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Volume 461: debated on Monday 18 June 2007

The security situation in Afghanistan remains stable, if fragile in places. UK forces, as part of the wider ISAF—international security assistance force—mission, are engaged in operations to extend the authority of the Government of Afghanistan across Helmand province and southern Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s previous answers, and given the escalation of fighting in Helmand province, the casualties among our forces and last week’s report by the Red Cross, indicating that more and more civilians were being displaced from their homes and becoming casualties, too, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what steps he is taking, first, to strengthen support for our troops and, secondly, to ensure that our allies give much greater support to the activities required in the region? What measures can he ensure are taken to win the hearts and minds of people so that they believe that reconstruction and development will happen rather than escalating war?

Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman should know that as a result of the series of announcements I made about our force levels in Afghanistan, numbers have gone up to slightly less than 7,000 and will increase to 7,700 by the summer. That force, which is based around the Helmand taskforce, equipped with attack and support helicopters, armour and artillery and endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, is my response to the challenge we face. I am pleased to say that although NATO has not yet been able to meet the force requirement of the commander, there have been improvements in the number of troops deployed in our support in the south and across Afghanistan by several of our allies.

On hearts and minds, the most important part of the challenge is to ensure that the writ of the Government of Afghanistan runs across the province of Helmand, which it did not before we arrived. It now does so in a large part of the province, particularly the area around Lashkar Gar where we are able to do a significant amount of work, enabling Governor Wafa to communicate to his people the message that the Afghan Government of President Karzai want to give them about the support we are providing for their future.

Against what criteria should we measure success in the security situation in Afghanistan, and over what period of time?

In my view, we should measure our success by continuing to make progress. We have made significant progress since last year when we faced a difficult challenge in the response from the Taliban as we deployed in Afghanistan. Those who look carefully at such issues and take into account the degree of propaganda generated by the Taliban will know that the Taliban have not met their propaganda about a spring offensive this year. We have had a much better year in terms of our ability to extend security across the province. There are still significant challenges, but we are making progress.

The hon. Gentleman asked about time. It would be speculative for me to set a date, but I have constantly said that we shall have to be with the Afghan Government and the people of Afghanistan for a significant time to enable them to come out of decades of violence during which 2 million of them lost their lives seeking the freedom they currently enjoy.

Members on both sides of the House will have been alarmed at reports that shortages of helicopters in Afghanistan have been responsible for delays in removing the wounded to hospital and that increased numbers of road journeys have to be undertaken because of insufficient transport helicopters, thus making troops more vulnerable to roadside bombs. How are the Government delivering on their pledge that our troops in Afghanistan will have enough attack and transport helicopters for the purposes for which they are needed?

In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the surgeon general, who has responsibility for the area, made it clear that he believes we provide a service that is second to none in Afghanistan for those wounded in action. There is no evidence to suggest that anybody has lost their life, or has not been properly treated, because of a lack of helicopter support. Indeed, given the distances involved in Afghanistan, we now deploy consultant-led teams on helicopters to ensure that people have appropriate support when the helicopter reaches them.

I have announced an increase in the number of helicopters in Afghanistan and increased the number of helicopter hours, and am satisfied that I have met the demands for helicopters made by the chain of command. More widely, of course, we have taken decisions to invest £230 million in 14 more helicopters so that they can be available for deployment if necessary.

Some people might think that if someone is trapped and wounded in a minefield for six hours, the helicopter that comes should at least have a winch on it, but let us move to the question of winning hearts and minds.

Is it not the case that one way of not winning hearts and minds is to be obsessed, as our American allies sadly are, with the eradication of the poppy crop, even though a huge proportion of Afghanistan’s citizens are still dependent on it? What opportunities have our service chiefs had to take up directly with the American strategists their concerns that pursuing a policy of poppy eradication is counter-productive and works against the principles of counter-insurgency, which must be to divide the insurgents from as much of the population as is humanly possible?

I shall deal with the eradication of poppies in a moment, but I do not want it to be thought that I accept the hon. Gentleman’s gloss on what was already a gloss on a very difficult incident in which, sadly, one of our troops lost his life and others were seriously injured. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of that incident. It is much more complicated, and it does not serve either those who fly helicopters to support those on the ground or those who were undertaking that dangerous mission on the ground for it to be used in the way in which the hon. Gentleman used it. In due course, there will be a full inquiry into the incident, and I ask him and other hon. Members to wait for the outcome of that inquiry rather than speculating for the purposes of making political points.

Eradication plays a part in any proper counter-narcotics strategy—the hon. Gentleman knows my view—if it is appropriate in certain circumstances. One of the most important of those circumstances is when peasant farmers have an alternative livelihood at their disposal so that we do not condemn them to a level of poverty that will inevitably mean they will engage in violence.

The hon. Gentleman should rest assured that as our senior military are integrated positively into the command of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, they have their say and are heard in all conversations on all aspects of Afghanistan. Indeed, the Government constantly discuss such issues. He will have noticed, of course, that, on eradication, at the end of the day President Karzai’s decision in relation to Helmand province last year was consistent with the military’s view about where and when it should be conducted.