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Volume 455: debated on Monday 22 January 2007

6. If he will make a statement on recent developments in the security situation in Afghanistan. (116795)

The security situation in Afghanistan remains stable. Overall levels of insurgent activity have decreased significantly since October. The UK forces have recently engaged in a number of missions to extend the authority of the Government across Helmand province and to inhibit the freedom of action of the Taliban.

I am told that the Government are preparing to deploy another full infantry battalion to Afghanistan, bringing the total up to three. The last two deployments have been plagued by scarce and faulty ammunition, dodgy radios and wholly inadequate air support. Extra troops means extra resources. Will the Secretary of State assure us that our brave men are not going to have to face their enemies without the firepower that they need?

Let me start by referring to a quotation from the commanding officer of our forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Thomas. I have not produced the quotation for this occasion, but it was reported in his local newspaper, the Western Morning News of 10 January 2007. When commenting after British troops had been involved in an operation on a Taliban training camp, he said:

“This success would not have been possible unless our forces were properly equipped and supplied. To be clear, I have not asked for additional helicopters and the supply system is working well, with no soldiers or marines running out of supplies.”

It does a distinct disservice to those troops who are carrying out this work bravely, competently and successfully in Afghanistan for the hon. Gentleman and others constantly to peddle dishonesties about what is happening out there. There was no—[Interruption.]

I withdraw the word, Mr. Speaker, and substitute it with “inaccuracies.” No substandard ammunition was supplied for our troops, for example. That has been made clear. The relevant information has been provided to the media on a number of occasions. The fact that they keep repeating that inaccuracy does not allow the hon. Gentleman, who should know better, to repeat it.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is reported in this morning’s press that General Richards, the NATO commander, has said that the west should think again about imposing western solutions on an Islamic society that is in the early stages of development. Given that statement, and given the influence that Iran has from Iraq to Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to solve the problem in Afghanistan we need to start talking to the Iranians?

I do not agree that if we are to solve the problem in Afghanistan we need to start talking to the Iranians, but I do agree with what I understand General Richards to have said specifically in the extensive interview from which my hon. Friend gave us a very selective quotation. He said that solutions to local problems that had grown out of the community and respected the culture of the community were more likely to be successful than those imposed by a foreign culture. That is precisely why we do not seek to do that in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province, and that is why it is so important that the success we have enjoyed has been embedded in political relationships between the governature in Helmand province and the local communities.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the important role played by Nimrod aircraft and crews in Afghanistan, but he will also know of the tragic accident that cost the lives of so many personnel from RAF Kinloss. Will he update the House on the investigation of that accident, and on changes in procedure relating to the fuel system, pressurisation and air-to-air refuelling?

It would be entirely inappropriate for me to speculate on the outcome of the board of inquiry into that dreadful tragic accident in which so many brave men’s lives were lost. I understand why the hon. Gentleman, as Member of Parliament for the constituency in which RAF Kinloss is situated, is eager to reach the point at which some information can be given to his constituents—I am eager to reach that point as well—but as he knows, inquiries such as this are conducted independently of Ministers, and we must await the report.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary to remind people time and again that one of the principal reasons why we are in Afghanistan is that 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of this country comes from its poppy fields?

It is important that we do not allow Afghanistan to become a state that is dependent on narcotics, as too much of its GDP currently is. Narcotics can fund the forces that undermine the Government of Afghanistan and allow it to become a failed state, and have allowed it in the past to become a training ground for terrorists. However, our fundamental objective is to support the democratic Government of Afghanistan and allow their writ to run across the country, so that never again will we, the developed world, be subject to the possibility of terrorist attacks emanating from the failed state of Afghanistan.

Were there security implications in yesterday’s announcement of significant changes in our diplomatic representation in Kabul? If not, why are those changes being made?

This is not Foreign Office Question Time, and I am not in a position to go into the detail of decisions that are properly the province of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but it seems to me that if we are to be consistent with the priority that we have given to Afghanistan—and we are, in terms of our foreign policy and the military policy that supports it—it is appropriate for representation of the United Kingdom in Kabul to be pitched at a level that reflects that priority. I believe that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made the changes in order to achieve that.

The Secretary of State did not answer the essential point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) in his question. Can he confirm that two battalions in Afghanistan are to be replaced by three, and that the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, and the Sherwood Foresters are preparing for deployment?

We have heard about problems with multi-purpose vehicles, a shortage of armoured vehicles and a lack of night-vision equipment. If we do not have enough equipment for two battalions, how will we have enough for three? Can the Secretary of State tell us how many urgent operational requirements have been made of the Ministry of Defence in the past year from Afghanistan, and how many have been turned down?

All urgent operational requirements that have been approved by the chain of command have been acceded to. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] That is entirely as it should be, and the process of urgent operational requirements has been approved and commented upon favourably by independent investigations on a number of occasions. Contrary to media speculation over the weekend, no such requirements have been turned down on financial grounds. Indeed, over the past couple of years more than half a billion pounds have been invested in urgent operational requirements in relation to supporting our troops in both theatres. It is part of the nature of urgent operational requirements that they continually come forward and are approved. We continue to keep our force levels under review. No amount of speculation in the media is going to draw me into speculating with them about who will be deployed in Afghanistan. There is a process to be gone through, and when it is completed I will report to the House; that is the appropriate thing to do.

Time will tell whether the House feels that it was given a full and frank answer to that question.

As the Secretary of State knows, modern military helicopter operations require a layered approach: the Chinook, Merlin and Sea King to move troops and equipment; the future Lynx as a reconnaissance helicopter; and a smaller helicopter—that is what is missing. All Members will have been impressed by the pictures that we have seen of the mission carried out over the weekend by our Marines, but what we saw was Royal Marine commandos clinging to the side of an Apache helicopter because nothing more appropriate was available. How can that situation still not be properly sorted out after all the time that has passed and the warnings that the Government have been given? It is simply unacceptable, and the whole country wants to know when something will be done about it.

The hon. Gentlemen’s account of the very brave actions of our Marines on the Apache helicopter is fundamentally incorrect. An alternative helicopter was available and could have been made available, but a tactical decision was made by the commandos to deploy the Apache in this particular way. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of what Brigadier Thomas said. The hon. Gentleman might want to contradict me, but why would he want to contradict Brigadier Thomas? He said:

“To be clear, I have not asked for additional helicopters and the supply system is working well, with no soldiers or marines running out of supplies.”

So why does the hon. Gentleman continually peddle the suggestion that there is a shortage? [Interruption.] I accept that there is, going forward, a challenge to meet our future requirements in relation to helicopters, and we in the Ministry of Defence are doing everything that we can to deal with that. However, the hon. Gentleman and I both know that we cannot get helicopters in the same way as we can buy other equipment. Let me also say to him that there is no truth in the suggestion that urgent operational requirements in relation to night-vision goggles were turned down for financial reasons, as was reported in the press.