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Afghanistan

Volume 465: debated on Monday 22 October 2007

The security situation in Afghanistan is stable, if fragile in places. The Afghan national army and the international forces are helping to extend the authority of the Government of Afghanistan, although there remains a threat from suicide attacks and local ambushes.

Do the Government still believe that the Taliban do not constitute a strategic threat? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why 2.7 million rounds of ammunition were used between June 2006 and September 2007?

There is no correlation between those two issues. Yes, I believe that the Taliban do not pose a strategic threat to the Government of Afghanistan. They are able to carry out some forms of attack, in particular asymmetric attacks, as they are called—suicide bombings and others—that are difficult to defend against. They know that, and those attacks generate a degree of threat that we are trying to deal with, albeit with some difficulty. Otherwise, every time the Taliban have faced up to the forces of the international security assistance force—ISAF—they have been overmatched and defeated. That has happened for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have been prepared to use a significant amount of ammunition against them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are facing a huge threat and that day in, day out UK forces have to face the threat in Afghanistan that should be shared among our NATO partners, to ensure that they take more of the weight? Does he agree that it is time for them to stand up and be counted?

I agree that NATO needs to live up to its collective commitment. My ministerial colleagues and I regularly raise the subject when we speak to our partners. It will continue to be raised to ensure that increasingly they live up to those commitments, and there has been some movement on the part of some of our allies.

NATO’s own statement of requirements says that we need thousands more troops on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does the Secretary of State accept that we cannot be as effective as we would like to be without those extra troops? Does he agree that there is a risk that, over the next few months, we might find ourselves losing the ground that we have already taken and have to fight to get it back again later on?

The right hon. Gentleman properly raises an issue that the commander of ISAF raised in a recent interview. It is a concern that if we are unable to hold on to the ground that we have managed to secure, we will have to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says. However, like most hon. Members, he knows that our ability to secure and hold that ground is mostly a function of our ability to train and mentor Afghan security forces, both the army and the police, to do that. Unless we can make the Afghan security forces capable of holding on to that ground, we will find ourselves repeatedly in that situation, although I do not think we will do so because we are making progress in mentoring and training.

Security issues in respect of the Afghan-Pakistan border feature significantly in our dialogue in NATO and with Pakistan. I recognise that additional forces are needed for that part of the country, but the security will have to be effective on both sides of the border, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows.

At a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly earlier this month, MPs from the Netherlands and Canada reported that their Parliaments would reconsider their countries’ commitments to ISAF, and particularly to deploying to more dangerous regions of Afghanistan because of fears about unequal burden-sharing. The Secretary of State has already said that he shares that concern. What discussions has the North Atlantic Council had about burden-sharing, and how does he think policies could be changed so that it is more even?

It is a question not of changing policy but of NATO allies living up to the collective commitments to which they have signed up. I am well aware that the Netherlands and Canada must go through parliamentary processes that their Governments promised their Parliaments in order to consider extending their commitments beyond certain dates—I cannot remember the specific dates, but they are in 2008 or 2009. I am confident that they will get the support from other allies that will allow them to get through that political process. While I am at the Dispatch Box, I want to pay tribute to both those countries, which have made a significant contribution in difficult circumstances to securing the southern part of Afghanistan. That issue is constantly discussed both in the NAC and when Ministers meet, as NATO Ministers will at an informal session later this week.

Security in Afghanistan will clearly improve if reconstruction work is progressed. It is believed that the MOD report on Operation Herrick was very critical of construction work. Both the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee have requested copies of that report to allow them to scrutinise in detail what is going on in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State make the report available to those Committees?

I will consider the request from the hon. Gentleman, and I would consider such a request from the Committee, if I were to receive one.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that security in Afghanistan is a result of not only the number of troops, but their operational capability? Will he outline improvements for troops in terms of vehicles and other equipment to improve their operational capability?

Recently, significant improvements have been made in the protected vehicles that are available to our troops. We have not quite got the numbers of vehicles into the operational theatre that we plan to, but we are making significant progress. Last week, I went to see Brigadier Lorimer and representatives from 12th Mechanised Brigade, which has just returned from Afghanistan, and they spoke very highly of those vehicles and of the Mastiff vehicle in particular. Hon. Members will be aware that the Prime Minister’s recent announcement about the procurement of Mastiff vehicles means that we expect to deliver more than 400 of them over the next two years. The majority of them will go to Afghanistan, but some will be used for pre-deployment training.

The MOD is to be congratulated on the deployment of the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle to Helmand province, which is proving to be a great success. Will the Secretary of State ensure as a matter of urgency that more of those vehicles are deployed throughout the theatre in support of the infantry?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for recognising that improvement in force protection and the effectiveness of our troops. I discussed that very issue with Brigadier Lorimer on Friday, because it was on his recommendation that we first considered deploying Warriors. No request has been made for additional Warriors from commanders or the military, but if a request is made—Brigadier Lorimer agrees with the hon. Lady and suspects that a request will be made—I will consider it in the same way as I considered the first request.

My right hon. Friend has mentioned the work that is being done to train Afghanistan’s own security forces. Are there enough trainers in the country at the present time, and, if not, what can be done to supply more?

There are not enough trainers in the country. For example, there are about 1,800 police trainers in Kosovo, which is about the size of Wales. The EU commitment to Afghanistan for police training on the civil side amounts to some 160 trainers, of whom 60 have been deployed. At a recent informal meeting of EU Ministers, I described that as a flea on the back of an elephant. If we are to match up to the challenge that we have generated for ourselves in the international community, we need to do much better on police trainers.

Will the Secretary of State give careful thought to the thesis that the longer foreign troops unavailingly remain in southern Afghanistan, the greater the likelihood that Pakistan will turn into a fundamentalist, Islamic, hostile state, with the result that it will be a more immediately potent nuclear threat than even Iran?

To my surprise, the hon. Gentleman asks me to look forwards and not back, and I am grateful for his invitation to do so. The longer our troops in Afghanistan stay in their present configuration, doing what they need to do, the more testing it will become for them to sustain the support of the local people. I accept and understand that. All the military commanders and everybody who knows about insurgencies understand that the support of the local community is very important.

There are serious concerns about developments in Pakistan. Only last week, there was evidence of the reach of insurgents and extremists in the country, and of their ability to overcome significant security. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not agree that our presence in southern Afghanistan is generating the dangers that emanate from Pakistan. The environment is complex, and we would all do well to make our best contribution to try to stabilise Pakistan.

It is woefully disappointing that some of our allies are not pulling their full weight in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is the question of the unfair funding mechanism, through NATO, under which not only does Britain carry a disproportionate military burden, but our taxpayers carry a disproportionate financial burden. In the expectation that that unacceptable situation will continue, if the Government have not begun planning, or developed plans, for more British troops to be sent to Afghanistan, how do they think that the NATO gap will be filled—and by whom and in what time scale?

The hon. Gentleman and I largely agree on the issue of NATO living up to its commitments. As far as the NATO alliance is concerned, my priority is to get it to accept that it should live up to its commitments. I continually discuss with the Secretary-General, the Secretary of Defence and other allies present in the south how we can get other countries to increase their presence. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had some success. Solving the issue through changing the funding mechanism would bring other challenges, which the hon. Gentleman will understand; if we move from the position of the costs lying where they fall, we might find ourselves having to encourage countries to increase their investment in their own capability as well. All such decisions have a cost.

Our intention to get the necessary force levels in Afghanistan involves a combination of sustaining our level of commitment to the country and encouraging our allies to increase theirs; principally, however, it involves training Afghan forces to be able to take over responsibility in their own country. We are doing that at quite a pace.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will know of the widespread speculation that substantial numbers of Iranian-made explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs—the most lethal form of roadside bomb—have been supplied to the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is unbelievable that the Iranian Government would not know about those consignments. What is being done locally and internationally to stop such murderous attacks emanating from Iran on our armed forces?

I will not share all the relevant information with the House, but if the hon. Gentleman wants further briefing on the issue I shall be happy to give it to him on the appropriate basis. He knows exactly what we are doing to try to stop that dreadful, deadly traffic. He knows the degree of success that we have had; on some occasions, we have made that success public for obvious reasons.

The hon. Gentleman is right about that equipment; indeed, there is also training of insurgents deployed into Afghanistan by the Iranians. I agree with him: I do not for a moment accept that all that is not known. If it is not known, I still think that the Iranian Government have to take responsibility because they have created a complexity of circumstances in which there is deniability.

We must apply pressure on all levels, including diplomatic pressure—particularly in the region, where significant pressure on Iran is most effective. The Afghan Government themselves are giving that message to Iran. The irony is that although Iran does those things, it also does many positive things in Afghanistan. Like its relationship with Iraq, its relationship with Afghanistan is complex. The House can rest assured that the issue is uppermost in my mind and those of my ministerial colleagues.