With permission, Mr. Speaker, following my visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier this week, I should like to make a statement on the Government’s strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
First, I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to all those serving in our armed forces, and remember with gratitude those who have given their lives in the service of our country. As I saw again on Monday, our armed forces are facing enormous challenges with great skill, determination and courage. They are the best in the world, and we are immensely proud of them.
Our counter-terrorist strategy, published last month, set out how we are working to tackle terrorism around the globe, but one priority—indeed, the greatest international priority—is the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are the crucible for global terrorism, the breeding ground for international terrorists, and the source of a chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are of course different countries at different stages of development, but as the document we are publishing today emphasises, together they face this shared challenge of terrorism. In Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban are using mines and suicide bombs to carry out attacks on our troops and on innocent civilians. In Pakistan, the army and security services are now dealing with the wider territorial ambitions made clear by the Pakistan Taliban. Last year alone in Pakistan itself, 2,000 civilians and security personnel were killed in terrorist attacks. Suicide bombs in Pakistan, once relatively rare, were used 60 times last year and are at the same level this year—an almost tenfold rise in over two years.
We know that terrorist leaders are orchestrating attacks around the world from the border areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we know also of the stronger connections that now exist between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, and between them and al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. That requires us to take further, more determined and concerted action.
In our December 2007 strategy, we made the right long-term decisions for Afghanistan, decisions that were reinforced in the conclusions of the United States’ review last month. Now, following our own review to identify what is working and where we need to go further, I want to set out an updated strategy for our actions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how we will mobilise our resources to take those actions. In both countries we are working with the elected Governments, including through our commitments to support their economic development and through combined development and stabilisation expenditure of £255 million, £256 million and £339 million—a total of almost £1 billion over three years. In both countries our involvement is focused on the tasks that are necessary to enable them to counter the terrorist threat themselves.
For Afghanistan, our strategy is to ensure that the country is strong enough as a democracy to withstand and overcome the terrorist threat, and strengthening Afghan control and resilience will require us to intensify our work in the following key areas. First, we will build up the Afghan police and army and the rule of law, and we should now adopt the stated goal of enabling district by district, province by province handover to Afghan control. Secondly, we want to strengthen Afghan democracy at all levels, including by ensuring credible and inclusive elections and improving security through that period. Thirdly, we want to help strengthen local government in Afghanistan, not least the traditional Afghan structures such as the local shuras. Fourthly, we want to give people in Afghanistan a stake in their future, promoting economic development as the best way of helping the Afghan people to achieve not just stability but prosperity.
In Pakistan, our strategy to tackle the same underlying problem of terrorism results in different proposals. First, we want to work with the elected Government and the army, but while Afghanistan’s forces are at an early stage and so international forces have to play a front-line role, by contrast Pakistan has a large and well funded army, and we want to work with it to help it counter terrorism by taking more control of the border areas. Secondly, not least through support for education and development, we want to prevent young people from falling under the sway of violent and extremist ideologies.
Let me address the proposals in turn. As I said to the House in December 2007, success in strengthening Afghanistan to withstand terrorism will ultimately depend on building the Afghans’ capacity to take control of their own security, so we want to work to build up the Afghan army from its current strength of 80,000 to a total of 134,000 by late 2011. I believe that we will need even greater numbers than that for the future. Already 300 of our forces in Helmand are dedicated to training them. Nationally, we are leading the training of non-commissioned officers and have trained over 18,000, and together with France we have also trained over 1,000 army officers. As many Members know, Afghan army brigades have fought bravely alongside our troops, as we saw in a major operation to drive insurgents out of Nad Ali earlier this year, and 90 per cent. of the Afghan public see their army as an honest and fair institution.
However, the same is not yet true of the police, and that must be achieved if Afghans are to spread the rule of law throughout their country. We have 120 civilian and military advisers working with the police, and I can tell the House that, as resources are freed from the south as the US moves in, we will over time shift the balance of our operations away from front-line combat and towards an enhanced contribution to training both the army in Afghanistan and its police.
At its 60th anniversary summit last month, the NATO alliance unanimously agreed that supporting the Afghans to build a stronger democratic Afghanistan was its highest priority. Afghanistan is about to hold its second presidential election. A safe, credible and inclusive election is essential. We are providing £15 million for election support, and President Karzai has given me further personal assurances about his determination to ensure credible, inclusive elections. I also reiterated to him the concerns that we and the whole world have about the Shi’a family law, and I welcome his decision to review that draft Bill. I urged him to step up his Government’s efforts to tackle the corruption that has discouraged Afghans from backing democracy against the Taliban, and I made it clear that we will support the Afghan Government as they take forward the process of reconciliation.
Our aim is to divide, isolate and then remove the insurgents and offer those prepared to renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution the prospect of work and security. However, those who refuse must prepare for a long and difficult battle, in which there can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state.
Just as the Afghans need to take control of their own security, they also need to build legitimate governance. We will strengthen our efforts on localisation, civilianisation and the promotion of economic development so that Afghan people have a stake in their future. Our local joint civilian and military teams are supporting the Afghan social outreach programme in Helmand. In key districts, we are helping district governors reach out to the traditional tribal system through shuras, which, as I saw on Monday, are now empowering local solutions to local problems. To support that, we have doubled the number of deployed civilian experts. We are encouraging other countries to follow that example and urging the United Nations to play a greater role in co-ordinating the civilian effort. Last month, the Secretary of State for International Development announced an additional £50 million for development assistance. Today he is publishing his Afghanistan country plan.
Britain remains Afghanistan’s third biggest donor, with more than £500 million committed over the next four years. In Helmand, that allows us to support the building of a road to Lashkar Gah and the refurbishment of the hydropower dam, from which up to 200,000 people will benefit through irrigation. We are also investing £30 million over four years to work with the Government on a new programme of agricultural support, which includes the wheat-seed programme in Helmand as a viable alternative to poppy and, nationally, improved access to credit so that more Afghans can invest in farming.
Following my visit last December, the Defence Secretary and I approved a temporary increase—until August—in the number of British troops deployed to Afghanistan, from just over 8,000 to around 8,300. Now, to strengthen security throughout the election period, I have authorised a further increase to 9,000 until the autumn. To ensure that our forces are properly protected, especially from the growing threat of mines and roadside bombs, we will deploy permanent additional units for that purpose. Some are in the process of deploying now, with others joining them soon. After the election and through the autumn, we plan to return our troop numbers to 8,300. As always, we will keep the position under review, based on the situation on the ground.
I am determined that Britain will fulfil its international commitments. I believe that, with a deployment of more than 8,000 troops, concentrated in the Taliban heartland of the south, and with the additional costs of the reserve—which increased from £700 million in 2006 to £1.5 billion in 2007-08, then to £2.6 billion in 2008-09, with last week’s Budget estimating £3 billion for 2009-10—we are shouldering our share of the burden in Afghanistan. As more NATO troops deploy to the south, we will be able to share that burden more fairly. At the NATO summit this year, allies offered around 5,000 more troops in addition to the extra 21,000 combat and training troops that the United States plans to deploy, many of whom are destined for the south. I also welcome the additional Australian deployment announced this morning—an extra 450 personnel, bringing the total of Australian troops to around 1,550.
We will continue to place the highest priority on the safety of our forces, providing the necessary funding, with more than £1 billion in urgent operational requirements for vehicles in the past three years, including Mastiff patrol vehicles, which are among the best protected in the world. We have increased helicopter numbers and flying hours by 60 per cent. in the past two years.
It has become increasingly clear in the past year just how crucial Pakistan and its border areas with Afghanistan have become to stability in Afghanistan and to our national security at home. Those border areas are used by violent extremists as a base for launching attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan. As President Obama said, al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within. Although the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are different and require distinct approaches, we can no longer consider the terrorist threats arising in the two countries in isolation from each other.
While in Pakistan I met President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani and former Prime Minister Sharif and we discussed stronger action against terrorism and violent extremism. We are agreeing clear shared principles for our bilateral relationship: that terrorism and violent extremists present the most significant threat to both Britain and Pakistan; and that, throughout Pakistan and especially in the border areas, there must be long-term good governance and economic development to underpin progress on security.
To deliver on those principles we agreed an enhanced strategic dialogue to bring together our senior diplomatic, military and intelligence teams on a more regular basis. We will support that closer co-operation immediately, through a £10 million programme of counter-terrorism capacity-building, working with Pakistan’s police and security services. As Pakistan steps up the fight on terrorism, so we will focus greater attention on the basic human challenges that Pakistan still faces in education, health and respect for human rights, in each of which failure serves only to fuel radicalisation.
Britain’s development programme in Pakistan will become our second largest worldwide. We will provide £665 million in assistance over the next four years, but we will refocus much of our aid, including more than £125 million of education spending, on the border areas of Pakistan. We are working for the establishment of a World Bank trust fund for development in those border areas and we will press other countries to increase their contribution. With UK support, the recent Friends of Pakistan meeting and the donor conference in Tokyo have already delivered pledges of $5 billion over the next two years. Next month President Zardari will visit the UK. We will take forward our shared efforts to tackle terrorism. We will support economic development and harness the international community’s assistance for Pakistan, but we will also continue our discussions to agree a concordat to strengthen our practical co-operation to meet all the terrorist challenges.
Forty countries and more have shown the international community’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan. In December 2007 we led the way with our proposals to complement the brave action of our troops by building up the Afghan army and police and local government to give Afghans more control over their own affairs. Tackling terrorism in and from the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan drives forward our new set of proposals today. We will complement the necessary military action with economic, social and political progress aimed at building stronger and more effective democracies and strengthening the ability of the Afghan and Pakistan authorities to take greater responsibility for action against terrorism, building the strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan upon which their security and our security here in Britain ultimately depend. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving his statement today, although for a minute it was quite a close-run thing.
There are many things in the statement that we agree with. Above all, we can agree that the professionalism, dedication and courage of our armed forces personnel in Afghanistan are incredibly impressive. I have been three times in the past three years, and whether one is up the Helmand valley at Sangin, in Lashkar Gah or back at base in Camp Bastion, they are people of whom we can be incredibly proud. They have that can-do attitude, but we must always be careful as politicians not to take too much advantage of the fact that the Army and our armed services are always there and ready to serve.
I want to ask the Prime Minister about three areas: first, our overall strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; secondly, the situation in Afghanistan, particularly with respect to the elections; and finally, the deteriorating situation in Pakistan. Last month President Obama set out a new US strategy, which he summed up in a single sentence:
“to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
Is it not essential that our strategy is as tightly defined, as hard-headed and as realistic as that? We are not in the business of trying to create a new Switzerland in the Hindu Kush; we want to help provide security and deny al-Qaeda those training bases. President Obama also stressed that the Americans would not just press on blindly with their strategy, but would regularly assess whether they were making real progress against clear benchmarks and would hold themselves accountable. Given that we have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years now, what plans does the Prime Minister have to do the same here in Britain?
Next, on preparations for the August elections and the planned increase in troop numbers, we have said that we would be ready to support an increase for the elections, as long as it was clearly justified and backed up by extra equipment, such as helicopters and adequate force protection. In his statement, the Prime Minister gave some figures for the helicopter hours and capacity up to now; can he give us the future figures that will accompany the increase in troops for the election?
The Prime Minister talked about our NATO allies sharing a fairer burden in Afghanistan, as was announced at the recent NATO summit. Can he tell us when this commitment will be delivered, and how many of the extra troops will be based in southern Afghanistan? I believe that he said in his statement that many of them would be in south Afghanistan; can he tell us how many?
The US has announced a substantial troop reinforcement of 21,000 troops, including another 8,000 for Helmand province. Will the Prime Minister tell the House—in some detail, if possible—how the US forces will fit into the command chain in Helmand and Regional Command (South), and what implications their arrival will have for the combined British effort in Helmand?
No Afghan really likes the presence of foreign soldiers on Afghan soil, and the sooner we can safely reduce that number, the better. So it is right that we press ahead with the Afghanisation of the effort to bring security to that country. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that the Afghan national police have been seen as the weakest link in the security chain. Does he really believe that progress is now being made? The stories that we hear when we are there are pretty horrific. Progress is clearly much better in the army, but it is still reported that there is serious under-representation of Pashtuns in the army. Will the Prime Minister tell us what is being done about that?
It will clearly be difficult for the elections to be free and fair. Will the Prime Minister tell us what progress has been made on electoral registration and whether the Government expect that it will be possible for proper independent monitoring of the elections to take place?
Next, what happens in Pakistan is clearly as important for our security as what happens in Afghanistan, so for the purposes of our strategy we should treat them as one. The plotters of 9/11, the killers of Benazir Bhutto, the men who bombed London, and many others involved in many plots against our country either came from or were trained in western Pakistan, in the federally administered tribal areas extending all the way down to Baluchistan. That is where al-Qaeda remains active.
Pakistan, as we all know, has an enormous standing army, but it is configured for a conventional battle against a perceived external threat. It is not designed to deal with the sort of existential threat that Pakistan now faces from within. The Prime Minister talked about providing the assistance that Pakistan needs to train and equip its forces to deal with that threat. Did he meet the heads of the army on this visit? As things stand, what is his assessment of the Pakistan armed forces’ ability to come to grips with the Taliban’s continuing advance towards Islamabad? Are reports accurate that the Taliban are setting up militant training camps in the areas that they currently occupy, such as the Swat valley, and that many young people are joining those camps?
Will the Prime Minister also comment on what is being done to disrupt the activities of the Quetta shura, which, by all accounts, exerts a malign and controlling influence on both sides of the border? Can he comment on specific reports that the Quetta shura holds meetings around Pakistan, including a recent one in Karachi?
We all welcome the increase in UK aid that the Prime Minister has announced. Will he tell us how that aid will be linked to Pakistan’s performance in fighting terrorism? In particular, what help will the Government offer Pakistan to deal with extremist propaganda? Ambassador Holbrooke, who was in Britain recently, has drawn attention to the scores of low-wattage radio stations operating in the Swat valley. Apparently, night after night, they broadcast lists of people who are going to be executed. What are we doing to help the Pakistanis to jam those radio stations?
Terrorism and extremism must be confronted, but we must do that by working with the Government of Pakistan, and by drawing on our long history and knowledge of that country to help them to deal with the mortal threat that they now face. Does that not require patient, steady work to build up relationships and close ties with Pakistan? Is that not the vital role for Britain, now and in the future?
I am grateful for that level of agreement about what the strategy has to be, now and in the future, and I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the focus has to be greater than ever on the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, from where so much terrorist activity happens. We all have a shared interest: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Britain. Two thirds of the attacks or plots in Britain come from Pakistan, and 2,000 Pakistanis died last year and as many are dying this year as a result of terrorist plots. We know that the Taliban in Afghanistan have been active in killing not just British soldiers but civilians who refuse to abide by their wishes.
In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, yes, it is right to focus the Pakistan army and security services on the border areas. It is true that the federally administered tribal areas and the North West Frontier have never been fully brought under control by a democratic Government in Pakistan. It is also true, however, that there are 120,000 troops from Pakistan on the Afghan border, although of course the major effort has been reserved for protecting the border with India. We are working with the Pakistani army, so that it can be trained in counter-terrorism capability. Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, was with me in Pakistan and met General Kiani, the head of the Pakistani forces. There is ever closer co-operation between our two countries on these issues, and we have put £10 million immediately into counter-terrorism support in Pakistan. At the same time, we want to see regular conferences at diplomatic, military and political levels to look at the problems that we face.
It is true that there are well publicised incidents in Pakistan of the Pakistan Taliban gaining more control, but it is also true that there have been huge operations by the Pakistan army—two days ago, yesterday and, I believe, today—to take on the Taliban. The army has been very active in trying to deal with this issue. There was of course a motion passed in the Pakistan Assembly that allowed sharia law in a particular place, but I believe that the parliamentarians are now reconsidering that decision.
On Afghanistan, it is right to say that police training has been slow. It is therefore essential that we do more. There is a big NATO effort—the Germans were in the lead—and it is important, as we discuss these things with the Americans and our European partners, that the emphasis is on training the Afghan army and police. The Afghan army is to rise to 134,000. My own view, and that of the Defence Secretary, is that that will still be too small a number, given the terrain in Afghanistan, and that we will probably have to train far more Afghan soldiers. That is why a lot of our resources will be devoted to training.
We are reconfiguring our troops in Afghanistan for one very precise reason: the tactics of the Taliban have become those of guerrilla warfare. The use of roadside devices and improvised explosive devices has become common, and we have to prepare and arm our troops to deal with that problem and reconfigure our numbers in those areas where there has been significant trouble. When I was in Lashkar Gah, an operation was going on not so far away, and the bravery and dedication of our troops in clearing the areas so that they can sustain communities that are free from the Taliban was very impressive indeed.
The Leader of the Opposition raised the question of development expenditure. He is absolutely right to say that we are trying to combine the measures, militarily and politically, that will help to strengthen the Afghan state and Pakistani democracy, while, as they take on the terrorists, providing support for development so that people can see that they have a stake in the future. In the northern part of Pakistan, we are offering a very substantial redirection of aid, enabling 300,000 children—girls—to go to school, and the provision of books that will teach people the history of Pakistan and not the teaching of the madrassahs. That additional expenditure on education goes side by side with what we are trying to do to restore and gain democratic footholds in those areas.
In Afghanistan, the key areas are not just education and health. There are 6.5 million children at school, and we have been building health centres, but there is also new development on roads, the building of dams and irrigation in agriculture. The agricultural seed programme is very successful. I talked to Governor Mangal in Helmand, and he believes that all those things are moving forward. Our strategy is therefore exactly the same as the American strategy announced a month or two ago. In December 2007, we set down the idea of Afghanisation as the way forward, and our strategy now is to back up democratically elected Governments and to ensure that the elections are fair—£15 million has been put into election organisation. Incidentally, electoral registration has been going very well. There could be two rounds in the election and there must be proper monitors. We have to bring in people from outside to perform that role, but on this occasion there must be Afghan monitors as well.
Our strategy is to combine support for the developing institutions of Afghanistan and of Pakistan with development aid, so that people know that they have an economic and social stake in the future. I believe that that is the right strategy not just for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for Britain.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and very much welcome his decision to visit those two countries and increasingly to deal with them together—that has to be right—just as I warmly welcome the move from the Obama Administration in Washington to engage with neighbouring powers such as Iran, Russia and China on the region’s stability.
I join the Prime Minister and others in commending the extraordinary work of our troops in Afghanistan. They really do an outstanding job in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but it is clear that public support here at home for the conflict is under strain. We support the decision to send more troops to Helmand to get the job done. Given the overstretch of our armed forces, I understand why we are sending only a small number, but does he agree that the worst of all worlds would be to send reinforcements without committing enough resources to do the job properly? Our brave servicemen and women need to be able to improve security—not just hold the line against the Taliban—if we are to be able to bring this deployment to an end.
When President Obama launched his new strategy on Afghanistan a few weeks ago, he talked about an “exit strategy”, though understandably for the moment with no timetable. Will the Prime Minister tell me about the preparations and criteria for the NATO and British exit strategy in his approach? Does he agree that long-term stability will be achieved in Afghanistan only if we can secure the country’s economic and social development, and deliver a major increase in the size and quality of the Afghan security forces, especially the police? He has spoken a great deal about that already.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that because, I imagine, no Afghan Government for the foreseeable future will be able to afford adequate security forces, the international community will have to commit to long-term funding support? If so, what will Britain’s long-term funding contribution be?
It is clear—it seems to me, at least—that the international community may find itself committed to Afghanistan for many years. So, to ensure that our forces have the right resources for that and other deployments in the future, will the Prime Minister agree to a full strategic defence review to ensure that we plan for the needs of peacekeeping and asymmetric warfare, not cold war era state-to-state conflict?
Moving on to Pakistan, there are serious concerns about that country’s stability, not least because it is a nuclear-armed state. Its future is obviously of immense concern to us all. Will the Prime Minister tell us what progress was made in ensuring that those weapons, whose very existence is a huge risk in this tinderbox region, are kept in safe hands?
Britain has a unique role to play, given our historical relationship with Pakistan and the large Pakistani community here in Britain, so does the Prime Minister accept that his rather clunking remarks at the height of a counter-terrorism operation that did not even lead to any charges being brought were the perfect example of how to raise anxieties both within Pakistan and in communities in Britain?
I am sorry to start on a discordant note, but the duty of the Government is to protect the citizens of our country, and we have to take what action we think is necessary—based on decisions made by the police and, in cases, the judiciary—to protect the security of the citizens of our country. That is exactly what we did and exactly what we will continue to do.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s points about Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are raising the number of troops during the election period to 9,000 to ensure that the elections can proceed without intimidation and without violence, following the registration of the voters. I am confident—because of that increased number and because 10 other countries have committed to provide additional troops during this period to the tune of 5,000, as well as the additional representation of American forces—that we will see an election that I hope will be free and fair. It will need Afghan monitors as well as outside monitors for the terrain to be fully covered, but I hope that we have taken the measures necessary for that.
On the longer-term strategy for Afghanistan, I repeat that our aim is that Afghan people themselves can take more control over their own affairs, so I see a process where, province by province, as has happened in Kabul, Afghan control can be established in the different areas of the country, obviously starting with the north. Parts of the Helmand area could, over time, be passed over to local control. For that, we need greater Afghan army numbers and greater professionalism on behalf of the Afghan police. We also need to support the local shuras and local government in the tasks that they carry out, and that is what we intend to do.
America is bringing troops into the south because that is the area of greatest difficulty. To answer a point that the Leader of the Opposition made that I did not answer earlier, everybody will be working under the ISAF arrangements, including the Americans in the south.
On Pakistan, I agree with the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) that there is a need to tackle terrorism at all levels. We will continue to do that.
Three years ago, we spent about £700 million on Afghanistan. That is rising to £3 billion next year. That enormous cost is being met by the British taxpayer to ensure security in Afghanistan, and of course in the border areas, to prevent terrorism in Britain and to strengthen the Afghan democracy. We want others to join us in sharing that burden in Afghanistan.
On defence strategy as a whole, I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree, looking at the documentation over these last 10 years and more, that we have been consistently reviewing our strategy since the end of the cold war. Nobody could have expected some of the events, particularly those after September 2001, that have affected our country and many others. We must have a defence strategy that is not only consistent but able to respond to whatever events happen round the world.
First, may I offer my personal condolences to the family, friends and comrades of the soldier in the 1st Battalion, the Welsh Guards, who gave his life this week in Afghanistan?
My admiration for our troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and for the civilians who support them, knows no bounds. Over the time in which I had the privilege of visiting them regularly, I became very concerned as to whether the vocabulary that I had at my disposal was adequate to express my admiration for them. We tend to repeat the same phrases all the time, but those are the only words we have. We have enormous admiration for our troops, and it grows every time we see them.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his statement and welcome the publication of a revised strategy. It shows confidence to revisit and revise the strategy, as that suggests that we are reflecting and are on the right lines. My experience in this area suggests to me that almost every other country in this alliance will probably do the same thing now that we have done it. In the past, we have tended to have given them permission to put such thoughts in writing and to develop a strategy because we have done so.
Over the coming weeks, a proliferation of tests will be applied to the strategy to see whether it is correct, but the only test that matters is whether it goes with the grain of the communities that we are trying to serve in Helmand province and beyond, in the Afghan-Pakistan area. That is why the fact that the Prime Minister—
Order. Please have a seat. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not wish to be cruel, but he is now on the Back Benches and the difficulty is that there must be only one supplementary? This is not an opportunity for a speech. Out of respect, will he please finish? He will know next time.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I apologise.
At the shura that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attended, what did the tribal leaders tell him that the people they represent want? Did their requests fit with the grain of the strategy?
I am grateful to my friend, who served with great distinction at the Ministry of Defence. There is great respect for him right across the Chamber of the House.
I visited one of the shuras in Helmand, at Lashkar Gah, and the message I got was very simple: people want security, and they want it to be guaranteed by our presence, a stronger Afghan army and a stronger Afghan police force. They want that security to be the basis on which they can build prosperity for their families, making use of the agricultural land in that area while at the same time getting education and health care for their families.
It is very clear that we are responding to the wishes of the Afghan people. That is why it is so important that we unite in our strategy of dividing, defeating and, eventually, decommissioning the terrorist forces that operate there.
Bearing in mind that there are probably more potential international terrorists in Britain than in the Tora Bora mountains, may I nevertheless congratulate the Prime Minister, no doubt under the influence of the new American Administration, on at last moving away from the political and strategic follies of the last seven years, and on making a much more realistic assessment—that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by foreign military forces, that the existence of foreign forces in Afghanistan radicalises Pakistan, and that Pakistan is a far greater problem because it is a nuclear power and a vastly bigger country with a vastly bigger population? May I give my advice, which is that we should give every encouragement to the Pakistan army to resume political control of that almost ungovernable country before there is an international nuclear catastrophe?
Pakistan has been under military rule for half its existence, and people, including the army, want to see a democratic Pakistan taking control of its own affairs and being able to deal with the terrorist problems in its midst. On reflection, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is the right course, not only now but for the future. Of course we must take action against the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that is exactly what we are doing. We are working closely with not only the American Government but 40 other partners in NATO to do so.
In six months’ time, British troops will have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years. Now the numbers are going up to 9,000 and the conflict is spreading over into Pakistan. Is it not just a matter of time before the conflict spreads over for real into Pakistan, and British troops are also deployed there? Is it not time for a complete rethink of the whole strategy, which is beginning to look awfully like that which sucked the Americans deeper and deeper into Vietnam and ended up with a humiliating retreat 15 years later?
In the seven years that we have been in Afghanistan, a democracy has been established for the first time, the Taliban have been removed from power and 6 million children are going to school, a third of those children are girls who never got the chance of education before. We are building health care centres with the Afghan people, and we are now trying to build up an Afghan democracy, which has a strong army and police force to protect itself against terrorism. I agree with my hon. Friend that the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan are the source of many of the terrorist problems faced not only by that region but around the world. The way to deal with that is to work with the Afghan people and the Pakistan people to defeat that terrorist threat.
I welcome the decision that recognises the simple fact that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan effectively does not exist and is completely porous. But will the Prime Minister also acknowledge that additional aid to the two countries will first go towards poverty reduction, which will be its prime purpose, and that the rights of women and human rights will be respected by the Governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan? Given President Karzai’s statement that the last leader who stood up for the rights of women was the king in 1929, who was assassinated, and that he did not want to follow his example, that is not leadership that we should respect. We should require him to understand what that international support is for.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been involved in international development for many years, for sharing his knowledge with the House. The Shi’a family law is completely unacceptable and we have made it clear to President Karzai that in our view it is a breach of the Afghan constitution, which respects human rights. Yesterday, at the press conference we held, he said that he accepted that anything that breached the constitution and undermined the fundamental rights of people in his country could not be an acceptable law for the future. We will continue to press him on that issue.
The right hon. Gentleman is also right that the focus of our development spending is on providing opportunities that help people out of poverty, and that includes the increased spending on education in Pakistan. According to our knowledge, it is correct that people can get free education, board and lodging at madrassahs, but must then submit to an extremist ideology as part of that education. If we can increase the number of schools in Pakistan, and particularly the opportunities for girls to get education, that will make a huge difference in the long term to how Pakistani people see their future, free of terrorism. That is exactly what we will do.
My right hon. Friend has rightly reminded the House that Pakistan and its people have been great victims of terrorism yet, despite that, the overwhelming majority remain wedded to democracy. In accepting that his proposals for greater economic assistance to Pakistan are important in showing that democracy has its own rewards, will he remind all our allies in Washington and elsewhere that in any military action it is necessary to work to sustain the democratic institutions of Pakistan, not undermine them?
That was well expressed by the Pakistani leaders I met yesterday, who are worried about the airspace incursions. At the same time, the Pakistani leadership wish to rid themselves of the al-Qaeda elements that operate in their country, and know that the focus of al-Qaeda’s organisation and bases has moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. We must find ways of working with them to deal with the terrorist threat, and we will do so.
If, as the Prime Minister has indicated, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban are now working closely together and co-operating, is it not about time that the Afghan Government and the Pakistan Government showed a similar degree of co-operation? Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the major problems is that since 1948 the Afghan Government have consistently refused to recognise the frontier between their two countries as permanent? Will the Prime Minister speak to President Karzai and encourage him to recognise that frontier? Without that, many in Pakistan will continue to be ambivalent, to put it mildly, about working closely with the Afghan Government?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right about some of the existing problems, and I respect his knowledge. I spoke to President Karzai on Monday about those issues, and I also spoke to President Zardari about them. Afghanistan and Pakistan need to come together to consider what issues they can address in common, including agreements about the border areas. It will be difficult to get an agreement on the border line over a short period of time, but such cross-border co-operation, which has not occurred before, is possible. Six co-ordination centres exist at the moment, and we need to do more to expand co-operation between the Afghan army and the Pakistan army—police numbers are limited, but we must ensure that they co-operate in future as well. Next week, President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan will go together to Washington for a meeting with President Bush—[Hon. Members: “Obama.”] Yes, I apologise—with President Obama. They will have that meeting to discuss their common issues in terms of dealing with terrorist and security problems. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we wish to have the same level of co-operation, with them both working together with us.
I welcome the list of initiatives that the Prime Minister mentioned in relation to development, democracy and diplomacy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does he accept, however, that the line that cannot be crossed would be one that saw any involvement of UK troops, either conventional or special forces, in Pakistan? Does he agree that that would inevitably lead to a civil war in Pakistan, and to wider hostility to the presence of western forces in the region as a whole? Will he assure the House that under no circumstances will UK forces be given a remit to cross that frontier?
I think that my hon. Friend is finding difficulties where they do not exist. The issue is not that but how we can support and back up both the Afghan and Pakistan army and police forces, and we will continue to do that. If we are to fight terrorism, co-operation will be necessary. As the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) mentioned, Afghanistan and Pakistan must learn to work together to deal with their common problems. We can assist in that, but I believe that there is a will from Presidents Karzai and Zardari for that co-operation to happen.
At the end of this very good statement, and in view of the close connection between Pakistan and the United Kingdom, the instant communication between our two countries, the general instability in that region and Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons, does the Prime Minister agree that these issues are of supreme importance to this country and that they affect us very deeply and closely? Will he make it one of the highest priorities of his Government to renew the effort to persuade the people of this country that this is our battle and that we must continue to fight alongside the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan until we win it?
I shall do so. I think it is very important for the country to be informed about the dangers that come from both the Pakistan border and the Afghan border. If we have been able to show something today, it is that the greater co-operation between the terrorist groups that operate across these borders must be dealt with by a more sophisticated and more effective strategy for the future. That is why we want to increase Afghan and Pakistan army and police work in those areas, where it has been limited in the past, and why we are also prepared to work with the Americans and others to increase the counter-terrorism capability, and its financing, of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the threat of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom comes mainly from those areas of the world that we have been talking about today, and people should know that the chain of terror that goes from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Britain can be broken only by co-operation between all Governments over the next few years.
The security that ISAF provides is essential to Afghanistan’s future, but ultimately democracy and human rights will not be won on the battlefield; they will be won through winning the hearts and minds of the people on both sides of the border. A new World Bank trust fund for development in the border areas will help the Government of Pakistan to win hearts and minds. The United States is the biggest donor to the region by a long margin, but, unlike the United Kingdom, it has not, in the past, put much money through the Afghan trust funds. What discussions has the Prime Minister had with President Obama about US funding for the new trust fund and for the Afghanistan trust funds? Will the United States be putting more money through the trust funds and spending less on bilateral projects?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know the interest that he has taken in this matter as a member of the Select Committee on International Development. The Secretary of State for International Development has just been explaining to me how the United States Agency for International Development—USAID—and the Department for International Development are working well together on those very issues. It is absolutely right that in so far as there is a co-ordination of military activity, there should also be a co-ordination of development activity—that is what we intend to see happen over the next few months.
May I add my condolences to the family and friends of the Welsh Guardsman who was killed?
I thank the Prime Minister for an early copy of his statement. Given the pivotal role that the UK police played in the Balkans and have played in Iraq, will the Prime Minister ensure that as soon as the security situation permits it, UK police forces will play a pivotal role in training a good Afghan police service?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that British police have helped around the world in establishing the civil order that is necessary in countries that are reconstructing themselves. I believe that over the long term we will have to have some form of organisation comprising civil people from the police, the fire brigades and the legal professions that can help rebuild countries in difficulty. In Afghanistan, the British police could work with the European and NATO force squad that is trying to strengthen police training in Afghanistan. He is right to say that we have a big role to play in helping to develop the police in that country.
In his welcome discussions on counter-terrorism with the President and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, did the Prime Minister discuss Operation Pathway? Did he take the opportunity to visit our entry clearance operation in Islamabad, where Pakistanis seeking to come to this country as students are not routinely interviewed in person—they are interviewed on the telephone? Will he pledge to give whatever resources are needed to boost our entry clearance operation?
Yes, indeed. Biometric visas now have to be obtained by students coming into this country and interviews can take place where that is judged necessary. The rate at which applications have been refused has increased very substantially, and, of course, as a result of a review, the number of colleges in Britain that are registered to accept students from abroad has been radically reduced from 4,000 to 1,500. We are doing what we can to prevent people who may be falsely claiming to be students from coming into our country. At the same time, as I said to President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani and former Prime Minister Sharif, we welcome Pakistan’s students coming to our country for the purposes of education—more than 10,000 do so. Those links are an important means to build relationships between our two countries in the future, but we must be able to act where there is suspicion of terrorist activity.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the success of this strategy will depend on the co-operation and support of allies? Given that this is a NATO operation in Afghanistan, how far is the strategy that he has announced consistent with NATO’s strategy? Has he discussed this with, and had it endorsed by, our NATO partners? In relation to those same partners, what steps has he taken to persuade those who have imposed caveats on the use of their armed forces in Afghanistan to withdraw those caveats so as to ensure that they make a much stronger and more effective military contribution?
This is exactly what we talked about when we had a full discussion of these matters at the NATO summit. We discussed how other countries could play their part in sharing the burden in Afghanistan. As I said earlier, 10 countries announced that they would deploy at least some more troops for the period of the election. I believe that our strategy is very much in line with the new thinking that is developing across NATO, and it is of course in line with President Obama’s statement of the past few weeks. I believe that addressing the terrorist areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan together will form a bigger feature of NATO’s thinking and that of others in the times to come. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we expect other countries to share the burden too.