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Volume 469: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2007

With the support of the whole House, I start by paying tribute to our armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are doing vital work, giving so much every day in dangerous places in the service of our country. Let me particularly pay tribute to the 86 British servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, 42 of them this year alone. I know that the whole House will join me in honouring the memory of the fallen and saluting the courage of all our military and civilian personnel.

Let me, on the morning of the capture of Musa Qala, praise the professionalism and resolve of our forces in recent days. They have helped to defeat the insurgents and in a vital district of Afghanistan they have restored peace. Let me make it clear at the outset that as part of a coalition we are winning the battle against the Taliban insurgency. We are isolating and eliminating the leadership of the Taliban; we are not negotiating with them. For six years, 38 countries have come together with the people and Government of Afghanistan to rebuild this failed state, to prevent the return of the Taliban, and to root out al-Qaeda. I can tell the House that Britain will continue to meet our obligations and honour our commitments, discharging our duties on this task and to the people of Afghanistan.

Having been reviewing our strategy since July, I now want to announce the next stage. It is a long-term and comprehensive framework for security, political, social and economic development in support of Afghanistan. This long-term comprehensive framework entails, first, more Afghan ownership, with the Afghan army, police and Government building on NATO military achievements and taking over more responsibility for their own security. Secondly, we support localisation and then reconciliation, with Afghans building on the creation of a democratic constitution by developing and strengthening their institutions not just at national but at provincial and local level as we support that search for political reconciliation. The third aspect is reconstruction. In what is still one of the poorest countries on earth, where only one in three has clean drinking water, life expectancy is just 43, and 80 per cent. of women cannot yet read, we will help to ensure, through reconstruction and development, that more Afghan people have an economic stake in their future. Fourth, to underpin this, we will help to ensure greater burden sharing by all partners and allies, with each of us playing our part—as hard-headed realists, not idealists—in the long haul to help the Afghans themselves to govern and secure their own land, and together therefore shifting our emphasis from short-term stabilisation to long-term development.

The foundation, now and in the future, for our comprehensive framework is military support for the Afghan Government against the Taliban-led insurgency, also denying al-Qaeda a base from which to launch attacks on the world. Throughout last winter, Taliban propagandists repeatedly promised a “spring offensive”. Instead, it is the British and other NATO forces, together with the Afghan army, who have taken the initiative. We have been driving the insurgents and extremists out of their hiding places, preventing them from regrouping and attacking the areas around the provincial capitals where stability is taking hold.

It is this military success that has preserved Afghanistan’s emerging democracy: a constitution, fragile but still intact; a free media; and a changing society where, unlike six years ago when women were banned from education, from work, and from virtually all of public life, there is now a higher proportion of women MPs in Afghanistan than in many western countries, and 5 million children are at school, 2 million of them girls once denied education.

We need to hold and to reinforce what we have achieved together, so Britain will maintain a strong military force in Afghanistan of around today’s figure of 7,800. That is a contribution second in size only to America’s. We will increase our support for our forces: I can announce today, fully funded from the reserve, 150 new protected patrol vehicles specially procured for Afghanistan, bringing to 400 the total of new protected vehicles bought in the last 18 months for Iraq and Afghanistan. We will combine that with increasing numbers of Sea King helicopters in Afghanistan, and through NATO, new contracts will be negotiated for leasing commercial helicopters to move routine freight, freeing up military helicopters for military tasks.

However, because we know that military success is only one part of the framework—a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress in Afghanistan—we will train Afghan forces to take ownership of their own security. Next year, we will aim for 70,000 trained Afghan soldiers, 20,000 more than now, supported by a rising number of British trainers and mentors—340 of them—that will be part of an overall NATO training force of over 6,000. Already, the Afghan army is proving itself in Musa Qala.

But the challenge of supporting an Afghan lead on security goes wider than the armed forces; it includes the police, courts and prisons. Here we are dealing with decades of failure and corruption, and progress has been slow, but by March 2008 there will be over 800 international police trainers, including 65 police from Britain. That must be matched with a wider effort across civic society, which we will continue to support, for judges, courts and prisons—working with the grain of Afghan traditions but within international norms. One way forward is to increase our support for community defence initiatives, where local volunteers are recruited to defend homes and families, modelled on traditional Afghan “arbakai”.

To ensure that longer-term political and economic objectives are the guiding force behind the security campaign, we have brought the British civilian and military personnel together into a colocated headquarters. We will continue to strengthen their integration, and at the same time we will recruit and deploy more specialists who speak the local languages and understand tribal dynamics. But again, the Afghans themselves must be persuaded to take the lead in improving local and national government, and on my recent visit I saw the scale of the challenge, but also the opportunity, and the importance of our support.

I can announce today that from our Afghanistan aid programme, which has already spent £490 million in six years, Britain will fund two additional programmes for local government: first, to help the Afghans create stronger provincial and local governance, including building the capacity of the directorate of local governance and supporting civil society groups to hold local government to account; and, secondly, to provide more support for the national solidarity programme, which builds the capacity of local communities to run their own development projects.

As a measure of the importance we attach to stability in building local capacity, we will immediately move infrastructure projects forward in Musa Qala, which we have recaptured, and upon which we now wish to build, on firmer foundations. That process will include a work programme for up to 10,000 people, and plans to rebuild and refurbish the district centre, and to rebuild the main high school and four mosques in the area.

Our objective is to defeat the insurgency by isolating and eliminating its leadership. I make it clear that we will not enter into any negotiations with these people. As I have also made clear on countless occasions—most recently in Afghanistan—our objective is to root out those preaching and practising violence and murder, in support of men and women of peace. President Karzai’s message to former insurgents is that if they are prepared to renounce violence, abide by the constitution and respect human rights, there is a place for them in the legitimate society and economy of Afghanistan. He and his Ministers told me this week that already some 5,000 fighters have laid down their arms. We will support President Karzai and his Government in their efforts to reconcile all parties to Afghanistan’s democratic constitution.

We know also that Afghanistan will never be stable without the constructive engagement of its neighbours. During my visit, President Karzai agreed on the need for greater regional cooperation. We continue to work with the Afghan and Pakistan Governments, the G8 and others to help bring stability across the Afghan-Pakistan border. Iran, too, must start to play a more constructive role, and I urged President Karzai to turn the current ad hoc meetings and structures that he has with Pakistan and other countries into more substantive mechanisms to bring stability and security to the region.

The third priority is reconstruction and development —always at its most challenging where poverty is combined with insecurity and insurgency, but a strong long-term commitment to which is vital for the Afghan Government if they are to take responsibility successfully for the future of their country. I can therefore announce to the House today that, in total, Britain will make available £450 million in development and stabilisation assistance for Afghanistan for the years 2009 to 2012. This money will cover short-term priorities and longer-term objectives.

When I was in Afghanistan and met local business leaders, President Karzai and I agreed a comprehensive plan, to be taken forward jointly by the Afghan and British Governments and the Aga Khan Development Network, to attract private sector investment into the country and to stimulate new businesses. A new growth fund, starting with an initial £30 million, will kick-start the development of basic legal and regulatory frameworks, build Government capacity to involve the private sector in providing public services, and pilot business training programmes. This will be led by a council of Ministers, business representatives and other experts, who will build contacts with the private sector inside and outside Afghanistan. They will advise the Government on how to increase investment and economic growth, and monitor the progress being made. Britain will also provide an additional £10 million for small loans, which will be of special help particularly to women, to start up or expand businesses; 70 per cent. of the initial applicants have been women.

Our long-term objective is to support Afghanistan’s own national development strategy by channelling our aid through the Afghan Government—which we believe to be the best route to achieving sustainable progress and the best value for money—on a long-term basis, helping the Afghans to plan ahead and, with good governance, to focus on their own priorities of economic growth, improving health and education, and building rural livelihoods. But we also recognise the need for short-term, high-impact stabilisation projects—better roads, more reliable power supplies, clean water and sanitation—which can make an immediate difference to the lives of ordinary Afghanistan citizens and show them the benefits of improved security and governance. Part of the £450 million that I announce today will help to fund Britain’s new cross-government stabilisation unit, which has Afghanistan as its first priority, and which, with a global budget of £260 million over the next three years, will drive forward reconstruction projects and provide expert civilian support to rebuild basic services.

Afghanistan cannot hope for stability while the poison of the narcotics trade continues to flourish, so Britain—Afghanistan’s lead partner nation in tackling narcotics—continues to support the Afghan authorities. We are providing £90 million this year to help them in their long-term efforts against the drugs trade. While the situation with the poppy crop in Helmand province is difficult, it must be our aim to match the progress achieved in the rest of Afghanistan, where the number of poppy-free provinces has increased from six to 13 through a combination of stronger governance, targeted eradication—on which I have urged President Karzai to move forward—disruption of traffickers, strengthening of the justice system, and promoting legitimate agriculture.

We will continue to work with our partners who have proved steadfast in Afghanistan, and I welcome the recent announcements from Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Estonia that they will maintain or increase their troop numbers. This progress must, I believe, now be matched by contributions from other countries in NATO, the EU and beyond. We are talking to all our partners to address the immediate need for more training teams for the Afghan security forces, especially the police, and we are having detailed talks with a number of countries on more support helicopters, which are needed. Where countries are unable to deploy their own troops or equipment, we are urging them to look at innovative ways to burden share and to help to fund those countries that can provide troops and equipment.

Having described the challenges that we face in Afghanistan, I have set out our long-term commitment. It is to build on the military progress made so far by helping the Afghans to take greater leadership across security, governance and economic development. Because this priority and the need for a more consistent, integrated and co-ordinated international approach are now recognised across our partners, Britain continues to push for what will be the next step in this process: the appointment of a strong UN envoy to bring greater coherence across the international effort in security, governance and development and in relations with the Afghan Government.

Britain will continue to fulfil our obligations to the Afghan people and the international community. We will support the Afghan army, police and Government as they progressively take over greater responsibility for their own security. We will work with our international partners and help the Afghans themselves to strengthen stability, foster democracy and build prosperity. At all times we will support the hard work, dedication, professionalism and courage of our armed forces, who are doing everything in their power to defeat terrorism and to lay the foundations of a stable and secure future for Afghanistan. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement; there is much in it that we support and welcome, particularly what he said about equipment. With the recent success in Musa Qala, I believe that we can say that the men and women serving in Helmand today are every bit the equal of those who stormed the beaches in Normandy, who held the line at Inchon in the Korean war, or who retook the Falkland Islands.

Christmas approaches, with our service personnel away from their families. I am sure that this is the time that the whole House will want to send them our very strongest backing. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.] I have been to Helmand twice in the last two years, and I have set out previously the significant course corrections that we need to make to avoid failing in Afghanistan. To prevent failure, I believe that we have to follow three principles: first, that, as the Prime Minister said, military success alone is not enough; secondly, that greater political progress is needed, based on a practical approach, rather than believing that we can impose a fully fledged western democracy in a deeply traditional society; and, thirdly, that the international effort needs to be much better co-ordinated.

Before I take each of those in turn, may I ask the Prime Minister about the reports in today’s newspapers? Press headlines say clearly that the Government plan to talk to the Taliban, but the Prime Minister said in his statement that “we will not” talk to “these people”. Does that not demonstrate once again the error of briefing the press in advance of making statements in this House? But is it not more serious than that? These appear to be completely conflicting messages, and they really could undermine our forces in what they are doing. In his reply, can the Prime Minister clear this up and tell us what he will do to investigate how this took place?

Let me take each of the three principles in turn. First, on the military, is it not the case that with the international security assistance force, Operation Enduring Freedom and the separate Afghan military commands, we simply have too many chains of command? All the evidence in defeating counter-insurgencies anywhere in the world is that there has to be a single chain of command. What progress has the Prime Minister made with the US and with NATO towards getting these rationalised?

Specifically on British forces, we have seen success in Sangin, at the Kajaki dam and now in Musa Qala, but is the Prime Minister satisfied that this time, there are sufficient Afghan forces to hold the ground that has been taken? On equipment and training, Lord Guthrie recently raised the example of a brigade being deployed to Afghanistan without having first been trained on medium machine guns. Is the Prime Minister satisfied that this will not happen again? As he knows, one cannot spend time in Helmand without hearing concerns about the lack of battlefield helicopters. He talked about that in his statement. Does he now regret the decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004, and can he explain why the Government waited until this year before placing orders for new and converted helicopters?

The Prime Minister talked about burden sharing. Can he tell us precisely what progress is being made in ensuring that we get a greater contribution from our NATO allies?

On forces welfare, the Prime Minister has taken up our suggestion of additional pay in theatre. Will he now take up another suggestion—simple—that soldiers’ leave should begin when they step off the aircraft on UK soil, not when they leave Afghanistan?

On pay, is it not now clear that the new Ministry of Defence computerised pay system is not working properly? We had problems with the Royal Air Force earlier, and now we have some Territorial Army officers not being paid at all. Can the Prime Minister tell us today how many people are not being paid properly and what he is doing to put these failures right?

Next, political progress. The general problem is that the writ of the Karzai Government does not extend to the whole country. In many places, Helmand included, the Afghan police are seen as corrupt. What steps are we taking in terms of mentoring, leadership, training, pay and discipline structures, and after six years, why are we still not getting this right? The UN drugs and crime chief has said:

“The government’s benign tolerance of corruption is undermining the future”.

A new anti-corruption tsar, Izzatullah Wasifi, has been appointed. Will the Prime Minister comment on reports in the newspapers that Mr. Wasifi was once convicted in the United States of attempting to sell $2 million-worth of heroin?

Thirdly, on co-ordination, aid has been provided by the US, the UN, the EU and NATO as well as by dozens of smaller agencies. We have been arguing for more than a year that there should be a single high-profile figure to take charge of co-ordinating the international effort and providing real leadership in the way that Lord Ashdown did in Bosnia. The Prime Minister spoke about it, but can he actually tell us when he thinks it is going to happen?

February. Thank you, but why was it not in the Prime Minister’s statement? The whole point is to announce things to the House of Commons! I know that the Foreign Secretary’s speeches are normally corrected after they have gone out, but he might want to advise the Prime Minister rather more about how to get the content right in the first place.

On aid—[Interruption.] Calm down, dear; there are more questions to answer. On aid, can the Prime Minister—with the help of the Foreign Secretary, who is now fully engaged in this—tell us how much of the very substantial UK aid is being spent in Helmand and how much in the rest of the country? Should we not be focusing our aid efforts to a much greater extent where our soldiers are deployed and where so much is at stake?

This country is giving a tremendous amount to Afghanistan in money and in lives. Conservative Members believe that it is a worthwhile effort, but the country wants reassurance. With that in mind, can the Prime Minister give a commitment to full quarterly reports to Parliament on this issue? Ultimately, as the Prime Minister knows, our success or failure in Helmand depends on the ordinary Afghan and on whether he or she feels safer and better off since British forces arrived. Does the Prime Minister feel that we are in danger of disappointing the high hopes of security and reconstruction?

First, let me deal with where we agree. We agree on praising the bravery, courage and professionalism of the forces. On Monday, I met some of the men who had either been in Musa Qala or who were about to go there, so I know what a tremendous effort British forces have been part of—working with the Americans and with the Afghan forces themselves, while at the same time taking a leadership role with enormous skill, expertise and bravery. They have reason to celebrate a huge success this Christmas, which turns back the Taliban at the time when people are retreating to the hills for Christmas. That is a psychological blow against the Taliban as well as a military success. It means that over the next few months we can build on what we have achieved in Musa Qala so that people in that area have a stake in the future—a Taliban-free future for that province.

We also agree that work has to be done with the Afghan Government on fighting corruption and the drugs trade. We agree that there is a need for a co-ordinator, and we have been pressing for that for some years. At the same time, the changeover will take place in February, as had been announced previously by the Government to the House of Commons.

We further agree that it is important for our aid money to show results in Helmand where we are based. Of the £450 million going into aid over the next few years, a very substantial part will go to Helmand. It is also important to build up the government of Afghanistan, so we want to increase the authority of the national Government over the whole country. That is why some of our resources are going into building systems of government, including for economic development across the whole country.

Let me repeat what I said in my statement—that our aim is to isolate and eradicate the Taliban insurgency and to isolate the leadership. We are not negotiating with the leadership and we do not propose to do so. However, we want to support President Karzai in his efforts at reconciliation. If he is successful in bringing across members of the previous insurgency, who then declare that they will give up fighting, support democracy and be part of the system, that will show that the efforts to achieve reconciliation will have been important to the whole country’s future.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly stressed the importance that should be attached to the Afghan leadership and the Afghan people taking more ownership. I repeat that there will be 70,000 Afghan members of the armed forces by the end of next year; 20,000 more will be trained during the course of next year—and at a very high level because they are benefiting from the expertise of the British forces. Forces on the ground tell me that the Afghan army is well trained and well equipped for the tasks that it has to carry out.

On equipment, six Merlin helicopters have been ordered and will be available later, while eight Chinook helicopters are being upgraded for the work that can be done in Afghanistan. I have also announced that new blades are being fitted to Sea King helicopters for such work. As part of burden sharing, I have approached a number of European Governments, particularly in eastern Europe, who are not involved to the same extent as we are in the Afghanistan effort, and asked them to provide helicopters to support the NATO effort. I am confident that, in addition to the helicopters that we are adding to our fleet, we will get more support from those east European countries as the process of burden sharing takes root.

The right hon. Gentleman raised several other issues. On pay, we have a new computer system and I believe that the Defence Secretary’s efforts to ensure that it improves and gets the right payments to people are now bearing fruit. On the question of payment to the troops themselves, I think that it will have to be recorded that over the last year, we have tried to improve the position both through the troops’ pay settlement and through the allowances given for being at the front. We in Britain have a six-month rota, while America tends to be longer, which is one of the reasons why the arrangements that the right hon. Gentleman asked about are different. There is a £2,300 payment for being on the ground in theatre for several months.

We have also improved the allowances available for council tax, which has been reduced by £140, while at the same time extending facilities available for e-mailing, computers and telephoning—providing more minutes and more facilities for contacting relatives at home. Postal services have also been made free for the armed forces, which is entirely right. I am conscious that we need to do more on accommodation for the armed forces at home, which is why a substantial amount of the spending settlement has been allocated to accommodation.

On each of those areas where questions have rightly been asked about the support that we give our armed forces, we are systematically taking action to improve what treatment is available. That is in recognition of what I suspect the whole House will want to support—the courage, professionalism and dedication of the people who give up their time to serve our country and serve democracy for the future.

The death of Sergeant Johnson reminds us of how much is at stake here. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, particularly the positive feedback from the conflict at Musa Qala, but is it not the case that all rural guerrilla armies attach little importance to holding towns, and that, conversely, the military command of NATO has acknowledged that it finds it very difficult to hold territory that it has cleared? What has fundamentally changed the dynamic of this conflict to give the Prime Minister a more optimistic view of the future?

In respect of the UK contribution, the Prime Minister made some helpful, sensible and practical suggestions about the supply of helicopters, but has not the number of functioning Apache helicopters fallen from 60 per cent. to 50 per cent. over the last year? Is not one of the lessons the fact that we need to think more fundamentally about reorientating the defence budget towards immediate defence needs rather than those of the cold war? Will he have a fresh look at the very large £6 billion Typhoon commitment, which, if cancelled, would free up resources for immediate defence needs and troop welfare?

On the number of troops employed, is the judgment about numbers based on defence needs or is it simply reflecting the reality, acknowledged by the chiefs of staff, that British forces—including the 4,700 who were tied down at Basra airport providing cover for the continuing American presence in Iraq—are massively overstretched?

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to stress the importance of development assistance and we greatly welcome that, but is it not true that the annual budget of the Afghan Government on development is about £18 billion and that a large part of it is disappearing into waste and corruption? What is being done to introduce more effective safeguards?

The Prime Minister acknowledged the role of the poppy economy in the lives of peasant farmers in Afghanistan, so what is he doing to stop the indiscriminate destruction of poppy crops driving those farmers into the arms of the Taliban?

Finally, may I ask the Prime Minister about the precarious position of British public opinion? Is he aware that surveys in the past year suggest that a majority now favours withdrawal within a year and is increasingly concerned about the 86 deaths? There is a consensus among the parties in the House that we should continue to support the Afghan forces, but what is he going to do to persuade British public opinion that this activity is necessary and right?

I had hoped that there would be all-party agreement on what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman does not fully appreciate what I think is the central message of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban and we must prevent the return of al-Qaeda to use the country as a base, and to do so we must strengthen the politics, society and economy of Afghanistan. I hope that that will be common ground.

Where we have had to make sacrifices and where we are in for the long term, of course we must persuade the British public continuously of the importance of what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman asks what has changed in Musa Qala. What has changed is that we now have competent Afghan forces, which are able to move in and take control of the area with the support of the Americans, the British and other NATO forces. I believe that over the next period of time we shall see an ever more competent Afghan army, given support by trainers from Britain and elsewhere. At the same time, as I reported, people who either had an indirect relationship with the Taliban or were previously fighters are coming over and deciding that their future lies within the democratic constitution of Afghanistan.

As far as the weaponry is concerned, I mentioned that Merlin, Chinook and Sea King helicopters would be moving into Afghanistan in greater numbers over the next period of time. We need fast jets as well, as the Secretary of State for Defence reminded me, but the hon. Gentleman should not pose one against the other. We are determined not only to provide the equipment that we can for our forces, but to persuade other countries to share the burden. If there is one lesson of the past year or two, it is that we can, if we work at it, persuade other countries to play a bigger role in making their contribution to Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of heroin. It is true that half the heroin of the world comes out of Helmand province. It is also true that although we have made huge progress in other provinces, where poppy growing has ceased, we have not made the progress that we want to make in Helmand. Addressing that issue will mean a mixture of things. I hope that he would agree that it will mean eradication of the crops on the ground, rather than aerial bombing, as well as persuading people to take up different activities. This is not a short-term easy win for us, but something that we have to work at over the next period of time.

One of the ways we can do that is by strengthening what the hon. Gentleman rightly said is a weakness—the central Government of Afghanistan. Of course there has been corruption, and waste and failure, but it is important to remind ourselves that progress has been made. However, as I stressed to President Karzai when I met him, it is important that he should have Ministers in place who command confidence. It is also important that he should work with the development effort, which should be more co-ordinated, on behalf of the 38 nations involved in Afghanistan. If we can do both those things over the next year, I believe that we shall see greater progress.

May I congratulate the Prime Minister on the comprehensive framework that he has announced to the House and on building on the military success of our servicemen and women from throughout the UK, including marines based in Plymouth, who will be deployed again next year? I understand that a handful of women have joined the Afghan police service. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Afghani Government to do more in that respect? Will he also encourage the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Department for International Development to put some money into a programme for Afghan parliamentarians, to help them to develop the capacity to hold the Afghan Government to account?

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said, particularly about her constituents who have performed brave service in Afghanistan, through the work of the Navy and the naval reserves. I also agree with her that women have an important part to play in the future of Afghanistan. When I said that Afghanistan had a higher proportion of women MPs than most western countries, I was talking about a country where 80 per cent. of women were not given the chance to read and where primary and secondary education were denied them for years. Enormous advances are being made. I also agree with my hon. Friend that we should support the development of a police force that comprises women as well as men, and I shall look at what she said about that.

There is another point to make. The advances that can be made in local government can be made also with support from local councils and people who are involved in local government in this country. I know that strenuous efforts are being made to link up experts on local government here with those people in Afghanistan who want to create better systems of local government there. In all those areas, local communities here as well as the Government have a role to play.

I welcome this statement and I echo the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) in congratulating and thanking our quite outstanding armed forces. The Prime Minister referred to greater burden sharing by our allies. Yes indeed—but how, precisely, does he intend to achieve that? Does he expect that the statement of requirements issued by NATO itself, currently thousands short, will be fulfilled, and if so, when?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s initial remarks, in which he praised the courage and dedication of our armed forces. I am also grateful for what he said about burden sharing, which must be—this is common cause among us all—an important part of the next stage. When it comes to vital equipment, I believe that it is possible to persuade some of our allies in NATO—and, indeed, some outside—to make a contribution where they have equipment that can be put on the ground. I am thinking particularly of countries that I have talked to in eastern Europe that have helicopters, which could be of great benefit as transport helicopters in Afghanistan.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that that raises bigger questions about burden sharing within NATO and about the procedures that will be adopted in the future. I know from talking to the Secretary-General of NATO that when it meets at Easter to discuss those issues, burden sharing will be on the agenda. That might be the right time to consider both financial arrangements and equipment arrangements that move NATO forward from where it has been, to a system where there is far greater burden sharing built into the basic things that NATO does.

May I say to the Prime Minister that although some of the country might have views about how quickly our troops should withdraw from Afghanistan, the whole country joins him in expressing admiration for the courage that they show? If a single message should be sent from the House and from this country, it is the second message, not the first. I should like to take him back to his statement about the link between the poppy trade and the warlords. Does he accept that no long-term success in Afghanistan will be ours and its people’s until that trade is broken? Might I probe him on—

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The common message coming from the House is one of support for the armed forces, particularly on the brilliance and success of the recapture of Musa Qala. He is also right—I have talked to him at some length previously about this—that there is no future for Afghanistan’s economy as long as people hang on to the idea that Afghanistan can still be the centre supplying most of the world’s narcotics. That is why the effort that we are making with the Afghan Government to try to eradicate narcotics on the ground, but at the same time building up systems of law and order and giving alternative livelihoods to the agricultural population, is very important. I know that my right hon. Friend has views on that and I shall be happy to meet him again to talk about it.

At Prime Minister’s Question Time and at the start of his statement, the Prime Minister absolutely correctly paid tribute to the fallen men and women of our armed services in Afghanistan. Will he turn those words into substance and honour the undertaking given by his predecessor, by allowing his Ministers to announce funding this afternoon, so that the families of those fallen can be legally represented at inquests?

This is a matter that we are looking at. I said in the House last week that the delays in inquests were unacceptable. We have put some more money in to make it possible for them to be speeded up, but we will also look at the other issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement? As someone who has visited Afghanistan three times in the past four years, I have seen progress, particularly in Kabul, but there is still a hard job to do in the south. May I caution him on the eradication of the poppy crop, which should not be done without offering alternative livelihoods, as it could drive people into the arms of the Taliban?

That is precisely why the aid budget that we are announcing will focus on agricultural livelihoods, and on increasing people’s opportunities to obtain alternative work in the provinces that we are discussing. The business leaders whom we meet in Afghanistan are well aware that it needs a far more diversified economy. When we visit the local areas, it is clear that unless we provide alternative employment it will be possible to exploit local people’s need for work and prosperity through the narcotics trade. It is therefore essential for the aid budget and the development work that we are doing to offer alternative livelihoods.

In the new year, 16 Air Assault Brigade from Colchester garrison will be deployed to Afghanistan. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many of the 38 countries that he mentioned have fighting personnel in the front line in Helmand province, and exactly what he means by burden sharing?

I should be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, including all the figures.

It is true that many countries have sent in members of their forces in a non-fighting role. It is also true that some countries are prepared to offer troops, but cannot afford to pay their way when they are in Afghanistan. That is what I mean by burden sharing. Could we have a more equitable arrangement, whereby countries that have troops are able to send them in while others that are not prepared to send their troops are prepared to finance them? Could we have equipment from countries that are not prepared to send their forces, for which other countries could pay if the countries that have sent it cannot afford to do so? That is what I mean by moving forward burden sharing in future.

The hon. Gentleman’s constituents who are going to Afghanistan should be assured that we will do all in our power to ensure both that they are fully equipped, and that they have the support of a stronger Afghan army.

The Prime Minister’s speech to our troops in Iraq the other day was deeply appreciated by military families in my constituency, and I believe that the statement he has made today will be equally and widely appreciated.

Is it not the case that if the Taliban had succeeded in their aim of retrieving power in Afghanistan and turning it once again into a logistical and training base for international terrorist operations, and if the terrorists who attacked London and Glasgow in the summer had had the benefit of a six-month course in bomb-making and detonation techniques in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the results of those attacks might have been tragically very different?

My hon. Friend is right. Afghanistan is not only the front line against the Taliban. If we were to allow al-Qaeda to base itself in Afghanistan again without fear of being invaded or taken over by British or other forces, we would store up huge problems for London, for Britain and for all the other countries where terrorism wishes to make headway.

The fact that al-Qaeda has been forced across the border of Afghanistan creates special problems for us in Pakistan. As I told President Karzai, it is important for Pakistan and Afghanistan to work together to deal with those border issues, and in future years it will be important for us to secure even greater co-operation with other countries that are involved so that we can deal with the issue of where al-Qaeda is basing its operations.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that the whole country can be persuaded of the importance of this: leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and we have huge problems; allow al-Qaeda to gain a base in Afghanistan and we have huge problems. That is why we make a long-term commitment to the Afghan people.

Yesterday the American Defence Secretary expressed severe and justified public criticism of the inadequate contribution of some NATO allies. Does the Prime Minister agree that the risk we face is not only inadequate performance in Afghanistan as a consequence, but severe damage to the long-term future of NATO? Will he give serious consideration to urging his fellow Heads of Government in NATO to attend a early meeting of Heads of Government—not in a crisis atmosphere, but in a spirit of constructive and measured deliberation—with the aim of agreeing on a common strategy and a fair sharing of the burden that is possible for all member states?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. He has some experience in matters involving NATO, and this is a NATO mission. It should be borne in mind that we will meet in Bucharest in April to discuss the issues that should be on the agenda and must be addressed.

While the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that there has not been an equality of burden sharing—not only is Britain using its forces in Iraq, but it has a substantial role as the second presence in Afghanistan—it is also true that 38 countries are involved in the mission. The fact that so many countries are prepared to play a part represents an enormous success. The issue now is whether we can achieve the better burden sharing that will enable other countries to play a bigger part in future, particularly, I suspect, in the provision of equipment, if not of forces. Those are the issues that will have to be discussed in Bucharest at Easter.

The Prime Minister spoke of the importance of constructive engagement on the part of Afghanistan’s neighbours. When members of the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Iran last month, the Iranians told us that 3,000 of their policemen had been killed while trying to intercept the heroin being smuggled into their country, which has an estimated 2 million addicts. Last year, the Pakistani authorities expressed concern to our Committee about the fact that the Afghan side of the border was almost unpatrolled. Although Pakistan is losing tens of thousands of people in those areas, there is a big problem relating to movement backwards and forwards. What discussions has the Prime Minister had with the Afghan Government to try to increase their co-operation with their neighbours, who have legitimate concerns?

As Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters, and is an expert on the issues that he raises.

We now need law enforcement officers to mentor the counter-narcotics police so that a far better job can be done in Afghanistan itself. I impressed on President Karzai that the failure to appoint a new counter-narcotics Minister to fill the current vacancy was sending the wrong signal to the rest of the world, and I hope that someone will be appointed who can control the effort effectively. The United Nations-administered Afghan counter-narcotics trust fund is also important, but some countries have yet to make the contributions that they pledged. We must work with the countries that my hon. Friend mentioned, otherwise the efforts in one country will be in vain. That is why co-operation with Pakistan in particular will be important in the future.

While I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, which was more realistic than any statement about Afghanistan during the Blair years, will he keep it very much in mind that the basic stumbling block to all the admirable aims that he has announced is the fact that the one thing that unites all Afghans is their hatred of foreign troops in their country?

It is precisely because Afghans should be enabled to take more control over their own affairs that we are training the Afghan forces. We are talking about an army of 70,000 by next year, and a larger number of police. The biggest difficulties have involved preventing both corruption and inefficiency among the police. I think that, over time, the Afghan Government will recognise that point by building up their own security forces—particularly their army and police—and by working with the countries that are enabling them to do so, they can provide the best possible guarantee for the future of Afghanistan.

When I visited Helmand last July, I saw British troops giving out leaflets saying that we did not do eradication. I welcome what the Prime Minister said about putting together a plan involving stronger governance and targeting traffickers, but may I caution him that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said earlier, it is not the individual producer but the big guns that we need to target? May we see the top 20 and their lands, chattels and supporters being attacked, as opposed to the ordinary Afghan farmer?

That is one of the reasons for the need to build up the infrastructure of police, courts, justice—through judges—and law and order. Only by building up that infrastructure can we deal with the very people to whom my hon. Friend refers. However, I would not underestimate the importance of giving people alternative livelihoods so that they can break free from the control of drugs barons in the area. It is a combination of both approaches that will make the difference.

I thank the Prime Minister for providing a copy of his statement in advance. On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I echo the sentiments of others about our service personnel, and especially their families, in the run-up to Christmas.

Here in the House we have often heard reassurances and promises about combating the drugs trade, but the United Nations has confirmed this year that heroin production has risen to a record level. Apparently, it represents 92 per cent. of opium production in the world. Can the Prime Minister give us a firm assurance about his target for the reduction of narcotics? How much does it involve, and by when?

We have moved from a situation in which we had very few poppy-free, or heroin-free, provinces to a situation in which we have quite a number. Our aim must be to increase that number, but the issue in Helmand is a very big one, because it is responsible for half the production. That is where we must make progress.

I am not setting a target. What I will say is that while the combination of the measures that we outlined is necessary, what is also necessary is a central Government who are prepared to take the action. That is why I am impressing on President Karzai the importance of his taking a lead.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, particularly the promise of more funding for building the capacity of the directorate of local governance. In other emerging democracies, it has been shown that where there are more women in local government, funding is more likely to be directed towards areas such as health and education. Given the low status of women in Afghanistan, particularly outside the main cities such as Kabul, will the Prime Minister do all he can to prioritise the funding towards confidence building and skills for women so that they have the confidence to put their names forward for election in local government?

In Helmand province there are already women who are playing their part in local government, but obviously the numbers and the ability to participate need to be strengthened. That is why the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will be working with people in Afghanistan to enable us to give whatever expertise we can to help build some of the systems of local government for the future. I also announced our support for local community volunteers, so that they can take more control of policing of areas. So there will be a combination of measures, but my hon. Friend is right that women being more represented and at a higher level in all the different areas of Afghanistan will make a difference to the improvement of health and education, which is crucial for the welfare of the people.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that the biggest single source of income, accounting for up to half of GDP in Afghanistan, is the opium trade, and is not therefore the central dilemma we face how to win the hearts and minds of people while promising to eradicate half their income without offering any concrete alternatives other than the following two words in the statement—“legitimate agriculture”? Does not the failure to face up realistically to this dilemma leave a black hole in the Prime Minister’s strategy?

The right hon. Gentleman is right on his first point: an economy that is wholly dependent on the crop he mentions is an economy that will not work well in the future. However, he is wrong on his second point: I did, of course, mention alternatives in agriculture, but I also mentioned building the social and economic infrastructure of all the areas through the aid and development programme that we are practising. We find that there is in Afghanistan a desire for roads and infrastructure, and then for the building of schools and hospitals, of course, but also for the creation of small businesses. Many people are operating in Afghanistan—some people have come from Britain to do so—to create microcredit finance for small businesses.

I agree that it is necessary to have alternatives to agriculture, but I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman’s other point, as we are trying our best to do more to provide those alternatives; we are going beyond simply the offer that there is an alternative to agriculture by also making that possible through the initiatives that we have in place. I may also say that in Musa Qala we will move in very quickly with the offer of jobs, which is important, and the offer of new facilities, which will enable the local economy to start to flourish again.

On the question of encouraging a positive approach from Iran, my right hon. Friend will be aware that in February 2001 the late Member for Redcar, who then had the remit for drugs, visited Iran to come to an agreement on working together to disrupt the drugs trafficking trade. Does my right hon. Friend believe that that agreement could form the basis of encouraging a revival—perhaps we should put it that way—of a more positive approach from Iran?

The Iranians themselves have an interest in tackling this problem. I will look at what my hon. Friend says about the agreement that is still standing with Iran, but I think that it is also important to recognise that action within Afghanistan is urgently needed.

Early in the new year, the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, supplemented by Territorial soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, will leave for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has heard from the Leader of the Opposition about problems with pay. Many of those Territorial Army soldiers transferred from the now-disbanded home service battalions, yet several months after their transfer they are not receiving the proper pay. Will the Prime Minister assure me that before those soldiers leave their families to serve this country with pride in Afghanistan, they will be paid properly?

When I was in Afghanistan, I met soldiers from Northern Ireland, and their contribution is both appreciated and immense. I will take on board what the right hon. Gentleman says about the operation of the computer system in delivering the proper amounts of pay. The Secretary of State for Defence says that that is moving forward, and he will write to the right hon. Gentleman in the next few days.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and the priority he is giving to Afghanistan issues. Does he agree that if the Afghans are to buy into the new state we must not only maintain security, but make progress in terms of economic development? Will he therefore press the United Nations to encourage the international community not only to be better co-ordinated, but to do more on security and economic development?

I want to praise the work of my hon. Friend in linking up with women in Afghanistan to encourage the emerging process of democracy in the country. She is right that we need the UN co-ordinator appointed for February, and we need that role to be better than the current one in co-ordinating the development efforts of all the different countries involved in Afghanistan and in building a strong relationship that is supportive to the Afghan Government. We also of course need the international effort she talks about to be expanded. We will, as a result of this statement, make all our efforts to do that.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. When members of the International Development Committee were in Afghanistan at the end of October we visited not only Kabul but the rural area around it, and Helmand in the south and Balkh in the north. There was a recognition that there was a real commitment and a long-term strategy, which people in Afghanistan appreciate—and people in this country need to understand that. In particular, I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to additional development and reconstruction funding of £450 million, and I urge the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement in the House at an appropriate time as to how it will be deployed, and to resist the call from the Leader of the Opposition to concentrate all those resources in Helmand as we must instead understand that we have to build up the capacity of the Afghan Government across the whole country.

Building up the capacity of the Afghan Government is in many ways the theme of the statement; we need Afghan ownership so that in security, economics and, of course, governance, Afghans can take the lead that is expected of countries when they are running their own affairs. As far as the budget is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman will, as a member of the International Development Committee, want to question in detail the Secretary of State for International Development on where the money will go. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, however, that £350 million comes from the DFID aid budget, and the extra money is from the stabilisation fund that we created involving the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and DFID. That money is spent on stabilising economies in difficulty and fractured societies. It will go as a priority to Afghanistan, because as he knows, that is where the need is now greatest. The £450 million that we talk about will be provided from a combination of development money and money from the stabilisation unit.

Last month, Members attended a briefing of senior Army officers led by General Sir Richard Dannatt, at which the Secretary of State for Defence was present. One of the problems they identified was the lack of equipment for training purposes immediately before deployment. Clearly, there is a danger when servicemen suddenly find themselves using new equipment in theatre. What are the Government doing to address that problem that the Army has identified, and can they give us any idea of the time scale in which it will be dealt with?

I have also talked to General Dannatt about these issues. We have funded new equipment on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq through what are called the UOR—the urgent operational requirements—so it is possible by the expenditure of large sums of money to get the most modern and up-to-date equipment quickly into the theatre or field. That is what we have been trying to do. I think I am right in saying that UORs have accounted for more than £2 billion in recent years, and we have set aside additional money over the next few years. If we are putting such equipment straight into theatre, that raises questions about the resources that we have available for equipment for training. We are now giving attention to that. The hon. Lady is right to raise this point, but it is a function of the success of getting the best equipment into theatre as quickly as possible.

The Prime Minister will be aware that 18 months ago we warned the Government that one combat unit being sent to Afghanistan was wholly inadequate. Now there are five major units in theatre and the pips are squeaking on Army manning. Will the Prime Minister please dedicate himself to restoring the Army to full manning and reversing the disastrous decision to disband three battalions?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Army wishes to, and should be able to, increase its establishment. In terms of the armed forces as a whole, when we came to power they were, I think, 95 per cent. established—in other words, 95 per cent. of the necessary level of troops were provided. I think that figure is now 97 per cent. He is therefore right that we wish to recruit and retain more troops for the armed forces—that is what we intend to do and that is what we budget for. He makes the important point that this is about recruitment and then about retention. We shall do whatever we can, in consultation with the armed forces, to move that forward.