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Volume 475: debated on Monday 28 April 2008

The security situation in Afghanistan is stable, if fragile in places. In 2007, the Afghan national army and troops from the 40-nation international security assistance force achieved significant tactical success against the Taliban. This success has geographically restricted the insurgents’ ability to conduct sustained activity. During 2008, NATO figures show that 91 per cent. of insurgent activity has been reported from only 8 per cent. of the districts of Afghanistan. Yesterday, the Taliban carried out a cowardly attack on the mujaheddin victory parade. This attack illustrates perfectly their irrelevance to the future of Afghanistan. While the country celebrated liberation, the Taliban were firing indiscriminately at unarmed civilians. In tactical terms, that will prove to be a disaster for them.

When I was in Helmand province in February, I was surprised to learn that many of the farmers would prefer to grow wheat, which is now highly priced on world markets, rather than poppies. However, they had to grow poppies because of Taliban intimidation. When does the Secretary of State think that we will have the security situation sufficiently under control for Afghan farmers to feed their own people and not feed the habits of people in the west?

That is exactly the case in an increasing number of provinces in Afghanistan—indeed, more are poppy-free than ever before. The greatest concentration of poppy growing happens to be in those provinces where there are the greatest security challenges. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand from his visit why that is the case. Because of the work of our troops in Afghanistan, particularly over the past 18 months, the number of areas under the control of the Afghan Government that are secure enough for farmers to make that transition is increasing. We will find in the outturn of the figures for this year that the Afghan poppy crop has reduced, but there is still a long way to go.

Given that a large proportion of the injuries suffered by members of our armed forces in Afghanistan are from roadside bombs and similar improvised explosive devices, why are we still deploying troops in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan in so-called snatch Land Rovers, when we know that such vehicles offer little or no protection against such devices?

The hon. Gentleman and the House will know, because I have gone to some lengths to keep the House up to date, that we have been increasingly providing our troops with vehicles that offer the highest level of protection. Indeed, through Mastiff and Ridgback, on which we hope to make significant progress over the coming months, we will be providing a total of 400 new vehicles that will offer that level of protection. The hon. Gentleman will know also, because it is reported back here regularly, that Mastiff has proved enormously popular with the troops in saving lives.

My obligation as the Secretary of State is to provide commanders on the ground with a range of vehicles. Our experience in Afghanistan shows us that the issue is not just a need for protected vehicles, in the sense of protected against such explosions; rather, we also need vehicles that give our troops both the necessary flexibility and movement, and a presence on the ground that is specific to the communities in which they are working. I fulfil that obligation. We provide a range of vehicles to the commanders. I do not intend to dictate to our commanders, with a long screwdriver from London, which of those vehicles they should use, but I am conscious of the need continually to develop and to deploy more protected vehicles, subject to that requirement.

Has President Karzai not become a liability? He has demonstrated an inability or an unwillingness to tackle corruption in high-level officialdom and is failing to crack down on drug trafficking. Is there not a lesson to be learned from Pakistan? The President there said that he was the only person to lead the country, but a new civilian Administration now are getting on reasonably well. Is that not the future for Afghanistan? Should Karzai not go?

I am slightly at a loss to understand my hon. Friend’s underlying point, because President Karzai is a civilian. He was freely elected and is the democratic choice of the people of Afghanistan, and has proved to be a very good leader in very difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend addresses an important issue, which is the need to deal with corruption, drug trafficking and the relationship between them in Afghanistan, which permeates a large part of society there, up to the highest levels. President Karzai recognises that; indeed, when he addressed the NATO summit in Bucharest recently, he recommitted himself to dealing with those issues. However, we should not underestimate how difficult that is to do in Afghanistan.

One contribution to security that could be made would be to have more helicopters. Her Majesty’s armed services have 1,451 helicopters, but how many of them are in Afghanistan? At the forthcoming NATO Parliamentary Assembly, some of us would like to make the case for our European partners, including the Turks, to make a greater contribution with the 3,900 helicopters that they have. Will the Secretary of State place in the Library the facts about helicopters in Afghanistan so that hon. Members on both sides of the House can make the case for greater European involvement at that important NATO gathering?

To the extent that placing that information in the public domain is consistent with force security, I will do that. However, as I have said to other hon. Members, if I am not able to put that information in the public domain, I am content that individual Members, or groups of Members, should be given detailed briefings, as long as they respect the briefings. I am sure that they will, as they have in the past.

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the need for more helicopter support. That has been an issue for our troops for some time, and I am pleased to say that in southern Afghanistan in the past year we have increased available helicopter hours by more than a third. The significant point that my right hon. Friend makes, which is known to the House, is that there is a significant number of helicopters in the world that are not deployable. That is exactly why the Prime Minister announced at Bucharest an initiative in the form of a helicopter trust fund, which is attracting significant support. Between seven and 10 countries have indicated their willingness to contribute to the fund and allow those helicopters to be deployed either by training pilots to fly them in Afghanistan or by fitting them with necessary equipment. I look forward to seeing countries carry out the promises that they have made.

The Secretary of State is well aware of the role played by Nimrod aircraft and their crews over Afghanistan. He also knows that QinetiQ has produced a report with 30 safety recommendations about those aircraft. How many of those recommendations have been complied with?

I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman specific figures, but I shall check them and ensure that he receives the figures and that all hon. Members are able to access the information in the usual fashion. So far as his consistent and welcome concern about the safety of the Nimrod crews and aircraft is concerned, I assure him that I constantly obtain reassurance from those with the necessary technical ability that the aircraft are safe to fly.

Were the events in Kabul over the weekend evidence that the Taliban are changing their tactics? Are we beginning to see an increase in asymmetric warfare? If so, is the Secretary of State going to reassess our whole approach in Afghanistan?

The fact that the Taliban have been forced to change their tactics in that way shows the success of ISAF, particularly the exceptional work that our troops have done in Helmand province in repeatedly facing down the Taliban and over-matching them. The Taliban have been driven to use that asymmetric approach, which is entirely uncharacteristic of the Afghan approach to conflict. That is why the latest assessment shows that the Taliban enjoy support from only about 4 per cent. of the population of Afghanistan. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s encouragement that we should change our tactics, we will continue with the tactics and the comprehensive approach that we have been so successful in developing in southern Afghanistan with our allies. We will also continue to support the Afghans in building the capacity to deal with the increasing asymmetric attacks.

Has the Secretary of State noted the recent warning by the Foreign Minister of Turkey—the only Islamic member state of NATO—that unless there are major changes of policy in Afghanistan, public opinion there will increasingly turn against the foreign military forces that are currently fighting the Taliban?

I am acutely aware of the need for ISAF and for the whole international community, including the United Nations, to continue to enjoy the support of the Afghan people. The main focus of everything that we do in Afghanistan is to maintain the support of the Afghan people in achieving the objectives that they share with us. It is welcome that other allies maintain a focus on that, but our measurement of the support that we enjoy from the Afghan people suggests that it is being sustained. However, I am aware of that risk. The only answer is to build on the ability of the Afghans to deliver security and government to their own people. That is the focus of everything that we do.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, despite the picture of stability that he is painting, the burden on our 7,000 service personnel in Afghanistan is very great? Given that the Prime Minister is no longer able to achieve his ambition of scaling down our 4,000 troops in Iraq, does he have any other ideas about how our 7,000 troops in Afghanistan might be reinforced and the burden on them lessened?

The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that when NATO gathered in Riga a year ago, there were 32,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan; when it gathered in Bucharest recently, there were 47,000 such troops there and, in addition, a number of countries—including France and, indeed, the United States of America—made further commitments. Currently, 2,200 American troops are deploying to southern Afghanistan, which will significantly increase our ability to deliver what we are doing in that part of the country. Increasingly, other countries are either taking on a greater share of the burden or increasing their already great share of the burden that they take on.