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Afghanistan

Volume 493: debated on Monday 1 June 2009

I regularly discuss Afghanistan with my European Union and NATO counterparts. On 10 June, I shall attend a meeting of nations that are contributing to operations in Regional Command (South). On 11-12 June, I shall attend a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers.

I understand that at the recent NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Poland in February, the Secretary of State said that it was crucial that as many European NATO members as possible sent more helicopters to Afghanistan. He said at the time that he was confident that that would happen. How many extra helicopters have now been sent?

I think that there are only three, from the Czech Republic, which is making available some of its helicopters under the helicopter initiative. As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has said, it is important to recognise that we are deploying more helicopters to Afghanistan later this year to support our troops, and that is right and proper. On a wider level it is imperative—as I have made clear many times—that NATO do more in Afghanistan. I was very pleased that at the Strasbourg meeting Poland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Australia—our true friend and ally—said that they would support operations in Afghanistan with more troops. That has to be good news for the success of the operation.

Does not the Secretary of State understand the gravity of this singular failure of NATO? This was supposed to be an article 5 operation, and people were supposed to step up to the plate with mutual assistance, but that has not happened. That is the case against the backdrop of the House of Commons never giving a mandate for our commitment in Helmand. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) made the announcement in a statement one day, and most of us had never even heard of Helmand. We have had drift on this matter and it is now time that the commitment made by Tony Blair and the present Prime Minister—that we commit our armed forces only after a conscious decision by this House—was respected. That has not happened, and there is no mandate for this operation to go on.

I agree with the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. NATO needs to do more and we have made that clear. I am glad that NATO is responding to President Obama’s request for more military assistance to the Afghan Government, as that is long overdue, but better late than never. Can we do more? Yes, of course we should, and we will continue to argue for that.

On my hon. Friend’s latter point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made his views very clear on how we should proceed in the future.

Is it not the case that the vital currency of our reputation has been undermined by the Prime Minister not accepting the recommendation by the Chief of the Defence Staff that 4,000 extra troops should be sent to Helmand if we are to do the job properly? Does that not affect our credibility when dealing with the Americans and other NATO allies?

I agree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman that our reputation matters a great deal to us, and it is with great reluctance that I contradict what he says. I assure him that there was no suggestion that we send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The Chief of the Defence Staff—who is my principal military adviser, as he is the Prime Minister’s— is content with the decisions that the Prime Minister has made, and we are now busy operationalising that in the most effective way possible.

I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to read The New York Times today, but it contains an important article by a distinguished correspondent entitled “U.S. Gives Absolution to its Allies”. The article makes the argument that the US no longer wants to open a second front against European allies who are not engaging in fighting and killing, but instead wants a team effort. It is changing the nature of its operations in Afghanistan, not to step up a huge kinetic war, but to find political as much as military solutions, and Britain is playing a leading part in that. Can we therefore have an end to the European bashing and an understanding—as was evident at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—that the US and its European allies are talking and working as one?

The strategy that we are pursuing in Afghanistan is not a purely military one. It is a comprehensive approach that has a necessary military component to it, because there cannot be greater security, and therefore the opportunity for the Afghan Government to deliver to greater effect in Afghanistan, unless there is improved security. As my right hon. Friend has correctly said, that military component is combined with an approach that emphasises the development of civilian capabilities and capacity, too. The Europeans are making a significant contribution to that. My criticism of the NATO effort so far is a matter of record and I do not resile from a word that I have said, but I am glad and pleased that the NATO military effort in Afghanistan has now increased, which I consider to be absolutely essential if we are to achieve the wider goals of peace and security in that troubled country.

Will the Secretary of State list the countries in the European Union that have deployed ground forces to southern Afghanistan?

Yes, I will: Romania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and Belgium, and France is flying fast jets in the south of Afghanistan.

As things stand today, does the Secretary of State believe that British forces in Afghanistan have an adequate number of troops, adequate funding and the right equipment to succeed in the mission that they have been given? In particular, is he happy that when we take territory we can hold it and initiate reconstruction quickly and successfully enough?

I believe that we have sufficient troops; I believe that we have sufficient equipment; and I believe that we have sufficient resources. That is not just my view; it is view of the chiefs of staff.

A large number of the military seem to take a different view. Compared with this time last year, there has been a 55 per cent. increase in coalition deaths, including those of British soldiers, and a 90 per cent. increase in attacks on the Afghan Government. Since January, there have been more than twice as many insurgent-initiated attacks in Helmand as next door in Kandahar. In the light of a clearly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the challenges in Pakistan, is it not time that we undertook a full and comprehensive review of the strategy we are pursuing with our NATO allies and the regional players to determine a way forward? Do they all understand that failure in Afghanistan would both damage NATO and provide a shot in the arm for every extremist across the globe? Why is NATO not working?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: failure in Afghanistan is not an option. Our military effort in Afghanistan must succeed, as must our wider comprehensive approach in Afghanistan. We regularly review the strategy—the Prime Minister has made that clear—and we published a recent review of it. We remain committed to reviewing constantly the military and the wider civil and political campaigns in which we are involved in Afghanistan, and I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s question that he wants significantly to enhance military deployment to Afghanistan.