by 3 Commando. I shall be visiting them tomorrow to thank them in person, but today, on behalf of the whole House, I should like formally to record our recognition of the bravery, professionalism and sacrifice of that brigade and all those from across the three services who supported them during their tour—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”.]

On this, the fifth anniversary of our intervention in Afghanistan, we should reflect on the progress our efforts have brought about: 2,000 schools built; 5 million children in school, a third of them girls; more than 70 new hospitals and clinics; and 4.5 million refugees returning home. This is not a failing mission.

NATO, in the shape of ISAF—the international security assistance force—under the leadership of General Richards, now has responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan, but as we know, the summer has seen fierce fighting and as I made clear in a speech last month, the persistence of the Taliban was greater than expected. Such is the nature of operations: the enemy always has a vote—and we have adapted. But let me repeat: the force package we deployed, which we have strengthened further over the summer, was designed to deal with violent resistance, and in every encounter with the Taliban our forces have defeated them. Moreover, by attacking us directly, the Taliban have taken heavy losses, both in northern Helmand and against the Canadians in Kandahar. We have sent a clear message that we will not be beaten in combat—a message not lost on the local population. That has strengthened the position of local leaders, some of whom are now pursuing peaceful negotiations with our commands and with the Afghan Government.

In Afghanistan, we have now reached a key point in the campaign. On Sunday, I spoke to General Richards and he described the situation as a window of opportunity. If we can build upon the blow we have delivered to the Taliban and if we can quickly deliver real, concrete changes to the lives of ordinary Afghans through development and reconstruction, we can begin to generate the lasting support that the Government need. So we are moving forward, but I have consistently made clear the challenges that we still face.

The assumption of complete military command for Afghanistan is a significant achievement for NATO, but it is also a significant test. There are still shortfalls in the planned force structure. Caveats on the use of some forces remain. I have been in frequent, often daily, discussions with the Secretary-General and fellow Defence Ministers to reinforce the message that, as an alliance, we must live up to our commitment to Afghanistan, sharing the burden and, as important, sharing the risks. I ensured that this subject was top of the agenda at the NATO summit in Slovenia two weeks ago, and I will continue to press for urgent action.

We have made some progress. Some caveats are lifting—the Poles have confirmed they will provide a battalion, and the Canadians plan to put further troops into the south. Importantly, General Richards judges that he has the forces to maintain the relatively stable security situation that now exists, but I will continue to push for his requirements to be met in full, as a matter of urgency.

In Helmand, the UK task force also faces challenges. The battles that we have fought in the north of the province have brought us to the relative stability that we have seen in recent weeks. Taliban activity is down and engagement with local leaders is growing, but we must capitalise quickly with progress on reconstruction. We are rebalancing our forces, taking advantage of the steady improvement in the Afghan army and police to concentrate our forces on the central area surrounding the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. That should increase the scope for other Government Departments to act in safety, and it should also increase the confidence of local enterprises and international NGOs to begin the reconstruction that is at the core of our strategy.

Back in the UK, the main challenge for me, for my Department and for the joint headquarters and the chiefs is to give our troops the resources that they need to get the job done. That is a relentless task, but we are rising to it. We have now almost completely deployed the reinforcements that I described to the House on 10 July, with the last elements due in Afghanistan in the next few weeks. That includes two more Chinook helicopters and more flying hours for helicopters across the fleet; more capacity to train the Afghan national army; engineers to take forward development; and more infantry.

On 24 July, I announced a new package for protected vehicles for both Afghanistan and Iraq, including 100 new Mastiff and 100 additional Vector vehicles, funded by new money from the Treasury. We continue to invest heavily in force protection, including countermeasures to protect vehicles against attack, defensive aids for aircraft and personal body armour. I believe that we have shown that we can be responsive to the requests of commanders, and we will continue to be responsive.

Of course, support for our troops is not just about numbers of people and equipment; it is also about pay, conditions, welfare and medical care. In all those areas, we are constantly reviewing what more is needed, and for some weeks now I have specifically been looking at pay levels for forces on operations. Our forces are some of the best paid in the world—only Canada pays more across the ranks—but forces from other countries do not pay tax when on operations, and this has led some to demand that we do the same for our people. I think we can do better.

I am pleased to announce today that we intend to introduce a new tax-free, flat-rate operational bonus, which, for a six-month tour, would amount to £2,240. For an average private or lance-corporal, that is equivalent to the amount of tax that they would pay during a six-month tour. It means that half our people on operations will be better off than under a tax exemption—increasingly so for the lower paid. The most junior will be more than £500 better off after a six-month tour than if we simply exempted them from tax. As important, everyone on operations will be equally better off than they are now—by just under £100 per week, free of tax. I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for making more than £60 million of new money available so that we can fund this new bonus without taking any existing defence funding away from front-line needs.

This is a complex area. I have been looking at these questions for weeks, but I can assure the House that the troops who have been fighting in Afghanistan over the summer will not lose out as a result. The payment will be backdated to 1 April 2006, as an adjustment to pay arrangements in the current financial year. Full details of eligibility will be made public shortly, but I can confirm that, besides Afghanistan, the payment will apply to our forces in Iraq and in the Balkans.

Finally, let me deal with the issue of medical care for those injured on operations. First, I want to challenge the notion that the current system is in any way inferior to what went before. In particular, the relentless attack on the work of the outstanding medical staff—military and civilian—at Selly Oak hospital is both unfair and misplaced. I have been there twice in recent months. It is one of the highest-performing and most successful hospital trusts in the NHS and provides major specialist centres for trauma, burns, plastic surgery and neuroscience.

Our primary concern is to give our injured people the best medical care available. That is to be found inside the NHS. While some have been calling in public for a return to military hospitals, we have been quietly getting on with the job of establishing a military managed ward at Selly Oak in partnership with the NHS. I can confirm that this will be operational before the end of the year.

I have been open about the nature of the challenges that we face in our operational theatres. I do not seek to hide from the House the difficulties we face in overcoming them, but I am convinced our strategy remains the right one. In Afghanistan, we have to tackle the south and the east if we are to secure what has already been achieved in the rest of the country. We have to make the comprehensive approach work, with all Government Departments acting together to achieve our objectives. We have to get NATO to live up to its commitments. In Iraq, we have to support the Iraqi Government and their army and police in taking responsibility for their own security and in holding the line against sectarian violence. We will do all these things—we cannot afford not to.

I have spoken many times about the debt we owe the men and women who serve in our armed forces and who carry out this hard and dangerous work on our behalf. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to them again today.

Let me begin by associating myself and my colleagues with the Secretary of State’s condolences to the families and friends of all those who have given their lives for our security. Let me pay tribute to all those servicemen and women who have performed so well under such difficult circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As I have said several times in the House, the Opposition fully support the Government’s aims in Afghanistan: to prevent the recurrence of a failed state and the re-emergence of al-Qaeda and the effects this would have on Britain’s security. It is more true now than ever that NATO’s reputation in on the line. Our collective security requires a properly collective response—a response that has been notably lacking from some quarters of our allies.

It is, however, the duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account for the means of achieving these objectives. From the outset of the deployment to Afghanistan questions have been raised about whether too much planning was done on the basis of the most optimistic potential outcome. Public opinion was prepared largely for a mission that was about peacekeeping, not war fighting. From the very beginning, questions were asked about the level of manpower and equipment being deployed given the difficulties that might be faced. In the event, the realists, rather than the optimists, have been proved right. Resistance from the Taliban has been fierce and the deployment under-strength. As a result, not only were a further 900 troops sent by the Government in July, but NATO commanders on the ground still believe that they are undermanned. I certainly do not agree with the assertion made by the Secretary of State for Defence in July that:

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

These major strategic questions require a great deal of analysis, which I am sure that the House will want to give them in due course. Today, I have a number of specific questions for the Secretary of State, relating to our deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include the safety of our troops, the need for more equipment, the calculation of casualties, the treatment of those injured, the inadequacy of the inquest system and the lack of reconstruction.

Let me begin with the question of body armour. On 18 September, the Secretary of State said in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) that Osprey, the body armour that provides extra protection for the neck and shoulders, would replace ECBA, which provides only minimal chest protection. How many sets of Osprey armour have already been provided for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and what proportion of our troops can receive it when necessary? The correct answer should be 100 per cent.

Let me next turn to helicopters. The Prime Minister said recently that our commanders can have “all that they want.” They immediately responded by saying that they wanted more helicopters. The worry is that the Government may promise what they are unable to provide. How many helicopters do we have that could be used in Afghanistan, but are not being used? How many helicopters do we have that are not fit for purpose? For example, the Ministry of Defence’s own figures suggest that only 41 per cent. of the Lynx and Gazelle fleets are fit for purpose. What requests have been made to our NATO allies for extra helicopters? Which nations currently have the capacity to provide appropriate helicopters, but have not done so? How many military helicopters have we earmarked for sale to foreign countries and why did the Government cut the battlefield helicopter budget from £4.5 billion to £3.2 billion as recently as 2004? On available vehicles, how many of the Mastiff and Vector vehicles announced in the July package have now been delivered in theatre?

On the issue of casualty numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we want to see greater transparency. At the moment, there are discrepancies between the way in which UK and US casualty figures are compiled. In particular, only casualties who are admitted for in-patient treatment or casivaced are included in our official figures. What we are not told is the proportion of our troops who are injured sufficiently to make them unfit for duty, but who do not require hospitalisation. The US provides figures on those who are injured, but return to duty within 72 hours. Can we please have the same?

Of those who are injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is essential that they are treated by those with the best medical skills, but in the most appropriate environment. No one has attacked the excellent work of the medical and nursing staff, and to suggest that is deplorable, but to have injured servicemen and women and reservists treated in wards alongside civilian patients is just not acceptable. Part of the healing process is about coming to terms with the nature of their injuries and that is best done among their comrades. We want an assurance today from the Secretary of State that everything possible will be done to ensure that those who return to the UK will be treated in exclusively military wards. The British public will expect nothing less.

Back in May, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the unacceptable level of outstanding inquests for those killed in action. The backlog results in families being unable to achieve closure of the tragic events that have occurred. At the time, in response to the request, the Government made more resources available to the Oxfordshire coroner, yet the situation remains completely unacceptable. The Coroners Act 1988 gives the coroner the ability to delegate the responsibility of carrying out an inquest to another county. Why is this not being used? Do Ministers have the power to instruct the coroner to make that happen? If not, and if a ministerial order is required to make that possible, the Government will have the full co-operation of the Conservative party to make that possible.

Let me welcome the announcement of extra money for those on the front line. They deserve no less. I am delighted that the Government have responded so quickly to the Leader of the Opposition’s initiative. If we can achieve this much in opposition, how much more could we achieve in government? Will the payment have a minimum qualifying period; will it apply to all three services; will it be repeated for every deployment; and what impact will it have on tax credits for those at the lower end of the pay scale?

Finally, let me ask about reconstruction. In respect of Iraq, the Secretary of State is right to concentrate on the need for a political solution and the establishment of an independent judicial system. However, can he remind the House today who is responsible for the training and development of the police service in Iraq, and why it is so far behind schedule?

In Afghanistan, we are about to enter a crucial phase. We have seen fierce fighting and an enormous commitment to defeat the Taliban. But without substantial reconstruction on the ground, and after five years of a foreign military presence, those in the south of Afghanistan might rightly question why they have seen no improvements to their infrastructure. Two hundred schools in Kandahar, and 165 in Helmand, are closed for security reasons, and DFID has withdrawn its only representative in Helmand.

Let me put the following question to the Secretary of State: what sort of security environment do the NGOs expect there to be before genuine reconstruction begins? Do they expect a zero-risk environment? If they do, we will never have the basic requirements of what is needed to win the hearts and minds of the peasant farmers in south Afghanistan. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the earliest opportunity to impress upon the Secretary of State for International Development the need to get the NGOs operating? If we do not do so, the sacrifices of our men and women in Afghanistan could be in vain, and that would be a completely unacceptable outcome for the House and the country.

If I were to answer all the questions the hon. Gentleman has put to me, I suspect that I would incur your wrath, Mr. Speaker. However, I will endeavour to deal with the principal issues raised and, to the extent that I do not answer them, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and place the answers in the Library. That will allow other Members to ask questions today.

At the outset, let me repeat something that I have said to the hon. Gentleman on more than one occasion: I value the support that he and the majority of those who sit on the Conservative Benches give for the operations in Afghanistan and for their objectives. It is important to those whom we charge with the responsibility of carrying out those very dangerous operations that they know that they have that support.

Let me deal with the body armour issue, because I know that the hon. Gentleman has a specific interest in it, and he has expressed a view in the media about it: 15,000 sets of Osprey armour have been deployed into the operational theatre, and anybody who can do the simple arithmetic required will know that that is more than the number of people who have been deployed into both theatres. However, that does not guarantee that there is a set for every individual, because soldiers, like Members of Parliament, come in different shapes and sizes.

I undertook that the new Osprey body armour would be deployed into theatre by late autumn, and I suggest that the figure of 15,000 confirms that that has been achieved. I now tell the House that there will be sufficient body armour for absolutely everybody in theatre by January of next year, but I can also give the reassurance that nobody who is deployed in theatre into a situation where they are exposed to the possibility of being under fire is denied the use of Osprey armour. There are more than enough versions of that advanced system of body armour for everybody to have them. Therefore, I am confident that we have achieved the objective that we set, which reflects the answer that was given to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), and that we will achieve our overall objective by January of next year.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked a number of specific questions about helicopters for which, candidly, I do not have the information to be able to answer. However, I will have those questions researched and answer them in writing. However, let me say in relation to helicopters that the hon. Gentleman is of course right to suggest that we should not promise what cannot be delivered, but he should also be careful not just to read what the newspaper headlines state that those in theatre say about helicopters. The headlines relating to the alleged request for more helicopters were not supported by the body of the actual interview with the commander of the British forces; that is not what he said in response to the Prime Minister’s remarks. That having been said, we are constantly reviewing helicopter numbers, and there has been a significant increase in helicopter capability, particularly for Afghanistan. Along with senior members of the Department and my fellow Ministers, I am reviewing what we can do to increase the availability of helicopters not just by generating further air frames, but by generating the crew, spares and other support necessary to provide that further capability, if that is at all possible.

On medical care, I point out that, as the House already knows, those who call for the reopening of military hospitals ought to remind themselves how we came to no longer have such hospitals. The defence cost study 15 of 1994 was responsible for the closure of our military hospitals, on the basis of saving money. In fact, in the light of developments in medical practice, closing those hospitals was the right thing to do. It is entirely appropriate that the best care be provided to our forces, and that is to be found in the national health service.

As I said, we are seeking to provide a military-managed ward in an appropriate environment within Selly Oak. The hon. Gentleman associated himself with the criticisms that others have made of Selly Oak hospital by intervening in the debate in the manner that he did. If he is going to comment on the quality of NHS care, he should visit the hospital. I invite him to visit Selly Oak, to see the wards for himself and to speak to the troops, as I have done. I visited it very recently, and the troops who are getting that NHS help and service spoke with glowing praise for those providing that care.

There has also been uninformed speculation about the way in which we record injuries and put our casualty figures into the public domain. It was suggested this week on the front page of a local newspaper that 5,000 injured troops were unable to be deployed on the front line because they were on an NHS waiting list. None of this is true. There may well be about 5,000 people in that medical category, but that does not mean that they are all injured. Some of those people are just being treated by their GPs, just as anybody in civilian life might be who was signed off by their doctor. The way in which we record and publish casualty figures—I am looking at that process, and I am prepared to consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion—has been consistent over the years and is consistent historically with the way in which British forces have published such figures. Of course, had we changed it, we would have been accused of doing so in order to hide something else.

I am very keen to have a system that puts the information that we have into the public domain as openly, freely and quickly as possible, and I will do everything that I can to get to that. But what I will not do is to ask those responsible for the safety of our troops on the ground to take part in some sort of bureaucratic exercise designed to serve the purposes of people who want to make political capital out of those casualties.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement this afternoon and confine my brief remarks to just two areas? First, I totally associate myself with what he said about Selly Oak hospital. Anybody who visits it will see that it is a first-class, professional caring environment, and it does a tremendous job in looking after the injured, who served our country so well in many theatres. Secondly, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement about the new payments; this underpins the value agenda, which is so important. We as a country have to demonstrate how much we value our servicemen and women. Our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are often under critical scrutiny, some of it very unfair, and his statement today on the new payments will do more to boost their morale than anything else that he could have done.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. By asking a question on pay, he gives me the opportunity to indicate that the answer to all the questions on pay asked by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is yes. The payment will apply to all those who are deployed. It should not affect tax credits, but I will examine the detail of that.

May I echo most sincerely the words of condolence to the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the summer recess and express my good wishes to those who are recovering from injuries?

I thank the Secretary of State for his wide-ranging statement, but I urge the Government to make time available for a full debate on the foreign policy implications of the developments that are taking place. The Leader of the House has called the situation in Iraq “pretty dire”, and the Secretary of State referred in his statement to this being a decisive period, although he rightly said that military means alone will not be decisive. What is the British strategy in Iraq? What is our attitude to the work of the US envoy, James Baker, and to the widely discussed possibility of a US strategy to divide Iraq into three parts? What role do we now see for the UN? Those may be Foreign Office questions, but that proves my point about the need for a fuller debate in the House.

I warmly welcome today’s confirmation that there will be a rebalancing of our forces in Afghanistan, with the Afghan army and police taking over the platoon houses in the northern areas, which will enable us to concentrate our forces in the central area around Lashkar Gah. Does the Secretary of State agree with General Richards, who said in his radio interview yesterday that we must improve the lot of the Afghans in the next six months if they are not to turn back to the Taliban for support? Indeed, might we have been further advanced in winning over the support of the Afghan people if we had not diverted so much effort into Iraq in 2003?

How quickly can the Prime Minister’s welcome promise of additional kit and equipment be fulfilled? Brigadier Butler said that helicopters were his top priority and pointed out how much faster our progress would be if we had more helicopters. Can the Secretary of State confirm newspaper reports in Demark saying that some of its new Merlins will be diverted to the UK? If that occurs, will they be available over the winter months, when land travel is difficult? When will the Chinooks that are so scandalously grounded be available for use, and how will all that fit into General Richards’s six-month window of opportunity?

Last but not least, I warmly welcome the tax-free operational bonus that the Secretary of State announced today. That option is better, more logical and more transparent than a messy tax rebate scheme. It is welcome that it will be backdated to 1 April. Nevertheless, there may be complaints from those who miss out. Will he confirm that the pay review body will not adjust the X factor downwards in any way to compensate for that?

We should all commend the excellent work of those who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, including 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando, with people from my area who have gone out there to take over. However, I say again that a substantial debate on where this is all going in foreign policy terms is long overdue.

It is not in my gift to grant time in the House for a foreign policy debate, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I would welcome any opportunity to explain our policy on Iraq and Afghanistan from the point of view of the Ministry of Defence and the Government. I am proud of the work that we are doing in both theatres.

The hon. Gentleman asks what our objectives are in Iraq. They have not changed. We are there at present in the context of a United Nations resolution to support the democratically elected Iraqi Government, to ensure that they run the country and, as I said in my statement, to support them at this challenging time. We should bear it in mind that the Government of national unity have been in existence for only 139 days. However, people are judging them against ambitions that would be challenging for Governments that had been in power for decades, if not centuries. They are facing attacks on their authority from terrorists. As I have explained from the Dispatch Box on numerous occasions, there are difficulties, especially in multinational division south-east and in Basra, due to competition for economic and political power.

We are there to provide support to the Iraqi security forces and that has not changed. In response to an earlier question, let me say that 307,000 members of those security forces—about half of them police officers—have been trained by the coalition since the training of forces started.

The hon. Gentleman asks about my view of the comments of others—people who, I hasten to add, have no responsibility of government and no responsibility in Iraq—on what they think might be best, or what people think they think might be best for the Iraqi people. In my view, but, more importantly, in the view of the Iraqi people and their Government, the break-up of Iraq is not in their best interests. Their constitutional position allows for federalism in some circumstances, but that is a matter that they need to work through, which is what politics is about. That work may be difficult and challenging, but that is what democratic politics is like. If we want Iraq’s Government to be a democratic Government, exercising control over their own people, we need to support them to do that.

Like the hon. Member for Woodspring, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) raises our inability during the period in which our forces were deployed in northern Helmand—supporting the Afghan provincial government at the request of President Karzai and the national Government—to mobilise our forces in the central part of Helmand to carry out reconstruction work. Everybody knows about that—it is an historical fact, well documented and debated. The decision was made by our commanders on the ground and I fully support them in that. It appears, from the way in which they have been able to fight the Taliban to a standstill and get the support of the local population in those areas, that that effort has been successful. That success must be sustained, which will be a challenge. However, redeployment of forces back into the centre will allow us to carry out reconstruction work.

I have here a document that sets out the reconstruction projects that have taken place in Helmand province, summarising completed projects, current projects and proposed projects. The document was provided to me by the Department for International Development for this statement. Rather than read it out, I shall place a copy in the Library so that all hon. Members can see what has been done. It is not the case that nothing has been done: a significant amount of reconstruction has been done in Helmand province, albeit not as much as we want.

Is General Richards right to say that the next six months will the most important period in the Afghan operation? Yes—but in the five months that I have been in my present job, every next six months has been the most important six months in both theatres of operation. Everybody tells me that, and it is always true. That is the challenge that we face over the winter, and we will have to be up to it.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. I visited Helmand province with the Select Committee on Defence in July and I can tell him that the men and women of the Army and Air Force we met there showed a high degree of bravery and morale is very high.

We also visited Lashkar Gah and the provincial reconstruction team there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if press reports that the brave DFID officer has been withdrawn are true, that will be a retrograde step?

The hon. Member for Woodspring also raised that issue, which is at the heart of what we are trying to do in reconstruction. Not only our Government, but our allies in NATO and the EU will consistently be faced with the challenge of helping countries to move from conflict, through reconstruction and into a positive future. Part of that challenge, as he said, is to decide what measure of security is sufficient for us to deploy people who have not signed up to the military. Incidentally, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that all three forces are represented in Afghanistan and are making a significant contribution there. We have to decide, realistically, what degree of security we can generate in circumstances such as those in Helmand province, and whether that is sufficient for us to deploy people who, unlike members of the military, do not sign up for the level of risk that those who sign up for the military are prepared to accept.

That is a significant challenge faced by the international community, and not just the British Government, so I have engaged with our international partners on it. We need to have a debate, because we need to find a way of delivering reconstruction in such circumstances repeatedly in future. There are many countries in Africa that we, as an international community, have ambitions to help. I am not suggesting that UK forces will be present, but other forces will be, and the exact circumstances will be replicated. We need to ask ourselves whether we can expose people doing reconstruction work to that level of risk, or where we can find and generate the partners who can do that work.

Those are not easy questions to answer, but I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who has been to the area and seen the problems for himself, that that does not necessarily mean that people need to be present in the theatre to be able to provide support for reconstruction. We can find partners, and the list of—

That is not entirely correct. We can find partners, in the form of local contractors and other people, who can deliver reconstruction work for us that develops the cycle that we all want, in which security leads to reconstruction and development, in turn generating more security. We all know that that is what we need to do. Simply identifying the problem does not help to resolve it.

I should perhaps declare my interest as someone who may receive the operational payment. Although I shall donate mine to the Royal British Legion, I thank the Secretary of State on behalf of my fellow servicemen, as it is a small step in the right direction. Progress is being made, but it is painfully slow. There is a complete lack of capability or capacity in the provinces. The DFID officer has not been in Helmand for some months, and the military cannot deliver reconstruction; it can only deliver stability. Does the Secretary of State agree that the time has come for a degree of political honesty and that, if we are to achieve what the Government want to achieve in Afghanistan, we will be there not for two or three years, but for 15 or 20 years? The hand-to-mouth existence of the military simply cannot go on.

I thank the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “And gallant.”] I apologise; I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his personal contribution. Clearly, because of his own experience, he speaks from knowledge of the situation, and I recognise that. I thank him, too, for his welcome for the additional payment to troops deployed in operational theatre. I am sure that that they will take note of his comments. In passing, the pay review body was of course consulted about the payment and welcomed it. It constantly reviews the information on which it bases its advice, but it is independent of Government and I do not speak for it; it can speak for itself.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to be honest, on behalf of the Government, about the scale of the challenge that we have taken on. I have endeavoured to be just that throughout the time that I have been Secretary of State for Defence. I hasten to add that my predecessor, who had responsibility for deploying troops to Afghanistan, was honest, too. The fact of the matter is that, for political purposes, people seek to edit the words that he used. They ignore the four and a half pages of his statement and take one phrase. That is the dishonesty in the way in which matters have been explained to the people of the United Kingdom.

People need only look at the configuration of the force that we sent to Helmand province. We sent paratroopers, eight Apache attack helicopters, and artillery. If there is any suggestion that that in any way supports a conclusion other than that we were configured for the possibility of doing some war fighting in those circumstances, it defies logic. The fact of the matter is that this was always going to be difficult. The southern part of Afghanistan is the Taliban’s heartland, and it was always going to be difficult. It was always going to require a long-term commitment to that country by NATO, the United Nations and the developed world. This obsession about time does not help us to get the job done. There is no alternative to doing this job: it is the most noble—

Order. May I stop the Secretary of State? I allowed a long statement and a long response from Front Benchers because of the nature of this statement. This shows that Front Benchers can take an inordinate amount of time out of these statements. From this point on, I want very brief questions and brief answers. In the near future I will be making a Speaker’s statement regarding the nature of statements that are brought to this House. Back Benchers are not getting the chance to which they are entitled.

In view of the endless slaughter of largely innocent civilians in Iraq and the inability of the occupation authorities to provide the necessary protection in any way whatsoever, is there not a case for seriously considering whether the whole issue of Iraq should be referred back to the Security Council of the United Nations? Why should we believe that the situation will be any different next year or the year after?

The answer to my hon. Friend is perfectly simple. There is due to be a renewal of the United Nations Security Council resolution and we will presumably have the opportunity to debate it.

Given that the increasingly dangerous and bloody mission in which our brave soldiers are engaged in Helmand province is, whatever the Secretary of State says, completely different from the peaceful mission of reconstruction that the Government rashly told us was the original purpose of our deployment, is it not time for the Government to review the whole question of our deployment into Helmand—in particular, so as to determine what benefits it is currently bringing to the people of that province?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be aware that the deployment into Helmand is not increasingly dangerous—in fact, over the past four weeks it has become increasingly stable and productive and more generating of circumstances that will allow us to do the reconstruction work that we went there to do in the first place.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. In view of the comments that have been made about the lack of progress in Afghanistan, can he say a little more about the progress that has been made as regards the position of women there? For example, about a quarter of the Afghanistan Parliament comprises women Members—women who, under the Taliban, would have been not only required to wear a certain form of dress but virtually excluded from society.

The simplest answer that I can give my right hon. Friend is that there are now 5 million children in school in Afghanistan, one third of whom are girls who were denied education under the Taliban. However, the most impressive statistic that has come out of what we have achieved as an international community in Afghanistan is that 4.5 million people who chose to live outside Afghanistan and who had families and connections there have gone back to live in the country. This is the single biggest repatriation of refugees that the world has ever known.

Is not the truth of the matter that artillery and Apache helicopters are rather limited in their abilities as regards reconstruction, that the military operation has been wholly unaccompanied by an equivalent level of reconstruction, and that as a result the past six months of British efforts in Afghanistan have made worse, not better, the situation with regard to support for the foreign military intervention from the local peasant farmers whom we are trying to help?

The hon. Gentleman makes exactly the point that I made to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). Because of the way in which commanding officers, appropriately, deployed our troops at the point at which they went into Helmand, they were not available to be able to generate for the central area of Helmand the security that they were sent there to generate in order to support the reconstruction work. Increasingly, however, the opportunity is there for them to be available. They have been supported by the additional troops that I announced in July. That opportunity will become apparent over the winter months. The challenge is whether we can take that opportunity to start the reconstruction at the level that we planned.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of the operational bonus. When I visited Iraq earlier this year, I met the troops and saw the conditions in which they were operating. I represent Portsmouth—the home of the Royal Navy, which is also playing its part in Iraq by protecting Iraqi oil platforms and training the Iraqi navy. Will he confirm that this bonus will apply to sailors in the Royal Navy deployed on operations in Iraq?

I thank my hon. Friend for her support, and for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that the Royal Navy is doing in Iraq to protect the oil infrastructure that generates almost all the income that the Iraqi Government now enjoy from their own oil reserves. I had the privilege of visiting HMS Kent when I went to Iraq in August, and I was able to see for myself the work that was being done. Those people are equally committed, equally brave and equally professional.

The Secretary of State has recognised in his statement that there have been genuine concerns about the medical care of the wounded who are being repatriated to the United Kingdom, in that a military-managed wing is to be opened at Selly Oak hospital. Will he tell the House what proportion of those who are repatriated will be treated in that wing, and whether other military-managed wings are to be opened in other NHS facilities?

The disposition of patients in terms of their care is related to their clinical need. I am not in a position to make decisions about the clinical needs of those who return from Afghanistan or Iraq for whatever reason. The majority of those who are medically evacuated from those theatres are returned not because of injuries that they have received in combat but for epidemiological reasons similar to those experienced by the general population. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, therefore, much as I would like to answer his question simply and quickly, I have no idea how to answer it because I have no idea what we will be facing. However, one of the beauties of our being able to treat people who are returned to this country in the national health system is that it gives them access to some of the best care in the world.

Will the Secretary of State give us an estimate of the number of soldiers and civilians—in addition to the tragic loss of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—who have died in both countries since the operation began five years ago in Afghanistan and three and a half years ago in Iraq?

I am not in the business of making estimates of the number of people who have died, any more than I would be in the business of estimating the number whom Saddam Hussein killed, or the number of citizens of Afghanistan who gave their lives to secure the freedom and the democratically elected Government they now enjoy. However, if I were to estimate the number that Saddam Hussein killed and the number of Afghans who have given their lives to secure that freedom, I suspect that, in both cases, it would be in the millions.

Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the soldiers of 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, who have served with great distinction and courage in Afghanistan, losing three of their number in tragic circumstances? Will he also give me a commitment that those men and women will receive the food and water supplies that they need, as there have been logistical difficulties in ensuring that those supplies arrive regularly and on time?

I have no difficulty in accepting the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to pay tribute to those who have served, whether in the Royal Irish Regiment or any other regiment or unit in any of the services. I do that freely because they are entitled to that tribute. However, I should like to make a point about rations during war fighting. It devalues the contribution that troops, particularly soldiers, make in those circumstances—and, to some degree, sanitises how difficult, dirty and dangerous their work is—if we seek to explain the fact that soldiers have to live in uncomfortable positions by saying that it is because of a failure of logistics or supply. Often, this is simply a function of how dangerous the circumstances are, and we ought to recognise that as part of the reason why we should pay such a significant tribute to those people.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he confirm that the excellent United Kingdom support currently given to the Afghan security sector will be continued, and will he consider allowing it to grow? I ask because I think it significant to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. If it does not happen, I think that the indictment for all of us will be that the Taliban will be given the word go, and its tyranny will be seen by all local Afghan people.

I thank my hon. Friend for her support. She is right to suggest that in Afghanistan the exit strategy for all who are there from other countries is building up of the Afghan Government’s ability not just to govern, but to secure their own people through professional forces at both army and police level. That is our significant focus, and that is why in July I announced that additional troops would go out and work with the security sector, training Afghan forces to take over from us. We need to do that, we need to do more of it, and we need to do it very effectively, because that is the test of our ability to reconstruct and to secure Afghanistan. My hon. Friend is perfectly correct in that regard.

In his statement, the Secretary of State asserted that “the best medical care is to be found inside the NHS for our returning troops that are injured”. How does he square that with the farming out of combat-stressed casualties to Labour-donor-run Priory clinics, and the destruction on his watch of the discipline of military psychiatry?

The hon. Gentleman has quoted part of what I said. At that point, as I recollect, I was referring to the quality of care available in a specific trust at Selly Oak which has an international reputation for trauma medicine. That is why the decision was made to base the centre of our medical support there.

I accept that there are challenges in relation to the provision of, in particular, psychiatric care. Statements were being made about that before my watch, and I am endeavouring—with the ministerial team, and with the support of the medical structure that we have—to provide the level of support that is appropriate for those who have undergone these experiences.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to look at his own party’s record in relation to the medical care of our troops before he starts criticising other people.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and in particular for the update on Afghanistan. Will he clarify whether recent successes against the Taliban have been strong enough to create circumstances in which the schools and health centres that they recently destroyed can be rebuilt, and whether it is safe for women to exercise a public role—even a limited one—or to take up employment without fear of execution?

My hon. Friend has set one of a number of tests of whether reconstruction is working. In the detail of the discussions between community leaders, the Afghan Government, the provincial government in Helmand and indeed the NATO forces, the reconstruction of schools is at the heart of what we are about. It is a symbol of significant progress. That is why a statistic that I frequently use as a test of progress is the number of girls in education. The ability to liberate girls and women from the tyranny of the Taliban will, I believe, be the consistent measure of our progress.

As long ago as February, Conservative Members warned the Government that in the event of serious resistance in Afghanistan, 16 Air Assault Brigade would not have the equipment, the firepower or, above all, the manpower that it required to do the job. Recognising that, 3 Commando Brigade planned to take two complete commandos out with it this autumn; yet it deployed with half the infantry that it had planned. Why is that?

The nature of the force that we deployed was based on military advice given to Ministers not only by chiefs, but by military experts who went on to the ground and examined the situation. The configuration and nature of the force were based on the best military advice. The difference is that an entirely appropriate decision was taken at the point of deployment. That decision had consequences, but it may be—time will tell—that it will be to the long-term benefit of the deployment and the objectives of the operation. As everyone tells me constantly, these are the sorts of things that happen when one deploys forces into theatre. Circumstances change, and the very fact of deployment into theatre generates change itself.

How can we win the hearts and minds of the people in Helmand when the majority believe that we are there to get rid of their main source of income? With Karzai increasingly appointing warlords, ex-Taliban leaders, criminals and drug dealers as police chiefs and provincial governors, is not the likelihood that oppression by these provincial governors and police chiefs will greatly increase the danger to our soldiers? Should we not rethink the mission to consolidate the real progress made elsewhere in Afghanistan, because escalation could result in a situation that develops into NATO’s Vietnam?

I do not know who my hon. Friend has been talking to, but NATO and others in Afghanistan carry out regular tests of public opinion. If he wants to know the current situation, between 67 and 70 per cent. of people in Helmand province not only want the UK forces to be there, they want more of them; they want more security. They say that they want the soldiers there, doing the job that they are doing.

My hon. Friend should be careful in what he says in this House, particularly if it is not properly informed. The description he has given of the governance of Helmand is far from the truth. Governor Engineer Mohammad Daud is a very brave, committed and non-corrupt individual, which is why we want to support him so much. He is a force for good in Helmand province. To suggest publicly here that that man is corrupt will feed straight back into his community and will put not only his life at risk, but the lives of those who support him.

With regard to the tragic loss of 12 service personnel aboard a Nimrod from RAF Kinloss, may I commend the MOD, the Secretary of State and his colleagues for the initial return of the bodies to their home base? However, it has been brought to my attention that the release of the bodies to the families has been delayed. Will he expedite that situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the steps that were taken, but they were entirely appropriate steps to support the families in their tragic circumstances. They were comparatively easy decisions to make. I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. He will forgive me if I do not want to discuss the potential reasons why there may have been delays, as that may be distressing for people and inappropriate. However, I will look into it and will be in touch.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who is no longer in her place, asked the Secretary of State whether the bonus payment would apply to the Royal Navy. He did not answer. Will it apply?


Mr. Tobas Ellwood (Bournemouth, East): On a recent visit to Lashkar Gah, it was clear that the troops were calling for more firepower, more mobility and more armour. They want more helicopters, in addition to the 12 that are there. They also would like to a Warrior battalion sent out. How many helicopters are there now, how many will be there in future and when will we see a Warrior battalion sent into theatre?

There are eight attack helicopters, as I have already told the House. There are eight Chinook support helicopters, an increase of two since my July statement. There are four Lynx utility helicopters, light armour, light guns, logistics support forces and five Hercules transport aircraft. That comprehensive answer goes beyond what the hon. Gentleman asked. The configuration of forces and the nature of the support they get is the result of a process, whereby requests are made through the appropriate chain of command to Ministers, who respond. That is exactly what happened in July. The difference then, however, was that when the request came up the chain of command to chiefs of staff and Ministers, it was pushed back down and the question was asked whether there were enough or more were needed. In fact, the request was reviewed and requests for additional support came up at that stage because of the questions that were asked. It is not for me to take those sort of decisions from the Dispatch Box. I spoke to General Richards and he did not ask me for any additional forces support in the form of helicopters or whatever. If such a request is made, I will treat it in exactly the same way as I have treated all requests from either theatre that I have received so far.

Order. I appreciate that these are important matters, but we must now move on to other business.