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Volume 486: debated on Monday 12 January 2009

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the security situation in Pakistan on the routes used to supply UK armed forces serving in Afghanistan. (246444)

Our assessment of the security situation in Pakistan on the routes used to supply UK armed forces serving in Afghanistan is continuously reviewed. We are grateful to the Government of Pakistan for their support for resupply operations for UK and other ISAF—international security assistance force—members in Afghanistan. Through those efforts our lines of supply have not been significantly threatened and remain open and effective.

The recent closure of the crucial Khyber pass route into northern Afghanistan will no doubt have stretched our air bridge supply lines and the strategic transport aircraft fleet. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether he is satisfied with the supply route options available and, more narrowly, whether there have been any problems at all with delivery to our servicemen and women in theatre of the all-important morale-boosting mail from home during the Christmas period and the weeks since?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s concern. I can assure him that all the mail got through, and there is more than one supply route into Afghanistan. He referred to the recent closure of the Khyber pass; it was closed by the Pakistani security forces as part of a sweep to clear insurgents from that part of the Khyber agency, and it has been successful. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that our lines of supply and communication to Afghanistan are robust and secure, and we have an effective air bridge. Clearly, the air bridge needs to be adequate and sufficient and, if necessary, we will not hesitate to provide additional resources to complement those that we have deployed.

In view of the attacks on the supply route, is the Secretary of State considering acquiring new C-17 or C-130 aircraft, and if he is, will they be funded from the contingency reserve?

We are looking at all those issues. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the C-17s; we recently acquired additional C-17s, and we are looking at the possibility of acquiring more, yes.

Along with other hon. Members, I visited Pakistan last week and met the President, the Prime Minister, senior Government figures and Opposition leaders. All were committed to democracy, and were encouraging about the support that the British Government have been giving, but they all expressed concern about Americans bombing and about drone missiles in the north of Pakistan. That not only undermines attempts to introduce democracy, but gives substance to the claims of terrorists. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to influence the Americans on that issue?

I have some sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend raises, but essentially those matters are between the US Government and the Government of Pakistan. It would be remiss of me if I did not point out to the House that the attacks have had a significant degrading effect on al-Qaeda operations in the area and, to that extent, have advanced the security of UK and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

As the British Government reassess their strategy with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, alongside our American allies, will the Secretary of State comment on reports of an apparent fraying of relations between the British and American militaries? Will he take this opportunity to underline how important it is to our country that we should be able to offer the Americans effective military aid in support of their efforts, so that we remain as important to them as they are to us?

Again, I am very grateful—I am spending all my time today saying how grateful I am to hon. Members—to the hon. Gentleman, and I can give him an assurance. The reports are complete rubbish, and they do not reflect the current state of relations—military, political or diplomatic—between the UK and the United States. The United States remains our principal international ally. UK forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have done a superb job of advancing British policy, and the policies and security of our friends and allies around the world, and—I believe this to be true—they have no critics in the US military at all; it respects and appreciates the work of the UK’s armed forces. That is a tribute to the professionalism and bravery of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. It remains my clear view that everything that we in the Ministry of Defence do will be designed to enhance that relationship and ensure that it remains strong and reliable in the years to come.

My right hon. Friend rightly spelled out the need for more heavy-lift aircraft, but he mentioned using C-130s; where does that leave the A400M programme?

That is a very good question. The A400M programme is now likely to be subject to considerable delay—[Interruption]—because of problems that EADS is having in producing the aircraft, not because of any policy decision made by the UK Government or any other partner nations involved in the project. We cannot accept a three or four-year delay in the delivery of those aircraft. That would impose an unnecessary, unacceptable strain on our air assets. We, along with all our partner nations, will have to consider very carefully what the right response to the problem is.

One of the consequences of a better security situation in Iraq is that many of the fanatical extremists are moving up to the north-west frontier in Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State comment on the measures that he is trying to take to prevent the constant flow of extremists from the madrassahs in Pakistan to the front line, where they confront our troops? It is demoralising for our troops always to find that there can be replenishment by the Taliban, and reoccupation of sites that our armed forces had taken, once they have pulled back in order to retrench.

I agree absolutely with the central thrust of what the hon. Gentleman said—the need for greater border security between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top priority, and I am glad, for example, that Presidents Karzai and Zardari recently agreed to focus additional effort on border security, which we welcome. The Pakistani frontier corps is making a significant effort, both in Baluchistan and in Waziristan in the tribal areas, to try to get a proper grip on what is happening. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is demoralising to see Pakistan used as a sanctuary and a source of resupply and reinforcement for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The solution to that problem will primarily require a greater focus of effort on the Afghan side of the border and on the Pakistan side, but I can assure him that British military advisers are involved in those debates and discussions, and we are looking at what further help we can provide, on both the Afghan and Pakistan sides of the border, to address those serious issues.

Further to that, does the Secretary of State not agree that the federally administered tribal areas provide an enduring criminal sanctuary? They provide command and control for the Afghan insurgency, with financial support and training. Is not the bottom line that we cannot achieve our objectives in Afghanistan until we disrupt at the very least the al-Qaeda-Taliban network that is attacking from Pakistan? When the United States takes out al-Qaeda leaders, should we not celebrate, rather than criticise?

I think that that is exactly what I did a few minutes ago. They are our mortal enemy, and we are involved in a fundamental struggle with them, in which we must prevail. I accept the need for greater security in Afghanistan, which will be met to a great extent if we can tighten the freedom of movement across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The challenge is the best way to do so. It is primarily an Afghan and Pakistan issue of security that must be addressed, but we are doing everything that we possibly can to enhance the safety and security of the British mission, and that of our allies and partners in Afghanistan, as we deal with al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. That will continue to be my absolute priority during my time as Secretary of State for Defence.

To guarantee the security of supplies when they reach Afghanistan, we need a rural security presence, especially with a dispersed rural population. Does the Secretary of State believe that we have sufficient forces to clear and hold territory, then build on that, whether from the international security assistance force, Operation Enduring Freedom or the Afghan national security forces? If extra forces are required, how can we get our allies to shoulder their fair share of the international security burden? Surely, joint security implies joint commitment?

Yes, I agree very strongly with that, too, and we continually make the case in NATO that our allies should take more responsibility for operations in Afghanistan. I believe that the conflict in Afghanistan will be the defining conflict of the 21st century for NATO, and will confirm its relevance or otherwise, so it is absolutely essential that there is proper and effective burden sharing. As for troop levels in Afghanistan, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an announcement recently about additional deployments to Afghanistan, partly to advance some of the operations to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention. We need more security, particularly around Lashkagar, and that is what Operation Sond Chara was designed to do over Christmas and early in the new year. It has been a resounding success. The theatre capability review has just been completed in Afghanistan, and we are considering its findings. If there is a case, and if there is an announcement to be made about additional deployments in Afghanistan, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that this will be the first place to hear it.