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Volume 496: debated on Monday 13 July 2009

1. What recent assessment he has made of (a) internal and (b) external threats to the security of Afghanistan. (285621)

I start by paying tribute to the 15 brave men who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan over the past 13 days. We have now lost 184 lives in the conflict, and each and every one of them is a terrible loss. The last week has been a hard week for those serving in theatre, but their resolve is incredible. In these tough times, they are determined to get on with their mission, and in the teeth of heavy resistance they are making progress. I urge colleagues in all parts of the House to be unfailing in our support for them. They deserve no less.

Progress is being made, but the insurgency remains resilient. The majority of people can go about their daily lives, but in certain areas of the country, in particular in the south and east, significant security challenges remain. In Helmand, British, Afghan, Danish, Estonian and American troops are currently engaged in major offensive operations to secure key population centres in the run-up to the Afghan presidential elections.

I join the Secretary of State and the whole House in paying tribute to the service personnel who lost their lives in recent days. They died serving their country and, to use those immortal words, for our tomorrows they gave their today.

Some of the greatest security threats that our service personnel face in Afghanistan are on the ground. Can the Secretary of State explain why he believes that the current provision of, and support for, helicopter cover is sufficient, particularly in the context of recent changes in policy and in the approach to operations in theatre, which put our troops’ lives at greater risk?

As we have said repeatedly, we have seen a huge uplift in the helicopter frames available to commanders, and also in helicopter hours: over the past two years, there has been an 84 per cent. increase. There will be more: by the end of the year, we will have the Merlin in theatre, and we will get some of the eight Chinooks out into theatre in 2010. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises points up the problem; changes in how operations are being conducted have led to more ground operations, which cannot be conducted from helicopters. At the moment, troops involved in Operation Panchai Palang are clearing compounds and taking on the Taliban in one of their heartland areas. There has been hand-to-hand fighting, which, sadly, resulted in some of the deaths that took place over the past week or so. That cannot be conducted from inside a highly armoured vehicle or a helicopter.

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, tragic though all the deaths are, and although we must do as much as we can to minimise casualties, it is irresponsible and dishonest to pretend that if only the Government had provided this piece of equipment or that piece of equipment, all those lives could have been saved? That only serves to upset unnecessarily the grieving relatives.

My hon. Friend is right. In the Sangin area, we have lost five people who were conducting a security patrol. Such patrols are vital, and are done from time to time. There was a pretty well-planned ambush set for our people. One cannot conduct those security patrols other than on foot. We lost a member of 4 Rifles who had just dismounted from a Mastiff vehicle. It is the most heavily armoured vehicle that we have in theatre, but our troops have to get out to engage with people and to deal with the insurgency. Our troops have to take those risks; they understand that. I think that the British public understand that, too. I appeal to Members of the House to accept that that is inevitable. It is our duty to supply the kit and equipment needed to keep people as safe as we can, but we cannot remove risk from that kind of operation.

I agree with what the Secretary of State just said, but when the Chancellor of the Exchequer said over the weekend that the Treasury would ensure that the Ministry of Defence was not short of money, what, in practice, did he mean? What new actions will the Secretary of State take to take the Chancellor up on his promise?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor meant, for example, that the Treasury has lifted the urgent operational requirements ceiling of £635 million, which was announced in December, to include another £101 million, so that we get the latest capability into theatre. Everything that we need for that theatre of operations, we will present, and we will make sure that we get what is needed to keep our troops as safe as they can be. At a time when we are involved in the most serious operations in theatre—not only ourselves, but the Americans—people are contrasting the kit and equipment that we have with the Americans’, but our colleagues have lost more people over the past couple of weeks than we have, despite their great inventory.

I was in Afghanistan earlier this year and, talking to ordinary soldiers who have been on several tours of duty, I was struck by the fact that they were forming the view that we were losing the battle of hearts and minds, and that we had gone from being seen as a force liberating the Afghan people from the Taliban to being seen as an occupying force. Does the Secretary of State agree that vital to our winning the battle, however we define winning, is keeping the support of ordinary Afghan people?

Absolutely. I have not personally come across that opinion out there, but I would not deny that there will be Afghans who hold that view. My hon. Friend is right. This operation will not be won by killing Taliban. It will be won by winning over the people—by protecting the people, and by the people accepting that we and the Afghan Government are on their side. That is the absolute priority of the new commander, General McChrystal, in the instructions that he is giving to forces of all nations in Afghanistan.

If we are told, as we are now, that Helmand province contains Taliban heartlands, on what basis was it said on behalf of the Government before we deployed that it was hoped that not a shot would be fired? Was this not the beginning of a really serious misreading of the situation in Helmand, which is still continuing today and for which our armed forces are paying a heavy price?

It never was said that there was hope of not a shot being fired. What was said—it was said from the Dispatch Box and elsewhere, and I remember that I was sat in that chair along there at the time—by the then Secretary of State was that we would be happy if not a shot were fired. He was responding to a question. He was expressing a desire, but he would not have been putting 16 Air Assault Brigade into a theatre of war if he thought that there would not be a little bit of trouble in the area.

May I confirm what the Defence Secretary has just said? May I tell the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) that, no doubt inadvertently, he has just misled the House? I never at any stage expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot. I did, however, insist that we would not be aggressors. We did not seek war. We did not go there as part of an invasion. For our part, we would be happy to go and work with the Afghan Government and leave without firing a shot. It was clearly in that sense that it was said, and I would be extremely obliged if that could be confirmed again from the Front Bench, and that Opposition Members would stop the misrepresentation of what was said when we went in.

That is my memory of what I heard at the time. I have heard various forms of it ever since, but that is what I recall my right hon. Friend saying at the time.

No one denies that these are difficult and dangerous operations, but surely that does not absolve us of the responsibility to do everything in our power to minimise casualties. Is not the fundamental problem for the Government the fact that there is no comprehensive strategy to deal with the military, political, economic and narcotics issues, and that until a comprehensive strategy is agreed and implemented, we will continue to struggle in Afghanistan?

I would say two things to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. First, I keep hearing that there is no strategy. If people want to disagree with the strategy, that is fair enough, but please let no one deny that there is one. The strategy is about building up Afghan capability, both in security and in governance, so that the Afghans can get to a point where they are able to defend their own country from the insurgency and provide the basics for their own people. It will be a long time before they can do that. Afghan tax revenues doubled in the past year, but the Afghans will be dependent on international donations for a long time yet.

Secondly, there is a strategy, but let us not pretend that its existence will get us out of a situation where our people must take on a very ingrained insurgency right in the heartland. They know how important it is that they maintain control of those central Helmand belts. Our people are going in there and clearing the insurgency from that heartland. That is why our people are fighting. They know how important it is—how utterly important it is—to hang on. Sadly, we have lost some people. The insurgency has lost a lot of people—

Order. May I gently say to the Secretary of State that I know he is doing his best meticulously to respond to the points made, but that there is a balance and I am keen to get in as many colleagues as possible? I know that he will take account of that.

We are, I believe, winning the war in Afghanistan, but if we do not work together in political partnership, we will certainly lose the argument with the British people for the justification of the conflict. So does my right hon. Friend agree that any attempt to play politics or point score while our troops are laying down their lives is beneath contempt?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we are making progress and going forward. The operations that are currently being conducted are at our instigation; they are offensive operations to clear the Taliban from a very important area, and we need to back our troops at this time.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the objective in Afghanistan is ultimately political, and that the military battle is a precondition for achieving that? Eight years in, the Taliban have been contained to a terrorist insurgency and no longer fight as a standing army. How does the Secretary of State believe that the international community can shift from a predominantly military battle to a political battle? Is not the lesson of all other terrorist insurgencies that, ultimately, they have to have a political solution, alongside the military one, and that that is what is needed if we are to avoid General McChrystal’s warning about winning tactical victories but suffering a strategic defeat?

I think the hon. Gentleman is right. The military side of things can go as well as it likes, but unless we can make progress on those other strands, all will be for nought. There is not a single member of our armed forces who does not understand that, right down the chain of command. There is an election on 20 August, and it is important that it is credible; that it goes on to improve governance; that it goes on to provide better for the Afghan people; and that it goes on from a position not of weakness but of strength to hold out a hand to those parts of the insurgency that are prepared to come across, give up the armed struggle and involve themselves in politics.

It is a very great shame that we are currently engaged in an unseemly media row about airlift in Afghanistan. The defence world will know what that is about. It will expect my right hon. Friend—I hope he agrees—to commit in future to put pressure on a Chancellor to maintain funding for defence; and it will expect the Opposition Front-Bench team to commit the current shadow Chancellor to end his shameful refusal not to commit even to existing defence spending.

We need to maintain our support for our armed forces in the field. We need to do that through the core defence budget and through the UOR process, and we need to continue to get more protective vehicles and more helicopters into the field as soon as we are able to. I give my absolute assurance that I will do everything that I can to bring those dates as far forward as possible.

On behalf of the Opposition, may I add my condolences to the families of the servicemen killed in the past week? Every single death is an individual tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers are with all the families and friends involved.

When the Government cut the helicopter budget in 2004 by £1.4 billion, was it a mistake?

The hon. Gentleman goes back to a decision that was taken some time ago. We have made great strides to increase helicopter availability and capability, with a large degree of success over the past two years in Afghanistan. There are now 60 per cent. more helicopter frames and 80 per cent. more helicopter hours. Merlin is yet to be moved into theatre, and enhancements are possible both to Lynx and Chinook. That would make them better helicopters, more capable of dealing with a very difficult theatre.

I shall take that as a yes, shall I? People in this country understand the security need for our mission in Afghanistan and they understand that in wars there are casualties and fatalities. What they do not understand is why we are not doing everything we can to reduce the risks to our forces. We do need more and better armoured vehicles and we do need better ways of countering improvised explosive devices, but if we cannot move our forces by air, they will be more vulnerable on the ground. As Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, said:

“of course they need more helicopters. If there had been more, it is very likely that fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs”.

Why is it that in Helmand, as Lord King pointed out, American forces have eight times as many helicopters for the number of personnel? How on earth did we get into such an unacceptable position? Who is to blame and how are we going to get out of this situation?

I have heard the hon. Gentleman for a period of time, but I have yet to hear how he thinks we can get more helicopters into theatre. [Interruption.] Well, he is saying from the Dispatch Box that we ought to get as many helicopters into theatre as quickly as possible, yet I have heard him say nothing that indicates he could do that any quicker than we plan to.

I understand that on the radio this morning the hon. Gentleman said that we should look to our allies, and that is true. We are part of a coalition; it would be nonsense for anybody to suggest that we ought to be down on the fact that our American allies are assisting in Helmand. The hon. Gentleman cannot do the impossible; we will do everything possible to enhance the whole of the protective capability in Helmand province.