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Volume 477: debated on Monday 16 June 2008

Last December, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a clear and long-term framework for bringing security and political, social and economic development to Afghanistan. I would like to give the House an update on some of the progress that we have made since then in Afghanistan, based on my most recent visit to Afghanistan last month, and to set out future plans for the UK’s military contribution to the NATO-led international security assistance force—ISAF.

The security situation in Afghanistan has improved in the past 12 months. The Taliban’s leadership has been targeted successfully, and recent operations in southern Helmand have disrupted severely their training and lines of communication. That has had two principal effects. First, their sphere of influence has been reduced; nine tenths of the security incidents are confined to one tenth of the country, and the rest is relatively peaceful. Secondly, we have seen them reduce their ambition from insurgency to terrorism. The Taliban’s campaign is now limited to intimidating Afghan communities, coercing the vulnerable into becoming suicide bombers and carrying out brutal and indiscriminate attacks on the international community and, above all, on the Afghan men, women and children themselves. As the Taliban’s conventional attacks have failed, we have seen their tactics shift to the use of mines, roadside bombs and suicide vests. Those tactics run deeply counter to the Afghan culture, as does the Taliban’s reliance on paid foreign fighters—the so-called “$10 Talibs”, who now make up the majority of those doing the fighting for them. I fully recognise that the Taliban’s new tactics pose a different but very serious challenge, both to our forces and to the local people. We need to ensure that we do all that we can to mitigate the new danger, and I am fully engaged on ensuring that we do so.

I share the understandable international concern about the breakout from Kandahar prison that took place on Friday 13 June. The Government of Afghanistan are leading the response to the incident and we are monitoring that closely. We have always said that the challenge of supporting an Afghan lead on security goes wider than providing support to the Afghan armed forces to include the justice sector, and we are already engaged in supporting a programme of justice reform that includes work on prisons. International support to the Afghan Government’s security response is being provided through NATO’s presence in Kandahar. Let me conclude on this point by saying that notwithstanding the extremely serious nature of this incident, it does not change our view that the Taliban are losing the fight in southern Afghanistan.

The Afghan people, like people the world over, long for security, stability and prosperity. They understand that the Taliban cannot deliver those things. Our forces, alongside the US, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and Danish forces, and many others, are in Afghanistan to fulfil a UN mandate, to support the elected Government, to train and mentor the Afghan army and police, and to give the Afghan people hope for the future. I believe, as I think do the majority of this House, that Afghanistan is a noble cause, but we also know that it comes at a tragic human cost, as we have been reminded over the past week. The recent deaths of five members of 2 Para—as well as the 97 other UK fatalities in Afghanistan since 2002 and all those UK personnel who have been wounded or otherwise scarred by this conflict—are an enduring measure of the dangers that our young servicemen and women face on operations on our behalf.

The military know better than anyone that this is a campaign that cannot be won by military means alone. Once security has improved—it has already improved— delivering improvements in infrastructure, governance, the rule of law, schools, hospitals and services must follow. Generating those things in a country that has been devastated by decades of conflict and that is the fourth poorest country in the world is difficult and challenging—it will be a long-term endeavour. But I saw real progress there during my trip, and there is now a tangible sense that life for many Afghans is improving. In Helmand, they have a new and extremely able governor—Governor Mangal—who is spreading the writ of the Government of Afghanistan further into that once lawless province. During the week of my visit, the local people of Garmsir reopened their hospital for the first time in two years. In Lashkar Gah, they had also just opened a new high school, and some of the girls attending that school will represent the first women in their families ever to go to school and receive an education.

We the UK are not alone in our commitment to Afghanistan. Last week, 80 countries and international organisations met in Paris at the international conference in support of Afghanistan. In Paris, the Afghan Government’s national development strategy was launched. That plan provides an Afghan blueprint for the future development of their country. Last week in Paris, the international community pledged $20.4 billion to help to fund it and reaffirmed its support for Kai Eide’s role in co-ordinating its efforts to help to deliver it.

I am not underestimating how much remains to be done, but the green shoots of development and democracy are becoming even more firmly rooted in a security environment that has improved out of all measure since UK forces deployed in southern Afghanistan two years ago.

The focus on development does not mean that we are complacent about security—in fact, far from it. As I said before, the shift in tactics, while being in one sense a sign of strategic weakness, presents us with a different but still very serious challenge—one that our forces are confronting with the same courage, professionalism and intelligence that they have shown throughout the campaign. At the same time, the Prime Minister’s December statement made it clear that, over time, we plan to rebalance our military commitment from one based on direct combat operations to one of support for the Afghans’ own security forces. There is some good news here: the Afghan national army is a success story. Afghan soldiers are fearless and redoubtable fighters and the ANA is respected and admired by the Afghan people. Their professional competence is also increasing by the day. The first ANA kandak—or battalion—has now reached capability milestone 1, which means that it is capable of fully independent operations. Our soldiers are finding that the mentoring that the Afghan national army requires has reduced as its capability and experience has grown. That is no mean achievement.

Creating an effective police force is, however, proving to be a more difficult challenge. To accelerate that process, the coalition has introduced a process called focused district development, which is, in effect, a mass training and retraining of the Afghan national police, district by district. That ambitious plan has an annual budget of $2 billion, and it is making a big difference. But we have to accept that creating an independent, effective police force in Afghanistan will not happen overnight.

Counter-insurgency campaigns are ultimately about winning the support of the local population. With the diminishing relevance of the Taliban’s campaign and the increasing delivery of development, I am in little doubt that we are winning that, too. It is in this context that I have, with the military advice of the chiefs of staff, decided to make a number of adjustments to the profile of our forces in Afghanistan. Currently, we have 7,800 troops in Afghanistan deployed to Helmand, Kandahar and Kabul. As a result of a recent review, I have approved the removal of around 400 posts from the Afghan operational establishment table. Those posts are no longer required due to reorganisation and the changed nature of the tactical situation. At the same time, we have identified a requirement for, in total, 630 new posts, creating a net increase in our forces in Afghanistan of some 230 personnel, to around 8,030 by spring 2009.

Broadly, those adjustments have three aims: first, to improve the protection afforded to our personnel; secondly, to increase the capacity of our forces to deliver training and mentoring to the Afghan national security forces; and thirdly, to increase the capacity of our forces to deliver the civil effects of reconstruction and development in an insecure or semi-secure environment. All those aims are vital if we are to sustain the progress that we are making.

Let me set out the nature of those changes. The first objective of the force adjustments is to increase the protection that we are able to give to our brave servicemen and women as they conduct their mission in Afghanistan. In the months ahead, we will deploy more troops to man the additional Viking and Mastiff vehicles that we have already ordered. Further specialists will deploy to man reconnaissance and warning systems in our forward operating bases in Helmand. We will also reinforce the Royal Air Force Regiment squadron that helps defend Kandahar airfield.

The House will recall that the improvements that we have made to ground support and crewing arrangements for our CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache helicopters have increased the total amount of flying time per month available to our commanders in Afghanistan. Part of the uplift will be delivered by an increase in helicopter crews, which I am announcing today.

Among the most potent of all our capabilities in deterring and denying the insurgency is our ability to project close air support. In Afghanistan we have a contingent of Harrier GR7/GR9s that have proven time and again their value in defending the lives of our troops, our allies and those whom they are there to protect. The Harrier force first deployed to Kandahar airfield in November 2004 and has been operational continuously ever since. That is an impressive record by any standards, but I am mindful of the strain that that extended deployment has put upon the crews, their families and the wider role of Joint Force Harrier. I have therefore decided to withdraw the Harrier force by spring 2009 and to replace it with an equivalent force of Tornado GR4s.

I have already mentioned that by developing the Afghan security forces we are setting the conditions to allow them to take an increased role in their own security. To accelerate that we will expand our fourth operational mentor and liaison team to accelerate the development of the Afghan national army, and we will continue to train the Afghan national police. In particular, we will focus our efforts to help Afghan national army and police commanders to develop the skills they need to lead their forces effectively in a demanding and often very dangerous area.

The improved security situation that our forces are generating has provided us with a real opportunity to increase the rate of our delivery of civil effect. I have therefore decided that when 3 Commando Brigade deploys to Afghanistan this October, it will deploy with an additional infantry battalion headquarters and sub-unit. The forces will operate in southern Helmand to ensure that we are able to consolidate and exploit the security gains that we have made in that area and 3 Commando Brigade will also deploy with an extra troop of Royal Engineers to support our provincial reconstruction team by undertaking quick impact projects in support of the local community. Those forces will be supported by more medical, logistical and equipment support troops.

In addition we will attach civil-military co-operation officers to each of our battle groups and we will form military stabilisation teams on the model of the ad hoc team that we deployed with great success in the wake of the reoccupation of Musa Qala. Both measures will enable us to take forward development projects including quick impact projects in areas where the level of threat remains high.

My announcement today of a net uplift of 230 additional troops does not in proportionate terms represent a very significant increase. It does mean our mission is expanding. It means we are taking the steps necessary to take our mission forward as effectively as we can, with a force whose profile and capabilities are optimised to the conditions that they face. As I have explained, the uplift and rebalancing will enable our forces to strengthen their protection and to increase the rate at which they can build Afghan capacity in security, governance and development. Some of those new capabilities will need a year before they are available for operations in Afghanistan, but others will deploy much sooner. Of course, we shall continue to work to develop the optimum balance of forces and capabilities, in conjunction with the Afghan Government and our allies, in what can be rapidly changing conditions. The additional forces will ensure we can maintain the growing reach of the Afghan Government in Helmand, increase the military contribution to development and accelerate the pace of Afghanisation.

We talk in this House in terms of numbers, units, and strategies, but as the events of the last week have reminded us all, behind these numbers are individual young men or women, working courageously in strange, difficult and dangerous conditions far from their family back home. I am constantly impressed by their bravery and resourcefulness, and on behalf of the Government and I am sure the whole House I express our gratitude for their service to the nation, and commit myself to continuing to do everything we can to support them.

I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I fully associate the Conservative party with all that he has said about our servicemen and women and the dangers that they face.

Those who have given their lives in Afghanistan are irreplaceable to their families and friends and we will remember those families in our thoughts and prayers. We will also share their pride that we still have professional and courageous servicemen and women who are brave enough to sacrifice themselves for the security of the people of this country.

We must always remember that we are in Afghanistan for reasons of national security, to deny a safe haven to those who would commit indiscriminate acts of terrorist murder on men, women and children. We must remember that it is an international mission sanctioned by the UN and led by NATO. The Afghanistan compact, which followed the London conference, set out four objectives: increased security, drug reduction, an efficient Executive and economic and social development. Progress has been made on social development, but the process of government remains compromised by corruption and a lack of co-ordination between the military, reconstruction and political missions. The military command also needs greater clarity of purpose and simplification of structure—a point regularly raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and he raised it again today in talks with President Bush.

There has been no progress on the drugs issue, with no alternative sources of income being made available to those for whom growing poppies is the only means of feeding themselves. If anything, the situation has deteriorated. Security has improved in some parts of the country, as the Secretary of State said, but it remains undermined in the south by the continued insurgency, the breakout of Taliban prisoners in Kandahar, and the Pakistani Government’s attitude to border issues. A former NATO commander, General McNeill, recently said that more troops were needed to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency. He said that

“it’s an under-resourced force”,

and he expressed concern that NATO could become a “two-tiered alliance”, with an insufficient number of countries truly committed to fighting against the Taliban.

We have seen how the fighting in the south of the country has been left to the Americans, the British, the Canadians, the Dutch and a number of valiant smaller forces, while some of the biggest NATO allies have been risk averse, to say the least. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assessment of how great a threat is posed to the achievement of the aims of the Afghan compact by the underactivity of some of our NATO allies, and does he agree that the message from the United Kingdom should be that it is unacceptable for all those in NATO to have the same insurance policy if only some of us pay the full premiums?

We will now have 8,000 personnel in Afghanistan and 4,000 personnel on active operations in Iraq. We have consistently raised concerns about the force size in Afghanistan. Does the Secretary of State believe that, with the increase that he announced today, the force size is now sufficient for the safety and effectiveness of our troops, and can he tell us by how many troops General McNeill believes NATO, as a whole, is short? How confident can the Secretary of State be that he can fill the 630 new posts that he announced today with correctly qualified personnel who have had sufficient rest and training? He tells us that some of the announcements that he made today will take a year to come into effect; can he be more specific on that point?

Recent deaths in Afghanistan have shown the Taliban’s shift towards suicide bombing as a tactic. We have seen in Iraq what that can mean. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that all necessary protective equipment is available to minimise the risk to our armed forces on the ground, and can he give an assurance that there is the fullest co-operation from the Afghan police and military in attempting to minimise those threats? The increase announced today was predictable, but does it not make a mockery of the Government’s national security strategy, published only 12 weeks ago, which said that

“we are entering a phase of overall reduced commitments, recuperation of our people, and regrowth and reinvestment in capabilities and training”?

That is a dangerous and harmful fantasy; what we have is overstretch.

I believe that the Government are genuinely committed to a successful outcome in Afghanistan, and they know that they have our full support on that objective, but they need urgently to address the gap between commitments and military capabilities if we are to succeed. Above all, we need to recalibrate expectations. We cannot simply drop a Jeffersonian democracy on to a broken 13th-century state and expect it to work in five or even 10 years’ time. It will be a long haul, so we must properly plan for a long haul, and not for six-month rotations for our commanders, or sixth-month or annual budget allocations for reconstruction efforts. We need to bring our military and financial planning into line with the political reality. I am sure that those on both sides of the House agree strongly that the costs of failure are far too high to contemplate.

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed both inside and outside the House the mission in Afghanistan, on many occasions. It may not appear so from his contribution, but there is much less between us than people who heard him for the first time today might imagine. I am grateful to him and his Front-Bench colleagues for the support that they have consistently given our mission, and for their appreciation of the complexity involved, which was implicit in his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman made so many points that if I sought to answer them all, I would stretch the patience of the House, so I promise to do what I usually do in the circumstances. I will read the Hansard record of his questions carefully, and if I do not deal with them, I will respond in writing, so that everyone in the House can see the answers to his specific questions. However, the heart or gravaman of what he said must be responded to. I carefully constructed the statement to the House to show that we were responding to changed circumstances on the ground, which have been brought about by an acceleration of progress in the past 12 months, largely because of the contribution of our forces, but not only because of that, as he knows. Indeed, the situation in the south of Helmand province has largely been created by the deployment of the marine expeditionary unit that served with our forces in the lower part of the Helmand valley, and which has transformed the area around the town of Garmsir. I am responding to that, because that marine expeditionary unit plans to be there only until about November, so we are putting some forces down there who will work alongside Afghan security forces to hold what has been achieved and keep the Taliban from reinfecting that part of the country.

May I tell the House—and I think that this is important—that there are of the order of 17 countries in ISAF represented in either the south or the east, where the heavy lifting is being done? I agree with the hon. Gentleman about sharing the burden across the whole alliance. I repeatedly make those points, and there is now some success to be gleaned from that advocacy, in which I and indeed others engage in NATO. I should share the statistics with the House, because they show an impressive commitment by the alliance, the broader ISAF alliance and, principally, by NATO. When NATO met in Riga last year, there were 32,000 forces in the ISAF. When we met in Bucharest, there were 47,000, but when NATO Ministers met in Brussels only last week, there were 50,000, and those numbers are increasing. That is a measure of the level of commitment: there are more helicopters, there is more helicopter time, and other allies are now taking steps, in conjunction with initiatives that we have generated, to improve helicopter availability. In short, the NATO alliance has been transformed by its engagement in Afghanistan. I have a different way of going about it from the hon. Gentleman, but I think that my way has shown significant progress in that regard, in the number of countries that are there, the absence of caveats for their forces, and the significant increase of force deployed in the south.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House on 11 June that we are making progress in training the Afghan army and police. Clearly the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes that forward—especially the additional deployment for training purposes. Does he have in mind a time frame for the completion of the training of the Afghan army?

We have trained 55,000 members of the Afghan army to date, but they are not all trained to the level at which they can conduct operations without significant support from command and control, logistics and planning. As I said to the House earlier in Defence questions, the first kandak of that army has reached capability measurement 1, which means that it is capable of moving forward. There are other niche capabilities in the Afghan national army and security forces that are very effective. The other day, we saw the biggest ever haul of drugs seized by an Afghan force which we trained in part.

From here, it is impossible to put a time limit on when that army will be able to conduct large-scale security operations on its own, but my right hon. Friend ought to look at what has happened recently in Iraq. In a comparatively short period, the Iraqi army has gone from being almost totally dependent on the support of the allies to being capable of carrying out operations that it plans and commands itself. When one reaches the tipping point in relation to the training of an army, then, at least in my experience over the past two years, the process of improvement accelerates quite dramatically.

I welcome the statement, the progress that the Government have been able to report and the reaffirmation of their acknowledgement that the situation cannot be won by military means alone. Specifically, I welcome the news that extra Engineers are going and the emphasis on giving them the ability to focus on civil reconstruction work. I also welcome very much the increase in helicopter crew numbers.

I, too, recently visited Afghanistan, and I was deeply impressed by the work of our young men—they are, in the main, very young men—particularly in searing heat of more than 50°C. It was truly humbling to see at close quarters just what they are doing on our behalf. I pay tribute to all those who are serving in Afghanistan, and have done, on our behalf. I was also very impressed by the deeply thoughtful and measured way in which the British troops go about their tasks and how the long-term impact of everything they do is always very clearly in their minds.

We did not hear in the statement anything specific about the poppy crop, and I should be interested to hear from the Secretary of State whether this year there has been any progress in persuading Afghan farmers to plant alternative crops. Last year’s poppy crop was the biggest ever. That in itself is worrying, but with the price having dropped there may be better prospects for persuading farmers to look for alternatives.

When I returned from that visit, my biggest concern was the state of British public opinion, which does not truly understand what we are doing in Afghanistan, why we are doing it, or how long it will take. Given that there is broad political consensus in the House on the issue and we are all committed to the long term, between us we must do something to try to move public opinion forward. In that regard, it is a matter of regret—to me at least—that the announcement should have been made on a day when George W. Bush is in the country. I fear that there is confusion in the public’s mind between what we are doing in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The biggest connection between the two is overstretch, and the sooner the public can be persuaded to see those situations separately, the better our chances are of getting the public on board for a long haul in Afghanistan.

The timing of the new announcement was dictated by the decisions that were made. Once they had been made, I determined that I would come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity to explain them. Unfortunately, I had to be at a NATO meeting last week, on Thursday and Friday, otherwise I would have been able to make the statement earlier. I always try to make statements to the House at the earliest possible opportunity.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s introductory remarks and am delighted that he and his party are in exactly the same place as the significant majority of those in the House and, indeed, in the other place in respect of what we are seeking to do in Afghanistan. Of course, many people say that the mission is impossible. They either say that it cannot be done and we should not be engaged in Afghanistan, or they misrepresent the situation. They do exactly what I suspect the hon. Gentleman fears in respect of the coincidence of the visit of the President of the United States and the statement, which is to look at everything that we do militarily through the prism of Iraq. That is deeply unhelpful. I have spent a lot of my time as Secretary of State trying to persuade our media that Afghanistan is the right place for our people to be. The fact that 40 countries are involved and that many of the most developed social democratic countries in the world are present with troops on the ground is an indication of just how right it is.

This morning I had a conversation with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, in which his support for what we are seeking to do in the context of the Security Council resolution was completely unwavering. We all have a responsibility to try to shift British public opinion. I believe that it has shifted in relation to the rightness of the mission and the military objectives, and we now have to shift it in relation to the progress being made in all the other complementary parts of the comprehensive approach and explain to the public that we need strategic patience in order to do what we are doing in a very difficult and challenging environment.

As for counter-narcotics, this year we will, as usual, have to wait for the official count as regards the assessment of the poppy crop, but early indications suggest that we have stabilised or reduced the production of poppy. There may be several reasons for that. The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies that that generates an opportunity. The whole focus of our efforts in northern Helmand is designed to put together the secure spaces that we have generated and to control the ability to communicate between them. That is part of the key to creating a secure logistical environment for moving other, legitimate, crops around so that they will not be taken advantage of by the Taliban. That will be key to building sustainable alternative crops for the farmers in Helmand province.

I join my right hon. Friend in supporting the considerable efforts of British forces in Afghanistan, particularly because failure would result in the complete reversal of women’s rights in that country. However, I still believe that we pay far too little attention to engaging with women in terms of solutions for the security of Afghanistan. I would be grateful if he could confirm how many servicewomen will be going to Afghanistan as a result of his announcement; whether we have recruited any female translators, who are often the only people who can communicate with women on the ground; and what efforts are being made by ISAF to adopt a comprehensive plan regarding UN Security Council resolution 1325.

My hon. Friend makes several important points. She will be aware that the representation of women in the Parliament of Afghanistan is proportionally greater than the representation of women in our Parliament, although that is not the end of the story. She will also be aware that a third of the young people—6 million—who are in education in Afghanistan are girls or young women, none of whom were educated under the Taliban. As she knows, there are still attacks on women and occasions when things happen particularly to women that suggest we are not making any progress, but we need to ask ourselves whether the lot of women in Afghanistan would be better if we were there or not there. I was in Lashkar Gah a couple of weeks ago and saw significant numbers of women on the streets of that community for the first time, and I know which way they would vote.

On my hon. Friend’s specific questions, I do not imagine that she expects me to have those statistics at my fingertips, but I will ensure that she gets them and that they are given to her in such a way that everybody else in the House can share that knowledge.

After another sad week in Afghanistan, may I remind the Defence Secretary that on 27 February 2006 I warned his predecessor that we could not hope to fulfil our declared objectives in that country with 100,000 troops or even 300,000 troops? Recently, the outgoing NATO general has said that he would wish to see 400,000 troops there. What is the point of sending yet another small contingent, particularly bearing in mind the fact that the main terrorist training grounds are in Pakistan and that the great majority of our NATO allies are determined not to allow their troops to become committed in serious fighting?

The hon. Gentleman has the merit of consistency, but in my view—he knows that I have enormous respect for him—he is consistently wrong on this subject, and I am absolutely determined to prove him wrong in respect of the observations he made to my right hon. Friend the former Defence Secretary on 27 February 2006. I have been in Afghanistan on many occasions in the past 25 months; with respect, I am not sure whether he has been once. If he wishes to come with me to Afghanistan, I will take him there. He can see on the ground what our people are doing and talk to our troops—

But mostly, he can talk to Afghans. The significant difference between his historical analysis of the situation and what we are doing is that on previous occasions those who failed in Afghanistan were fighting the Afghans, whereas we are fighting with the Afghans. That is the significant difference.

I pay tribute to my constituent, Private Cuthbertson, who was killed in Afghanistan last week.

May I ask the Secretary of State what assurance he can give regarding steps being taken to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan? As he will know, in the past there have been a large number of civilian casualties, which has been a source of friction between NATO forces and President Karzai. I would be grateful to know what we are doing to minimise them and what recompense is available when they occur.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent. I am sure that my hon. Friend has been a support to the family and friends involved, and has made it clear to them that the deaths, terrible as they are, and which can never be explained in a way that is satisfactory to families, are part of a greater whole that has made a significant difference to many millions of people in Afghanistan. The men and women who do this work are genuine heroes. With respect, that work is not restricted to members of the armed forces. A number of young men and women working in Afghanistan come from Departments of State, including civil servants from the Ministry of Defence; they have volunteered to work in that difficult environment and are doing a sterling job.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I know exercises him, and we have discussed it on several occasions. The most relevant part of his question was his use of the past tense. We have made significant improvements. The last commander of ISAF, General McNeill, was very conscious of the effect that collateral damage, or civilian casualties, had on the overall mission, apart from the effect that it was having on those people caught up in it. He issued a series of instructions dealing with the issues raised by my hon. Friend, and they have had a significant effect. We should never forget that all the civilian casualties caused by ISAF operations are accidental. Those caused by the Taliban are, more often than not, caused deliberately.

Last week, I met the chairman of the Helmand provincial council, who was visiting London, and he mentioned the positive help given to provide security against insurgents, the training being given to the Afghan police and army, and reconstruction works, including the building of schools, hospitals, clinics, houses and roads. It was a positive speech, and I took great comfort from the knowledge that none of that could have come about were it not for the bravery of our armed forces. The Secretary of State referred to Afghanistan as a noble cause. In order that the British people fully appreciate that, could I urge him to redouble his efforts so that people know that our military personnel are making a huge difference to the lives of ordinary Afghans, ensuring that their country does not return to being a haven from which terrorism is exported around the world?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman because I saw his news release following his meeting with the chairman of the Helmand provincial council. He has done what is necessary, which is explain to the people of his constituency, through an Afghan voice, exactly what our young men and women are achieving. The quotations included in the press release from that genuine Afghan voice speak much more eloquently than Ministers of the Crown, the armed forces or, with all due respect, Members of this House could. What we need—and I have been trying to get—are more Afghans telling us the substantial difference between life now and what it was only five or six years ago, because of the presence of our young men and women in their country. That message will convince our people that the sacrifices and investments that we make in Afghanistan are worth while. Not only that, but when we get that country into some sort of stabilised position and can deal with the issues, which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) rightly identified, of governance, corruption and counter-narcotics, it will make a substantial difference on the streets of our communities, which will be safer and more drug free than they are now.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the progress that has been made in Afghanistan. Does he agree that one of the keys to more progress in southern Afghanistan is co-operation with Pakistan? Despite the critical statements that are often made, and which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) repeated today, does my right hon. Friend agree that Pakistan is making a genuine sacrifice? More than 1,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the northern territories and on the borders of Pakistan.

My hon. Friend raises an issue mentioned by the hon. Member for Woodspring, which is key to a sustainable and peaceful future for Afghanistan. There is a mirror image of Afghanistan’s problems on the other side of the border in the Fatah and tribal areas of Pakistan. With respect, hon. Members need to be consistent. We cannot celebrate the election of a democratic Government in Pakistan without living with the consequences of control in that country moving from the military to politics. The engagement with politics in the areas that we are considering will create challenges for that Government, but we universally welcomed the elections, to the extent that they were successful, in Pakistan. However, they have consequences. The army is moving from the position that it previously occupied in the Pakistani community, and that change is important to the future stability of that part of the world. When I was in Afghanistan and subsequently in Pakistan, and when I spoke this morning to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, I concentrated on the need—I know that my colleagues do it all the time with institutions and on visits to the region—to get the two countries to work together across the border, recognise that they share a series of common problems and stop blaming each other for the problems in their countries. That is the only way we will make progress.

Following directly from that, does the Secretary of State agree that one of the key issues is that of patrolling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? To do that, we need to fulfil the terms of NATO’s combined joint statement of requirements—in other words, provide more troops. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the only way we can avoid the catastrophe of the forces of Afghanistan or Pakistan making incursions into the other? What more can we do about that patrolling?

The necessity for a battle group that can manoeuvre around the border is crucial. However, that is only part of the solution to problems on the border. I emphasise that there are 2,900 km of the most mountainous border one can imagine. There needs to be an acceptance on both sides of it that both countries face the same problems, with the same roots. There are opportunities for the two Governments to speak to each other. Indeed, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan was in Kabul immediately after I was there and after I spoke to him in Pakistan. Some progress was made, although this morning’s press conference or statements by President Karzai suggest that the progress has gone backwards a bit. However, we need to keep working with those two countries so that their forces, which will be there in the long term, recognise the issues that they have in common on that border. If we can get them to live up to commitments made separately to secure and police the border, that is as much a long-term issue as any challenge that we face in that part of the world.

The Secretary of State made an optimistic statement about Afghanistan. Will he comment on the way in which the Taliban’s tactics appear to have changed into that of a guerrilla war against an occupying force? Increasingly, there is pressure on those forces to cross into Pakistan. What effect will that have on the politics of Pakistan? How long does he expect British troops to remain in Afghanistan?

The only answer I am prepared to give to that question is that British troops will remain there until we assess that the Afghan security forces are capable of sustaining the security that has been created. We are making remarkable progress in that regard. To the degree that there was optimism in the entirely realistic statement that I made to the House, it was realistic optimism; but there was some pessimism in it, too. I recognise the challenges that we face, and we have to redouble our efforts to deal with them.

I say with some regret to my hon. Friend that there is no answer to the problems that the Pakistanis and Afghans face in that region that involves the international community turning its back on them. To refer to ISAF, which is in Afghanistan at the request of the democratically elected Government there and supported by a UN Security Council resolution, and which represents almost the whole world—there are no national voices suggesting that we should not be there—as an occupying force that people are somehow justified in fighting against is entirely to misrepresent what we are doing there.

Although the Secretary of State said that 50,000 Afghan troops had now been trained, fewer than 10,000 of them have been fully equipped. What will NATO do about the shortfall in equipment, to ensure that the 50,000 trained Afghans have the right equipment to allow them to participate in the sort of action in which British troops and others are currently involved?

There are, I think, 55,000 trained Afghans in the national army. There are also a greater number of police officers, who have been partly trained but who substantially need retraining, and we are working our way through that. Properly equipping an army of that size to face an insurgency is a challenging task. Every day we make more investment in doing that, but at the same time we are trying to ensure that the Afghan institutions of government learn how to do that for themselves and to sustain their own army. So we are doing many things, investing billions of dollars from the international community—mostly from the United States of America—in equipping this army to deal with the insurgency challenge that it faces. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a measure of exactly where we are in that process from the Dispatch Box today, but I know from my observations of that army, as it has been trained and equipped over the past two years, that we have made a lot of progress. All those soldiers who are deployed and working with ours in the south are equipped well enough to deal with what they need to do.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and in particular his indication of the progress being made militarily, which is a tribute to the courage, commitment and professionalism of our armed services. He has outlined some of the benefits that have now accrued to the Afghan people from our presence, but could he give an assessment of the development of Afghanistan’s public infrastructure and national economy?

The Afghan economy has grown at the rate of about 9 per cent. or more a year since 2001. Frankly, however, that masks the problem in the Afghan economy, which is that a substantial proportion of the real economy relies on drugs. Breaking the link between the Afghan economy and its dependence on drugs is crucial. At the heart of that is the ability to deal with the comparatively small number of people who are extremely influential in Afghanistan. My assessment is that if we can develop the governance and justice system of Afghanistan in the short term, so that it can deal with the comparatively small number of very influential families and their leaders, we will be able to make important progress in developing the Afghan economy. However, exactly when we will be able to do that will be a function of our ability to get the Afghan capacity built up. As I said earlier at Question Time, we must bear in mind the fact that Afghanistan has been ravaged by decades of violence and that we start from a very low base.

The Secretary of State knows that the whole country should be extremely proud of the performance of British armed forces in Afghanistan. However, even after this welcome, if very small, addition, there are still critical gaps in the military structure which, unless filled, will prevent us from completing the mission successfully. Will the Secretary of State, together with the Prime Minister, urge the Germans, who have remarkable and substantial engineering assets in the north, to realise that their business is south and that we and the Americans will provide them with force protection so that we can get on with the absolutely essential, almost untouched part of the vital reconstruction, without which the mission will not be able to proceed?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. At the NATO ministerial meeting last week, I encouraged all those countries with assets to make a contribution by deploying them in the south. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for reminding the House that large parts of Afghanistan have improved immeasurably, but that we have to be very careful not to abandon and leave those areas as the soft underbelly of country, because if we do that is where the Taliban will go. The German Defence Minister reminded me—he was right to do so—that Germany had suffered some casualties where they are and that retaining the north and west and the area around Kabul, which we may be able to see handed over to the Afghans themselves, is quite important. The Taliban have a habit of going where the weakest spot is and I certainly do not want them to see success in places where we have already seen significant improvement.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and I welcome the increase in CIMIC—Civil Military Co-operation—personnel, which will help to further civil reconstruction. I also welcome the reference in the statement to an increase in flying hours. Will he join me in paying tribute to the workers of Fleetlands, many of whom live in my constituency, who have delivered real improvements in service and repair techniques, which enabled us to have this increased operational capability?

I have no difficulty in acceding to my hon. Friend’s request. Everybody who has made a contribution to the success we have enjoyed in Afghanistan, the recognised improvement in security there and the creation of the opportunity to which this announcement is designed to respond deserves the utmost credit. That is true whether they do what they do in uniform or out of it. In whatever way they have contributed, we should celebrate the success of these extraordinarily brave, dedicated and professional people.

Last week, President Karzai responded to allegations of corruption within his Administration—his response appeared in Der Spiegel magazine—by attacking coalition forces, accusing them of having Afghan warlords on their payroll, of offering other financial inducements in the form of land and, in one case, of using their soldiers for force protection. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm that, as far as he is aware, these accusations are entirely baseless? Will he also comment on what this says about President Karzai’s attitude to coalition forces?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman believes these allegations either—at least, I hope he does not. There are often people who advise President Karzai of some quite bizarre allegations in respect of ISAF, and I have personally had to disabuse him on many occasions. I remember that on one occasion, a deeply corrupt individual who had access to the President’s ear advised him that we were, in fact, training the Taliban; I wondered why that was given any consideration at all.

On the other hand, we have to accept that this man works in a very difficult political environment and that the things he says are quite often edited and presented in a way that he does not intend them to be presented. I know him to be a very brave and honourable man who works in a very difficult and challenging political environment. As we can all imagine, to volunteer to do his job and face all sorts of pressures and attacks on personal safety requires a degree of courage. Frankly, although I often personally disagree with him in his analysis, I respect the man as the democratically elected leader of the country. In my view, we should support him to move forward as long as he is the democratic leader, and we should give him a little bit of leeway in what he says publicly.

The Secretary of State stressed the importance of security and intelligence, saying that he was not complacent. This has not been mentioned so far, but what role does he see for the spy in the sky—the Nimrod aircraft, particularly the upgraded MRA4? They could provide fantastic information from observation and reconnaissance not only over the Pakistan-Afghan border, but from elsewhere, to give warning about what the Taliban are doing and their movements.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One lesson of deploying the current Nimrod to do exactly that in Afghanistan has been an astonishing level of detailed information. He will forgive me if I do not, in public, go into just how effective it can be. I know that those who fly the aircraft look forward to the updated and further-invested version and the capabilities that it will have. This aircraft not only can be used in a maritime environment, but has proved very important to our capability above Afghanistan, and indeed above Iraq.

What is the basis of the Defence Secretary’s statement that half the Taliban’s fighters are paid foreigners? Does that include Pashtun speakers from Pakistan and has the break-out of 600 Talib fighters from the prison in Kandahar made any statistical difference to that assessment?

It is probably a bit early to be asking whether people who were sprung from prison on Friday night have made any statistical difference to the people whom we will face. That operation is still ongoing. We are, with others, keeping a careful eye on it and there has been some progress in rearresting some of those who escaped from the prison.

I think I used the phrase the majority of the fighters, so that is more than 50 per cent. What is the basis of that? I will not go into the detail of the figures in the House, but that is our experience from those with whom we are engaged and from the fact that, quite often, we recover people from the battle space because they are injured or identify their bodies later. That information is provided to me by those who are engaged with them.

The particular basis of that assertion arises from the place where there has been the most intense engagement with the Taliban over the last weeks—the southern Helmand area, where the US marine expeditionary unit has been deployed. That is the unit’s overwhelming experience of the people it is having to deal with.