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Afghan Public Opinion

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

7. What assessment he has made of Afghan public opinion on the international security assistance force and UK military missions in Afghanistan. (257886)

The United Kingdom and our ISAF partners are in Afghanistan at the invitation of the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan, and our strong experience on the ground is that Afghans welcome the progress that has been made since the overthrow of the Taliban. The governor of Helmand province, Governor Mangal, has himself stated:

“Until the threat of terrorism is removed it is important that British and international forces remain in Afghanistan.”

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he acknowledge that United Nations figures show that 39 per cent. of the 2,118 people killed in Afghanistan in 2008 were civilians and that 31 per cent. more civilians were killed by NATO in 2008 than in 2007? At the same time, a broadcasting poll shows that the proportion of Afghanis who think that their country is heading in the right direction has fallen from 77 per cent. to 40 per cent. and that support for NATO among Afghanis has fallen from 67 per cent. to 37 per cent. Does the Secretary of State not think that these trends are connected, and that we have to ensure that the people of Afghanistan see themselves not as targets but as protected by the forces, and that they can see the basis for their country developing, rather than having their civilians killed in the crossfire?

Let me make it absolutely clear to the right hon. Gentleman that Afghan civilians are not targeted by NATO and ISAF forces—it is completely untrue to claim otherwise. The majority of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban and their supporters, and we should never lose sight of that fact. They show an indiscriminate use of violence and a willingness to use men, women and children—civilians—as a cover behind which they launch their cowardly attacks on both the Afghan security forces and NATO troops. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have to do more—it is the value system that we represent that is important here—to reduce even further, if we can, civilian casualties in Afghanistan. I want to be clear with him and the House that I think there is more we can do, and I want to be in a position soon to make a further statement about that.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but even some of the more stable parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the north, are now beginning to look as though they may come under threat from Taliban or other insurgent elements. What guarantees can we ask for from the whole international community that a proper political process is underwriting what the military are currently trying to do? I am aware that my own regiment, the 1st Rifles, is there, as it has been on previous occasions. The military people need to have some knowledge that the political situation is getting better, not worse.

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I think it is a mistake to describe the security situation in the way that he has done. I think he will find that there were fewer security incidents this year in Kabul, for example, than the year before, so we need to be very careful about how we in this House describe the security situation there. I am not for a second saying that there are not still very serious challenges for us to face in Afghanistan, but I think we need to be clear about the nature of the problem.

The political reconciliation process is, first and foremost, rightly and properly a matter on which the Afghan Government, as the democratic representatives of the Afghan people, should take lead responsibility, but I think my hon. Friend will find that our military commanders on the ground are very well experienced and very well educated in the political realities of Afghan society.

While Afghan public opinion is, of course, very important, so, too, is British public opinion. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that if our European NATO allies do not deploy more troops in a combat role, British public support for this particular campaign will be substantially lessened—and, indeed, the public’s faith in NATO itself will be much reduced?

Yes, I think there is a danger of that, as I have made clear in many public remarks, but if there is a consensus in this House—and I hope there is—it should be about the nature of the UK mission in Afghanistan. It is first and foremost about securing UK national security interests. That is why our troops are there—it is why we ask them to expose themselves to the risk of danger—and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with me about that, I hope he will join me in continuing to make the case for why the United Kingdom should be involved in the way that it is in our mission in Afghanistan.