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Afghanistan-Pakistan Border

Volume 490: debated on Monday 30 March 2009

3. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (267177)

The porous nature of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a major concern. The UK, along with our coalition partners, is working closely with the authorities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to achieve the necessary improvements in security.

The porous border has been an issue for a number of years, as the border people in that area do not even recognise the border. For some time, too, there has been a shortage of troops to secure the area. What assurances and commitments have we had from our NATO allies to commit more troops to the region, and when will we commit troops ourselves?

We have not yet had any commitments from European Union or NATO forces. We are looking at our own force levels, as I said earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). The United States has decided to deploy significant additional forces to the south and east of Afghanistan, which I hope will contribute to greater security on the Afghan side of the border. There need to be improvements in security on the Pakistan side, too. We have had a number of discussions with senior military figures in Pakistan and we continue to work with the Pakistan military to improve their capabilities and capacity to improve border security on their side of the Durand line. I do not envisage that there will be any instantaneous improvement in border security. It will take us time to achieve that, but the UK is working very closely with Pakistan to improve its capabilities.

Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will not withdraw from our relationship with Pakistan at this very difficult time? There are people who argue that we should withdraw diplomatic relations. It should be remembered that Pakistan is losing far more troops than anyone else in trying to secure that border, so will he give assurances that he will maintain that relationship?

Yes, we will certainly do that. Pakistan is not the culprit but the victim of this type of violent extremism. The Pakistani security forces up in the federally administered tribal areas, down in Waziristan and along the border have fought long and hard against the extremists, who are a real threat to the democracy of Pakistan, too. We will continue to work with Pakistan. They are our friends and allies and share a common assessment of the menace posed by such extremism.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the events in Lahore today show that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far beyond the border region? While we have troops in Afghanistan, we do not have them in Pakistan. Is the Secretary of State, along with the United States, rethinking his entire strategy for the region? Will he make a statement and perhaps allow a debate and possibly even a vote in this House about that?

Yes, we are looking very carefully at all these matters. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to have a proper debate in this place in the usual way, either on a statement or in another way. It is very important not just for the security of our operation in Afghanistan but for the security of the UK as a whole that we develop an approach that encompasses the security challenge that Afghanistan poses as well as the growing threat of instability and extremism in Pakistan. We very much welcome President Obama’s new strategy, which was published last week. It has the prospect of significantly improving the situation in that very troubled region and we stand ready to play our part.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that our relationship with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is in good enough shape to ensure that we deliver effective operations on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

No, not entirely. We continue to exert whatever positive influence that we can, but the situation is very complicated. I cannot really confirm or deny very much about the nature of some of the more recent stories in the newspapers, but we know that there is a problem and it has to be addressed. Efforts are being made to address the problem, but we cannot have covert support being given either to al-Qaeda or to the Taliban in Pakistan. Not only is that a risk to our troops, whom we protect absolutely as a premium, but it is a direct threat to the stability of Pakistan.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Afghan Taliban have recently been successful in persuading the Pakistani Taliban to defer some of their operations in Pakistan and to join their Afghan colleagues to help to try to deal with the expected American surge? If the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can get their act together, is it not about time that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments were also able to do so? Will the Secretary of State speak to his Pakistani colleague and impress upon him that the security of Afghanistan is crucial to the security of Pakistan itself?

I agree very strongly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have already had those conversations with the Pakistani Minister of Defence, and I have had those conversations regularly with the Afghan Minister of Defence as well. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman 100 per cent., and we are focused very clearly on doing exactly what he has just said.

The Secretary of State acknowledged that it is a porous border. It is also a very contested border. The long-term solution will involve strengthening the capabilities of Afghan forces. To what extent is he working more with the Afghan army, which is making good progress, but also with the Afghan police, where I gather that progress is less satisfactory than with the army?

We have made some significant progress in training the Afghan army. There are now nearly 70,000 trained personnel in the Afghan forces, but that simply is not enough; significant further increases are needed. However, there is a lot more work to be done in training the Afghan police, who are simply not in a proper state, I am afraid, at the moment to contribute to dealing with the problems on the border. We are working with the Afghan security forces, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Defence in Kabul, to improve capabilities there. The recent announcement of very significant additional US forces, with a specific training and mentoring role, will again offer prospects in the year ahead, so that we can make significant further progress, but this remains a fundamental concern. There is a weakness in the quality and capabilities of Afghan security forces, and it must be addressed.

There are persistent reports that the Treasury would veto any attempt to deploy further British troops to Afghanistan. Can it possibly be the case that the strategy of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department is being determined by the Treasury?

I think that the facts speak for themselves—[Interruption]although perhaps not in the way that Opposition Members think. If one looks at the facts, we see that the British mission in Afghanistan has increased significantly in the past three years—from an initial deployment of 2,000 or 3,000, up now nearly to 8,500 and beyond—and that has been properly and fully resourced by the Treasury. So there is no substance in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point.

The Secretary of State mentions that the coalition of forces provides security in the region. Will he comment on the contribution made by the smaller nations within NATO—countries such as Estonia, with a population of just over 1 million, which supplies 150 troops at present in Afghanistan? Would he like to send a message to those countries?

Yes, I certainly would. The Estonian contingent in Helmand has done an absolutely superb job, and many hon. Members will have seen those troops serving alongside British soldiers; they are literally shoulder to shoulder. They are superb fighters, and they have done a fantastic job. I was in Copenhagen last week to express on behalf, I hope, of the whole House our respect and admiration for the Danish forces that are also fighting in Gereshk in central Helmand. Those forces, too, have done an absolutely superb job. We are lucky and fortunate to have those allies in Helmand, but we could do with more.

Given his Department’s acceptance that Britain’s armed forces are

“continuing to operate above the overall level of concurrent operations which they are resourced and structured to sustain over time”,

where does Secretary of State expect to find the troops for any increase in Britain’s presence in Afghanistan if that is what he decides to do? Pursuant to the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), will the Secretary of State give the House an unequivocal undertaking that any such increase will be fully funded in year by the Treasury?

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I do not want to identify particular units or do anything like that today—that would be wrong—but the draw-down in Operation Telic will create an operational breathing space, and it might be possible to find additional resources in that way if a decision was made to deploy additional forces. That is at least a partial answer to his question.

On the money issue, as I have said, the Treasury has always supported to the full our contingent operations in Afghanistan, and that will continue to be the case.